ARTICLES

Epitaph on a small fleet: the brave corvettes

They were the least glamorous of warships—too small, too clumsy, their crews too green. But in the bitter struggle for the Atlantic, they were too tough to quit

Terence Robertson October 22 1960
ARTICLES

Epitaph on a small fleet: the brave corvettes

They were the least glamorous of warships—too small, too clumsy, their crews too green. But in the bitter struggle for the Atlantic, they were too tough to quit

Terence Robertson October 22 1960

Epitaph on a small fleet: the brave corvettes

They were the least glamorous of warships—too small, too clumsy, their crews too green. But in the bitter struggle for the Atlantic, they were too tough to quit

Terence Robertson

“The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war . . . Everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome . . . The only thing that ever really frightened me . . . was the U-boat peril."

SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR

THE FIRST CORVETTE I ever saw was Canadian-built, Canadianmanned and named Windflower. The destroyer in which I was serving met this squat little 900-ton newcomer to the Atlantic battlefield in January 1941 and, not unnaturally, approached her for a closer look.

We were completely unnerved at the sight of a 4-inch gun on her foredeck with a weather-warped wooden barrel that distinctly drooped. Then we were warned to keep clear of her stern with the immortal signal: “If you touch me there, I’ll, scream.”

Windflower and a sister corvette, Mayflower, were the first of their kind to be commissioned in Canada and. because the Royal Canadian Navy was temporarily short of suitable weapons, both had been fitted with dummy guns for their maiden voyages to England.

Mayflower’s gun must have warped in similar fashion. On meeting the huge battleship Rodney in the Irish Sea she flashed the impudent challenge: “What ship?” The droop in her gun barrel so appalled the British admiral that he replied: “Since when are we clubbing the enemy to death?”

This irrepressible pair were the forerunners of 124 Canadian corvettes which, in the four years ahead, would carry some fifty thousand farmers, miners, students and white-collar workers to victory over the toughest and most highly disciplined fighters in the German armed forces — the elite pro-

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“I do not like whaler,” Churchill said. “They are not going to catch whales.” They became corvettes

fessionals of the U-boat arm. The exploits of the corvettes were rarely spectacular, almost never heroic. The little ships were the sheepdogs of the sea, shepherding convoys and doggedly matching their brief acquaintance with war against a ruthless enemy wherever he could be found, in the Caribbean, the English Channel or the Mediterranean.

But it was in the Battle of the Atlantic, the most protracted and bitterly fought campaign ever waged at sea, that their crews, many seeing an ocean for the first time from a corvette's deck, would be welded into finely tempered, decisive instruments of war. On this battlefield “Canadian" and “corvette” became almost synonymous. They created lasting legends of courage and endurance.

The name corvette was introduced by the French in the early eighteenth century to describe a fast, three-masted, barque-rigged man-o'-war with a single tier of guns on either side of a flush deck. Other maritime powers, Britain included. borrowed the name and the design for inclusion in their own fleets.

The advent of iron ships and steam engines in the late 1880s rendered corvettes obsolete anil they were replaced in fleet orders-of-battle by the first cruisers. (By coincidence the first warship ever owned by Canada was the last of the British corvettes — HMS Charybdis, acquired from the Royal Navy in 1880 as a training ship.)

In 1915, William Reed, a designer

from Smith's Dock Company in Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, reported to the Admiralty that he had worked out a whaler that might be useful in catching submarines. When the Admiralty responded, Reed was 24 years older. He was summoned to Whitehall in February 1939 to discuss submarine chasers that would be smaller than destroyers ("which cost too much and take too long to build”) but larger than trawlers ("too slow"). Reed suggested the conversion of the 900-ton whaler Southern Pride, whose diesel engine was capable of producing 16 knots, in July, the Admiralty approved a modified design of the Southern Pride.

At the outbreak of war in September, the RCN, consisting of thirteen ships and fewer than 2,000 men, was in no position to defend Canada's coastal waters. Ottawa decided to follow Britain's example of putting Reed’s design into production, and a construction program for 64 whalers was approved in February 1940 —the month in which Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, issued a memorandum to his subordinates saying: "I do not like the word ‘whaler,’ which is an entire misnomer as they are not going to catch whales. I should like some suggestions about this.” When the name corvette was submitted he was captivated by the Nelsonic flavor of it. A few days later, the Admiralty substituted corvette for whaler.

