While out for a drive this past weekend one of my sons asked why St. Albert would have an avenue named after a British Prime Minister. A curious question. I could have responded “I am not really sure,” or “he was a tenacious and inspiring leader who pulled people together in a time of great need,” but instead, being a naval officer, I recalled and shared two quotes he made during the Second World War.
Last Sunday marked the 71st commemoration of the end of the Battle of the Atlantic (BOA), which was the longest campaign of the Second World War. Beginning Sept. 3, 1939 with the sinking of the Montreal-bound passenger ship SS Athenia until the surrender of Germany in 1945, the BOA gave cause for Canada to fully understand and appreciate its maritime heritage and the need for naval power in safeguarding commerce, security, and sovereignty.
Churchill, known for his bulldog tenacity and never surrender spirit stated that the BOA was “the only thing that ever frightened me.” It is difficult to think that anything frightened Churchill. Indeed the BOA frightened countless people. Allied victory depended upon winning this battle.
To survive the Axis threat, Britain required more than a million tons of imported material per week. These materials came by sea via convoys of merchant ships from Canada and the U.S. In essence, it can be said that the BOA was a tonnage war. Allied forces were challenged to supply Britain while the enemy attempted to disrupt merchant shipping so as to knock Britain out of the war. Over the period of the BOA, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Merchant Navy completed 26,000 safe crossings carrying more than 181 million tons of supplies to Great Britain.
From 1942 onwards, the Germans sought to prevent the massing of Allied supplies and equipment in the British Isles in preparation for the invasion of occupied Europe. The defeat of the U-boat threat was critical for curtailing the Germans, Winston Churchill wrote: “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.”
Canada clearly made significant and outstanding contributions to that outcome. Over the course of the BOA, Canada lost 24 capital warships, more than 70 merchant ships, and approximately 350 aircraft. More costly were the many lives lost in the efforts to keep Britain supplied. In total more than 2,000 RCN sailors, 1,700 Merchant Navy, and 900 Royal Canadian Air Force and Canadian Army personnel, some of whom were from Alberta, paid the ultimate price in the effort to defeat the enemy.
Whenever I go shopping, I am ever mindful of where the products we depend upon today came from. I appreciate that many of our staples come by way of sea. Our nation relies on access to tidewater to get our resources and products to the international market. Here in landlocked Alberta it is easy to forget that our economy is tied to sea trade. Our navy continues to safeguard our national interest and as Canadians we should never lose sight of why we need a robust navy.
We can be proud to have a city street named after Sir Winston Churchill. It serves as a rich reminder of our past. Never for a moment can we forget that the freedoms and lifestyle we sometimes take for granted, came at the hands of a generation that gave their all, who never surrendered, so that we might thrive and “hold high the torch.”
The motto of my Naval Reserve unit, HMCS NONSUCH, is “a campis ad maria” which translates to “from the prairie to sea.” It is a fitting reminder of those who served in the BOA and those who serve our nation now. Lest we forget.
Tim Cusack is an educator, writer, and serving member of the naval reserve.