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The Cruellest Months: Navy, Part 35

The corvette symbolized the Royal Canadian Navy’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic. At work is HMCS Battleford. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

The corvette symbolized the Royal Canadian Navy’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic. At work is HMCS Battleford.

The fall of 1941 was perhaps the toughest period of the war for the Royal Canadian Navy. It is hard to think of a time when the gap between the capability of the fleet and the demands placed on it was so large. Indeed, the RCN would have been stretched to the limit to meet its new obligation to escort slow convoys between Newfoundland and Iceland even if the weather and the enemy had co-operated.

Winter weather closed in on the northern convoy routes in the fall. With it came short days of thin, watery sunlight followed by long, bitterly cold nights. Lashing gales and mountainous seas rolled across the northern latitudes with impunity. The climate alone meant a brutal operational cycle, as ships and men fought their way across the dark ocean.

Longer passages meant less time in port. During October the corvette Orillia spent 28 of 31 days at sea. If that was not bad enough, her captain Lieutenant W.E.S. Briggs, RCNR, was the ship’s only qualified watchkeeper. “We are asking a lot of the morale of an inexperienced crew,” Commodore L.W. Murray wrote in a memo for Ottawa in November that year. “To expect them to be happy, and remain in fighting trim and aggressive, in a ship in which they know their safety from marine accident, and not from any action of the enemy, depends on the ability of their Captain to remain awake.”

In fact, October and November 1941 may have been the cruellest months of the war for the RCN, both for the men and the reputation of the service itself.

It was not just the weather that was unrelenting, so too was the enemy. As the British Admiralty noted, their success at keeping the U-boats at bay in the North Atlantic was—for the moment—predicated largely on Ultra intelligence. It was unclear how much longer evasive routing could keep the growing number of operational U-boats from inflicting losses on the scale of SC 42, or even SC 48. The latter was heavily reinforced by British and American escorts, but they were no match for the 30 U-boats that routinely prowled the midocean.

During its October passage, SC 48 lost nine merchant ships and two escorts, with another—the USS Kearny—heavily damaged. The decision not to force the passage of SC 52 in early November was clear evidence of growing Allied anxiety about its ability to get shipping safely across. Moreover, there were enough U-boats at sea to threaten the United Kingdom-to-Sierra Leone convoy routes in the eastern Atlantic, and that’s where the Royal Navy wanted to concentrate it efforts.

Three destroyers sit in Halifax after they were transferred from the USN to the RCN in 1940. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA104282]

Three destroyers sit in Halifax after they were transferred from the USN to the RCN in 1940.

By late September it was clear that even with significant reinforcement from the burgeoning fleet of Canadian corvettes, the Newfoundland Escort Force needed help escorting the slow convoys. To maintain six groups with an operational strength of six escorts each, Murray required at least 48 ships. This would allow two ships per group for refits and training. Of these 48 escorts, no less than 15 had to be destroyers: a minimum of two operational per group. The RCN could meet the NEF’s corvette requirements by simply pushing more newly commissioned ships Murray’s way. But Canada only had a dozen destroyers: six River-class and six Town-class—13 if you counted His Majesty’s Ship Hamilton, a British Town-class with a Canadian crew. By late September 1941, Assiniboine, Hamilton, Niagara and St. Clair were in refit while Annapolis was retained in Halifax to give that port at least one fast escort. In any event, only two RCN Town-class—St. Croix and St. Francis—were long-range and suitable for mid-ocean operations, although St. Francis was never reliable enough to do so. So the RCN really had only seven destroyers suitable for the NEF: the six Rivers plus St. Croix. The problem of short-ranged Town-class destroyers operating in the NEF was well illustrated by Columbia’s participation in SC 48. She sprinted to the mid-Atlantic (to conserve fuel) to join the convoy for a few days, and then ran out of fuel before reaching Iceland: she had to anchor eight miles off Reykjavik and wait for a tow.

The initial response when the RCN asked its larger Allies to help the NEF was not encouraging. In September, the British were still stunned that the RCN had assumed responsibility for slow convoys between Iceland and Newfoundland, and were annoyed the Americans had let the Canadians take on the job.

