The Unknown Navy
The strategists, the sailors and the ships of Axis and Allied powers dominate most histories of the Battle of the Atlantic. Accounts of devastating clashes between Allied submarines and warships and German U-boats and warships often acknowledge only in passing the heroism of those who manned the merchant convoys Allied powers fought so hard to defend.
During the Second World War, Canadian merchant sailors laboured anonymously as civilians on the oceans of the world. These men and women played a vital role in the successful execution of the Allied war effort by supporting shipping operations. Thousands of merchant sailors made an important contribution ensuring that millions of tons of vital supplies of food, petroleum, munitions as well as troops made it safely across the Atlantic.
Two weeks before the onset of the war, Canada’s small fleet of 38 deep-sea going ships was placed on a war footing and put under the control of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) who coordinated their efforts with the British Ministry of War Transportation and the Admiralty. The efforts of Canada’s merchant seamen were coordinated by a variety of organizations and agencies all operating under the broader mandate of Allied shipping operations.
These convoys formed the lifeblood of all subsequent Allied military operations in Europe following the fall of France. Time and again, Canadian ships and Canadian crews traversed the deadly waters of the North Atlantic and the ocean battlegrounds of the world. The RCN began placing defensive armaments on Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (D.E.M.S.) by outfitting ships with naval personnel to man the guns and by giving gunnery training to merchant sailors in order to protect these convoys from the threat of German U-boats. Protecting the merchant ships was of crucial throughout the war and was a top priority of the RCN, the British Admiralty, and the British Ministry of War Transport.
During the war Canada’s contribution in Allied shipping operations increased dramatically. Canadian shipyards churned out 456 merchant ships, 176 of which were Canadian owned and operated by the crown corporation Park Steamship Company limited. Between September 1939 and May 1945 25,343 merchant ships carrying 164,783,921 tonnes of cargo sailed from North America to Britain. Losses were steep during the German “happy times” of 1940-41 in the North Atlantic and North Sea and 1942 along the North American coastline but in both cases the courage and fortitude of the Allied merchant navies persevered.
Legislation was introduced in Ottawa in 1999 removing remaining distinctions between Merchant Navy and Navy veterans. In an effort to commemorate their essential war work Parliament declared 3 September Merchant Navy Day of Remembrance.
The cost in human lives of the Canadian Merchant Navy’s wartime contribution is hard to measure as many seamen sailed under foreign flags. An estimated 1,600 to 2,000 Canadian and Newfoundland men and women lost their lives due to enemy action.
Of those who lost their lives, 1,629 are represented in the Merchant Navy Book of Remembrance. After the war, Rear Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Northwest Atlantic Leonard W. Murray 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.”
Image: Jillian C. York, Flickr/cc.