The Battle of the Atlantic: From boys to men

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Navy News / April 29, 2020

Clarence Mitchell from Cairngorm, Ont., enlisted in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) in June 1942 at the age of 17. At that time, the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign of the Second World War, had been under way for nearly three years and would last until Germany’s surrender in May 1945.

The Battle of the Atlantic was the struggle between Allied and German forces for control of the Atlantic Ocean. The Allies needed to keep the vital flow of men and supplies going between North America and Europe where they could be used in the fighting, while the Germans wanted to cut these supply lines. To do this, German submarines, called U-boats, and other warships prowled the Atlantic Ocean trying to sink Allied transport ships.

As the battle raged, Mitchell and his shipmates quickly left their youth behind and learned what it was like to be fighting men at war.

What follows are excerpts from Mitchell’s own writings between 2005-2006, some 60 years after the Second World War ended.


I was eager to join up but was not old enough, so I had to wait. The navy was the only armed force that would take young men and boys 17 years of age. A day or two after my 17th birthday in 1942, I hitchhiked to London, Ont., to join the navy. They welcomed me with open arms, but sent me home with a letter that had to be signed by a parent, merchant, police chief and a minister from a church. It took some talking to get my mother to sign it, but she did.

With the letter, I showed up at His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Prevost in London, and was given a real fast medical and a navy uniform. I was now a full-fledged member of the RCNVR.

In a little over a week, I had to learn seamanship, knots and splices, and Morse Code, and to read messages with flags. In less than two weeks, I was on a troop train with hundreds of army, navy and air force personnel heading for Halifax.

Before I was 18 years old, I found myself on HMCS Beaver, a sort of converted sweeper sweeping for mines on the East Coast of Canada and the United States. I was not on the Beaver very long and was drafted to HMCS Annapolis, an old four-stacker destroyer given to Canada by the U.S. because Canada had hardly any fighting ships.

The day I landed aboard with a bunch of other guys, young like me, the captain lined us up mid-ship and gave us our welcome aboard address. He said now we can forget all that crap they taught us ashore. We were going to sea to fight a war, and he was not kidding.

We grew from boys to men really fast.

Was I ever seasick!

Duty watches were four hours on and four hours off all the time we were at sea. For the first two or three weeks, my duty was up the mast in the crow’s nest. With the ship rolling from port to starboard, as well as pitching up and down, I wondered why I ever joined the navy. Was I ever seasick! I couldn't puke straight down or it would land on the officers on the bridge. So I puked in my hat and washed it out when I climbed down.

For the first few days, I think all the guys were sick. But no matter how sick you were, you had to do your duty. One man not doing his duty, with floating mines and enemy U-boats with their torpedoes, could mean the ship could end its career beneath the waves.

When the action bell sounded, I had to get down to the 4.7-mm cannon on the bow. Later my action station was on the twin Oerlikons (20-mm cannons), port side mid-ship, and then to the 10-pounder gun on the stern.

For the next few months, I graduated to the wheel house. I was now a helmsman steering the ship. I liked steering the ship with the gyro compass. I could keep on course with every click of the compass. But HMCS Annapolis was an old First World War destroyer, and the cables from the wheel house to the tiller flats, where the machine was to turn the rudder, would break. So I had to go outside to the stem of the ship and with a large spoked wheel had to steer the ship manually.

There was only a magnetic compass back there. I would walk up one side of the wheel, the compass would swing away too far, so I would run up the other side. Nobody ever complained, but I could not keep on course. I was always glad to get back to the wheel house because I was always cold and wet back there.

When our ASDIC (sonar) operator got a ping on an enemy U-boat, the action bell would sound and the whole ship’s company would close-up to action stations. The ship would go full speed over the U-boat and fire 10 depth charges in all different directions, set to explode at 10 different depths in the water. Then we would go over the top again and let go 10 more charges. We had to be going fast or we would blow our own stern off.

Convoy duty and U-boat patrol

The duty of HMCS Annapolis was convoy duty and U-boat patrol. We were on the run between Halifax, Newfie John (St. John’s, Nfld.), New York and Boston. Between ports we would be taking a convoy three or four hundred miles out in the ocean, patrolling for U-boats. Other times, we would take a convoy to join other convoys out of Newfie John, heading across the North Atlantic.

If we did not take a convoy, we would go up the St. Lawrence River in search of U-boats. They were up the St. Lawrence sinking our merchant ships, even in sight of Québec City. Canadian people did not hear about bodies being washed ashore along the river bank. That was supposed to be hushed up.

I have been asked several times what it was like sailing on the North Atlantic in our ships. They were never intended to spend two or three weeks on end in the open North Atlantic. They were wretched to live in. Fresh water, food, bread and milk were gone in a few days. The mess decks where the sailors lived, ate and slept when they could, were below sea level.

