The RCN and RCAF In the Battle of the Atlantic
That Canada played such a large part. in the Battle of the Atlantic has always been a source of national pride. After all, the nation had only a handful of ships and aircraft and no air or shipping industry to speak of in 1939, and it was an amazing achievement to win responsibility for a major operational theatre--as Canada did for the Canadian northwest Atlantic in May 1943--after less than three and a half years of experience and expansion.1 Controlling sea lanes in war demands a plentiful supply of ships and aircraft, working from good strategic bases, manned by sailors and airmen with at least the professional ability to match that of their opponents; and their command must exploit better than that of the enemy the interdependence of land, sea and air forces. Nature provided the nation with some of the raw material necessary for this combination of resources and talents, and the old imperial connection certainly gave Canadian armed forces something to build on, but that does not explain how Canada came to be accepted as a "full partner" in the naval war. The official naval histories only partially explain the phenomenon; by the nature of their commissions the authors wrote only about the Canadian navy, which leaves out not only the important role of the air force but also the vital question of interservice co-operation. There are in addition, serious criticisms of Canadian forces in the Battle of the Atlantic, both in books and in unpublished documents, that need to be examined with care.
"... A fox in a flock of hens" was the way Sir John Slessor described U-Boat depredations in the western north Atlantic in 1942. "It would have been better", wrote Commander Donald Maclntyre, "if the Canadians had pocketed their pride and sailed their ships with experienced escort groups until they were themselves battleworthy." Several British experts in the field of anti-submarine warfare, visiting Canada between August 1942 and June 1943, said that American aerial forces were inadequately trained, poorly equipped and badly coordinated; some said the Canadians were worse. From the enemy came an echo. The Directorate of Sea Warfare at U-Boat Headquarters in September 1942 reported that "The boats which have been operating (in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Straits of Belle Isle) have proven fully successful. Defence was comparatively weak and restricted itself to convoy protection.... "
This evidence, and more like it, suggests that the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force, until at least June 1943, were weak links in the chain of North Atlantic antisubmarine forces. After that they more than passed muster. Sometimes, as in the case of 162 Squadron at Iceland in 1944, they excelled; and the escort of transatlantic convoys tended to become a Canadian preserve. It is tempting therefore to draw the conclusion that Canadian forces were much more effective than the critics say they were, and that once they were given the chance the RCN and RCAF proved they had come of age.2
In the last two years of the European war, however, the U-Boats were technically inadequate to fight any longer on equal terms. Rather than an all-out offensive on the shipping routes, they were conducting a holding action to divert allied resources from other theatres until new types of submarine could be deployed. Furthermore, we now know that convoy routing benefited from reading the enemy signal traffic in this period, and that in the last two years of the war the German Intelligence Service lost the ability to read allied traffic. Therefore we must
look more closely at the earlier period, from 1941 to 1943, in order to assess properly the phenomenon of a small nation making an apparently disproportionate contribution, almost indeed playing the part of a major naval power, in the war against the U-Boat.
