“Open hostilities with England at once.”
This was the signal flashed out around noon to all units of the Kriegsmarine – the German Navy – on 3rd September, 1939, the day the Second World War began.
Seven hours later, the German submarine U 30 was cruising on the surface about 150 miles off the northern coast of Ireland when a lookout spotted the passenger liner SS Athenia, bound for Montreal with 1,103 passengers and 305 crew aboard.
Submerging, the captain of U 30 took up an attack position and fired a salvo of torpedoes into the ship. One hundred and eighteen people lost their lives. It was the first action in a running fight for the sea-lanes, which was to last almost six years.
The Battle of the Atlantic had begun. It was a conflict which pitted the surface naval forces of the Allies against the notorious “wolf-packs” of Die U-bootswaffe under the leadership of Grand-Admiral Karl Donitz, Fuhrer der Unterseeboote. Much of the burden – many say a disproportionate share – fell to the Royal Canadian Navy.
Canada Declares War on Germany
Canada declared War on Germany on 10th September, 1939, 7 days after Britain.
On that day, the “strength” of the RCN (under the command by Rear Admiral Percy W. Nelles, Chief of Naval staff) comprised six destroyers, four minesweepers and a handful of hastily armed civilian vessels.
Grand-Admiral Erich Raeder’s Kriegsmarine had in place fifty-seven submarines, two fast battlecruisers (Scharnhorst and Gneisnau), the pocket-battleships Deutschland, Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer, the heavy cruiser Hipper, the light cruiser Leipzig, and various smaller warships. The battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz were nearing completion, as were a large aircraft carrier, the Graf Zeppelin and four heavy cruisers.
Of course, ship for ship, the Royal Navy was considerably stronger than the German Navy (with the exception of submarines). The RN was also supported by ships from the Royal Australian Navy (four cruisers) and the Royal New Zealand Navy (two cruisers) along with Canadian vessels.
When war broke out, Canadian navy personnel amounted to just 3,684 officers and crew, including RCN Reserve and Volunteer Reserve.
Within a year, more than 10,000 had mustered in and by 1944, Its numerical strength peaked at 95,705 officers and men serving in 378 warships. In total, 110,000 men and women served in the RCN during the War, every one of them a volunteer.
This recruitment represents an amazing fifty-fold in pre-War strength, compared to a twenty-fold increase of the US Navy, a fourteen-fold increase of the Royal Australian Navy and an eight-fold increase of the Royal Navy.
The global total of ships lost by the Allies during the entire War was 5,150 vessels together amounting to 21,570,720 tons. Of these, more than half (2,452 ships totaling 12.8 million tons) went down in the Atlantic, most sunk by U Boats. One hundred and seventy-five allied warships were sunk, 32 of them Canadian.
Eight hundred and thirty German submarines took part in operations. Of these, 784 were either sunk or lost as a result of accidents.
The RCN lost 1,965 men during the War, most of them in the Atlantic. The British Merchant Navy lost 30,248 men, many of whom were Canadian, and the Royal Navy suffered 73,642 fatal casualties. Thousands of Newfoundlanders served with the RN during the War, many of whom lost their lives.
By way of comparison, 40,900 men served in the German Navy’s U Boats, of whom 25,870 were killed a fatal casualty rate of 63%.
Convoy HX-1 sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Britain six days after Canada’s entry into the War. It was the first in an unbroken series which culminated with convoy HX-359 in May, 1945. This speedy Canadian assistance was due mainly to the pre-War efforts of Captain (N) R.H. Oland, RCNR, who, as the Naval Control Service Officer at Halifax organized commercial shipping into convoys efficiently and quickly. Over 26,000 separate merchant ship voyages were made from Canada and they supplied an average of 90,000 tons of war materials a day to Britain and the Allies.
An Remarkable Story of High-Speed Naval Mobilization
Naval shipbuilding had top priority as Prime Minister MacKenzie King and his War Cabinet wasted little time In mobilizing the country’s industrial resources in an all-out war-effort. What has been described as one of the most remarkable stories of high-speed naval mobilizations in history began in February 1940 when Canada ordered 64 corvettes from domestic yards across the country.
The corvette design was based on a commercial whaling vessel plan, brought back from Britain the previous year. Described as “cheap and nasty”, Winston Churchill said they were cheap for the British, nasty for the enemy. The first ten corvettes built in Canada were immediately earmarked for Britain. The first two – Windlfower and Trillium – arrived in Britain in December, 1940, the first warships built and manned by Canadians. (Windflower was sunk just a year later in a collision with a merchantman off Cape Race, Newfoundland).
Canada also responded generously to Churchill’s appeal for help in the summer of 1940, sending all seven of her precious destroyers then operational to serve in British Home Waters. The first Canadian ship involved in action with the enemy was the destroyer Saguenay, launched in 1930. Tiny by today’s standards, she was 1,337 tons, 320 feet long, mounted four 4.7 inch guns, had a top speed of 35 knots and a crew of 10 officers and 171 men.
