DISCLAIMER: The vast majority of this information is either directly quoted from the sources below or only slightly changed. Very little of it is my original thoughts, save a paragraph here or there. I attribute the following completely to my sources and make no claims otherwise. If so desired I will remove this content from the website without hesitation if asked to do so by TIMEGHOST or by any of the original copyright holders. My intent is purely the sharing of historical knowledge regarding Canada and the Battle of the Atlantic.
“The Far Distant Ships” by Joseph Schull, ISBN-10 0773721606 (An official operational account published in 1950, somewhat sensationalist)
“North Atlantic Run” by Marc Milner, ISBN-10 0802025447 (Written in an attempt to give a more strategic view of Canada’s contribution than Joseph Schull’s work, published 1985)
“Reader’s Digest: The Canadians At War: Volumes 1 & 2” ISBN-10 0888501617 (A compilation of articles ranging from personal stories to overviews of Canadian involvement in a particular campaign. Contains excerpts from a number of more obscure Canadian books written after the war, published 1969)
All photos used exist in the Public Domain and are from the National Archives of Canada.
Pre-War and the Last War
The Royal Canadian Navy was founded in 1910 under the Naval Service Bill re-introduced by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier (its first attempt at approval under George Foster in 1909 had failed), creating the Naval Service of Canada. A distinct Naval force for the Dominion of Canada that whilst maintained and manned by Canadians, could be placed under British control if needs be. Granted ex-royal navy vessels for the purposes of training, an election of a new government (which had opposed the original bill) in 1911 left the new service in limbo. Nevertheless, between the two ex-royal navy vessels, two submarines purchased from the US, and two government patrol vessels pressed into military service the RCN spent the early years of World War 1 patrolling the east and west coasts of North America and sometimes as far south as Panama to deter the German Naval threat. As said threat slowly evaporated, the Canadian Navy’s patrols became less frequent.
(HMCS Rainbow, the first vessel inducted into the RCN, North Vancouver, 1910)
The First World War saw the modest beginnings of the Canadian Navy do little more than this, although it should be pointed out that many more Canadians chose to serve in the Royal Navy than the Canadian one, some as officers.
The inter-war years saw very little growth for the RCN. The post-war drawdown naturally occured, and by 1922 the service had only 366 men and haid paid off their only remaining cruiser. The Naval volunteer reserve was firmly established in Canadian cities across the country (and numbered around 1000 men) but the Navy itself only kept two Destroyers donated by the Royal Navy in service, until these were replaced by two more destroyers in the late 1920s (once again, ex-RN). 1931 saw a major facelift with the first ships built specifically for the Canadians introduced. HMCS Skeena and HMCS Saguenay. The early 1930s saw the Navy along with the other Canadian service branches almost completely starved of funding, although by the late 30s, escalating world tension convinced the Canadian government to slowly begin rebuilding. Two more destroyers were purchased from the Royal Navy in 1937 (HMCS Fraser and HMCS St Laurent) and then two more in 1938(HMCS Ottawa and HMCS Restigouche), In January of 1939 the government, reacting to the Munich crisis, announced its intentions to proceed with building a fleet capable defending Canada’s two coasts. The expansion plan, when completed, would give the RCN a strength of eighteen modern destroyers, sixteen minesweepers, and eight Anti-Submarine vessels, the numbers split evenly between Pacific and Atlantic commands, and a flotilla of eight motor torpedo boats for the east coast. Little came of this plan before war broke out. In fact, by May the government had sharply cut the estimates. The 1939 building program was scrapped, and there was just enough money left to acquire the necessary plans. It is significant that the RCNs expansion plans were laid down in the last days of peace. Later developments would thrust a new form of expansion on the RCN, one more easily attainable in wartime than a fleet of destroyers, yet one which did not conform to the long-term goals of the professional navy. Thus, by the outbreak of The Second World War in September 1939, the RCN consisted of six River-Class destroyers, five minesweepers, and two small Training vessels.
