HILLMAN WWII GALLERY
HMCS PRINCE ROBERT
CAUGHT IN THE NET III
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BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC
The Vancouver Sun, April 30, 1999, p. A13.
The battle raged for five years, on an ocean as pitiless as the enemy. It was desperate, and decisive. The Battle of the Atlantic turned the tide of the Second World War from imminent defeat to inevitable victory. And the valour of Canadian seamen was central to that triumph.
In the spring of 1940, Hitler’s armies overran Europe. Britain stood alone. Its survival depended on the Atlantic lifeline: the ships that brought to the island nation much of its raw materials, most of its food, and all of its oil. If enough of those ships could be sent to the bottom, the Germans calculated, a starving England would sue for peace and the war would be won.
Her new leader, Winston Churchill, was under no illusions: “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. … everything elsewhere depended on its outcome.”
With the fall of France, the Nazis gained valuable Atlantic ports for their most formidable weapon: the U-boat. In the second half of 1940, German submarines sank a quarter million tons of merchant shipping.
For Admiral Karl Dönitz and the men who crewed his fleet of a hundred U-boats, it was the ‘happy time’. In eight months, 400 merchant ships were torpedoed. Britain’s annual imports plunged from a prewar level of 55 million tons to 35 million tons by January 1941.
For the rest of the war, the two sides would be locked in a race to build ships and U-boats, and a remorseless struggle to sink them.
The Royal Canadian Navy began the conflict with a meagre force of six destroyers and five minesweepers. It would grow fifty-fold, to over 400 fighting ships manned by 100,000 officers and crew.
Three luxury liners were bought from C.N. Steamships and converted to armed merchant cruisers. The 6000-ton Prince Robert, armed with 6-inch guns dating from 1896, left her Vancouver shipyard in 1940, “in a very unready state”, according to her captain.
Requisitioned fishing boats swept coastal waters for mines, rather than cod. Canadian agents surreptitiously purchased yachts from owners in the still-neutral United States. Once in Canada, the yachts were refitted, armed with .303 machine guns, and assigned to coastal defence.
But the most pressing need was for escorts. On their own, the deep-laden and slow-moving supply ships were easy targets for the stealthy predators. The convoy system—up to 100 ships arrayed in columns, their perimeter patrolled by navy escort vessels—afforded them at least a fighting chance of surviving the two-week crossing.
Canadian shipyards worked feverishly to construct escorts. Fourteen small (950-ton), seaworthy corvettes slid down the ways in 1940. Depth-charges on their sterns were designed to rupture the hulls of submerged U-boats.
Ill-trained, ill-equipped, the Canadians grimly coped. But losses mounted: German U-boats, aircraft and warships claimed 1,299 ships in 1941.
The following year was even worse: nearly 8 million tons of merchant shipping, 1,664 vessels, were lost. Dönitz was achieving his goal: Allied ships were going to the bottom faster than they were being replaced.
By the fall of 1942, he had almost 300 U-boats. Concentrated in mid-Atlantic, beyond the range of Allied air cover, they stalked convoys in wolf-packs of 20 or more submarines. Strategists called the area the Greenland Air Gap. Sailors came to call it the Black Pit.
The randomness of a crew-assignment, sheer luck, inexplicable chance…any of these would determine whether a sailor survived the war or drowned.
Sidney Pegg was a 3rd Class Gun Layer aboard the destroyer HMCS Ottawa, one of the original six destroyers with which Canada went to war. Crews of 4 or 5 manned each of her three-inch guns. “As the Gun Layer, I adjusted the vertical aim,” Pegg related. “The Gun Trainer, to my left, moved the gun horizontally.
“In July 1942, half way across on a run from Londonderry to Newfoundland, five of us came down with the mumps. I spent the rest of the trip laid up in my ’mick. In St. John’s, they sent us to a civilian hospital, where I spent about a week. The Ottawa went off without us.
On September 13, in mid-Atlantic, a torpedo struck the Ottawa under her forward messdeck. The venerable warship came to rest on an even keel. Another escort, adjudging her not to be in mortal danger, peeled away to aid a stricken freighter, her survivors already in the sea.