In August, 1940, the Chiefs of Staff Committee for the Defence of Canada decreed that in coastal areas the navy, army and air force would be directed by a joint system of command which would operate from a combined headquarters. This system had its origins in the concept for home defence first aired in 1936, when the Joint Staff Committee assumed both coasts would be vulnerable to sea and air attack. The same set of assumptions came to govern plans for the buildup of forces in Canada, detracting from the primary aim of the navy and the air force on the east coast of Canada and in Newfoundland when, after the spring of 1941, the U-Boat offensive extended into the western Atlantic.3
There was of course no serious direct military threat to Canada or the United States in 1936 or in 1941, except for that invented and perpetuated as an argument to persuade the Canadian Cabinet to increase the size of the military establishment. Military planning in Canada, indeed, proceeded under certain constraints resulting from the attitude of the Prime Minister to the Chiefs of Staff--"he held these officers", says the official historian of defence policy, "in something very like contempt"--and in his continual search for ways of resisting what he called foreign adventures. The Chiefs of Staff, supported by their Ministers, managed to present a united front to the Cabinet War Committee, but they had to contend with inter-service conflicts at a lower level. Committed to "Canadianization" of armed forces overseas, especially in the air force, and determined that Canada should in this war, as in the last, gain notable battle honours, they had also to concern themselves with the Home War Establishment. This brought them into conflict with senior British and American commanders; and from time to time, when they were able to devote direct attention to forces in the field, they even clashed with their own subordinates. The view from Ottawa, it has to be said, was often clouded.4
Using the threat of enemy attack as a reason for more allocations of war material to Canada exposed the Canadian Chiefs of Staff to some ridicule in Whitehall. The air force and navy, realizing the inadequacy of their forces to deal with a growing submarine threat, began early in 1941 to request up-to-date aircraft and destroyers for escort and patrol duties in the western Atlantic. The case for reinforcements was strong, but the submission made through Cabinet emphasized the need for defence against tip and run raids, and this allowed the British Chiefs of Staff to observe in their reply: "We note that Canadian Chiefs of Staff. make no reference to strengthening anti-submarine protection of shipping near Canadian coast". The truth of the matter was that Britain could not have given much help anyway. Not yet being able to determine from enemy decrypts the destination of submarines, Churchill supported the Admiralty's response with the sound argument that "if we were to divert any substantial part of our forces from their present area of operations to cover wider areas where there is admittedly some risk of enemy action, we would only imperil the whole and play into his hands". This was cold comfort indeed, and it exposed the real flaw in Canadian defence planning.5
Emphasis on the Home War Establishment was meant to achieve the objective of providing Canada adequate home defence within the framework of a traditional Anglo-Canadian alliance, as the Chiefs of Staff showed in their appreciation of February 24, 1941. Whatever might have been the intentions in ABC-22, the hemispheric defence plan, Canadian planners counted on their own ships and aircraft to defend shipping lanes and, bases in Canada and, what was perhaps even more important, looking after Newfoundland, "a highly important
outpost ... in many ways our first line of defence". Yet at this very moment Anglo-American staff talks, the so-called ABC-1 talks, were going on in Washington with no official Canadian representation. The word in Ottawa was that there was an Anglo-American plan afoot to exclude Canada from Newfoundland, and the Admiralty response to requests for reinforcements did nothing to allay those suspicions.6
Why was the Admiralty not taking into consideration the great Canadian contributions already made to the defence of shipping? Millions had been spent on anti-submarine vessels, on Fairmile launches for coastal patrols, for aircraft (still in the early stages of production but with great potential for future assistance), for extensive direction-finding facilities, and numerous additional air bases on Canadian territory. Supposing the ABC-1 talks succeeded and resulted in American involvement in the defence of convoys, what was being done to facilitate effective Canadian operations in the same region when they became necessary? What was being done, for instance, about the exchange of codes and cyphers with United States forces, with whom the Canadians would have to co-operate? The answer was, as Ottawa feared, precious little. The answer was, in fact, that both Britain and the United States believed, as President Roosevelt put it, that "Canada is really devoting its war effort to sending as much in the way of men and materials across the ocean as possible". In other words the western Atlantic was, in British and American eyes, an American sphere of influence. That Canadian and American aircraft involved in the Bismark operation in May could not talk to each other exercised the Canadians much more than it did anyone else; by far the greatest concern both in Washington and London was the problem of recognition and communications between United States and British forces in mid-ocean. Throughout April the movement of American military personnel to Newfoundland received very careful attention from Eastern Air Command and the Canadian attaches in Washington. And it was in April that the Permanent Joint Board on Defence began its heated discussion about the whole question of strategic control of forces in Canadian territory.7
On May 20, 1941, in response to new developments in the U-Boat offensive, the Admiralty decided to base an ocean escort force at St. John's, Newfoundland. There was some anxiety at Naval Service Headquarters that it might be placed under British command, an anxiety fed by experience with the 3rd Battle Squadron at Halifax in 1939, when there had been unpleasant difficulties about the extent of their authority between the British senior officer afloat, Rear Admiral L.E. Holland and the Canadian senior officer ashore, Captain H.E. Reid. Ottawa hastened to inform the Admiralty that Canada would be glad to take over the responsibility in Newfoundland, and the Chief of Naval Staff urged Commodore L.W. Murray, commanding Canadian ships and establishments in England, to make personal representations to the First Sea Lord. It was of course an offer the Admiralty could hardly refuse since Britain had no destroyers to spare, and the less British presence there was in the Atlantic the more likelihood there was of drawing in the United States. It was indeed with some disappointment that British officers in Washington and London learned a few months later that the Canadians not only needed but had always assumed they would be able to call on destroyers from the Royal Navy to bolster their own forces.8
In any case the Newfoundland Escort Force, at least in British and American eyes, was only a stopgap measure. The United States special observer in London, representing the Chief of Naval Operations, in conversation during July 1941 with the British naval staff and Vice-Admiral Percy Nelles, Canadian Chief of Naval Staff, stated the American position clearly.
