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Home>> Canada's Air War >> The RCAF>> The Home War>> Conflict>> Eastern Command

Eastern Command

A view from 116's base across Halifax harbour as the Queen Elizabeth enters portIn 1942, German U-boats brought the war as close to Canadian soil as it would get. U-553 moved into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in May. Over the course of that summer, the U-boats would sink 21 ships in the gulf. U-boats even got close enough to the mainland to land two German spies. Hampered by inadequate equipment, ineffective tactical procedures and poor command structure and inter-service communication, Canadian Armed Forces including the Air Force were unable to score a single U-boat kill during this period, despite extensive efforts. Efforts to improve performance were further impeded by the reluctance of Canada's allies to provide it with better resources.

Air coverage in the St. Lawrence did at least keep shipping losses from being even higher. Although difficult to destroy, U-boats could effectively be kept at bay with the presence of few or even a single armed aircraft, which would force the U-boat into a dive. Underwater, the U-boats were slow and often incapable of maneuvering into a position capable to strike a shipping convoy.

While the Battle of the St. Lawrence was no doubt unnerving to the inhabitants of the Gaspé and other areas around the Gulf, more important was the damage the U-boats were inflicting on shipping convoys in the Atlantic. The convoys were critical to sustaining the Allied efforts in Europe; they were the lifeline of Great Britain. Allied shipping losses peaked in the winter of 1942-43, and were especially severe in the so-called air gap in the mid-Atlantic, the space that was left between the operational radius of Canada’s Eastern Air Command and that of the British Coastal Command (under which several RCAF squadrons also carried out operations). U-boat Wolfpacks took advantage of the gap, inflicting heavy damage to Allied convoys.

By mid-1943, Allied commanders realized that the gap needed to be closed. Infusing it with air and naval forces, and with the benefit of improved radar and air/navy cooperation, Allied forces were able to inflict heavy casualties on the Wolfpacks, effectively dispersing them and eliminating them as a concern.

Single U-boats continued to operate in the Atlantic up to the Gulf of St. Lawrence throughout the war. Faced with improved strategy and equipment on the part of Allied air and naval forces, U-boats were rarely able to surface long enough to maintain an effective attack against ships. The U-boats themselves made technical advances, preventing effective air and naval attacks against them. The result was a stand-off, with few losses taken on either side. Escorting ships late in the war, Warrant Officer Class One Ted Kelly got a first hand glimpse of how new technology was used in and over the Atlantic.

Most importantly, Allied shipping was able to continue in support of the Allied offensive on the European mainland beginning in June, 1944. Over the course of the war in the Atlantic, Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons accounted for or participated in the demise of 21 U-boats, over 10 percent of those accounted for by Commonwealth forces overall.

 

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