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Fighting Corvettes of Canada

September 1, 2008
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Speaking of small warships, here is a the story of a history making class of warship, bought off the shelf, that helped stem the tide of the dreaded German U-boats during the last World War. A tale of the Flower class corvettes! Enjoy your holiday!

HMCS Sackville is the last of the 123 Corvettes used by the Royal Canadian Navy in WW 2. Harbored at Halifax, Nova Scotia, she stands as a lasting memorial to the courageous men who fought on her lively decks.

Cheap but nasties
The Canadian Corvette was based on a British design, which derived from a “whale catcher”. They were small and cheap to build, and so could be produced quickly and in large numbers.

Both Navy’s versions were much the same. Each were 209 ft. long, 33 ft wide, and displaced 950 tons. They were slow at 16 knots max, but still good enough to catch the U-boats of the day.

For armament, they carried a 4-inch gun in front and a small 2 pounder at the rear of the ship. Later they were given smaller guns for anti-aircraft, including the 20mm Oerlikons, probably the most widely used gun of the war.

Seeing HMCS Sackville today, it is hard to imagine how important these “Davids” were against the Nazi “Goliath”. By August of 1941, the large number of Corvettes were making their presence felt in the Battle of the Atlantic, so much so that U-boat commanders were said to be “boiling with rage” by the German press.
Though disliked by the regular officers, who wanted cruisers and destroyers, Winston Churchill paid homage by dubbing them “cheap but nasties”.

Excellent sea vessels
Visitors to the tiny warship are surprised to learn that 100 sailors once crowded her decks. Most of the crew were very young, ranging from 22 to 26 years old, and almost all were volunteers or from the Naval reserve.

They were excellent sea vessels, but very lively in the Stormy North Atlantic. Conditions were miserable at best. Half the crew spent their off hours in the packed mess deck, which stank of vomit and unwashed bodies.

Something better needed
The Canadian Corvettes battled the U-boats in some of the roughest waters in the Atlantic. 16 submarines would fall to her guns and depth charges, at the cost of 10 of their own. Soon, however, the inadequacies of its cheap and hurried design began to show.

By 1942, it was obvious something better was needed. The British pulled the Corvettes off the Atlantic run to be re-equipped. Stung by this, though not disheartened, the Canadians pushed for the Royal Navy to let them run their own operations and won. A Canadian admiral now commanded a Theater of War.

Back to the fight
The Corvettes returned to the war in 1943 better equipped this time, though still miserable and cramped. Most now had Sonar (or Asdic), better sea-keeping, and Radar.
The “nasties” could be seen in other theaters as well. They fought in the Caribbean, in the Mediterranean, and 19 were present during the Normandy invasion. 54 were outfitted as minesweepers, and some were used by the American navy.

By war’s end their place in the Atlantic run had been taken by larger and faster destroyers and frigates, as well as aircraft. Following the war most were discarded, some to the merchant fleet, others to foreign navies.

HMCS Sackville is the last of the “sheepdog navy”, that guarded so many vessels from the dreaded U-boats. She is a legacy preserved of those great days when Canada stood by her allies to the bitter end.

HMCS Sackville Homepage

Suggested Reading: Canada’s Navy:The First Century by Marc Milner

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