Canadians across the country marked one of the longest, darkest and most pivotal chapters of this country’s involvement in the Second World War on Sunday: The Battle of the Atlantic.
Lasting the whole of the war in Europe from September 1939 to May 1945, the battle saw Canada and its allies fighting Nazi submarines, planes and ships for control of the North Atlantic seaways.
More than 4,600 Canadians would lose their lives, including sailors, merchant mariners and aircrew trying to protect vital convoys as they crossed the cold and choppy waves carrying supplies to England and Europe.
Those supplies kept the British from starving during the early years of the war after the Nazis had taken control of Europe, and then provided the men, ammunition and equipment needed to free the continent.
But it was also a difficult and dangerous environment, with German U-boats lurking beneath the waves and the cold ocean offering a quick death to sailors who weren’t quickly rescued after their ships were sunk.
During a ceremony at the National War Memorial Sunday morning attended by hundreds of people, a ship’s bell was rung as the names of the 33 Canadian naval vessels lost during the Second World War were read out one by one.
The event, held under a cloudless blue sky, also remembered the more than 900 Canadian aircrew and 1,700 merchant mariners who lost their lives during the Battle of Atlantic.
One of those attending was 91-year-old retired captain Paul Bender, who served in the Canadian Merchant Navy and led an ultimately successful effort to designate Canada’s sunken naval ships “ocean war graves.”
Having joined the war effort when he was 15 years old, Bender was only a few days older than 16 when his merchant ship was sunk by the Germans in November 1943.
“It’s not very pleasant having your ship sunk underneath you,” he said. “But that’s one of the challenges of wartime.”
Bender, who would eventually cross the Atlantic with five convoys, said ceremonies like the one in Ottawa are vital to remembering the Battle of the Atlantic and the sacrifices Canadians made for their country and society.
Sunday’s ceremony came one day before the 75th anniversary of the sinking of HMCS Valleyfield, which the Germans torpedoed as it returned to Canada from escorting a convoy. It sank off the coast of Newfoundland, killing 123 sailors.
Royal Canadian Navy commander Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd said the Battle of the Atlantic represents an important chapter in the service’s history and heritage, which he admitted isn’t always easy to commemorate.
“One of the challenges for naval engagements is there’s no battlefield to walk, there’s no cemetery where you can go and pay your respects,” Lloyd said. “And so I think in many respects that makes it a little bit more difficult.”
Despite this, Bender was optimistic that Sunday’s ceremony demonstrates that Canadians understand the importance of the battle, and that it will continue to be remembered after those who fought in it are gone.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press