(HMCS Vancouver anchored off San Diego in 1929)
The January 1939 expansion plan belied the fact that the RCN was a traditional, gun oriented navy. The experiences of the First World War and technological developments since had confirmed the sanctity of the gun as the pre-eminent naval weapon. Admittedly, the threat from Germany’s U-boats in 1917 had been grave. But her indiscriminate use of the submarine had been a factor in the US entering the war on the side of the Allies. It was felt that in future no nation would risk the sanction of a world coalition by resorting to “piracy” on the high seas. But even if Germany, or any other nation, turned once again to unrestricted submarine warfare on merchant shipping, the means of defeating the threat was already in service with Commonwealth navies- convoys and ASDIC.
During the First World War, before the adoption of the convoy system, German U-Boats preferred to use their deck guns to destroy lone merchant vessels, using their precious torpedoes sparingly. With the introduction of the Convoy system, the days of easy targets vanished and the proximity of naval escort forced the U-Boat either fight an unequal surface battle or to operate submerged. As a consequence, the convoy system made the oceanic routes “safe”, but this success in defeating the submarine menace was partly illusory. Ships continued to sail independently and unescorted to and from convoy-assembly ports in Great Britain, and the U-Boats resorted to submerged tactics inshore. Although Britain was never again threatened with defeat, losses to shipping from U-Boats remained high for the balance of the war largely because of the immunity of a submerged submarine.
With the U-Boats relegated to nuisance status through the use of convoy, their final telling defeat simply awaited the perfection of a reliable underwater-detection device. The Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee was established in 1918 to resolve this problem, but it was not until the early twenties that an effective underwater sound locating and ranging set (SONAR) was in use. ASDIC, as the British called the device, was to spell the doom of the submarine. As late as 1936 the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Admiral A.E.M. Chatfield, claimed that the RN’s Anti submarine measures were 80% effective. With location no longer a problem, it was believed that Destruction of a submarine by a few well placed depth charges would follow with equal certainty.
If anything, Canadian planners were absorbed by the unknown dangers of air attack on trade and by the very real threat of powerful enemy surface raiders. Both of these also presented Canada with the only real threat of direct enemy action. The RCN was therefore charged with defence against surface and air attacks on Canada and on trade in adjacent waters - the two were really inseparable. The “forms and scales of attack to which Canada would be subject,” as anticipated in 1939, reflected the preoccupation with surface and air threats. Bombardment by a single battleship and/or one or two large cruisers, by armed merchant cruisers (AMCs), or even by heavily gunned submarines was felt likely. Attacks could also be expected in the form of Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) launched from larger ships, mines, small assault parties, or aircraft carrying torpedoes, bombs, or gas. Indeed, it was thought that aircraft launched from remote points along the Canadian coast might penetrate as far inland as Toronto. Certainly, the major coastal centres were in danger of quick and unexpected raids. The expansion plan of January 1939 was naturally intended to counter these perceived threats. To make good its intentions, the navy hoped to acquire the most powerful destroyers then available to them, the Tribal-class. The Tribal’s high speed and heavy armament (eight 4.7-inch guns and four torpedo tubes) made it a veritable “pocket cruiser”, and several acting in concert posed a credible threat to a lone battleship. Not surprisingly, the RCN would pursue its intention to acquire Tribals throughout the entirety of the war, eventually absorbing dockyard space, resources, and trained manpower which could have been better used to maintain the escort fleet.
On the eve of the Second World War the submarine was therefore considered by the RN to be a manageable problem. The same held true in the RCN. In a pre-war analysis of the threats to trade and possible countermeasures, Commodore Nelles summarized Canadian reaction to the submarine in two brief paragraphs:
“If international law is complied with, Submarine attack should not prove serious. If unrestricted warfare is again resorted to, the means of combating Submarines are considered to have so advanced that by employing a system of of convoy and utilizing Air Forces, losses of Submarines would be very heavy and might compel the enemy to give up this form of attack.”
( Canadian Radar operators manning a 285 gunnery radar)
Nelles went on to point out that the RCN would provide anti-submarine equipment and mines “for prosecution of offensive measures against submarine attack.” His choice of words illustrates clearly the thinking of naval contemporaries on how best to deal with submarines - offensive action. The countermeasures outlined by the CNS indicated that some lessons had been drawn from the previous war, and in the long term the combination of convoy, air power, and aggressive anti-submarine warfare proved more than a match for the U-boats. Unfortunately, Britain and her allies lacked the necessary means for a very long time, and the resilience of modern submarines proved a surprise to virtually everyone.
