Remembering the Battle of the Atlantic
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 11 Nov 1993, p. 188-196
Hennessey, Vice-Admiral Ralph, Speaker
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Vice-Admiral Hennessey shares memories of the Battle of the Atlantic and his participation in it. 1993 was chosen as the 50th anniversary since May, 1943 proved to be a turning of the tide in the battle. Stories of German U-boats and the men of the Merchant Marine.
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11 Nov 1993
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Full Text
Vice-Admiral Ralph Hennessey, Canada's Senior Naval Officer (1966-1970)
Chairman: Dr. Frederic L. R. Jackman President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Lt.-Col. Sandy Cameron, SB.St.J., C.D., AdeC., Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Richard J. Boxer, Chairman, True North Investment and former Naval Officer; J. A. William Whiteacre, M.M., C.D., Q.C., Honorary Solicitor, The Empire Club of Canada; Diana Hennessy, wife of our guest speaker today; Stanley Edwards, Q.C., Fraser & Beatty and Past President, Board of Trade, Military Affairs Committee; Col. Robert H. Hilborn, M.V.O., M.B.E., C.D., Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Larry Stout, Broadcaster and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; The Rev. Dr. Robert Mumford, Pastoral Assistant, Royal York United Church; Maria Roman-Bricknell, Director of Public Relations, The Lung Association and a Director, The Empire Club of Canada; John C. Maynard, Former Chief Actuary, Canada Life Assurance Company and Past President, Navy League of Canada.

Introduction by Dr. Jackman

It is rare when Canada's Remembrance Day and The Empire Club of Canada's traditional Thursday meeting are concurrent. When so many of Canada's military have observed the fallen this morning at Old City Hall or the Airmen's Memorial and then retired to their own head-quarters for food and libation, we are proud to have representatives of all the forces with us today.

In particular we welcome Vice-Admiral Ralph Hennessy, D.S.C., C.D. Ralph Hennessy, who 50 years ago earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts in ridding the North Atlantic of German U-boats, joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1936 when l, like Canada's peacetime navy, was quite tiny. Four years later, in 1940, when I was six, I would be put to bed before sunset and I would lay there listening to the marching bands and the soldiers drilling in Ramsden Park nearby.

On special occasions, I was allowed to stay up for the radio program, L for Lanky, about the Lancaster bombers and listen to the song Coming in on a wing and a prayer. Shortly thereafter my parents planned a trip to P.E.I., but because Nazi U-boats had been sighted in the Northumberland Strait between Nova Scotia and P.E.I., we had to board our ferry under the cover of darkness.

I was not yet 10 years old when we were told of the potential danger and were given life jackets and life-boat practice and were told to keep the boat in darkness--the blinds drawn.

Half-way across Northumberland Strait, the captain's voice came over the intercom demanding that we retire to our state rooms, lights off, as a U-boat had been reported in our vicinity. While the obvious danger filled me with childhood excitement, I think the adults were terrified.

While I fell asleep and ultimately landed safely on P.E.I., somewhere, out in the Atlantic, Ralph Hennessy was afloat fighting the battle of his life, and my life. Ralph Hennessy and many others like him fought the battles that permit us to be here today. Many of his companions did not make it through and it is for them that we hold this special Remembrance Day luncheon.

Our war effort depended on victory over the Nazi U-boat raiders. If the seas weren't free, then we could not land our troops in Europe. Our navy, primarily an anti-submarine force, grew to be one of the world's largest naval forces during World War If. Ralph Hennessy was part of building that force. Ralph Hennessy was part of the Battle of the Atlantic and he was part of our victory in Europe.

After the war, he became Comptroller-General of (all our) Canadian Forces and later, Chief of Personnel. He has had a long and distinguished career--on the land and at sea. We are privileged, sir, that you would come to us from Ottawa to present your recollections of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Would you welcome please, Vice-Admiral Ralph Hennessy.

Ralph Hennessey

Thank you very much Dr. Jackman for that very kind introduction.

I would like, if I may, to start off by just adding to his biography of me with one or two short remarks just to make sure that you all know exactly where I come from.

To start with, I am the black sheep of an army family. I am the first son in at least four generations that I know of, not to have served in the army in time of war. Fortunately my younger brother was able to remove this blot from the family escutcheon by joining the Canadian Army in 1941.

Somehow or other over the years, I have yet to discern in him a proper respect that one would expect for someone who was in the Senior Service. This is attributed, I think, to an unfortunate incident that happened in the Mediterranean in 1943 when the naval escorts on his particular convoy allowed his troop ship to be torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Italy. Fortunately for me, the escorts in question were British and American, not Canadian. Otherwise I would never have heard the end of it. Come to think of it, I never have either.

