Until the spring of 1941, the Royal Canadian Navy had no clear indication that it would find its calling in the broad reaches of the North Atlantic. The process of defining that role culminated in May, when the British Admiralty called upon the RCN to form the Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF), and concentrate its resources there in the defence of transatlantic convoys.
The establishment of the NEF not only brought together the main elements of the fleet that would fight—and win—the battle against the U-boats, it also brought together several key players who would lead the RCN’s escort and anti-submarine campaign for the balance of the war.
By early 1941, the United Kingdom-based escorts were taking convoys to roughly 22 degrees west longitude, where outbound convoys were dispersed and inbound convoys were met for the trip back to British ports. The Germans simply pushed westward, too, trying to find the convoys just outside the limits of their anti-submarine escort. The mid-ocean escorts for these convoys, usually an old battleship, a cruiser or even a submarine to guard against surface raiders were no match for the nimble U-boats. To extend anti-submarine protection, naval as well as air force, the British developed bases in Iceland, and by April had extended coverage for convoys out to 35 degrees west. The 10 Canadian built corvettes sent to the U.K. over the winter of 1940-41 helped make that convoy extension possible. And by the winter of 1940-41, the British were building modified corvette designs and rebuilding their first corvettes to make them better ocean escorts.
This was not the kind of war Canada’s first 54 corvettes had been conceived and built for. Their original function as auxiliary vessels assigned to defended ports included a myriad of tasks, among them anti-submarine patrols and minesweeping. The officer charged with getting the first corvette building program in shape for these tasks was Commander James Douglas “Chummy” Prentice of the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve.
Prentice had been born in British Columbia and joined the Royal Navy before the First World War, when his father refused him permission to join the fledgling RCN. As historian Alec Douglas observed in the RCN official history, Prentice was “noted for his zeal and intellect” and only abandoned his British naval career “in 1934 because cutbacks during the Great Depression ended his possibility of promotion.” By 1939, when the RCN called him to active service, Prentice was ranching in B.C. Unhappy with his appointment to the port staff in Sydney, N.S., he lobbied hard for a sea command. In the fall of 1940, Prentice was selected as a captain of one of the new—as yet uncompleted—corvettes, and for the job of Senior Officer, Canadian Corvettes. His ranching background and his aggressive style would later be credited, rather uncharitably, with shaping what some senior British officers called the Canadian cowboy form of convoy defence—wild and (by British standards) confused, designed to “keep ‘em well stirred up.”
But Prentice’s job in early 1941 had little to do with escorting convoys. His task was to whip the new ships into shape, and oversee the creation of anti-submarine “striking groups” for Canada’s defended ports. What the British did with surplus Canadian corvettes assigned to the eastern Atlantic—their training, operational tasks, tactics, and doctrine—was an RN matter entirely.
Prentice put his stamp on the Canadian corvette fleet from the outset. Having just passed the short anti-submarine course in Halifax at the top of his class, he was keen to turn the burgeoning fleet into skilled sub killers. While many saw the corvette as a poor warship—slow and weakly armed—Prentice thought of it as an ideal sub hunter. Although its maximum speed was barely 16 knots, the large reserve of steam in the vast cylindrical Scotch boilers gave the first batch of corvettes quick bursts of speed, and the vessel had a huge rudder and fine underwater lines which made it nimble.
The ships were also comparatively cheap and could be risked in combat: a good trade-off, if it came to that, for a complex and expensive submarine. So Prentice trained Canada’s corvettes to be sub killers, and this focus remained a key component of his training philosophy to the end of the war. As he informed the RCN’s official historian in a 1947 letter, corvettes were “the handiest anti-submarine ship that was ever built.” One of his favourite tactics was the ‘quick attack.’
In British practice an attack on a submerged U-boat began at 1,200 yards, about the maximum effective range of early sonar. The hunter approached the sub at its optimum sonar search speed, typically around 12 knots, to a ‘throw-off’ point about 800 yards from the target. At that point the attacking ship was supposed to commence a final, high-speed attack run that would intercept the submarine’s course at a point where the depth charges had time to descend to the target. The final sprint from the throw-off point allowed the attacking ship to stay well clear of its own exploding charges, and in theory to get ahead of the sub before it had time to alter course.
