Crushing the U-boat threat
Recalling the deady Battle of the Atlantic, and this province’s critical role
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
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.
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.