Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike Creasy
Our season-opening “Battle of the Atlantic” regatta comes up next month, so what better time to recount the story.
Some perspective: The war in Europe began for real on September 1, 1939 with German occupation of Poland. The Poles were no match for the new style of warfare, and Warsaw fell in a few short weeks. The rest of Europe held its collective breath, wondering who was next. The politics were intense, as Germany sought alliances with other countries – after all, political takeovers are often more effective than military actions.
One lesson learned from World War 1 was the need to control supply lines, and the German navy had a plan to deploy surface raiders and U-boats in the north Atlantic. Adolf Hitler knew that England was the pivotal opponent – if he could choke off the supply lines, he was sure they would either capitulate in short order, or be ripe for invasion.
This was a vital point, because he also knew that the longer the War continued, the more likely it was that the United States would join the conflict. He was fully aware of American industrial capacity and suspected that, if the Americans joined in, his Blitzkrieg warfare style would be checkmated.
Britain had declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, and hostilities began.
In 1939, Britain and the Dominions had, on average, 2,500 ships at sea every day. Senior Royal Navy Commanders understood the threat of surface raiders, and moved to control or sink them. The threat posed by U-boats was less well understood, and the threat from aircraft even fuzzier.
Canada declared war on September 10, 1939. The Canadian Navy then consisted of six destroyers (Saguenay, Skeena, Fraser, St. Laurent, Ottawa and Restigouche) plus an assortment of small craft.
On September 16, Saguenay and St. Laurent departed Halifax with the first convoy of the war, beginning a task that would continue without pause for the next 68 months.
By November, two convoys a week were leaving Halifax for the UK, each requiring protection from the very real threat of U-boat attack. Canadians initially provided escort out as far as the Grand Banks, while the Royal Navy picked convoys in the Western Approaches. Merchant sips were unescorted for the main part of the Atlantic crossing because there weren’t enough e4scort ships available, and because the U-boats threat was highest near the coastline.
The German Navy had invested a great deal of effort in planning how to use the U-boat fleet, and quickly began to inflict serious losses. They began the war with about 60 boats and with two per month coming in service. In the first year of the war, nearly 500 merchant ships were lost to U-boat attack, and nearly as many to mines, aircraft and surface raiders.
In response, Canadian shipyards began building a small escort vessel based on a proven design for a whaling ship – the famous Flower class corvettes. Canada built and sailed 122 of these remarkable little ships, something we should all be proud of.
Canada also received seven of the old US “4-piper” destroyers under the lend lease programme. These ships were vital to our small Navy, although legend has it that the 4-pipers could match the Flowers in rolling on a rough sea. One ship was reported to have made 50 degrees, with only a slight hesitation about whether to capsize or come back upright!
Royal Canadian Navy ships took part in many of the major events of the Battle of the Atlantic, and took much of the drudgery and danger of endless convoy escort from the start of the war in 1939 until VE Day in 1945.
Canada’s Merchant Navy also played a major role in the battle. Civilian seamen manned the freighters and tankers carrying vital cargos to the UK and Russia, thumping along at slow speed in massive convoys, waiting for the U-boats to hit.
Canadian shipyards turned to with a vengeance, building the “North Sands” type freighter in small yards from Sydney to Prince Rupert. Beginning in 1941, Canadian yards produced 353 of these 10,000 ton ships. Some went to the UK, some to the US and some stayed in Canadian hands. Many went to the bottom.
All ships and sailors shared the threat from the enemy and from the sea: a fine sunny day meant easy pickings for the U-boats, while a howling gale with freezing spray meant the probably couldn’t see you.
Canada’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic had its spectacular moments, but mostly it was the story of months and months of unending danger and strain for some very brave people. Lest we forget.
Next month, some stories of Canadian ships and men in the Atlantic.
The Far Distant Ships, Joseph Schull, Queen’s Printer, 1961
The War at Sea Volume 1, Capt S.W. Roskill, HM Stationery Office, 1954
Canada’s Flowers, Thomas G. Lynch, Nimbus Publishing, 1981