The mortal blow for the Ottawa came minutes later: a second torpedo. It struck amidships, where laden lifeboats had been lowered into the sea. A seaman who had had his appendix removed the previous day was helped from the sickbay into a lifeboat, just before the torpedo obliterated it.
Pegg, who had been assigned to the minesweeper HMCS Malpeque, under Lt. W.R. Stacey, found out that the man who replaced him on the Ottawa “didn’t make it.”
Another who didn’t make it was the captain, Lieutenant-Commander C. A. Rutherford. He had given his life belt to a rating.
“We picked up the Saskatchewan on the Thames and took her up to Scapa Flow for her evolutions—training a new crew on a new ship.”
The North Atlantic could be a fearsome enemy in its own right. In the winter of 1942-1943, nearly a hundred ships went down in monstrous seas. Storms disabled a third of the Allied escorts. In March 1943, a ferocious gale wreaked havoc on two convoys. U-boats feasted on the dispersed vessels, sinking 22 of the 90 merchantmen and one escort.
The lucky ones ploughed on. Sailors stood watch through snow squalls and sub-zero temperatures. They scrambled across rolling, pitching decks, chipping away ice blocks whose accumulated weight could capsize a corvette. They snatched sleep when they could, on hammocks slung in cramped, reeking messdecks.
Pounding waves snuffed out galley stoves, forcing crews to subsist for days on corned beef and hard tack. Seasick prairie boys alternately prayed to live and yearned to die.
They were always wet, always cold. And always there was the knife-edge suspense: at any moment, the sighted periscope, the wail of action stations, the white wake of a torpedo across the bow, the fireball and blast of an exploding tanker, the distant cries of survivors in an oil-slicked, burning sea.
Don MacKechnie was a Coder aboard the frigate H.M.C.S. Grou. He remembered “hours of boredom followed by minutes of absolute terror. We could be at action stations for from half an hour to two days. Otherwise, we just tried to keep alert and keep food in our belly.” Up to a hundred men were “living in everybody else’s sweat”.
All that, HMCS Saint John’s Asdic Operator Bill Royds noted, “for a buck and a quarter a day”.
Art Roberts was a Petty Officer aboard the Flower class corvette HMCS Dundas. “In short foc’sle corvettes, ABs in the forward mess had to go outside and up three or four steps to the galley to fetch their food through a Dutch door. It was bumpy at the best of times. In dirty weather, you made a dash for the messdeck. The fried eggs would blow off your china plate if you didn’t cover it with another plate.”
“At the 0400 change of watch, I noticed the guy up in the crowsnest didn’t come down. There was no response when we called him. Bill Carey and I climbed up and found this big, husky farm boy from New Brunswick, passed out from the smoke of the funnel.
“Not wanting to report it, we fixed a rope under his arms and started to lower him down in the dead of night. As the ship rolled, he began to swing wider and wider. We kept running him down, praying he wouldn’t slip the rope and fall in the sea.
“We were getting weak from the weight. Finally, when he was low enough, and swinging inboard, we let him go and he landed on a pile of netting. We slung him in his hammock, pretty badly lumped and still out like a light.
“When he finally came to and wanted to make his watch, I told him he had been named ‘Sailor of the Month’, and could stay in his ’mick.”
In 1943, the battle turned in the Allies’ favour. Training and tactics improved. New frigates, with improved detection equipment and weaponry, hunted U-boats in independent Support Groups.
Convoys finally got air-cover in the Black Pit. The United States transferred long-range Liberator bombers from the Pacific. The British put makeshift flight decks on merchant ships. Radar-equipped aircraft pounced on U-boats, strafing them before they could dive.
The climactic confrontation came in May, when sixty U-boats converged on convoy ONS5 in mid-Atlantic. Six ships were torpedoed on May 5. The following night, the packs closed in for the kill.
But fog set in, concealing the convoy. A support group raced to the scene. The escorts homed in on the U-boats with radar, destroying five of them by ramming and depth-charging. Two subs collided in the fog and sank. The dispirited packs withdrew.
