Battle of the Atlantic recognized once again

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Navy News / May 2, 2017

By Lieutenant (Navy) Paul Pendergast

In recent decades public recognition of Canada’s wartime contributions and sacrifice has grown, with thousands of Canadians gathering in cities and towns from coast to coast on November 11 to pay tribute to members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty.

Recognition is also growing for a lesser known but significant event held each year on the first Sunday of May to commemorate the Battle of the Atlantic.

The Battle of the Atlantic was the fight for supremacy in the North Atlantic and lasted 2,074 days. It pitted Allied naval and air forces against German and Italian submarines, ships and aircraft whose primary targets were the convoys of merchant ships carrying vital life-sustaining cargo from North America to Europe.

The Battle of the Atlantic began with the sinking of the British passenger liner Athenia by German submarine U-30 on the first day of the war. Athenia had sailed from Liverpool, England for Montreal on September 2, 1939. It was torpedoed without warning the following day about 250 miles north-west of Ireland, with a loss of 93 passengers and 19 crew members.  Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939.

Even before war was declared, west coast destroyers His Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) St. Laurent and Fraser sailed from Vancouver on August 31, 1939 to form the backbone of the convoy escort force gathering in the Atlantic. Then, on September 16, St. Laurent and Saguenay sailed with the first convoy, HX 1.

Much of the burden of fighting the Battle of the Atlantic fell to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) which, at the outbreak of the war, was comprised of only six destroyers and a handful of smaller vessels.

By the end of the war, Canada’s navy had grown to become one of the largest in the world, and was instrumental in turning the tide of the war. During the Battle of the Atlantic, the RCN destroyed or shared in the destruction of 33 U-boats and 42 enemy surface craft. In turn, it suffered over 2,000 fatalities, including six women, and lost 33 vessels. The Merchant Navy lost 73 ships and suffered over 1,600 fatalities, and the Royal Canadian Air Force lost more than 900 aircrew.

Although largely unprepared for war in 1939, Canada’s navy grew at an unparalleled rate, eventually providing 47 percent of all convoy escorts. Rear-Admiral Leonard Murray, who as Commander-in-Chief Northwest Atlantic from March 1943, would become the only Canadian to hold an Allied theatre command during the war and direct the convoy battles out of his headquarters in Halifax.

Although Allied forces managed to gain the upper hand against the German U-boat threat in 1943, the fighting continued and losses mounted for another two years. The last RCN ship lost was HMCS Esquimalt with 44 lives lost in the approaches to Halifax on April 16, 1945. Less than three weeks later the Battle of the Atlantic officially ended on Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day – May 8, 1945), when German naval forces formally surrendered to Allied naval forces.

Battle of the Atlantic commemoration ceremonies will be held across Canada on Sunday, May 7, with the largest one at the National War Memorial in Ottawa at 11 a.m.