Mr. Paul de Villers with model ships he constructed.Paul de Villers
The merchant ship MV De Villers upon which Mr. Paul de Villers served from 1939 to 1941.Paul de Villers
Mr. Paul de Villers in Lévis, Quebec on June 5, 2010.Historica Canada
"It's thanks to all the seamen of the wartime navy and of the merchant navy, and to the airmen, who fought off enemy submarines and aircraft, that the worst outcome was avoided."
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest battle of the Second World War. It started on September 3, 1939, the day upon which England and France declared war on Germany [following Germany’s invasion of Poland two days before]. It ended on May 4, 1945, when Admiral [Karl] Dönitz [successor to Adolf Hitler] ordered the ceasefire of all German submarines, the U-boats. In that time, the Allies lost 2,572 merchant ships, 75 of them Canadian. If the Allies had lost that battle, we would have lost the war. It's thanks to all the seamen of the wartime navy and of the merchant navy, and to the airmen, who fought off enemy submarines and aircraft, that the worst outcome was avoided.
I served in Canada’s Merchant Navy from 1941 to 1989. During the war, I sailed mainly in the Atlantic, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Caribbean. I spent most of my time on oil tankers.
A bit about the convoys; I experienced the convoys. A convoy covered a large area of the sea, proportionate to the number of ships of which it was comprised. A convoy of 45 ships could spread out over 20 square miles, divided into nine columns with approximately a half-mile distance between each ship. Oil tankers and cargo ships carrying ammunition took positions in the centre. The commodore ship was at the head of the first row, in the middle. The other ships were spread out in the shape of a rectangle. The escorts were placed all around the convoy to protect it. Those ships were equipped with radar and ASDIC or sonar in order to detect submarines, not to mention the bombs, or depth charges. All of the ships carried cargo for the war; weapons, ammunition, oil, food. Not to mention the soldiers and their equipment, and the airplanes.
Before a convoy set sail, the naval authorities would meet, along with the convoy commodore and all of the captains and officers of the merchant ships. Discussions were held in the utmost secrecy. The merchant were moored, waiting. No one was allowed to leave the ship in the days preceding the departure. The ship’s crew didn’t even know their destination. During one trip coming back from Aruba to Portland, Maine, somewhere around New York, our ship was the commodore ship in the convoy and we were carrying a load of oil. We were sailing with our lights out, which was mandatory during war time. We got rammed by an American oil tanker that was sailing alone, also with its lights out. It was carrying aviation gas. After the first impact, the ships hit hard. Our ship, which was the smaller of the two, veered so violently that our captain was afraid we would capsize. Sparks flew everywhere, and our starboard lifeboats were crushed. Following the scare, we prepared ourselves for the worst. Luck was on our side though, as no fires broke out and no one was injured. Both ships were salvaged. Our convoy continued on its way. We received orders to unload the cargo at New York and carry out temporary repairs before continuing on to Halifax.
In 1944, I was in a convoy in the Gulf of St. Lawrence when the corvette HMCS Magog was torpedoed. She wiped us starboard. I will always remember the explosions that took place after the Magog was torpedoed, when the escorts launched depth charges to destroy the enemy submarines.
I also witnessed the torpedoing of the SS Fort Thompson off the coast at Matane [Quebec]. We weren’t in convoy at that time. The commanding officer officer saw a torpedo fly in front of our ship. It only missed us by a bit.
The convoys provided reassurance and safety. We could also admire the keels of the corvettes that escorted us. They had a thankless job because they were obliged to tack the convoy, exposed to the open sea. We felt sorry for those seamen who only had hammocks to sleep in. I think that the wartime convoy system is the best way to protect ourselves from the enemy at sea. The story of the battle of the Atlantic is part of our Canadian history. Let us never forget it.