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"Tribute to Courage" by Rich Thistle

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Atlantic was the Allies' lifeline in World War II.  Unless they controlled it, they would not maintain their advance base in Britain, or launch an invasion of Germany's Fortress Europe.  Both sides recognized this strategic situation and, as a result, fought the longest sustained sea battle of modern times- the six-year Battle of the Atlantic.  The Royal Canadian Navy was in it from beginning to end, and there it came of age.

From the outset, under plans laid well before the war, Allied merchant ships were organized in convoys, disciplined groups of ships travelling together, and the Germans at first had no effective means of attacking them.  In September, 1939, Germany had some 60 submarines, half of them small coastal U-boats used for training.  Of those capable of high-seas service, only a portion were available at any one time.  Battleships and heavily armed raiders disguised as cargo ships attacked lone merchantmen or stragglers from convoys.  Seldom did they attack a whole convoy as the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer did one day in November, 1940.  The Scheer sank only one ship that day - for one single, magnificent reason: the British armed merchant cruiser Jervis Bay, hopelessly outgunned, sacrificed herself to allow the convoy to escape.

Apart from a blockade of Britain by mines and aircraft, the first real German attempt to combat the convoy system came mainly through submarine attacks in coastal areas and the approaches to British ports.  To prepare for larger things, both sides stepped up the production of ships.  The Allies built more merchantmen, and convoy escort vessels, notably at first the corvette; the Germans turned out more and more submarines.  As the U-boats increased in number and endurance, they were sent even farther into the Atlantic, seeking the incoming convoys.  They were spurred westward by the growing strength of air and sea patrols in British waters.  Soon, U-boats wee stalking their prey off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

At first, a convoy had anti-submarine escorts for only a few hundred miles on both sides of the ocean.  In mid-Atlantic, its only protection was a British battleship or armed merchant cruiser - a converted merchantman - to deal with the surface raiders.  But as the U-boats pressed westward, the convoys needed shore to shore protection from destroyers and corvettes, a requirement which spread the escorts very thin.  A convoy of sixty merchantmen required a shield of six or eight warships, and each warship spent up to one third of its life in refit.  There was a high weather-damage rate because the convoys sailed on schedule, regardless of storms.

In mid- 1941 the Germans introduced wolf-pack tactics: submarines about 20 miles apart were organized into long patrol lines athwart the convoy routes.  Each line had up to 20 U-boats and sometimes five or six lines were at sea at one time.  All boats were controlled by radio from Admiral Karl Dontiz's headquarters in France.  When a U-boat sighted a convoy, it radioed its position and shadowed the intended victims until the rest of the pack could be brought into striking range.  Then the whole pack attacked, often at night, usually on the surface, from several directions.  They sometimes got in among the merchant ships.  Escorts were hard pressed to meet the attacks or to seek survivors of torpedoed ships.

In the first stage of the battle, Germany was fighting to cut Britain's lifeline.  But after the United States entered the war, the U-boat crews knew they were fighting for larger stakes - to prevent the massing of an Allied invasion force in Britian.  The number of U-boats available for operations in 1942 rose from 91 in January to 212 in December and the 1942 toll of shipping was 8,000,000 tons.   And the wolf-packs grew even stronger.  In March, 1943, they sank 627,000 tons - 75 percent in convoy.  Then, almost unexpectedly, the tide of the battle was reversed.  Convoys had more air protection, new support groups roamed the Atlantic, better radar and other anti-submarine weapons went into service.  In one six week period the U-boats suffered such heavy losses that Donitz was forced to withdraw his battered fleet.  It returned later but never again as a really serious threat.

This sudden and decisive Allied victory was won by brave men armed with a superb combination of vital tools of war - ships and weapons whose invention, development and production came to fruition in the Allies' hour of greatest need.  It was in part a victory of Allied scientists over enemy scientists.

"HMCS Sackville" by John Horton

The Escort Ships

Before the war, the British Admiralty underestimated the U-boat threat.  it believed the key weapon at sea would be the big-gunned warship and that German surface ships would be more dangerous than submarines.  As a result, Britian did not build enough effective anti-submarine vessels.  When war came she not only had too few warships to defend convoys, but those she could spare didn't have the endurance to cross the Atlantic as escorts.

To rectify this error, the navy called for a highly seaworthy, long-range escort ship, designed and equipped for anti-submarine warfare.  What eventually emerged as the frigate was the real answer, but a stopgap substitute had to be found.  This was the corvette.  Based on the design of a small whaler, corvettes could be built quickly and cheaply in small shipyards.  They were constructed in Canada, as well as Britain, and many were manned by Canadian crews.  Although originally designed for patrolling coastal waters, corvettes operated as ocean escorts, and they proved far more seaworthy than the larger, more glamourous destroyers.  Broad in beam and with a rounded stern which one Canadian skipper said was "inclined to turn up like a duck's tail", they could ride the heaviest seas, but had a vicious roll.  And like the U-boats, they lacked adequate living space.