HMCS SAGUENAY – A Casualty of War
On the 1st of December, 1940, while escorting a convoy some 300 miles west of Ireland, Saguenay was torpedoed by the Italian submarine Argo. Twenty-one of her crew was killed. Although most of her bows were blown off, and the entire fore-part of the ship including the bridge was ablaze, Saguenay managed to limp home to port. Just off Barrow-in-Furness, in England, she hit a mine, but still proceeded under tow to harbour. Her captain, Commander G.R. Miles, was decorated for “fine seamanship deserving of the highest praise.”
The ocean convoy escort system from North America was organized around the Newfoundland Escort Force, the Western Local Escort Force (later the Western Escort Force) and the Mid-Ocean Escort Force. The WLEF/WEF had the big task of escorting convoys from New York and Halifax to ocean routes off St. John’s, Newfoundland, where the NEF/MOEF took over the eastbound runs.
The NEF/WEF/MOEF was run by Canadians with mostly Canadian ships under British control until September, 1941, and under American control until April, 1943, when joint British/Canadian control was established. At this point, the waters from south of Nova Scotia to immediately off St. John’s became a new “theatre” – the Canadian Northwest Atlantic – under the command of Rear-Admiral L.W. Murray, RCN, in Halifax. Under this arrangement, the Royal Navy only assumed control of the convoys when they reached the main route some hundred miles east of Newfoundland.
Four Canadian escort groups worked with the MOEF, based at St. John’s, Newfoundland, ushering the convoys through the dangerous central stretch of the Atlantic lifeline. By mid-1942, it is estimated that Canada was providing about half of all the escort ships in the North Atlantic. German submariners were conducting their most intense offensive against the convoys. In the month of July 1942, the Allies lost 24,000 tons of shipping a day. By the following summer, Allied navies had gained the upper hand, an advantage the U Boats never regained.
Admiral Sir Percy Noble, Commander-In-Chief western Approaches (senior commander controlling operations in the Atlantic from February 1941 to November 1942) said that “The Canadian Navy solved the problem of the Atlantic convoys.” However, this accolade was hard-won, and the Navy encountered many problems of its own – especially in the period leading up to the climax of the Battle in the Spring of 1943.
Most of these problems stemmed from the very rapid expansion of the Navy, in terms of both ships and manpower. Training and manning policies put severe strains on the Navy and Canadian commanders had difficulty coping with the increasing pressure for convoy escorts demanded by the need to resupply Britain, along with the equally tenacious activities of the U Boats in seeking to frustrate this need. In addition, the Canadians always seemed to be last on the list to get new equipment like improved radar and sonar sets and better communications gear, all of which could be critical advantages in pressing home successful actions and operating effective ocean convoy escorts.
The Canadian Effort was Immense
A vast effort was required, in ports and ashore to sustain the war at sea. The Naval Boarding Service, a Canadian innovation at Halifax, was set up to check departing ships for saboteurs. The boarding personnel were soon involved, as well, in making another valuable contribution by boosting the flagging morale of merchant seaman through redress of their grievances and the supply of some basic comforts and amenities.
Canadian shipyards, especially Halifax, undertook ship-repairs on a vast scale, and also fitted out and equipped hundreds of merchant vessels. While Canada started the War with only 37 merchant ships of her own, 175 had been built and manned by the end of hostilities.
Canadian service personnel set up and ran a very effective enemy radio monitoring service throughout the War. Using information gleaned from this efficient chain of listening posts, submarines’ positions could be worked out from their radio transmissions. This information was sent to a plotting centre in Ottawa known as the Canadian Diversion Room, which was responsible for diverting all non-American shipping in the whole of the Western Atlantic north of the equator to avoid the “wolf-packs.”
The Directorate of Naval Intelligence and the Operational Intelligence Centre, both in Ottawa, provided much valuable information to Allied authorities, and was part of an intricate three-way network of Canadian-American-British intelligence organizations.
The RCAF’s Liberator Bombers Join the Battle
No account of Canadian participation in the Battle of the Atlantic is complete without mention of the part played by the Royal Canadian Air Force and their VLR (Very Long Range) Liberator bombers.
Highlights of RCAF service in the Atlantic include the sinking of U 341 by depth-charges dropped by a Liberator flown by Flight Lieutenant J.F. Fisher (attached to 10 BR Squadron based at Reykjavik, Iceland) on 19 September 1943. Three days later, a Liberator piloted by Warrant Officer J. Billings attacked U 270 in the face of withering anti-aircraft fire. The submarine was so damaged by the attack that it had to retreat on the surface for its home port. Another Liberator piloted by Flight Lieutenant J. R. Martin engaged U 377 the same day, and attacked with depth-charges, machine-gun fire and torpedoes. It, too, was so damaged that it had to make for port. On October 26th, Flight Lieutenant R.M. Aldwinkle attacked U 420 in his Liberator, dropping depth charges and torpedoes. The submarine, part of the “Siegfried” wolf-pack, was destroyed.
