Garland Encyclopedia of World War II in Europe Articles (1993)

by Rob Fisher

Canadian Navy

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) underwent vast expansion during World War II and by 1945 it was the third-largest Allied navy in terms of number of warships. The most vital task of this growing fleet of corvettes, frigates, and destroyers was convoy escort and it was in the Battle of the Atlantic that they played a decisive role. By mid-1943 the RCN contributed fifty per cent of the close escorts for North Atlantic trade convoys. But Canadian warships also operated in Arctic, Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Pacific waters, and took a major part in the D-Day landings in 1944. Beginning in late 1942, the RCN acquired larger units such as Tribal-class destroyers, light cruisers, and escort carriers to form the nucleus of a balanced fleet.

During the 1920s-1930s the Canadian Navy had been threatened with extinction by cost-cutting governments but narrowly survived. At the outbreak of war in September 1939 it consisted of six destroyers, five minesweepers, and two small training vessels, with a permanent force of 1,774 men and 2,083 reserves. From this tiny base the RCN grew to a force of 100,000 men and women and over 360 warships, made possible by a massive Canadian shipbuilding program. Ship-yards on the Great Lakes and St.Lawrence River, and the Pacific and Atlantic coasts produced 70 frigates, 122 corvettes, 194 minesweepers, and a host of trawlers, Motor Launches, Motor Torpedo Boats, and landing craft. In addition, they built over 400 merchant ships for the Allied war effort. This was a remarkable achievement considering the moribund state of the Canadian shipbuilding industry in 1939: the only naval vessels produced in Canada since 1918 had been four small minesweepers.

Not surprisingly, this rapid expansion was accompanied by severe growing pains as Naval Service Headquarters struggled to equip, man, and train its burgeoning fleet. Shore facilities had to be improvised from scratch. In the early years this did not pose an insuperable problem because the Allied need for escort vessels was so desperate that ships in almost any condition were useful. But by 1942-3 the nature of the U-boat war had intensified to such a degree that only highly trained escort groups fitted with the most advanced types of radar, sonar, and HF/DF could successfully battle the wolf-packs. The RCN failed to keep pace technically with the US and Royal Navies and for a few months in early 1943 Canadian escort groups were removed from the North Atlantic run while they were upgraded in British ports and temporarily deployed on the Gibraltar run, where they immediately proved their increased effectiveness. The equipment crisis ultimately resulted in the replacement of Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles, RCN, the Chief of the Naval Staff, by Rear Admiral G.C. Jones, RCN, in January 1944. The worst effects of the crisis had been addressed by mid-1943, although less serious technical shortcomings continued to plague Canadian warships until the end of the war.

Nevertheless, the RCN enjoyed considerable success in the Battle of the Atlantic and made up with numbers what it sometimes lacked in quality. Canada's rapid production of corvettes, the workhorse of the escort fleet, made end-to-end convoy escort possible in the North Atlantic in 1941. When the U-boat menace spread to new theatres in 1942 the RCN's escort commitments expanded in turn. Enemy submarines penetrated Canadian coastal waters and even entered the mouth of the St.Lawrence River. Local convoys had to be organized in the Gulf of St.Lawrence and between Boston, Halifax, and Newfoundland, using scratch groups of corvettes, minesweepers, armed yachts, and Motor Launches. Six corvettes protected vital oil tanker traffic from the Caribbean Sea during the spring and summer of 1942 and then moved over to the American eastern seaboard to reinforce the US Navy. In autumn the RCN scraped together another seventeen corvettes to support Operation Torch in the Mediterranean Sea. The corvettes scored U-boat kills in both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

The brunt of the battle, however, was always in the North Atlantic. From summer 1942 until autumn 1943 the hard-pressed Canadian escorts fought the German wolf-packs in some of the most famous and bloodiest convoy battles of the war: SC-94, ON-127, SC-107, ONS-154, ON-166, SC-121, and ON-202/ONS-18. As the Atlantic campaign reached its climax in April-May 1943, the ocean area off Canada and Newfoundland, hitherto under British and then US strategic direction, became a distinct Canadian theatre under Rear Admiral L.W. Murray, RCN, Commander-in-Chief Canadian Northwest Atlantic. Henceforth, he controlled all Allied aircraft and warships engaged in the escort of trade convoys in this region. This delegation of operational authority revealed American and British recognition of the crucial role played by Canadian escorts in the Battle of the Atlantic. It was also a tribute to the excellence of the RCN's control-of-shipping organization, radio-intercept network, and Operational Intelligence Centre. By 1944-5 the Canadian Navy provided most of the close escort for North Atlantic trade convoys and had formed eight mid-ocean support groups. Its most successful support group, EG 9, destroyed five German U-boats between March 1944 and February 1945.

