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Crushing the U-boat threat


Last summer’s reports of a German U-boat submarine embedded underwater two kilometres from Muskrat Falls seem to have abated. There was nothing fictitious, however, about the discovery in 1980 of a Siemens-manufactured Nazi weather station found at Martin Bay below Cape Chidley.  A U-boat crew had installed it in October 1943.

BY NEIL EARLE

Special to TC Community Newspapers

The tiny station transmitted 60 seconds of coded weather updates every three hours to weather stations in occupied Europe, which then relayed them to Nazi submarines prowling the North Atlantic. Weather and directions were vital tools in the bitter and soul-testing encounter known as ‘The Battle of the Atlantic’.

The five-and-a-half-year struggle upon and under the North Atlantic’s heaving breast – the war’s longest continuous front – is being recognized as perhaps the centerpiece of the Second World War.

Here was the one battle the Allies had to win. To that end, 70 years ago this spring, a most significant and underreported conference of the war finally assuring victory in the North Atlantic was held in Washington, D.C.

COMMAND/CONTROL ISSUES

The Washington Convoy Conference of Mar. 1-14, 1943 sprang out of the more famous Casablanca Conference of January 1943. At British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s insistence, Allied planners at Casablanca turned first of all to the need to crush the U-boat threat.

The Convoy Conference settled long-festering ‘command and control’ issues in the North Atlantic between three navies, those of U.S., Canada and Britain.

As Marc Milner of the University of New Brunswick reports, Canadian and British seamen took over convoy strategy in the Western Atlantic from the Americans, who realigned their priorities to the Pacific and stepped up the ferrying of newly made warships and bombers to the beleaguered British (Battle of the Atlantic, pages 154-157).

The island of Newfoundland and her adjacent territory in Labrador was smack in the middle of this strategic realignment. The American-Canadian ‘base-building boom’ of 1941-42 made possible this more decisive prosecution of the war at sea, especially the more skillful co-ordination between sea and air forces.

American B-17s at first, and then better-equipped Liberator bombers based at Argentia, scanned and guarded the approaches to Canada.

Meanwhile the RCAF base at Gander, became the vital crossroads for both ferrying planes to Britain and sending patrols to ‘cover’ the all-important convoys run by the merchant marine.

Gander’s role was even endowed with Hollywood glamour at the climax of the 1942 movie ‘Captains of the Clouds’, starring James Cagney.

NEWFOUNDLAND ROLE PIVOTAL

Once again, Newfoundland was pivotal to North Atlantic concerns. Each May on ‘Battle of the Atlantic Sunday’, resolute veterans sprinkled across the island place wreaths in the water to honour the more than 4,234 sailors, airmen and merchant marine of the RCN who paid the ultimate price for victory in this cruel clash of forces.

And well they should!

Military writer Tim Dunne reported “The Battle of the Atlantic is to the Royal Canadian Navy what the Battle of Vimy Ridge is to Canada’s army and the Battle of Britain is to the RCAF.”

The North Atlantic was forbidding terrain to prosecute war to the death. As Farley Mowat sketched it decades ago, “No other ocean emanates such a disturbing feeling of sentience. It is not just a realm of water, it is a presence – one of incalculable moods.

“Even in its rare moments of brooding calm, a long and rhythmic swell rolls under the surface so that it ripples like the hide of a monster.”

And Nicholas Monserrat’s tribute to the tight-lipped men of the naval escort services hymned “the strength and fury of that ocean, its moods, its violence, its gentle balm, its treachery; what men can do with it and what it can do with men” (The Cruel Sea, page 3).

VITAL THEATRE

In 1943, a fateful chapter of the most furious war yet fought was nearing a climax in and around our home waters. The U-boats needed the advantage that even a small weather station in Labrador could give them.

German Admiral Karl Donitz announced ‘Operation St. John’s’ in May 1943, which included laying mines outside the St. John’s Narrows. But by then the tide had already turned in the Battle of the Atlantic. In the spring of 1943, a climax of sorts had finally been reached.

Winston Churchill himself had coined the phrase ‘the Battle of the Atlantic’. Churchill knew Britain would starve if the precious supply ships and convoys from North America could not get through.

Defeat and starvation or victory in the North Atlantic, it was just that stark and simple.

As 1942 ended, the Allies were close to losing the war at sea – more ships were being sunk than built.

Donitz had 116 underwater craft with experienced and toughened crews ranging the increasingly congested North Atlantic.

Marc Milner claimed 80 per cent of all losses to trans-Atlantic convoys occurred between July and December of 1942, a staggering sum (page 81). Through 1942 more than one-third of all shipping lost during the entire war took place in the North Atlantic.

