Victory in the St. Lawrence: Canada's Unknown War
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography
Sidney Allinson is a Victoria-based communications consultant, Canadian
news correspondent for Britain’s The Army Quarterly and Defence, and
author of The Bantams: The Untold Story of World War I.
The Navy has always taken stiff pride in being called “the silent service.” However admirable, this trait has been sometimes almost taken to extremes, which may account for the general lack of books giving information about the Royal Canadian Navy’s exploits in World War II. A sad oversight, considering that the Royal Canadian Navy then grew from virtually nothing to become the third largest fleet among the Allies. Of late, a few books have emerged, mainly telling something of the important role played by the RCN in protecting convoys during the battle for the North Atlantic. Strangely, though, one of our grimmest sea campaigns was fought within sight of Canadian shores, a story that has been finally told in Victory in the St. Lawrence: Canada’s Unknown War by James William Essex.
The author himself served at sea with the RCN in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres of war and was a radar operator in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. His personal experiences, coupled with a great deal of research, have enabled him to write this unique account. He interweaves individual reminiscences of many veterans to describe how our ships fought a grim, four-year battle with German U-boats lurking to kill off warships and merchantmen almost with impunity. The book strongly hints that it was because our often poorly equipped patrols fared so badly for a long while in this battle that Canadian authorities chose to impose strict censorship at the time, so that we remain today largely unaware of the events.
It is a grim tale, for the most part. A story of gallant but hastily trained sailors putting to sea in a makeshift fleet of tiny ships in search of U-boat wolfpacks amid fog and frequently foul weather from Gaspe to Rimouski. During the early days of the struggle, the St. Lawrence Naval Force had to make do with a couple of corvettes, some Fairmile motor launches, and a remarkable handful of converted civilian luxury yachts. To war’s end, the force was equipped as if it were considered a side-show in relation to the demands of Atlantic convoy work. So, through it all, they fought with little glory and much danger: eight ships were sunk while defending Canada’s coastal waters.
The narrative also includes some insights into the fortunes and character of their enemies, the captains and crews of the relentless U-boats that sank 28 ships in the region. Their unflinching style of warfare sometimes contrasts with the boyish memories of high jinks in Canadian naval training camps. Our men quickly became hard professionals, too, tirelessly setting themselves to hunt down the slaughterers of the 28 ships. Meantime, only once did the authorities admit that anything was amiss in the St. Lawrence, when a U-boat sank CNS Caribou with a loss of 125 Canadians, many of them women and children.
As is often the case with British Commonwealth and American authors, Essex seems to take an almost gloomy satisfaction in dwelling at length on the defeats that occurred during the struggle. True, all negative aspects of any military campaign should be fully covered. Nevertheless, it is still a trifle disappointing to find the account of our eventual victory in the St. Lawrence here bundled into a single final chapter.