The Battle of the Atlantic
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Royal Canadian Navy >> 1939 - 1942

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The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) played a very important part in the Battle of the Atlantic. It made anti-submarine warfare its speciality and its convoy escort operations were one of Canada's most significant contributions to the Allied victory during the Second World War. By 1943, the RCN provided half of the escorts on the North Atlantic convoys; by mid-1944, it provided them all. Relative to the size and wealth of its allies, in comparison with the Royal Navy (RN) and the United States Navy (USN), the RCN made a colossal effort. Over the course of the campaign the RCN expanded to forty times its pre-war size, developing from an extremely small force to a fully-fledged independent navy.

However, the rapid expansion forced upon the RCN caused it great problems. When Canada declared war on Germany on 10 September 1939, the RCN consisted of six destroyers and five minesweepers. To increase this meagre strength and provide for coastal defence, Canada began building 64 corvettes and 24 minesweepers. Despite having first to create the shipbuilding capacity to make it possible, fourteen corvettes were ready by the end of 1940 and the other fifty in 1941. These small ships were the mainstay of the RCN's war against the U-boat from 1941 until the end of 1943. The question of personnel was more intractable. The 1,800 regulars and 1,700 reservists had hardly any anti-submarine warfare skills. Facilities to train the numbers of officers and men now required were virtually non-existent and took time to create. The staff needed to train them were at sea fighting the enemy. Therefore, with inadequately trained and inexperienced crews, RCN ships often performed poorly. Also, the design and equipment of Canadian corvettes was inferior to their RN counterparts by which they were outclassed as ocean escorts. These shortcomings prevented RCN escort groups from achieving operational efficiency until mid-1943.

Naval Service Headquarters, Ottawa, controlled all merchant shipping movements in the western Atlantic, including major US ports, until America took over in July 1942. On 16 September 1939, the first transatlantic convoy sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Britain escorted by two RCN destroyers for the initial 350 miles; on 10 December, the first troop convoy left. Until the fall of France in June 1940, the RCN concentrated on convoy defence around the approaches to Halifax, although early in the year some destroyers were loaned to aid RN operations in the Caribbean. Between June and September all RCN destroyers served with the anti-invasion fleet in the English Channel and then on escort duties in the Western Approaches through the winter of 1940-1. To cover for home defence, six of the old US ships exchanged in the destroyers-for-bases deal were acquired. By January 1941, four of these and ten new corvettes also operated in British waters.

As U-boat successes continued throughout spring 1941 further and further out into the Atlantic, the Royal Navy introduced continuous escort across the whole ocean. In May, the already over-stretched RCN agreed to cover the western Atlantic. The return of RCN ships in British waters, the arrival of newly-built corvettes and the building up of bases at Halifax and St John's made it possible to form Canadian escort groups operating between Newfoundland and Iceland. A separate naval command under a Canadian officer was established at St John's, but control of RCN ships was still exercised from London. After the Anglo-US meeting at Argentia, Newfoundland in August, the USN assumed strategic control of the western Atlantic and responsibility for the escort of fast convoys. The RCN took sole charge of slow convoys. It did not help the struggling RCN that these ships were the most vulnerable to U-boats. Although losses generally in the second half of 1941 were much reduced from the first half, the RCN-escorted slow convoys suffered heavily during the autumn.

The American entry into the war in December 1941 made the situation for the RCN even worse as US destroyers were transferred to the Pacific to fight the Japanese and the USN was reluctant to introduce coastal convoys. In March 1942, to halt the tide of U-boat success, RCN ships began escorting convoys between Boston and Halifax. In mid-May, corvettes had to be transferred from transatlantic duties to the protection of tankers bringing vital Caribbean oil for Canadian war industries. Also from May until September, U-boats operated in the Gulf of St Lawrence adding to the burden of coastal defence.

In mid-1942, the RCN had only half the 212 ships it needed to fulfil its Atlantic escort duties. Therefore, crews had very little rest time, maintenance dropped to danger levels and ship training was nearly non-existent. There were still far too few skilled and experienced sailors in the RCN. Equipment standards were also deficient. High Frequency Direction Finding sets did not start arriving until late 1942, the radar available could not detect surfaced U-boats and the lack of gyro compasses affected navigation and made accurate attacks on U-boats very difficult. As the wolf packs returned to mid-Atlantic for the rest of the year, the slow convoys and their Canadian escort groups, weakened by the commitment of seventeen corvettes to the North African landings from September, were at the eye of the storm. Despite RCN ships sinking five U-boats between July and December (half the escort force total), the convoys they escorted suffered 80% of the losses.

In response, the British took action. On 17 December, Winston Churchill requested William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minister, to remove RCN escort groups from mid-Atlantic and transfer them to the RN for re-training. Convoy analysis had shown that the main reason for heavy losses was the lack of training of escorts, both individually and in teams. "I appreciate the grand contribution of the Royal Canadian Navy to the Battle of the Atlantic", he wrote, "but the expansion of the RCN has created a training problem which must take time to solve". To the RCN, the blame lay with poor equipment but, whatever the reason, it was a bitter disappointment. When the Canadians agreed to the transfer on 6 January 1943 they reminded Britain that the RCN's role in mid-ocean was central to its naval war effort and the RCN could serve no higher purpose. Despite the desperate struggles so far, the RCN could take heart that it had scored a real success in establishing and maintaining its part of the vital ocean supply line. Without the Royal Canadian Navy, the Battle of the Atlantic could not have been won.

 

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