Now Dönitz’s losses had mounted to “an intolerable level”: 41 U-boats in May alone. The admiral’s youngest son, Peter, went down with U-954, sunk by a Liberator.
In March 1944, Percy Segal, a stoker on the frigate HMCS Stettler, found himself in Dover, waiting for the arrival of a convoy that was to be escorted to Gibraltar. Shore leave was granted the crew—leave that was restricted to the sound of the ship’s recalling whistle.
Segal and his friend, John Lemmick had other ideas. They went to Folkestone, a few miles distant. “We never did hear the recall,” said Segal.
The Stettler having sailed without them, the bemused sailors reported to naval authorities. They were promptly assigned to the Gibraltar-bound Royal Navy frigate HMS Kent. Segal was to rue his misadventure to Folkestone. “We had been at sea about ten hours and I had just come off watch and was curled up in my hammock when the torpedo struck. You have heard of people’s hair standing up on end. Well, mine actually did. I picked myself off the deck and made my way topside where the crew was abandoning ship. “The torpedo had hit the engine room where I had been a few minutes earlier and killed the entire complement. I managed to grab a Carley-float and floated around for several hours. An old freighter which was straggling miles behind the convoy, picked me up.”
The first of the new breed of Canadian-built River class frigates was HMCS Waskesiu (K330). She slid down the ways in the Yarrows shipyard in Esquimalt in December 1942. When she was commisioned in Victoria in June 1943, her armament consisted of a 4-inch gun fore and aft, a 12-pounder, and 4 twin 20-mm guns in paired mounts.
At 0550, the frigate’s surface radar made a contact. AB William Booth was the loader on the No. 1 Oerlikon gun. “Someone hollered there was an object on the surface, off the port bow. She was almost dead ahead when we first sighted her.”
Fraser saw her from the bridge: “It surfaced at a good rate of speed about 1800 yards away and almost dead ahead. We illuminated it immediately with star shells and searchlights.”
To Nene, he signalled: “HEARSE PARKED”. “Then we opened up on it with everything we had. The range had closed to about 1400 yards. Our 4-inch guns made four hits on the conning tower.” The frigate’s Oerlikon guns also fired on the sub. “The first bursts from the No. 1 gun were dead centre on the conning tower and never wavered,” the captain noted.
Booth watched as his partner on the Oerlikon, Thomas Stephenson, “bowled the Jerries over.” “It was wonderful gunnery,” the soft-spoken Fraser observed. “Our number one Oerlikon never wasted a cartridge.”
Stephenson downplayed his marksmanship: “I couldn’t miss at that range. She was a sitting duck, really.”
U-257 slowly crossed the frigate’s bow to her port side. Only 100 yards away, Fraser couldn’t alter course in time to ram her. But he could hammer her with the No. 2 Oerlikon: “It, too, banged right on the conning tower. The Germans couldn’t reach their guns to answer back.”
AB William Knox was on the No. 2 gun crew: “The Germans were coming out the conning tower, and we knocked about four right into the water.”
AB Arthur Wall, a Gunlayer on No. 2 gun aft, remembers vividly the battle’s close: “The instant I pulled the trigger on the last shell we fired, the searchlight on the bridge illuminated the conning tower of U-257. A figure who I assume was her CO became the cross in the crosswire of my gunsight. He was waving his arms and I’m sure was trying to signal their surrender.”
The gesture was foregone. Fifteen minutes after surfacing, still under withering fire, her crewmen tumbling into the sea, U-257 had had enough. Her stern sank down, her bow reared up to nearly vertical, and she slipped under the roiling black waters.
In his diary, AB Gordon Arnold wrote: “0552: …opened fire and sunk the dam thing. We’re as happy as hell and twice as excited. Tweed, we figure, had been revenged now.”
Overcome by the passion of battle, perhaps driven insensible by the need for revenge, one rating wanted more. Possibly still shaken by the figure in his gunsight, Art Wall related: “Later, Gibb and I tore a machine gun from the arms of a seaman who was firing at men in the water.”
