War at Sea – Newfoundland's Role
During the course of the Second World War, St. John's evolved from being merely a defended harbour to possibly the most important escort base developed by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in the North Atlantic. It was second only to Halifax, which had been an established naval base since before World War I.
Although all of the RCN's wartime bases were sub-commands of Halifax, HMCS Avalon – as the base in St. John's was commissioned – was the only RCN base developed during the war where the commanding officer held the title of Flag Officer, Commanding, and was independent of Halifax (except on matters concerning manning) until the creation of the Canadian Northwest Atlantic Command in May, 1943.
The Newfoundland Escort Force
By the end of 1940, U-boats had sunk almost 2 million tons of Allied shipping in the Battle of the Atlantic. As anti-submarine measures became more successful in the waters around Great Britain, German submarines ranged further into the Atlantic in pursuit of the vital convoys that were Britain's lifeline.
Initially, the Royal Navy (RN) escorted convoys to 22 degrees West, but as sinkings increased in the mid-Atlantic, Britain pushed this to 35 degrees West and occupied Iceland – both to deny it to the Germans and to use it as a refuelling point. On the Canadian side, the RCN, based out of Halifax, could only provide convoy escort as far as the Grand Banks, leaving approximately 2,000 kilometres for the convoys to travel unescorted, before being picked up by the RN in the Eastern Atlantic. This area, known as “The Pit”, was where U-boats could attack with impunity.
By establishing a forward base at St. John's, as the British had done in Iceland, the RCN could extend coverage more than 900 kilometres further into the Atlantic. As a result, the Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF) was formed on May 27, 1941. It was comprised of six RCN destroyers and 17 corvettes, alongside seven RN destroyers and four corvettes.
Convoys now assembled at Bedford Basin, in Halifax, where the Western Local Escort Force (WLEF) took them to the Western Ocean Meeting Point (WOMP), just east of the Grand Banks. The NEF then escorted the convoys through “The Pit” to the Mid-Ocean Meeting Point (MOMP) off Iceland. Here, the ships were met by the RN, and the NEF would leave to re-fuel in Iceland, pick up a westbound convoy from Britain, and proceed to the WOMP. From there, the WLEF would take the convoy to Halifax for dispersal. The NEF ships would then proceed to St. John's for rest.
St. John's was more than just a base for trans-Atlantic escorts. Newfoundland required a fairly large mercantile fleet to service the many towns and communities spread out along its considerable shoreline, and steamers sailed regularly to ports in eastern Canada. Paper from Corner Brook was shipped to Montreal and New York, and Bell Island supplied most of the iron ore for the smelters in Sydney, Cape Breton. Before the days of regular air travel to Newfoundland, passenger traffic between Newfoundland and Canada also went by sea. One of the greatest sea disasters in Newfoundland's history occurred on October 14, 1942, when a German submarine sank the North Sydney to Port aux Basques ferry SS Caribou with the loss of 136 lives.
As the main port on the island, St. John's became the assembly point for both local convoys as well as those traveling to and from mainland Canada. The first coastal convoy sailed on January 16, 1942 and over the next four months, 298 ships were escorted between St. John's and various ports. Protecting these convoys along their routes was the St. John's-based Newfoundland Defence Force.
St. John's was also the location of the only dry dock and haul-out facilities in Newfoundland until the Bay Bulls naval repair base was completed in 1944. The Americans allowed RCN and RN forces to use its floating dock at Argentia, but even though the repair/refit facilities there were only operating at 75 per cent workload, the Admiralty reserved them for the exclusive use of British escort groups. The RCN's access was limited to those ships that “require[d] assistance in an Emergency.” By March 1943, the average number of escorts at HMCS Avalon at any one time numbered 25. During that month alone, 143 warships were serviced and base facilities completed 2,300 repairs.
Although RCN warships had priority over merchant ship repair at the Newfoundland Dockyard, this did not mean that merchant ship repairs were not carried out in quantity during the war years. As Sir Wilfred Woods, Commissioner of Public Utilities, impressed upon the Allied ship repair committee that met in Ottawa in August 1943, St. John's was the natural port of refuge for many weather- and battle-damaged merchant vessels. On one day alone – January 31, 1941 – there were 53 merchant ships taking refuge in St. John's harbour.
Furthermore, as the closest port of refuge, St. John's was also a safe haven for survivors from many torpedoed and storm-wrecked merchant ships. Upwards of 6,000 survivors were cared for in St. John's between 1939 and 1944.
St. John's as a Training Base
HMCS Avalon also provided refresher training for many of the RCN's recently-commissioned ships. By the end of hostilities, the Tactical Training Centre in St. John's contained the Anti-Submarine School, the Gunnery School, the Radar School and Loran (Long Range Aid to Navigation) School, plus a Night Escort Teacher.
A report issued in June 1945 indicated that on April 6, 1945 alone, 51 classes were taught between 0900 and 1730. These consisted of 35 gunnery, 11 anti-submarine, one radar, two Loran, and two NET classes, which included the use of the depth charge driller.
Regardless, St. John's primary, and most important responsibility was the supply and maintenance of the trans-Atlantic escorts that facilitated the vital convoys feeding the Allied war effort in Europe. Between January 1942 and May 1945, 545 escorts were stationed at St. John's, not including motor launches. During the same period, the number of personnel serving at St. John's rose from under 1,000 to more than 5,000 – the highest of any of Canada's naval bases other than Halifax. At a cost of $16 million, Canada spent more on its St. John's base than on any other RCN escort base.
HMCS Avalon facilitated the "safe and timely arrival" of the Atlantic convoys from the darkest hours of the Battle of the Atlantic right up to the end of the war. Unlike the RCN's other bases, whose responsibilities diminished in the closing years and months of the war, the facilities in St. John's continued to improve until the last U-boat in Canadian waters surfaced and surrendered on May 13, 1945.
Even though St. John's was initially only conceived to be at best a temporary ocean escort base, HMCS Avalon ultimately developed into one of the most important Allied naval bases established in the North Atlantic during the Second World War.