Education

The Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945

Dispatches: Backgrounders in Canadian Military History

Dr. Roger Sarty

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest campaign of the Second World War and the most important. Canada was a major participant: this country’s enormous effort in the struggle was crucial to Allied victory. While the ships and personnel of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) operated across the globe during the war, they are best remembered for their deeds during the Battle of the Atlantic.

At stake was the survival of Great Britain and the liberation of western Europe from German occupation. Britain could be saved from starvation, and strengthened into the launching pad for the liberation of Europe, only by the delivery of supplies, troops, and equipment from Canada and the United States. Everything had to be carried in vulnerable merchant ships that faced a gauntlet of enemy naval forces. The friendly territory closest to Great Britain, Canada’s east coast and Newfoundland (which had not yet joined confederation) were in the front line of the Battle of the Atlantic. Canada’s navy and merchant marine, augmented by seamen from Newfoundland, played leading parts in the battle throughout the war.

When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, the German navy, which had prepositioned U-boats (submarines) and powerful surface warships in the Atlantic, began to attack British merchant ships. Halifax, the Atlantic base of Canada’s tiny navy, immediately became an indispensable Allied port from which to fight the Battle of the Atlantic. During the First World War, 1914 to 1918, the British had sent a strong force to Halifax for protection of Atlantic shipping, and in 1939 the same thing happened. Britain-bound merchant ships of many nationalities also came to Halifax, where Bedford Basin provided a magnificent secure anchorage in which ships could be organized into convoys which then set out under the protection of Allied warships. The convoy system had proven its worth during the First World War. HX-1, the first of the hundreds of convoys that would cross the Atlantic during the Second World War, sailed from Halifax on 16 September 1939.

Canada’s navy in September 1939 included only 3500 personnel, both regular force and reserve, and six ocean-going warships, the ‘River’ class destroyers His Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Fraser, Ottawa, Restigouche, Saguenay, St Laurent, and Skeena. A seventh ‘River,’ HMCS Assiniboine joined the fleet in October. All these ships were British built, Saguenay and Skeena according to special Canadian specifications. Destroyers were among the smallest full-fledged, ocean-going warships, but the ‘River’ class were thoroughly modern — fast and powerfully armed. In the early months of the war, the Canadian destroyers escorted the convoys, and also large Allied warships, within Canadian coastal waters.

Both British and Canadian authorities believed in 1939 that Canada’s navy could expand on only a modest scale, and mainly for operations along the North American seabord. In early 1940, the government placed orders for the construction of 92 small warships: 64 ‘corvettes’, depth-charge-armed anti-submarine escorts, and 28 ‘Bangor’ class minesweepers. These rather slow and simple vessels were all Canada’s limited shipbuilding industry could produce, but they were adequate to patrol the entrance to ports and along coastal routes, where enemy submarines could most readily find ships to attack.

The German offensives in the spring of 1940 that conquered most of western Europe, and Italy’s entry into the war at Germany’s side in June of that year, transformed the war, not least at sea. From bases in France and Norway, right on Britain’s doorstep, the German submarine fleet, augmented by submarines from Italy, Germany’s Axis partner, launched devastating attacks against the overseas shipping on which Britain now wholly depended for survival. Canada rushed four of the ‘River’ class destroyers to British waters, and these protected convoys off the western shores of the British Isles against intense attacks by enemy submarines and aircraft.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1940 the Canadian government embarked on full-scale naval expansion, laying down additional corvettes and Bangors as soon as the first ones were launched. Canada also began to produce merchant ships. The Royal Canadian Navy further assisted the short-handed Royal Navy by taking over seven of the fifty First World War-era destroyers the still-neutral United States made available to Britain. Canada, although its coasts were now almost unprotected, dispatched the four best of these old destroyers to British waters, together with the first ten corvettes to come from Canadian shipyards. It soon became clear that the old American ships and the new, only partly equipped, corvettes, crewed by former merchant seamen who had had only basic naval training and raw recruits, would need considerable work and time to become fully effective.