From the Strait of Belle Isle to the Carolinas the Nazi Skippers were carrying the fight to the Allies in 1942.

Something had to be done, and quickly. Part of the answer was greater sea-air co-ordination in conjunction with timely breakthroughs in technology.

STRATEGIC DECISIONS

Gander airfield stood with Goose Bay, the seaplane base at Botwood (both Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed through there) and the airfields at Torbay and Argentia on the front lines.

On Newfoundland’s west coast, Ernest Harmon air base at Stephenville became a stopover and refuelling field for 30,000 flights a year at its peak – an astonishing figure, even now, all these years later (Fitzgerald, Battlefront Newfoundland, page 32).

Newfoundland hosted the Cansos, Hudsons, Liberators and other bomber/reconnaissance aircraft that were a U-boat skipper’s nightmare. After the conference of 1943 the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) transferred actual day-by-day battle command of the Northwestern Atlantic from the Newfoundland Escort Force in St. John’s to Halifax.

But Newfoundland remained in the thick of it. Winston Churchill put it bluntly: “The most important (base) for the North Atlantic convoys was Argentia, in Newfoundland.” (The Grand Alliance, page 138).

Argentia hosted six escort carriers, 15 destroyer escorts and an anti-submarine torpedo boat battalion.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s young men were deployed in three navies and two air forces. As Wayne Johnston adds in ‘As Near To Heaven By Sea’, “There was hardly a Royal Navy ship in the war that didn’t have a Newfoundlander among its crew.”

Some 3,400 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians served in the Royal Navy all told and hundreds more served in the Merchant Marine, whose sacrifices and tribulations are the stuff of legend.

‘THE BLACK PIT’

The strategic realignments of March 1943 came just in the nick of time. Forty-one vessels were lost the first 10 days of March 1943, and 44 the second 10 days – 500,000 tons of shipping, a nightmarish spectacle (Morison, The Battle of the Atlantic: September 1939 - May, 1943, page 344).

Nazi crews ironically called this ‘the second happy time’. Better tactics were direly needed.

The Canadian government had wisely constructed Torbay airport in 1941 and now the RCAF leapt ever more into the fray. Hudson and Canso aircraft joined the American Liberator bombers out of Argentia.

These VLF (Very Long Range) aircraft were getting closer to covering ‘the Black Pit’, those 700 or so miles in the mid-Atlantic where aircraft from Goose Bay, Iceland or Ireland were previously unable to give cover to the plodding convoys.

This came at sacrifice. Jan. 4, 1943 sub-killer, N.E. ‘Molly’ Small, RCAF veteran from Yarmouth, N.S., was killed outside Gander in the crash of a stripped-down Canso aircraft he chose to pilot himself. He died trying to extend the air range of the flying sub-hunters.

Small’s sacrifice nevertheless reinforced how RCAF Cansos and Hudsons, with lighter loads, would soon reach further out into the Atlantic from Gander.

When two Cansos from Gander blunted a U-boat attack Feb. 24, 1943, it was the overture to the turn of the tide in the North Atlantic.

All the while, RCN and Royal Navy sailors were toughing it out in the Corvettes, serviceable ships resembling whalers and only two-thirds the size of destroyers. Basically, floating platforms for depth charges, they were so low in the water and so perpetually drenched that the men in duffel coats and oilskins joked they deserved submariners’ pay.

VICTORY AT SEA

In the air, the RCAF kept beefing up its convoy screen and implementing better sub-hunting techniques. Squadron leader B.H. Moffitt’s sinking of U-630 in a Canso bomber out of Gander May 4, 1943 was a parade example.

Flight Lieutenant Fisher, returning to Gander after escorting Winston Churchill in ‘HMS Renown’ from the Quebec Conference, sank U-341 in an opportune encounter.

Technology was making the difference. At sea, as 1943 moved along, escort vessels were equipped with better detection equipment, improved asdic, ‘huff-duff’ (High Frequency/Direction Finding), and side-firing as well as backfiring depth charges.

The new B-24 Liberators, out of Argentia, sported better homing torpedoes and the ability to work at night.

But losses were still heavy – 22 RCN ships went down all told. Victory at sea would never come cheaply.

SHEER GUTS OF MERCHANT MARINE

The merchant marine perhaps deserves double honour in that they possessed scanty means of fighting back against the U-boat peril.

Admiral-historian Samuel Eliot Morison paid all of them this tribute: “The patriotism, the energy and the sheer guts that kept these men of the merchant marine, and of the three escorting navies, to their allotted tasks is beyond all praise” (The Battle of the Atlantic, page 344).

Beyond all praise. So be it, lest we forget.

Neil Earle is an adjunct history professor at Citrus College in Glendora, California, but calls Carbonear home.

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