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Heroism at sea in World War II

Author Ted Barris' new book details the Battle of the Atlantic To refer to journalist and historian Ted Barris as a prolific Canadian writer would be an understatement.

Author Ted Barris' new book details the Battle of the Atlantic

To refer to journalist and historian Ted Barris as a prolific Canadian writer would be an understatement.

Battle of the Atlantic: Gauntlet to Victory is his latest book, his twentieth, and details the longest continuous military engagement of the Second World War, lasting 2,074 days, which claimed the lives of some 4,000 men and women in the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force, and Canadian Merchant Marine.

The battle of Vimy Ridge in WWI is often referenced as a coming of age for Canada as a country, but the Battle of the Atlantic was a much longer struggle in which Canadians played a critical role in the Allied victory in Europe in WWII.

Many of Barris’ books are based on wartime events, and have won accolades. The Great Escape: A Canadian Story won the 2014 Libris Award as Best Non-Fiction Book in Canada. Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid Against Nazi Germany received the 2019 NORAD Trophy from the RCAF Association, and Rush to Danger: Medics in the Line of Fire was listed for the 2020 Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction in Canada.

The retired college journalism professor was at the Fonthill Legion recently, at the invitation of the Royal Canadian Air Force Association - 434 Niagara Wing, and enthralled the audience with an animated and informative lecture on Canada’s significant role in sailing and escorting ship convoys from Maritime ports, laden with critical civilian and military supplies, across the perilous Atlantic Ocean to Liverpool in Great Britain. Canadian convoys also made the treacherous Murmansk Run through Arctic waters to deliver food and weapons to Russia.

Ted Barris speaks at the Fonthill Legion. DON RICKERS

“In 1939, Canada had a grand total of 13 ships,” said Barris. “That’s it. Within six years, we had 405 ships, and by the end of the war, Canada had the fourth largest navy on the planet.”

Canada’s fledgling shipbuilding industry produced at an unprecedented rate, delivering almost 900 cargo vessels and warships and thousands of landing craft, while employing 126,000 civilians.

By May of 1940, the Nazis had pushed the British Expeditionary Force to the coast of France at Dunkirk, said Barris, but a hastily assembled flotilla of military, commercial, and civilian vessels rescued almost 340,000 English and French soldiers from the beaches. Shortly thereafter, the Germans commenced mass bombing of London and other cities in the British Isles (the “Blitz”) and Nazi surface ships, submarines (U-Boats), and aircraft harassed Allied ships as they made the hazardous crossing of the North Atlantic. The German Navy, or Kriegsmarine, relied heavily on its fleet of U-Boats, organized by German Admiral Karl Doenitz into hunting groups called “wolfpacks,” to sink the convoys that were providing a vital lifeline to Britain.

“One of the chief Canadian weapons in the Battle of the Atlantic was what British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called ‘cheap and nasties,’ meaning cheap to build, but nasty for the Nazi subs,” said Barris. “They were named Corvettes, and were fitted with a four-inch gun at the bow, and depth charge rails on the stern. These sturdy vessels were originally designed as whaling ships, with reliable steam engines. Canada undertook a massive construction plan to build Corvettes on direct orders from C.D. Howe, the ‘Minister of Everything,’ who commanded the Canadian government budgets and fundraising required to build the ships.”

Corvettes were 200 feet long with a 33-foot beam, said Barris. They were agile and fast, and could out-turn a U-Boat. They also had approximately the same living space as a suburban bungalow.

“Can you imagine 100 men inside your bungalow for three weeks at a time, without showers? Not fun,” said Barris with a laugh. “These guys were all cooped up in these little tin cans, bopped around like corks in the stormy North Atlantic. If they didn’t get seasick, it was miraculous.”

Conditions in German and Allied submarines were similarly fetid.

