The Royal Canadian Navy escorts that arrived in Newfoundland in May and June 1941 had more exposure to training programs than perhaps any other escorts in the early years of the war. For a period of nine weeks during that spring, Lieutenant-Commander “Chummy” Prentice drove the officers and men of the corvettes Agassiz, Alberni, Chambly, Cobalt, Collingwood, Orillia and Westaskiwin relent-lessly—belying the deliberate irony of Prentice’s nickname.
At the same time, the first ‘Canadian’ corvettes to arrive in the United Kingdom and most of the RCN’s new Town-class destroyers went through the Royal Navy’s workup system at Tobermory, Ont., under Commodore G.O. Stephenson, the Terror of Tobermory.
Prentice and Stephenson were convinced the path to operational efficiency was uncompromising hard work and uniformly high, but obtainable standards. Unfortunately, their efforts faltered under operational conditions and it was soon evident in the Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF) that the RCN’s expansion fleet—quickly manned and still poorly equipped—had a long way to go.
The training program for the NEF’s first seven corvettes was long, comprehensive and demanding. Leonard Murray’s replacement in command of Halifax-based ships, Commander Wallace B. Creery, RCN, observed that Prentice was “persistent almost beyond endurance at times.”
Alec Douglas et al., concluded in the RCN’s operational history, No Higher Purpose, that by spring 1941 Prentice was already known for his combination of leadership and slave driving. The training program he designed for the first RCN corvettes included basic ship handling and days of group manoeuvres at sea. These exercised fundamental skills, especially communications within ships and signalling between vessels. In the event, they could have used much more of this.
Although the records are unclear, it is likely that Prentice did as much as he could, given the shortage of signalling equipment in the new corvettes, such as 20-inch signal projectors, hand-held Aldis lamps and radio-telephones. Moreover, their designated signals officers had had only rudimentary training themselves. One Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve officer later recalled that his short signals ‘course’ consisted of having the instructor read a comic book-style manual out loud to the class, holding it up so they could see the illustrations. When that was done, the ‘qualified’ officers left for their ships.
Weapons training was also fundamental, and at first, so too was the ability to stream and recover the corvette’s auxiliary minesweeping gear. With only a few experienced sailors in key positions and a largely green crew, there was much to master. Corvettes in Prentice’s training group also got some practical experience doing patrols and anti-submarine sweeps in the entrance to Halifax Harbour and on screening convoys during the first leg of their journey to sea. A focus on basics reflected the tone from the Admiralty as late as April 1941 that the RCN had time and opportunity to bring its burgeoning fleet of new corvettes up to speed in the quiet waters of the western Atlantic.
One of the most valuable aspects of Prentice’s spring of 1941 efforts was the time spent training asdic operators using real submarines. The first group managed three weeks of ‘ping’ time, primarily on the Dutch submarine 0-15, part of the RN’s Third Battle Squadron at Halifax.
It is hard to underestimate the value of this training. The hardest skill an asdic operator had to learn was how to recognize and maintain contact with a real target, and there was no substitute for tracking a submarine at sea. A shortage of these ‘clockwork mice’ would plague the RCN for the balance of the war.
Prentice’s emphasis in early 1941 was on locating and destroying enemy subs. He was so obsessed with the corvette’s potential as a sub killer that he passed up the opportunity to command a destroyer in order to keep HMCS Chambly and command her on operations.
In the winter of 1941, his passion for sub killing was consistent with RN doctrine as it was then known in Canada. However, the RN was on the cusp of an important change in its doctrine. Western Approaches Convoy Instructions, promulgated at the end of April, set the tone for the rest of the war. The instructions emphasized “safe and timely arrival of the convoy” as the priority for escort vessels. In practice this meant conducting a solid defence, protecting the convoy and not being distracted by U-boat hunting. The instructions appear to have had no impact on Prentice’s training scheme, but they were adopted as the basis—at least formally—of NEF operations.
The British no doubt assumed that proper methods and doctrine would be imparted to escorts by the local Captain (Destroyers) and his training establishment. The post of Captain (D) was adapted from destroyer flotillas in which a four-ringed captain exercised administrative and tactical control over the flo-tilla, and was responsible for its training and operational efficiency. Captains (D) of escort flotillas operated from an office ashore, leaving command of small escort groups to the Senior Officer Escort (SOE).
