Convoys of World War II: Dangerous Missions on the North Atlantic, by Dorothy Pedersen
Canada’s almost forgotten navy
Non-fiction works of this nature are not star-rated.
Book blurb: Nine men tell their personal stories of life at sea during World War II. In extreme danger, they battled seasickness, injury, and less than comfortable living conditions while avoiding floating mines and torpedoes in their efforts to guide ships safely across the Atlantic Ocean.
About the author: When she was six years old, Dorothy Pedersen obtained a copy of Charlotte’s Web from the Clydebank Public Library, in Clydebank, Scotland. By the time she was finished the book she knew she wanted to be a writer. She came to Canada in 1964 where, alas, school teachers discouraged her from pursuing writing as a career. After an assortment of jobs she trained in equine studies and horsemanship, worked for the horse industry for a period of time, and continues to this day to write about it. Dorothy enjoys designing and creating handknits and crocheted garments, and is an animal rights supporter, and boxing fan.
Review by Gerry Burnie
Within hours of Canada’s declaration of war on September 10, 1939, the Canadian government passed laws to create the Canadian Merchant Navy to provide a workforce for wartime shipping. The Canadian Merchant Navy played a major role in the Battle of the Atlantic bolstering the allies merchant fleet due to high losses in the British Merchant Navy. Eventually thousands of Canadians served aboard hundreds of Canadian Merchant Navy ships.
That is what most history books have to say about it, but what was it like aboard one of these ships? In her prologue to “Convoys of World War II: Dangerous Missions on the North Atlantic” [Amazing Stories series, Altitude Press, 2007], Dorothy Pedersen gives us a glimpse us a glimpse as follows:
With thudding hearts, a pair of Canadian sailors watched the torpedo skim the water in front of their corvette. It was racing straight for the tanker—one of the 35 ships in their convoy and only a hundred metres away. With a deafening impact, the shock of the explosion almost blew the sailors off their ship.
“The tanker’s cargo of fuel, destined for the Allies’ war efforts in Europe, spewed into the ocean and ignited into a hissing, spitting, roaring fireball. As the tanker burned, the horrified witnesses heard only weak cries. After a short time, these too were drowned out by the thunder of the angry fire. The sailors knew there was no point in the convoy’s rescue ship sticking around.
“Escorted by armed navy vessels, the convoy of Canadian and British merchant ships raced onward, trying to put distance between them and the visible and invisible dangers of the North Atlantic. Despite the reputed safety of the pack, another of their ships was stricken quickly. Lifeboats had been lowered but some sailors barely had time to grab a life ring before hitting the frigid water. The rescue ship was ordered to stay for them as the rest of the convoy again sailed on.
“Choppy seas made the rescue agonizingly slow and difficult. Scramble nets were thrown over the side of the rescue ship for the desperate men to haul themselves aboard. Half an hour later, only a few men and boys had been saved. Many more were losing the fight with the frigid water.
“Then the order came that was even more chilling; “Abandon the rescue.” Once again under attack, the convoy had signaled for help. The rescue ship revved up its engines.
“In the ocean, the weakening hearts of the remaining sailors sank alongside their ship.”
Nature itself could also be unforgiving, as one young sailor recorded in his diary:
“What a miserable, rotten hopeless life . . . an Atlantic so rough it seems impossible that we can continue to take this unending pounding and still remain in one piece . . . hanging onto a convoy is a full-time job . . . the crew in almost a stupor from the nightmarishness of it all . . . and still we go on hour after hour.”–Frank Curry, Royal Canadian Navy, 1941 during the Battle of the Atlantic, a battle that would be called the longest in history.
Although Canada’s Merchant Navy is grouped in with the British Commonwealth’s, it is estimated that the Commonwealth merchant navies suffered 30,000 casualties from 1939 – 1945—most of those in the Battle of the Atlantic. Even so, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the merchant navy finally got recognition for their contribution to the war effort. “We really were the forgotten veterans of the unknown navy,” Earl Wagner is quoted as saying (p.68).
*September 3rd is “Merchant Navy Remembranch Day.”
Dorothy Pedersen has done as masterful job of bringing this history to our attention, and I highly recommend “Convoys of World War II” as an interesting and informative read.
This is part of my Remembrance Day tribute. A new memorywill be added each day until November 11th. Lest we forget!
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