Sound travels in water a long way. You could often hear depth charges and other explosions going off miles away. The living quarters were overcrowded, more so when crew size grew to man new equipment. Sea water always found its way in. Condensation dripped from the deck head. Bedding and clothing were always wet. The stench of unwashed bodies, vomit and oil that seeped from fuel tanks was everywhere. It was bitter cold and wet up top, and there was no steam heat below. We were always hanging on to things because the ship was always slamming into rough seas, shuddering and heaving.

There was no end to the noise, and we were exhausted and sick. No one ever took their clothes off at sea. You never knew when we might hit a mine, be called to action stations, or be struck by a torpedo.

Toilets at sea were flushed with sea water. Fresh water was limited to drinking and cooking. There was not enough for washing, and there were no showers aboard. We cleaned and showered when we got to harbour. That is when we would be hooked to a dockyard water supply.

Guarding the silverware

Each day, two guys were on mess duty. Their job was to go to the galley and bring food down then, after the meal, wash the dishes. On occasion, when throwing the dishwater over the side, all the silverware went into the ocean. That’s when it was a battle to steal some from another mess. That was hard to do because every mess guarded their silverware pretty closely. But the worst part was if the ship lurched and the dishpan went over also. I have seen us washing dishes with the pail we scrubbed the deck with.

Several hundred miles at sea, everyone on board came down with scabies. They were a nasty little bug that eats you up under the skin. I had them under my left arm and down my left side, and was bleeding by the time we got back to Halifax. Our Sick Bay Tiffy (medic) was really good at slapping on the iodine and putting on band aids, but did not have many supplies for anything else.

At Halifax, we were loaded into trucks and taken to Rockhead Hospital. At the hospital, we had to take off all our clothes and go into the hospital naked. We were marched into a really big shower room. Showers lined all four walls - I don't know, maybe 70 or 80 showers with no partitions, and two guys to a shower. Up by the ceiling in a glass cage, the medical officer sat and controlled all the water and temperatures. He got the water so hot our skin was red. Then, we reached into a door and got a stiff brush and some green stuff. You had to scrub your partner all over, then he had to scrub you. Unable to dry off, we went into a large room with bunks for the night. When they came for us in the morning, our skin was so tight we could hardly move.

A couple more days of this hot shower treatment, then a final inspection and back to the ship. The ship had been steam-cleaned and disinfected. The treatment was “kill or cure”, but there was no more scabies.

After two or three weeks at sea with constant U-boat watch, action stations and dropping depth charges every time we got a ping on a U-boat, I was always glad to get back to port. Of all the ports I have been in, I liked Newfie John. I liked to walk down Water Street to the wet canteen or a bar to have a glass of screech or a slug of Block and Tackle (a strong drink). Take a drink of Block and Tackle, walk a block, and you could tackle anything.

The people of Newfie John were the greatest. We would only be there long enough to fuel up and take on supplies, then it was off to sea again. In harbour, each ship had to supply two guys for shore patrol (naval police) to try and keep the boys out of trouble. I was shore patrol in many ports.

Bedford Basin in Halifax would have hundreds of ships ready to form a convoy. At dusk, the basin would be full and, by morning, the ships would all be gone. We would also be gone trying to keep the U-boats away from the freighters. That kept the navy busy because the U-boats were everywhere.

The “Black Pit”

Halfway across the Atlantic was known as the “Black Pit” – too far for the bombers to fly out from Iceland – and the U-boats waited there in wolf packs. Many freighters and navy ships were torpedoed there.

The Atlantic was an unforgiving sea for our small fighting ships. The ocean spray froze and coated ships with ice. It had to be chipped off so our ship would not become unstable and roll over. I spent many hours chipping ice with my whole crew, officers and all, at the same time, with the threat of a U-boat attack. Our clothes would be wet and we would be soaked to the skin. We would have icicles hanging from our eyebrows, nose and chin. We would not break them off till we got below with a little heat. Some skin would come off too.

All the time I was in enemy-occupied waters, I got 25 cents a day danger money. My pay was $1.30 a day. I signed half of my pay home to my mother.

As the war was many years ago, veterans are passing away in large numbers. Before we are all gone, we must let it be known what the veterans did so future generations will know. The real heroes of the Battle of the Atlantic were the merchant seamen who pushed themselves to the limit through one dangerous passage after another.

I write this with no honour or glory for myself, but for the hundreds of thousands who fought and died for the freedom of Canada. We Canadians live in the best country in the whole world.


Following his time fighting in the North Atlantic, Mitchell was sent to the West Coast where he was posted aboard the aircraft carrier His Majesty’s Ship Puncher. He sailed south along the coast of the U.S. and Mexico with several escort ships and destroyers, because the U.S. was now at war with Japan.

He would not see Canada again until after victory. He returned home on September 20, 1945.