The Chief of Naval Operations would propose that the British withdraw United Kingdom naval forces from Western Atlantic with the exception of about ten merchant cruisers plus the necessary administrative craft, and that Canada would protect shipping in her coastal zone and also provide twenty or more vessels to augment U.S. ocean escort.9
Since this reflected accurately the proposals of Canadian members of the Permanent Joint Board on Defence with regard to ABC-22, the assumptions were natural ones. Circumstances had changed, however, since November 1940, when the Canadian plan had been drafted. Now there was a full-scale "Battle of the Atlantic" to fight and an opportunity for Canada to make an important operational contribution to the war that would not demand sending large numbers of men overseas. The Battle of the Atlantic, wrote Air Commodore N.R. Anderson, sent over to Coastal Command to acquire expertise in anti-submarine requirements, was a more intimate and immediate responsibility for Canada than the Battle of Britain because the western end of the battle zone rested on Canadian shores. Commodore Murray wrote proudly of "the active participation in the war that has been given to our charge in the Battle of the Atlantic."10
Directly related to pride in the responsibility was reluctance to accept outside control. When in May 1941 Rear Admiral V.H. Danckwerts of the British Mission in Washington tried to tell Nelles and Air Marshal Lloyd Breadner, Chief of the Air Staff, that the United States expected to have its way in naval matters in the western Atlantic:" ... he was in turn informed by them, in no uncertain terms, that they were entitled to their say in matters, and proper representation in conferences with British authorities prior to final decision being made." The thought of subordination to Americans who had no experience in the shooting war rankled, especially when it appeared at Argentia in August that Churchill was discarding the Canadians like an old glove. And although sailors and airmen did not by any means bury their differences, they united in their indignation.11
It was the Anglo-American decision that the RCAF was no longer to escort any ocean convoys. When the news reached Eastern Air Command in September Air Vice Marshal N.R. Anderson, the Air Officer Commanding, responded angrily:
Since Sept 1939 this command has been providing anti-submarine patrols and sweeps in protection ocean convoys often 600 to 800 miles to sea. Many of our personnel have lost their lives in devotion to this the most honourable duty they could perform while serving in Canada....12
From Newfoundland two days later, however, Air Commodore Vernon Heakes, Chief of Staff to the Air Officer Commanding, Eastern Air Command, suggested: "all factors present situation not yet known and ultimate situation will evolve from trial and error. If situation handled spirit mutual co-operation and ready assistance RCAF can continue function East Coast in major role as heretofore." This good advice was followed. When the difficulty had been ironed out Admiral H.R. Stark, Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, wrote to the Canadian Chief of Air Staff inviting him "to place such air forces as are assigned to perform ocean escort duty under the command, for this purpose only, of the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, this action to be taken under the authority and subject to the limitations contained in ABC-22..."13
The Canadian Cabinet War Committee felt that since the navy was obliged to accept American command for oceanic convoy work the RCAF ought to do so as well. The only
objection that would be considered was one on operational grounds. The Deputy Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal G.O. Johnson, therefore argued that since the RCAF now operated very successfully in co-operation with, rather than under the control of, the RN and RCN there was no need to adopt different relationships with the USN. To this Anderson added the argument that "naval strategic direction must conform with realities of air situation." These were, first that the United States was "still at juvenile stage organisation air power" and secondly that so far "British unified power" had been the best defence against domination of the empire by the enemy. Other airmen added their voices to the chorus. But what Air Vice-Marshal Breadner seized upon was Johnson's point about co-operation, and upon a parallel that Anderson had drawn with the relationship between Coastal Command and the Royal Navy, in his answer to Admiral Stark. On October 27, when he received a reply from Stark acquiescing in the Canadian proposals, Breadner forwarded it to the Minister of National Defence for Air Services, Mr. C.G. Power, with the notation, "We have held them off, so far!"14
Senior Canadian officers, however, had also been thrown out of the British nest, and they evidently felt rather vulnerable. Commodore Murray, faced with a new and unfamiliar relationship--one that he came to handle very well--bitterly expressed the belief that if the Canadians had not been firm the Lords of Admiralty would have been prepared to "sell us down the river" to the Americans in order to retrieve Londonderry for themselves...."15 Officers like Nelles, Breadner, Murray and Anderson relied on the Anglo-Canadian alliance. It was not enough that they found the new reality uncomfortable, an irritant, embodying vague threats, the change was taking place just as the war came within flying boat range of Canadian shores and subjected them to the ultimate test.
