For Those Who Served At Sea

September 1, 1998 by Legion Magazine


by Tom MacGregor

A few miles out to sea from St. John’s, Nfld., HMCS Charlottetown, one of the modern Halifax-class frigates, pulled up beside a floating block of ice the size of a small ship. Known as growlers to Newfoundlanders because of the noise they make when they roll over, the ice is only a fragment from the icebergs that drift south from the Arctic Ocean each spring. It was a scenic setting for a solemn ceremony.

Canadian Forces chaplain Lieutenant-Commander Jacques Cantin was joined by several St. John’s clergy in the saying of prayers. The Act of Remembrance was recited in English and French and this was followed by Last Post, the lament and Reveille. The most solemn moment came when the 24 veterans of the WW II Battle of the Atlantic, ship’s crew, serving military and dignitaries lowered their heads. The delegation’s leader, Veterans Affairs Minister Fred Mifflin, placed a wreath on a stretcher attended by two members of the ship’s crew. And then, in a motion all too familiar to those who have served at sea, the stretcher was raised and the wreath slid off into the water.

The Royal Canadian Navy lost 28 ships and approximately 2,000 men during WW II. This total covers many theatres but most of these men fought and died in the Battle of the Atlantic (Preserving The Atlantic Lifeline, May/June). Canada’s merchant navy suffered tremendous loss. Indeed, 73 ships that flew Canada’s Red Ensign were sunk and more than 2,000 merchant seamen died.

The names of Canadian ships that were lost at sea during WW II were read aloud during the ceremony that marked the 55th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic. After each name was read, the ship’s bell was sounded. The last name on the list was the WW II corvette Charlottetown. She lost 10 of her crew after she was torpedoed by U-517 on Sept. 11, 1942, in the St. Lawrence River.

The VAC delegation, which was participating in a May 8-19 anniversary pilgrimage, was alone out on the water during the ceremony, and that served to remind the participants that many Canadian sailors struggled and died on the seas in WW II. Indeed, most of those who died at sea have no headstones to mark their passing.

“On one hand it is sad that the names of so many are marked only by the inscription on a memorial rather than on their own grave markers for their families to see and attend to,” said Mifflin a day earlier while standing at the Cross of Sacrifice in VAC’s Field of Honor in St. John’s. “And yet, it is perhaps fitting that the sea, which was the field of battle for so many, also became their cemetery. We stop here today to pay our respects to those whose final resting spot is in this quiet sanctuary, and to remind ourselves that however many navy and merchant men lie here, so many other thousands remain east of here, somewhere in the North Atlantic.”

The cold winds and ice in the sea reminded merchant seaman Bill Riddell, 71, of Clarence Creek, Ont., of his experience of being torpedoed in the North Atlantic. The ship was leading the V-formation with other ships when it was hit twice. One torpedo exploded in the stern, tangling up the propeller while the other failed to explode. Riddell said it was only when they got back to Montreal did they realize they had been carrying a live torpedo in the ship’s side.

Another pilgrim, 17-year-old Kristin Ward of Birsay, Sask., could only imagine what it was like to be in the war: “It was a very cold day, windy too. It made me think of what it must have been like as a prairie boy in the navy,” she wrote in her journal afterwards. “I felt a little seasick, I can’t even imagine feeling sick, cold, wet and having a fear of dying at only the young age of 17.”

Ward was one of five youth representatives on the pilgrimage. They had been chosen from the participants in The Royal Canadian Legion-sponsored Encounters With Canada program at the Terry Fox Canadian Youth Centre in Ottawa. Ward and the other youths placed wreaths on behalf of Canada’s youth. The young people, along with five cadets in the delegation, were asked to maintain journals of their experiences on the pilgrimage. Excerpts from the journals have been posted on VAC’s website.

The delegation had met in St. John’s for a fast-paced round of ceremonies in Canada and in England. The veterans represented members of the Royal Canadian Navy, merchant navy, Royal Cdn. Air Force, Women’s Royal Cdn. Naval Service and nursing sisters. Also joining Mifflin were members of Parliament, senators and represenatives from the larger veterans organizations, including Dominion President Joe Kobolak, representing The Royal Canadian Legion. Representing the Legion’s Newfoundland and Labrador Command was command President Jim Davis of Stephenville, Nfld.

