Military History Books
by Harold A. Skaarup   
Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) 1939-1945, Battle of the Atlantic

Royal Canadian Navy (RCN)

Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945


Data currrent to 17 July 2019.

 (DND Photo)

HMCS Champlain, ca 1932, one of six destroyers in the RCN at the outbreak of the Second World War.  

During the Second World War, the RCN expanded from a fleet of 13 warships to a force of some 450, the majority of which were engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic.  When Canada officially declared war on Germany on 10 September 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy consisted of six destroyers, five minesweepers, two training ships and a mobilized strength of 366 officers and 3,477 ratings including reservists.

Battle of the Atlantic

The RCN played a significant role in the Battle of the Atlantic.  Although the RCN was very small at the start of the war, by 1942 it was carrying out a major share of the defence of North American waters while escorting trans-oceanic convoy of merchant ships and fighting German U-boats.  By 1944, the RCN and RCAF had grown to the point where they were providing a significant contribution to our Allies in other theatres of the war.  At the same time, Canada’s Merchant Navy Veterans sailed at tremendous risk, often in highly inflammable tankers or in freighters loaded with ammunition. More than 25,000 merchant ship voyages were made from North America to Britain under RCN escort delivering roughly 165 million tonnes of cargo to sustain the UK.

 (USN Photo)

A convoy moving eastward across the Atlantic, ca. November 1942.

The Germans failed to stop the flow of strategic supplies to Britain. This failure resulted in the build-up of troops and supplies needed for the D-Day landings in Normandy.  The defeat of the U-boat was a necessary in order to pre accumulate Allied troops and supplies in Europe to ensure Germany's defeat.

 (Jeff Tripp Photo)

Smoke from a burning tanker torpedoed in the North Atlantic.

Victory was achieved at a huge cost: between 1939 and 1945, 3,500 Allied merchant ships (totalling 14.5 million gross tons) and 175 Allied warships were sunk and some 72,200 Allied naval and merchant seamen lost their lives.  The vast majority of Allied warships lost in the Atlantic and close coasts were small warships averaging around 1,000 tons such as frigates, destroyer escorts, sloops, submarine chasers, or corvettes, but losses also included two battleships, one battlecruiser, two aircraft carriers, three escort carriers, and seven cruisers.  

 (Robert Chasse Photo)

British freighter sinking south of Newfoundland.  

The Germans lost 783 U-boats and approximately 30,000 sailors killed, three-quarters of Germany's 40,000-man U-boat fleet.  Losses to Germany's surface fleet were also significant, with 4 battleships, 9 cruisers, 7 raiders, and 27 destroyers sunk.

Canada's Merchant Navy was vital to the Allied cause during the Second World War.  More than 70 Canadian merchant vessels were lost.  1,600 merchant sailors were killed, including eight women.  Information obtained by British agents regarding German shipping movements led Canada to conscript all its merchant vessels two weeks before actually declaring war, with the Royal Canadian Navy taking control of all shipping on 26 Aug 1939.

 (DND Photo)

Convoy assembly in the Bedford Basin, Halifax, for merchant ships destined for the UK.

At the outbreak of the war, Canada possessed 38 ocean-going merchant vessels.  By the end of hostilities, in excess of 400 cargo ships had been built in Canada.

 (DND Photo)

HMCS Collingwood (K180)

With the exception of the Japanese invasion of the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, the Battle of the Atlantic was the only battle of the Second World War to touch North American shores.  U-boats disrupted coastal shipping from the Caribbean to Halifax, during the summer of 1942, and even entered into battle in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

 (Gary Penelton Photo)

U-889 surrendering to the RCN, May 1945,

Canadian officers wore uniforms which were virtually identical in style to those of the British.  The ordinary seamen were issued with an 'MN Canada' badge to wear on their lapel when on leave, to indicate their service.

At the end of the war, Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, Commander-in-Chief Canadian North Atlantic, remarked, "...the Battle of the Atlantic was not won by any Navy or Air Force, it was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of the British and Allied Merchant Navy."

Canadian warships and aircraft sank, or shared in the destruction of some 50 U-boats.  Connections to New Brunswick include the frigate HMCS Saint John and the destroyer HMCS St. Croix, which sank two U-boats each, although the destroyer was later sunk in September 1943 by an acoustic torpedo.  

 (Ron Bell Photo)

HMCS Shediac (K110).  The Saint John, New Brunswick-built corvette, HMCS Shediac, participated in several convoy battles.  In July 1942, it engaged three U-Boats in a single night, ramming one and damaging another. 

  (DND Photo)

 (Author Photo)

HMCS Sackville (K181), has been restored and is now preserved in Halifax as Canada’s National Naval Memorial.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3334452)

RCN Operations Room, St. John's, Newfoundland, 24 Sep 1942.

A large naval establishment in Saint John oversaw the inspection of all merchant shipping from the western hemisphere bound for German-controlled ports in Europe.  Naval Control of Shipping HQ in Saint John oversaw shipping throughout the waters around New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and parts of Quebec. The Naval Reserve Division at HMCS Brunswicker located in Lower Cove enlisted nearly 2,300 recruits for the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR).

RCN Ships Commissioned 1930–1950

Aircraft Carriers HMS Nabob, HMS Puncher and HMCS Warrior are listed on a separate page on this website.

Corvettes (Flower and Castle Class), are listed on a separate page on this website.

Cruisers and Armed Merchant Cruisers are listed on a separate page on this website.

Destroyers (A, C, D, E, F, G, and H Class), are listed on a separate page on this website.

Frigates (River and Loch Class), are listed on a separate page on this website.

Frigates (Prestonian Class), are listed on a separate page on this website.

German U-boats and their service with the RCN post-war, are listed on a separate page on this website.

Landing Craft are listed on a separate page on this web site. 

Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB), are listed on a separate page on this web site.

RCN Beach Commando W is listed on a separate page on this web site.

Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) is listed on a separate page on this web site.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4950864)

Signals Rating hoisting Signal Flags, ca 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4950815)

Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service "Wrens" and Signal Flags before the mast, ca 1944.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3566929)

RCN sailor operating a Rangefinder, RCN Gunnery School, Halifax, 1940.

 (DND Photo)

RCN Corvette HMCS Alberni (K103), 1941.  In the background, on the port side of the merchant ship is the submarine depot ship HMS Forth. Alongside Forth is the training submarine HNLMS O15.  HMCS Alberni was built at Esquimalt and commissioned there on 4 Feb 1941.  She was torpedoed and sunk by U-480, southeast of the Isle of Wight.  59 of her ship's company lost their lives.