Not all corvettes were built alike but a typical one was 190 feet long, had a speed of 16 knots, and was armed with one 4-inch gun, two machine guns and 70 to 80 depth charges.  In many ways, the corvette was not very efficeient for attacking U-boats. Its great advantage was a turning circle with a diameter of 200 yards - half the turning distance of a U-boat.  A corvette therefore could maneuver to get depth charges in the right place ahead of a U-boat more accurately than a destroyer could.  Corvette maneuverability also paid off in ramming attacks.  Says Canadian naval historian Jospeh Schull: "The Germans conceived a curiously exaggerated respect for these little warships.  U-boats, although faster and with almost equal gunpower, never willingly attempted to fight it out with them on the surface".

Frigates eventually came into service in 1942.  The River Class frigate - 60 were built in Canada - was essentially a bigger and more formidable corvette: a 300 foot, 1400-ton twin screw ship with a top speed of 19 knots.  The frigates' endurance, 7200 miles at 12 knots, was twice that of the early Flower Class corvette.  Armament included two 4-inch guns, automatic anti-aircraft weapons, 150 depth charges, the latest radar, and eventually the hedgehog.

The Air-Sea War

Both sides used aircraft in the Battle of the Atlantic.  The most formidable German plane, the Focke-Wulf Condor, was a long range reconnaissance bomber, a military version of a prewar four-engine airliner.  For its military role, Focke-Wulf engineers reinforced the fuselage, built in auxiliary fuel tanks and fitted bomb racks under the wings.  But the FW 200 was not a true bomber.  It was too slow, too vulnerable and the bomb load of the first models was only 2000-3000 pounds.  Nevertheless, it did severe damage to Allied shipping in the early years.  One of its first victims was the 42,000 ton liner Empress of Britain.

The Condor's prime role was reconnaissance.  It had a radius of action of 1100 miles, but if its bombs were replaced with extra fuel, it could fly 1475 miles into the Atlantic and return.  It could shadow a convoy for several hours - endurance was 14 hours at 158 mph - and radio U-boats to intercept.  Condors operating from Norway flew against Arctic convoys.  They were supported by Heinkel 111 and Junkers 88 bombers, which had a radius of some 560 miles.  Fortunately for the convoys, the overcommitted Luftwaffe was never able to build its maritime arm to any great strength.

RCAF B-24 Liberator bomber by Lars Larsen

The Allied air-sea arm suffered at first from the same lack of endurance as the surface escorts.  Establishment of air bases in Newfoundland and Iceland helped, but for a long time there was a mid-Atlantic gap in air protection.  Improvement came after 1941 when Catalina flying boats,  able to stay airborne for 17 hours, became available.  They were followed by Very Long Range Liberator bombers (B24s).  Half of the 20 Liberators sent to RAF Coastal Command were soon lost through wastage and transfer to Ferry Command.  Attempts to obtain more and to acquire long-range Lancaster bombers for the Atlantic escorts failed.  instead the Allied High Command decided to bomb U-boat bases.  It was a costly mistake.

The RAF-RCAF bomber force was diverted from attacks on Germany to strike at the massive concrete U-boat pens and building yards.  From January to May 1943, at the height of the Atlantic battle, some 19,000 tons of bombs were dropped, more than 250 British, Canadian and American aircraft were lost, and not a single U-boat was destroyed.

The convoys, meantime, sought to provide their own air protection.  Each CAM ship (catapult-fitted merchant ship) carried a Hurricane fighter which was catapulted into the air as soon as an FW 200 was sighted.  When the action was over, the Hurricane ditched beside the nearest merchant ship and the pilot hopefully was picked up.

Next came the auxiliary carriers.  The dual-purpose MAC ships (merchant aircraft carriers) were oil tankers and grain ships fitted with a flight deck to carry three or four Swordfish aircraft.  Much more formidable were the CVEs - small mass-produced escort carriers built on a merchant ship hull and topped by a long wooded flight deck.  When the first of these 15,000 ton carriers sailed with a convoy in March 1943, the mid-Atlantic's air gap was finally closed.
  Eventually more than a hundred CVEs were built; two, Nabob and Puncher, were manned by Canadians.  The number of aircraft carried by CVEs varied, but Nabob had 12 Avenger torpedo-bombers for anti-submarine operations and four Wildcat V fighter planes.

