The Battle of the Atlantic
"Open hostilities with England at
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
HMCS SAGUENAY survived both a torpedoing
by an Italian submarine in 1940 and a collision with a merchantman
off Cape Race in 1942. In the collision her depth charges were
set off, and most of her stern was blown away. After this, she
could never be repaired well enough for sea duty, and she spent
the rest of the war as a training ship at Cornwallis, NS.
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
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
HMCS ST. CROIX returns to Halifax, damaged
after encountering a hurricane. (December 1941)
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.
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.
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.
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.
HMCS CHILLIWACK's boat crew boards U744
in the North Atlantic. Forty men of her
crew of 51 were taken prisoner.
- The Naval Museum of Manitoba - 1 Navy Way - Winnipeg Manitoba
- R3C 4J7