World War II Country Trends: Canada--The Royal Canadian Navy


Figure 1.--Canadian waters were a major marshelling point for the Atlantic convoys. U-boat Captain Hartwing of the U-517 preparing to return to his base at Lorient in occupied France fired a torpedo at the Canadian merchant ship "Meadcliffe Hall" (September 8, 1942). Hartwing missed and the torpedo ran up on the beach of the little village of Cap St-Yvon. Here is the torpedo with villagers and military personnel. A boy 7 or 8 years old looks more interested in the photographer than the torpedo. Because school was just beginning, the boy wear a white shirt, short pants with braces (called "police suspenders"), long stockings, and a suitavly military cap. A reader writes, "I remember seeing boys dressed just like this in Quebec even as late as the 1950s--but without the military cap of course. So I think this boy's clothes are very typical of Quebec in the pre-War, War, and post-War years. The stockings are obviously beige--the dominant color in the 40s and 50s.

Among the unsung heros of World War II are the men and women of the Royal Cnadian Navy. Canadian ports and the initially small Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) played an important role in the crucial Battle of the Atlantic. This was for the Western Allies the key battle of World War II. Had the Allies not won the Battle of the Atantic, none of the other campaigns in Europe would have been possible and Britain would have been lost. Canada at the onset of the war virtually did not have a navy. The Royal Canadian Navy had only about 10 small vessels (six serviceable destroyers and four minesweepers). So the Canadins setout to build a navy virtually from scrtch.. The Royal Canadian Navy was eventually expanded to nearly 400 warships--mostly escort vessels. The Royal Canadian Navt became one of the world's largest naval forces. It expanded to 365 ships and 100,000 men and women. Many of the new ships were corvettes, small escort vessels which could be built rapidly in Canadian shipyards. Men who went to sea in the vessels were taking on a daunting task. Because the Corvettes were so small and light they were totally at the mercy of the seas. Any bad weather would have these ships bouncing and twisting in every direction. The RCN primary task was to escort the convoys to Britain, but a fews vessels were deployed in the Mediterranean. The Atlantic convoys before America entered the War were formed up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At first periously few escorts were available. This was the job that the RCN would eventually take on. The RCN was also involved in escorting the Arctic Convoys to deliver war material to the Soviet Union after the NAZI invasion (June 1941). Keeping the Atlantic sea lanes open to Britain meant that Canadian industrial and agricultural production and raw materials could sustain the British and eventually Allied war effort. The RCN was also involved in the D-Day landings (June 1944) and against Japan in the Pacific. Over the course of the War, the RCN suffered the loss of 24 ships, primarily in the North Atlantic.

Unsung Heroes

Among the unsung heros of World War II are the men and women of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). Many World war II histories, especilly the mass media treatment of thewar do not even mention The Royal Canadian Navy. Canadian ports and the initially small Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) played an important role in the crucial Battle of the Atlantic.

Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic was for the Western Allies the key battle of World War II. Had the Allies not won the Battle of the Atantic, none of the other campaigns in Europe would have been possible and Britain would have been lost. Britain could not survive if the sealabeswere closed off by the U-boats. Prime Minister Churchill wrote after the War that the U-boats were the one German threat that really shook him. It is amazing that a small country which began the war virtually without a navy or aarge number of trained sailors would play a crucial role in the outcome of this pivotal battle.

