Battle of the Atlantic

For good reasons Canadians are mindful of celebrations for Remembrance Day and our role at Vimy Ridge, but there were many other defining moments in our military past that we celebrate as well.  One of those is the Battle of the Atlantic, which is marked every year on the first weekend of May.   That is when we remember those who served in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and the Canadian Merchant Navy during the longest battle of the Second World War.

The battle was fought to protect key shipping routes between North America and Europe which were vital to the war effort. It began with early skirmishes in September of 1939, lasted until the final action in May of 1945. The fighting only took hours to start once Britain declared war on Germany with a German submarine attacking the passenger ship SS Athenia, which was on its way to Montréal.  After that, the RCN spent the war escorting large Merchant Navy convoys that carried supplies between Canada and the United Kingdom. It is widely regarded as the RCN’s defining moment, and many historians consider the Battle of the Atlantic as a key to the ultimate Allied Forces victory.

The war also led to increased output from shipyards.  When the war began Canada only had 38 ocean-going merchant vessels. By the time it was over the merchant fleet had swollen to more than 400 cargo ships that had been built in Canada. Canada’s navy also increased production to meet the need created by the Battle of the Atlantic. When fighting began, Canada only had six destroyers and about 3,500 personnel, a full third of those were reservists. But Canada quickly began beefing up our navy, commissioning dozens of smaller warships known as corvettes. The ships were light and inexpensive to build. Armed only by a single gun and depth charges, the corvettes were a key piece of our contribution to convoy duties.

Although Japan did invade the Alaskan Aleutian Islands during the Second World War, the Battle of the Atlantic was the only battle to touch North American shores. German U-boats, which were the scourge of the allied maritime fleet, travelled in groups known as ‘wolf packs’ and wreaked havoc on coastal shipping from the Caribbean to Halifax. They even entered into battle in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The battle was costly and thousands of ships were lost by 1943 when the tide turned for the allied forces.   By that time, Britain had cracked the German enigma code which had allowed them to communicate freely throughout the war. It was also when long range aircraft were introduced which allowed for better coverage as the convoys crossed the Atlantic.  Before those planes, the stretch of ocean outside the range of air support had become known as the ‘Black Pit,’ where the majority of German attacks took place.  At the same time, Canada’s navy added new, faster, and more powerful frigates, formed its own hunter groups and sank 8 U boats between November 1943 and the spring of 1945.

A significant part of Canada’s contribution came from our Merchant Navy who were conscripted two weeks before Canada actually declared War.  During the war more than 70 Canadian merchant vessels were lost and the death toll was significant with over 1,600 merchant sailors killed. After the war ended, the Merchant Navy was maintained until 1950 when it was disbanded. Although their contribution was critical to Canada’s war efforts, it took until 1992 for merchant mariners to begin receiving disability pensions, allowances, health care, and to be granted official veteran status.

The Battle of the Atlantic is a perfect example of how taxing and difficult it was for the Allied Forces to prevail in the war.  On May 6th, many commemorative ceremonies are held across the country to remember and honour the historic contributions of our naval forces. It is a fitting tribute for a battle that helped shape the world we live in today and one we should memorialize with pride and humility.