Aircraft proved to be highly effective anti-submarine weapons.  Their speed and range of vision were superior to those of surface escorts, and an aircraft had only to circle a convoy to force any U-boat within striking distance to submerge, thus crippling its ability to attack.  The capacity of aircraft to search out and kill was further increased with the introduction in 1943 of airborne radar based on the cavity magnetron.  Now an aircraft could track down U-boats by night as well as day.  At night it used its radar to home on a surfaced U-boat and, on reaching the target, switched on a powerful searchlight called the Leigh Light.  By day, the radar guided aircraft surprised surfaced U-boats by diving out of the sun or from heavy cloud.  And even if the attack failed, the aircraft could home surface escorts onto the targets.  Eventually the Germans came up with a receiver called Naxos to detect Allied  radar signals and enable U-boats to take evasive action.  But the supremacy of aircraft over the U-boat is demonstrated by the records; of 705 U-boats sunk in the Atlantic, the Arctic and British waters, 302 were destroyed by planes.

Canada played a vital role in the Battle of the Atlantic.  At the battle's peak, the RCN directed the anti-submarine war in the whole northwest Atlantic, and the RCAF's Eastern Air Command was responsible for air protection there.  Later, the navy directed operations for the entire North Atlantic.  The real measure of the RCN achievement was not the 27 U-boats it sank or helped to sink, but the fact that by far the largest proportion of the shipments it guarded got through.  In addition, Eastern Air Command crews sank six submarines and damaged three; Canadian squadrons in RAF Coastal Command destroyed 16.

Canada's warships fought in many places of the global sea war - off the coasts of Europe, on the harsh runs to Murmansk in Russia, in landings in western Europe and the Mediterranean.  While mainly a small-ship navy, the RCN manned, commissioned and operated vessels of many types, from local patrol craft through sleek motor torpedo boats, minesweepers, corvettes, frigates, destroyers, and eventually two cruisers.  There were several flotillas of Canadian landing craft and two infantry landing ships.  Canadians also manned two Royal Navy escort carriers and more than 4000 Canadians served on loan with the Royal Navy.  It was in the bitter Battle of the Atlantic that Canadian seamen made their crucial contribution to Allied victory.

(Information and references in this section from : "The Tools of War, 1939/45", Readers Digest Association (Canada) Ltd, Copyright 1969)

The Dieppe Raid

"Disaster at Dieppe" by David Pentland

As the winter of 1942 slowly receded, German fortunes were reaching increasing heights.  They had infiltrated far into the Soviet Union; with the exception of Egypt, North Africa was theirs.  These accomplishments, significant though they were, paled when compared to what had been achieved in Western Europe where the Allied forces had been pushed back across the English Channel into Great Britain.  This stood in contrast with the First World War in which all large territorial gains had ended within the first three months.

Shut out of continental Europe in the last days of 1941, the British began launching a series of raids on German coastal positions.  These small excursions, many involving fewer than 1000 men, had a variety of objectives, from the destruction of stores to the gathering of intelligence.  Originated under the Chief of Combined Operations, Roger Keyes, all had taken place under his successor, Louis Mountbatten.

The first plan under the new chief was to have been Operation Rutter, a large-scale raid intended to capture and briefly hold a sizeable port so as to test new equipment and seize materials.  Of greater importance, it was believed that, through this particular excursion, experience and information might be gathered which would prove useful in a later, massive amphibious assault.  Mountbatten was particularly interested in gauging and studying enemy reaction.

The site chose for Operation Rutter was Dieppe, a seaside town that had achieved popularity with English writers and painters of the late 19th Century.  Built on a long cliff overlooking the English Channel, the city featured a fair sized harbour that had, centuries earlier, been a key departure point for emigrants to new France.

The plan to use Canada's troops in Operation Rutter was born through growing dissatisfaction among their ranks.  The Canadian forces in Britain, having undergone months of training, had been largely inactive, and were eager to experience combat.  The attack would be led by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and advance as far inland as Arques-la-Bataille, a village some 6 km to the south east.  There were to be two flanking attacks by paratroopers, a naval bombardment, and more than 1000 sorties by Allied aircraft.

By May 20, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division had been moved to the Isle of Wight, where they continued their training - this time focusing on amphibious operatons.  Forty-six days later, on July 5, they boarded ships and prepared for battle.  However, on the eve of their departure Luftwaffe bombers swept across the Channel and attacked a flotilla of 250 Allied ships off Britain's south coast.  It now appeared to Allied commanders that the raid would not likely come as a surprise.  While Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery argued that the venture should be put off indefinitely, Mountbatten was soon at work reorganizing the raid.

