This May marks the 77th anniversary of the end of the longest continuous battle of Second World War: The Battle of the Atlantic.
The battle, which took place from Sept. 1939 to Germany’s surrender in May 1945, was a crucial battle in determining who gained control of the Atlantic Ocean. The Allies needed control to send men and supplies to Europe, while the Germans needed to cut off these supplies.
Over the course of the six years of the Second World War, Canada played a central role alongside its Allies.
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, the Battle of Atlantic brought the war to Canada’s doorstep, with U-boats torpedoing ships within sight of Canada’s East Coast and even in the St. Lawrence River. Cities on Canada’s East Coast became involved in the battle with Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia, and St. John’s, Newfoundland, playing crucial roles.
As far as Canada’s military is concerned, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force and even Canada’s Merchant Navy played a crucial role in winning the Battle.
Canada’s Merchant Navy
Because Canada only had 38 merchant ships at the beginning of the conflict, plans had to be made to expand the Merchant Navy. The Merchant Navy played a critical role in supplying Britain with aid. It was estimated that a 10,000-tonne merchant ship could provide enough “foodstuffs” to feed 225,000 people for a week. Cargo carried by the fleet included everything from clothing, fuel, steel, aluminum, lumber, aircraft, tanks, jeeps, trucks, guns, ammunition, and anything else that could be required for the war effort.
Because of this, Merchant Ships were often the target of attacks by Germans. However, the people of the Merchant Navy showed incredible bravery during this time and gallantly delivered on their job to support the war effort.
Canadian Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, who commanded the Canadian Northwest Atlantic theatre during the war, stated, “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.”
More than 1,600 Merchant Navy personnel from Canada and Newfoundland were killed during the Battle of the Atlantic. According to VAC, percentage-wise, their casualty rate was higher than those of any of Canada’s fighting services during the Second World War—one out of every seven Merchant Navy sailors who served was killed or wounded.
The RCN and RCAF also paid a high toll in the Battle of the Atlantic. Most of the 2,000 RCN officers and men who died during the war were killed during the Battle of the Atlantic, as were 752 members of the RCAF.
Feature image: Top left, built in 1942, HMCS Halifax was typical of the cheap, seaworthy corvettes built to counteract the German U-boat menace. Images courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-145502. Bottom left, HMCS Brantford covered with ice, February 1944. Image courtesy Canada Dept of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada/PA-136146. Middle image Merchant ship losses in the Atlantic. Top right Merchant Navy survivors from sunken British vessels SS Ashantian and SS Wanstead, photographed in St. John’s, Newfoundland in April 1943. Photo by Gerald Milne Moses, courtesy Canada Dept of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada/PA-137795. Bottom right, survivors of torpedoed merchant ship aboard HMCS Arvida, St John’s, Nfld, September 1942. Image courtesy Canada Dept of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada/PA-13628.