The German U-boat rose from the North Atlantic’s inky depths, intent on torpedoing as many vessels in the convoy as it could. With close to 80 merchant ships in the flotilla, the odds of sinking at least one appeared rather good. With his periscope’s sights fixed on a British tanker, the submarine’s captain gave the order to fire.
A few seconds later the German torpedo struck its intended target, the ensuing explosion instantly illuminating the foggy night sky. Merchant seamen scrambled toward their lifeboats, caught between the raging inferno and the ocean’s icy waters. Satisfied with its efforts and fearing the convoy’s escorts, the German vessel slipped beneath the waves, the sea above erupting into a cauldron of burning diesel oil, maritime debris, and disfigured human remains.
Scenes like this were typical of the Battle of the Atlantic, an ongoing conflict that revolved around Allied efforts to keep war-related supplies flowing safely to Britain, a flow of material that the German navy was desperate to eliminate. The battle was the lengthiest continuous military engagement of the Second World War. It began in the autumn of 1939 and ended only with Germany’s surrender in May 1945.
By the time the war had ended, over 100 Allied convoys had engaged in battle and up to 1,000 ships had fought in one-on-one encounters. The count: 3,500 Allied merchant vessels, 175 Allied warships, and 783 German U-boats had been sunk. The human losses were even more horrendous: 72,200 Allied sailors and merchant seamen and 30,000 German U-boat sailors had been killed.
For Canadians, the Battle of the Atlantic was a milestone in the nation’s development. Canada had entered the war with a navy of less than a dozen ships and naval enlistments totalling a mere 3,500 men. By war’s end the Royal Canadian Navy was the third largest in the world, consisting of over 400 vessels and 95,000 enlisted men and women.
For young men like Langley’s Gerry Hay, the conflict at sea was also a coming of age. Still in his teens when he first enlisted, Gerry served in the navy as a stoker throughout the war, leaving its service as a petty officer — and a man.
Born in Medicine Hat in 1921, Gerry moved to Mount Lehman in 1933 with his parents, sister, and two brothers. The family relocated to South Aldergrove three years later. Gerry’s father hoped to establish a family farm, but as Gerry recalls, success proved elusive when the land his father purchased proved both infertile and unprofitable: “My father had inherited a considerable amount of money, and so we moved to the coast, but it didn’t take long for people on the coast to deprive him of that money.” The land he’d been sold “wasn’t worth a darn.”
With only a small amount of capital left the family had little choice but to stay and make the best of a bad situation. Gerry finished his education at the old Langley High School in downtown Langley, but relates — with an impish smile — that he “didn’t enjoy school at all. I always had a sharp tongue and it got me into a lot of trouble!” Like many boys his age, Gerry was eager to finish his education and begin a career.
Gerry hoped to find employment in stationary engineering. Military service offered the potential of both training and a job: “A fellow I chummed with, we decided we’d join the navy.” Only his parents stood in the way: “I think there was a little collusion between my parents and the government . . . They didn’t call me up until war was declared.” Unable to enlist, Gerry went north to work in a lumber camp.
When the Second World War finally broke out in September 1939, Gerry returned to high school in Langley. Like most of his classmates, he knew little about world affairs, but quickly learned about the significant threat posed by authoritarian regimes then governing Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Together with other students at the school, Gerry joined the town’s “broomstick army,” a volunteer militia unit then under the command of First World War hero Major Archie Payne. The unit’s equipment was only just adequate. “We had rifles, but they were old. We also had little straw hats. Being small, my uniform came down to my shoes and up again. But we didn’t wear puttees, thank goodness!”
After several months of training in Langley and North Vancouver’s Blair Rifle Range, Gerry was called up to join the navy. Having completed his basic training at HMCS Naden in Esquimalt Gerry next found himself at a military base in Comox. There, he recalls, the training was in no way appropriate to his future assignments. “They taught us all about destroyers. And we said, ‘what is all this about destroyers when they’re building corvettes all over the country?’ This guy said, ‘you’ll never see a corvette,’ but we never saw a destroyer!”
Ironically, a year after having enlisted, Gerry and his classmates had not encountered a single ship. “We didn’t have anything to train on. We didn’t have a ship. We talked of boilers and things but we’d never seen one till we got on a ship.” Sent east to Halifax in the spring of 1941, the young, would-be engineers finally had their chance.
Gerry’s initial assignment was as a stoker aboard HMCS Saskatoon, a “Flower” class corvette built to escort convoys across the North Atlantic. Bitter experience had demonstrated that merchant ships stood a far better chance of not being sunk by German U-boats if they travelled in groups guarded by destroyers and corvettes. Corvettes were themselves a wartime innovation, their design being based on that of North Atlantic whalers. 205 feet long and with a draught of just 11.5 feet, the vessels were modestly armed with five guns and two depth charge throwers.
With a maximum speed of 16 knots (about 30 kilometres per hour), corvettes were easy prey for enemy destroyers, and, like any surface vessel, could also be picked off by submarines. Despite these perils, Gerry was unafraid. “They didn’t want us. They were after the merchant ships. Any navy ship that got torpedoed got in the way of something.”
Gerry’s childhood friend and neighbour Earl Jaynes was one of the 2,000 officers and men of the Royal Canadian Navy who fell prey to the German navy. Jaynes had trained with Gerry on the West Coast, but the two were separated when assigned to different vessels. Serving aboard the corvette HMCS Levis in September 1941, Jaynes was among 18 men killed instantly when a German torpedo struck their vessel’s bow.
The Levis was the first of 10 Canadian corvettes lost during the war. By the time the war was over, two dozen Canadian naval vessels had been lost beneath the waves while close to 2,000 Canadian naval personnel and more than 1,600 Canadian merchant navy personnel had lost their lives in the defense of freedom.
For Canada’s servicemen and women, living with loss became part of daily life. The war went on. Transferred from the Saskatoon to the corvette HMCS Galt, Gerry found himself escorting convoys between Halifax or St. John’s and various British ports. Although his ship participated in several engagements with the enemy, Gerry was in the peculiar position of generally knowing little about what was going on above decks. Tending the boilers and engines below decks afforded little sense of battle: “As a stoker you didn’t know where you were. If they got a sub scare you changed direction – you would go all over the place.” Yet, when called to battle stations neither the stokers below nor the seamen above exhibited much fear: “You just never considered it.”
On some occasions the destroyers that led the convoys elicited more concern than the threat of German wolf packs. Destroyers were fast, highly maneuverable, and much larger than the corvettes under their command: “They would come right in beside us and tell us what to do. And boy, could they move! That scared me more than anything, the way they came in beside you. They were there one minute and gone the next.”
Despite the presence of heavily armed destroyers, a “sub scare” could happen at any time and any place – even in the St. Lawrence River. “Most of the time they were sitting there waiting. They could get in the middle of a convoy and as long as they stayed down they could pick out the ships they wanted to sink. They mostly went for tankers, because of the fuel. If you could blow up a tanker beside a freighter you usually damaged the freighter too.” Tragically, survivors of a U-boat attack were not always picked up. “It depended on the skipper. He was putting his ship in jeopardy if he stopped to pick up survivors.”
In the early years of the war the Germans had increased their U-boat fleet from a mere 30 to over 300 vessels, a situation that resulted in the Allies losing ships more quickly than they could be built. In the first six month of 1942 alone, almost 400 Allied ships were sunk, compared to just seven German submarines.
But the situation gradually changed. With the United States entering the war in late 1941, additional vessels became available to combat the U-boat menace. And, as Gerry recalls, the air force joined the fray as well. “Once the air force got in with us they sank more submarines than the navy. I had a couple of fellows in the air force as friends. After the war when we got drinking we debated Who Won the Battle of the Atlantic.”
Now aged 90 and living in Osoyoos, Gerry is a soft-spoken, gentle man. Known in his youth as “little Gerry Hay,” he seems anything but the stereotypical image of a warrior. But Gerry is precisely the sort of man on whom the Allied victory ultimately depended: quietly courageous, dutiful and determined; an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. It was men like Gerry who safeguarded the North Atlantic, preserved Britain’s freedom, enabled the Normandy invasion, and helped to secure the Allies’ final victory over the most sinister regime the world had ever known.
– Warren Sommer is a consultant and author based in Fort Langley.