Shared Endeavour – Battle of the Atlantic

MARLANT - Admiral's View / April 29, 2014

Located in the mouth of Halifax Harbour, the minesweeper HMCS Esquimalt lies wrecked on the seabed, the victim of a U-boat torpedo that found its mark on 16 April, 1945 just weeks shy of the war’s end.

Esquimalt, the ship’s 44 fatalities, and homeport a short distance from its resting place, are emblematic of the service of Canadians in the Battle of the Atlantic. In recognition of this great national achievement, the Royal Canadian Navy joins with the Royal Canadian Air Force, veterans and citizens alike to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the campaign on 4 May, 2014.

It was an epic struggle that ebbed and flowed for a tumultuous six years; a strategic precondition to defeating Nazi Germany. Unlike other campaigns, it brought the war to Canada. Ships were sunk in our harbour approaches, in the sheltered waters of Conception Bay, N.L., Cabot Strait and Gulf of St Lawrence. The sinking of the Sydney to Port aux Basques ferry, SS Caribou, with a loss of 136 including 10 children highlights its unlimited nature. All told, the battle claimed the lives of nearly 4300 Royal Canadian Navy personnel, Canadian merchant sailors and airmen of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The immediacy of war was felt in Halifax time and again. The early loss of one of Canada’s merchant fleet, the Saint Malo, on 12 October 1940 took 28 merchant sailors to their watery grave. They hailed from towns across Canada and none more so than the small communities of Nova Scotia, including Bayswater, Creignish, Digby, Granville Ferry and Lahave. But they came from Halifax more than most. William Davie, Arthur Knight, Donald McDonald, and 17-year-old Frederick Hansen paid the ultimate sacrifice serving their nation.

For Halifax, the toil of war marked a period of history no less important than its founding, the sinking of the Titanic or the Halifax Explosion. Indeed, the Battle of the Atlantic still lingers in the memory of veterans and citizens who witnessed first-hand the drama of six years of struggle to defeat an enemy hidden at sea. My father-in-law, Joseph Purcell, for example, still paints the scenes of wartime Halifax from memory alone.

The implication of an entire city in World War II is best captured by Thomas Raddall in his book Halifax, Warden of the North. “Here came the Americans’ ‘every aid short of war’; here came the products of the Canadian forests and fields and factories; here came the Canadian troops bound overseas; here the convoys assembled; here the escorting warships were refueled, provisioned, and refitted for the long and dangerous ocean passage; here the grey merchantmen damaged by enemy action, by storm, or by collision in the dark thick nights, were repaired and sent back into the struggle.”

The merchant fleets of occupied Europe made their headquarters here. Lands were expropriated and hastily built military bases, hangars, barracks and schools sprang up. Workshops, shipyards and depots serviced the great fleet and grew apace the campaign at sea. In time, supremacy in tactics and strategy, herculean human effort and wartime-scale shipbuilding turned the tide.

Citizens joined the struggle too. Rationing affected all. Accommodations were desperate, winters freezing, and building efforts to alleviate shortages frantic. Adults were organized into legions of auxiliary police, and fire and first aid responders. Blackout discipline was enforced. Despite all this and the sad undertone of losses at sea, Halifax nourished the sailors physically and emotionally in hospitals, churches, theatres, restaurants, dance halls and private homes. Victory in the Battle of the Atlantic was a shared achievement.

On 4 May 2014, at 10:30 a.m., contingents from the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force and Canadian Army will parade in Halifax and communities across Canada to commemorate the Battle of the Atlantic. We will be joined by veterans of Canada’s Merchant Navy and other military associations, in addition to leaders of government and all those who take inspiration from this great national achievement. At sea off Point Pleasant Park, HMCS Sackville, Canada’s Naval Memorial, the last of the massive flotilla of tiny corvettes that turned the tide, will solemnly mark the occasion just seaward of the Halifax Sailors’ Memorial. The public is most warmly welcomed to join their Canadian Armed Forces in witnessing these events.

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