The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous battle of the Second World War and one in which Canada played a central role. The battle began on the opening day of the war in September 1939 and ended almost six years later with Germany’s surrender in May 1945.
Early in the war, German U-boats took a heavy toll on merchant shipping as the Allies struggled to find effective ways to combat the enemy threat. Between 1939 and 1942, the Germans increased the number of U-boats from 30 to 300 and developed effective hunting techniques like using groups of submarines, called wolfpacks, to attack convoys. Their efforts initially paid off, with 454,000 tonnes of shipping being lost to German U-boats in June 1941 alone. Their successes continued as nearly 400 Allied ships were sunk between January and July 1942, while only seven U-boats were lost. The situation was very serious for the Allies, as merchant ships were being sunk faster than they could be replaced, thereby putting the supply link between North America and Europe at great risk.
Technology played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic. Aircraft were effective in protecting merchant ships, but the Allied planes used earlier in the war did not have enough range to offer air cover for the convoys all the way across the Atlantic. Indeed, the central area of the ocean beyond aircraft range became known as the “Black Pit” as that was where many of the heaviest convoy losses occurred. However, the introduction of new long-range planes helped reduce the hazards of this dangerous portion of the run.
Both sides kept trying to get the upper hand in technology and tactics during the Battle of the Atlantic. Germany developed torpedoes that were attracted to the noise made by a ship’s propellers. Allied scientists responded by inventing a noise-making device that was towed behind a ship to divert the torpedoes. New radar and sonar (ASDIC) technologies helped the Allies find the U-boats and new weapons, like the “Hedgehog” bombs, helped sink the submarines more effectively. The Germans also developed technological advancements like snorkel tubes that allowed U-boats to run their diesel engines while travelling underwater and on-board radar that increased their submarines’ capabilities. Eventually, the improved equipment and tactics of the Allies finally helped turn the tide of the battle in their favour, with the U-boat fleet suffering heavy losses during the later phases of the war.
The growth of Canada’s navy was remarkable. At the beginning of the Second World War, the RCN had only six ocean-going ships and 3,500 personnel. By the end of the war, Canada had one of the largest navies in the world with 434 commissioned vessels and 95,000 men and women in uniform. Canada’s industry also played an important role in the growth of our military and merchant navies. From 1941 to 1945, Canadian shipyards produced approximately 403 merchant ships, 281 fighting ships, 206 minesweepers, 254 tugs, and 3,302 landing craft.
Furthermore, Canada played an important role in directing Allied efforts in the Battle of the Atlantic. In 1943, Rear Admiral Leonard Murray was put in charge of the Allied air and naval forces in the Northwest Atlantic—the only theatre of war commanded by a Canadian during the conflict.
On Sunday I ask you take a moment to remember the sacrifice and bravery of those mariners that fought for our freedom and never returned to shore. “We Will Remember Them.”
God Bless and keep reading
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