R. Cosburn and Lieutenant F.A. Beck (right) at the Asdic set on the bridge of H.M.C.S. BATTLEFORD, Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, November 1941. A scene like this would have been familiar to Jim Grant during his service as a telegraphist in HMCS Montgomery.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-184187
"We got a message from Halifax that there was a group of enemy submarines heading straight for us and recommended we take evasive action in the form of pyrotechnical displays."
Right after I joined the service in Toronto, they took a group of us and sent us to the University of Toronto to the physics department to take a course in electronics. And I thought it was kind of strange to suddenly do that; and I asked questions and no one knew why we were taking the course. It wasn’t until about two years later that I found out that it was a secret course. And the reason it was secret, it was because what it would be used for. And we were actually being given the basic training to be capable of repairing sonar equipment, which we called ASDIC [Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee] sonar equipment. Which for all the escort ships, that are escorting convoys to England, the key to knowing not where you were, but where the submarines were, was this thing sticking out the bottom of your ship in a bubble, sonar. So it was terribly important that that be maintained.
There has to be one on duty on a ship at all times. You’re sitting in the radio shack with bare earphones on your head and listening to the messages coming in. Now, in wartime, you would be very careful not to disclose your position to enemy submarines. So all the information you got was from Halifax in the case of the North Atlantic. So you’d listen to these messages and you’d copy them; and they were in a double code, so you’d reduced them to the first code and then from there to the second code and then you had the English version of it, which was then shown to the captain of the ship.
There were two of us sitting in the radio shack, the radio operator and right next to him, the decoder. And I would copy down the message, always in numbers, five numbers, groups of five numbers on a pad and then I would pass them to the decoder, who would then look it up in the code books to see what each of the code groups meant. And that would be a second message and then from that one, he went to a third one to decode it down to English.
So the two of us knew exactly what every message was before we turned it onto the captain. We had an excitement when I was on the British destroyer [HMS Montgomery: an escort vessel]. We happened to be ahead of the convoy, we were at the front position. Normally, the minimum you would have would be four ships escorting a convoy: one at the front, one at the back and one on either side. So we were at the front. And we got a message from Halifax that there was a group of enemy submarines heading straight for us and recommended we take evasive action in the form of pyrotechnical displays. So what we did, we headed straight for the submarines, in the meantime, the convoy kept on going, and we in effect took a right turn and headed for the submarines.
And when we got within a certain distance, we let everything go that we had. We were firing star shells [shells that explode in mid-air for illumination] and tracer bullets, and everything else. Lit the whole sky up. And the submarine commander probably wondering, what the hell’s going on? Well, that’s what we wanted them to try to figure out, what was going on. And so anyway, our action saved the convoy because we distracted the submarines.
And then, what we did, we were northeast of Newfoundland, so we turned and headed back for Newfoundland as fast as that ship could go, hoping that we were going faster than the submarine could catch us. And we made it back to Newfoundland in time. And that’s where we ended up that particular night. I mean, a destroyer, a submarine, even on the surface, could maybe do 20 knots and we were doing about 25, so we were keeping ahead of them.