At The Edge Of Disaster: Navy, Part 46

August 24, 2011 by Marc Milner
German U-boat U-210 under attack in the Atlantic. The photo was taken from the deck of HMCS Assiniboine, August 1942. [PHOTO: G.E. SALTER, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA037443]

German U-boat U-210 under attack in the Atlantic. The photo was taken from the deck of HMCS Assiniboine, August 1942.
PHOTO: G.E. SALTER, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA037443

The expansion of the war in 1942 pulled Canada’s small ship navy in several directions simultaneously, stretching it thin and leading—ultimately—to the greatest crisis in Canadian naval history. The navy’s senior officers were sharply criticized for the way in which they handled these challenges and the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Percy Nelles, was dismissed in January 1944.

It is hard to know how they could have done better with what they had to work with. As always in the struggle against the U-boats, the enemy had the initiative and Allied resources were limited. The Royal Canadian Navy’s response to sudden expansion of the U-boat war in 1942 was primarily to extend the system of escorted convoys. It was a highly successful strategy, even if the navy proved incapable of winning all the battles that resulted—both at sea and in the corridors of power in Ottawa.

The importance of convoy operations eastward from Newfoundland was confirmed for the RCN in the winter of 1942. As American destroyers drifted away from transatlantic convoys to the Pacific or U.S. coastal waters, the Canadian navy assumed responsibility for their tasks in the northwest Atlantic. In February, Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF) was amalgamated into the new Mid-Ocean Escort Force (MOEF) which protected convoys between Ireland and the Grand Banks. Under MOEF, Iceland was abandoned as a relay point, allowing RCN escorts to call in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, while British escort groups in MOEF used the new American base at Argentia, Nfld., as their western terminus. Although this new system gave the RCN’s mid-ocean escorts access to a proper naval base for the first time, the “B” groups of MOEF got the best of the new arrangements. Argentia was rapidly developing as a proper naval base, with resources and amenities which the Canadian base in St John’s—where the RCN’s transatlantic escorts spent the bulk of their downtime—still lacked.

While the establishment of MOEF helped alleviate the problem of demand for ocean escorts, it created a few problems as 1942 wore on. The stretch from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland was a long one for the first-generation corvettes with their limited fuel, but they could make it provided they were not too active tactically during the crossing. The lack of sustained U-boat pack operations against MOEF convoys until the latter half of the year masked this problem for the moment. And while the nationality of the escort forces engaged in the area changed, the command structure did not. Even as the U.S. presence withered, an American admiral retained operational control over the western Atlantic from his base at Argentia, and his continued presence in a theatre that was overwhelmingly Canadian created tension.

And so as the war continued to expand, it thrust the RCN into a prominent role in the mid-ocean, and with that the navy soon came to identify its ‘North Atlantic run’ effort as its raison d’être. No one had foreseen this when Newfoundland Escort Force was established in May 1941. Commodore Leonard Murray had come closest when he warned that fall that the RCN’s reputation in the war depended on the success or failure of the NEF. In 1942, the stop-gap force that was mustered to ease America’s transition into the Atlantic war became the RCN’s top operational responsibility as well as its major long-term commitment.

But while the RCN was being drawn deeply into transatlantic escort operations, the expansion of the war into the waters off North America also drew the navy west and south. The first wave of U-boats entered Canadian waters in mid-January 1942. Allied intelligence tracked their progress, but the torpedoing of the steamer Cyclops south of Halifax on Jan. 12 came as a rude shock. By the end of the month 10 more ships were sunk between Sable Island and St. John’s: all save one were steaming independently. Five more went down in the first three weeks of February. This was the start of a steady loss of vessels from westbound convoys which were, until early March, routinely dispersed at sea on the Grand Banks. In the face of this new inshore threat, it became necessary to bring westbound convoys safely into port.