Captains (D) working through their SOEs kept the men, ships, and groups up to snuff and operating efficiently based on the command’s various communications, operational and tactical procedures. The sheer number of escort vessels concentrated under Western Approaches Command in the UK warranted the appointment of a Commodore (D), Commodore G.W. Simpson, RN.
The first Captain (D), Newfoundland, Capt. E.B.K. Stevens, RN, arrived in June 1941 and established the first real staff in Murray’s command. Murray had inherited the St. John’s port staff, but his operations, intelligence and signals officers did not arrive until fall. Thus, Stevens had little to work with: no training facilities or equipment, and minimal repair capability.
Another key component of a Captain (D) establishment, an Additions and Alterations staff, was also missing. Given its lack of engineering officers, the RCN’s only east coast A&A staff during the war was in Halifax. As a result, Stevens could not authorize changes to the structure and equipment of their ships. This critical staff shortage would eventually have a profound impact on the operational efficiency of RCN escorts in mid-ocean.
While corvettes at home worked up for operational duty, the 10 sent overseas with scratch crews for delivery to the RN were thrust into the maw of the RN’s training establishment and readied for operational duty. This was never the plan, but apparently no one told the Captain (D), Greenock on the Clyde River. Not surprisingly, he was displeased with what he saw. His ‘Canadian’ corvettes lacked crucial equipment, in some cases, guns. In addition, the crews were too small and key billets were unfilled. The RCN’s UK establishment eventually found crews for the vessels, but the process was long and the results uneven. As a rule, British officers found Canadians keen to learn and highly intelligent, but unaware of what was required of them.
The RCN’s newly acquired ex-American Town-class destroyers were larger, more complex warships with more than 100 crew members. Some felt the Towns ought to have received six months of workup training before being committed to operations: an unaffordable luxury in the fall of 1940. So, they too were thrust ill-prepared into RN training establishments and into the war. Their low-level of efficiency was, according to the RN, “attributable directly to the inexperience and perhaps the age of their RCNR (Royal Canadian Naval Reserve) commanding officers.”
Fortunately, Canadian ratings, non-commissioned officers and officers went at their business with a will to learn. When Hepatica, Trillium and Windflower went through the RN workup at Tobermory in early March, they received warm reviews. By the end of the month they joined Escort Group (EG) 4 operating from the Clyde. EG 4 was, for the moment, comprised of some 10 operational ships, more than half of them Canadian. In early April EG 4’s three ‘Canadian’ corvettes, four RCN Town-class destroyers and several British ships escorted the outbound convoy 0B 306 to Iceland without incident, and brought the inbound HX 117 back safely.
Only two things marred this operation. One was the first combat death aboard a Canadian corvette. When HX 117 was attacked near the Hebrides by an FW 200 Condor aircraft, Trillium was showered by spent shells and shrapnel. A large fragment struck Seaman Donald Robertson’s left shoulder as he sat at the two-pounder gun. The blow knocked him to the deck, but he managed to return to the gun. When the action ended, he collapsed.
Bleeding profusely, the young sailor was carried below and strapped to the mess deck table. Trillium’s cook Harry Rhoades, who had qualified as sick berth attendant by virtue of the first aid course he had taken while working for a Montreal department store, secured the patient while Sub.-Lt. Barry O’Brien applied the anesthetic. A doctor from His Majesty’s Ship Boadicea, and with Rhoades’ encouragement and a medical text open to the chapter on amputations, worked for two hours to remove the shattered limb. Fresh from medical school, it was the doctor’s first operation: Robertson died just as the arm came off.
The second event to mar the passage of OB 306/HX 117 was the performance of EG 4s four RCN destroyers. The situation did not improve over the next month. According to the RCN’s official history, “The Canadian and recently commissioned British ships were too quick to dash off in response to a contact that had not been confirmed and leave gaps in the escort screen.” When the SOE of EG 4 arranged a training program at Molville, Northern Ireland, in late May, three of his Canadian destroyers either missed it or were late due to mechanical defects. The SOE identified leadership problems with the RCNR officers of several of the vessels, and lamented that these ships had not been put through the recommended six months of workup.