(Chief Petty Officer Lowther delivering a lecture about various types of ammunition, Royal Canadian Navy Gunnery School, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1940)
The Early Months
On August 26, just a few days before the official outbreak of war, a single word admiralty telegram was received in Ottawa from London: FUNNEL. With that message all british merchant vessels passed under admiralty control. The same transfer took place in Canada on the same day. No Canadian-registered ship, no merchant ship in any Canadian port could sail without the authority of the Royal Canadian Navy. Naval control officers faced an enormous task. All British merchant vessels in North American waters would have to be gathered in from the wide face of the sea, assembled, bunkered, stored, provided codes and orders. Vessels of every type would have to be formed into orderly fleets, sailed at precise times and by dictated routes with the precisions of a crack-railway, all in absolute secrecy. Halifax stirred once again with the grim vitality of a key port in a world at war. Ships put in, their schedules interrupted, their captains angry, demanding explanations they didn’t get. Painting parties descended to defile clean white ships with the dun gray of military vessels. Old naval guns were mounted on merchantmen and a few ships were issued machine guns.
(Ratings mustered along the starboard side of H.M.C.S. ASSINIBOINE at sea, ca. September 1940)
On August 31st Fraser and St. Laurent were re-deployed to the east coast from the west coast.
On September 16th, six days after Canada declared war, the destroyers St. Laurent and Saguenay moved out through the Halifax approaches. Following behind were the 18 merchant ships of convoy HX-1, Halifax to the UK. Awaiting them offshore were the RN cruisers Berwick and York. The crossing was uneventful, but these 18 were the first of a grand total of 25,343 merchant vessels that would sail from North America under Canadian escort.
To briefly discuss the convoy system itself, it’s fairly simple. Merchant vessels sail in groups rather than on their own and are provided some form of escort to protect them from hostile vessels. Even lightly guarded convoys are immensely preferable to ships sailing on their own, reducing the width of the target area and forcing any potential attacker to weigh the risk of counter-attack by the escorts. The speedier the convoy, the better, but the limited speed of many of the merchant ships necessitated a system of fast and slow convoys with different starting points in the Americas, and different codes for identification. The merchant vessels are described by Alan Easton, Captain of HMCS Baddeck in his novel 50 North: Canada’s Atlantic Battleground
" We sailed to Sydney, N.S., topped up with fuel and stood out of the harbour to await the convoy. Many ships of many nations were lying at anchor in the fine land-locked harbour, the assembly port for the eastbound slow Atlantic convoys in those days. Off the harbour mouth. I examined the ships as they came out at intervals of three or four minutes. The more weatherbeaten and decrepit the ship, the more attractive to me; she had a story to tell and I could sometimes discern a part of it by just looking. The newest might have been 10 years old, the oldest perhaps 40 or 50. Some were built of iron, the inch-thick plating of the 1880s, before the days of steel. They were large and small, from about 900 tons to 9000. You could tell almost at a glance their nationality, or the country in which they were built, by the shape of their upperworks. They were all heavily laden, only a few were not down to their Plimsoll marks and some had little freeboard, perhaps four feet between the water and the well deck. The first ship moved slowly to allow the others to take their stations, so that the whole could form into three columns. When the commodore was satisfied that all were in place he ran up a flag hoist: the speed of the convoy was seven knots. When every ship had signified that she understood his signal, the commodore hauled his flags down and the engines of this heterogeneous collection of vessels simultaneously moved faster, although no increase in speed was perceptible to any onlooker."
The fast/slow system was implemented fairly early on, and by August 1940 slower convoys were more often being formed in Sydney, Nova Scotia, the faster convoys in Halifax. By 1941, fast convoys left every six days and made the crossing in around 13 to 14 days. Slow convoys left every six days as well, but took 16 to 17 days to cross. The size of the convoys varied. The largest convoy to ever make the crossing was HXS-300 consisting of 167 ships, but a good benchmark was 40 or so merchant vessels. These ships are positioned in a grid with nine columns, 920 metres apart, and in each column five ships, 550 metres apart. Ships carrying dangerous cargoes, such as gas, fuel, explosives are placed in the centre, the position that affords the most protection against enemy torpedoes. The convoy commodore, in most cases a retired naval officer, is on board one of the merchant ships to take defensive measures as required and ensure coordination with the escort.