Building a Navy

Canada at the onset of the war virtually did not have a navy. The Royal Canadian Navy had only about 10 small vessels (six serviceable destroyers and four minesweepers). So the Canadins setout to build a navy virtually from scratch. The Royal Canadian Navy was eventually expanded to nearly 400 warships--mostly escort vessels (corvettes and frigtes). The Royal Canadian Navy became one of the world's largest naval forces. It expanded to 365 ships and 100,000 men and women. Most of these vessels were corvettes built in Canadian shipyards. All the Canadian escort vessels (frigate, minesweeper and corvettes) were built in Canada. The Canadians even supplied 10 corvettes to the U.S. Navy. The Flower Class corvettes were not designed for operation on the High Seas. But they were what could be built rapidly and in large numbers. Typically they could be launced 4 months after being laid down. Most were built in 1939-41 and thus in operation by 1941 when the Germans bgan deploying larger numbers of U-boats and had the advatage of the French ports. Th Canadians had some larger vessels. There were some larger vessels. The large vessels were transferred or purchased from the UUnited States or Britain. The Canadianx go several of the American destroyers in the Destroyers for Bases Agreement (1941). The largest vessels were the light cruisers HMCS Uganda and HMCS Ontario. By the climatic point in the Battle of the Atlantic (mid-1943), the RCN was the primary navy in the northwest sector of the Atlantic Ocean. It was commanded by Rear Admiral Murray. The Canadian were responsible for the escort of innumerable convoys and the destruction of substantial numbers of U-boats. The Northwest Atlantic Theatre was the only theatre not under command of either a British or American admiral during the War.

The Corvette

Most of the Canadian ships were British designed Flower-class corvettes. These were small escort vessels which could be built rapidly in Canadian merchant shipyards. Given their small size, they could be built in very basic shipyards and new shipyards for such small vessels could be set up very rapidly. In addition, availavle triple expansion engines could be used. This meant that they could be built without the turbine engine and reduction gears that wee critically needed for the production of larger naval vessels. At first they were not very effective in sinking submerged U-boats, heredestroyers were needed. Destroyers were critically needed fir fleetoperation. The corvettes at least prevented surface attacks, at least during the day. This made the U-boats use their precious torpedoes or delay attacks during the night when it was more difficult to find targets. The corvettes also forced the Germans to spend more time sumerged where they moved slower. As the Battle of the Atlantic progressed, the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy developed increasingly effective ordinance, equipment, and tactics that made the corvettes more effective subkillers, like hedge hogs, better depth charges, radar, improved sonar, and better convoy procedures. Much of the ordinance here was the advanced secret technology Britain provided the still-neutral United States in 1940. Britain fighting for its life did not have the industrial capacity to perfect and mass produce the weaponry--America did. The corvette crews also acquired the experience they lacked at the beginning of the war. All of this of course was aided by Ultra and the cracking of the German naval Enigma. During 1943, U-boat kills shifted from escort ships to aircraft with increasing closing of the North Atlantic Gap. It was the corvettes, however, that fought off the U-boats in the critical first 4 years of the war (1939-mid-43).

Canadian Sailors

Canada not only had to build a fleet of escorts very rapidly, they had to recruit and train officers and crews just as rapidly. This mean large numbers of men who not only never gone to sea before, but had never even seen an ocean. There were experienced seamen in the Maritime Provinces, but these provinces were rather small. Most Canadians lived in Quebec, Ontario, and theOrarie orivinces, substantial distances from the ocean. The RCN understandably showed inexperience during the early part of the War. Crews and officers had only baic training and little experience. The Germans thanks to Admiral Dönitz were much better prepared. Thankffully he had only a few U-boats at the onset of the war. This gave the Canadians time to gain experience. They would eventually exceed the expectations of their Allies and surprise the Germans who were primarily expecting to fight the British. The men who went to sea in a corvette were taking on a daunting task. Because the Corvettes were so small and light they were totally at the mercy of the seas. Any bad weather would have these ships bouncing and twisting in every direction. Sea sickness became an enormous problem and was nuch more severe for men on the corvettes than the larger naval ships, even destoyers. Large numbers of men would have been incapitated. A stoker named Mahoney on the corvette Matapedia actually helped win the Battle of the Atlantic. He joined the crew (December 1941) and was so debilitated that when they reached Iceland the captin sent him to see aicor who conclude that Mahoney was pefectly healthy and would soon get his sea legs. On e the trip back to Nova Scotia Monhoney did not and was sent to the base doctor doctor with the same disgnosis. The captain was astute enough to go over their heads to Rear Admiral George Jones, the Commanding Officer, Atlantic Coast. Admiral Jones realized that the base had plenty of doctors, none has served at sea. He ordered them to go out on a minesweeper for a short mission. This resulted in a change of attitude and an effort to study the problem resulted. Drs. Charles Best and Wilder Penfield, both very well known Canadian doctors came up with Pill 2-183 made from a mixture of several different acids that effectively blocked the sensation of Chronic Seasickness. asaesult thousabds of men were able to seve on the corvettes who othwise would have been incapacitated. [Rhodes]