This pilgrimage would be different from most VAC pilgrimages. Since Canada follows the tradition of burying her war dead near where they fall, it is common to make pilgrimages to the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Europe and the Far East. However, the navy and merchant navy had not been the subject of a pilgrimage until 1993 when the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic was marked. That came as welcome recognition for Riddell who represents the Canadian Merchant Navy Association. “Five years ago people didn’t even know merchant navy veterans existed.”

The pilgrimage also marked a change in perspective for VAC which plans to put more emphasis on important war sites and memorials in Canada. It was only natural then that the pilgrimage started with three days of ceremonies in St. John’s–the starting point for many of the Navy vessels that escorted the merchant ships to the United Kingdom.

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous battle of WW II. It began when war was declared in 1939 and ended in May, 1945. For the merchant seamen the treacherous voyages began on the east coast of Canada or the United States under the escort of available RCN ships and later the Royal Cdn. Air Force. The original route across the North Atlantic had the RCN escorts turn around in Iceland. In early 1942 their eastern terminus became Londonderry, Northern Ireland. This became the famed Newfie-Derry run. Warships stationed in St. John’s would come out to meet the ocean-going convoys and take over escort across the ocean until the British patrols met them north of Ireland. After a layover in Londonderry, the ships would then escort a returning convoy.

For the navy and air force, it was not a war of objectives but a completely defensive battle as they constantly patrolled for the dreaded U-boats that sometimes moved in packs and sometimes wandered alone in stealth looking for any opportunity to strike. Feared most of all by the sailors was a large mid-ocean area known as the Black Pit. This was where ships were on their own out of the range of aircraft cover.

In keeping with the 55th anniversary, the City of St. John’s declared May 11 Battle of the Atlantic Sunday. This was scheduled a week later than usual because the city wanted to give members of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization fleet the opportunity to join in on the commemorations. Unfortunately, the fleet had been saddened by the accidental electrocution of a Dutch sailor while on exercises. Reverend Bruce Kearley, chaplain of HMCS Cabot, mentioned the incident during the Sunday church service at St. Thomas’s Old Garrison Church, a splendid wood-frame church that’s known as the sailors’ church in St. John’s. The chaplain’s tribute came shortly after the congregation had sung the naval hymn Eternal Father, Strong To Save with its haunting refrain: “O hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea.”

The service ended with a church parade involving WW II veterans, the crew of Charlottetown, local reserve units and cadets. The parade moved down the steep streets of the old city to the docks where the NATO fleet was moored.

The next stop on the pilgrimage was in England, the destination of the WW II Atlantic lifeline.

The group visited Brookwood Military Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in Britain. Among the more than 5,000 graves are 2,406 Canadians who died in WW II. Senator Bill Rompkey, who was leading the delegation that day noted: “There are almost 700 Canadian airmen buried here, over 1,700 soldiers, and four sailors and a Wren. Today we come to honor these five and those who flew in escort. But be they five or 500, our sentiments remain the same.”

Among those buried in the cemetery is Joseph Sullivan, brother of John Sullivan, 73, of Montreal North who was representing the Royal Cdn. Naval Association. Sullivan found the grave between those of two other members of the Royal Cdn. Artillery who all died of wounds in the same shelling on June 28, 1942. “I didn’t know where he was buried. When I knew I was coming on this trip I asked the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They told me he was in section 54, row I, grave five. He was buried with his buddies on both sides of him.”

Sullivan placed small Canadian flags on all three graves. “I had two brothers in the Army. I joined the Navy as soon as I was 17 and six months. Some of my buddies were in the Navy. I had to have my father’s signature, and he didn’t want to let me go. But my mother told him he had better do it because I would be 18 in six months and then I would join on my own, anyway.”

Later that day a tribute was paid to airmen in a ceremony at the Runnymede Memorial. It is dedicated to the 20,435 Commonwealth airmen, including 3,050 Canadians, who have no known graves. Most served in Bomber Command but some served in Coastal Command. “It was lonely work for the airmen who served in Coastal Command–for all those who got in a plane to help protect the convoy runs in the North Atlantic,” said Rompkey. “It was tedious. It was endless. It was dangerous. They did their job and took out their share of U-boats. But too many would pay with their lives.”

Stan Nichols, 74, of North Bay, Ont., who served in 160 Squadron in Newfoundland, echoed that sentiment: “You could go the whole war and not see a sub. But that was part of the strategy. As long as you were up there, they had to stay submerged where they couldn’t do as much damage.”

