Friday, April 6, 2012

The Corvette Navy

True Stories from Canada's Atlantic War

This is a collection of anecdotes and observations about the Battle of the Atlantic, most of which the author spent on the "triangle run," escorting merchantmen between Halifax, New York, and a meeting point south of Newfoundland.

Corvettes were scrappy vessels, the waist of the main deck only a foot or two above water. When at sea they were "semi-submerged," yet able to survive violent storms that sank larger vessels. "Theirs was the immunity of the cork..."

Initially regarded as a stop-gap measure and "unworthy of commands for Canada's few, and precious, trained naval officers," who were sent ashore to await the completion of more powerful vessels, corvettes were crewed by kids straight out of high school and commanded by naval reservists.

But a funny thing happened to the regular navy while it waited for the Big Ships that were to fight the Big Battle. For as the years wore on, it became clear that the little battle, the U-boat thing, was in fact the Big Battle after all, and the little ships that were fighting it were all that were going to matter.


The "stories" in this memoir are not discrete tales with a beginning and an end. Rather, the 13 chapters are organized thematically with titles like "Characters" and "Ports of Call." In them you'll find:

A beloved groundhog mascot who was "as sea-wise as any shell-backed sailor."

A one-eyed chap with a pocketful of glass eyes, which he changed periodically when drinking, each one becoming more and more bloodshot.

A "short-arm inspection" during which sailors were ordered to peel back their foreskins "with a click."

A rather astonishing account of a Walrus (an ungainly amphibious biplane) being catapulted from the deck of a British battleship.

A ship in St. John's harbour that had been torpedoed at the waterline, leaving such cavernous holes that motorboats were able to take a shortcut through the ship.

A man who died at his post of exhaustion (naval genius Frederic John Walker), and brief descriptions of many more ghastly ways to die at sea.

The Corvette Navy was first published in 2000, and such was its popularity that it is now in its third edition.

The Last Corvette

The book cover reproduces a painting called "Ready, Aye, Ready," by Yves Berube of Lunenburg. The corvette shown is the HMCS Sackville, the last of its kind. It is docked at the Halifax waterfront and open to visitors in the summer.