“Our Little Corvettes”
It was late December, 1941. The Second World War had been raging now for over a year. Eighteen year old Burnie Forbes of Smith Falls was one such naval recruit. On this particular day Forbes was serving on a destroyer heading to St. John’s harbour. In one interview with the Legion he describes that day.
“It was one of the wildest seas I ever experienced enough to disperse the convoy. The lower decks had two feet of water slushing around our feet. We in the destroyer were concerned our little corvettes would never make port. To our amazement, when we arrived in St. John’s harbour, all the corvettes were neatly tied up alongside the jetty, and had been berthed there for three days.”
This dramatic telling begs the question: what were these rough and resilient ships known as corvettes? How did they traverse such wild waters despite their small size? And what was their purpose in the war? Well the answer is just as dramatic as Forbes’ retelling and a number of Great Lakes towns play a valuable role in it; including Kingston.
The U- Boat Peril
The German U-Boat was the most feared and perilous of all creatures lurking in the deep. From the very beginning of the war the Axis forces realized the efficacious nature of these submarines in torpedoing and sinking ships. However, their use in economic blockades was often far more damaging than any naval battle. In fact, after the war Churchill stated, “the only thing that ever really frightened me was the U-Boat Peril.” Here he referred to the U-Boat's threat against the Atlantic Lifeline. The Atlantic lifeline, as it was later known, included the various waterways and vessels used to transport resources from North America to the United Kingdom. Convoy ships carrying important goods and troops needed protecting. They needed escort ships which could both detect these U-Boats and act as first responders to torpedoed ships. Corvettes were one type of these escort vessels. And they were much cooler than the car.
Starting in 1940 Canadian shipyards began producing “Flower-class” corvettes based on a previous British design that were named after flowers. Differing resources and materials accounted for the Canadian design change and the change of namesakes. The Royal Canadian Navy named the ships after various Canadian cities. (Pictured left: "Survivors", Grant Macdonald, museum collections)
Life on a Corvette
The Corvette is a small and sleek ship based on previous whaling boat plans. They were designed in such a way that they were much harder to detect. Most large ships are made to cut through waves; the corvettes are made to ride them. Stoker William Anderson of Niagara Falls described these ships well in an interview when he said, “Corvettes were the best sea ships anywhere. It was said they would roll on wet grass, but they would sail in any weather!”
They may have indeed been the best sea ship for traversing bad weather, however they were not the best in terms of living conditions. Corvettes were built to house a crew much smaller than what they had. The result was a ship which was crowded, stuffy and damp. At times, during bad weather, the floor would fill with water and slosh about as the ship rocked in the waves. Many crewmen even complained of the toilets being unusable because the tank would splash and spill out on them as the corvette swayed. The crew slept in hammocks which would also swing back and forth with the movements of the vessel. Handy, if you’re used to being rocked to sleep. Even the food itself was said to be soggy from the constant moisture in the air. However, the food was certainly not the scariest part of life aboard a corvette. German torpedoes were a very real threat to these escort ships and one Kingston built Corvette knew this truth too well. (Pictured right: “The Moose Jaw Crew,” 1941, museum archives 1983.0001.0018)
The Kingston Shipyards built a total of twelve corvettes during the Second World War. The order given by the RCN to construct the first four corvettes was actually the first contract given to the Shipyards since 1923! Despite being out of practice the Kingston Shipyards completed the corvettes relatively quickly and inexpensively. The first four ships were named HMCS Napanee, HMCS Prescott, HMCS Sudbury and HMS Charlottetown. Napanee, Prescott and Sudbury survived the entirety of the war only to be turned into scrap metal in the 1960’s. HMCS Charlottetown had a very different fate.
Charlottetown served in the Battle of the St. Lawrence. It was acting as an escort for convoys travelling between the cities of Quebec and Sydney, Cape Breton. Its employment was cut to an end however on September 11th 1942 when it was torpedoed and sunk by German U-Boat 517. The ship sank in approximately four minutes off the coast of the Gaspé Peninsula. There were sixty four crew members on board Charlottetown that day. Tragically, nine were killed including the ship’s Captain, Lieutenant Commander John W. Bonner. (Pictured left: “Profile View taken from HMCS Charlottetown II, 1946, museum archives 1988.0029.0075)
Remembering the Corvettes and their Crew
When remembering the struggle for control of the waterways during the Second World War destroyers, battlecruisers and submarines often come to mind. And it’s true that these vessels made impressive and grand fleets which served an important purpose during the war. However, the indispensable nature of the scrappy little corvettes which escorted these ships cannot be ignored. Corvette’s traversed dangerous waters in order to protect resources used not only for the war effort but to keep the average citizen alive. And the crewmen who braved those soggy and perilous conditions were just as vital to the war effort as the ships they served on.
Research Assistant, Autumn 2021