Battle of the Atlantic
Courtesy of: Veterans Affairs Canada
From the very outset of hostilities, Britain faced a second threat to her survival. This menace came from the sea as Germany was determined to starve the British people into submission by destroying their sea communications and cutting them off from overseas supplies. Gaining control of the entire coast of Europe from Narvik to the Pyrenees, the Germans set out from every harbour and airfield in western Europe to cut the lifelines to Britain.
For six long years the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was one of the principal contenders in what was to be known as the Battle of the Atlantic. Beginning the war with a mere 13 vessels and 3,000 men, the RCN ended it with 373 fighting ships and over 90,000 men. In the crisis of 1940, when German armies were marching into France, four destroyers of the RCN were sent to the English Channel where they provided aid in the evacuation of forces, landed military troops, and carried out demolitions. After the fall of France the Canadian destroyers joined the Royal Navy in the struggle to protect the southwestern approaches to Britain where German submarines vigorously pressed their attacks. By July 1940 all ocean shipping had to be re-routed around the north of Ireland and through the Irish Sea.
Even this route was seriously threatened and the Canadian ships in British waters strove to fend off submarine attacks while rescuing survivors of torpedoed merchant ships. At the end of 1940, in an agreement between Great Britain and the United States, 50 old American destroyers were transferred to the Royal Navy. Canada acquired six of them. This made it possible to augment the Canadian contribution in British waters and, by February 1941, there were ten RCN destroyers working with the Home Fleet.
Although the Royal Navy was able to assert its superiority over the German surface fleet, the menace from German U-boats (Unterseebooten) mounted. More and more German submarines joined the packs hunting at sea. By the spring of 1941, they were sinking merchant ships faster than they could be replaced.
Bridging the Atlantic was the key to strategic supply. To transport as much as possible - goods and men - it was necessary to organize and control ship movements and protect ships from enemy attack. Therefore, convoys were formed to regulate ship movements and more effectively provide escorts both by sea and air.
It was in maintaining the Atlantic lifeline through convoy protection that Canadian seamen and airmen played an increasingly vital role. The first convoy sailed from Halifax on September 16, 1939, escorted by the Canadian destroyers St. Laurent and Saguenay until well out in the open Atlantic where they relinquished the convoy to British cruisers. For many months - until new ships were launched - escort was the task. It was onerous and dangerous work and Canadians shared in the worst hardships experienced in the war at sea. Navigation in the North Atlantic was hazardous in the extreme, and men died not only from enemy attack, but from exposure and accidents in the fog and winter gales.
Nor was protection sufficient to prevent heavy losses. There were too few naval vessels and maritime patrol aircraft available, and a severe lack of technical modernization, and training.
German submarines concentrated at weak points in the naval defences of the Allies, and began attacking merchant ships much farther west with new long-range submarines and from new bases in the Bay of Biscay. Ships were lost because their escorts had reached the limits of their endurance and had to turn back. As spring 1941 approached, the enemy stepped up the scale of attack and shipping losses reached grave proportions. In June alone, over 500,000 tons of shipping was lost to U-boats.
To counteract this menace new types of vessels were constructed and scientists worked desperately to design new methods of locating and destroying the submarine. Canada's fleet was augmented by several new types of vessels of which the corvette was perhaps the most famous. Designed on the pattern of a whaler, it could be produced quickly and cheaply and had the ability to outmanoeuvre a submarine as well as long endurance. However, corvettes were known as "wet ships." As the seas broke over them, salty water seeped through seams, hatches and ventilators. They were intolerably crowded and living conditions on board for a crew of some 60 men were terrible. Nevertheless, these small ships, the first 14 of which were completed by the end of 1940, were invaluable in the anti-U-boat war.
As enemy U-boats began to probe farther west, the British countered by establishing new bases for ships and aircraft in Iceland and Newfoundland. The Newfoundland bases were made a Canadian responsibility. On May 31, 1941, Commodore L. W. Murray, RCN, was appointed commander of the Newfoundland Escort Force, later the Mid-Ocean Escort Force, reporting to the British Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches. A few days later the first Canadian corvettes joined his command. In June Canadian destroyers in British home waters returned to serve with the Newfoundland force. By July the Newfoundland Escort Force totalled 12 groups, and was escorting convoys as far as 35 degrees west.