It so happened that the training, equipment and co-ordination of Canadian sea and air forces raised problems that, if they were not totally insoluble in 1941, were certainly overwhelming. Once again, emphasis on the Home War Establishment put the Canadians at a disadvantage. British and American naval and air staffs expected the Canadians to play an auxiliary role. Insistence on more responsibility in what the British called an inactive theatre was seen as a political rather than a military requirement, and response to Canadian pleas for assistance came reluctantly. Adding to the problem was a sometimes misguided nationalism that led Canadians to spurn certain forms of help. They could ill afford to be proud about such things. Standards of workmanship and technical training were, to say the least, uneven. This was only to be expected when the astounding expansion of naval and air forces placed such a heavy burden on industrial and military organizations built up from nothing in two or three years.
For example in the navy, which had a much less obvious distinction than the air force between home defence forces and overseas forces, corvettes went to sea without adequate training of ships' companies because the Admiralty needed the physical presence of escorts in the relatively quiet waters of the Atlantic seaboard. As soon as key personnel had some experience of convoy work in the Newfoundland Escort Force, the manning depot transferred them to newly commissioned ships in local escort forces not involved with ocean convoy. This resulted in a general lowering of standards as well as morale when the shortage of escorts at Newfoundland gave men almost no time in harbour, imposed unbearable strains on many commanding officers and led to disastrous losses like those endured by convoy SC 42 in September 1941. Qualified technicians were in short supply. This weakness was particularly noticeable in a fleet of vessels hastily constructed in shipyards with no previous experience in this kind of work and plagued by inferior equipment. Canadian-designed radar sets proved
relatively ineffective in operations, and many important new developments in anti-submarine weapons did not find their way to Canadian ships until an equipment crisis in early 1943 shook up Naval Service Headquarters. It was not until November 1942 that the Naval Board permitted major alterations and additions to Canadian ships in British dockyards, on the assurance "that this provision would not discourage Canadian inventive genius, but would take advantage of the vast experience of the Admiralty". The Canadian escort groups were desperately short of destroyers, which were essential to success in convoy defence, but the Admiralty could spare few out of its own resources. This problem might have been reduced had Canada been able to construct its own destroyers. However, the Canadians had rejected out of hand a British suggestion in 1940 that, they go to the United States for technical advice and assistance for this purpose.16
There was a direct conflict in the air force between the Home War Establishment and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The cream of the air force crop went to the BCATP or overseas, yet the RCAF embarked upon expansion at home, determined to create a strong force of forty-nine squadrons. This meant that when a real threat materialized Eastern Air Command was unprepared. Deprived of a good selection of new BCATP graduates, robbed of trained personnel who were sent back to training squadrons or overseas, the Command was always short of trained crews. It was a shortage aggravated by the lack of an operational training unit until 1943 and the failure, in spite of many attempts, to arrange an exchange between crews of Coastal Command and of Canadian squadrons in the western Atlantic. With these personnel problems to contend with, the procurement of aircraft and equipment, the single most frustrating difficulty experienced by all allied anti-submarine air forces, created special headaches for the Canadians.17
The RCAF found itself deprived of long range patrol aircraft to a much greater degree than the American or British air forces, and acquiring Very Long Range Liberators turned out to be exercise in humiliation over the winter of 19423. Both the British target programme for the Dominions, and the Arnold-PortalTowers Agreement of June 21, 1942 that superseded it, allowed for "minimum defensive essentials in inactive threatres" and were designed among other things to prevent "the diversion of output from Canada to build up forces not vitally essential to the outcome of the war." By late 1942, however, the RAF delegation in Washington was willing to help Canada become independent on the assumption that Canadians were more anxious to co-operate with Britain as part of the empire than with the United States. It was hoped that Canada would then help the RAF "in this very complicated process of assessing requirements and allocating resources." Even this was of little use because the Canadian Cabinet would not allow a Canadian in uniform to serve on the Combined Munitions Assignment Board, the Minister of Munitions and Supply being loath to turn over procurement to military officers. Canada was therefore completely at the mercy of her more powerful allies for the supply of aircraft, spare parts and new fittings. The result was that Eastern Air Command did not get the best aircraft available, nor the best equipment; and because there was no direct contact between Coastal Command and Eastern air Command crews the Canadians did not know how far behind they really were.18