The whole idea of getting the Americans into the Atlantic war was to free British (and Canadian) ships for the eastern Atlantic, especially the U.K.-Sierra Leone route. At the end of September they reluctantly agreed to leave seven British corvettes and five destroyers in the western Atlantic to augment the NEF. This was not as good as it sounded. Four of the seven corvettes and two of the destroyers were in refit, and one destroyer was under repair.

Theoretically, the NEF had 12 destroyers: still three short of its minimum requirement. Meanwhile, the looming passage of Canadian troop convoy TC 14 in early October obliged both the RCN and the RN to commit long-range destroyers to that escort task. So as a result, the operational destroyer strength in NEF groups was actually reduced to one in early October.

A solution to the destroyer problem was advanced in mid-October by Commander H.S. Rayner, RCN, the captain of St. Laurent. He suggested all destroyers be withdrawn from NEF groups and formed into roving support groups along the Newfoundland-to-Iceland stretch. It was not a new idea: Lieutenant-Commander Chummy Prentice’s training group had done that for SC 42 in September, and the British were starting to do the same in the eastern Atlantic. But the larger Allies rejected the scheme and Murray was not empowered to adopt it, or any other innovation involving a major re-assignment of vessels. Under the new command arrangements he was simply a ‘force provider’ for the United States Navy’s Task Force 4. It was up to the commander of Task Force 4 or the Commander-in-Chief of the US Atlantic Fleet to make such bold reallocation of resources. Murray could only adopt a scheme like Rayner’s surreptitiously, and in time he would.

In the fall of 1941 the British thought, and the Canadians hoped, that the USN would do more, but in September the Americans were simply too busy getting themselves established. They, too, had a commitment to maintain six escort groups between Newfoundland and Iceland, and were trying to keep them at an operational strength of six ships. That proved hard to do. The USN had little experience operating in the North Atlantic in winter, and their forward bases in Newfoundland were still under construction. So Task Force 4 was scrambling to refit and adapt its fleet to the challenges of climate and of the enemy. They also resented British meddling in what was now their zone. So when Rear Admiral Percy Nelles, the Chief of the Naval Staff, visited Admiral E.J. King, commander of the US Atlantic Fleet, in early October, the Americans offered nothing more than encouragement. For his part, Nelles shifted blame for the lack of long-range destroyers in NEF to the British, who knew of the problem and “refused” to help. The issue was eventually taken up in London by the Americans, but by then help had arrived.

HMCS Ottawa and HMCS Hamilton off Halifax, December 1941. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA105662]

HMCS Ottawa and HMCS Hamilton off Halifax, December 1941.

Meanwhile, the travails of the NEF were watched by the RCN’s senior Allies with a mixture of awe and amazement, and an expectation through October and November that the whole force was verging on collapse. The situation got bad very quickly. By mid-October Captain (D) Newfoundland, Captain E.B. Stevens, RN, protested to Murray that the operational pace was “quite unacceptable.” East-bound escorts averaged 16 days at sea before reaching the barren, wind-swept Hvalfjordhur anchorage in Iceland. Their four to 18 hours there were largely spent refuelling and loading food, before commencing a 14- to 16-day westward beat home. With the onset of winter weather, the rate of advance of westbound slow convoys against prevailing winds was reduced to a crawl. Stevens chastised Murray for measuring the endurance “of these small ships principally on their fuel carrying capacity.” For the moment, the whole apparatus depended on the ability of the corvette’s captain to stay awake and alert enough to get the ships back and forth. Stevens warned that “grave danger exists of breakdowns in health, morale and discipline.”

Over the short term, the RCN’s solution was to send every possible corvette it could muster for the NEF—some 60 by the end of the year. This meant, for the moment, that the RCN’s own manning policy worked against NEF’s efficiency. Operational ships sent to Halifax for whatever reason, as we have seen, were robbed of their experienced personnel to man newly commissioned ships. This reduced ‘veteran’ corvettes overnight to beginner status. These hobbled veterans and totally new corvettes steamed to St. John’s through October and November as soon as they could operate with a modicum of success.

