The Merchant Navy of Canada

Building merchant ships in Vancouver, 17 December 1941.
Photo by Nicolas Morant. National Film Board / National Archives of Canada, PA-116084.

Historians have often highlighted the essential and dangerous role played by the officers and sailors of Canada's Merchant Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic. These men sailed across the ocean on defenceless, sometimes slow ships, stalked by enemy submarines. When a freighter or a tanker found her cut off from the convoy, she became an easy prey. The men aboard ships that carried dangerous cargoes, such as gas or explosives, knew that, if attacked, their chances of survival were slim.

The extremely high casualties due to U-boat attacks during the first months of the war, made it urgent for the Allies to expand their merchant navies, not only to replace lost ships but also to speed up the delivery of equipment and food that Great Britain needed. Canada did her part as well and started building freighters as rapidly as possible. In six years of war, Canadian shipyards built 354 ships of 10,000 tonnes and 43 of 4,700 tonnes for the Allies.

At anchor, unloaded SS Elk Island Park awaits loading orders. Delivered 6 June 1943 by Montreal-based United Shipyards, she is equipped with torpedo nests secured to booms stowed vertically against the mainmast.
Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-147981.

Ships destined to sail under Canadian flag became the property of a Crown corporation, the Park Steamship Company Limited, established on April 8th, 1942. The company did not operate the ships but commissioned existing shipping companies to do so. Between 1942 and 1945, the Park Steamship Company took over 127, 10,000-tonne Park class ships, including 13 tankers, as well as 43, 4,700-tonne Gray class freighters and 6 tankers of 3,600 tonnes. All those vessels, except for two of them, were named after federal, provincial or municipal parks; some carried light defensive armament, a gun at the bow and nets against torpedoes. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) supplied crews of eight to ten men for the maintenance and operation of that armament.

Finding crews for those merchantmen was a real challenge, as the RCN had already enlisted all men with some sailing experience. As for able-bodied men without navy experience, the Army and Air force were trying to attract them. The Merchant Navy recruited as many men as possible from shipping companies that operated on inland waterways or along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. It also had to accept

Identification certificate of seaman Arthur B. Barrie of the Merchant Navy of Canada.

Canadian War Museum, 19820188-033

men who had been turned down by the RCN for being under- or above-age. Retired navy officers, some in their seventies, re-enlisted to command Park class ships. The fact that men in the U.S. Merchant Navy got good pay and benefits gave birth to the myth that all merchant navy sailors received extravagant salaries. The reality of Canadian sailors was quite different! Actually, although they were paid less than their U.S. counterparts, Canadian merchant navy sailors earned slightly more than RCN sailors. With the war bonus, an able seaman received $119.12 per month, compared to $90 for a sailor on board a corvette. Officers on the other hand were better paid in the RCN and their income was tax-free.

Some 12,000 sailors served in the Merchant Navy of Canada during WWII. Of that number, 1,451 lost their lives on Canadian-flagged ships. Veterans of the Merchant Navy were granted a status equivalent to that of RCN veterans in 1992.

In order to encourage the captains of the merchant ships of all counties which carry the lifeblood of the U.K., I made it a point to attend the briefing conference of all captains and chief engineers before their departure. During the winter of '42-'43, when sinkings were at their worst, I could see when I told them of the measures by escort and air cover that were being taken for their protection and safety; I could see that they knew very well and that they knew I knew in spite of my brave words, that anything up to 25 per cent of them would probably not arrive in the U.K. in their own ships, and that probably half of that number would not arrive in the U.K. at all. But there was never a waver in their resolve.
- Admiral Leonard Murray, RCN

Suggested Reading:
Robert G. Halford, The Unknown Navy, Canada's World War II Merchant Navy, Vanwell Publishing, St. Catherines (Ontario), 1995.
See list of lost merchant ships on the Manitoba Naval Museum website