He hasn't totally lost his liking for the sea because, as I speak, he and his wife are swooning around the Caribbean in a cruise liner. And as an interesting foot note to this, he told me the other day when he left to go south, that the cruise liner was due to sail from Fort Lauderdale, 50 years to the day and almost to the time of day of the torpedoing of his troop ship in 1943.I advised him to tell the captain to steer clear of Haiti while he was at it.

We are, as both Mr. Whittaker and Dr. Jackman have said, here today as part of what we might call an annual rite, one of remembering. And this is why, rather obviously, we call this day Remembrance Day rather than the old fashioned Armistice Day.

But I found as the years have gone by, that one's memory tends to get rather selective and if I might paraphrase something from Professor Parkinson, the memory expands to fit the attention span of the audience. And this is just to warn you that I will be watching for glazed eyeballs to tell me when to finish and sit down.

These are memories of the Battle of the Atlantic and specifically I suppose of my participation in it.

I spent 4-1/2 years of the war at sea, mostly in the North Atlantic, the only exception to that being the first winter of the war when I was privileged to be a part of the Jamaican force in the Caribbean, based in Kingston, Jamaica, and ladies and gentlemen, that is the way to fight a war.

The Battle of the Atlantic of course had been set off and started on the first day of the war and ended on the last. And you may wonder a little why, in that case, 1993 was chosen as the year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the battle. The reason for that is quite simple--it was in 1943, in the month of May, that we had what might well be described as the turning of the tide in the battle.

Up until then, we, on the allied side, had been losing continually and consistently but somehow or other things turned around in the spring of 1943 and while the Battle of the Atlantic was far from over, we remained in the ascendancy from that moment on until 1945.

In his diary on May 24, 1943, Admiral Donnets, the commander of the German U-boat fleet, decided that the losses to his U-boat fleet were such that he could no longer tolerate them and he issued orders to withdraw the bulk of the U-boats from the Atlantic to other, sort of fringe areas if you will, where it would be safe for them.

He expressed this in terms of what on both sides we call the exchange rate, which is simply a ratio between the number of U-boats sunk and the tonnage of allied shipping sunk. In the month of May 1943, he was losing one U-boat for every 10,000 tonnes of shipping sunk. Earlier in that same year he had been losing only one U-boat for every 100,000 tonnes of shipping sunk.

Now this was a real disaster for him. He attributed, in his diary, the reason for the extreme losses as being the employment of aircraft by the allied powers, both shore-based and ship-based. And there is no question that by that time, 1943, aircraft were playing an enormously effective role in keeping U-boats down and away from convoys.

I have two other reasons which I think are at least of equal importance. One was that we had won the technological war that had been going on from day one. Our gadgets, if you will, out-gadgetted theirs. Our laboratories beat them completely in research and development of new weapons systems to counter their new weapon systems and so forth.

That's one of my reasons for suggesting that there is an alternative to his rather simplistic view. The other was that the allied navies in general and the Canadian Navy in particular had, by 1943, after some pretty horrendous years from the beginning of the war, come of age, and had become professionals in the business of detecting, hunting down and sinking U-boats.

At the beginning of the Battle of the Atlantic we were certainly far from professional. We were amateurs compared to the German U-boat fleet and our people came of age the hard way. Let me just tell you a little story to illustrate this.

In December, 1941, my ship HMCS Assiniboine was in refit in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, across the harbour from Halifax. Now when a ship comes in to refit, the happiest people in the land are the officers in the manning depot. That's the depot that has the responsibility for supplying you with officers and sailors. There's nothing they loved more than seeing a ship come in to refit so they could reach out and scoop off all your best people and a month or two later, replace them with a group of people fresh out of the egg if you will. And that was the situation we faced.

Your speaker, by then, was of course a grizzled old veteran of 23 years of age. I was the First Lieutenant of this destroyer and for the benefit of any land-lubbers present, the First Lieutenant is the second in command--the one who really runs things on a boat.

Two days before Christmas I was told by the cox'n that we had a very long list of requests to see me that morning. And these young men, and ladies and gentlemen, you have no idea how young they looked even to a 23-year-old, these young men had only one desire--they wanted to go home for Christmas.

Well, old hard-hearted Hennessy said no and he had two reasons for saying no. The first one was rather personal because he had just been told the day before that his father had been killed in action in Hong Kong. So he wasn't really too much in the mood for this sort of request.