The Atlantic escort fleet was the Canadian Navy's most decisive contribution to the war at sea but the service played a significant role in other theatres as well. In the aftermath of Dunkirk in 1940, Canadian destroyers had participated in the evacuation of Allied soldiers from France and in the extension of convoy for shipping in British waters. Three passenger liners converted into auxiliary cruisers assisted British and US forces in the defence against surface raiders in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, and North Pacific. The commissioning of four heavily-armed Tribal-class destroyers in late 1942 and early 1943 gave the RCN an added capacity for traditional fleet work. The British-based RCN Tribals operated with the Royal Navy in a variety of tasks, including runs with the Arctic convoys to Murmansk during the winter of 1943-4. They were transferred to the Tenth Flotilla at Plymouth in the spring of 1944 to clear the English Channel of German surface units in advance of the D-Day landings. As part of a select group of destroyers and cruisers, the Tribals were in the thick of the action and fought with distinction, sharing in the destruction of several German destroyers and smaller warships.

In total, the RCN contributed over 100 ships to Operation Neptune--the naval component of the D-Day landings. In addition to the four Tribals, this force included thirty landing craft, sixteen minesweepers, two fleet destroyers, nine escort destroyers, eleven frigates, nineteen corvettes, and sixteen Motor Torpedo Boats. These warships formed two flotillas of MTBs, four anti-submarine support groups, and one minesweeping flotilla. Those not in wholly-Canadian groups operated with British formations. Canadian naval forces engaged in tasks as diverse as shore bombardment, minesweeping, and close escort, among others. Although ranking well behind the US and British naval contributions to Neptune in size, the RCN contingent was larger than that of all the other Allied naval forces combined.

Towards the end of the war, growth and success bred ambition and confidence at Naval Service Headquarters, and a firm desire to establish a solid naval base for the post-war period. Two escort carriers building in American ship-yards for the Royal Navy were taken over and manned by the RCN. The aviation side, however, remained wholly in RN hands. The two carriers saw action overseas in 1944-5 and acquired valuable experience in naval aviation for the post-war fleet. In addition, the RCN obtained two light cruisers from the Royal Navy and one of these, HMCS Uganda, joined the British Pacific Fleet in 1945 in time for the intense operations off Okinawa. Although the second cruiser did not get into action, together they formed the core of the "big-ship navy" favoured by the naval brass in Ottawa.

During World War II the Royal Canadian Navy established a proud fighting tradition--something the fledgling service had failed to do in World War I. The RCN lost twenty-four ships to enemy action and suffered 1,990 fatal casualties. In return, it shared in the destruction of thirty-three axis submarines and sank or captured forty-two enemy surface ships. Canadian warships escorted over 25,000 merchant ship voyages from North America to the United Kingdom, carrying over 180 million tons of cargo to fuel the war effort.

Further reading

Tony German. The Sea is at our Gates: The History of the Canadian Navy. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990.

Marc Milner. North Atlantic Run: The Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle for the Convoys. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Gilbert N. Tucker. The Naval Service of Canada: Its Official History. Ottawa: King's Printer, 1952.

Laconia Order

This order was issued by Admiral Karl Doenitz after U-156 sank the Laconia, a 19,695-ton British troopship, on 12 September 1942. On discovering that the Laconia had carried 1,800 Italian prisoners-of-war, the submarine began recovering victims and called for assistance. During the rescue operation Allied aircraft bombed U-156 without success. To prevent future risks, on 17 September Doenitz prohibited U-boats from rescuing survivors of torpedoed ships, stating that it contradicted the necessity for "the destruction of enemy ships and their crews", and reminded them that bomber raids on German cities killed women and children. During the Nuremberg trials the prosecution argued that Doenitz had ordered U-boats to kill survivors, a charge that if proven would have resulted in a death sentence. The court was not convinced, however, and only convicted him of the lesser charges of waging aggressive war and general war crimes.

Further reading

Karl Doenitz. Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990.

Peter Padfield. Doenitz: The Last Fuehrer. London: Gollancz, 1984.

Prien, Guenther: (1908-1941), German U-boat captain.

Prien is best known for sinking the British battleship Royal Oak in Scapa Flow. In a daring feat of seamanship, U-47 penetrated the anchorage at night during 13/14 October 1939 and torpedoed the Royal Oak which sank with heavy loss of life. Although the battleship was an old, unimproved type of World War I vintage, the skilful attack was a propaganda coup. Prien was lionized in Germany as "the Bull of Scapa Flow" and his memoirs were published. He became the first U-boat ace to sink 50,000 tons of Allied shipping and amassed over 170,000 tons before U-47 was destroyed in March 1941.

Further reading

Dan van der Vat, "Commander Guenther Prien", in Stephen Howarth, ed., Men of War: Great Naval Captains of World War II. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

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Copyright © Robert C. Fisher 1993