Corvettes Canada: Convoy Veterans of WWII Tell Their True Stories

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9780470154298: Corvettes Canada: Convoy Veterans of WWII Tell Their True Stories

The Canadian escort group C 2 was comprised of the RCN destroyers Gatineau and Chaudiere, the frigate St. Catharines, the Corvettes Chilliwack and Fennel, and the RN destroyer Icarus. these six and the RN corvette Kenilworth castle combined to sing U-744 in the North Atlantic in a prolonged drama on March 5 and 6, 1944. At 32 hours, this the second-longest successful hunt of the war.

Chilliwack able seaman Ralph Chartrand recalls the action:

When the sub started to surface, everything that could shoot went into action and we fired all we could. While the crew of U-744 was jumping out of the conning tower, St. Catharines was closing in, but our captain outmanoeuvred Chilliwack in front to make sure that this was our sub. He gave the order "Prepare to ram," but soon the sub was empty, so we didn't ram. We lowered a lifeboat with a boarding party and they proceeded to U-744. While the lifeboat was tied to the sub, some members boarded the sub. then a big wave hit our lifeboat and flipped the crew into the water with the German Sailors. We took 17 prisoners on board.

It was almost a major coup. Three lifeboats reached the Type VII C boat. German code books and the cypher machine were seized, but all three seaboats capsized in the rough sea and only one book was saved. All the Canadians were picked up. So, too, were 40 Germans. Icarus then dispatched the unsalable U-744 with a torpedo. Eleven Germans died, including the captain.

Praise for Corvettes Canada.

"It was the ubiquitous corvette, built in Canada, manned by volunteers and often as not based in a Canadian or Newfoundland port, that carried the burden of our Atlantic war...and few wartime sailors escaped at least some time aboard them.

"For the most part, their experiences have gone unrecorded--especially those of the lower deck--and time will soon erase what the enemy and the sea itself could not. Fortunately, Mac Johnston has salvaged the experiences of 250 of these fast-departing corvette veterans, and has drawn their story together into a superb collective memoir of the Atlantic war.

"Johnston has woven these memories...and the history of the wartime RCN into a tight fabric, one that is both entertaining and extremely valuable. If you have never read anything on the Canadian navy's part in the Battle of the Atlantic, start with this one; if you've read everything that's already available, you will find this one a gem." --Marc Milner, University of New Brunswick 

"I like your presentation. It's right from the horse's mouth so to speak. It is so authentic, I say it is a classic. It's as true a story as can be told. Corvette men who read your book, contributors or not, will marvel at your format and will live again the tortures of the Atlantic, the friendship of shipmates, the action stations alarm bell and the roar of depth changes...

"Your book proves that these Corvette men were tough to stand the day-to-day tensions, rough seas, dangers and the boredom that was part of their sea life. You have done a wonderful story." -- Leo McVarish, HMCS Alberni, Winnipeg, Man. 

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From the Inside Flap:

To the casual observer, World War II was won on land, but the war was actually decided by the Battle of the Atlantic. It was control of the seas that enabled the Allies to fight on land in Europe, and in the air.

The victory at sea was a dangerous and deadly six-year struggle to deliver the necessities of  life and war from North America to the United Kingdom. On the one side were the hunted -merchant ships sailing in convoys protected by warships. On the other side were the hunters-German submarines determined to sever the Atlantic Supply line and strangle the United Kingdom into submission. Canada played a significant role in this struggle by producing and sending to sea more than a hundred small escort vessels known as corvettes.

In Corvettes Canada, Mac Johnston re-creates life aboard corvettes through the worlds of the veterans themselves. Within a framework of the basic events of the war, this book is an epic piece of oral history and is essentially the product of the memories of more than 250 men, collected by correspondence in a project that got underway with an initial personalized letter to several hundred corvette veterans in 1990. Hundreds of additional letters followed as more veterans were identified. The letter count rose to 1,400 and then 1,900 to flesh out the corvette story.

From the fall of 1940 until May 1945, Corvettes Canada follows these small warships as they shepherd convoys of merchant ships carrying weapons, food, oil, raw materials and manufactured goods from North America to the United Kingdom. On the return trip, the escorts bring back the empty vessels for reloading.

As told in the worlds of the veterans, the routines of life aboard a corvette are punctuated by sudden burst of fierce action--the life-and-death moments for warships, merchant ships and German submarines. This was but one enemy--the other was the North Atlantic itself, a powerful force that brought severe cold, icy storms and fierce gales.

In addition to the famous Newfie-Derry Run on the North Atlantic, corvettes also saw duty in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on the triangle run to New York and Boston, in the Caribbean, in the Mediterranean and in the English Channel, as well as the Pacific Ocean.

Corvettes Canada is a remarkable achievement: an honest, engaging story of war told through first-hand experience and a celebration of the courage and resilience of young sailors whose efforts were critical to victory in Europe. The memories are accompanied by a treasure trove of photographs which bring that time to life. In total, the book is an achievement of a kind that will be an enduring legacy for generations of readers.

About the Author:

Mac Johnston has recently retired from his post as Editor and General Manager of Legion Magazine. He has travelled extensively to Canadian battle sites, war cemeteries and memorials around the world. Mac is well regarded and well connected in the universe of the Canadian military. He is a former parliamentary reporter and past member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. He resides in Ottawa.

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