The following day, the delegation went by coach to Portsmouth on England’s south coast. Mifflin rejoined the pilgrimage at a ceremony at the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, a towering cenotaph dedicated to those who died fighting at sea. Mifflin, a Newfoundlander and former rear admiral in the Canadian Forces, said 75 of the names on the memorial are men from Newfoundland and some others would most likely be Canadians who served in the Royal Navy.

Back in London, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien joined the delegation for a ceremony at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Park. A marker and plaque were unveiled across from Number 20 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the wartime headquarters of the RCAF overseas. The plaque notes that the north side of the park was named Canada Walk in 1945 in recognition of the RCAF presence. Following the ceremony, Chrétien helped plant a maple tree in the park.

Later that day, the delegation placed wreaths at the Merchant Navy Memorial near the Tower of London and at the new Canadian Memorial at Green Park across from Buckingham Palace.

In Liverpool, the delegation witnessed the dedication of the refurbished Canada Room at Derby House which is home to the Western Approaches Museum. Built out of reinforced concrete, Derby House contains the bunker that served as the war room for the war at sea. “(The Canadian exhibit) attempts to pay equal homage to all Canadians whose bravery helped achieve victory in the North Atlantic: members of the Royal Cdn. Navy, Royal Cdn. Air Force and Canadian merchant seamen,” notes a brochure produced by the museum.

The museum still contains the tables and floor-to-ceiling maps where every bit of information on ships–Allied and enemy–was watched for danger and opportunity.

Canadian Maritime Command Heritage Officer David Robinson said Liverpool became Britain’s most important port. “At least 1,285 convoys or about four a week–many containing up to 60 ships a piece–came here during the war. Among them were troopships that landed 4.7 million Allied servicemen and servicewomen,” he said. “All this activity made Liverpool an enormously attractive military target. And so, quite apart from the port’s 30,000 dock workers and the local military establishment, every Liverpudlian came to share the burdens of war in a very personal way. Between July 1940 and January 1942 the German Luftwaffe launched at least 68 bombing raids on Merseyside, more than any British city outside London.”

The war room was very similar to one in St. John’s where former Wren Tish Herbert, 74, of Ottawa worked during the war. “We were running messages up and down stairs all day.”

Referring to the tour the group had in Portsmouth of a modern RN frigate, Herbert added: “We see them doing all the same work I did but these days they only have to push buttons.”

The delegation also attended a church service at St. Nicholas Anglican Church–Liverpool’s sailors’ church. It is a restored building that was bombed during the war. A damaged crucifix still hangs in the chapel as a reminder.

The affection the people of Liverpool have for the men and women who got the lifeline of supplies through was demonstrated after a memorial service was held in the Royal Naval Association Club. During a reception, veterans jammed into the small building and spilled out into the parking lot, and it seemed that everybody wanted to shake hands with all of the Canadians.

That evening, delegates wandered along Liverpool’s Pier Head where a walk was named Canada Boulevard in a ceremony five years ago. Chief Petty Officer Travis Bain, 17, of the Fort Francis sea cadet corps in Kenora, Ont., wrote in his journal: “We went for a walk on the beach and I looked at one of the monuments we paraded at. Usually I don’t get to read what they say because I have to pack up or leave right away. So I sat there and thought about what it said, listening to the sea crashing against the shore and looking up at the stars–all which had been given to me by people who gave their lives.”

Mifflin said Canada can be very proud of its role in the battle to maintain Britain’s lifeline. He noted that by the time the war was over, the RCN had more than 370 fighting ships and over 110,000 members. He said that during the course of the war, Canada built 410 merchant ships. “By mid-1943, no matter how many ships the U-boats sank, we were still producing more than that number of new merchant ships.”

Roy MacLaren, Canada’s high commissioner to Britain, said it was appropriate that the boulevard has been named for Canadians considering the importance of the supplies so many Canadians delivered. But he also remarked on the hospitality Liverpool offered the Canadians. He noted that we were gathered across from the Cunard Building, where the Canadian entrepreneur Samuel Cunard ran his world shipping line. On top of the building are statues of liver birds, the stylized eagles that appear on the city of Liverpool’s coat of arms. He said a captain friend of his had often told him that the liver birds were the most welcome sight on any crossing.

At the end of a pilgrimage noted for its lack of markers, the pilgrims’ attention fell silently to one that spoke not of sacrifice or victory but of hope and shelter.

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