From the black night and the dark, freezing waters came cries of “Hello, Kamerad! Hello, Kamerad!” Lifeboat whistles shrilled. Whalers from the Waskesiu and the Nene were lowered into the heaving swells. The sea was too rough for Waskesiu’s whaler. Two oars broke in the pounding waves.
“Feb. 25: Left convoy for Derry. Prisoners all very young fellows and seem to be a nice lot. However, they still believe they shall win the war. They had been out for 51 days when we engaged them.”
“Feb. 26: Heavy sea. Had the prisoners out on deck today. Let them see what we brought them to the surface with. They looked at us with silent contempt.
“Feb. 28: Arrived Derry today. The army lads were there to take prisoners. They didn’t want to leave us. We said goodbye to them all. We had grown to like them and we believe they liked us. However, we haven’t forgotten the Tweed or that it may have been us. “Sixty bags of mail besides parcels arrived for us…”
“March 6, 1944: Left Derry for Moville.”
“March 7: A-S trials and workup.”
“March 8: Night shoot.”
“March 9: Sailed from Moville with EG6: Waskesiu, Outremount, Edmundston, Prescott, Tuppelle, Nene, aircraft carrier Vindex. Also the world’s greatest sub-hunting group, EG2—Starling, Magpie, Whinsteral, Wildgoose, and Wren. This group has well over 35 subs to their credit.
“March 11: Sighted and joined convoy. Oiled up from tanker. U-boat sighted on surface, but disappeared.
“March 12: Left convoy to join another which is having trouble with U-boats. Ran out of flour. Started on hardtack.”
"March 13: Joined by corvettes. Used last of our canned milk and fresh vegetables. No potatoes. Digging into powdered milk and dehydrated potatoes.”
“March 14: Ran out of salt today, so using salt water for cooking. We are making salt out of same for the dinner table, even if there isn’t much to eat at present.”
“March 15: Nene rejoined us today.”
“March 16: Returned Mr. Birch and staff to Nene. Picked up flour, salt and canned milk for five more days. No Action Stations lately.”
“March 17: Met a convoy. Nearly had our heads knocked off by escorting destroyers after trying to challenge US aircraft carrier off her course. Proceeding on A-S sweep.”
“March 19: Left convoy to pick up another further north. Ran out of sea biscuits today.”
“March 20: Met convoy today. Ran out of dehydrated spuds today.”
“March 21: Weather is getting rough. Not much of anything left on board. Asking permission to proceed in for supplies.
“April 21: Crossed the Arctic Circle in the early morning. Temperature of water is 39 F. I am quartermaster this trip, thank goodness. Aircraft carriers in company are same two who attacked the Tirpitz and did heavy damage with their aircraft.”
“April 22: Carrier aircraft having trouble trying to land. Landing gear damage when it was trying to land. Forced to crash land in sea. Our boys picked them up in the whaler. It’s damn cold now, and we have 22 hours of daylight. Plenty of sub reports but no contacts. We are expecting the worst, and are all ready to go.”
“April 23: We have already guessed our destination, but Captain cleared lower decks and told us today. He also mentioned the women, and told us to stay away from them, if we didn’t want to be shot on the spot. Also stressed the point of behaving ourselves as we are the first Canadian navy ships to come up this close to Russia and to land on Russian soil. “We are going to tie up at Volnya at Kola Bay, Russia. We are 12 miles from Murmansk, and some 30 miles from the Finnish front in this section. We can hear the bigger guns as they go off. There are plenty of Russian aircraft in the air, and they seem to pilot their craft alright.”
