In a space above an old warehouse in St. John’s, Newfoundland are the premises of the Crow’s Nest Officers Club. The club was formed in January, 1942, and was meant to be a refuge for those engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic. Canadian, British, and American naval officers all passed through the Crow’s Nest during the War Years. At first, they scribbled their names and the names of their ships directly onto the wall until the proprietor, weary of wall cleaning, assigned each vessel its own space to decorate as it wished.
On the Club’s opening night in 1942, some members pounded back a few beverages and decided to have a nail-driving contest. Whoever could drive a spike deepest in the wood floor would win glory for his ship. The winner was LtCmdr. Bert Shadforth, commander of HCMS Spikenard K198, a Flower Class corvette assigned to convoy escort duty. Two weeks later, off the north coast of Ireland, convoy SC-67 was attacked by a U-boat wolfpack. The Spikenard, veteran of several other convoy runs, was torpedoed shortly after a cargo vessel was hit. The torpedo hit forward and the Spikenard went down bow first. In the dark and confusion, vessels attending the stricken cargo ship missed the sinking of the Spikenard. Next morning, only eight of the Spikenard‘s 65-member crew were rescued from the icy waters. All others, including LtCmdr Shadforth, were lost. Back at the Crow’s Nest, members cut out a piece of flooring that included Shadforth’s spike and mounted the piece on the wall, memorializing the Spikenard.
After war was declared in 1939, Britain inaugurated a program of turning out small escort vessels — not so expensive as destroyers and nowhere near as fast, these ships were labelled “corvettes”, a term dredged up from history. Small and poorly armed, slower than the U-boats that were their enemy, these ships had one great advantage: they were cheap and easy to build. Churchill called them “cheap nasties”, but he envisioned a faster, more heavily-armed ship than the Flower-class corvette.
Convoys transporting materiel to Britain and the Soviet Union took on cargo at Halifax and Sydney (and, after US entry into the war opened rail passage from Canada, Saint John, New Brunswick.) Convoy escorts were based in St. Johns and accompanied the cargo vessels to an area off Iceland, where British (and later, American) ships took over for the voyage to Great Britain or the Murmansk Run to the USSR. This was brutal duty for the seamen involved. After the War, ex-corvette sailor Nicholas Montsarrat wrote a best-selling novel about his experience: The Cruel Sea. The title says it all. It was not simply enemy guns that sank ships, it was the sea itself — the bitter cold, the ferocious swells that could roll a corvette forty degrees to one side, then eighty degrees to the other. Still, these short, broad ships were very seaworthy. As one seaman put it, corvettes would roll in wet grass but they would sail in any weather:
The corvette bounced around like a cork. The waves were so high you couldn’t see the top when you were in the trough. The corvette would climb that wave, then, passing the top, the stem of the ship would come crashing down on the other side. This would send shivers through the whole ship. You could feel it through your boots. [“Scrappy Little Corvettes”]
In 1939, the Canadian navy had only four small warships, and seven coastal vessels — motor launches and armed yachts. British corvettes began adding to that number in 1940. In that year, the Spikenard was completed in the Lauzon, Quebec shipyards and quickly was transferred from the British Navy to the Canadians. Over the period 1940- 1942, Canadian and British shipyards turned out 267 of these small vessels, 70 serving with the Royal Canadian Navy, the others going to allies. Some revisions were made to the Flower-class design, with 40 or so of the revised “Increased Endurance” vessels brought into the RCN.
The revisions did not help the corvettes’ fighting ability. Armed with one or two small guns and racks of depth charges and hedgehogs for anti-submarine work, the ships lacked firepower. The basic corvette tactic was to charge directly at an attacking U-boat, hoping to make it submerge, since that reduced the speed of the undersea craft to less than that of the corvette. If it stayed on the surface, the U-boat could outrun the corvette. So long as the subs were operating beyond the range of coast-based aircraft, that was the best that could be done. And that best was complicated by the fact that Canadian corvettes were using obsolescent sonar which was confused by the mix of fresh and salt water in the St. Lawrence. This last became important in the spring of 1942 when U-boats began attacking in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and even in the river itself.
Between May of 1942 and early 1944, four Canadian warships and twenty-three merchant vessels were sunk in the Battle of the St. Lawrence — the first engagements in Canadian coastal waters since the War of 1812. In October, 1942, the SS Caribou, a Newfoundland Railway ferry operating between Port Au Basques and Sydney, Nova Scotia was torpedoed. 137 lives were lost, half of them military personnel on leave, the other half civilians, including women and children. Although residents along the coast had witnessed naval battles and seen bodies washed ashore, they were not allowed to speak of it under wartime censorship rules. Authorities decided to relax the restrictions and report the ferry sinking so as to prevent rumors that might be worse than the truth. The truth was bad enough. There was an uproar when Canadians discovered how poorly the St. Lawrence was defended and demanded that more vessels be added to the original force of four warships — two small motor launches, an armed yacht, and the minesweeper that was Caribou‘s escort when she was attacked. Five corvettes had recently been added, but the force was still inadequate. The Royal Canadian Navy continued to prioritize the convoys, seeing that as their main strategic duty. Meanwhile, Canadian shipyards turned out ships at an increasing rate, including the new River-class frigates that were faster, better armed, and equipped with better electronics. By the end of the War, Canada had increased the size of its navy almost a hundredfold, becoming the fifth-largest navy in the world.
After the War, corvettes were sold to various nations where they served, generally, in a mercantile capacity. As they aged, the ships were broken up for scrap. The last corvette afloat, HCMS Sackville, is now a museum ship in Halifax.
Today, the Canadian ships sunk and the men lost at sea in the Battle of the Atlantic are memorialized at HCMS Prevost near London, Ontario. Each ship that was lost in the Battle of the Atlantic has a stone. Many are surrounded by photos of the men lost at sea who crewed them.
The Stones, ship memorials at HCMS Prevost
Corvette K-225 is a 1943 movie where the real K225, HCMS Kitchener, plays a ship called the Donnacona. There are some scenes shot in Halifax of actual convoy assembly. Film crews actually went on convoy runs to gather background and the film rates as better than the usual wartime propaganda.
Action Stations (1943) is an NFB-produced wartime docu-prop film that has great shots of the conditions faced by these ships and their crews, but the narration is hard to take. Corvettes were not “swift” nor “maneuverable”, nor “heavily-armed”.