The longest continual battle of the Second World War

By MPP Toby Barrett 

I grew up on war stories. Both my father and grandfather signed up in the fall of 1939 when Canada declared war on Germany. 

My father spent his war years on the North Atlantic, doing convoy duty in the longest continual battle of the Second World War — a battle in which Canada played a central role. 

In his book, The Navy and Me, Harry B. Barrett, described the lives of thousands of young men and women of his generation who answered the call to arms: “We grew up in a hurry. We went where we were told to go, and did what we were told to do without question. Dire consequences followed if you did not. Your fate was in the hands of the military, your life was no longer yours to do with as you wished.” 

While the ships and personnel of the Royal Canadian Navy operated across the globe during the war, they are best remembered for their service during the Battle of the Atlantic. 

Fought largely by reservists, like my father, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most important of the war. Canada’s enormous naval participation was crucial to Allied victory. 

At stake was the survival of Great Britain and the liberation of Western Europe from German occupation. Britain could be saved from starvation and strengthened into the launching pad for the liberation of Europe, only by the delivery of supplies, troops, and equipment from Canada and the United States. Everything had to be carried in vulnerable merchant ships that faced a gauntlet of enemy naval forces. 

When Britain declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, the German navy, which had positioned U-boats and warships in the Atlantic, began to attack British merchant ships. Halifax, the Atlantic base of Canada’s tiny navy, immediately became an indispensable Allied port from which to fight the Battle of the Atlantic. 

Canada’s navy in 1939 included only 3,500 personnel, both regular force and reserve, and six ocean-going warships, the ‘River’ class destroyers His Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS), Fraser, Ottawa, Restigouche, Saguenay, St. Laurent, and Skeena. My father served on the HMCS Assiniboine which also joined the fleet in October of that year. 

By the last months of the war the Royal Canadian Navy had grown to a strength of over 95,000 personnel, 6,000 of them members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. The fleet committed to the Battle of the Atlantic included some 270 ocean escort warships. 

By war’s end Canada had the third-largest navy in the world after the fleets of the United States and Great Britain. 

The most important measure of its success was the safe passage during the war of over 25,000 merchant ships under Canadian escort. These cargo vessels delivered nearly 165 million tons of supplies to Britain and to the Allied forces that liberated Europe. Canadian merchant men died at a rate of one in ten, killed among the 12,000 who served in Canadian and Allied vessels. 

In the course of these operations, the RCN sank, or shared in the destruction of, 31 enemy submarines. For its part, the RCN lost 14 warships to U-boat attacks and another eight ships to collisions and other accidents in the North Atlantic. Most of the 2,000 Canadian navy men who lost their lives, died in combat on the Atlantic. 

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk