Magazine article Sea Classics


Magazine article Sea Classics


Article excerpt

In two world wars, Canada's plucky merchant seamen heroically answered the call to the colors

At the start of World War I, Canada's experience in building steel ships was minimal. When the British Merchant Service was unable to replace ships lost to the Germans during the war, ship building orders were placed abroad. By the end of the war, Canadian industry had built 94 ships while another 60 Great Lakers were placed into active service. Between August and November 1917, 50 convoys of more than 500 ships sailed from Halifax to Europe. During the war, German U-boats sank 45 Canadian steamships with a loss of over 500 Canadian sailors. An additional 67 steel-hulled ships were built for the Canadian Government Merchant Marine (CGMM), to honor her wartime commitments.

Following the end of World War I, the CGMM operated with moderate success during the 1920s and early 1930s from both the Atlantic and Pacific on trade routes under the management of Canadian National (CN), the Government-owned railway that competed directly with the privately run Canadian Pacific. CN became a financial hability during the Great Depression years and began to sell off its fleet of ships, and by 1936 the CGMM was gone. Out of the debacle of CGMM came the Canadian Steamship (West Indies), Ltd. The company consisted of a few passenger-cargo ships and freighters that had been taken over and renamed.

On 26 August 1939, the British Admiralty issued a prearranged coded message throughout the British Empire. The signal, "FUNNEL" notified all merchant ships they were now under the directive of the Royal Navy. Oneweek later, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. On 3 September 1939, Canada issued her own declaration against Germany. When Canada entered the war, ship building was at a low point with only about 2000 people working in ten shipyards across the entire country. Canada could only manage to put together about 400 ships, most of which were small lake and canal boats working the Great Lakes. These ships were not intended to withstand the violence of the North Atlantic. One such craft was the steamship Maplecourt, a grain ship sailing for the Canadian Steamship Lines and her first ocean voyage from the lakes to Halifax resulted in serious damage to the ship and deck cargo. She sailed to Boston, Massachusetts, for repair and dry docking and after repairs and installation of bilge keels, Maplecourt returned to Halifax and joined convoy SC-20 (Sydney, Nova Scotia, to England). On 6 February 1941, she was torpedoed by U- 157 and lost. Once again, in 1940, the British placed orders in Canada and the United States to replace ships being lost to the German Uboats. The only deep-sea (salty) boats consisted of 37 ships that were outdated holdovers from the CGMM.

Imperial Oil was one of the largest employees of merchant seamen during the war and the company had its own fleet of tankers and a few American-owned tankers sailing under the Panamanian flag with Canadian crews during the early United States neutrality period.

The 1939 Canadian Merchant Marine consisted of 1200 seamen, many of them from the old CGMM days. The Canadian Merchant Navy emerged in early 1941 and a board was established to provide food, lodging, and training for Canadian and foreign seamen. Four manning pools were established, located in Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver, and at Saint John's, Newfoundland. At the Saint Margaret's Sea Training School in Nova Scotia, a 13-week course for cadet officers and a six-week course for stoke hold and engine room ratings were conducted. Upgrading was provided in various locations for those who wished to advance their careers as engineers or navigation officers. A twelve-month course was given for radio operators with the proviso they would serve for two-years from a manning pool. Ships cooks were trained at the manning pools' kitchens, but most learned while on their ships. The Government provided funding to the Navy League to operate nine Allied Merchant Seamen Clubs and four others for officers to provide social functions, meals, lodging, and health care. …

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