From One World War to Another (1919-43)

The Navy to 1942

The Corvette Navy

HMCS Sackville, Flower-class corvette, Royal Canadian Navy

Caption: HMCS Sackville, Flower-class corvette, Royal Canadian Navy

In 1940 the Canadians began building corvettes, small vessels some 60 metres long based on the design of the British whaling ships of the late 1930s. Very skittish at sea, they had a top speed of 16 knots and were equipped with a four-inch gun, outdated ASDIC (the British version of SONAR) and an anti-aircraft machine gun. Although they could survive the heavy weather of the North Atlantic and were excellent for manoeuvring, corvettes were very uncomfortable. What is more, most of the professional officers were posted to the larger ships - destroyers, cruisers and, later, aircraft carriers - preparing for the Nelson-style warfare their British colleagues longed for and leaving convoy duty and the corvettes to the Naval Reserve and Naval Volunteer Reserve.

As the domestic naval dockyards produced these corvettes, those intended for Canadian crews were thrown into battle with more or less raw volunteers. In Canada there was no time to train groups of escort crews in working as a team. Rest periods were rare, and the equipment - radar, ASDIC and the sensors for the high frequencies sent by enemy submarine radio - was out of date, often received six months to a year after it had been installed on the British ships. In 1941 some corvettes did not even have radar. The obvious enthusiasm of the Canadian volunteers could not completely make up for the heritage of an inadequate industrial infrastructure and lack of an experienced and sufficiently large navy to take on these duties. At the top of this weak structure sat Admiral Percy W Nelles, who had reigned since 1934. Competent in his own way, Nelles was uninspired and dwarfed by a situation he had not foreseen and to which he was unable to adjust.

In the summer of 1941 the newly created Newfoundland Escort Force would have some traumatic experiences. One of its greatest problems was lack of air cover on certain parts of the route. Convoy SC-42, leaving Sydney, Nova Scotia, for Britain on 30 August 1941, lost 16 merchant vessels and one of its escorts on 9 and 10 September. Convoy SC-44 lost only four merchant vessels and a corvette, while SC-48 was heavily hit though not as hard as SC-42, and SC-52 about turned and made for port in raging seas. Then things appeared to subside in the Atlantic as the German submarines shifted their priority to attacking southern traffic out of New York State. When German attention swung back to the North Atlantic in the late summer and fall of 1942 the situation soon became untenable. Convoy ON-127 left England for Canada with 32 merchant ships on 5 September 1942, escorted by two Canadian destroyers and three corvettes-one of them British and the only ship with radar that worked, albeit intermittently. Nine merchant ships were sunk, plus the destroyer Ottawa, which lost 114 crew members. On 30 October, SC-107 left Canada for Britain and lost 15 merchant ships. In neither case was an enemy submarine destroyed. The British and Americans wondered about the effectiveness of the Canadian escort when in mid-Atlantic. Between 26 and 28 December 1942, ONS-154, bound for Canada, lost 14 merchant vessels and a British warship. This time, however, the escorts, equipped with up-to-date radar and high-frequency (HF/DF) sensors - though the crews had no experience operating them - managed to sink a German submarine.