By early 1942 it must be said that they were beginning to suspect. They were left in no doubt at all after several visitors from Coastal Command later in the year had subjected the entire naval and air organization on the east coast of Canada to an embarrassingly frank appraisal. Not only were all forces in the region found wanting--the official historians of the American naval and air forces have left us in no doubt concerning their own shortcomings in
the anti-submarine war--but the evidence suggests that Canadian-US relationships were much less easy than those on the spot have sometimes tried to make out. The organization was absurdly top-heavy, with eight different command authorities (two American and six Canadian), trying to operate amid the primitive communications, abominable weather and physical isolation of Newfoundland. The joint system of command by three separate services was simply unsuitable for anti-submarine operations. Eventually the combined operations room required by a Chief of Staff Committee's decision of 1939 was quietly forgotten, allowing the navy and the air force to reach a modus vivendi at Halifax and St. John's that was not entirely satisfactory but better than nothing. The submarine reporting system set up for the Gulf of St. Lawrence, after that region had been closed to oceanic shipping in 1942, was never really put to the test. Depending as it did upon distinct army, navy and air force communications, this was probably just as well.19
The very nadir of Canadian fortunes came in the winter of 1942-43. Consistently heavy losses to convoys escorted by Canadian ships could be ascribed partly to training and equipment deficiencies and partly to the limited range of aircraft from Newfoundland, because the absence of air cover was particularly dangerous for the "inexperienced" Canadian escort groups. Since at this period a critical shortage of oil in the United Kingdom threatened to alter the whole timetable of the war, the Admiralty decided to readjust the convoy cycles. At the same time they would withdraw the Canadian and American escort groups from the western Atlantic, place them on the Gibraltar run where they would have air cover, be reinforced by the seventeen Canadian corvettes loaned for the TORCH landings, and be available between convoys for special training to bring them up to British standards. In the event, after Percy Nelles had registered a mild protest that reflected more a sense of hurt and betrayal than disagreement with the decision, three of the Canadian groups were absent from the north Atlantic run between February and April 1943.20
This did not solve the problem of air cover in the western Atlantic. Everyone accepted the need for VLR Liberators in Newfoundland; the Canadians argued long and loud that they should be flying them, rather than bringing in British and American Squadrons without experience of the special conditions of the region. It is true that the Canadians were making do in spite of inadequate aircraft, equipment and training, in spite of the icebergs, extreme temperature and pressure changes, strong prevailing westerly winds and the ubiquitous fog, all of which made anti-submarine operations by Catalinas and Cansos, Lockheed Hudsons and Douglas Digbys in the northwest Atlantic more than somewhat hazardous. Eventually, in spite of caustic remarks from several observers about shortcomings among controllers and squadrons, the word came back from two Coastal Command airmen sent out to report on the situation that "the boys are O.K., very keen and experienced. No one can understand why a squadron of Liberators has not been formed on this coast Soon after this, in March 1943, the British Anti-U-Boat Warfare Committee, under a growing barrage of pleas from Ottawa to the British Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, agreed to divert to the RCAF fifteen VLR Liberators from RAF allocations.21
A new factor had also to be taken into account. Radio intelligence formed an integral part of anti-submarine warfare, and was indispensable for controlling convoy operations. Geography enabled Canada and Newfoundland to provide important high-frequency intercept and direction-finding stations. With extensive help from the Royal Navy, the RCN formed a so-called 'Foreign Intelligence Section' in Ottawa. In 1941 a fully-fledged Operations Intelligence Centre took shape and was promulgating daily submarine estimates by May 1942. By
