“Canadian sailors did not liberate many towns; that was left to the Army. What they did was share with soldiers in the European theatre over the last months of the war was a bitter struggle against an enemy who refused to quit.”Bill McAndrew, Bill Rawling, and Michael Whitby, Liberation: The Canadians in Europe (1995)
Of the three services, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) played the smallest direct role in the liberation of Northwest Europe, but its efforts were important. Some 75 RCN vessels were deployed in European waters and these warships were engaged in a variety of tasks – escorting convoys, attacking enemy naval and merchant vessels, hunting U-boats, and minesweeping. The fighting was often grim and, during this period, seven ships and 87 sailors were lost.
The RCN was a small service at the outbreak of war in 1939, with only six ocean-going ships and 3,500 officers and men (both regular and reserve). It quickly expanded into a large and proficient fighting force. For the first two years of the war, the RCN was Canada’s primary fighting force through its participation in the Battle of the Atlantic. Allied vessels fought against German submarines, known as U-boats, which sought to sink the merchant ships sailing from North America to the United Kingdom carrying critical supplies. The very survival of the UK depended on this trade route staying open.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest campaign of the Second World War. It lasted from September 1939 until the very end of the war and prompted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to declare, “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” Canada and the RCN were on the front lines and assumed responsibility for escorting convoys in the northwest Atlantic — the only major theatre of the war to be commanded by Canadians.
Some of the fighting even occurred on Canadian shores. Intrepid U-boats commanders ventured into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and up the St. Lawrence River, where they sunk merchant ships and naval vessels. German submariners even landed in Northern Labrador to establish an automated weather station. During the course of the Battle of the Atlantic, the RCN sank 27 U-boats and sank or captured 42 surface ships. However, the true success of the Canadian navy can be gleaned from the successful crossing of 25,343 merchant ships carrying over 181 million tons of cargo as well as the bulk of the Canadian and American soldiers who ultimately liberated Europe.
The RCN expanded substantially during the Second World War to wage the Battle of the Atlantic as well as its other commitments. Larger vessels like destroyers and cruisers were obtained from the British or Americans while smaller vessels such as corvettes and frigates were built by Canada firms. The expansion was quite remarkable; by the end of the war, Canada possessed the world’s third-largest navy, behind the US and UK.
Though the Battle of the Atlantic was the RCN’s main contribution to victory, it also played a significant role in European waters supporting the campaign in Northwest Europe. Canadian destroyers were tasked to protect Allied convoys from German U-boat and E-boat (motor torpedo boat) attacks as they sailed across the English Channel for the invasion of France. HMCS Haida, which one can visit today in Hamilton, Ont., was known as the “Fightingest Ship in the Royal Canadian Navy,” largely because of its success in sinking German ships during the early days of the D-Day invasion. Lieutenant-Commander Henry DeWolf captained the Haida during these battles and was known as “Hard Over Harry” for his aggressive tactics. In April 1944, DeWolf chased a German destroyer onto the rocks. Three days after D-Day, he directed Haida as it sank two more German destroyers. Perhaps Haida’s best day of the war was 15 July 1944, when she helped sink two submarine chasers and a transport ship while setting two other ships ablaze.
The RCN deployed two motor torpedo boat (MTB) flotillas in European waters – the 29th RCN MTB and 65th RCN MTB. Each was composed of eight small, fast, and well-armed vessels. They were powerfully armed with 6-pounder guns, 20 mm cannons, machine guns, and torpedoes. The summer of 1944 was very busy as the MTBs protected and screened the invasion fleet in the English Channel. By the fall, however, things had become quieter. Lieutenant-Commander Anthony “Tony” Law commanded the 29th Flotilla. He reflected in his memoirs on those quiet days:
“Life was pleasant at Ramsgate [UK] and the weather was glorious. In the mornings the Flotilla worked hard cleaning their ships, and in the afternoons they would have “make and mends.” Officers and crews alike took advantage of the sandy beach beneath the white cliffs, and after the weary, dreary days of Normandy, it was marvellous to relax and soak in the sunshine until we were tanned to a lovely copper colour. Interspersed with bouts of sunbathing and refreshing dips in the cold, salty sea, the 29th often played great games of baseball or American football in the hot sands. Then, around seven or eight o’clock, a unit of boats would proceed to sea on the nightly patrol, while those who were not on duty would hire the old taxi and drive over to M. Lucy’s in Margate for a super meal with a bottle of good white wine as the finishing touch.”
