on November 10, 2010
Canadians are unduly modest, if I may humbly say so myself; but even at that it's surprising that it took 63 years after World War II ended for this superb account of the men who first blunted the German advances.
True enough, Canadians were not the ones who won the war. Credit for victory belongs to Russian manpower, American machinepower and British stubbornpower. Instead, it was the British refusal to accept peace after the fall of mainland Europe; plus Canadian efforts to keep open the vital sea lanes across the North Atlantic. Johnston tells just how it was done, and at what cost.
Everyone knows about the 'Battle of Britain'. A few know it was American 100-octane gasoline that enabled British fighters to match the Luftwaffe. Almost no one knows it was mainly a handful of Canadian sailors, hastily trained and often poorly equipped, who did enough to prevent the U-boats from stopping all of those tankers from reaching Britain. For 500 years, the Atlantic has been the world's most important ocean; in 1941/42, it was mainly Canadian corvettes that kept it open for Britain.
Johnston presents this long overdue account of this heroism; he did extensive work in gathering accounts of about 250 sailors. He tells of their heroism, even though few boast of any bravery; for Canadian sailors, it was a job to be endured. They went about it like hockey players, a distinct contrast to the frequent flashy American victory dances after even easy touchdowns.
It's much more than hardship and triumphs; Johnston includes the controversies, bumbling, errors and near mutinies that detracted from Canadian efforts. It's a well-rounded picture; the printed references are mainly references to ships and numbers, the bulk of his book is stories from the sailors who were at sea.
It's a book that should have been written by the late 1940s, instead of the dull dry "official" accounts which tend to ignore ordinary sailors. Personally, have spent many a night in a Canadian Legion Hall, it's the personal stories of warriors that always outclass official histories.
Johnston is a skilled reporter, and this book shows the best examples of a true reporter's skills in contrast to the lazy but often frequent "press release journalism." There's an old saying in journalism, "if your mother says she loves you, check it out." For Johnson, in this book, it may well be rewritten, "if a sailor says the Atlantic was wet ... check it out."
He did. I know; I've been there (merchant marine, not the navy).
It's popular in recent years to talk about "the tipping point", the last little nudge before the rush of events. In 1940, the "tipping point" was shutting down the Atlantic enough to force Britain to terms, if not surrender. It was Canadian sailors who "tipped" events against the U-boats by just enough to prevent defeat.
Mention of the Battle of the Atlantic brings to mind American and British destroyers darting about, trying to save plodding merchantmen from ruthless U-boat wolfpacks. Yet, in fact, Royal Canadian Navy corvettes were a mainstay of Atlantic convoys, their crews compiling a noteworthy combat record. Canadian author Mac Johnston tells their stirring story in this 2008 John Wiley & Sons Canada release. Subtitled CONVOY VETERANS OF WWII TELL THEIR TRUE STORIES, it is an expanded and updated version of a book first published in 1994.
Ill-prepared for war's outbreak, RCN brass had scrambled to create a viable fighting force. Opting for a modified whaler-vessel now christened a corvette, they fielded a design armed with a 4-inch gun forward, various .30- and .50-caliber machine guns sited around the ship and depth charges aft. The design wasn't fast, didn't have great endurance and was a 'wet boat' forward. It was, however, cheap and easy to build. Crews, many of whom had never sailed on a river not alone the Atlantic, were hurriedly trained. The crews received little training on anti-submarine tactics nor was training given to ships within a group to help them function as a team. Then too, although corvettes were designed for coastal work, they were mistakenly committed to the North Atlantic run.
Against this backdrop, Johnston creates a vivid, you-are-there portrait of life on RCN corvettes based on the reminiscences of over 250 corvette veterans. In essence, Johnston takes the reader below decks to see what life was really like for a WW II corvette sailor. In a word, it was rugged. Johnston devotes chapters to the appalling North Atlantic weather, shipboard routines, food, morale, leadership, combat and so on. Given all the burdens faced by RCN corvette crews, their final record - 20 RCN corvettes received sole or shared credit for a U-boat kill - is a testament to the courage and determination of those young men. (Ten RCN corvettes were lost in return).
Aside from the gripping accounts by corvette crewmen, CORVETTES CANADA includes a wonderful selection of wartime photographs of ships, crew, combat scenes, rescue ops, ports and what-not. The pix of corvettes totally encased in ice gives a graphic idea of what crews faced from Mother Narture let alone U-boats.
Until something better shows up, I think CORVETTES CANADA may well be THE definitive account of those small ships and their brave crews. Highly recommended.
on December 27, 2010
This is a story that almost no one seems to know about. I cant imagine being inside a 200 ft. tin can, in the worst possible weather for 3 or 4 years, fighting faster, better equipped U-boats (the corvettes were modified whalers with a 4 inch gun), with only a few breaks in between the battles. The corvettes weren't designed for prolonged ocean travel(mostly for coastal patrols) and yet they did the bulk of the allied ocean convoy work. I haven't finished the book yet, but I am thoroughly enjoying it so far.