History

The ‘bedrock’ of victory

Canada’s corvettes were unlikely heroes of the war

JOHN DEMONT December 3 2001
History

The ‘bedrock’ of victory

Canada’s corvettes were unlikely heroes of the war

JOHN DEMONT December 3 2001

The ‘bedrock’ of victory

History

Canada’s corvettes were unlikely heroes of the war

JOHN DEMONT

On this wintry November morning, Canadas last corvette hangs above a Halifax naval jetty where her hull is being cleaned. Yet, for anyone standing on the bridge of HMCS Sackville, it's possible to imagine what it must have been like cutting through a fog bank in the middle of the North Atlantic as the fate of the Second World War hung in the balance. Often perched at a nauseating 45-degree angle as icy waves lashed the decks and penetrated into the crowded midships, all eyes would squint through the fog, searching for a glimpse of a German U-boat, a member of the ferocious Nazi wolf packs that were terrorizing the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic. “The corvettes were cheap, nasty and dumpy, Hugh MacNeil, 66, a retired vice-admiral and chairman of the trust that looks after the Sackville, says from her deck, but they were all Canada was capable of in the 1940s—and they got the job done.” When back in the water, the Sackville is a floating museum on Halifax’s harbourfront. Her caretakers have done their best to ensure the 62.5-m vessel looks as she did in the later years of the war, after Germany had failed to starve Britain into submission by cutting off its North American supply lifelines. German U-boats, armed with powerful torpedoes and able to dive

below the oceans surface within 30 seconds, sank almost 11 million tonnes of shipping in what Winston Churchill dubbed the Battle of the Atlantic. The Allies counted on intelligence gathering, evasive routing and the guns of their destroyers to circumvent the enemy craft. But their last line of defence was always the corvettes—durable, easy-to-build vessels based on a whaling ship design and only lightly armed—that escorted huge convoys of merchant ships crawling across the danger-filled seas. “The corvettes were the bedrock of the Allied effort in the Battle of the Adantic,” says Marc Milner, a military historian who teaches at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. “Without

them the ultimate Allied victory would not have been possible.”

So it’s entirely fitting that on Dec. 7, when millions remember Pearl Harbor, Canadians should also recall the 23 men lost aboard the corvette Windflower that same day in 1941, when she was accidentally rammed by a Dutch freighter in dense fog off the Grand Banks. Over the course of the war, 10 of Canadas 123 corvettes sank. On the other side of the ledger, they are credited with sinking 16 enemy subs.

But there was no glamour in being on a corvette, and little thanks either. The British brass, appalled by convoy losses, pulled the Canadian Navy off convoy duty

from 1942 through 1943 to update its equipment. But even when they returned to duty, the corvettes were still a misery. The ships, with crews of nearly 100, were suffocatingly crowded and rolled so much that some never got over their seasickness. “We knew it was terrible,” says Max Corkum, 81, a former sonar officer aboard HMCS Moose Jaw. “But we were young men who didn’t think anything was going to happen to us.”

The Sackville certainly did her bit. Commissioned on Dec. 29, 1941, she spent the next 32 months running convoys from St. John’s, Nfld., to Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Sometimes the action got pretty hairy: the Sackville drove off several subs during wolf-pack attacks. Her closest call came during an October, 1943, convoy when the Nazis unleashed their newly developed acoustic torpedoes. Six merchant ships and four escorts were sunk in the battle. But the Sackville emerged unscathed even after she was lifted out of the water by a tremendous explosion, probably when her own depth charges detonated a nearby torpedo.

When hostilities ended, most of the surviving corvettes headed to the scrapyard or were sold to other navies. But the Sackville remained in Canada as a training ship and later a research vessel. “We were lucky,” says Bill Murray, 81, a retired advertising executive living in Halifax who served on the Sackville in the wars final days. “It would be a terrible thing if not one corvette remained to remind us what we can accomplish.” Particularly at a moment when Canadian ships are again sailing off to war. G3