“April 24: Plenty of refugees coming in by boats; they come and go all day. The women are digging ditches. Everyone is in uniform around here. I am trading cigarettes for Russian money and woolen goods for red stars, which they wear on their hats. I am a millionaire in Russia, but the money is no good, unless you have coupons. They live by bartering here. They are taking us for plenty, but we are having a great kick out of them. “The kiddies are all asking for chocolate and gum. It’s very difficult to make them out. They seem to like us, but we have heard some queer stories about the way they act. It’s fun to notice that everyone is equal, and they all live the same. “Visited the town. The people all live in one big barn. There are a number of these scattered around. The town is fitted out with a post office and store. Everyone deals here. We are going to a Russian picture show tonight. “Saw the show and met a few of the boys from England stationed up here. The picture was phony as hell, but we couldn’t laugh because we were afraid they would misunderstand. The fellows were saying that if a Russian girl is caught with one of us fellows in the services, they are sent to the front lines to fight. I believe it, too, because they don’t even look at us.”
“April 25: Went sledding today with homemade sled that our chippy made for us. We were sledding on huge hill, when we discovered it to be a factory. One of our boys is seriously ill and is being sent to hospital. Later he will be flown to Moscow and home. Lucky devil.
“April 26: Refugees still coming and going. The women are still digging ditches. This evening, a Russian came down to the jetty and tried to sell his wife to us for a few sweaters. We bought a bottle of vodka for a taste. I’ll stick to beer.”
“April 27: Ten American sailors came onboard today. We are taking them back to Ireland with us. They are off the USS Milwaukee, a heavy cruiser turned over to the Russian navy.”
“April 28: Sailing today. Volnya is just a tiny spot in the distance. Having seen Russia, all I can say is I’m lucky to be a Canadian. “Convoy forming up now. It will be the last convoy out of here until the fall, on account of icebergs.”
“April 29: Sub reports are coming in. We are doing AS sweeps a mile ahead of the convoy. It’s going to be a tough run.”
On April 30, the Grou and Waskesiu broke away from their convoy of 35 merchant ships. Black pennants streamed from their yardarms: they had asdic (sonar) contact with a submarine.
“April 30: Low enemy aircraft. Spotting plane shot down with loss of one of our own. Aircraft all day and night. Sub reports still coming in. Believe there are two wolf packs around. “Convoy under attack. We are closing in on convoy, dropping charges on subs, trying to keep them down until convoy has time to slip past. “Four subs surfaced in middle of convoy. One merchant ship torpedoed. Being attacked on all sides now. Destroyers everywhere. Orders are to hold subs until convoy has time to slip away. We have been at Action Station now for four hours, off and on all day. “Dropping charges on sub dead ahead.”
To counter German acoustic torpedoes, the Allies towed cat gear behind their ships--clanking metal bars that drowned out the propellers.
Marty McGregor, of Richmond, was MacKechnie’s watchmate on the Grou. He recalled: “We zigzagged around and dropped a few ineffectual charges, then were ordered to abandon the sweep and get back to station. Just as we received the message, ‘Put out your cat. We’ve just got ours out’, I saw, from my voice pipe-to-hedgehog action station on the bridge, the trail of a torpedo cross our bow and strike the Waskesiu’s cat gear.”
Bill Gibb, aboard Waskesiu, picks up the story: “All at once one of the younger sailors hollered ‘torpedo!’, but we paid no attention to him.”
“He was a young, nervous rating up in the crow’s nest” said Asdic Operator Bruce Menzies. “The captain shouted, ‘Will somebody shoot that bastard? He’s driving me crazy!’”
“When a torpedo hit was imminent you were supposed to sit loosely on the deck to avoid ankles or legs breaking,” explained Art Wall. “In spite of this, the whole gun crew lined up on the starboard side of the after gun deck to watch an acoustic fish pass down our side.”
Gibb: “Then there was a terrific explosion as the torpedo hit the cat gear.”
“For about 15 minutes,” remembered AB Clifford Adams, “the water seemed white everywhere from explosions.”
“We were a little weary of putting out this cat gear and bringing it in again,” conceded Gibb. “We had more respect for it after that.” “Torpedo coming down our starboard side. It must be acoustic, as it has exploded in our cat gear. It’s too close for comfort now, and that waters cold as hell.”[GA 4/30/44] “Sub blown to surface off our starboard bow. Destroyer pushing in for attack. Sub has sunk or submerged. We can’t wait around to find out.
