Tuesday, November 10, 2009  
   Volume 79 - Issue 45 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
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Quote of the Week
“The police office is not the
place for him. It’s not his
place of business.”
- Councillor David Cole  
- on the bylaw officer’s   


Looking Back - John KinnearBack in 1992 the Veteran's Affairs Department finally condescended to acknowledge the role and pension eligibility of our unsung heroes of the North Atlantic, the Merchant Navy. It had been a long time coming and long overdue.
Canada's merchant seaman of World Wars 1 & 2 operated without uniform or recognition and were poorly paid as they sailed back and forth across the hostile Atlantic. Sometimes they sailed in rusty old steamers but just as often they were in highly inflammable tankers or freighters loaded with ammunition and other dangerous goods. Always they faced the prospect of death by freezing water or flaming oil.
They sailed not only the North Atlantic route but most of the oceans of the world from ports in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Australia/New Zealand and the Far East. After Hitler invaded Russia they also sailed what was known as the deadly "Murmansk Run". They were the men who provided the lifeline of food stuffs, ammunition, clothing, steel, oil and aircraft that Britain and the war effort so desperately needed.
Most don't realize just how close Britain came to losing the First World War because of shipping losses to U-boats. By the spring of 1917 the British Admiralty reluctantly predicted the total destruction of their merchant fleet by that November which consequently would mean Britain's defeat. In April of 1917, 788,183 tonnes of cargo were sunk and in 3 bitter months that winter 800 ships and 8,000 seamen were lost.
Kaiser Wilhelm's unrelenting submarine attacks on any and every ship almost succeeded. Fortunately the Allies adopted the "convoy" system that spring, a system that eliminated the scattered stream of independent boats trying to make their way across the Atlantic. U-boats had to search a vast ocean for fewer independent targets and attacking a convoy with some air and sea escorts was much more risky. By the fall of 1917 convoy losses were less than one in a hundred and because of convoying the Allies were able to mercifully put an end to this tragic war.
At the onset of World War II this deadly sea game resumed but the assumption that escorted convoys with air support and new technology would prevent heavy losses was ill founded. Not many naval vessels and patrol aircraft were available then and training was severely lacking. Then there was the other significant factor, a determined German admiral named Karl Donitz and his new German U-boat force.
Once again escorted convoys of vital supplies sailed from Halifax and Sydney, Cape Breton. They faced the presence of mines, submarines, and surface or air attack, the risk of collision as well as weather hazards, ice and shoals.
Canada's Merchant Fleet in 1939 was a paltry 39 ships. To this was added 133 "canallers" from the St. Lawrence Seaway fleet. In a desperate wartime move these 'lakers" were transferred to open ocean, the first 25 going over to the decimated British coastal fleet in the spring of 1940. Six of them took part in the Dunkirk evacuation and only 9 survived the war. Some even carried bauxite from South America to our aluminum smelters.
This fleet was eventually supplemented by a remarkable revving up of Canada's shipyards from December 1941 to war's end. Canada produced an astonishing 354 ships rated at 10,000 tonnes, another 49 at 4,000 tonnes, 281 escort ships (destroyers, corvettes, and frigates), 206 mine sweepers, 254 tugs and 3,302 landing craft in that time. Somehow one has to feel a great deal of pride at those amazing statistics.
The cargo ships built were of two types, one for Britain and the other for Canada and the Commonwealth. The ships for Britain were named after Canadian forts and the others were named after federal, provincial and municipal parks.
In 1944 Park (10,000 tonne type) deliveries reached an unbelievable 94 ships - almost two per week! On July 6, 1943 the Jasper Park was the first of its type to be lost, sunk in the Indian Ocean.
Crewing these ships was a nightmare. By 1941 the Allied Merchant Navy had suffered 25,000 casualties. No support could come from Britain and our Navy had recruited almost every civilian with any seafaring experience. Of course the other forces (army and air force) also were competing for able-bodied men here. Somehow 12,000 deep sea merchant seamen were found by war's end. Some were too young to be soldiers but at age 15 or 16 (some even younger) they joined the merchant ships as seaman or apprentice officers. Those too old for Armed Services were common in the Merchant Navy. In between these age extremes were those of age but previously rejected for some minor physical shortcoming and those who had served and been discharged for various reasons. They all rallied to the call, to a life that was miserable and hazardous and one in which the chances of survival from a torpedoed and sinking ship were small. Five minutes is all you last in the black waters of the North Atlantic.
One can hardly imagine in the early years how many very old and unsuitable ships were pressed into service and what living conditions on this ancient tonnage must have been like.
The men of these convoys endured the never-ending attacks of Donitz’s wolf packs. Those attacks included the likes of the "Battle of Cape Farewell" where a pack of 14 U-boats located a slow moving convoy trying to do an end around by going north past the southern tip of Greenland. 15 ships were sunk there in less than 48 hours resulting in the tragic loss of 160 merchant seamen.
Closer to home some of Donitz's 300 subs penetrated the St. Lawrence in the spring of 1942. By early October they had sunk 19 merchant ships and 2 naval escorts in the crowded St. Lawrence and later that month they sank the ferry "Caribou" right in the middle of the Cabot Strait, killing 136 people. Our government was forced to close off the gulf and river to overseas shipping for the next 2 years, shutting down access to the important port of Montreal.
In the spring of '43 the merchantmen's perseverance finally helped turn the tide for the Allies. Helping them then were more escort ships, better trained crews and equipment, merchant ships converted into small aircraft carriers, and the critical cracking of the top secret German code.
Also with the help of those wonderful long range aerial surveillance Liberator bombers the dreaded Black Pit was closed. The Black Pit was an area that allied aircraft from both sides and from Iceland were unable to give air cover to. What a dreadful place that must have been.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest of the Second World War continuing unbroken from the first day of the war September 3, 1939, to the last day of the war in Europe, May 8, 1945. The Merchant Navy was committed from the first day to the last and the losses continued all through that time. The Park ship Avondale was sunk in the North Sea on May 7, 1945.
On May 10, 1945 the British Admiralty sent the following message to Canada: "For more than five and a half  years , side by side with the allied Merchant Navies in the face of continual and merciless attacks by the enemy, you have maintained the ceaseless flow of sea traffic on which the life and strength of this country depend... In this historic hour we think with special gratitude of the many merchant seamen who have fallen in the fight and whose service and sacrifice will always be a proud memory".
How our country could fail to recognize this contribution for so long is beyond me!
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John Kinnear Archives

   Volume 79 - Issue 45 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
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