In the gale-swept seas of the North Atlantic, the Canadian fleet played a crucial role in the long struggle against German submarines. Having expanded so rapidly, the RCN suffered from poor training and a dearth of advanced equipment. Early in 1943, Canadian corvettes and frigates were sent to English bases, where they were fitted with new radar, sonar, and high-frequency direction-finding detection gear. In addition, the crews underwent intensive training in antisubmarine tactics and warfare. Of particular value was the Western Approaches Tactical Unit established in Liverpool in February 1942, which trained escort captains and commanders in a common doctrine of convoy defense. Practical training was provided by exercises against Royal Navy submarines. As a result, by mid-1943, the Canadians fought much more effectively in the Atlantic arena.
They organized the massive convoys that set out from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. As radio interception and the breaking of German codes assumed major roles in the war against the submarines, the RCN Operational Intelligence Centre proved a key Canadian capability. And by 1944, most close escort in the North Atlantic was performed by the Canadian fleet. In all, the RCN provided eight mid-Atlantic support groups and escorted more than 25,000 merchant ships laden with 180 million tons of cargo from North America to Great Britain.
Built to a British design stressing mass production, the Flower-class corvette was the mainstay of the escort fleet. Displacing 1,245 tons at full load, the vessel was armed with a 4-inch gun and 40 (later 70) depth charges. The Flower-class ships proved to be miserable seaboats, however, taking on water and rolling furiously, and at 16.5 knots, they were too slow for offensive operations.
A far more effective escort was the River-class frigate, weighing 1,920 tons at full load. The River-class vessel could make 21 knots and mounted two 4-inch guns, a Hedgehog mortar, and 126 (later 150) depth charges.
The Canadian navy was also active in surface warfare operations. The RCN secured four large British Tribal-class destroyers that proved especially effective in Canadian service. At full load, the Tribals weighed 2,519 tons and easily made 36 knots. Formidably armed in terms of guns, they mounted 6 x 4.7-inch cannon, 2 x 4-inch dual-purpose guns, and 4 x 40-mm antiaircraft weapons. Four torpedo tubes were also fitted. Canadian Tribals saw heavy action, especially in spring 1944 in the English Channel against German destroyers and heavy torpedo boats (900-plus tons). In the course of these battles, the Athabaskan was lost on 29 April 1944.
The RCN played a considerable part in the Normandy Invasion. Ten thousand sailors and 109 warships participated in Operation neptune and landed 45,000 troops on the beaches. The Canadian array included 15 destroyers, 11 frigates, 19 corvettes, 16 minesweepers, and 30 landing craft.
In the course of the war, 2,024 men of the RCN were killed and 24 ships were sunk. At the same time, however, the Canadian navy played an important role in the Allied victory by destroying or capturing 42 surface warships and helping to sink 33 submarines. Sherwood S. Cordier
German, Tony. The Sea Is at Our Gates: The History of the Canadian Navy. Toronto, Canada: McClelland and Stewart, 1990.; Milner, Marc. The North Atlantic Run: The Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle for the Convoys. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985.; Worth, Richard. Fleets of World War II. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001, pp. 109–112 and 125–126.
Sherwood S. Cordier