Commencing hours into the Second World War with the German sinking of the British passenger-liner SS Athenia, killing 118 people, and not ending until days after the armistice, the Battle of the Atlantic was as strategically crucial as any campaign in the war.
And as horrifically deadly.
Over 72,000 Allied sailors and merchant marines lost their lives in the over 3,500 merchant vessels and 175 warships sent to the bottom of the ocean. Canada’s role in the battle was significant, with a peak of 95,705 nationals serving in 1944.
Pentictonites are being asked to honour the sacrifice of the men and women who served and often died in the Battle of the Atlantic at a memorial service this Sunday morning.
Navel veteran Ken Cavendish, who served on submarines in the British Royal Navy for four-and-a-half years during the war, said the ceremony is an important one for Canadians of all ages to participate in, not only to acknowledge and remember all those who served and sacrificed but also to recognized the tragic reality of war.
“People invariably think we strike the bell for the 24 sunk Canadian navel ships and their crew, about a third of which — as a rule of thumb — were lost at sea, and that is right and proper. But that does not begin to take into account the horrendous hundreds of merchant navy vessels that were also sunk, a huge Canadian contribution on its own,” Cavendish said. “Furthermore, it does not it take into account all the other Allied and Commonwealth countries who also contributed tremendous manpower and, in many cases, war and merchant ships as well.
“Plus, there were all the troops being transported across the ocean that were also killed. For example, we followed a troop ship into the Mediterranean that was sunk with 2,000 troops on board, and I believe the survival rate was only about 170. That is a lot of people lost in just one engagement.”
And then, he said, there were all the civilians who died when their ships were sunk in transport, including many children. Cavendish recalled a boy he knew from the same town as him whose parents decided that they should evacuate he and his sister from Britain to North America.
“Both of them were drowned on one of the earliest ships that took evacuees to North America (that was sunk),” he said. “Just imagine the anguish of the parents who thought that they had made the right decision, and then within three months of the war beginning their kids are at the bottom of the ocean.”
For those lucky enough to survive the war, many — if not most or even all — were left with psychological scars carved out in horrific memories.
Cavendish recalled when his submarine, heading back to its base in Malta with only one torpedo left, came across an enemy tanker ship off the coast of Italy.
“It happened after lunch. The ship was heading towards the North African coast when we spotted it,” he said. “The one torpedo was lucky and hit the ship. The tanker turned out to be caring aviation spirit and while people may tell you that oil does not burn, aviation spirit does.
“It was something I will never forget. To see that horrendous fire and people for a few seconds swimming for their lives only to be engulfed by the flame. It is just something that you never ever forget.”
And so Cavendish will be at the Battle of the Atlantic Memorial Service this Sunday, May 1 at 10:30 a.m. at the Royal Canadian Legion (501 Martin St.).