Touching the stones

Naval Reserve News / June 15, 2016

By David Lewis

The Battle of the Atlantic Memorial, built into the grass hillside at HMCS Prevost in London, Ont., is a tribute to the ships and men of the Royal Canadian Navy lost in the longest running battle of the Second World War. It is a stunning and moving memorial, created with gratitude for those who made the supreme sacrifice and whose final resting places cannot be marked by graves.

A series of 25 blue granite stones traverse the hillside. Each stone is engraved with the name, image, hull number and date a ship was lost during the Battle of the Atlantic. There is also a stone honouring the sacrifice of the Merchant Navy. The memorial rests in central Canada as the sailors represented here, who were lost with their ships, came from small towns and large cities across the country.

As much as we remember the ships and the gallant names of Valleyfield, Alberni, Louisburg and others, it is not the steel and iron we commemorate, it is the sons and fathers, the brothers and friends, the grandsons loved and lost. It is their service and sacrifice which permeates this memorial.

The memorial remembers the 18-year-old sailor bundled heavily against the bitter cold. He’s standing watch on the open bridge of a Royal Canadian Navy corvette. Around him is the freezing North Atlantic and in the moonlight are the many hulls of the convoy he’s protecting. It remembers the blinding flash, being hurled into the air and slamming down into the icy water. It remembers the struggle to surface and the weight of the black water slowly overwhelming. It also remembers the Sunday morning knock on the door, the telegram, and the words “deeply regret to inform you…”

If only one ship was lost and only one young Canadian life was given, this memorial would still not be enough to recognize the sacrifice. There are thousands of other stories which leave no community untouched and few families unscarred.

As much as the Battle of the Atlantic Memorial has become a place of remembrance, it has also become a place of healing. It is a destination for those who, for over 70 years, have had no destination, no grave and no marker.

The stones touch those who visit, and those who visit touch the stones. Two sisters from small town Quebec had their great-granddaughter drive them to HMCS Prevost to visit the memorial. In November of 1944, their 19-year-old brother was lost with HMCS Shawinigan. Tears streamed down each face as their aged hands caressed the Shawinigan stone. There was the elderly gentleman who literally clawed his way up the hill to touch the Regina stone. He had been in Regina. And the 93-year-old gentleman in the Legion jacket, accompanied by three vans of family members, who wanted to see the Spikenard stone. He had been in on another ship in convoy and had witnessed the Spikenard, with his best friend, torpedoed and sunk.

With these memories and these visitors in mind, the Naval Association of Canada (London) has launched an aggressive landscaping project and associated fundraising drive. Where these visitors once struggled on foot, walker or wheelchair to get across the grassy lawn to their memorial, they will now have an even level pathway. It is a huge undertaking but it will truly enhance the accessibility to the site for generations to come.

Standing at the memorial and viewing these granite symbols of sacrifice, the words of Abraham Lincoln come to mind, “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” His words still ring true today. We do not know what constitutes “hallowed” ground, but we do know that this grassy hillside at HMCS Prevost has changed forever.