The Allies—and the RCN—responded effectively. As part of the reorganization that led to the establishment of the MOEF, formal local escort forces were established at either end of the transatlantic crossing. Eastern Local Escort Force (ELEF), comprised of short-legged British destroyers, was tasked with handling convoy escort duties within roughly 300 miles of the British Isles. In the event, ELEF typically operated at much shorter ranges than that, and as a rule MOEF groups usually brought their convoys virtually to within sight of the Irish coast. Escort arrangements for oceanic convoys in the western Atlantic were much more ambitious, and by the fall of 1942 protected transatlantic convoys for fully one third of their passage. This work was done by Western Local Escort Force (WLEF) based at Halifax. It was comprised of the RCN’s short-range destroyers, a dozen similar vessels assigned by the Royal Navy and a gaggle of smaller vessels. In the spring of 1942, the latter included the RCN’s burgeoning fleet of Bangor-class minesweepers reassigned to escort duty.

The first ON (UK to North America) convoy brought straight into Halifax was ON 60. Its 45 ships departed Liverpool on Jan. 26 and arrived safely in Halifax on Feb. 15. The second, ON 64, arrived nine days later, and an increasing number were brought into port through March. By early April, WLEF was fully functional, and most westbound convoys made port in Canada under escort. But by then WLEF was already being drawn south, taking ON convoys to Boston and Cape Cod, and it was not until August 1942 that the last westbound convoy was dispersed at sea off Nova Scotia. Losses from these dispersed ON convoys eventually numbered some 112 vessels and they constituted the single largest toll of ships sunk in Canadian waters in 1942. Without the WLEF the toll would have been much higher. More importantly, once the local escort system was fully operational, the losses off Nova Scotia dropped to virtually zero.

Sailors fight to control a fire on HMCS Assiniboine during the action which resulted in the sinking of U-210. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA184007]

Sailors fight to control a fire on HMCS Assiniboine during the action which resulted in the sinking of U-210.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA184007

But WLEF was by no means the only demand on Canadian resources. Nor was it the only evidence of RCN ingenuity in the face of the U-boat threat. In the first four months of 1942, an average of 60 ocean-going vessels a month cleared Saint John, N.B., Canada’s most important winter port. In February, with no escort vessels of their own to use, naval officers in Saint John began a series of ad hoc convoys employing naval vessels on shuttles between Saint John and Halifax. These were eventually formalized into the SH-HS series, and no losses were incurred. In March 1942, the RCN also responded to the inshore U-boat threat by operating convoys between Sydney, N.S., and St. John’s, Nfld.

The low level of German success in Canadian oceanic waters in early 1942 and the subsequent concentration of U-boats to the south is no indication of how “quiet” Canadian waters were compared to the busy routes off the U.S. In fact, thousands of ships plied Canadian waters between January and April 1942. A rough estimate of ships arriving and departing the main transatlantic convoy ports in Nova Scotia ports, plus those dispersed offshore from ON
convoys over this period comes out to 2,349 ocean-going vessels; an average of 587 ships per month steaming off Nova Scotia.

As this author has written elsewhere, “The reason why there was no disaster of global proportions off Canada’s coast [in the spring of 1942] was not because the area was strategically insignificant, but because the system of convoys made finding shipping and attacking it much less profitable than operations off the U.S. coast.” In short, the majority of shipping in Canada’s offshore during early 1942 moved in convoy and did so safely. U-boat captains soon tired of searching an empty and bitterly cold Canadian sea for targets of opportunity, and simply moved south. The fact that not much happened off our coast in the winter of 1942 was to the credit of the Canadian navy.

The successful Canadian organization and defence of shipping in early 1942 contrasts sharply with the U.S. experience. The USN believed that poorly escorted convoys were worse than none at all, so they steadfastly refused to adopt a coastal convoy system until well into the year (An American Blunder, January/February).

