Royal Canadian Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945

Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945, Introduction.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 5671742)

During the Second World War, from dawn till sunset every day shipping convoys bringing food and raw material to Britain were escorted by Short Sunderland aircraft of the RCAF and RAF, April 1941.

(Nova Scotia Archives Photo)

RN submarine R-12 with the 25-ship Fast Convoy HX-181 departing the Bedford Basin and Halifax Harbour on 21 March 1942. It arrived in Liverpool, England on 2 April 1942.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3203177)

Convoy en route across the Atlantic, c1944.

(DND Photo)

HMCS Champlain, ca 1932, one of six destroyers in the RCN at the outbreak of the Second World War.  

During the Second World War, the RCN expanded from a fleet of 13 warships to a force of some 450, the majority of which were engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic.  When Canada officially declared war on Germany on 10 September 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy consisted of six destroyers, five minesweepers, two training ships and a mobilized strength of 366 officers and 3,477 ratings including reservists.

Battle of the Atlantic

The RCN played a significant role in the Battle of the Atlantic.  Although the RCN was very small at the start of the war, by 1942 it was carrying out a major share of the defence of North American waters while escorting trans-oceanic convoy of merchant ships and fighting German U-boats.  By 1944, the RCN and RCAF had grown to the point where they were providing a significant contribution to our Allies in other theatres of the war.  At the same time, Canada’s Merchant Navy Veterans sailed at tremendous risk, often in highly inflammable tankers or in freighters loaded with ammunition. More than 25,000 merchant ship voyages were made from North America to Britain under RCN escort delivering roughly 165 million tonnes of cargo to sustain the UK.

(USN Photo)

A convoy moving eastward across the Atlantic, ca. November 1942.

The Germans failed to stop the flow of strategic supplies to Britain. This failure resulted in the build-up of troops and supplies needed for the D-Day landings in Normandy.  The defeat of the U-boat was a necessary in order to build up the number of Allied troops and supplies in Europe to ensure Germany's defeat.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3224092)

Port broadside view of Canadian merchant ship RIVERVIEW PARK at anchor in harbour, April 1943.

(Jeff Tripp Photo)

Smoke from a burning tanker torpedoed in the North Atlantic.

Victory was achieved at a huge cost.  Between 1939 and 1945, 3,500 Allied merchant ships (totaling 14.5 million gross tons) and 175 Allied warships were sunk and some 72,200 Allied naval and merchant seamen lost their lives.  The vast majority of Allied warships lost in the Atlantic and close coasts were small warships averaging around 1,000 tons such as frigates, destroyer escorts, sloops, submarine chasers, or corvettes, but losses also included two battleships, one battlecruiser, two aircraft carriers, three escort carriers, and seven cruisers.  

(Robert Chasse Photo)

British freighter sinking south of Newfoundland.  

The Germans lost 783 U-boats and approximately 30,000 sailors killed, three-quarters of Germany's 40,000-man U-boat fleet.  Losses to Germany's surface fleet were also significant, with 4 battleships, 9 cruisers, 7 raiders, and 27 destroyers sunk.

Canada's Merchant Navy was vital to the Allied cause during the Second World War.  More than 70 Canadian merchant vessels were lost.  1,600 merchant sailors were killed, including eight women.  Information obtained by British agents regarding German shipping movements led Canada to conscript all its merchant vessels two weeks before actually declaring war, with the Royal Canadian Navy taking control of all shipping on 26 Aug 1939.

(DND Photo)

Convoy assembly in the Bedford Basin, Halifax, for merchant ships destined for the UK.

At the outbreak of the war, Canada possessed 38 ocean-going merchant vessels.  By the end of hostilities, in excess of 400 cargo ships had been built in Canada.

(DND Photo)

HMCS Collingwood (K180).

With the exception of the Japanese invasion of the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, the Battle of the Atlantic was the only battle of the Second World War to touch North American shores.  U-boats disrupted coastal shipping from the Caribbean to Halifax, during the summer of 1942, and even entered into battle in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

(Gary Penelton Photo)

U-889 surrendering to the RCN, May 1945,

Canadian officers wore uniforms which were virtually identical in style to those of the British.  The ordinary seamen were issued with an 'MN Canada' badge to wear on their lapel when on leave, to indicate their service.

At the end of the war, Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, Commander-in-Chief Canadian North Atlantic, remarked, "...the Battle of the Atlantic was not won by any Navy or Air Force, it was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of the British and Allied Merchant Navy."

Canadian warships and aircraft sank, or shared in the destruction of some 50 U-boats.  Connections to New Brunswick include the frigate HMCS Saint John and the destroyer HMCS St. Croix, which sank two U-boats each, although the destroyer was later sunk in September 1943 by an acoustic torpedo.  

(Ron Bell Photo)

HMCS Shediac (K110).  The Saint John, New Brunswick-built corvette, HMCS Shediac, participated in several convoy battles.  In July 1942, it engaged three U-Boats in a single night, ramming one and damaging another.

