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Courage, fortitude, and determination: Canada’s Merchant Navy

For the week of Monday August 30, 2010

On September 3, 1939, the first day of the Second World War, German submarines sank the SS Athenia, a passenger ship headed to Montréal, as it travelled west of Ireland. The sinking of the SS Athenia signalled the beginning of the Battle of the Atlantic: by September 16, 1939, a rigorous convoy system was instituted and the dangerous route from North America to Great Britain was patrolled by a network of naval escorts. Merchant Mariners from Canada and Newfoundland, which was not yet a Canadian province, served aboard the ships that crossed the ocean in what would be Canada’s longest military engagement in the Second World War.

Merchant Mariner torpedo survivors aboard HMCS Arvida in St. John’s, Newfoundland, September 15, 1942
© Lt. Gerald M. Moses / Department of National Defence (DND) / Library and Archives Canada / PA-136285
Using their control over the entire coast of Europe, Nazi Germany’s wartime strategy was to cut off overseas food and supplies from Britain using a fleet of submarines, warships and long-range bomber aircraft. It was thought that this strategy would put pressure on Britain, the only unoccupied European country involved in the war, to surrender. Canada provided half of the naval escorts in the effort to safely convey staples such as eggs, wheat, flour, cheese, bacon and canned meat to Britain in order to prevent the starvation of its civilian population. Canadian transport ships, along with those of other allied and neutral nations, were grouped into convoys of upwards of 40 ships. When German submarines torpedoed merchant ships, the escorting allied warships rescued survivors from the water.

German attacks were not the only danger that Merchant Mariners faced during the Battle of the Atlantic. The frigid Atlantic water and occasional oil fires on the ships meant that Mariners faced risks even as they went through their daily routine. Cramped quarters and limited living space on the ships also aggravated living conditions. Although more than 2,000 Merchant Mariners were killed during the Second World War, their efforts were not in vain: by the end of the war, the merchant navy had made more than 25,000 trips across the ocean.

Engine room personnel, Halifax, Nova Scotia, November 29, 1942
© Lt George A. Lawrence / DND / LAC / PA-106533

For their sacrifice in supporting the Allies, the Role of the Canadian Merchant Navy during the Second World War was designated a national historic event in 2001. The Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from September 1939 until May 1945, was designated a national historic event in 2000.

In 2003, government legislation was passed declaring every September 3rd "Merchant Marine Remembrance Day" in order to commemorate the contribution of Merchant Navy Veterans.

For more information on the 100th anniversary of Canada’s Navy, visit the National Defence and the Canadian Forces website, The Canadian Navy Centennial 1910-2010. To read more about Canada’s navy, please see the following This Week in History stories: Sails Away! The Canadian Navy is Born and Canadian Made Commander-in-Chief.

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