HMCS Sackville
BY GEORGE BORGAL
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 4)

Almost hidden along the piers and jetties of one of the greatest ­natural harbours of the world, HMCS Sackville now lies at rest amid the constant background of movement and busyness of more modern, larger and much more powerful vessels that visit the Halifax Harbour. To the surprised passer-by who happens upon her, either at her winter berth in HMC Dockyard or her summer berth near the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, she seems an oddly painted relic of another age – a museum ship perhaps? or at least an historic curiosity. But to the informed observer, she projects a presence that is much greater than her small size might ­suggest – she’s a national treasure that symbolizes, notwithstanding her age and modest size, the greatness a nation can achieve in meeting an exceptional challenge.

At the most obvious level, Sackville is exactly what she appears to be: a classic second world war Corvette. She is, in fact, the last remaining example in the world of a 269-strong class of ocean escorts, 123 of which were Canadian. With minimal armament and sensors, these Corvettes were designed to be relatively inexpensive (and rapidly constructed) coastal escorts, pending the construction of more powerful and sophisticated warships, which were on the drawing boards at the time. However, economies and operational exigencies of the day meant that she and her many ­sisters were destined to become the backbone of the trans-Atlantic convoy’s escort force throughout the war’s critical years.


HMCS Sackville, dressed overall, alongside her summer berth on the Halifax waterfront. (Photo © Sandy McClearn, smcclearn.smugmug.com)
 
Looking peacefully at rest today, and neatly dressed in her Western Approaches camouflage scheme, Sackville and the hundreds of her sister escort ships created a very different picture when briefly seen in wartime ports such as Halifax, St John’s, and Londonderry. Constantly at sea, these escorts were subjected to the extremes of North Atlantic weather. Thoroughly wet and uncomfortable inside and out, they personified, with tired resignation, the rust and grime of the day-to-day strain of safeguarding convoys on the Atlantic. There was little time, opportunity or interest in making things pretty – efficiency and effectiveness in the pursuit of deterrence were paramount. With her crew of as many as 100 from all walks of Canadian life packed into 205 feet of riveted steel, Sackville’s job was to ensure the ‘Safe and Timely Arrival of the Convoy’, the escorts’ perennial mission. In her Atlantic escort career, Sackville did this successfully 30 times, all energy focused on defending convoys from attack. During one trip alone, in August of 1942, Sackville engaged three U-boats in quick succession, damaging two to such a degree that they were fortunate to survive.


HMCS Sackville, one of many among the downtown piers.
 
Looking at Sackville now, it’s hard to imagine this small ship and crew engaged in such a dangerous dance with weather and enemy. It’s also hard to imagine just how many ships of the Royal Canadian Navy were her partners in these struggles, and even with most escorts at sea, how crowded our ports were during the all-too-short rests between convoys. Sackville’s experience was reflected many times over by the hundreds of other Allied warships defending the thousands of convoys trudging eastward against a determined foe, or returning westward for more cargo.

It is this reflection that makes Sackville much more than simply an icon of the warship class she represents. She is Canada’s oldest surviving fighting warship, and an enduring symbol of an entire Navy. Her decks and spaces bear poignant witness to the service and sacrifice of those who risked all during those half-dozen years of incredible struggle. She connects us to the responsibility Canada assumed by 1944 for the safe escort of all North Atlantic trade convoys, and the Allied recognition accorded when command of the Northwest Atlantic was placed under Rear Admiral Leonard Murray – the only Allied theatre of war ever commanded by a Canadian. The Battle of the Atlantic was the first and most crucial of a sequence of Allied front lines defended and won. Sackville is among the last representatives of an impressive war­time growth that became, at war’s end, the third largest of the Allied navies in numbers and arguably third in the world in terms of operational effectiveness.


Another escort day for HMCS Sackville, prior to the general adoption of the Western Approaches camouflage scheme for North Atlantic escorts after 1941.
 
It was therefore very fitting when, by Cabinet decision in 1985, HMCS Sackville was declared Canada’s Naval Memorial – honouring in perpetuity the memory of all those who served, and especially the more than 5000 members of the RCN, RCAF and Merchant Navy who perished at sea with the loss of 26 Canadian naval ships, 72 merchant ships, and numerous maritime aircraft. In this respect, she symbolizes for Canada and Canadians the sacrifice of all those who did not return, and the leadership, spirit and perseverance of all those who continued day after day. She is well deserving of her epithet: ‘Soul of the Navy’.

Sackville has a further relevance – larger even than the tradition and values of the RCN that she so well reflects and honours. Lying sedately in Halifax, she is silent evidence of the incredible expansion of Canadian industry, ingenuity and determination at a time when a great national effort was needed, and Canada’s econ­omy and infrastructure were being severely challenged. Shipbuilding, for example, witnessed a remarkable expansion on the East Coast, St Lawrence, Great Lakes and West Coast, and by 1945 was our second largest industry. More than 1,200 naval and merchant ships of different classes were built in support of the RCN, merchant navies, the Royal Navy, and the United States Navy, along with thousands of small craft.
Recognizing that the commitment to the war effort was a whole-of-country response, most RCN ships bore names of communities across the country, as does Sackville. Britain’s survival, and the ultimate Allied victory in Europe, were entirely dependent on ships such as these providing security for the supply of men, materials, equipment and food from North America.


Of the hundreds of thousands of convoy ship sailings, 3,500 merchant ships and more than 36,000 merchant seamen did not return.

 
Sackville is eloquent testimony to a ­generation that was supremely challenged, fought with great courage and advanced Canada onto the world stage. She is a direct link to an extraordinary national achievement, reminding us in a tangible way of Canada’s transformation from a largely agrarian nation in 1939 to the industrialized global player and respected voice in the international community of nations she became following the War.


Artistic conception of the new Battle of the Atlantic Place situated along the picturesque boardwalk of Halifax Harbour. (Image compliments of Stantec for the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust).
 
Commemorative Centre
As a nation we do not have a strong tradition of celebrating our national accomplishments publically and proudly – and Canada’s role in winning the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest and most decisive campaign of the Second World War and a defining moment in our history, has been no exception. However, under the initiative of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust (the owners and operators of Sackville), a project has been launched to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017 with a new building on the Halifax waterfront designed to ­commemorate this extraordinary national achievement in a way that all Canadians can proudly share. Conceptually, Battle of the Atlantic Place will be an innovative and interactive centre dedicated to describing the years and conditions on both sides of the Atlantic leading up to the war; our nation’s involvement in the Battle of the Atlantic; how this commitment impacted communities, businesses, industry and commerce; the personal stories of what it was like to serve at sea, and how families at home coped and filled in for the men who left; political stories of the key national and Alliance leaders; and how strategic concerns and decisions affected the war effort and personal lives. The consequences of the Battle of the Atlantic will be explored in terms of the political, economic and operational choices available, as will how Canada changed to become a post-war leader. But most of all, Battle of the Atlantic Place will be about us as a people, and how we as a nation rose to meet an extraordinary challenge.

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Follow the journey and contribute your own stories at http://battleoftheatlanticplace.ca

The Canadian Naval Memorial Trust will be incorporating HMCS Sackville into Battle of the Atlantic Place, preserving her place in our historical narrative and her relevance to future generations. She and an RCAF Canadian-built Canso Flying Boat, representative of all Canadian warships and maritime aircraft, will be placed into the specially-designed Convoy Hall (see artist’s rendering above) allowing visitors to sense what it was like to be in a convoy and ‘walk the decks’ as did those whose experiences and stories are honoured.

To join the membership campaign, visit http://canadasnavalmemorial.ca

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George Borgal
© FrontLine Magazines 2014

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