For most of the twelve Canadian shipbuilders who undertook to complete 28

corvettes by the end of 1940 and 36 in the following year, contracts of this nature were a new experience. Added to an acute labor shortage was the regularity with which armaments ordered from Britain were being lost in the Atlantic. At the end of 1940, only 14 of that year’s 28 corvettes were ready for commissioning. However, there were to be no more delays; Canadian shipyards caught up with delivery schedules in 1941.

The grand positioning of forces for the Atlantic battle took place in the summer of 1941. With the eastern areas made untenable by improved British defenses, the U-boats moved westward into the Atlantic decpfield where the escort chain was weak. In June, 25 U-boats were on patrol south of Greenland and east of Newfoundland.

To meet this threat, refueling bases were established in Iceland and the first Canadian corvettes were moved from Halifax to St. John's. Newfoundland — about 600 miles closer to Britain. When the corvettes Chambly. C'ollingwood, Kenogami. Agassiz, Alberni, Orillia and Wctaskiwin arrived at St. John’s in June, the Newfoundland Escort Force was officially born and “Newfie” became an integral part of the corvette story. For thousands of Canadian sailors, Newfie would mean home for the next four years. The western Atlantic became a Canadian domain, with the RCN responsible for the safety of convoys be-

tween Newfie and the mid-ocean meeting point south of Iceland where British ships took over.

Commander James Douglas Prentice, captain of Chambly, was one of the most colorful officers to serve in corvettes. Son of a former British Columbia cabinet minister, he had retired from the Royal Navy in 1934 to manage his ranch in the Cariboo country where, because he was seldom seen without stetson, riding breeches and monocle, he was widely known as the Monocled Cowboy. In 1939. at 41, he returned to sea with the Canadian Navy.

“The enemy,” he told his officers, "is not destroyed in war by untrained ships.” To the disgust of officers and men alike, he proceeded to ensure that Chambly was a trained ship.

While exercising of! Newfie on September 3, 1941, with the newly commissioned corvette Moose Jaw, he received an urgent signal from the Commodore Commanding, Newfoundland Force, instructing both corvettes to steam at full speed to support convoy SC-42, then being threatened by a U-boat wolf pack south of Greenland.

Commander Prentice grinned at Lieutenant Eidward T. Simmons, his first lieutenant. "When we get there we’ll not have to worry about the convoy,” he said. “Our job will be to find the enemy and kill him."

Ted Simmons, a slim, fair - haired young British Columbian whose previous

sea experience was limited to an occasional weekend aboard a yacht, was not impressed by his captain’s good humor.

As first lieutenant he was bearing the brunt ol the crew’s dislike of tedious exercising. Tempers became unpredictable when 120 men were cramped in quarters designed for 90. They had to sling their hammocks wherever there was space — and it was always wet. With every pitch the corvette shipped water, which seeped through the messdecks, into the galley and the wardroom. Added to this discomfort was the misery of sleeplessness and sickness.

The convoy they were racing to help consisted of 64 ships spread over 25 square miles of ocean. Sweeping ahead was the destroyer Skeena; astern and on either beam were the corvettes Orillia, Kenogami and Alberni — too weak an escort to prevent a determined attack.

At dusk on September 6 a torpedo swept down Kenogami’s starboard side and the attack had begun.

In the first 24 hours the enemy destroyed ten merchant ships without loss to himself. On the evening of the 7th, Chambly and Moose Jaw crossed the convoy’s line of advance ten miles ahead of it, turned to sweep toward the leading ships, and Chambly's asdic operator reported: “Echo bearing 020 degrees.

Range 700 yards. Submarine contact.”

Commander Prentice gave his orders quietly. “Tell Moose Jaw we're attacking . . . Full speed ahead . . . Stand by depth charges.” The corvette vibrated wildly as she gathered speed and ran over the target. Six depth charges tumbled down toward the hidden enemy and seconds later the ocean surface quivered under the shock of a series of crackling roars.

