HMCS Haida is a Tribal-class destroyer that served in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) from 1943 to 1963, participating in World War II and the Korean War. She was named for the Haida people. The only surviving Tribal-class destroyer out of 27 vessels constructed for the RCN, Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy between 1937 and 1945, Haida sank more enemy surface tonnage than any other Canadian warship and as such is commonly referred to as the “Fightingest Ship in the Royal Canadian Navy”. Designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1984, she now serves as a museum ship berthed next to HMCS Star, an active Royal Canadian Naval Reserve Division, in Hamilton, Ontario. In 2018, Haida was designated the ceremonial flagship of the RCN.
The HMCS Halifax, commissioned in November 1941, was a Flower-class corvette that served in World War II. Ships like these were produced specifically for convoy protection.
At the outbreak of World War II, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) consisted of only 6 destroyers, 5 minesweepers, and 2 small training ships. During the war, it underwent a rapid expansion, astonishing for a nation of only 11 million people. By 1945, the Canadian navy was the third largest Allied navy in terms of numbers of warships. Its core force consisted of 2 light carriers, 2 light cruisers, 15 destroyers, 60 frigates, and 118 corvettes. In all, it counted a total of 363 vessels, most of which were built in Canadian shipyards. Yards on the St. Lawrence River, Great Lakes, and Atlantic and Pacific coasts produced 70 frigates, 122 corvettes, 194 minesweepers, and numerous trawlers, motor torpedo boats, motor launches, and landing craft. From a permanent force of 1,774 men and 2,083 reserves on the outbreak of war in September 1939, the RCN expanded to some 100,000 personnel (6,700 of them women) by the end of the war in 1945.
Throughout the war, the Canadian navy’s primary function was convoy protection. In the gale-swept North Atlantic, RCN ships played a crucial role in the long struggle against German submarines. Having expanded so rapidly, the RCN suffered from poor training as well as a dearth of advanced equipment. Early in 1943, Canadian corvettes and frigates were sent to English bases, where they were fitted with new radar, sonar, and high-frequency direction-finding detection gear. In addition, the crews underwent intensive training in antisubmarine tactics and warfare.
Of particular value was the Western Approaches Tactical Unit established in Liverpool in February 1942, which trained escort captains and commanders in a common doctrine of convoy defense. Practical training was provided by exercises against Royal Navy submarines. As a result, by mid-1943, the Canadians fought much more effectively in the Atlantic arena. Still, these deficiencies led to the replacement of the chief of the naval staff, Vice Admiral Percy Nelles, with Rear Admiral (later vice admiral) George C. Jones.
The Canadians organized the massive convoys that set out from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. In 1943 the ocean area off Canada and Newfoundland, which had been under British and then U. S. strategic control, became a strictly Canadian theater under Rear Admiral Leonard W. Murray, commander in chief, Canadian Northwest Atlantic. He now controlled all Allied ships and aircraft involved in protecting Allied convoys in the region.
As radio interception and the breaking of German codes assumed major roles in the war against the submarines, the RCN Operational Intelligence Centre proved a key Canadian capability. By 1944 also, Canadian ships were providing a majority of close escort in the North Atlantic convoys. In all, the RCN provided eight mid-Atlantic support groups and escorted more than 25,000 merchant ship voyages with 180 million tons of cargo from North America to Great Britain.
Built to a British design stressing mass production, the Flower-class corvette was the mainstay of the escort fleet. Displacing 1,245 tons at full load, this ship was armed with a 4-inch gun and 40 (later 70) depth charges. The Flower-class ships proved to be miserable seaboats, however, taking on water and rolling furiously; and, at 16.5 knots, they were too slow for offensive operations.
A far more effective escort was the River-class frigate, weighing 1,920 tons at full load. The River-class ship could make 21 knots and mounted two 4-inch guns, a Hedgehog mortar, and 126 (later 150) depth charges.
While protecting the Allied convoys was the chief Canadian contribution to the war effort, the RCN also made significant contributions in other area. Canadian destroyers assisted in the Dunkerque (Dunkirk) evacuation of Allied soldiers from France and then protected Allied merchant ships in British waters. Three passenger liners were converted into auxiliary cruisers to help hunt down Axis commerce raiders in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, and North Pacific.
