Crush­ing the U-boat threat

Re­call­ing the deady Bat­tle of the At­lantic, and this province’s crit­i­cal role

The Compass - - SPORTS - BY NEIL EARLE

Last sum­mer’s re­ports of a Ger­man U-boat sub­ma­rine em­bed­ded un­der­wa­ter two kilo­me­tres from Muskrat Falls seem to have abated. There was noth­ing fic­ti­tious, how­ever, about the dis­cov­ery in 1980 of a Siemens-man­u­fac­tured Nazi weather sta­tion found at Martin Bay be­low Cape Chidley. A U-boat crew had in­stalled it in Oc­to­ber 1943.

The tiny sta­tion trans­mit­ted 60 sec­onds of coded weather up­dates ev­ery three hours to weather sta­tions in Oc­cu­pied Europe, which then re­layed them to Nazi sub­marines prowl­ing the North At­lantic. Weather and di­rec­tions were vi­tal tools in the bit­ter and soul-test­ing en­counter known as The Bat­tle of the At­lantic.

The five-and-a-half-year strug­gle upon and un­der the North At­lantic’s heav­ing breast — the war’s long­est con­tin­u­ous front — is be­ing rec­og­nized as per­haps the cen­ter­piece of the Sec­ond World War.

Here was the one bat­tle the Al­lies had to win. To that end, 70 years ago this spring, a most sig­nif­i­cant and un­der­re­ported con­fer­ence of the war fi­nally as­sur­ing vic­tory in the North At­lantic was held in Washington, D.C.

Com­mand and con­trol is­sues

The Washington Con­voy Con­fer­ence took place March 1-14, 1943, with Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill in­sist­ing that the U-boat threat be crushed.

The con­fer­ence set­tled long-fes­ter­ing “com­mand and con­trol” is­sues in the North At­lantic be­tween three navies, those of Amer­ica, Canada and Bri­tain. As Marc Mil­ner of the Univer­sity of New Brunswick re­ports, Cana­dian and Bri­tish sea­men took over con­voy strat­egy in the West­ern At­lantic from the Amer­i­cans, who re­aligned their pri­or­i­ties to the Pa­cific and stepped up the fer­ry­ing of newly-made war­ships and bombers to the be­lea­guered Bri­tish (Bat­tle of the At­lantic, pages 154-157).

The is­land of New­found­land and her ad­ja­cent ter­ri­tory in Labrador was smack in the mid­dle of this strate­gic re­align­ment. The Amer­i­can-Cana­dian “base-build­ing boom” of 1941-42 made pos­si­ble this more de­ci­sive pros­e­cu­tion of the war at sea, es­pe­cially the more skill­ful co­or­di­na­tion be­tween sea and air forces.

Amer­i­can B-17s at first, and then bet­ter-equipped Lib­er­a­tors based at Ar­gen­tia, guarded the ap­proaches to Canada. Mean­while, the base at Gan­der be­came the vi­tal cross­roads for both fer­ry­ing planes to Bri­tain and send­ing pa­trols to “cover” the al­limpor­tant mer­chant marine con­voys.

New­found­land role piv­otal

Once again, New­found­land was piv­otal to North At­lantic con­cerns. Each May on Bat­tle of the At­lantic Sun­day, veter­ans sprin­kled across the is­land will place wreaths in the water to hon­our the more than 4,234 sailors, air­men and mer­chant marine of the RCN who paid the ul­ti­mate price for vic­tory.

The North At­lantic was for­bid­ding ter­rain to pros­e­cute war to the death. Ni­cholas Mon­ser­rat’s trib­ute to the tight-lipped men of the naval es­cort ser­vices hymned “the strength and fury of that ocean, its moods, its vi­o­lence, its gen­tle balm, its treach­ery; what men can do with it and what it can do with men” (The Cruel Sea, page 3).

The vi­tal the­atre

In 1943, a fate­ful chap­ter of the most fu­ri­ous war yet fought was near­ing a cli­max in and around our home wa­ters. The U-boats needed the ad­van­tage that even a small weather sta­tion in Labrador could give them.