As "Operation Jubilee", the revived raid was rescheduled for the morning of 19 August.  It was to begin just before dawn with four simultaneous flnk attacks along a front 16km in length.  Half an hour later would come the main attack on Dieppe itself.  This was to be accomplished by the Canadians, who would also hold gaps in the cliffs at Puys, just outside the town, and Pourville, 4km to the west.  Meanwhile, British commandos were to destroy flanking coastal batteries at Berneval and Varengeville.

"Dieppe Dawn" by Rich Thistle

After night fell on the evening of 18 August, more than 250 ships left ports along the British coast.  The next morning, still under cover of darkness, the landing craft of the left flank, carrying the British commandos, encountered S-Boats that were protecting a German tanker.  The ensuing battle alerted German coastal defences, eliminating any remaining element of surprise. Still at sea, the commandos' craft were torpedoed and became scattered.  The majority failed to reach shore.  The few commandos who did land attempted to engage their intended target, a German coastal battery at Berneval-le-Grand, some 8 km west of Dieppe. Though the destruction of the battery was no longer possible, commandos acting as snipers managed to prevent the German guns from firing on the approaching Allied ships.

It was the commandos on the right flank that had the greatest success of the day.  Their destruction of the battery at Varengeville would be the sole objective met in what would soon become the greatest slaughter of Canadian troops in the country's history.

Closer to town, at Puys, the Royal Regiment of Canada had no choice but to land as dawn was breaking, well within the sights of German mortars and machine guns.  On an unexpectedly narrow beach, they struggled and died beneath high cliffs populated by the enemy.  While a small number of soldiers managed to surmount the heavily wired seawall, others were pinned with no possibility of retreat.  More than two hundred soldiers were killed; of the remaining 297, only 33 managed to get back across the English Channel.

At Pourville, to the west, the Germans were actually taken by surprise.  There was little opposition initially, but resistance grew as the Canadians moved east.  The advance was soon halted by heavy fighting, and the troops were forced to retreat, leaving all objectives unmet.  The withdrawl was only a partial success. As the landing craft arrived, German fire caused death upon the beach.  The rearguard became cut off, making evacuation impossible.  The Canadians were eventually forced to surrender, having run out of ammunition.  Ultimately, failure to clear the areas to the east and west of Dieppe permitted the Germans to fire upon the beaches from both sides, nullifying the main frontal attack.

The tragic main assault took place on the steep pebble beach directly in front of the town.  Timed to begin half an hour after the attacks to the east and west, the lag really only served the enemy.  Having had time to prepare, the Germans had taken up positons in buildings overlooking the promenade and atop the cliffs.  The assault on the eastern section of the beach by the Essex Scottish Regiment was strafed by machine gun fire.  The seawall, providing an insurmountable barrier, became a point of death.  Incredibly, one platoon managed to enter the town.  However, this accomplishment led to further tragedy when the message relayed to headquarters, offshore on HMS Calpe, was misinterpreted by Major-General J.H. Roberts, commander of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division.  As a result, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, a reserve battalion, was ordered on to the beach, only to be pinned down and exposed to enemy fire.  Only 125 of their 584 members returned to Britain.

At the west end of the beach, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry landed and managed to clear pillboxes and a casino being used by the enemy for cover before entering the town itself.  Once there, they became bogged down in a vicious street fight.  Much of the prospect for success fell to the King's Own Calgary Regiment, which was to introduce Churchill tanks to the battle.  Their landing was to have been covered by a concentrated air and naval bombardment.  However, the regiment arrived at the beach ten minutes late.  With no support, they were extremely vulnerable.  Only 27 of the 58 tanks made it ashore, and of these a dozen were either unable to climb the pebbled incline of the beach, fell victim to the enemy's anti-tank trench, or could not negotiate the seawall.  The 15 that did manage to bypass the structure were prevented from entering the village by large concrete obstacles that had been used to seal the narrow streets.

The final landing was made by Britain's Royal Marine 'A' Commando.  Like the Canadians before them, the formation suffered heavy losses on the beach.  Not one of the 369 commandos managed to make it more than a few meters.

"Casualty on the Beach at Dieppe" by Alfred Hierl
Canadian War Museum collection

Just before 11:00, General Roberts ordered a retreat.  It was here that the tanks proved their greatest value, covering the infantry as they withdrew towards the Channel.  Those fighting from within the Churchill tanks were either killed, or taken prisoner.  Those troops who were fortunate enough to return did so under cover of the RAF and the RCAF, both of whom had provided protection for the British ships moored off the coast of Dieppe.  In the air, as on the ground, the losses had been great.  The Luftwaffe shot down 13 Royal Canadian Air Force planes, and 106 aircraft of the Royal Air Force - a total which would prove to be the highest single-day total for the war.

(Information from this section taken from "Great Canadian Battles" by Edward Humphreys, Arcturus Publishing Limited, Copyright 2008)



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