“April 31: Still having sub contacts, but not so bad as yesterday. We are expecting more ahead, though.”
“May 1, 1944: Reports are coming through on sub action which we were engaged in the other night. Believed to be twelve enemy subs. Three sunk, unknown number damaged; one ship lost.”
“May 2: Altering our course again. More subs ahead.”
“May 3: Heading towards Ireland. Subs are unable to reach convoy.”
“May 4: Dogfight over convoy. We are unable to see results, but picked up one enemy pilot, …. Buried him at sea. We are through the worst area now.”
“May 5: Ships splitting up. Destroyers are leaving us, along with cruiser and two air carriers.”
“May 6: Pulled into Londonderry. We are hoping to hold our ship’s dance this trip, if possible.”
“May 15: Ship’s dance tonight. I am going to have a good time. It might be our last. “Dance is a wonderful success. Everyone had a grand time. I can’t remember much about it.”
“May 16: Big head today. Everyone tired as hell, but hoping we shall have another dance soon.”
“May 17: Left Londonderry for Moville. Rumours are flying high.”
“May 20: Doing work-up with aircraft carriers. Believe we are going to … this time for huge A-S sweep. Many more Canadian ships joining our group.”
“May 22: Doing A-S workout and gunnery practice.”
“May 23: Sub tied up alongside of us tonight. I had a look at her. I’ll stick to ships.”
“May 26: More ships joining us. Aircraft carriers returning to Clyde.”
“May 27: Oiling up. Sailing from Moville towards England. Rumours are that we are getting ready for the invasion and second front. Dropped anchor at Moville Bay. Wales is off our port side.”
“May 28: Sending divisions…. No shore leave granted as yet.”
“May 29: Shore leave granted to two watches. I’m duty watch.”
“May 30: Cmdr. Birch left for Liverpool, we believe for conference. Went ashore today to beach, no ….of the day needed as we are only allowed to stay on beach. I visited Belleck, a small village, but very nice. No beer, though.”
“June 2, 1944: More ships coming into the bay. Three aircraft carriers joined us today. It must be the invasion.”
“June 3: The weather is bad. I’m going on coding watches. Having a play on board the ship. The fellows made it up, turned out to be okay, too.”
“June 4: Shore leave stopped. More ships joining us. Rumours are really good. We are waiting for D-Day, and there’s no doubt in our minds about it.”
“June 5: Sailing orders opened. Leaving the bay at last. We are all excited. Cleared lower deck at 1600. Cmdr. Birch told us we were on the eve of the invasion. Our job was to block the Channel at Land’s End to ….,and if possible to keep out enemy subs. Two carriers in our group. “The captain has just made a speech. He told us cheerfully that we would all see our native land if every man did his job well. We are looking for the worst to happen.”
“June 6: Well, the invasion has started. Enemy aircraft overhead, believed to be spotting us for subs.”
“June 7: Action Stations twice during the day. Negative results.”
“June 8: Aircraft seem to be pressuring us.”
“June 9: AA Action Stations. Enemy aircraft overhead. Negative results.”
Years later--with two near-misses from torpedoes and one submarine kill to the frigate’s credit--Arthur Wall would reflect: “I always felt Waskesiu was a lucky ship.”
The frigate suffered no casualties in a year of action. “I didn’t even have a cut finger to fix up,” said Surgeon-Lieutenant R. S. MacFarlane. “A swell sick bay on the ship and no business for it.”
Bruce Menzies remembered MacFarlane as a fine doctor. The author asked him how he could have known that. “Because,” Menzies frowned, “I drank beer with him.”
Jim Cornwall was originally posted to HMCS Saint John. Wanting to remain with the friends he had made during training, he arranged a transfer to another vessel, the frigate HMCS Valleyfield.
On May 7, 1944 a torpedo from U-548 found the Valleyfield, southeast of Cape Race, off Newfoundland. Cornwall, on his first voyage on his new posting, went down with his ship.
His cousin, Bill Royds, was a Leading Seaman aboard the Saint John. “Ironically, I did not know that he had originally been slated to come to our ship. I found out about the switch long after the war.”
On October 14, 1944, the frigate HMCS Magog was in the St. Lawrence River, within sight of Father’s Point, near Rimouski. She was also within sight of a U-boat.
Gorde Hunter was standing on the aft gun deck with two other sailors. “The force of the explosion blew the rear of the ship up over the 12-pounder, killing a petty officer named Davis and knocking me into the water. That is about all I can remember until being fished back aboard the forward half of the ship.”
HMCS Toronto sought out the attacker in vain. The depth charges she volleyed into the water only succeeded in damaging her own steering gear.
Flown to Montreal, Hunter “was in hospital with leg and head hurts for about two months and never again saw the ship.”
The stricken frigate was taken in tow to Quebec City by the ill-fated HMCS Shawinigan.
On October 16, 1944, H.M.C.S. Annan exchanged ferocious machine-gun fire with U-1006, which had been forced to surface by depth-charges.
To the bridge came the heart-stopping report: “Torpedo. Red Four-Oh, sir.”
Seconds later, the deadly fish passed by the frigate’s port side by only yards.
“Their guns were shooting something that looked like .5 stuff,” Lieut. John Corbett said. “It was pretty stuff, all colours, blue and pink and red. But it was coming too close just to stand and watch it.”
Riddled with 4-inch and Oerlikon rounds and blasted by a depth-charge that landed directly on her, the U-boat went down for the last time. Forty-six German survivors were plucked from the sea.
Lieut.-Commander C. P. Balfry gave the order to splice the main brace (a double tot of rum for his crew). “I’ve been commanding ships for three years,” he said, “and this was my first actual brush with a U-boat. I knew my luck would change one of these days.”
It had. His previous command, the corvette H.M.C.S. Shawinigan, was torpedoed in the Cabot Strait a month later. Her complement was 85. Not a soul survived.
The corvette H.M.C.S. Lachute was in mid-Atlantic in 1945 when Lt. Ray Hatrick asked a 21-year-old gunnery officer to give Easter Sunday service. The sea was “calm as a millpond,” Ray McColl remembered, as, “humbled and exhilarated”, he gave his first sermon to sixty of the crew. “Most of them had gone to Sunday school. They knew the hymns.” His calling found, the big, affable McColl spent four years after the war on the missionary boat Thomas Crosby. In villages along B.C.’s northern coast, his stentorian sermons boomed like the guns of his old warship.
On Sunday, in North Vancouver, Reverend McColl officiates his fourth Battle of the Atlantic service. Among the names on the Sailors’ Memorial are two of his friends, lost with 99 others on the Spikenard and the Esquimalt.
Canada’s navy lost 2,210 sailors and 24 warships in the Battle of the Atlantic. The RCAF lost 752 airmen. One of every eight (1,629) Canadian merchant sailors died.
The Germans paid dearly, too: seven out of every ten U-boatmen perished in their “iron coffins”.
By war’s end, almost 26,000 merchant ship voyages crossed the Atlantic. They bore the 181 million tons of food and material that kept Britain going, and the armies that liberated Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Canada’s sailors saw many of them across a grim, grey battlefield.
Langley’s Bill Royds was a Leading Seaman on H.M.C.S. Saint John. “Next to one’s own ship, we all had a sense of pride in our mates, our officers, and our ability to withstand the foul weather, the terrible food, the sudden alarms, the incessant training, and the cramped quarters. In another life, we might not have been close friends, but on a ship of war there is no room for pettiness. One’s life depended on the other man, and he in turn depended on you to do your job.”
On May 2, 1999 Canada saluted a job well done.
BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC SUNDAY
PARADE AND SERVICE
WHEN: Sunday, May 2, 1999
WHERE: Waterfront Park, North Vancouver
PARKING: Pacific Marine Training Campus garage
265 West Esplanade
PARADE: 10:30 am, from foot of Chesterfield Street
SERVICE: 11:00 am, Sailors’ Memorial
INFO: Vancouver Naval Veterans Association
Submitted by Gary McGregor ~ Delta, BC
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