Barris chose to focus on human stories in his book rather than simply wartime statistics and events, and highlights Canadian veterans, many who recounted their own tragic and heroic experiences during interviews. His presentation was punctuated by video clips from National Film Board propaganda movies (many narrated by a young Canadian actor named Lorne Greene, whose deep baritone on the 10 o’clock CBC news during the war was referred to as “the Voice of Doom”), along with Hollywood spectacles like Greyhound (starring Tom Hanks as the commander of an American destroyer escorting convoys) and The Imitation Game (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the British intelligence code-breaker).

Canadian naval officer Lieutenant Commander Desmond Piers, who was born in Halifax and attended the Royal Military College at Kingston, was one naval warrior that Barris profiles in his book. After some early service in the Royal Navy, Piers returned to Canada and was in charge of the destroyer HMCS Restigouche. In November of 1942, his destroyer, along with five corvettes in support, was escorting 42 merchant ships when they were surrounded by a wolfpack of 16 U–Boats. Despite their best efforts, a third of the convoy was sent to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Many attacks took place in the mid-Atlantic, known as the “Black Gap” or the “Black Pit,” which was a stretch of ocean beyond the range of Allied aircraft tasked with providing aerial coverage for the convoys. U-Boats preferred to attack on the surface rather than underwater, since their speed was dramatically reduced when submerged. Under cover of darkness, they would infiltrate convoys, and sink ships with both torpedoes and their deck gun.

Emboldened German submariners stalked the coastal waters of Canada and the United States, inflicting heavy damage to cargo ships and oil tankers. In 1942, German U-Boats entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence, torpedoing 21 ships, including the ferry SS Caribou, which sank with the loss of 137 passengers. It was the first time Canada had seen war waged in its inland waters since the War of 1812.

In 1942, the British government was so desperate and unsure of its fate that in enacted Operation Fish, which involved shipping all of Britain’s sterling silver and gold bullion from the English Treasury to Montreal, in case the Isles were overrun by the Nazi war machine.

By 1943, the tide was beginning to turn, said Barris, due to a series of factors.

British intelligence, led by mathematician and cryptanalyst Turing at Bletchley Park, had cracked the German Enigma code, allowing the Allies to track German communications and U-Boat movements. New long-range aircraft were developed that allowed a greater scale of aerial coverage of the Atlantic, and Allied naval military tactics evolved to allow warships, using advanced sonar detection—known as “ASDIC” on British vessels— to hunt down the marauding subs more successfully. By mid 1943, German U-Boat losses had skyrocketed, and convoys were able to manage the Atlantic crossing with greatly reduced trepidation.

The human tragedy of the Battle of the Atlantic was of a staggering proportion.

“During WWII, Canadian fatality rates were one in forty-seven in the Navy, but much higher — one in eight — in the Merchant Navy,” said Barris. “They were the unsung heroes of the Battle of the Atlantic. The Merchant Navy totaled about 12,000 men, and in five and a half years, despite heavy losses, they managed over 25,000 trans-Atlantic trips, delivering the equivalent of 90,000 tons of freight every day of the war. Three hundred and thirty seven convoys left Halifax, 177 from Sydney. The losses were 2233 ships and 1300 sailors. Their sacrifice was not fully recognized until 1992, when Merchant Navy veterans were granted the same status as Royal Canadian Navy veterans.”

The losses suffered by the Kriegsmarine were much higher still. Of the 40,900 German sailors who served in 830 U-Boats, 25,870 were killed. That’s a 75 percent fatality rate, the highest of any branch of service on either side during the war. By 1944, the lifespan of German submariners at sea was 100 days, said Barris.

One of the merchant mariners lost in the North Atlantic, whose story is included in Barris’ book, was this writer’s uncle, 24-year-old Ken Rickers, who perished along with almost two dozen other sailors when his freighter, the Empire Sailor, was sunk not far off the coast of Nova Scotia. He was a victim not of wounds suffered in combat, or drowning, or hypothermia, but of the poisonous phosgene gas that his own ship carried as cargo, and which was released on impact from a U-Boat torpedo.

The Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (popularly referred to as the “Wrens”) was created in 1942. Margaret Los, of Toronto, was one of 7000 who enlisted, and explained her decision to Barris in an interview.

“Three-quarters of the male population of my generation went off to war, which in some ways was fortunate for women, because we were allowed to take jobs that had always been exclusively the domain of men,” she said. “Don’t ask me why the Navy appealed to me. I come from Toronto, which is not a navy town. I didn’t have a navy background in my family at all, but the Navy appealed to me as an opportunity to go places and see things and to travel. And another thing was that when you looked around Toronto, there were five girls to every man. If you were sent to Halifax, there were ten men for every girl.”

Los became a member of an exclusive group in Moncton, New Brunswick, known as the “Listeners,” who used high-frequency radio direction finding gear (nicknamed “huff-duff”) to eavesdrop on transmissions between U-Boats and their bases in occupied France and Germany. The information would be passed along to Bletchley Park in North London, where teams of cryptanalysts would decode the messages using German Enigma machines, used for communication by the German Army, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe.

A Canadian woman in the inner circle with codebreaker Alan Turing was Nancy Adair, who was born in England but raised in St. Catharines. She joined the teams of mathematicians at Bletchley Park decoding the Enigma machine, and was bound by the Official Secrets Act.

“Occasionally, somebody in Canada sent Nan a package of powdered milk chocolate, which she boiled up and shared with her fellow cryptanalysts,” recalled Barris. “It was a real treat, since chocolate was severely rationed in Britain during the war years. When the hot chocolate and the conversation ended, everybody put their cups away, but the slightly paranoid Turing, the greatest mathematical mind in Britain, wiped his mug clean, then put a chain through the handle and locked in to a wall.”

Ralph Frayne was a Pelham native and WWII veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic. The Voice reached out to Frayne’s daughter, Sandra, who still lives on Effingham Street.


“Dad was profiled in a 2016 book entitled Too Young To Die: Canada’s Boy Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen in the Second World War,” said Frayne. “He was a big kid at age 14, standing five foot eleven inches. Dad lied about his age, and enlisted in the army. He was dismissed once his true age was discovered. He later joined the Merchant Marine, and then the Canadian Navy. He served aboard a Flower-class Corvette called HMCS Arvida before becoming a gunner aboard the destroyer HMCS Haida in 1943, at age 17.”

Haida survived the war, and is currently docked in Hamilton Harbour as a war memorial.

Sandra Frayne said that her father spent time on a tanker while in the Merchant Marine, travelling to the Caribbean to pick up fuel. After witnessing other tankers in the convoy explode after being hit by torpedoes, “Dad decided to join the Navy, where he could shoot back. He got frostbite in the North Atlantic so bad that he never had to shave the left side of his face. He ended up deaf from the cold and gun blasts, because they didn’t use any ear protection.”

While on a Murmansk Run through the Barents Sea, Frayne said her father and some sailor pals dropped off medical supplies at a Russian hospital, and were greeted by the horrific sight of stacks of dead bodies, stripped of clothing, that couldn’t be buried because the ground was frozen solid. The image haunted Frayne for years afterwards.

By the end of the war, Ralph Frayne was suffering from shell-shock, said his daughter. He came back home to Niagara, and finished high school in St. Catharines. From there he attended the University of Toronto, and earned a law degree at Osgoode Hall. His distinguished law career spanned 63 years, and included stints as president of the Lincoln County Law Society, and winning the Upper Canada Law Society Medal. Through it all, Ralph Frayne enjoyed many years of farming at the family homestead, Windwood Farm, in Beamsville. He retired in September of 2014, and died in May of 2015, age 91.


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Don Rickers

About the Author: Don Rickers

A life-long Niagara resident, Don Rickers worked for 35 years in university and private school education. He segued into journalism in his retirement with the Voice of Pelham, and now PelhamToday
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