Winter 1942-1943: in the North Atlantic,
winter storms raged with gigantic waves
and gusts of winds. But there were worst
threats: the number of German submarines,
the dreaded U-boats, was growing. Hunting
in packs of up to 20 submarines, they targeted
Allied convoys. These attacks were so destructive
that they threatened to bring transatlantic
shipping to a halt, making impossible the
invasion of Europe. During the first twenty
days of March 1943, 85 Allied ships were
torpedoed and sunk. These were the darkest
hours of the Battle of the Atlantic.
Dark hours for Royal Canadian Navy escort
groups as well, as they were severely criticized
by Western Approaches Command. In March
1943, three of the four Canadian escort
groups were pulled away from the Mid-Ocean
Escort Force for additional training at
the Royal Navy base in Londonderry. They
were then assigned to the Great Britain-Gibraltar
route used by convoys involved in Operation
Torch, the invasion of North Africa.
And then, the wind shifted direction
A Change in the Balance
on board HMCS Moose Jaw,
Halifax, May 1st, 1944.
of National Defence / National
Archives of Canada, PA-112918.
If the U-boat fleet was growing, the number
of Allied convoys, freighters, tankers and
escort ships increased as well, in part
through the efforts of the Canadian shipping
industry. Improved ASDIC,
radar and radio direction finding systems
were installed on Allied vessels allowing
them to better locate and hunt down German
submarines. A new weapon, the "Hedgehog"
was coupled to the ASDIC and could fire
up to 24 mortar shells of 30 kg in front
of a frigate or corvette. British intelligence
services broke the new Enigma cipher allowing
the Allies to intercept U-boat radio messages.
Air patrols became more frequent and longer-ranged,
flying from air bases in Iceland, Newfoundland
or Great Britain.
The creation of support groups separate
from escort groups made it possible to hunt
down U-boats with some efficiency and without
leaving convoys unprotected from attacks
by other submarines of the pack.
In April 1943, the command of escort forces
in the Atlantic was once more restructured:
Western Approaches Command remained responsible
for North Atlantic convoy operations east
of Newfoundland; the US Navy was responsible
for operations in the South Atlantic, including
the Great Britain-Mediterranean route. The
Royal Canadian Navy was put in charge of
operations in the North West Atlantic. Rear
Murray was appointed as commander
in chief for that new theatre.
The following month, the three "C"
(i.e. Canadian) escort groups completed
their training and returned to the North
West Atlantic sector. All ships were upgraded
to improve their combat worthiness. Other
Royal Canadian Navy ships were to be upgraded
as well as the war went on, but the gap
between Canadian and Royal Navy ships was
never filled. In June 1943, the first Canadian-built
In May, all those measures began to have
a definite impact. In three weeks and a
half, 30 U-boats were destroyed by the Allies,
in regard of 50 merchant ships sunk. Between
June and August 1943, 80 U-boats were destroyed
or seriously damaged. Admiral Karl
Dönitz was forced to order
his submarines to avoid Allied convoys.
Even if the balance of forces changed within
a few weeks, the submarine threat remained
a major one. German naval engineers continued
to improve U-boats and their weapon systems.
In September 1943, the Kriegsmarine
introduced the acoustic torpedo that could
follow a sound source such as a propeller.
That new weapon had devastating effects
until the Allies came up with a sound-producing
device that attracted the torpedo far enough
from the hull so that it would explode without
causing harm. In early 1944, the schnorkel
was introduced, a device that allowed a
continuous supply of fresh air while the
submarine was just below the surface. U-boats
thus equipped could stay below the surface
for days on end, almost invisible but able
to use their powerful diesel engines.
Starting in the summer of 1943, the German
Navy found itself unable to regain the advantage
in submarine warfare; Allied losses diminished
and merchant ship convoys were now able
to deliver supplies unhampered. The volume
of goods to be shipped to Great Britain
was enormous: for D-Day alone, some ten
million tonnes of supplies were required.
LCI(L) 299 of the 2nd Canadian
flotilla ferrying soldiers of
the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade
towards Normandy beaches, June
by Gilbert A. Milne. Department
of National Defence / National
Archives of Canada, PA-136986.
The Royal Canadian Navy ensured convoy
escorts operations in the North Atlantic
up to the very last weeks of the war, in
May 1945. It also took part in those large-scale
combined (Army, Navy, Air Force) operations
that started in 1943: the invasion of North
Africa in November 1942, the invasion of
Sicily in July 1943, the landing of Allied
forces in Italy in September 1943; as well
as support operations required for the campaign
in Northwest Europe, from June 6th, 1944,
to the Armistice.
The Royal Canadian Navy's participation
in combined operations took different forms.
From 1943 onwards, speedboats patrolled
the Channel; Canadian-flagged minesweepers
ensured the safe passage of invasion flotillas
in mine-infested waters. The RCN landing
crafts got Canadian and British soldiers
to their destination. And naturally, Canadian
frigates and corvettes took part in landing
operations, protecting the Allied fleet
against enemy submarines and warships.