Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This Day in Canadian History

December 23, 1944 - HCMS Clayoquot torpedoed by U-Boat

On December 23, 1944, a German U-Boat torpedoed the HCMS Cloyoquot, a Canadian Navy minesweeper.

The ship was torpedoed by U-806, just outside the approaches to Halifax harbour. The ship's crew would struggle to save it for several hours before it finally sank. Eight Canadian sailors were lost. The remainder were eventually rescued by the HCMS Fennel.

The allied forces in Europe relied heavily on war materiel manufactured in Canada and the United States. As a result, the shipping lanes between Canada and Britain were of paramount importance, and a key factor in the winning of the European war were the efforts of the Canadian navy in staving off the menace of German U-Boats.

Strikes as far deep into Canadian waters as that which sunk the Cloyoquot were made possible by what today seems like an intuitive innovation -- that of the schnorkel, a tube that extended from the U-Boat up to the surface, which allowed it to take in oxygen and expel exhaust, allowing it to stay submerged for longer periods of time.

It seems surprising today that a snorkel was once considered so innovative.

But for such a simple innovation, it proved extremely effective. In some cases, U-Boats were able to embark upon extended voyages in which they remained submerged for up to 65% of the time.

Canadian ships had first encountered U-Boats during the First World War, and had proven unprepared for them. At the time Canada had only one cruiser, and was largely reliant on the British fleet. Broad portions of Canadian waters were designated as part of the Empire's North American and West Indies Station.

To make matters worse, Canada's lone cruiser was actually a relic of a bygone era, only serving to exacerbate Canada's dependence on British protection.

U-Boats operating in Canadian waters during that war were so successful that it was believed that Germany had actually established a secret submarine base somewhere on the Canadian coast.

Despite these successes -- and the hyesteria inspired by the notion of German bases and spies operating in Canada -- the threat of submarine warfare was underestimated, even as the spectre of war again began to stir in Europe.

During the early years of the war, the limited effective range of U-Boats allowed Canadian Frigates and Bangor-class minesweepers (like the Cloyoquot) to provide Canada with comparatively luxurious security against the U-Boat threat.

If the danger posed by the U-Boats wasn't firmly understood by Canadian military brass it was, if anything, possibly exaggerated by Canadian journalists, who made wartime icons of the Gillespie Children of Russel, Manitoba, who survived a U-Boat attack. They also made a martyr of Hamilton, Ontario's Margaret Hayworth, a child who did not. Seafaring Canadians would quickly begin to fear that they, too, could be victims of the heavily-moralized U-Boat threat.

As late as in 1939, it had been recognized that the Canadian navy had been remiss in declining to outfit Canadian ships with SONAR, and that it would have to quickly be acquired in the case of hostilities.

At this point, Canadian military brass had been aware of -- if not appreciative of -- the threat posed by U-Boats.

While Canadian sailors would fight valiantly -- and, in time, very effectively -- against U-Boats, the initial reluctance to recognize the threat cost Canada dearly in the early days of the war. It may not be unfair to posit that the failure of military and political leadership to respond to the U-Boat threat may have even extended the length of the war by months, or perhaps even years.


  1. Patrick - NOT FOR publication. Correction needed in the date in the first para.

  2. LOL

    Yeah, I can see that. I'm not sure how that happened.


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