The second, and really of greater significance, of course, was that I knew something that they did not know, and that was that on December 27 we were sailing in the evening to join a convoy. And they were literally going to be working around the clock to get that ship out of dry dock--stored, provisioned, munitioned, oiled--all the things that we had to do to be able to meet our sailing date.

In the event we made the sailing date and we took that convoy up to Iceland. Typical December, January, North Atlantic weather is foul.

I can recall, at one stage in the journey, coming up for watch at four in the morning, and the first thing you do when you come on watch is to read the captain's night order book where he says what he wants done and where he wants to go and so forth. And usually captains tend to put at the bottom of this, "Call me if it comes on the blow." Well for him to say that, what did he think was going on at the time? And then he wound up and said, "Happy New Year." I'd forgotten it was New Year's Eve.

We got into Iceland supposedly for a rest, only to spend most of the time steaming up and down at anchor watch because the weather was foul there too. Another convoy was going back to Newfoundland, and when we arrived back there they were indeed seamen and all we had to do was turn them into fighting seamen, which we managed to do.

Weather, it has been said, was our constant enemy in the Battle of the Atlantic and this is very true. And you really have no idea how much power there is in a large chunk of salt water until that large chunk of salt water and your ship collide.

We ran into some very bad weather when we were on the Bismarck chase--we were one of the destroyers escorting the battleships out of Scapa Flow and at one time the speed of the fleet was 27 knots and we were doing 29 just to keep up in this weather and we took a very severe roll. And at that stage the ships have a tendency to try and carry on with the roll and almost literally dig themselves under the water.

Well the roll was such that I found myself standing on the polaris, that's the stand that holds your compass, looking down at my captain who was literally lying on his back with his arms and legs wrapped around the polaris. He said later that it didn't fill him with confidence to see his navigating officer, myself, busy blowing up his life-belt at the time. After the ship got its balance and got up and we were on our way, I did a quick tour of the ship just to see how much damage had occurred.

The wave had hit us on the port side. All four life-rafts were gone. The framework on which they sat was just a twisted mess of metal. Most of the guard stations were twisted and, in some cases, torn right out of the deck. Our motor cutter was history, just a pile of match wood.

You have to go on regardless of the weather, and on one occasion we even did an appendectomy in the midst of a howling gale in the North Atlantic. And your speaker had the immense privilege of being the scrub nurse for the operation and this is because the doctor felt that I had the strongest stomach in the ward room. I didn't exactly distinguish myself in this operation because towards the end, when he was sewing the patient up, the final thing is sticking the drainage tube in. He called out to his scrub nurse, "Drainage tube please," and this is one thing that I did recognize right away in the sterilizer. So I picked it up with the forceps, the ship gave a lurch, I dropped it on the deck and after offering a few well-chosen naval oaths, I bent down, picked it up and handed it to the doctor, but you should have seen the expression on his face. So I said to myself, "Well back to the sterilizer." The patient lived by the way.

It wasn't all weather and U-boats and so forth, we had a lot of fun during the course of those five years. In fact, I told Admiral Mingay in response to a query long after the war that I thought that those five years were the ones in which I had more fun than I had ever had in any other five years in my life. And I guess this is part of this selective memory thing, that you tend to forget the hard bits and just remember the nice times.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I conclude this little survey by paying a little tribute of my own to that group that I consider to be the real unsung heroes of the Battle of the Atlantic and these were the men of the Merchant Marine.

What they did, what they put up with, beg a description. You remember these people, in many instances, were going to sea in what had to be called floating death traps. If you're in an ammunition ship, in a way you're lucky because when it blows, you're gone. If you're in a tanker and you manage to survive the explosion and subsequent fire, you're floating around the ocean in a sea of oil which may or may not be on fire itself. Your chances of being picked up, certainly in the early days, were slim in the extreme because we didn't have rescue tugs and as far as the escorts were concerned they were far too busy fighting the wolf pack to be able to pick up survivors. So we left them there. But they survived, a lot of them, and they came back and they survived again, and they kept coming back.

I think we owe them a tremendous debt. It's also a rather sad reflection of the Canadian government that it is only in the last two years that these gallant men were given the recognition that they should have had 50 years ago. And that is a sort of veteran status. It's little and it's way too late.

So when you do remember people on this Remembrance Day, do in future years give a little extra thought to the men of the Merchant Marine because they really deserve it far more than we. Thank you.

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Remembering the Battle of the Atlantic

Vice-Admiral Hennessey shares memories of the Battle of the Atlantic and his participation in it. 1993 was chosen as the 50th anniversary since May, 1943 proved to be a turning of the tide in the battle. Stories of German U-boats and the men of the Merchant Marine.