(DND Photo)

(Author Photo)

HMCS Sackville (K181), has been restored and is now preserved in Halifax as Canada’s National Naval Memorial.

Map of RCN Operations during the Battle of the Atlantic.

There was no question that RCN escorted convoys needed all the help they could get in late 1942, for they were still slaved to slow convoys. In the last half of 1942, the RCN escorted 14 out of 24 slow eastbound convoys, while the RN protected the fast HX series. The British escorted more than their share of the slow westbound convoys (17 out of 21), but westbound speeds were nominal: all ships steaming in ballast against prevailing winds were slow. This meant that Canadian escorted convoys — roughly 35 percent of the traffic — were more easily intercepted, more easily attacked, and spent longer in the danger area.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3334452)

RCN Operations Room, St. John's, Newfoundland, 24 Sep 1942.

A large naval establishment in Saint John oversaw the inspection of all merchant shipping from the western hemisphere bound for German-controlled ports in Europe.  Naval Control of Shipping HQ in Saint John oversaw shipping throughout the waters around New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and parts of Quebec. The Naval Reserve Division at HMCS Brunswicker located in Lower Cove enlisted nearly 2,300 recruits for the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR).

Difficult for many to comprehend the terrible risks and loss of life on convoy duty in the North Atlantic during the early years of the Second World War. Marc Milner captured much of it in his book North Atlantic Run. SC 42 was just one of those convoys:

Convoy SC 42 was the 42nd of the numbered series of Second World War Slow Convoys of merchant ships from Sydney, Cape Breton Island to Liverpool in the UK.  SC 42 was attacked over a three-night period in September 1941, losing 16 ships sunk and 4 damaged out of 65.  This was the worst Allied loss following the attack on convoy SC7 the previous year.  Two attacking U-boats were destroyed.

Sixty-five ships departed Sydney on 30 August 1941 under local escort, bound for Liverpool.  The convoy commodore was Rear Admiral WB Mackenzie in Everleigh.  A week later, they were met just east of the Strait of Belle Isle by the Canadian 24th Escort Group consisting of the HMCS Skeena (Lt Cdr JC Hibbard, senior officer) with HMCS Alberni, HMCS Kenogami, and HMCS Orillia. Corvettes HMCS Chambly and HMCS Moose Jaw were conducting training exercises in the convoy path at the direction of Commander James D. Prentice, RCN, and were prepared to reinforce the escort as the convoy entered an area where U-boats were known to be waiting.

Ranged against them was the Markgraf wolfpack, a group of 14 U-boats in a patrol line southeast of Greenland.

Early on 9 September U-85 sighted the convoy near Cape Farewell, Greenland, and made an unsuccessful torpedo attack.  She then commenced shadowing, while other Markgraf boats moved in.  The moon rose on the southern side on the convoy that night, and U-432 torpedoed the silhouetted 5229-GRT British freighter Muneric.  Muneric and her cargo of 7000 tons of iron ore sank rapidly with all 63 of her crew.  HMCS Kenogami commenced firing on a surfaced U-boat without benefit of star shell or flashless powder, and quickly lost contact as the crew lost their night-vision in the flash of gunfire.

The convoy made two emergency turns over the next half-hour as ships in convoy reported sighting three more surfaced U-boats.  Another emergency convoy turn ninety minutes later caught HMCS Skeena pursuing a contact at speed.  While maneuvering to avoid collision, HMCS Skeena passed a surfaced U-boat on a reciprocal course, being fired upon by ships in convoy so closely that Skeena's guns could not be depressed to bear.

U-652 torpedoed Baron Pentland and Tahchee during the excitement. The tanker Tahchee was towed back to port by HMCS Orillia but the 3410-GRT British freighter Baron Pentland sank with 1512 standards of lumber and two of her crew.

Another emergency turn by the convoy brought two hours of suspenseful quiet while HMCS Orillia aided Tahchee and searched for survivors astern of the convoy.  Then U-432 torpedoed the 3205-GRT Dutch freighter Winterswijk and the 1113-GRT Norwegian freighter Stargard.  The freighter Regin stopped to rescue Starguard's survivors and opened fire on a surfaced U-boat.   While HMCS Skeena and HMCS Kenogami searched for U-boats around the stricken Winterswijk and Stargard, U-81 torpedoed the 3252-GRT British freighter Sally Maersk, and the convoy made another emergency turn to avoid a surfaced U-boat.  U-82 torpedoed the 7465-GRT British CAM Empire Hudson less than two hours after HMCS Skeena regained station ahead of the convoy.[9]

Daylight on 10 September brought several periscope sightings and emergency turns by the convoy before U-85 torpedoed the 4748-GRT British freighter Thistleglen.  HMCS Skeena and HMCS Alberni counterattacked and damaged U-85 with depth charges.  Thistleglen sank with 5200 tons of steel, 2400 tons of pig iron, and 3 of her crew.