The following system of codes was used for identification of trans-atlantic convoys
HX: Fast convoys (9 knots or over) sailing from Halifax (or later New York)
SC: Slow convoys (under 9 knots) sailing from Sydney, Halifax, or New York
ON: westbound convoys sailing from Great Britain to North America
ONS: slow westbound convoys sailing from Great Britain to North America
The following system of call letters was used for identification of coastal convoys
BX: Boston to Halifax
XB: Halifax to Boston
SQ: Sydney to Quebec City (via the St. Lawrence River)
QS: Quebec to Sydney
(A convoy forms in the Bedford Basin, Halifax Harbour, April 1st, 1942)
There was much debate among Canadian politicians as to the role Canada would play in the war in general. In the first few weeks, much debate was had as to which services would receive what money, and how they would be integrated into the allied war effort. Mackenzie King had somewhat sold the war to his people as being different from the last war. Finance Minister J. L. Ralston publicly envisaged a program that would be “practical rather than spectacular.” The Prime Minister spoke of protecting Canada by sending food and raw materials to britain and building a navy and air force and munitons industry, even the first musings of what would become the BCATP (though these early plans paled in comparison to what it would eventually become.) Canada would contribute vast amounts of resources to the allied cause, but there was not going to be a need for a large land army to fight and die in Europe.The Army was just as short of equipment as the navy was and the air force consisted of 3100 men and 270 mostly obsolete aircraft, with just 19 “modern” hurricanes. The old issue of conscription that had led to riots in Montreal in 1917 immediately reappeared, and an important provincial election in Quebec had been called within two weeks of the declaration of war in almost direct response to it. What soldiers Canada did have departed Halifax as part of convoy TC-1 in early December, and by the end of the month Canada had 15,000 men in England.
It is the opinion of my sources that the idea of a limited war were extremely favorable to the Navy and Air Force in the early months. Canadian naval vessels and aircraft fighting alongside the United Kingdom was seen as an appropriate contribution, whilst at the same time, seen as far less costly in terms of lives than a large expeditionary army, which King was steadfastly opposed to (fear of conscription crisis was ever present.) Canada’s merchant fleet was at England’s disposal without question, combined with the vast natural resources she could provide, quite nicely rounded out the “limited war” concept. Industrial military capacity was small, almost non-existent, and building ships, aircraft and munitions would help it grow.
Focusing specifically on the navy itself, what few ships it had were immediately deployed on patrols and put to work escorting coastal convoys within coastal waters, and trans-atlantic convoys to a handover point mid-voyage. The reserves were activated and sent to the coasts. In November all the Canadian destroyers were placed under the command of the Royal Navy’s North America and West Indies station (somewhat to the Government’s dismay although not the navy’s, most of the RCN officers had close peacetime ties to the British squadron and felt it was the natural choice. They had actually requested this at the start of the war and had been refused by the government, who wanted the ships kept close to home.)This placement also had the benefit of assuring the RCN that they would participate in the types of operations they had trained for; fleet work, or sweeps for surface raiders. October 1939 saw the purchase of a another destroyer, the Assiniboine. These seven River-class destroyers would form the backbone of the navy well into 1943. A modest attempt had been made in 1938 to give Canadian yards some experience building warships with a minesweeper program. Despite the dispersal of the contracts to both Atlantic and Pacific yards for four Fundy-class ships, the Canadian shipbuilding industry was unprepared for the demands wartime was to make of it.