Lack of professional naval training could not, however, account for the failure of HMCS St. Francis of EG 4 when the Italian submarine Otario torpedoed a vessel in convoy SL 73 on May 19. The sub was seen on the surface 100 feet away from St. Francis’ after-gun position only minutes before it torpedoed the ship. Unfortunately, the telephone to the bridge failed, and so too did the radio telephone through which young Lt.-Cmdr. Hugh F. Pullen, RCN, tried to reach his SOE.
These technical malfunctions were compounded by the failure to even try to contact a Royal Air Force aircraft flying over the convoy, and the subsequent flash of St. Francis’ guns which blinded the deck watch as the destroyer fired star shells to illuminate the scene. Ironically, it fell to Pullen and St. Francis to sink the disabled merchant vessel to remove it as a hazard to navigation.
Captain (D), Greenock, was content to admonish Pullen and “emphasize the gravity” of his ship’s failures. Pullen, he observed, was “a keen, smart young officer and undoubtedly one of the most capable of the Canadian commanding officers working in the North Western Approaches.”
But Pullen soon had to endure a board of enquiry that found him to blame for poor supervision. In early June, a major review of the efficiency of Canadian-manned vessels by Captain (D), Greenock, recommended adding 10 days of intensive exercise to the program for new ships.
While RCN ships in the Clyde Escort Force struggled to reach an acceptable level of efficiency, Prentice led the first NEF convoy operation to sea on June 2. By then there was some urgency to escort convoys in the northwest Atlantic. In late May, U-boats, supported by a supply tanker off Greenland, arrived on the Grand Banks as part of the Bismarck operation. Their presence was revealed plainly as a result of the intelligence coup in May when the British captured the German weather ship Munchen and U-110, including Enigma coding machines and codebooks for the next few weeks. Based on this intelligence, the British sank the U-boats’ supply ship, Blechen, on June 3.
By then Chambly, Collingwood and Orillia were helping HX 129 get past the five U-boats lying northeast of the Grand Banks. That convoy became the first to receive end-to-end transatlantic A/S (Anti-Submarine) escort. HX 130, escorted in part by Alberni, Agassiz and Wetaskiwin, was equally successful a few days later. The Germans suspected convoys were steaming around them south of the Grand Banks, and decided to reinforce their western group to 11 U-boats and push their patrol line south.
Reinforcements were rushed to NEF from Britain and Canada. Six RCN destroyers—Ottawa, Restigouche, Saguenay, Niagara, Columbia and St. Clair—arrived in St. John’s between June 7 and 10. In mid-month the British sent Assiniboine and eight of their 10 Canadian corvettes—now officially commissioned HMC Ships—to escort a series of OB convoys, bringing with them Commodore Murray to assume his new command.
The baptism of fire came June 23 when HX 133, escorted by Ottawa and the corvettes Chambly, Collingwood and Orillia stumbled onto U-203. British intelligence had a vague notion where U-203 was but the intelligence picture was unclear. By late June the western group of U-boats had dispersed into a loose pattern in mid-ocean. It was pure blind luck which brought HX 133 and U-203 together, and despite Prentice’s best efforts the escort group was a scratch team. Lt.-Cmdr. A.G. Boulton, RCNVR, had assumed temporary command of Ottawa only three days before, and the destroyer had never worked with the corvettes.
In the darkness of June 23, U-203 fired three torpedoes at HX 133, one of which sank the 4,400-ton Norwegian motor vessel Soloy. In the ensuing battle, command and control of the Canadian escort broke down. The corvettes lacked proper signalling equipment, and their communications procedures failed under stress of operational conditions. Fortunately, U-203 lost contact after her attack. But the battle for HX 133 had just begun. When the Germans committed 10 U-boats to the convoy, the British brought up 13 escorts to defend it.
The British navy official history called what followed “one of the first examples of what can justly be described as a convoy battle between evenly matched contestants.” HX 133 lost five more ships while the escort sank two U-boats. The British had reason to be happy with the battle for HX 133, but the RCN had little to cheer about. NEF had had its baptism of fire and been found wanting: unfortunately, much harder times lay ahead.
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