Battle of the Atlantic sacrifices remembered

Seamen from torpedoed ship aboard HMCS Arvida, St. John's, NL June 1945. Photo: Library and Archives Canada PA 136285.

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By Darlene Blakeley

The sacrifices of the brave men and women of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Canadian Merchant Navy whose lives were lost in the Battle of the Atlantic will always be remembered.

During the battle, the longest military engagement of the Second World War, the RCN destroyed or shared in the destruction of 33 U-boats and 42 enemy surface craft. In turn, it suffered over 2000 fatalities and lost 33 vessels. The Merchant Navy lost 73 ships and suffered over 1600 fatalities, and the RCAF lost more than 752 aircrew.

Each year on the first Sunday in May, Canada and its naval community commemorate those lost at sea during the Second World War. Today’s sailors uphold the legacy of the Battle of the Atlantic by pledging themselves “Ready, Aye, Ready” to face today’s security challenges with pride and professionalism.

This year Battle of the Atlantic commemoration ceremonies will be held across Canada on Sunday, May 6, with the largest one at the National War Memorial in Ottawa at 11 a.m.

The ceremonies provide an important reminder of the contributions made to Canada by the sea services for more than a century. They also help Canadians remember the continuing dangers of the naval profession, from both enemy action and the sea itself.

The Battle of the Atlantic was fought at sea from 1939 to 1945 with the strategic outcome being sea control of the North Atlantic Ocean. Over the course of 2075 days, Allied naval and air forces fought more than 100 convoy battles and as many as 1000 single ship actions against the submarines and warships of the German and Italian navies. Enemy vessels targeted mainly the convoys of merchant ships transporting materiel, supplies and troops vital to safeguarding the freedom of the peoples of North America and Europe.

On any given day, up to 125 merchant vessels were sailing in convoy across the North Atlantic. It was during these treacherous, stormy crossings that Canada’s navy matured and won the mantle of a professional service. It escorted more than 25 000 merchant vessels across the Atlantic. These ships carried some 182 million tonnes of cargo to Europe – the equivalent of 11 lines of freight cars, each stretching from Vancouver to Halifax. Without these supplies, the war effort would have collapsed.

Although largely unprepared for war in 1939, Canada’s navy grew at an unparalleled rate eventually providing 47 per cent of all convoy escorts. Rear-Admiral Leonard Murray, Commander-in-Chief Northwest Atlantic from March 1943 until the end of the war, became the only Canadian to hold an Allied theatre command during the war, directing the convoy battles out of his headquarters in Halifax.

By 1945, Canada’s navy had grown to become one of the largest in the world and was instrumental in turning the tide of the war. The Battle of the Atlantic officially ended on VE-Day, when German naval forces formally surrendered to Allied naval forces on May 8, 1945. The RCN commemorates the Battle of the Atlantic based on the year the battle ended.

The RCN continues to honour its wartime heritage with the introduction of the Harry DeWolf-class Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships. The lead ship in the class, Harry DeWolf, is named in honour of a wartime naval hero. A native of Bedford, N.S., Vice-Admiral Harry DeWolf was decorated for outstanding service throughout his naval career, which included wartime command of HMCS St. Laurent from 1939-40 and HMCS Haida from 1943-44.

Subsequent ships in the Harry DeWolf class have been named to honour other prominent Canadian naval heroes who served their country with the highest distinction.

For further information about the Battle of the Atlantic, visit the Veterans Affairs Canada web site.

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