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The Battle of the Atlantic - War on the Homefront

For the week of Monday September 12, 2005

On September 16, 1939, two weeks after the initial outbreak of the Second World War, the first North Atlantic Convoy set sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia. This port would come to play an integral role in what Sir Winston Churchill named “The Battle of the Atlantic.”

Donald Cameron Mackay, Protection, AN19710261-4510, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art.
Donald Cameron Mackay, Protection, AN19710261-4510, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art.
© Canadian War Museum (CWM)
The Second World War was a period of growth and change for the Canadian forces. Canadian men and women joined the forces in large numbers and the growth of the Royal Canadian Navy in particular was impressive. At the end of the conflict, its numbers had risen to 100 000 troops and nearly 400 warships, compared to the 500 staff and handful of warships possessed at the outbreak of the First World War.

Supply lines from continental Europe were cut off by the German occupation of major ports, so Great Britain became dependent on North America for many essential supplies. German U-boats, travelling in groups or wolf-packs, were a great threat to the allied shipping operations that delivered these supplies. The Allied nations adopted a convoy system to protect the valuable shipping industry.

Convoys travelling across the North Atlantic came from the eastern seaboard of the United States or from Montréal and Québec City up the St. Lawrence River, and assembled at either Halifax or Sydney, Nova Scotia. A convoy generally consisted of approximately thirty ships arranged in five or six parallel rows extending about 1.6 km across. The more sensitive cargo such as ammunition, fuel and soldiers were placed at the centre of the formation and the less valuable raw materials were placed on the outer reaches. The convoys would have armed escorts to neutralize and fend off attacks by the German U-boats. These escorts often took the form of Canadian built and manned Corvettes.

Convoy in the Bedford Basin, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Convoy in the Bedford Basin, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-136272
Modified from their original whale catching design, Corvettes were initially used for coastal operations, fitted with only a four-inch (10 cm) cannon and minimal equipment. They came, however, to play an integral role in the battle itself and were often used as mid-ocean convoy escorts.

For its importance in the development of our armed forces, and in recognition of our contribution to the allied victory, the Battle of the Atlantic was designated a National Historic Event in 2000.

For more information, please visit the Veterans’ Affairs Web site commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic.

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