Packs move westward, RCN fills the gap

What ultimately drew the whole RCN into the war against the U-boats was the extension of pack attacks westward. By the spring of 1941, the British had pushed anti-submarine escort of transatlantic convoys to south of Iceland, leaving a gap between there and the limits of RCN escorts on the Grand Banks. In May 1941, the British asked them to fill that gap in transatlantic anti-submarine escort of convoys. As a result, the Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF) was born and with it the commencement of the RCN’s war on U-boats.

The reputation of the RCN in this war depends on the success or failure of the NEF... (Newfoundland Escort Force)

— Commodore L. W. Murray, RCN, Flag Officer, Newfoundland Force, October 1941

The Corvette: the RCN’s jack of all trades

A depth charge attack in progress.

A depth charge is fired from the corvette HMCS Pictou (K146).

Commander J.D. Prentice, Commanding Officer, on the bridge of the corvette HMCS Chambly (K116) at sea, May 24, 1941.

The burden of this new role fell on the RCN’s corvettes, those jacks-of-all-trades built for local work. In the spring of 1941, their great value lay in seakeeping and operational range, thereby allowing the convoy system to be completed. The keys to effective trade defence were evasive routing based on good intelligence — and the British battle fleet, which sank Bismarck in May. The close escort only fought if the system failed. So in 1941, using newly commissioned and ill-equipped Canadian corvettes with poorly trained crews in the mid-ocean was a fair risk.

Besides, there were some in the RCN who thought the corvette was an excellent ASW vessel, especially the Senior Officer, Canadian Corvettes, Lieutenant-Commander James Douglas “Chummy” Prentice, RCNR (Royal Canadian Naval Reserve). A Canadian who had retired from the Royal Navy in 1934, Prentice thought that the nimble and highly manoeuvrable corvette was more than a match for the U-boat, and he taught their crews to launch “quick attacks.” These called for a steady 12-knot speed during both the search and the final depth charge attack. This allowed contact to be maintained until the last possible moment, and eliminated the sudden burst of speed in the final attack run that would alert the U-boat. Enthusiasm for attacking and sinking U-boats were the hallmarks of Prentice’s training schemes throughout the war, and it may account for the success of Canadian corvettes in destroying U-boats.