Navy

The overzealous skipper
Navy

The overzealous skipper

When Nicholas Monserrat titled his classic account of the Battle of the Atlantic The Cruel Sea, it was no accident. Nearly half of the Royal Canadian Navy vessels lost in the Second World War succumbed to marine accidents. Patrol boat HMCS Adversus ran aground; destroyer HMCS Skeena dragged its anchor and stranded on the island of Viðey in Iceland; five boats of the 29th Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla burned in a fire in the harbour at Ostend, Belgium; minesweeper HMCS Bras D’Or simply disappeared; armed yacht HMCS Otter caught fire and exploded. Collision was a constant danger. C-class destroyer HMCS Fraser was sliced in half by anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Calcutta off Bordeaux, France, in June 1940. Its replacement, D-class destroyer HMCS Margaree, was lost three months later in a collis...
War comes to Sydney Harbour
Navy

War comes to Sydney Harbour

Deserted and covered with graffiti for decades, the old concrete gun battery at Chapel Point in North Sydney on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island was restored last summer as part of a local project to create a 48.5-hectare park devoted to Canada’s military history. The project, to be known as the Atlantic Memorial Park, is run by local volunteers who want “to create a seaside journey of remembrance that brings Canada’s military history home.” Sydney played a significant role in the Second World War as the second-most-important port for convoy formation after Halifax. In those days before Newfoundland joined Canada, Sydney was known as the most easterly city in North America, which meant between 1939 and 1945, it was also the Canadian city closest to the war. When France, Belgium and t...
The sinking of SS <em> Athenia </em>
Military History, Navy

The sinking of SS Athenia

Britain declared war on Germany at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939. At just after 7 o’clock that evening, Captain James Cook of the passenger liner SS Athenia joined his first-class guests for dinner. While the ship had actually gotten underway two days earlier—en route from Glasgow to Montreal via Belfast and Liverpool—Cook had felt that the urgency of the international situation demanded his presence on the bridge. But by about mid-afternoon Sunday, as Cook told one passenger, they should be far enough into the Atlantic Ocean northwest of Britain and Ireland to be out of danger. At 7:40, just as the evening meal was being served, a violent explosion destroyed the engine room, plunging the dining room into darkness, sending tables and chairs skidding across the deck, and causing th...
A quiet victory in the Gulf
Navy

A quiet victory in the Gulf

When Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939, the most immediate threat to the country was an attack on its shipping. That fear was so palpable that when periscopes were soon “sighted” in the St. Lawrence River, no one was surprised. A “submarine diviner” with a plumb-bob and a chart of the river was consulted to locate the U-boats. Then a mob of soldiers went down the river on a fire tug and a lighthouse tender to attack them. Apparently, the Germans got away. When the U-boats came for real in 1942, they also got clean away. But not before sinking more than 20 ships, forcing the government to close the river to ocean shipping, and inflicting the most embarrassing defeat of the war on Canada. At least that’s the way the story has been told for the past 75 years. Recent schola...
Remembrance
Memoirs, Navy

Remembrance

On Remembrance Day or, for a naval veteran, Battle of the Atlantic Sunday in May, I am called upon to recall those fellow Canadians who gave their lives for us. At naval events the ships that were lost are frequently read out, but I have this vaguely detached feeling. I was never in a ship that was torpedoed, or even at risk, as far as I know. Nor did I serve in a ship and get to know her and her idiosyncrasies—one I could call “my ship”—that was subsequently lost. Assuredly, I appreciate the price paid, in lives, in ships, in aircraft, during the struggles. After all, we were in the same service, faced potentially the same dangers. But to some extent it’s a bit distant. It doesn’t affect me on a personal level, in my heart or gut. And this is probably true enough for many Canadians unle...
Sinking the Bismarck
Navy

Sinking the Bismarck

A handful of Canadians played modest roles in the historic demise of the Nazi battleship 75 years ago On May 21, 1941, the most powerful warship in Europe disappeared from her anchorage in Bergen, Norway. The British, anxiously watching and waiting, could surmise where the brand new 50,000-tonne battleship Bismarck was going: to the broad reaches of the North Atlantic Ocean and the convoy lanes that sustained Britain herself. Over the next seven days, one of the great dramas of the Second World War played out until, on May 27, Bismarck was cornered and sunk.  No Canadian warships were directly involved in the Bismarck episode. At that stage of the war, the Royal Canadian Navy lacked the fleet-class destroyers and cruisers needed for such perilous work. While Bismarck was loose on the...
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