American historians observe that the first escorted convoys in American waters commenced on May 14, 1942, with the sailing of the first convoy between Key West, Fla., and Hampton Roads, Va. This is not true. The RCN’s WLEF began escorting convoys in the Gulf of Maine—well inside the USN’s Eastern Sea Frontier—in March. In fact, by the time the USN inaugurated its own first coastal convoys, the Canadians were poised to start long-range tanker convoys right along the length of the embattled U.S. east coast.

The origins of the Canadian tanker convoys to South America lay in some key ship losses in February, Canadian dependence on imported oil and the cyclical nature of Canadian shipping.  Canadian oil refineries were concentrated in Montreal and Halifax, with Montreal by far the largest producer of petroleum products—fully three-quarters of Canada’s supply. Although a new pipeline had just been completed between Portland, Maine, and Montreal, allowing for winter deliveries, the bulk of Canadian oil continued to arrive during the May to November shipping season in the St. Lawrence River.

The February sinking of two of the four large Canadian-owned tankers which supplied Canadian refineries promised a sharp curtailment in imports. But when the U.S. stopped tanker traffic along its coast, and the Canadian Oil Controller ordered Canadian tankers to stay in port on account of the U-boat threat, the RCN was forced to act. By late April even naval fuel supplies on the east coast were down to just 15 days. As W.A.B. Douglas et al. wrote in their recent volume of the RCN official history, “Dramatic utterances are rare in Canadian naval history, but faced with this situation Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles declared, ‘To hell with that, we’ll get our own.’” On April 28, 1942, Nelles ordered two British destroyers under Canadian command to go south and bring home tankers from Caribbean ports.

An aerial view of merchant ships gives an indication of the large sea area covered by a convoy. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—WRN445]

An aerial view of merchant ships gives an indication of the large sea area covered by a convoy.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—WRN445

This was the start of the Halifax-Trinidad and Halifax-Aruba convoys that operated with impunity over the summer of 1942. Never very big and not very numerous—13 convoys averaging 10 ships per convoy—these RCN organized and escorted oil convoys steamed through the scene of remarkable shipping carnage. In May and June the U-boats were in full cry in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, sinking over 100 ships weighing in excess of 600,000 tons. None of the Canadian oil convoys routed through these troubled waters was even attacked, although the Germans tried, and not one ship was lost. And while these operations took place within the American coastal zone, they never garnered so much as a passing mention in American accounts of the U-boat war off their coast.

By May 1942 the RCN was committed to escort operations from South America to the British Isles: stretched thin, running hard and entirely successful. And as the ice cleared from local waters in the spring, new convoy routes between Sydney and Quebec City were established. To support these vastly expanded operations the RCN began to develop its base in Sydney into a full-fledged naval facility, providing operational support and maintenance for warships. And a new forward base at the port of Gaspé itself was under way. U-boats in the St. Lawrence River had long been the bugbear of Canadian defence planning. The river, after all, was the main artery of Canadian overseas trade. In 1939, Montreal cleared more tonnage than all other east coast ports combined, while the lower
river accounted for two thirds of goods shipped. Although a surge in wartime trade boosted shipping through Halifax and Saint John, by 1941 Montreal,
Trois-Rivières and Quebec accounted
for more than half of Canada’s east
coast tonnage.

The navy had long anticipated U-boat attacks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and had developed elaborate plans for launching a counter-offensive. These plans were undone when the ships needed to operate them were swept up in the war, including the establishment of the Quebec-Sydney (QS-SQ) convoy series. Only patrols by the Royal Canadian Air Force acted as a deterrent as the spring freshet carried river ice away, and ships began to move again. But air patrols alone were not enough to prevent U-553 from entering the gulf in May and probing the entrance to the river. On May 12, while operating south of Anticosti Island, U-553 sank the steamers Nicoya and Leto, which were travelling independently. With survivors coming ashore along the Gaspé coast, news of the attack could not be withheld. The navy issued a terse statement that the war in the gulf had begun and that nothing more would be said about it. They were wrong about the second point. Attacks in the St. Lawrence at the start of the 1942 shipping season put the navy in the hot seat, and over the summer things would get worse.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com
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