After D-Day and the Normandy campaign, the RCN assumed a secondary role in Europe. The essential need to support and protect the invasion fleet in the English Channel was gone, but important tasks still remained. Convoys of supply ships required protection as they crossed to ports such as Antwerp. The navy also had to deal with German mines, both preventing their placement as well as clearing the shipping lanes of any that had been laid previously. As well, the navy would be called in to support any amphibious landings that took place, the most significant of which took place at Walcheren Island on 1 November. During the fall of 1944, in fact, the Canadian MTBs often played “cat and mouse” with their German equivalents. The E-boats were faster, but similarly armed. The beginning of November was a busy time as the flotillas supported the landings on Walcheren Islands, which commenced on the first of the month. The Canadians were successful in preventing any E-boat attacks on the fleet. A greater threat came from the heavily armed German flak ships, which mounted automatic cannons and deadly 88 mm anti-aircraft guns. Law described a three-hour-long encounter with these powerful ships:
“I knew that these bullies were far from gentle and that no matter what was done they would always gain the upper hand, especially on a moonlit night. We spent the night playing a game with one another which mainly consisted of hitting shells back and forth. No one was getting hurt but we were having the life scared out of us. As soon as we maneuvered into a nice torpedo position and were ready to pull the [torpedo] lever, what would happen? The Four Horsemen would alter course towards us, and just to keep the game lively they would slam out a few more 88s.”
This particular “game” finally ended when Law left the enemy flak ships to engage what appeared to be two German E-boats sent out join the fight. After exchanging fire, however, Law and his crew realized the vessels were actually British MTBs. Thankfully, all the shots missed. In the meantime, the German ships escaped. Though no serious damage was caused to any of the craft, one of Law’s sailors had been killed.
The most notable event for the 29th MTB Flotilla occurred as a result of an accident in the port of Ostend, Belgium. On 14 February 1945, fuel leaking from one of the vessels caught fire and set off a chain of explosions, devastating the harbour. By the time it was over, seven British and five Canadian MTBs had been destroyed and five others seriously damaged. A total of 65 men were killed, including 29 Canadians. A further 20 Canadians were wounded. This event marked the end of Tony Law’s 29th Flotilla. Canadian officers understood the end of the war was nearing and saw no point in reconstituting the force. In his final report, Law reflected, “it is to my extreme regret… that after many interesting months together the Flotilla must disband in such inauspicious circumstances.”
As with the Canadian army, the RCN in Europe had to keep fighting right up until the end. The 62nd MTB Flotilla fought one final battle on the night of 12/13 April. when it discovered two E-boats laying mines in the North Sea. The inconclusive engagement turned out to be the last German E-boat mission of the war. After the armistice, Canadian warships continued operations. A priority task was rounding up all the German U-boats which were still at sea. They had been ordered to surrender on 8 May, but it was not known if all the U-boat commanders had received the news. Meanwhile, the destroyer HMCS Iroquois conveyed Norwegian Crown Prince Olaf as he returned home in May 1945 and soon after escorted two German cruisers back to Kiel harbour. HMCS Haida and her sister ship Huron also delivered humanitarian relief supplies to a number of Norwegian towns. The highlight for Haida’s men was throwing a party for more than 1,500 grateful children. An official history of the period notes that after “a hectic month, the three ships began their voyage home across the Atlantic. Sailors spent the days chipping away the layers of dull wartime paint and shining up the brass that emerged from underneath. At night, they watched ships steaming peacefully by, their lights burning brightly for the first time in five years.”
For the RCN’s minesweepers, the work continued for five months after the German surrender; it took that long for the English Channel to be declared mine-free. At the conclusion of its task, the British Admiralty expressed its appreciation to the officers and sailors of the 31st Canadian Minesweeping Flotilla for “the excellent work of the flotilla in the last eighteen months. [Your] onerous duties … have been carried out with outstanding zeal, efficiency, resolution and cheerfulness.” These words apply equally to the good work done by the RCN in European waters. While it is clear that the Battle of the Atlantic was the navy’s main wartime contribution, its work in European waters provided essential support for the ultimate liberation of the Netherlands.