Two hundred feet below. U-501 listed heavily, her crew sprawled across the decks. Steam filled the control room and from the battery room came an alarmed shout: “Chlorine gas. We’ve got to go up.”

The U-boat surfaced 400 yards from Moose Jaw, which increased speed to ram. The Germans, crowded on U-501's deck, were so alarmed at the sight of the corvette's sharp bows bearing swiftly down on them that they jumped overboard. With the enemy no longer able to escape, Moose Jaw swerved away, her stern swinging around to brush against the U-boat's conning tower. The German commander took the opportunity to leap lightly across to the corvette’s quarterdeck, deserting his ship without getting his feet wet.

Chambly lowered a boat and sent away a boarding party under Lieutenant Simmons to prevent scuttling and take the U-boat prize. Leaving his men on U501 's deck, Simmons, accompanied by Stoker William Brown of Toronto, climbed to the conning tower and beckoned at two Germans to lead the w;ay inside to close the seacocks. They refused and as Simmons turned to clamber down alone there was a quick shout from Brown. The first lieutenant swung about, glimpsed an upraised arm holding a huge monkey wrench and hit the German on the jaw, knocking him overboard.

Brown vanished inside the U-boat and Simmons, trying to follow, was caught in the hatchway by his Mae West lifebelt. By the time he was free, water was pouring into the submarine, and chlorine was seeping out. He realized the Germans had scuttled their ship and that it would be seconds only before she sank. He shouted to his boarding party to

abandon ship. As he heaved himself back to the conning tower, U-501 rolled on her side and sank below the surface.

Ted Simmons, who today lives in Toronto as president of the Distillers Company (Canada) Ltd., told me what it is like to be taken down by a ship at sea.

“I hardly knew what was happening,” he said. "The German I hit was never seen again, and once I realized that the U-boat was sinking I had just enough time to order the boarding party overboard. The next thing I remember was being dragged under the water.

“I struggled to get clear of the conning tower rigging and floundered about trying desperately to reach the surface. There was no sensation of being sucked under, just a hopeless feeling of not being able to last out. 1 forgot my Mae West completely. When 1 did reach the surface I popped out like a champagne cork. Obviously I had gone down quite a way and had worked up a bit of speed in my struggles. I was almost alongside our lifeboat, which had already picked up our boys and some Germans.”

The stoker was trapped

It was not until he had returned to Chambly that Simmons noticed the absensc of Stoker Brown. Despite the gas and inrushing water, the stoker had persisted in trying to carry out his orders to find and close the seacocks. Unable to return to the conning tower in time, he had been taken down with U-501.

Any resentment Chambly’s crew held against their captain for his insistence upon training evaporated. He had proved his point by making them the first Canadian corvette to sink a U-boat.

During the remainder of 1941 the Canadian Navy grew to 20,000 men; of

the 12,000 then at sea, most were serving in corvettes — on coastal defense patrols off the west coast and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and with the Halifax - based escort forces that guarded convoys traveling between the United States and Newfoundland. By December of that year, all 64 corvettes ordered were in commission; 60 more were ordered for the next two years.

Forty corvettes, divided into seven groups, were based at St. John’s. Evidence of the enemy’s mounting respect for their fighting efficiency appeared in a Zurich newspaper report from Berlin. It quoted U-boat commanders as “boiling with rage at being unable to attack as often as in earlier days owing to increased convoy protection by corvettes. . . . ”

Their winter voyages were made in the icy northern darkness of the Atlantic, adding to the strain of constant vigilance the certain knowledge that survivors of a sinking ship would freeze to death within five minutes of jumping overboard.

Mountainous seas crashing against slender steel hulls made life in the engine rooms a series of frightening alarms. The engineers, many of them recruited from CNR and CPR locomotives because corvette engines operated on the same piston-engine principle, were always conscious of the appalling devastation that would follow a torpedo hit — above their heads.

Fogs in the Grand Banks were disliked even more than Atlantic gales. On December 7, 1941, just before news of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a freighter loomed out of one such fog, reared high above Windflower and cut through into her engine room. The corvette that had defied enemy-infested waters with a wooden gun eleven months before died tragically without ever using her real one. Her

boilers burst, spreading scalding steam over the wounded, and she sank with a loss of 60 men.