Prentice saw many problems with this method. He knew that submariners could easily detect the change in propeller noise of the attacking vessel once it went to maximum speed at the throw-off point. That gave a submariner warning of an impending attack, and time to turn or do a radical change in depth. It also meant that sonar contact was lost on the target during the final approach, since increased speed drowns out the sonar. He thought corvettes could eliminate the opportunity for last-minute evasion, and attack more precisely. He taught his corvette captains to maintain their best sonar speed throughout the whole attack process. This allowed them to maintain contact as long as possible, and eliminated the sudden change in propeller noise at the throw-off point that could alert a submariner to the commencement of the attack.
The downside of this method, which Prentice acknowledged and the British found unacceptable, was that the corvette would remain fairly close to its own depth charges as they began to explode. Just how close depended on the depth setting. The potential for damage to the attacking ship was very real, and it was not unusual for Canadian corvettes to have their sterns lifted and suffer blown fuses, shattered crockery and machinery stress from the shock of their own charges. Prentice thought this was a fair trade for a better chance of sinking a sub, and maybe he was right: Canadian corvettes—despite their notably inferior weapons and equipment—proved to be highly successful U-boat killers between 1941 and 1943.
While Prentice was busy in the spring of 1941 getting the RCN’s first corvettes ready to hunt U-boats, staff talks between the RCN and the RN were underway which would profoundly alter the nature of Canada’s Atlantic war. These talks were prompted by the spreading of the war into the centre of the North Atlantic. Over the winter of 1940-41, Germany’s U-boats enjoyed their first Happy Time, attacking transatlantic convoys with impunity. In the late winter, many of these attacks occurred south of Iceland, either just after anti-submarine escorts dispersed their westbound convoys or just before the escort joined those en route for Britain. Moreover, even when escorts were present, they were typically at the end of their range and limited by fuel in the responses they could make. It was increasingly obvious that transatlantic anti-submarine escort of convoys was essential, and that this required bases in Iceland and Newfoundland.
The British had occupied Iceland in the spring of 1940, primarily to deny it as a refuge or future base for the Germans. Troops of the 2nd Canadian Division had shared garrison duties briefly from July until October 1940, leaving the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa there over the following winter. But nothing was done to establish naval and air bases on the island until the westward spread of the U-boat war forced Britain’s hand. By April 1941, Coastal Command Squadrons of the Royal Air Force were being dispatched, as were the rudimentary elements of an advanced naval base for Havfijordhur Harbour north of Reykjavik, Iceland. The latter provided a relay point for anti-submarine escorts, allowing the RN to push its coverage to roughly 35 degrees west. That left a gap westward to the limits of local Canadian escort from Halifax and Sydney, which reached to the Grand Banks. An escort force based at St. John’s, Nfld., was needed to fill that gap.
The possibility of the RCN basing its fleet in Newfoundland began in earnest in May 1941. The RCN representative in these talks was Commodore Leonard Warren Murray. Murray had joined the RCN in 1912 as a member of the first class of the Royal Naval College of Canada. By 1939, he was, along with Commodore G.C. Jones, one of two survivors from that class still in service, and therefore one of the two most senior officers in the RCN. Murray went overseas in 1940 as Captain of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Assiniboine, the RCN’s new destroyer flotilla leader, and assumed the role of Commodore Commanding Canadian Ships in the U.K. It was a good posting for Murray, and in many ways a familiar one. He had spent most of his active career in RN ships and establishments and was, from the viewpoint of the RCN’s Chief of the Naval Staff, Rear-Admiral Percy Nelles, rather pro-British, which says a great deal in a service that was, itself, inclined that way.
The essential point was that Murray had many intimate contacts among senior RN officers, including the newly appointed Commander in Chief, Western Approaches Command, Admiral Sir Percy Noble. Western Approaches Command was established in Liverpool in April 1941 to take effective control over all aspects of anti-submarine warfare and trade escort in the North Atlantic, including elements of Coastal Command. This was part of the overall solution to problems which the U-boat offensive had revealed. It was Noble’s task to provide effective command and control, oversee training and developing tactics and doctrine to fight the anti-submarine war.