Tasks

The RCN played a very limited role in World War I. It was primarily the Royal Navy tht kept the sea lnes open nd defeated the U-boats. The RCN primary task was to escort the convoys to Britain, but a fews vessels were deployed in the Mediterranean. The Canadians were expected to take in the U-boats, not fight the capital ships of the German surface fleet. They were tasked with esorting theatlantic cinvoys. Unlike wirld war I, the British began convoys very quickly after the outbreak of the War. The British thought they had the ability to sinl U-boats with Workd War I technology. They proved very war and early in the war, few escorts were available for the convoys. The RCN was also involved in escorting the Arctic Convoys to deliver war material to the Soviet Union after the NAZI invasion (June 1941). The RCN was also involved in the D-Day landings (June 1944) and against Japan in the Pacific.

The Atlantic Convoys

The Atlantic convoys before America entered the War were formed up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At first periously few escorts were available. This was the job that the RCN would eventually take on. Keeping the Atlantic sea lanes open to Britain meant that Canadian industrial and agricultural production and raw materials could sustain the British and eventually Allied war effort.

Acievements

RCN ships (either alone or in cooperatiin with other ships and planes) sank a total of 27 U-boats as well as sinking or capturing 42 Axis surface ships. [Schull] Even more importantly were the more than 25,000 merchant ships carrying 182,000 tons of cargo and a significant proportion of the Canadian and American fighting men who joined the British to defeat the NAZIs.

Losses

Over the course of the War, the RCN suffered the loss of 24 ships, primarily in the North Atlantic escort and coastal protection duties. The first ship lost was he destroyer HNCS Fraser sunk as a result of a collision while evacuating refugees from France (June 1940). HMCS Louisburg and Weyburn were sunk in in the Mediterranean supporting Operation Torch (November 1942). HMCS Athabaskan, Regina, Alberni and Trentonian were lost supporting Operation Neptune (the D-Day landings) and cross-Channel escort duty after D-Day (June 1944). The RCN lost eight protecting Canadian coastal waters, meaning primarily clearing mines laid by the German U-boats. The losses included the minesweepers Bras d'Or, Chedabucto, Clayoquot and Esquimalt; armed yachts Otter and Raccoon, and corvettes Charlottetown and Shawinigan. Nine ships were lost on Atlantic escort dutyGuysborough, Levis, Margaree, Ottawa, Spikenard, St. Croix, Skeena, Valleyfield, and Windflower, These were ships on loan fron the Royal Navy with Canadian crews. Th RCN lost 1,797 seamen wkith 95 men taken as POWs.

The Pacific

The German U-boat menace was largely defeated in 1943. After mid-1943, the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy began taking the offensive with Hunter-Killer Groups. The Canadian focus continued to be on the Atlantic until after D-Day. Than the focus began to shit to the Pacific. Some RCN ships were deployed with the British Pacific Fleet, joining the many Canadian personnel already serving with the Royal Navy in the Pacific War (late-1944). At the same time, the RCN was planing to expand its capabilities beyond an anti-submarine focus. The war in the Pacific was expected to last into 1946 and take an invasion of the Home Uslands to defeat the Japanese. A change in the Cndian Navy woukd be required to support the invasion.

Sources

Rhodes, John. Secrets and Stories of the War (1963).

Schull, Joseph. Far Distant Ships: An Official Account of Canadian Naval Operations in World War II (King's Printer, Ottawa: 1952). Reprinted by Stoddart Publishing, Toronto, 1987.







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Created: 6:22 AM 2/3/2006
Last updated: 6:33 AM 12/23/2015