As previously mentioned, in the government the navy actually had a friend in terms of expansion, as it discovered when planners began to submit estimates for expansion. As the late Admiral L.W. Murray, RCN (in September 1939 the director of Operations and Training), recalled, the navy was given a carte blanche to plan its growth over the succeeding four or five years. When in February 1940 Murray and the deputy minister presented the first wartime naval estimates before the Finance Committee of the cabinet, they passed despite a ‘fine-tooth comb’ inspection. The fact was that the navy’s expansion and its attendant shipbuilding programs suited the government just fine. The link between industrial and naval expansion also went deeper than simply the building of ships. In July 1940, the expansion of the navy was given impetus by the appointment of a seperate minister of Defence for the Naval Service. The prime minister chose Angus L. Macdonald, former premier of Nova Scotia. Although once rather uncharitably described as a ‘lightweight’, Macdonald was quite popular in his home province and a strong voice for Nova Scotia in Ottawa. Macdonald and two other prominent Nova Scotians, Colonel J.L.Ralston, the Minister of Defence, and J.L. Ilsley, the minister of national revenue, formed the right wing of King’s cabinet - What J.W. Dafoe called the ‘Tory Imperialists.’ All supported a full war effort, a position that would eventually lead to a bitter break between King and the two defence ministers over the issue of conscription (of course) in 1944. But aparat from Macdonald’s desire to see Canada fully represented at the front, he shared many of King’s beliefs, including the notion that the preservation of the free world depended upon the retention of power in Canada by the Liberal party.
Macdonald also believed that Canada could and should progress industrially from the war. Long a crusader for the reindustrialization of Nova Scotia, he saw an opportunity to funnel some of government investment into his own province. There was, moreover, a direct link between industrial growth and a large navy. "What use could it be to increase our agricultural production, or to put forth the magnificent industrial effort that we have,’ Macdonald asked in 1945, ‘unless this food and these munitions could be got safely across the sea?’ Although in the end he failed to restore the province to its past lustre, this was precisely the rationale used to justify building destroyers in Halifax during the war. In the most fundamental sense, then, the aspirations of the navy and the government coincided.
Whilst the operational side of the navy chafed at being limited to North American waters (for the time being), the shore side got on with the daunting work of expansion. The first task was to provide both personnel and ships for the system of defended ports. Acquisition of the ships was a somewhat manageable problem, though the results were unsatisfactory. By the end of 1939 the navy had been able to buy, beg, or borrow over sixty auxiliary vessels of all shapes and sizes. Enough to fill out the minesweeping, anti-submarine, and harbour duties of the defended ports. Many of the ships were unreliable or unsuitable for their assigned roles and therefore badly needed replacement. In fact, few were worthy of long-term service in any but the most menial tasks. Manning them was no issue. Most of them had been “borrowed” from other government services, and their crews came with them, enlisting in the RCN itself, the RCN reserve, or the Special Service. Retired officers of the Royal Navy living in Canada were welcomed to help fill the gaps that did exist. The final dispatch of pre-war reserve personnel occured on September 10th, exhausting the navy’s pre-trained personnel on the second day of Canada’s war. The first plan for mobilization was tabled on the 17th of September and called for an active strength of 5472 all ranks by the end of March 1940, rising to seven thousand by the same date in 1941. As with other personnel projections in the early months of the war, these estimates were based the needs of home defence and availability of ships. The RCN proved rather successful at cobbling together is auxiliary fleet, and the projections for March 1940 were surpassed far sooner then that.
Yet, despite this early tend towards rapid growth, expansion in 1939 and 1940 was choked by shortages of every conceivable type. Sailors went without proper naval uniforms because no one foresaw, at the end of 1939, that the navy’s strength would rise to ten thousand by September of 1940. Further, until 1943 the ‘key to expansion’ as the Naval staff like to call it, was the shortage of training staff, a shortfall which the RN was unable or unwilling to help alleviate. What the navy truly needed were skilled men: men whom they were losing in large numbers to the other two services, particularly the air force. For the RCN did not even have the necessary housing to take in the throngs of eager and qualified volunteers waiting to join up. The problem occasioned debate at the first Naval Staff meeting in January of 1940. The urgent need for temporary accommodation was stressed, ‘in order that recruiting programme could be proceeded with before the new rapidly expanding RCAF seized all the best, and particularly most skilled, men.’ The RCN also found that it had to lower the minimum age of entry from twenty-one to nineteen in order to counter the ravages of the air force on available manpower.
(Unidentified rating operating the training mechanism of a 4.7-inch gun, Royal Canadian Navy Gunnery School, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1940.)
