Let’s Salute A

Alarm clocks were set in a number of Sackville homes on the morning of May 15, 1941. Outside, dull grey skies, in evidence since dawn, suggested there would be rain later in the day. As people were waking up, the latest war news filtered through the radio.

The morning newscast from CBA Maritimes did little to brighten the sombre mood. The only relief was speculation concerning a mysterious landing by parachute on a Scottish moor. A few days earlier, Rudolf Hess, in direct line of succession after Adolf Hitler, had parachuted to safety following a solo flight from Germany. This unusual incident, was described by Winston Churchill as one of those cases in which the imagination is baffled by the facts.

Already on land, the German blitzkrieg had conquered much of Western Europe, from Norway to the Pyrennes. A few weeks before, in April 1941, Germany began an offensive against Greece and Yugoslavia. The aerial bombardment of Britain was underway and no one could predict the outcome. At sea, the Battle of the Atlantic, in which the Royal Canadian Navy was to play an important role, had become more intense.

The reason for the early rising on that gloomy May morning, was an invitation received by Mayor Norman A. Hesler. It requested the presence of the Mayor and Aldermen at a ceremony to take place at an East Coast Canadian Port. Later in the day, the mayor accompanied by all eight aldermen left Sackville to attend the event. Once there, they were to witness the launching of a corvette to be named HMCS Sackville.

The following week the Tribune Post described the ceremony. Lashed by driving rain, the trim grey hull of another corvette for the Royal Canadian Navy slid smoothly down the ways… The Sackville slowly gathered momentum, to take the water stern first, amid the cheers of workmen and spectators, and the sound of ship’s foghorns and whistles.

In keeping with government censorship regulations, the location was still identified as an East Coast Canadian Port. We now know that the port was Saint John, and that the corvette was built by the Saint John Shipbuilding and Drydock Company at Courtenay Bay.

Life on board RCN corvettes such as the Sackville was best described by one veteran as pure Hell. Quarters were unbelievably cramped, lack of adequate refrigeration guaranteed a limited diet; while seasickness was common due to the corvette’s roll and pitch on the North Atlantic Run. Any season on this unpredictable stretch of ocean is challenging; however, in winter weather, extra problems were created, with snow storms, windchill and ice.

Despite these difficulties, the more than 100 Canadian built corvettes played a pivotal role in the Battle of the Atlantic. Throughout the war they bore an unlikely classification: Flowers. This came about because British corvettes, on which the Canadian version was modelled, were named for flowers. Each Canadian corvette carried, with pride, the name of a town or village selected from all regions of the country. In addition to Sackville, other place names chosen from within New Brunswick were: Buctouche, Edmundston, Fredericton, Moncton, Shediac and Atholl for nearby Campbellton.

Designed specifically for convoy duty, the corvettes, aided by advances in radar and asdic underwater detection, were soon to prove their worth. Long range patrols by aircraft also assisted in escort duties. By 1943 the rate of loss among merchant ships dropped dramatically. In the space of five months the Germans lost 100 U-boats. From 1941 to late 1944 Sackville played its part in these stirring events. As a true survivor everything was experienced; from a mutiny by the crew, to the worst that the German submarine wolf pack might fire.

The story of Sackville’s wartime exploits has been expertly told by Dr. Marc Milner, a member of the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick. On two counts, it was appropriate for Dr. Milner to write this book. Not only is he a native of the town, a son of Bill and Rita Milner; he is Canada’s foremost naval historian. This well illustrated book, HMCS Sackville 1941–1985 is a guaranteed good read and best of all, it’s currently available in better book stores everywhere.

For those who might wish more detail on the Battle of the Atlantic, I recommend additional books by Dr. Milner. They are: The North Atlantic Run: The Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle for the Convoys (1985), and it’s sequel, The U-Boat Hunters (1994). Two others are also suggested: Tom Lynch’s Fading Memories: Canadian Sailors and the Battle of the Atlantic (1993) and Mac Johnston’s Corvettes Canada: Convoy Veterans Tell their Story. (1994).

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about HMCS Sackville was that it’s story did not end with the war. Most of the surviving corvettes were either scrapped or sold to the highest bidder. After a brief stint as a training ship, she was refitted as a loop layer in late 1944. The loop indicators were systems of electrical cables that recorded changes in the earth’s magnetic field caused by the passage of a ship. Understandably they were an essential part of the seaward defence of all major East Coast Canadian Ports. Sackville was first given the task of repair and maintenance of the cables and later, after the war, their removal.

In 1952 Sackville began another chapter in it’s long life of service. For the next thirty years, until 1982, the ship was to be dedicated to scientific and oceanographic research. Part of this time it was stationed at St. Andrew’s NB. By 1982 it seemed apparent that, at long last, the end was near for the aging corvette. Or was it?

Dr. Milner described the setting: She returned to Halifax [from Bermuda] on 1 August 1982. When her engines rang off 1019 hours on that fresh summer morning her years of service came to an end. On Dec. 16, 1982 HMCS Sackville was decommissioned with appropriate ceremony. Milner continued: Nostalgic and curious onlookers lined the waterfront, standing patiently in the fog and drizzle as Sackville steamed past.… Just as that long ago day in May 1941 [in Saint John] when she first hit the water, ships sounded their foghorns and whistles.

Miraculously for the Sackville there was to be one more reprieve. Over the next three years recognition began to sink in that the ship was the last of The Flowers, and that it constituted an important part of Canada’s wartime heritage. Coincidentally, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax was looking for a ship that would link the facility with the Royal Canadian Navy.

After much negotiation HMCS Sackville was eventually selected for this purpose. Time was required for the necessary refitting from a research vessel, back to the slim grey corvette of 1941. On May 4, 1985 the restored Sackville officially became part of the Museum complex. The ship that for so long honored a town on the Tantramar, had now reached it’s final anchorage.

May 7, 2000 will be marked throughout Canada as Battle of the Atlantic Sunday. This tradition began in October 1950 and was partly inspired by the anniversary of Nelson’s naval victory at the battle of Trafalgar. Since this date had no special meaning for the Royal Canadian Navy, the commemoration was changed the next year to the first Sunday in May. This new date was more appropriate, as it is would fall close to the anniversary of V-E Day, May 8, 1945, and the official end of the war in Europe.

For Canadians, Battle of the Atlantic Sunday this year will have special meaning. In 1999, the federal government gave formal recognition to members of the Merchant Navy for their role in the war. On Sunday May 7, let’s pause for a moment and remember the sacrifices of ALL who served on the North Atlantic Run. Let’s also salute HMCS Sackville for it’s unique role in time of war and peace. There will never be another Flower named Sackville!

(Special thanks to Barbara Fisher for suggesting this topic. I am also indebted to her for the loan of broadcast tapes and notes.)