The Merchant Navy

In 1939 when the conflict began, Canada had 38 merchant ships at its disposal with a total of only 290,000 tonnes cargo capacity. The Canadian Government knew that the limited number of ships in operation would be unable to meet the intense demand of Great Britain if they were to succeed. Therefore plans to expand the Merchant Navy were made and the Canadian people rose to meet this exceptional task.

In an effort to bridge the gap, all 133 ships of the Great Lakes fleet was transferred to ocean convoy duties in addition to ship construction. By the end of the war, Canadian shipyards had produced 403 cargo ships, a significant number of which were Canadian-flagged.

The importance of the Canadian Merchant Navy as a lifeline to Britain could not be overstated. It was estimated that a 10,000-tonne merchant ship could provide enough “foodstuffs” to feed 225,000 people for a week. Cargo carried by the fleet included everything from clothing, fuel, steel, aluminum, lumber, aircraft, tanks, jeeps, trucks, guns, munitions and anything else that could be required for the war effort.

As such, merchant ships became important targets for enemy surface ships and U-boats. Additionally, because so many merchant sailors had experienced the dangers of mines and submarines during the First World War, they knew firsthand the dangers of wartime shipping.

The sea lanes of the North Atlantic were a grim battleground that witnessed more human, ship and material loss than in all the naval campaigns of the previous 500 years combined. Seamen whose vessels were hit had only a 50 percent chance of survival.

By the end of the war, there were more than 6,000 regular personnel and officers in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS). They served in many occupations previously believed to be too hazardous for women. The occupations were varied and included cooking to supply assistants to motor transport drivers and even despatch riders.

By the end of the war 500 had served overseas, and an additional 500 had served in Newfoundland, which was an overseas location at the time, and in Washington, D.C.

A total of 12,000 men and women served in Canada’s Merchant navy alongside sailors of every nationality, thousands of them with homes in enemy-occupied Europe. Canadian merchant seamen not only traversed the North Atlantic route, but sailed the oceans of the world to carry cargoes to and from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, New Zealand the Far East and even the deadly Murmansk Run to northern Russia.

The cost of the war was high. Fifty-nine Canadian-registered merchant ships were sunk by enemy or probable enemy action, and 2,000 Royal Canadian Navy members, 1,600 Canadian merchant seamen and 752 Canadian airmen lost their lives. Canadian merchant vessels made 25,343 voyages from North America to Britain, carrying nearly 165 million tonnes of military and civilian supplies.

In the opinion of Canadian Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, who commanded the Canadian Northwest Atlantic theatre during the war, “The Battle of the Atlantic was not won by any navy or air force, it was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of the British and Allied Merchant Navy.”