When the Second World War broke out, the RCN was yet again the first Canadian military force into action, and it formed the mainstay of the Canadian effort for the first two years of the war. Convoy escort work in the North Atlantic commenced immediately. From the spring of 1940, RCN destroyers also participated in operations off the French coast, including the evacuation that year of British forces from the European continent.
The “corvette navy” of the RCNVR and the Battle of the Atlantic against the German U-boats are remembered as the major contribution of the RCN, but that was not nearly the sum of the Navy’s accomplishments. In 1941, with the fate of Britain uncertain and the US not yet committed to joining the war, the growing competence of the RCN and the possible requirement to defend home waters prompted the building of a strong national navy. The defeat of the U-boats remained a priority, but the government ordered the acquisition of cruisers and powerful Tribal-class destroyers in addition to scores of anti-submarine corvettes and other escorts.
The naval college was reopened to ensure the training of officers in Canada. The rapid thirtyfold expansion (to some 96,000 sailors of all ranks by war’s end, as well as some 6,500 women), plus the effort to get large numbers of ships to sea — often before they were fully combat-effective — led to an equipment and training crisis in the spring of 1943. This resulted in the dismissal of the chief of naval staff, Vice Admiral Percy Nelles.
This also meant the RCN itself was not a major element in the critical Atlantic convoy battles of May 1943. However, recognition of the RCN’s contribution to the war effort is better measured by the Allied decision in March 1943 to create the Canadian Northwest Atlantic as a separate area of joint RCN–Royal Canadian Air Force responsibility. Under the command of Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, this placed the RCN in charge of all northern Atlantic convoy operations through the end of the war. It remains the only major theatre of the war to have been commanded by a Canadian.
Built in 1942, HMCS Halifax was typical of the cheap, seaworthy corvettes built to counteract the German U-boat menace (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-145502).
In the dramatic action of 6 August 1942, the destroyer HMCS “Assiniboine” pursued the U-Boat through fog, ramming and exchanging gunfire, dropping depth charges and finally sinking it with a 4.7-inch shell (courtesy Canadian War Museum/11033).
The Canadian destroyer sank German torpedo boats, a minesweeper, destroyer and submarine during WWII (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-151742).
World’s Fourth-Largest Fleet
The U-boats remained a potent enemy, and, during the last two years of the war, more than 100 escorts joined the fight in the Atlantic, most of them new, more capable frigates. Additionally, the Tribal-class destroyers were broken in on the Murmansk Run (the convoy voyage to northern Russia) and later patrolled the English Channel in support of the D-Day landings. Canadian minesweepers helped to clear the approaches to the Normandy beaches, and Canadian landing ships and anti-aircraft cruisers participated in the assaults on the Aleutian Islands, Sicily and Italy, Normandy, southern France, Greece, and in the liberation of Hong Kong.
Canadian sailors also manned two British escort carriers (the RCN’s own light aircraft carriers would not be ready until after Victory in Japan Day), and the first of the Canadian cruisers joined the British Pacific fleet to support operations against the Japanese home islands.
In total, Canadian warships destroyed 42 enemy surface ships and, either alone or with other ships and aircraft, sank 33 submarines. The RCN lost 33 ships and suffered 1,990 fatalities. At the end of the war, the RCN was the fourth largest fleet in the world — behind only those of the US, Britain and the Soviet Union — with more than 400 warships. Although the RCN had no battleships or submarines, Canadian sailors served with distinction on both types of vessels in the Royal Navy.