Unsung Canadian heroes received their long-owed dues on Remembrance Day in Truro.
Retired Colonel John Boileau paid homage to the sailors of Canada’s Merchant Navy during the second world war, civilian sailors who braved German torpedoes shipping food and equipment to Allied soldiers fighting the Nazis in Europe.
“Who wants to talk about lines of communications and logistics, right? It’s not action, it’s not biff-pow-bam, but it’s essential. It’s what goes on behind the scenes so that the front-line forces can carry out their job,” said Boileau after his Nov. 11 speech at the Truro Legion.
During the Second World War, 25,343 ships sailed from Canada and the United States to Britain, carrying more than 180 million tons of supplies to Allied soldiers, according to Boileau’s figures.
However, the Merchant Navy paid a frightful butcher’s bill: more than 1,600 Canadian and Newfoundland sailors lost their lives to enemy action, of the 12,000 who served at sea. In 1942, during the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allies lost one 10,000-ton ship every 10 hours for 31 days in a row.
One sailor who survived the German torpedoes and freezing Atlantic waters was Chief Steward Alan Harvie, who during one attack was standing inside an ice-box on the deck, preparing bacon and eggs for breakfast with the ship’s head cook.
When the torpedo explosion tore through Harvie’s ship, the ice box was catapulted into the sea with both himself and the cook still inside. It shattered on impact, but both men survived unhurt and swam for their lives.
“Nine times he was torpedoed, his ship was sunk from under him. Twice he was the only survivor. I don’t think I would have gone back the first time,” said Boileau. “In wintertime, if you weren’t recovered within the first few minutes, you were dead, if you weren’t killed by the initial explosion.”
As well as U-boat attacks, Merchant Navy sailors had to contend with low pay, awful food and poorly armed ships, sporting only small cannons to ward off Hitler’s Kriegsmarine.
Many sailors were inexperienced, as their more experienced prewar colleagues joined the Royal Canadian Navy after war broke out in 1939. New sailors attended training schools in Hubbards, Nova Scotia, or in Prescott, Ontario, if they were engineers.
With the regular forces taking the fittest or most experienced recruits, the Merchant Navy was left with those men and women who were either too young or old, or did not meet the military’s medical standards.
A combination of inexperienced sailors and ships often unsuited to the open ocean made convoys even more vulnerable to Nazi U-boats. The Merchant Navy was often forced to use coastal vessels as so many bigger ships were sunk.
“The threat of an enemy attack was a constant concern for all crews, and it affected their daily lives at sea. According to Windsor native Paul Brick, you slept with your life jacket. A lot of people used it for a pillow. At sea, Brick slept in his clothes and although he slept below in a few ships, he mostly slept on the upper deck in case of attack,” said Boileau.
It was thanks to Merchant Navy sailors from Canada and other Allied nations that soldiers fighting in Europe were able to receive desperately-needed supplies in the fight against Hitler. It also meant that Britain – standing almost alone against Nazi Germany in 1940-41 – did not starve.
Both Britain and the Soviet Union depended on convoys of food, weapons and other resources like timber from the United States and Canada during the Second World War.
Boileau reminded his Truro audience that the Atlantic convoys essentially won the war for the Allies, bringing over much-needed supplies despite the Kriegsmarine’s best attempts to sink ships.
After the fighting ended, Winston Churchill said that “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”
But Merchant Navy sailors faced another fight after the war’s end, as the Canadian government did not recognize them as veterans for decades after, meaning that they could not access benefits like pensions.
It was only in 1992 that surviving Merchant Navy sailors received veteran status from Ottawa, but it was still not enough.
In 1998, four sailors staged a hunger strike on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, vowing to keep it up until the government offered a new compensation package instead of the benefits offered to military members in 1945. The government met their demands.
“We are the men that saved the world,” said striker Ossie MacLean at the time.