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Book Reviews

The Battle of the St. Lawrence

by Nathan M. Greenfield

Toronto: HarperCollins, 2004
287 pages, $34.95 

Reviewed by Robert Brunner

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Book CoverDoctor Nathan M. Greenfield fills in one of Canada’s forgotten chapters of the Second World War with his book, The Battle of the St. Lawrence. The subtitle, The Second World War in Canada, does not seem particularly significant, until one realizes its meaning; the Second World War did, in fact, come to Canada. Within sight of the shores of the St. Lawrence River, so close to hearth and home, Canadian men forfeited their lives. At the outset, one wonders why this important element of Canadian war history has not been documented previously. Doctor Greenfield covers this tragic element of Canadian history, commencing with its first victim on 11 May 1942 when a German U-boat torpedoed the SS Nicoya, violently ending the peace in Canada’s waters that stretched back to 1812 – until the death of 91 sailors aboard HMCS Shawinigan on 25 November 1944. 

Greenfield gathers testimony from both German and Canadian sources, weaving a rich tapestry that collectively represents the events that comprised the naval war on the St. Lawrence. The author lays the foundation with extensive background information concerning the organization, the technological advantages, and day-to-day life experiences aboard the submarines of the U-Bootwaffe. He then presents the stark and sometimes depressing state of Canada’s political climate, and the condition of the neglected Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and associated air units at the commencement of hostilities. At times, readers will shake their heads at the near-insurmountable odds that the hastily trained and ill equipped Canadians faced, when compared to the advantages enjoyed by the professional and hardened maritime warriors of the Third Reich.

The perceived German need to cripple the St. Lawrence route by U-boats, including the logistical implications they faced, are described in detail. The Europe-bound convoys from Halifax were not the starting point for all goods from Canada. Rail lines brought materials from mines, mills, and factories as far away as British Columbia. These goods and raw materials were then loaded onto ships in Montreal, and, to a lesser extent, in Quebec City, and they then travelled the St. Lawrence River to the major port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they linked up with the larger, trans-Atlantic convoys. A recurring theme throughout the book is the issue of the training and combat readiness of the Canadian naval escorts. Doctor Greenfield explains how, owing to the rapid expansion of the RCN, Rear Admiral George C. Jones’s policy was to spread the experience and talent around to the new ships of the line then being rapidly commissioned into service. These experienced men provided the nucleus around which the new crews were formed. This naturally led to instances of warships frequently having an inefficient ship’s company, to varying extents. As a surface sailor (MARS officer), this reviewer can understand how this could be frustrating. The same shortcoming held true for those mounting the air patrols. Many an early opportunity for detecting and attacking the German U-boats was lost, due to crew inexperience. Most people would think that this so-called ‘River’ (the St. Lawrence) would be easy to defend, until one realizes that, at its widest point, it is 30 miles in breadth. 

Another theme of the book is the political stresses that developed between the provincial government in Québec and the federal government in Ottawa during the course of the war. Québec’s criticism with respect to a perceived lack of protection was thought to be the reason Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government decided to close the St. Lawrence to maritime traffic during the autumn of 1942. This had morale and economic ramifications, in that Canada did not appear able to defend her own shores from the U-boat threat. However, a major element of the closure decision was based not upon the criticisms coming from Québec, but upon the requirement to commit a significant portion of the defending fleet to Operation Torch, the Allied landing in North Africa. And, at the time, the Canadian public was not made aware of this rationale, due to wartime security concerns.

Greenfield expands upon the unique environmental conditions and challenges present in the St. Lawrence River that the Royal Canadian Navy had to overcome. The mixing of salt and fresh water, and of cold and warm water in the river and gulf, created distinct layers that distorted ASDIC (sonar) signals. These layers generated false signals or ‘echoes,’ and, at times, masked the U-boats entirely. Add to these challenges, the out-of-date technology then fitted to the assigned Canadian naval units and it is a wonder that the total ship tonnage sunk by the Germans in this campaign was not greater.

From a purely personal perspective, the passages relating to the shipbuilding programs, specifically those conducted in this reviewer’s hometown of Kingston, strike a particular chord. My own experience and knowledge of the waters surrounding Kingston provided me with a greater connection to the story, and to the people being described therein. 

This book reads like a story, presenting a narrative complete with suspense – even ‘cliffhangers.’ Pairing various sources, Doctor Greenfield provides both sides of each encounter. One feels, on one hand, the horror and stress sailors experienced when performing convoy duty, constantly waiting for the sudden crippling of one’s own ship, or those all around. On the other, there was the extreme tension faced by the U-boat crews, who, in spite of their high morale, were constantly searching for potential targets in hostile waters, searches that were frequently interrupted by crash dives caused by responses to air patrols. Greenfield uses this tension to great effect when telling of the torpedoing of ferry SS Caribou, providing the background and conditions leading up to this tragic event.

Each chapter covers a specific chronological period, and, to put each period in context, the author includes a ‘bullet list’ of significant events that were simultaneously occurring in the other theatres of war. With respect to style, once one begins reading, it is difficult to put this book down. Thankfully, there are distinct breaks in the text, so that, with some willpower, the reader may take advantage of them.

Doctor Greenfield has written an excellent book, combining detailed historical data with the personal observations of the participants, to form a gripping story that provides insight into the men who defended the convoys that provided the lifeblood to the Allied war effort. It is significant to note that all these combats occurred within sight of Canada’s shores.

Nathan M. Greenfield is the Canadian correspondent for The Times Education Supplement and a regular contributor to The Times Literary Supplement. He started researching the Battle of the St. Lawrence during a trip to the Gaspé region in 2001. His essays and reviews have been published in several periodicals and newspapers. Born in the United States, Greenfield was educated in New York and Montreal, and now resides in Ottawa.

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Lieutenant (N) Robert Brunner is Staff Officer Professional Development at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston, Ontario.