Why a Battle of the Atlantic Memorial?

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LINK - April 2017 / May 31, 2017

By Lt(N) David Lewis, HMCS Prevost

Ukrainian immigration to Canada was largely agrarian and waves of settlers had concentrated in the Prairie Provinces. Philemon and Christina Leskiw, both of Ukrainian extraction, had made a home in Saskatoon. The great depression hit the area hard and the population of Saskatoon and other urban areas surged as people searched for jobs.

Their son, young Anthony (Tony) Leskiw had seen the struggles and was determined to rise above them. With a strong work ethic inherited from his parents he was already employed as a printer's apprentice by the age of 17. When the dark shadow of war crept across Canada he began to see other young men in uniform. Like all young men he dreamed of seeing the world. He had never been out of Saskatchewan, never far from Saskatoon. The poster in the shop-keepers window for the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve immediately caught his eye.

It was a rainy day at the CP Rail station when Philemon and Christina said goodbye to their son. A teary-eyed embrace from mom, a firm handshake from dad, and Tony boarded the train. For days the train rumbled across new and exciting scenery. The sadness of homesickness was displaced by the anticipation of adventures to come.

Cornwallis was hard, but it was supposed to be hard. Tony knew that. It was the new bonds of friendship which helped him through. Now that the training was over, Halifax was an exciting town, much different than Saskatoon. Tony was proud to be a sailor, a man, not a boy in Saskatoon. Daily he would watch the Royal Canadian Navy warships, and the dozens of Merchant ships in Bedford Basin, as convoys were assembled. He couldn't wait to find out what his assignment would be.

When his orders came Tony he was excited to learn that he had been assigned as an RCN anti-aircraft gunner on the merchant ship SS Whitford Point. The RCN escorted the convoys and also posted navy gunners on the larger merchant ships to man the temporary guns.

The day came. From the deck of SS Whitford Point Tony could see the ships begin to move; whistles blew. Ships of every size and many flags exited the basin and found their station moving out into the open ocean. Tony watched as the small RCN Corvettes moved in like shepherds guarding their flocks. Tony dreamed that one day he would be stationed on a corvette. For now, he was proud as punch to be manning his gun. His first convoy. His first duty.

What would his friends back in Saskatoon think when, in just over a week, he would send them a postcard from England. He would buy his mom a silk scarf and for his dad, maybe some pipe tobacco. He imagined them receiving his package all the way from England.

The merchant men treated Tony and the other young Navy men well. He messed with them and the food was good. He kept most of it down as seasickness didn't seem to bother him much.

The flash of the explosion was blinding. The sound deafening. The torpedo from U-47 had skimmed through the convoy and made a direct hit on SS Whitford Point. The cargo she was carrying, almost 8,000 tons of steel, had no mercy. She plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic.

With wartime security and communications, it would be almost a week before the telegram boy would lean his bike against the fence at the home in Saskatoon, and walk to the door.

Tony's story is just one of over 2000 individual stories. We will never know most of them. The Battle of the Atlantic Memorial at HMCS Prevost in London serves as a reminder. A reminder of service, of sacrifice, but also of ultimate victory.