The NEF’s operational efficiency in the fall of 1941 had both short- and long-term repercussions. The short-term ones played out over the next two years, the long-term ones dominated the postwar histories. Among those who shaped the contemporary British view of the RCN as a whole, and the postwar image of the RCN in the Battle of the Atlantic literature, was Captain Donald Macintyre, RN. As highly successful escort group commander in his own right, Macintyre served in the North Atlantic over the winter of 1941-42 and saw perhaps too much of the struggling NEF: he was the RCN’s most trenchant critic. His postwar memoirs in particular contained sharp criticism of the Canadians. The RCN’s escort fleet he described as “travesties of warships.” To him, their appearance was unacceptably shoddy, with corvettes more coloured by rust than paint.

On one Canadian corvette he visited, the depth charges were fused into their storage rails by the accumulated scale. Like many other British officers, Macintyre also found Canada’s corvette sailors more than a little wayward by  RN standards. He was particularly taken aback by one corvette that arrived in port with “We want leave!” painted on its side. From Macintyre’s perspective, the RCN should have been absorbed into the RN. His view of the wartime RCN dominated the postwar literature.

Many of Macintyre’s comments—although painfully true—were ill-informed and unkind. He put great stock in the appearance of Canadian corvettes, but in the event there really was little the sailors of the Sheep Dog Navy could do about rust in 1941: it was built-in.

The navy investigated the problem and concluded that the steel companies had failed to remove the mill scale from the plates used to build its corvettes. This was normally done either by “pickling” in an acid bath, or by stacking the plates outside and allowing weather action to remove the scale. Once that was done, the bare metal was primed and painted. But there were too few pickling shops in Canada: weathering took time, and the plate was used too quickly. Weathering also had to be done properly. The navy determined that plates were often stacked too close together for proper air circulation. The net result was a great deal of steel plate used in the first building programs was still covered with mill scale when it was primed and painted. When the mill scale finally fell off at sea it exposed bare metal to salt water with predictable results. Sadly, as Macintyre’s views reveal, built-in rust contributed significantly to the abiding legacy of the early expansion fleet as slovenly and ill-disciplined.

In the fall of 1941 other British officers shared Macintyre’s opinions, and some chided their Canadian counterparts that RCN corvettes were useful only for rescue work. But like built-in rust, the problems were manifold and easy solutions were not to be had. The basic communications problem between vessels was being solved, in part by a crash program to fit radio-telephones. This UHF system allowed escorts to simply talk to one another. But the fix was just not that simple. HMCS Rosthern lost SC 48 early in the passage because there had not been time to readjust the corvette’s magnetic compass after the radio system was fitted to the bridge, and her compass failed to work properly. During the battle of SC 48 itself, American R/T systems were found to be so powerful—and American chatter so incessant—that Commonwealth R/T systems were often unusable in any event.

And then in October and November there remained the punishing operational cycle, which beat NEF nearly into submission. Senior American officers concluded by October that the NEF was near the breaking point. The USN destroyer squadron commander in Iceland wrote of NEF, “They arrive here tired out and the DDs [destroyers] barely just make it…. With winter coming on their problems will be more difficult. They are going to have breakdowns and ships running out of fuel at sea.”

Even the British realized by November that the NEF was working twice as hard as British groups, and were doing so with inexperienced crews. In December, the Admiralty’s Director of the Anti-Submarine Warfare Division apologized to Murray for being far too critical of NEF’s efforts. But the British were also far too busy in the eastern Atlantic to offer any help. Fortunately, the Americans did. In early November the USN agreed to take responsibility for alternate slow westbound convoys. This gave some NEF groups a chance to get back to St. John’s quicker—although since westbound ships normally travelled in ballast the distinction between ON and ONS convoys steaming against prevailing westerlies in winter was often notional.

As those cruel months came to an end, Murray also got help from the home establishment of the RCN. Although headquarters refused to change its manning policy, the navy sent Murray every ship it could spare: fully 78 per cent of the RCN’s operational fleet was committed to the NEF by the end of November. Murray had enough resources, time and ships to build a much needed operational training unit. The old British submarine L27 was en route, and by early December Murray planned to base it and a training group under Prentice in Conception Bay, Nfld. The scheme included a 12-day exercise at sea “in which all forms of attack, defence and communications could be practised under ocean-going conditions.” That, at least, was the plan: Murray’s memo to Naval Service Headquarters outlining his training scheme was dated Dec. 7, 1941.

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