April 30th - A Day of Remembrance (Battle of the Atlantic – Commemorated, First Sunday in May)
At heart, I am a Canadian Navy sailor, still. I have proudly served in the Royal Canadian Navy during my entire 35-year career with the Canadian Forces, even in the 1960s when we temporarily went to a unified tri-service model. Each year, on the first Sunday of May, we sailors would honour the Battle of the Atlantic and the more than 4,600 Canadian service men and women, the sailors, the air force, and the merchant seamen who lost their lives to keep supply lines across the Atlantic open.
It couldn’t have been easy for any of them or their families – on either side. The Battle of the
Atlantic was the longest running battle of WW2, lasting 5 years, 8 months and 5 days. It began on the 3rd of September 1939 when a German submarine sank the SS Athenia, a Montreal-bound passenger ship, west of Ireland killing 188 of those aboard, including four Canadians. The Battle of the Atlantic ended on 8 May 1945 when the hard fought for victory in Europe was achieved.
The Battle of the Atlantic was in defence of Allied shipment of supplies – food, military personnel, equipment and war munitions. Between 1940 and 1945, Canadian warships escorted more than 25,000 merchant ships carrying almost 200 million tons of food and war material from North America to Britain. Without this effort to keep the supply lines open through the war, it is very likely that losing the Battle of the Atlantic would have resulted in an Allied loss of the war in Europe.
The battle extended to more than transport across the sea by merchant vessels. It involved integrated efforts in protective corridors covered from the sky by fighter and surveillance aircraft and on the sea by convoy escorts – planes, corvettes and destroyers against a single U-boat and against ‘wolf packs’ bent on hunting down and destroying merchant shipping. It involved advancements in sciences and technology for long range aircraft, the build of aircraft carriers, incorporation of periscopes and snorkels for submarines and U-boats, the development of ASDIC (radar and sonar tech), torpedoes and torpedo countermeasures, ‘Hedgehog’ bombs, Enigma machines, advances in intelligence and the gathering of intelligence, and the breaking of and acting upon intercepted codes and messages.
The fight for control of the Atlantic came dramatically close to home when U-boats were able to advance into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and into the Seaway itself, possibly as far inland as Baie-Comeau and Quebec City. Amongst other attacks in Canadian waters, the biggest single loss of life was the October 1942 sinking of the SS Caribou passenger ferry and subsequent deaths of 137 passengers and crew by the German submarine U-69. The ferry was making the 100-mile transit across the Cabot Straight between North Sydney, Nova Scotia and Port aux Basques, Newfoundland under cover of darkness, escorted by the minesweeper, HMCS Grandmere. Only 102 persons, less than half of those onboard, survived the attack on the Caribou, and all but one was picked up by HMCS Grandmere after survivors had spent hours in the icy waters of the Cabot Straight while the minesweeper followed military protocol and hunted the enemy.
One of the survivors of the SS Caribou sinking, Nursing Sister SLt Margaret Brooke was named a Member (military division) of the Order of British Empire (O.B.E.) for her attempt to save friend and fellow Nursing Sister, SLt Agnes W. Wilkie. After the war, SLt Brooke advanced through the ranks to that of LCdr in the Canadian Navy before retiring in 1962. Margaret Brooke, along with fellow RCN member Max Bernays, CPO(ret’d) and recipient of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM) awarded by the British Admiralty, amongst other service awards, for his actions during the Battle of the Atlantic, were honoured as namesakes of the second and third Canadian Arctic/Offshore Patrol 2 Ships, respectively, as part of the honours for Canadians who served with the highest distinction and conspicuous gallantry in the RCN. Margaret Brooke and Max Bernays are only two of the sailors from Canada’s long history of naval personnel as namesakes for the Harry DeWolf-class ships still under construction. The ship class itself was named after Vice-Admiral Harry George DeWolf, DSO, DSC, CBE, CD, for his service during WW2 for Atlantic convoy escorts, evacuation of troops from France, and command of the HMCS Haida.
Margaret Brooke went on to earn a doctorate in paleontology after retiring from the RCN before passing away in Victoria on 9 January 2016 at the age of 100. Max Bernays remained with the RCN after WW2 and went on to serve in Korea before passing away on 30 March 1974 at the age of 64. Admiral Harry DeWolf remained in service with the RCN, serving as Principal Military Adviser to the Canadian Ambassador to the United States, Chairman Canadian Joint Staff in Washington, D.C. and Chief of the Naval Staff where he served until his retirement in 1960 before passing away in Ottawa on 18 December 2000 at the age of 97.
During the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allies lost 2600 merchant ships, of which nearly 13.5 million tons was to enemy submarines. Combined, the Allied navies lost about 20,000 officers and men in convoy escorts. The Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Merchant Navy combined lost more than 103 ships and 3,600 lives, and The Royal Canadian Air Force lost more than 900 aircrew. The RCN lost 24 warships in the North Atlantic and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Canadian merchant seamen lost one in ten personnel among the 12,000 who had served. German losses were heavy as well. Of the 1162 U-boats involved in the battle, 784 were destroyed, and of the 40,000 German sailors operating in the Atlantic, some 30,000 were casualties.
As members of the Royal Canadian Legion, we honour our military sailors, our air personnel and our soldiers, our Merchant Navy, our Nursing Sisters, and our civilian volunteers for their bravery, their courage, and their sacrifice. If you cannot add a poppy to the ribbon at the entrance to Branch 641, then please take a moment, carry the torch of remembrance and light a candle on the 3rd for the Battle of the Atlantic and on the 8th for VE Day.
We will remember them.
Victor W.S. Chan, LCdr(ret’d), CD, KStG
Branch 641 2nd Vice President, and Veteran’s Service Officer