With the establishment of Western Approaches Command, Canadian warships in the U.K. fell under his control. But Murray also knew Noble well. Noble had commanded the new cruiser Calcutta (notorious in Canadian naval history for slicing His Majesty’s Ship Fraser in half in June 1940) which Murray served in as a junior lieutenant in 1919-20.
And so Murray had the support of the new C in C, WAC when he went to the Admiralty in late May 1941 to argue that the new escort base proposed for Newfoundland should be Canadian. “I had just come from St. John’s about a month and a half before,” Murray recalled in a 1970 interview, “and was able to give them the lowdown about the situation there, about the anchorage and so forth.” The RCN and the Canadian government were also anxious to support the idea of a major Canadian naval base in Newfoundland, not least because it gave them clout on the island in the face of the growing American presence there. After confirming the RCN’s willingness to undertake the task, Murray visited Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord in London.
Murray found Pound engaged in the early stages of the Bismarck chase. Nonetheless, the First Sea Lord found time to discuss Murray’s proposal and accepted the idea that the RCN should run the St. John’s base. Pound also recommended that Murray command it. “This is what comes,” Murray recalled, “of being in the right place at the right time.” Murray asserted later that had he not pressed the issue, and had he not “gained the confidence of the Admiralty in 1941,” the British would have sent out an RN officer to command in Newfoundland. “This is not surmise,” he added. “I know. I was there!”
On May 20, Canada was formally requested to base its burgeoning fleet of corvettes at St. John’s. The RCN responded with enthusiasm and the Newfoundland Escort Force was borne. It was a milestone in Canadian history: Canada’s first major operational task in a major naval campaign.
While Murray hastened off to Liverpool to spend a week with Admiral Noble at Western Approaches Command, Prentice got the corvette fleet ready for war. Until news came that every available corvette was to be hustled off to Newfoundland to start oceanic convoy operations, there was no particular urgency in this task. In fact, the RCN had already received assurances from the Admiralty that the escorts should reach an acceptable level of both individual and group training prior to their commitment to operations. Nothing in the arrangements for the establishment of the NEF suggested otherwise. But this situation would soon change.
On May 23, 1941, Prentice led the first seven corvettes of the NEF through the cleft-like entrance into St. John’s. They secured to a rotting wooden wharf at the southern end of the harbour. Apart from fuel, shelter, food, water and encouragement, St. John’s offered little in 1941. The eastern terminus for NEF operations offered even less: an open and windswept Icelandic fiord 2,000 miles to the northeast. Fortunately, Prentice and his band of eager warriors were undaunted.
Four days later the British hunt for the Bismarck ended with the destruction of that great raider, and the nature of the Atlantic war changed. The symbolism of that change was probably lost on both British and Canadian sailors when NEF undertook its first operation: screening the battle cruiser Repulse, as she lay in Conception Bay, Nfld., following the hunt for the Bismarck. Photos of Prentice’s corvette Chambly lying alongside Repulse show the battle cruiser towering over the tiny escort. It does not take much to imagine the epithets that rained down on the corvette’s duty watch by the grinning British tars (sailors) lining the battle cruiser’s rails. But Chambly and her sisters proved more than a match for the Atlantic. Indeed, the Atlantic was now a small ship’s war, and the humble, but nimble corvette was a better match for the U-boats than Repulse.
The RCN’s River- and Town-class destroyers began to arrive in St. John’s in June, as did Commodore L.W. Murray who assumed his duties as Commodore Commanding, Newfoundland Force on the 15th. It is not clear how well Murray and Prentice knew each other before that day. But for better or worse, the dynamic duo which would shape RCN operations in the North Atlantic during the dark days of the war—and the formative days of its development—had been joined. By the fall of 1941, virtually all of the operational strength of the navy would be in their hands. As Murray observed in October 1941, “the reputation of the RCN in this war depends on the success or failure of the NEF.”
He was right in so many ways.
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