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The Royal Canadian Navy

Albertans, many of whom had never seen the ocean, were excited for the opportunity of volunteering with the Royal Canadian Navy.

The role of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) during the Second World War is the least heralded and understood of the three major services – army, air force and navy. At the outset of the war the RCN possessed a small fleet of thirteen, largely outdated vessels. By 1945 Canada’s navy was the third-largest allied fleet, consisting of escort carriers, cruisers, armed merchant cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and minesweepers.

The RCN played a pivotal role in the implementation of the North Atlantic convoy system during the Second World War; a system that ensured Britain’s survival during the darkest days of the war. Convoys were groups of merchant ships sailing together under the protection of naval warships. It was dangerous work on account of the dozens of German submarines (U-boats) that freely roamed the waters of the Atlantic Ocean between 1939 and 1944. U-boat attacks were regular and caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of tons of ships and cargo, not to mention hundreds and eventually, thousands of lives. Convoy ships and tactics evolved during the course of the war and by 1944 the allies turned the tide on the huge losses they had sustained during the first five years of the war.

Albertans, many of whom had never seen the ocean, were excited for the opportunity to volunteer with the Royal Canadian Navy. Local newspapers reported on the increased numbers of young Albertans registering with the RCN on a daily basis. To many of these men, the navy provided an element of excitement, a sense of adventure, and an opportunity to learn new skills. When asked why they joined the navy, the majority responded by explaining their romantic notions of the sea. Some viewed the navy as a great way to see other parts of the world. And still other freshly recruited sailors explained that life on a ship was similar to that in small western communities: everyone became part of an extended family. However, the North Atlantic presented Canada’s “prairie sailors” with a very different set of circumstances to that which they had grown up with. Aside from the constant threat caused by German U-boats, the North Atlantic was cold and rough offering up bone-chilling winds and temperatures, huge waves and seemingly unrelenting storms.

Between 1939 and 1943 German U-boats operated largely unfettered by Allied efforts. The Allies lost ten merchant vessels for every U-boat they managed to destroy. Part of the problem stemmed from the RCN pressing inexperienced and under-qualified sailors into service. Basic training was brief - only 90 days – and many such individuals were assigned to vessels almost immediately out of necessity. The transition from wheat fields to the open seas in a few short months was a difficult adjustment. Through a reconfiguration of military tactics, the Allies were able to gain some ground on their enemies, sinking U-boats at an increased rate. By the middle of 1942, half of all the escort ships in the Atlantic were Canadian. By the war's end, the RCN had recruited over 7,400 Albertans.

Several of Canada's vessels were named after Albertan towns and cities. HMCS Stettler was a River-class frigate responsible for escorting battleships. HMCS Calgary, Lethbridge, Drumheller, and Wetaskiwin were all Flower-class corvettes used to protect conveys against submarine attacks. Community members took great pride in having a RCN vessel named after their town or city. The city and citizens of Lethbridge purchased a silver tea and coffee service set for the officers' mess hall of the vessel bearing its namesake.

Editor's Note

For more on the RCN, see Prairie Sailor by Rodney Pike and “A Name if Necessary, But Not Necessarily a Name”: Why There was No HMCS Edmonton by Bruce Ibsen.

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