There was no time. By 1941, the Germans, encountering stronger defences in British waters, developed highly successful techniques for intercepting convoys at mid-ocean, where they were weakly escorted, if at all, and far from help. Air cover did not extend across the Atlantic, and the mid-ocean area beyond range of patrolling Allied aircraft became a killing ground for the U-boats. The submarines patrolled in long lines and, when one sighted a convoy, shadowed it, summoning the other submarines. They then attacked in a group – a ‘wolfpack’ – at night and on the surface, when their low proffles were nearly invisible to the escorting warships. The U-boats were much faster on the surface than underwater, and they were therefore able to move rapidly through a convoy, making multiple attacks, sometimes sinking with torpedoes three and four ships apiece.

In response to Britain’s call for help, Canada, starting in May 1941, took the lead in building a new naval base at St John’s, Newfoundland, and in supplying most of the warships that escorted convoys across the 3000 kilometres of ocean between Newfoundland and the British Isles. All of the Canadian warships that had been operating in British waters came to Newfoundland and, as additional corvettes were completed at Canadian shipyards, these, with incomplete equipment and virtually untrained crews, launched into the harrowing transatlantic escort mission. Small ships designed for calm coastal waters, with some crews unqualified even for that duty, had to face massed enemy attacks in some of the most stormy open ocean waters in the world.

The great demands on Canadian east coast ports increased rapidly. Growing numbers of ships flowed into the convoy system, and many of these were old vessels in need of constant repair and special services. These vessels had to be attended to even though Halifax, Sydney (since 1940 a major convoy port as busy as Halifax), Saint John, Pictou, and other smaller centres were already swamped with repair work for merchant vessels and warships that had been damaged by the enemy or by the heavy seas. All the while the Halifax base had the additional responsibility of equipping and crewing the scores of new Bangers and corvettes that arrived from builders along the St. Lawrence and on the Great Lakes. The old, cramped Royal Navy dockyard mushroomed with temporary buildings, and the navy took over adjacent army and municipal properties, which almost instantly became overcrowded as well.

At the end of 1941, senior officers warned that men and ships were being tested beyond their limits, with too little and inadequate equipment, insufficient training, and too little time to recover from the horrors they frequently witnessed as ships were blown apart and survivors froze to death within minutes in the frigid north Atlantic. Yet, the exhausted naval seamen and their little warships get no respite – only increased pressure. After the United States entered the war against the Axis powers following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the German navy initiated a major submarine offensive against the North American coast. As part of this offensive, early in January 1942 eight U-boats came in close to the shores of southern Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, torpedoing ships within a few kilometres of land. The quick, effective response of the RCN in organizing most coastal shipping into local convoys soon persuaded the Germans to concentrate against the less well defended US coast. Nevertheless, there were U-boats on station in Canadian and Newfoundland waters through much of 1942; these stayed hidden, dodged the Canadian defences, and sought targets of opportunity. They destroyed over 70 vessels, including 21 in the Gulf of St Lawrence, where deep, turbulent waters helped the submarines to escape detection.

The burden on the Canadian fleet became nearly unbearable. Because the United States, the source of much of the supplies for Britain, was now in the war, in the summer of 1942 the HX convoys shifted to New York. The United States Navy, however, was not yet in a position to defend these convoys, so Halifax-based Canadian warships shepherded them between New York and Newfoundland, and then brought westbound convoys from Newfoundland to New York. These tasks were in addition to the comprehensive network of coastal convoys between Canadian and northern US ports. At the same time, Canadian escort vessels still formed a major part of the mid-ocean force that took convoys between Newfoundland and British waters and, during the summer and autumn of 1942, these corvettes and destroyers faced a new German ‘wolfpack’ offensive that was stronger still than the assault in 1941.

Early in 1943, Britain withdrew Canada’s battered mid-ocean escort groups to British waters to free up crack British submarine-hunting ‘support’ groups to smash the wolfpacks. The RCN needed to upgrade its escort fleet with new detection and weapons technology, something the British had already done with most of their escorts. In fact, the Canadian groups had little chance for rest in British waters since they became heavily engaged on the United Kingdom-Gibraltar convoy run, before returning to the north Atlantic battle. This all-out British effort, with Canadian support, succeeded, and Admiral Karl Dönitz the German commander-in-chief of the U-boat fleet, pulled his forces out of the central north Atlantic in May 1943. Although this was a decisive turn in the war, the Germans still had over 200 U-boats available, and soon they were using new equipment and tactics to challenge Allied defences. The Allies, meanwhile, recognized Canada’s large and expanding contribution to the war at sea by making Canadian and Newfoundland waters a distinct theatre of operations under Canadian command. In place of the previous command exercised by an American admiral based in Newfoundland, Rear-Admiral L.W. Murray established the Canadian Northwest Atlantic headquarters at Halifax on 30 April 1943.