These individual actions serve to focus the great individual efforts made by Canadian flyers. But In the strategic sense, the very presence of these aircraft closed the “mid-Atlantic gap” in air coverage for the convoys plying between North America and Britain, and, as such, became the final and decisive element in the ultimate defeat of Donitz’ wolf-packs which lost all of their remaining ability to roam the surface of the ocean in search of targets.
Brief accounts of principal Canadian ship actions during the Battle may give some sense of the conditions imposed by war and weather on Canadian sailors.
September 11th, 1941
HMC Ships Chambly and Moose Jaw were sailing off the east coast of Greenland shortly after midnight when they were ordered to join convoy SC42, which was under attack. Sighting U 501 on the surface, they attacked the submarine with gunfire, depth charges and, finally, ramming. A boat party from Chambly, under Lt. Edward Simmons, RCNVR, boarded the submarine. The German crew had made preparations to scuttle. Nevertheless, Lt. Simmons descended into the boat in the hopes of reclaiming cypher material and the like, and escaped the sinking vessel just in time. A stoker, William Brown of Toronto, was drowned when he was sucked down with the submarine. The commander of Chambly, Cdr J.D. Prentice, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for the action, as was Lt. Simmons.
September 19th, 1941
In the early hours of the morning, off Cape Farewell, Greenland, a torpedo fired by U 74 stuck HMCS Levis, forward on the port side, ripping the ship open and killing 17 of the crew. She remained afloat under tow for five hours when she listed suddenly and sank. Forty survivors were taken aboard the corvettes Mayflower and Agassiz.
July 24th, 1942
HMCS St. Croix, a Town-class destroyer, was escorting 33 ships in westbound convoy ON-113, along with a British destroyer and four corvettes. They were at about the mid-ocean point. The weather was heavy fog. The convoy was signalled by the Admiralty that a wolf-pack code-named “Wolf” lay in their path. Forging out to a screening position ten miles ahead, St. Croix sighted U 90 on the surface and proceeded to attack. LCdr A.H. Dobson, RCNR, manoeuvered his ship to force the submarine to dive, and then delivered three rapid and, as it turned out, accurate depth charge attacks. The wreckage floating to the surface confirmed the second “kill” of the War for the RCN.
August 1st, 1942
The corvette HMCS Sackville engaged two U boats in mid-Atlantic. Sighting the first, she drove over the submarine just as it crash-dived, dropping depth-charges. The submarine was blown to the surface at a sharp angle, and perhaps sixty feet of its length came out of the water. More depth-charges exploded around it, and it disappeared. A large underwater explosion was heard and fuel oil came to the surface. Within the hour, Sackville engaged a second U-Boat in a running surface action, exchanging gunfire and attempting to ram. Sackville’s 4-inch gun scored a hit on the submariner’s conning tower, and the submarine crash-dived.
August 6th, 1942
Convoy SC-94 of 36 ships heavily laden with war materials was eastbound for Britain in heavy fog, approaching the mid-ocean area. Sighting U 210 on the surface, HMCS Assiniboine stalked the boat through fog patches for an hour, finally closing to within range when a fierce gun duel ensued. The U Boat was so close that the destroyer’s main guns could not be depressed enough to fire. However, both captains engaged their vessels in an intense exchange of their secondary armament. The youngest aboard, Ordinary Seaman Kenneth Watson, was killed as he crossed an open deck carrying a shell to the guns. Assiniboine’s bridge was riddled by gunfire, and separate fires were raging in several places when she managed to fire a round from her main guns which struck the U Boat’s conning tower, killing the captain. This gave LCdr John Stubbs, Assiniboine’s commanding officer, an opportunity to ram as the U Boat was attempting to crash-dive. The U Boat was heavily damaged, but still making about ten knots and firing machine guns and its 40 mm multiple gun. Stubbs rammed again, dropped depth charges, and fired the ship’s after guns all at the same time, whereupon U 210 went down with all hands.
September 20th, 1943
The wolf-pack “Leuthen” of 20 submarines attacked convoys ONS-18 and ON-202 at mid-Atlantic. In engaging U Boat contacts, HMCS St. Croix was struck twice by new acoustic torpedoes fired by U 305. Before leaving his sinking ship, LCdr Dobson signalled “Am leaving the office” to the escort group commander. Survivors were taken aboard HMS Itchen, which was herself torpedoed the following night. All of the survivors from St. Croix, save one, were lost.
March 6th, 1944
The corvette HMCS Chilliwack escorting convoy HX-280 made contact with and engaged in a 32-hour hunt for U 744, several hundred miles west of Ireland. After heavy depth-charge attacks, the submarine was forced to the surface and scuttled by its crew. A boarding party from Chilliwack managed to retrieve much valuable information from U 744 before it sank.