The acquisition of four large British Tribal-class destroyers (the Athabaskan, Haida, Huron, and Iroquois) gave the RCN additional capability for surface warfare operations. At full load, the Tribals displaced 2,519 tons (later 2,710 tons) and easily made 36 knots. Formidably armed for their size, they mounted six 4.7-inch cannon, two 4-inch dual-purpose guns, and four 40-mm antiaircraft weapons. They also carried four torpedo tubes. Two other Tribals (the Micmac and Nootka) were launched at Halifax in 1943 and 1944, respectively. The Canadian Tribal-class ships saw heavy action, especially in spring 1944 in the English Channel against German destroyers and heavy torpedo boats (900-plus tons). In the course of these battles, the Athabaskan was lost on April 29, 1944.
The RCN contributed 17 corvettes to Operation TORCH, the Allied invasion of northwest Africa. RCN ships also played a considerable part in the Normandy invasion. Some 10,000 officers and seamen and 109 RCN warships participated in Operation NEPTUNE, landing 45,000 troops on the beaches. The Canadian contribution included 15 destroyers, 11 frigates, 19 corvettes, 16 minesweepers, and 30 landing craft.
In 1944, the Canadians acquired two British light aircraft carriers, the Magnificent and Warrior (displacing 14,000 and 13,350 tons, respectively). Both saw action overseas, with the RCN thereby acquiring valuable experience in naval aviation. Their 40 aircraft were wholly British, however. The RCN also secured two light cruisers from Britain, the Uganda (in August 1941) and the Ontario (in July 1943). The Uganda took part in the Battle of Okinawa.
In the course of the war, the RCN lost 24 ships sunk and 2,024 men killed. At the same time, the Canadian navy played an important role in the Allied victory by destroying or capturing 42 Axis surface warships and helping to sink 33 submarines.
LEONARD W MURRAY
The Canadian commander-in-chief Country: Canada Years: 1896-1971 Leonard W Murray played a huge role in the Battle of the Atlantic. He helped Canada’s navy evolve from a fleet of only ten ships in 1939 to 332 vessels and the third largest Allied navy in 1945 Starting the war as deputy chief of naval staff, he later held the titles of commander of the Newfoundland Escort Force and then commander- in-chief of the North-West Atlantic. In a role often underappreciated in the annals of history, the Canadian Navy helped the Allied Atlantic supply lines to Britain to remain open even when the U-boat wolf packs were on the hunt. A former Royal Navy midshipman, Murray controlled movements from his command centre as he successfully navigated the precious convoys of Corvette-class ships across the hazardous Atlantic. He was a skilled tactician who was appreciated and respected both by his fellow officers and the men he commanded. He was also a talented motivator who managed to track down former Royal Navy officers across Canada and successfully coax them back into the fold.
Many of the men in the Canadian navy were inexperienced in this sort of warfare and it was Murray who ensured they were up to standard. In return, Murray had a huge admiration for his men, who braved the Atlantic crossings with rations that often consisted of just salted beef and tomato juice, the latter chosen specifically to avoid scurvy. During the war, Murray spent little time at sea, instead calling the shots from his desk as he dedicated himself to a minimum of 15 hours’ work a day. He had a close relationship with the British admiralty and secretly visited the UK to request the construction of destroyers specifically for Canada. Under Murray’s stewardship, the Canadian navy improved significantly and it was eventually responsible for almost half of all Allied convoy escorts in the Atlantic.
PERCY W NELLES
The Canadian navy’s first ever recruit Years: 1892-1951 Country: Canada Having been in the Canadian navy since its inception in 1910, Percy Walker Nelles was the ideal candidate to spearhead his country’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic. The long-standing chief of the naval staff wasn’t a brash dynamic leader like some and was instead a quiet man who was devoted to his work and to his country. After successfully navigating the navy through the worst of the Great Depression in the interwar years, Nelles got down to the task of developing a navy that in 1939 only had 3,604 men at its disposal. Thanks to Nelles, the navy was soon ready for war. His greatest contribution was coordinating the Canadian landings in France as he led the Canadian invasion force from London. His relocation to Britain came after a disagreement with naval minister Angus Lewis Macdonald over how significantly the navy should be expanded. After a 36-year naval career, he was bestowed the rank of admiral upon his retirement in 1945.