All of the warships and merchant ships Canada could produce were urgently needed to transport supplies to Britain for the final buildup of Allied forces for the invasion of Normandy, the beginning of the liberation of France and northwest Europe. As a testament to its much-improved effectiveness based on new equipment and ships (anti-submarine frigates, true ocean-keeping vessels based on the corvettes but considerably larger, joined the fleet in increasing numbers), during the first half of 1944 the RCN took over full responsibility for escorting north Atlantic convoys to Britain. The navy also sent large numbers of its best escorts, including the venerable ‘River’ class destroyers, into the English Channel to support the invasion, which took place on 6 June 1944. Over 100 RCN ships ranging from large destroyers to troop transports participated in the Normandy landings.

Although the U-boats had little success against the invasion fleet, they were able with new ‘snorkel’ breathing tubes, enabling the submarines to ‘breathe’ and cruise under water for weeks at a time, to press their offensive in the coastal waters of Britain and Canada right to the end of the war. Thus, the Canadian fleet was continuously and heavily engaged in Canadian and Newfoundland home waters, as well as in protecting the by-then enormous transatlantic convoys that fed supplies to the Allied armies in Europe. This was an essential military contribution to the Allied cause. Moreover, the navy maintained its commitments in British and European coastal waters and also escorted convoys to the Soviet Union along the treacherous and unforgiving Arctic route.

Despite the turn of the tide, the German submarine fleet continued to strike effectively. Indeed, during 1944 and 1945, the Canadian fleet took its heaviest losses in action against submarines using sophisticated evasion tactics and armed with powerful new types of torpedoes. Among the ships destroyed by snorkel-equipped U-boats were the corvette HMCS Shawinigan, which was lost with no survivors among its crew of 91, close off Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland on the night of 24 November 1944, the Bangor minesweeper HMCS Claycquot, in the near approaches to Halifax on Christmas Eve 1944, and HMCS Esquimalt another Bangor lost off Halifax, on 16 April 1945, only three weeks before Germany surrendered. Both Bangors sank with heavy loss of life, many of the sailors falling victim to the lethally cold waters off Nova Scotia.

By the last months of the war the RCN had grown to a strength of over 95,000 personnel, 6,000 of them members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, and the fleet committed to the Battle of the Atlantic included some 270 ocean escort warships. Canada possessed the third-largest navy in the world after the fleets of the United States and Britain. The most important measure of its success was the safe passage during the war of over 25,000 merchant ships under Canadian escort. These cargo vessels delivered nearly 165 million tons of supplies to Britain and to the Allied forces that liberated Europe. In the course of these operations the RCN sank, or shared in the destruction, of 31 enemy submarines. For its part, the RCN lost 14 warships to U-boat attacks and another eight ships to collisions and other accidents in the north Atlantic. Most of the 2000 members of the Royal Canadian Navy who lost their lives died in combat in the Atlantic. Proportionally, Canadian merchant seamen suffered much more heavily, losing one in ten killed among the 12,000 who served in Canadian and Allied merchant vessels.

Further reading:

  • Canadian War Museum, Democracy at War: Canadian Newspapers and the Second World War, The Battle of the Atlantic
  • Alan Easton, 50 North: An Atlantic Battleground, Toronto, Ryerson, 1963.
  • Michael Hadley, U-Boats Against Canada, Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985.
  • Marc Milner, North Atlantic Run: The Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle for the Convoys, University of Toronto Press, 1985.
  • Marc Milner, The U-Boat Hunters, University of Toronto Press, 1994.
  • Roger Sarty, Canada and the Battle of the Atlantic, Montreal, Art Global, 1998.
  • Joseph Schull, The Far Distant Ships, Ottawa, King’s Printer, 1950.
  • G.N. Tucker, The Naval Service of Canada, Volume II, Ottawa, King’s Printer, 1952.

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