The Afterlife

by Penelope Fitzgerald
ISBN: 1582433208

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A Review of: The Battle of the St. Lawrence: The Second World War in Canada
by Fraser Bell

Of the Second World War, Winston Churchill famously remarked that, "the only thing that really frightened me was the U-boat peril." Churchill had every reason to be frightened, for during 1942 alone, 5.4 million tons of shipping were sunk; during the six years of the war, 2,259 merchant ships were sent to the bottom along with their crews and the food, oil, and munitions that Britain so desperately needed to keep on fighting. By the war's end, the Royal Canadian Navy provided half of the escort vessels which guarded the slow-moving convoys as they sailed across the Atlantic.
Unlike the part Canada's navy played in the North Atlantic, the battle in the waters of the St. Lawrence is a lesser known episode, and Nathan Greenfield's book fills in the gap of that small but significant portion of Canada's military history. As the author points out, the battle of the St. Lawrence was the only campaign of the war fought within North America. During this campaign, 28 ships were torpedoed causing the deaths of over three hundred people, half of whom were civilians. This was a world war in miniature often fought within sight of the towns and villages of Quebec, like Rimouski and Cap-Chat, and off the Gasp Pensinsula, with no quarter expected or given by either the hunter or the hunted. While the majority of the casualties were Canadians, Dutch, British, American, and Greek seamen suffered the same fate in the killing times of 1942-1944.
If the assorted corvettes, minesweepers and armed yachts of the "wavy navy", or the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve, did not actually sink a U-boat within Canadian waters, then at the very least they put up a fierce resistance, aided by the attacks of the obsolete Hudson and Digby aircraft, so that by the end of 1944 Donitz's submarine fleet had been virtually driven off, if not entirely overcome.
It was no easy task for the Canadian ships to escort their precious convoys through the one quarter million square kilometres of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and to keep a sharp lookout for the U-boats at the same time. The crews of the escort vessels had to learn their job the hard way; after all, they were up against the professional assassins of the Kriegsmarine. Hundreds of merchant mariners and RCN ratings whose ships were sunk had the same grim tale to tell: the sudden thump of the torpedo striking below the waterline; the screech of steam from the ruptured water-pipes; the boilers torn from their mountings by the explosion; the panic on the main deck when the lifeboats became jammed in the davits; the subsequent struggle in the freezing oil-filled river in the dark, hanging onto a Carley Float, with your ship going down by the head and your mates still trapped in the flooded engine room.
SS Anastassios, Pateras, Hainaut, Dinaric of Convoy Q S-15 all went to the bottom. Other vessels were sunk off Sainte-Anne-des-Montes, in the Strait of Belle Isle, in the Jacques Cartier Passage. USS Laramie, the Fleet oiler carrying half a million gallons of aviation fuel, was torpedoed but miraculously only five men were killed and there were no secondary fires. HMCS Charlottetown, a Flower class corvette, wasn't as lucky. She was struck by two torpedoes off Cap-Chat in 1942 and within two minutes her boat deck was awash and she went quickly down by the stern with her depth charges exploding and the debris falling on the floundering survivors in the water. In total, 147 lives were lost from the sinkings of the Charlottetown, Raccoon, Magog and Shawnigan. In October 1942, the Nova Scotia ferry SS Caribou was torpedoed and 137 men, women, and children perished.
Clearly this book is intended for the general reader rather than the specialist. The writing style is often anecdotal. Fair enough, but Greenfield cannot resist the old journalist trick of using the one-sentence exclamatory paragraph by way of emphasis, as in:

"In an instant, a picture postcard afternoon had turned to war."
"Aboard Oakton, time unrolled."

The hackneyed metaphors aside, why seek to build up the suspense when the situation itself is intrinsically dramatic? Expletives like "Then, horror" or "They tried bailing. It failed" are unnecessary; they diminish rather than enhance the effect of the narrative. It is as if the author himself isn't convinced that his story contains the necessary dramatic elements to qualify as one of history's momentous events.
Despite this, Greenfield does illuminate a littleknown facet of the Second World War and, by and large, he tells his story well, quoting veterans like Frank Curry, Ian Tate, John Chance as well as using archival material hitherto overlooked by other historians. The battle in the St Lawrence ought to be seen as a chapter in the story of the Battle of the Atlantic, surely as crucial to the outcome of the war as Stalingrad or El Alamein or Midway.
Over a lifetime Churchill got a great deal wrong-the Dardanelles fiasco of the First World War, his inapt description of Italy as the "soft underbelly", the defence of Singapore. But he did manage to foresee and prevent the catastrophy that would have ensued-for Britain and the rest of the world-had Donitz's wolf-packs been able to cut the lifeline between the old world and the new. That they didn't succeed was due in no small measure to the prairie farm boys, bond salesman, clerks, and Halifax streetcar conductors who made up Canada's makeshift navy. They are the true dramatis personae of The Battle of the St.Lawrence-the forgotten heroes in an obscure corner of a total war.

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