“Op­er­a­tion St. John’s” had been an­nounced by Ger­man Ad­mi­ral Karl Donitz in May 1943, which in­cluded lay­ing mines out­side the St. John’s Nar­rows. But by then the tide had al­ready turned in the Bat­tle of the At­lantic. In the spring of 1943, a cli­max of sorts had fi­nally been reached.

Win­ston Churchill him­self had coined the phrase “the Bat­tle of the At­lantic.” Churchill knew that Bri­tain would starve if the pre­cious sup­ply ships and con­voys from North Amer­ica could not get through.

By 1941-42 the be­sieged Rus­sians were still reel­ing from the blows of Hitler’s war ma­chine and des­per­ate

Neil Earle

for suc­cor from the Al­lied sup­ply ships on the daunt­ing North Amer­ica to Mur­mansk run. Now, as 1943 came around, over-ea­ger Amer­i­can gen­er­als fan­ta­sized about in­vad­ing Europe that sum­mer.

But as 1942 ended, the Al­lies were close to los­ing the war at sea — more ships were be­ing sunk than built.

Marc Mil­ner claims that 80 per cent of all losses to trans-At­lantic con­voys oc­curred be­tween July and De­cem­ber of 1942.

Some­thing had to be done, and quickly. Part of the an­swer was greater sea-air co-or­di­na­tion in con­junc­tion with timely break­throughs in tech­nol­ogy.

Strate­gic de­ci­sions

Gan­der air­field stood with Goose Bay, the sea­plane base at Bot­wood (both Churchill and U.S. Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt passed through there) and the air­fields at Tor­bay and Ar­gen­tia on the front lines.

On New­found­land’s west coast, Ernest Har­mon air base at Stephenville be­came a stopover and re­fu­el­ing field for 30,000 flights a year at its peak — an as­ton­ish­ing fig­ure, even now, all th­ese years later (Fitzger­ald, Bat­tle­front New­found­land, page 32).

New­found­land hosted the Can­sos, Hud­sons, Lib­er­a­tors and other bomber/re­con­nais­sance air­craft that were a U-boat skip­per’s night­mare. Af­ter the con­fer­ence of 1943 the Royal Cana­dian Navy (RCN) trans­ferred ac­tual day-by-day bat­tle com­mand of the North­west­ern At­lantic from the New­found­land Es­cort Force in St. Johns to Hal­i­fax.

But New­found­land re­mained in the thick of it. Win­ston Churchill put it bluntly: “The most im­por­tant [base] for the North At­lantic con­voys was Ar­gen­tia, in New­found­land” (The Grand Al­liance, page 138).

New­found­land and Labrador’s young men were de­ployed in three navies and two air forces. As Wayne John­ston adds in As Near To Heaven By Sea, “There was hardly a Royal Navy ship in the war that didn’t have a New­found­lan­der among its crew.”

To wit, Hed­ley Har­ris from Broad Cove had served as gun­ner on the HMS Rod­ney, as she helped sink the dreaded Bis­marck in 1941.

Some 3,400 New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans served in the Royal Navy all told and hun­dreds more served in the Mer­chant Marine, whose sac­ri­fices and tribu­la­tions are the stuff of le­gend.

“The black pit”

The strate­gic re­align­ments of March 1943 came just in the nick of time. Forty one ves­sels were lost the first 10 days of March 1943, and 44 the sec­ond 10 days — 500,000 tons of ship­ping, a night­mar­ish spec­ta­cle (Mori­son, The Bat­tle of the At­lantic: Septem­ber 1939-May, 1943, page 344).

Bet­ter tac­tics were direly needed. The Cana­dian government had wisely con­structed Tor­bay air­port in 1941 and now the RCAF leapt ever more into the fray.

Hud­son and Canso air­craft joined the Amer­i­can Lib­er­a­tor bombers out of Ar­gen­tia. Th­ese long range air­craft were get­ting closer to cov­er­ing “the Black Pit,” those 700 or so miles in the mid-At­lantic where air­craft from Goose Bay, Ice­land or Ire­land were pre­vi­ously un­able to give cover to the plod­ding con­voys.

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