September it was manning a Submarine Tracking Room on a twenty-four hour basis. Like OP-20-G, its opposite number in Washington, the Canadian OIC enjoyed complete exchanges of information with OIC in the Admiralty.22
Because of the 'blackout' on the German naval enigma code TRITON between February and November 1942, the importance of direction-finding and estimated positions increased, just as the Canadian and American tracking rooms got into full swing. Coincidentally, they began interfering with each other, imposing too heavy a load on the overburdened wireless rooms in small ships. By agreement with London, Ottawa restricted U-Boat tracking to an area north and west of 40 N. and 40 W., but Washington wanted control of the entire western Atlantic. This led to an acrimonious correspondence between Ottawa and Washington, with the British admiralty Delegation supporting the Americans. It was only resolved after Fleet Admiral King and Vice-Admiral Nelles exchanged a series of personal letters, Nelles pressing a separate Canadian command, leading up to the Atlantic Convoy Conference of March 1943.23
Fleet Admiral King was the key figure in subsequent developments. Apparently impressed with Ottawa's results in submarine tracking, he was still not convinced of the RCN's ability to handle convoy operations without American help, even after the Atlantic Convoy Conference in March at which he agreed to give Canada responsibility for its own operational theatre. Yet there is evidence that he had come to believe as early as February 1943 that a single Canadian Atlantic command would be desirable.
The facts that the Casablanca Conference had given priority to antisubmarine warfare and that King disliked escort groups of mixed nationality have been suggested by Captain Roskill as reasons for the decision to give Canada her own command, a decision that he says came as a total surprise to British delegates in Washington. We know that Canadian naval officers had encouraged King to relinquish his desire for complete control of the western Atlantic. It has also been suggested that disastrous losses to the tanker convoy TM-I in January 1943, followed by British efforts at Casablanca to "try and winkle some U.S. destroyers" to escort fast tanker convoys on the southern routes, may have planted the seeds of the idea to turn over the northern routes to the British and Canadians. The US Navy could then devote its full attention to more southerly routes. There is on the other hand little evidence to suggest that either the British or the Americans believed the Canadians were now fully qualified to run their own show. In view of the need to embark upon decisive operations in Europe according to the timetable set up at Casablanca and the shortage of escort ships and aircraft that still plagued the allies, there simply was no better alternative. Indeed, giving the Canadians command of the northwest Atlantic in April 1943 was in the nature of a desperate measure.24
The temptation to relegate smaller powers to auxiliary roles in warfare is always strong, the more so when survival is at stake, because smaller allies usually need assistance before they can play major roles. Many Canadian shortcomings stemmed from the inability of Britain to provide the kind of military assistance that in less critical times, before and since, has tended to keep the alliance 'sweet'. Britain's desperate need to involve the United States from the early days of the war militated against such measures. But Canada itself, besides the great industrial efforts without which the nation would not have won the right or had the ability to support large naval and air forces, and besides the endurance and the potential ability of the servicemen actually fighting the battles, provided the political and military initiative to preserve the close relations the RCN had previously enjoyed with the RN, and to strengthen the ties
between the RCAF and RAF. By also vigorously asserting their independence--some might say showing their national colours--the Canadians made it easier for the Americans to withdraw from Newfoundland and the northwest Atlantic.
In the final analysis it must be said that Canada's status as a 'full partner' owed less to its navy and air force than to the desperate need early in 1943 to solve the problem of the convoys. It was not necessary to be a major naval power to solve that problem so long as secure bases, good intelligence and sea and air forces adequate to the task at hand were available. They were available, and Canada therefore staked a firm claim to a new role in modern warfare and a new sphere of military responsibility.
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (11) ** Next Chapter (13)
Transcribed and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation