My father Gavin Christie Clark served during the terrifying Battle of the Atlantic

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Navy News / May 9, 2019

Submitted by Kevin Charles Clark

My father, Gavin Christie Clark, grew up in Toronto and was the oldest of four children. His father, Christie Thomas Clark, was a Captain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and fought in Ypres and the second battle of the Somme until wounded. Upon my father’s call to duty during the Second World War, there was no way, he said, that he was enlisting in the Army. Rather, given his love of being on the water, he signed up for the Navy.

Gavin attended Royal Roads Naval Academy in 1940, entered service in 1941 as a Sub-Lieutenant, and was assigned to HMCS York. It was following this short stint that Gavin was given responsibility for Fairmile Q085 – one of those fast and relatively nimble vessels (120 feet in length that could comfortably operate at 20 knots) that were built and assigned to the Royal Navy.

At age 19, Gavin was recognized as one of the youngest Commanding Officers (CO) in the Royal Canadian Navy at the time and represented the demands by the Allied forces in recruiting men into these positions at such early ages.

The Fairmiles were equipped with one canon on the front deck with lines of depth charges along the back quarters of the vessel. Their missions included two principle responsibilities: protecting Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Nova Scotia from German U-boat penetration; and supporting and escorting merchant convoys across the Atlantic, making a critical contribution to the supply chain for Western Europe.

My father told the story of these Atlantic crossings as being particularly difficult. Depending on the seas, the Fairmiles rolled a lot on the swells and as low-lying vessels had the benefit and the challenge of not being seen. Escorting the convoys as fast as possible was an obvious objective, but they could move only as fast as the slowest vessel.

My father talked about the common use of Morse Code signal lights pleading “No Smoke, No Smoke” to the cargo ships pumping out black smoke as they tried to keep pace. Such identification attracted the attention of U-boats and made for easy targets by the Germans. The Fairmiles tried to provide cover to these convoys, dropping depth charges as best as possible upon sightings. It was tragic to see a cargo ship go down, unable to defend itself.

The constant fear of torpedoes was a nerve-racking experience. Combined with four hours-on, four-off watch rotations, these missions made for restlessness and anxiety at all times. It is interesting to note that at a Royal Canadian Military Institute (RCMI) dinner I attended with my father 15 years ago about these missions, that the guest speaker, a former German U-boat Captain (now Canadian), spoke about how petrified he and his crew were, 100 to 200 feet below the surface, trying not to be hit by these depth charges. My father turned to me and said: “I don’t know who would have been more scared in these situations – we all feared for our lives!”

The one oasis that seemed so incredibly valuable for these officers, being on the seas through all four seasons with all that the Atlantic had to offer up, was comfort in the Crow’s Nest Pub in St John’s. This small “hole in the wall” of a place, now recognized as a historic landmark, was a place not just for the embellishment of stories, but for straight talk on the situation. My father was very much a part of German U-boat discussions. The capture and the eventual display of the German periscope that resides in the pub was a proud moment.

My father held a great respect for all things naval throughout his life. He attended naval officers’ gatherings for many years and was always proud to wear his uniform, medals and sword on such occasions. As I rummage through the many memorabilia of my father and my grandfather, which I hope to deliver at some point to the RCMI for display, it makes me reflect on the significant responsibilities these young men and women had at such young ages – short stories we will hold for a long time.

Lieutenant Commander Gavin Christie Clark: May 5, 1922 – March 9, 2019.