In February 1942 the eastern refueling terminal was changed from Iceland to Londonderry in Northern Ireland and the famous Newfie - Derry run became an ocean highway fenced in by Canadian corvettes.

The corvette Spikenard led the first Newfie group on this run with convoy SC-67. For more than a week the only enemy was the weather. But on the 10th, Spikenard, hidden from the convoy by heavy squalls, was torpedoed. She sank so quickly that it was not until the convoy reached the wreckage and the eight men who survived that her loss was discovered.

From such tragedies and triumphs, from such a heterogenous assembly of ships and men, there emerged a peculiar corvette character — a small-ship man, careless of discipline, contemptuous of pomp, heedless of gold braid, an amateur warrior with unexpected skill.

This esprit de corps expressed itself in the ships, with their self - designed crests — Moose Jaw displaying a firebelching moose in hot pursuit of Hitler, Calgary with a cowboy riding a bucking corvette, and Galt showing a corvette spanking a U-boat.

It was vividly apparent at sea on such occasions as the signal from one corvette to another in the middle of a hurricane: “Have just seen down your funnel. Fire is burning brightly”; or again during a night attack when a corvette fired starshell at a dark shape and reported to the senior ship: “Am illuminating enemy.” The senior ship replied: “That’s me.” It was evident too when a British destroyer leaving a Canadian corvette in charge of a convoy signaled: “Good luck.” She received the reply: “Thanks. Actually, we rely on skill.”

Nor was this new spirit missing ashore where an ancient garret in St. John’s was officially called the Seagoing Officers’ Club but always known as the Crow’s Nest. In this trophy-filled sanctuary, tensions were relaxed in floods of reminiscences and ladies were admitted on Tuesday evenings “provided they do not clutter up the bar.”

In the summer of 1942 merchant ship losses in the Caribbean began to match those in the Atlantic and the Canadian corvettes followed the trend of battle. On August 28, Oakville, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Clarence Aubrey King, a British Columbian who had served with the Royal Navy in the First World War, was directed by an American aircraft to a position off Haiti where a U-boat had been seen to crash-dive.

Oakville’s asdic quickly gained contact and King attacked at full speed. The first pattern of depth charges jammed U-94’s hydroplanes in a downward position, sending her to the surface. When her bows reared high out of the water, King threw his cap in the air, ordered his guns to open fire and raced in to ram the enemy.

The corvette crashed into the U-boat’s afterdeck, pulled astern, turned full circle and rammed a second time. On her foredeck, a boarding party under SubLieutenant Harold Lawrence of Halifax was ready to leap across to the U-boat.

Only Lawrence and Stoker Petty Officer Arthur Powell of Timmins, Ontario, had time to make the jump. They landed on U-94’s foredeck, brandishing revolvers. Oakville drew clear, leaving them alone aboard a submarine filled with 54 Germans.

In Ottawa, where he is now a lieutenant - commander attached to naval headquarters, Harold Lawrence told me:

“When some Germans came out of the escape hatch and started shooting we felt pretty naked. We returned their fire, killed two of them and told a third to jump overboard as we didn’t fancy the idea of his getting behind us. He refused so I knocked him overboard anyway. The rest were pretty unfriendly about this, but they stayed below where we wanted them. They could hardly scuttle the ship if they couldn’t get out.

"I left Powell on deck and went below myself. The sub had settled lower in the water. When she rolled, the conning tower went under and water poured down the hatchway on top of me. I thought 'Hell, my gun’s wet’ and pulled the trigger to see if it worked. It did, and the Germans thought I had given some sort of signal to sink the boat. They bolted up on deck, ignored Powell and dived overboard.

“I made a thorough check of the upper levels, but the lower decks were completely flooded and chlorine gas was seeping from the batteries. She lurched alarmingly and Powell yelled down something about a time bomb. I went back on deck and found him in sole possession, with the Germans all swimming for Oakville. We followed, slightly worried about sharks supposed to be around. A few minutes later the sub's bows reared up and she slid stern first out of sight.”

News of Oakville’s success in the Caribbean coincided with the arrival of sixteen Canadian corvettes in the Mediterranean to take part in the North African landings. They had some difficulty in adapting themselves to a new battlefield occupied by German and Italian U-boats employing unfamiliar tactics. One corvette, hearing propeller noises on her asdic loudspeaker and thinking it might be a U-boat running at periscope depth, tried to ram a passing torpedo. Another dropped unprimed depth charges during an attack, received a blistering signal from a British destroyer and replied: “Very sorry. Please remember I’m only a poor bloody stockbroker.”

On January 13, 1943, Ville de Québec picked up a promising asdic contact while escorting a convoy off Algiers. She dropped an exploratory pattern of depth charges and to her astonishment a Uboat broke surface. She promptly rammed and there were no enemy survivors from an action that lasted less than ten minutes.

A week later, the corvette Port Arthur was escorting another coastal convoy in the same area and her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Ted Simmons, promoted and decorated since leaving Chambly, was finding it difficult to control his laughter. A fair wind was blowing from astern and smoke pouring from the funnel enveloped the crow’s nest where a new recruit from Saskatchewan was on lookout. A few minutes earlier, the lookout had shouted down to the bridge, beckoned at his captain and demanded: “Hey, you in charge. Can’t you turn this bloody boat round and point tn the other direction? How d’you expect me to see anything with this smoke and soot half blinding me?”

The asdic operator brought Simmons’ amusement to an abrupt end with a report of a definite contact. Port Arthur delivered two well-placed attacks on the Italian submarine Tritone, damaging her high-pressure air system and forcing her to surface with what air remained in her tanks. Only 21 of the Italian crew managed to get clear before she capsized and sank.

By mid-1943 the Allies were winning the Battle of the Atlantic. The enemy was being destroyed faster than he could

sink merchant ships, and accelerated construction programs in Canada and Britain produced corvettes in increasing numbers, some so improved and enlarged that they were called frigates. Aircraft spanned the Atlantic deepfield and there was nowhere for the enemy to hide.

Nineteen Canadian corvettes were withdrawn from the Newfie-Derry run, given prolonged and extensive refits and then sent to England to join the gathering invasion forces. After D-day they patrolled the French coast, beating off ineffectual attacks by a weakened U-boat arm.

More than a hundred corvettes remained on the Atlantic convoy routes, their culminating triumph being the unmolested passage in July 1944 of the largest convoy ever assembled — HXS300, consisting of 167 ships under an all-Canadian escort.

In four years the Canadian Navy sank 27 U-boats, 15 of them by corvettes. It provided protection for 25,343 merchant-

ship voyages across the Atlantic and ensured the safe arrival in Britain of 181,643,180 tons of war supplies. More than 1,700 Canadian sailors lost their lives, many of them in the 10 corvettes sunk by the enemy.

In 1945, ninety thousand Canadians returned home from the sea. They left behind in naval dockyards row upon row of rusting corvettes, battle-scarred, empty and lifeless without their crews. To the Canadian taxpayer they represented an investment of nearly $75,000,000. On the principle that what has served once can always be made to serve again, the War Assets Corporation in Ottawa pul the corvettes up for sale.

Some went to the Chinese Nationalists and were later incorporated into the Red Chinese forces; others were sold to Israel, Chile, Venezuela, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. HMCS Hespeler, which helped to destroy U-484 in September 1944, had her face lifted by Home Lines and now sails the Ægcan Sea as the

pleasure cruiser Stella Maris. Where there were once depth charges, there are now deck chairs; where there was once a 4-inch gun, there is now a swimming pool.

Others have been converted into tugs and coasters and still sail the east and west coasts. But most of the originals were sold as scrap to such companies as the Steel Company of Canada in Hamilton. Only HMCS Sackville, veteran of innumerable convoy battles, remains in service; she is now a radar and hydrographic survey ship.

There is no room in an age of atomic submarines for William Reed’s whaler. But modern submarine chasers conform to his principles of “rapid acceleration, manoeuvrability and seaworthiness.” Their function is the same — to seek out and destroy the underwater enemy. For that reason, the legacy of the Canadian corvettes is an enduring foundation stone upon which the Navy of the future can be — and is being — built.