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The War at Sea

In the First World War Canada's front line was in France and Belgium. In the Second World War, when distance could be spanned by long-range aircraft and submarines, the front line lapped against Canada's Atlantic shoreline, and on the west coast fear of an invasion by Japan grew intense.

To most Canadians, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was identified with the bitter submarine war in the North Atlantic, but Canadian warships also served in other waters and other endeavours. They were engaged in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Pacific theatres of war; served with the British fleet off Norway; accompanied convoys to Russia; and participated in coastal operations off northwest Europe. As well, by the end of the war, 4,000 Canadian seamen had served on loan to the Royal Navy in various branches from the Fleet Air Arm to the submarine service.

In 1942 Canadian sailors helped man the landing craft which put troops ashore during the fateful raid on Dieppe. They also aided Allied operations in North Africa by convoying and supporting troops, manning landing craft flotillas and later protecting the supply lines for material and reinforcements. In 1942, although heavily involved in the Atlantic war, the RCN was large enough to contribute substantially to the landings in Sicily and Italy. Four flotillas of landing craft, manned by 400 Canadian seamen, took part in these operations. The subsequent surrender of Italy lessened the need for warships in the Mediterranean and Allied destroyers could then be withdrawn to reinforce the Atlantic forces.

Naval preparations for the Allied invasion of Europe began late in 1943. The RCN shared in attacks on enemy warships and waterborne traffic, undertook anti-shipping patrols and supported mine-laying sorties across the English Channel. From bases in southern England two new Canadian Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) Flotillas took part in sorties against German inshore convoys.

When the vast Allied armada advanced across the Channel on D-Day 1944, 60 Canadian destroyers, corvettes, frigates and minesweepers were there. They included two flotillas of motor torpedo boats and two of the six escort groups of destroyers, frigates and corvettes. The Canadian destroyers, Haida, Huron, and Iroquois helped guard the flanks of the fleet during the crossing.

The Allied assault on the beaches of Normandy began at dawn. Minesweepers went in first, clearing lanes and dropping lighted buoys to guide the armada to the shore. Six Canadian Bangor class vessels helped sweep mines from the path of the invading fleet in the British sector; ten others swept the way to an American beach. Behind them came the assault ships, including HMCS Algonquin and HMCS Sioux, to bombard enemy installations and provide cover for the disembarking troops.

The landing ships followed, and in the absence of enemy counter-fire unloaded their landing craft filled with soldiers. Among the infantry landing ships were two converted Canadian merchant cruisers, the Prince Henry and Prince David, and three landing craft flotillas. Farther west, five Canadian corvettes conveyed blockships to form artificial harbours off the beach.

The navy remained active in the months following D-Day. Until European ports were captured, resupply had to be carried out across the beaches and the minesweepers and landing craft flotillas were thus fully employed. Intense coastal warfare continued as well. Two Canadian MTB flotillas covered the beaches near Le Havre and engaged in search and pursuit operations in the Channel. They destroyed enemy ships in convoy and sank and damaged enemy torpedo boats and gun boats, until they, themselves, fell victim to German mines. Canadian corvettes, meanwhile, carried out escort duty, fending off enemy ships and submarines.

The combined efforts of the naval and ground forces freed the European ports and forced the Germans to abandon their Bay of Biscay submarine bases. However, the German undersea fleet was moved to Norway and to North Sea bases and continued to threaten lines of communication, and to attack Murmansk-bound convoys. In August, the Canadian-commanded escort carrier Nabob joined the Home Fleet for naval-air operations against German targets in Norway, where she unfortunately fell victim to a U-boat attack. The Canadian destroyers, Algonquin and Sioux continued operations with the Home Fleet. During September 1944, they joined the North Russia convoy run, and in the autumn and winter were frequently used to protect carriers on anti-shipping and minelaying sorties.

Canadian ships also aided in the landing of troops in southern France and put a British Commando unit ashore on the Greek island of Kithera. On October 14, 1944 they landed British and Greek soldiers at the Piraeus, the port of Athens.

Even as the war against Germany drew to a close, the battle of the seas went grimly on. The U-boats, with new equipment, could not yet be discounted. In the last five months of the war they sank a half a million tons of Allied shipping. The continuing danger of submarine attack meant that Canadian anti-submarine sea and air forces were still required in European waters. At least 25 per cent of the 426 escort vessels in British home waters in 1945 were Canadian. The RCN thus came to carry a large share of the burden in the struggle for control of Britain's coastal waters. Statistics indicate the effectiveness of that force. Of the 27 U-boat kills credited to the RCN between 1939 and 1945, 20 occurred east of the 35th meridian of longitude and 17 of those took place after November 20, 1943.

For the navy the fighting against the Germans ended on May 8, 1945.

With the defeat of Germany attention could be focused on the Pacific for the final war against Japan. In the early years of the war, when the battle of the Atlantic was critical, Canada had been forced to give the Pacific theatre low priority. Base facilities were expanded and Esquimalt, Vancouver and Prince Rupert were reorganized, but by October 1940 the only naval force of any size on the west coast was the Fisherman's Reserve of 17 vessels and 150 officers and men drawn from British Columbia's fishing community.

Canada's western seaboard became more vulnerable with Japan's entry into the war in 1941. However, help would also come from the United States fleet which was concentrated in the Pacific , while the Canadians and British defended the Atlantic.

In June 1942 the United States requested Canadian assistance when the Japanese seized the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska and bombed the nearest United States base at Dutch Harbor. The Canadian ships, Prince David and Prince Robert, performed convoy escort duty and helped the Americans concentrate their troops for the attack against Attu which they regained in May. The Canadian corvette Dawson made a final trip to Alaska in July when she escorted a troop convoy for the assault on Kiska. No Canadian warship was present on August 15, 1942, when a joint American-Canadian force made an amphibious landing on the island only to find that the Japanese had already evacuated it.

Canadian naval participation in the final stage of the Pacific war was to have included 60 ships, manned by 13,500 men. In fact only one ship, the cruiser Uganda took an active part; the end came quickly for Japan, and before other Canadian ships could be sent.

Canadian seamen had played a significant role in the sea war against Germany. Beginning the war with only six fairly modern destroyers, five small minesweepers and two training vessels, the Royal Canadian Navy ended with 373 fighting ships most of which were built in Canada. At the outbreak of hostilities they were barely 1,800 permanent force officers and men and a reserve force of 1,200. When peace came in 1945 this number had swelled to more than 113,000 of which 7,126 were enlisted in the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service. Canadian ships shared in the sinking of 29 German and Italian submarines. And 1,190 Royal Canadian Navy personnel died in the service of their country.

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