Despite the struggle over manpower and the navy’s reluctance to expand too quickly, the growth of the navy soon acquired a snowball effect which it seemed incapable (or perhaps undesirous) of firmly controlling. At the end of 1939 the Naval Staff had anticipated a completed wartime strength (after three years) of 1500 officers and 15,000 ratings. This figure was reached and passed in half the time. But the really hectic pace of expansion did not begin until after the fall of France and Norway. Up to that point the RCN had planned a very deliberate and selective growth, as Vice-Admiral Nelles, Chief of the Naval Staff, explained to the minister of Defence, Norman Rogers, in January 1940.
“Rogers had broached the subject of giving preferences in the RCN Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) commissions to members of prominent yacht clubs. In an illuminating statement Nelles made it clear to the minister what roe 'Sunday Sailors” would play in Canada’s war at sea. ‘The RCN is in need of many men before this war is over,’ Nelles wrote, ‘but the types of ships suitable to Canadian service conditions [Tribal-class destroyers or small inshore-patrol ships] are more suited to the employment of professional seamen than of amateur small boat yachtsmen.’
The CNS’s comment was no idle remark on an easily dismissed subject. Earlier in the same day Nelles had received a memorandum from his director of Naval personnel, who, no doubt responding to the minister’s inquiry, refused to countenance the mythical value of ‘Sunday Sailors.’ Yachting, the DNP reported to his chief, had about as much to do with modern naval skills as flying a kite had to do with modern air operations. Nonetheless, in order to find employment for these eager warriors, Nelles informed Rogers that he was prepared to release fifty young yachtsmen to the RN ‘to serve in the more interesting appointments overseas and represent Canada at the scene of active operations.’ His words suggest clearly what Nelles and the navy felt of keeping the fleet in home waters. In terms of manpower this option offered an alternative to simply turning recruits away, and they would not be lost to Canada or the war effort. The loan scheme was approved, and it was initially decided to send all RCNVR recruits in excess of 4500 to serve in the RN. Though this plan was later drastically altered, the incident illustrates the selective nature of the navy’s expansion before the fall of Western Europe, the desire to participate in the ‘active’ theatre, and the problems inherent in trying to expand from too small a base.
Back at sea, the phony war was one of drudgery for the navy, aside from its participation in the capture of the SS Hannover in the Caribbean. Shuttling convoys back and forth between the defended ports of Canada to meeting points offshore, the odd troop transport across the ocean, coastal convoys between ports. All essential, but not the work the navy had been hoping for.
(A picture of S.S. Hannover, taken from HMCS Assiniboine , March 1940)
They got their wish soon enough. The phony war ended quite spectacularly in the spring of 1940,and a request was sent from London to Ottawa for “all available destroyers”, even as the BEF fought to disengage itself and form a secure position from which to evacuate. The cabinet eventually more or less agreed, even thought it meant virtually stripping Canada herself of naval defenses. The fall of France left some senior Canadian politicians, Mackenzie King among them, more concerned than ever for the vulnerability of Canada’s vast coastline. However, both the Canadian Chiefs of Staff and the British (including Churchill, by whose opinion King set great store), were able to convince him that Canada’s first line of defence was the English Channel. The navy mustered four destroyers for travel to Europe. Joseph Schull writes of their departure and first subsequent action in The Far Distant Ships:
"In Halifax, on the afternoon of May 24, Restigouche, Skeena and St. Laurent were preparing to go to sea on an unscheduled voyage. Leaves had been canceled, libertymen recalled. The messdeck buzz gave promise only of another local convoy run. But, in early evening, as the destroyers nosed out of the harbour, men on watch noticed that there was no convoy. The explanation came several hours later. The three ships were on their way to Britain, all assigned to Western Approaches Command. Assiniboine and Ottawa, in refit, would not be ready to go until mid-june. Saguenay could not make the crossing, she too badly needed refit. Fraser had been assigned to the Jamaica Force of the Royal Navy in March to conduct Caribbean patrols. En route to Bermuda, she was ordered to refuel there and immediately proceed to the United Kingdom. The first wartime passage of the three destroyers was uneventful but scarcely monotonous. By day and night the men went through intensive air raid and anti-submarine exercises. When they secured at Plymouth on June 1st the evacuation of Dunkirk was at its height. Fraser arrived two days later. The captains are reported to have been told by First Lord of the Admiralty A.V. Alexander: “You come at a time when destroyers are worth their weight in gold.”