The RCAF, meanwhile, had been flying patrols from Newfoundland since 1939 and the first maritime patrol squadron had been stationed at Gander since 1940. It now provided air support to the Newfoundland Escort Force. In the eastern Atlantic the convoys were guarded by the RAF Coastal Command which included RCAF squadrons. Thus flying from both sides of the Atlantic and from Iceland, aircraft patrolled the entire route except for a gap of about 300 miles in mid-ocean.
The sea battle raged on. New construction could not keep pace with shipping losses, escorts were nearly always outnumbered by the wolf-pack concentrations of U-boats and it became evident that the war could well be lost at sea.
Meanwhile, although officially neutral, the United States had become increasingly involved in the war at sea. In September 1941 Canadian naval forces came under American co-coordinating supervision. This arrangement replaced control by the British Commander-in-Chief, based in England, with an American commander who would be much closer to the situation. However, when the United States officially entered the war in December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many of the American ships were withdrawn to the Pacific to meet the new threat. This, unfortunately, weakened the Atlantic anti-submarine defences.
Early in 1942 the battle of the Atlantic shifted to the North American seaboard. The enemy destroyed coastal shipping from the Caribbean to Halifax, and even penetrated the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The German attacks were devastatingly successful and more than 200 ships, mostly tankers, were sunk within ten miles of the Canadian or American coastlines. The benefits of convoys were acknowledged by U.S. naval authorities and Canada's small and already over-burdened fleet was called upon to protect southward-bound shipping. The Canadian naval service, with 188 warships and 16,000 men serving at sea, now provided nearly half the surface escorts for convoys from North America to Britain. The RCAF, with eight maritime patrol squadrons and 78 aircraft on the Atlantic seaboard, carried out increased air surveillance of the Northwest Atlantic.
Support for convoys remained insufficient for the task. The winter of 1942-43 was desperate. Free to operate from bases in the Bay of Biscay, German submarine strength grew and attacks increased. While Canadian ships were able to register four victories in the summer of 1942, nothing that winter could curb the staggering loss of convoy tonnage.
Canadians were acutely aware of serious problems in their operations. Their ships and equipment were inadequate to meet the challenge. Aircraft had proven very valuable in combating submarines, but the RCAF squadrons in Eastern Air Command had no long-range aircraft. The result was that U-boats could attack in relative freedom in the gap in mid-Atlantic known as the Black Pit. Further, although there were very few American ships in the Atlantic the Newfoundland Escort Force remained under American command.
The grim state of the Atlantic war led to an Atlantic Convoy Conference in March 1943 with British, American and Canadian participation. It was agreed that Britain and Canada would share responsibility for the North Atlantic. Rear Admiral Murray was given direct command of that sector of the Atlantic bounded by a line running eastward from New York and southward from Greenland along the meridian of 47 degrees west. The appointment of a Canadian to this key post of Commander-in-Chief, Canadian Northwest Atlantic, illustrated dramatically the increased role and stature of the RCN. In a world divided into operational sectors, Murray became the sole Canadian to bear such responsibilities.
Training, air cover and better equipment turned the tide of the convoy war in 1943. In May the RCAF acquired from Britain some of the long-range Liberator bombers it needed to cover the mid-ocean gap and new escort vessels with modernized equipment allowed the formation of powerful support groups. This, plus improved training, enabled the Allies to take the lead in the Atlantic.
The Atlantic battle continued until the end of the war. At times, notably in the fall of 1943 and of 1944, it turned dangerous again. U-boats with new equipment such as the acoustic torpedo and the schnorkel, which allowed air to be drawn into a submarine under the water and exhaust fumes to be expelled, swung the balance back to the submarines for a time. By March 1945, the German navy had 463 U-boats on patrol, compared to 27 in 1939.
Yet, between them, the RCAF and the RCN had turned the tide in their sector of the Atlantic. More and more Canadian seamen were crossing the Atlantic to engage in battle closer to the enemy. As they returned to British waters, men of both the Canadian services showed the benefits of training and hard experience.