U-82 torpedoed the 7519-GRT British tanker Bulysses that evening, U-82 then torpedoed the 3915-GRT British freighter Gypsum Queen shortly after the convoy ordered an emergency turn.  Gypsum Queen sank quickly with 5500 tons of sulfur and ten of her crew.  Bulysses sank with 9300 tons of gas oil and 4 of her crew.  Other ships in convoy rescued the survivors. The corvettes HMCS Chambly and HMCS Moose Jaw observed the fireworks of these attacks and surprised U-501 while steaming to reinforce the escort. U-501 was first depth-charged by HMCS Chambly then rammed by HMCS Moose Jaw as the damaged submarine surfaced.  The captain of U-501 jumped from the conning tower to HMCS Moose Jaw's deck; and HMCS Moose Jaw sent a boarding party to enter the submarine.  Eleven Germans and one of the Canadian boarding party (Stoker William Brown) were lost when U-501sank. U-501 was the first U-boat sunk by Canadian escorts.

Just after midnight on 10/11 September U-207 torpedoed the 4924-GRT British freighter Berury and the 4815-GRT British freighter Stonepool, while HMCS Chambly and HMCS Moose Jaw were attacking U-501.  Then U-432 torpedoed the 1231-GRT Swedish freighter Garm and U-82 torpedoed the 5463-GRT British freighter Empire Crossbill and the 1980-GRT Swedish freighter Scania two hours later while HMCS Alberni, HMCS Kenogami and HMCS Moose Jaw were rescuing survivors of Berury and Stonepool. U-43 launched torpedoes unsuccessfully, U-433 damaged the Norwegian 2200-GRT freighter Bestum, U-202 sank the crippled Scania, while U-105 sank the Panamanian-flagged straggler Montana.

On 11 September, the escort was reinforced by the naval trawler Buttermere and corvettes HMCS Wetaskiwin, HMCS Mimosa, and HMS Gladiolus from convoy HX 147 and by the 2nd Escort Group consisting of HMS Douglas (Commander WE Banks senior officer), the destroyers HMS Leamington, HMS Veteran, HMS Skate and HMS Saladin.  HMS Leamington and HMS Veteran dropped 21 depth charges on the afternoon of 11 September while investigating an RAF Coastal Command aircraft report of a U-boat ahead of the convoy.  Postwar analysis indicated their attacks probably destroyed U-207.

With the arrival of these reinforcements, further attacks by Markgraf were stifled.  Although the group continued to shadow, it was unable to mount any further assaults.

The arrival on 12 September of the naval trawler Windermere and destroyers HMCS St. Croix from convoy SC 41 and HMCS Columbia from convoy HX 147 allowed the remaining original escorts HMCS Skeena, HMCS Alberni, and HMCS Kenogami to leave for refuelling.  On 13 September destroyers of the 2nd Escort Group departed for refuelling following the arrival of American destroyers Sims, Hughes and Russell.  The last incident of the voyage took place three days later when U-98 torpedoed the 4392-ton British freighter Jedmore as the convoy approached North Channel on the late afternoon of 16 September.

Convoy SC 42 arrived in Liverpool on 20 September 1941.  Sixteen ships totalling 68,259 GRT had been sunk and four ships (14,132 GRT) damaged.  One ship had turned back.  44 ships arrived safely and unharmed, and two U-boats had been destroyed, though one of these sinkings was not confirmed until after the war.

Marc Milner, North Atlantic Run. Naval Institute Press, 1985.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3566929)

RCN sailor operating a Rangefinder, RCN Gunnery School, Halifax, 1940.

(DND Photo)

RCN Corvette HMCS Alberni (K103), 1941.  In the background, on the port side of the merchant ship is the submarine depot ship HMS Forth. Alongside Forth is the training submarine HNLMS O15.  HMCS Alberni was built at Esquimalt and commissioned there on 4 Feb 1941.  She was torpedoed and sunk by U-480, southeast of the Isle of Wight.  59 of her ship's company lost their lives.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3196715)

This photo is captioned "Diver adjusting his helmet before conducting a salvage operation on the cargo of a wreck in an eastern Canadian port, July 1943".  The dive may be taking place near the entrance to Halifax harbour, with the salvage being conducted on one of the Merchant cargo ships torpedoed there.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3604115)

Alterations and additions on Royal Navy Merchant Escort Carrier (MAC) at Lapointe Pier, Vancouver, c1943-1944. She is loading grain through chutes.

(IWM Photo, FL 18159)

M/V Rapana, an oil tanker converted into a merchant aircraft carrier. MACs were introduced to provide air cover for convoys until sufficient escort carriers became available to replace them.

(Official U.S. Navy Photo 80-G-K-14430 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command)

Royal Navy merchant aircraft carrier (tanker type) ship in an Atlantic port.

(USAF - U.S. Defense Visual Information Center Photo DF-ST-89-00309)

A Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish Mk. II (Serial No. LS326), in flight during Air Fete 1988. These were flown from the decks of the MACs.

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