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The last corvette: a timeless link to the RCN: the vast majority of Canadian sailors serving at sea in world war II plied their perilous trade in the tiny convoy escort ships known as corvettes. Of the hundreds built, only one remains afloat.

WHEN NATIONAL DEFENCE Minister Peter MacKay announced the restoration of the historic designation Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), it was fitting he was standing in front of Canada's Naval Memorial, Her Majesty's Canadian Ship Sackville.

"A country forgets its past at its own peril," said Minister MacKay. "From Vimy Ridge to the Battle of the Atlantic and from Korea to the defence of Europe during the Cold War, the proud legacy of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army, and the Royal Canadian Air Force will once again serve as a timeless link between our veterans and serving soldiers, sailors and air personnel."

In the case of the Roval Canadian Navy, the "timeless link" is HMCS Sackville. Of the 269 corvettes built by the Allies during the Second World War, only HMCS Sackville remains. She is Canada's oldest fighting warship.

HMCS Sackville was one of more than 120 Flower-class corvettes built in Canada during the Second World War. Winston Churchill described the corvettes as the "cheap but nasties." They were the workhorses of the North Atlantic during the war, escorting convoys and engaging submarines. Sackville and her sister ships played a significant role ensuring Allied victory in the Atlantic.

Commissioned on December 29, 1941, Sackville served in several well known escort groups such as C1, C2 and C3, escorting convoys from St. John's, Newfoundland to Londonderry, Ireland. From January 1942 to August 1944, she was one of the original members of the famous Barber Pole Group that had red-and-white barber pole stripes painted on the funnel. All ships in the East Coast Canadian Navy fleet now sport the barber pole symbol.

The 205-foot Sackville certainly earned her stripes.

The 123 Canadian corvette, crewed primarily by reservist, formed the core of the ocean escort groups defending convoys of merchant vessels from enemy U-boats. On any given day, more than 100 merchant vessels, carrying vital food and war supplies, departed Halifax and other Canadian East Coast ports for Britain.

During the war, the RCN expanded from fewer than 2,000 regular force members and a dozen ships in 1939 to close to 100,000 members and 400 ships by 1945. In all, RCN ships and sailors escorted 25,343 merchant vessels across the Atlantic during the war: ships that carried a total of 181,643,180 tonnes of cargo. It was a proud accomplishment and the coming of age for Canada's Navy. Justifiably, Canada's sailors were proud to say they were members of the RCN, one of the world's largest navies at war's end.

On February 1, 1968, however, changes to the National Defence Act unified the Canadian Forces and created Maritime Command, Land Force Command and Air Command--ending the use of the names Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army and Royal Canadian Air Force.

This summer when Minister MacKay made his announcement, HMCS Sackville let the world know what she thinks of the name change. The message she proudly hoisted was clear, "RCN -AT LAST,"

Sackville's most memorable engagement occurred in early August 1942 in the North Atlantic when she engaged three U-boats and damaged two in a 24-hour period.

As part of a western bound convoy, 250 miles east of Newfoundland, Sackville--under command of Lieutenant Commander Alan Easton, DSC (author of the book 50 North)--encountered a U-boat on the surface. At a range of less than a quarter mile, she fired a starshell and forced the U-boat to crash-dive. She then steamed into the swirl of water left by the submerging U-boat and fired a pattern of depth charges.

The powerful blast threw the U-boat to the surface before it slipped back into the water and disappeared.

And 90 minutes later, Sackville engaged another surfaced U-boat in a lethal ballet. When Sackville zigged to ram, the U-boat zagged to avoid--but not before Sackville got one good four-inch shell away and punched a large hole in the base of the conning tower.

In September 1943, Sackville was part of the escort group for the combined westbound convoys ON 202 and ONS 18. These ill-fated convoys became victims of the first use of the Gnat acoustic homing torpedo. In addition to several merchant ships, four escorts were torpedoed and sunk: the frigate HMS Lagan, the four stack destroyer HMCS St. Croix, the corvette HMS Polyanthus and the frigate HMS Itch, all with a heavy loss of life.

During the enemy action, prior to the sinking of Itch, Sackville was rocked by an explosion that severely damaged her number one boiler. The explosion was probably caused by one of Sackville's depth charges detonating a torpedo close alongside, which may, in fact, have saved the ship.

Later, when efforts to make repairs were unsuccessful, it was decided to take Sackville from active service, remove the defective boiler and use her as a training ship and harbour loop layer.

After the cessation of hostilities, all of Canada's other corvettes were sold to other navies or scrapped but Sackville continued to serve, engaged in naval and civilian oceanographic research until she was paid off in 1982.

In 1983 the Naval Officers Association of Canada established the volunteer Canadian Naval Corvette Trust (later renamed the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust) to acquire and restore HMCS Sackville to her 1944 configuration.

Two years later, the Government of Canada designated HMCS Sackville as Canada's Naval Memorial to the more than 2,000 sailors who lost their lives at sea during the war, and to honour all generations of Canadian sailors who served and continue to serve in times of peace, national catastrophe and international tension.

"HMCS Sackville, as Canada's Naval Memorial is the only grave marker for the Canadian sailors buried beneath the waves," explains Commander (Ret'd) Wendall Brown, Commanding Officer of Sackville.

Each year the ship welcomes thousands of visitors at her summer berth next to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on the Halifax waterfront. In the winter she is berthed in HMC Dockyard. Through displays, artifacts and audiovisual presentations, visitors can experience life aboard a Flower Class corvette.

On June 29, 2010, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh visited HMCS Sackville during the International Fleet Review in Halifax and unveiled a plaque to mark the significance of Canada's Naval Memorial. In August 2011, Governor General David Johnston toured the ship and met with Second World War veterans and other Trustees. His Excellency is Patron of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust.

Both visits speak to the growing importance of Sackville as Canada's Naval Memorial.

Before the RCN name restoration announcement on August 16, Sackville was moved from her summer berth at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to HMCS Dockyard for the announcement. Following the announcement, Minister Mac Kay, on behalf of the Government of Canada, presented a White Ensign to Commander Brown. The White Ensign was flown by His Majesty's Canadian Ships during the First and Second World Wars and until adoption of the Canadian National Flag.

The Canadian Flag is now the Ensign on all Her Majesty's Canadian Ships, but the White Ensign still serves as a link to the past--much like Sackville herself.

As the last corvette, HMCS Sackville is an iconic symbol of the Battle of the Atlantic, and the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust is taking steps to ensure the long-term preservation and professional operation of the 70-year-old ship.

The Canadian Naval Memorial Trust (CNMT) recently launched the Canadian Naval Memorial Project that includes housing Sackville in a fully operational covered salt water graving dock in the area of her current summer berth.

Vice-Admiral (ret'd) Hugh MacNeil, chair of CNMT, explains that as a first step in the project the Trust is working with the public and private sectors to advance a national design contest for an architecturally striking, internationally recognized Memorial Hall and Naval Heritage Centre on the Halifax waterfront.

"The design would recognize the history of this world-renowned commercial and naval harbour. The Memorial Hall (housing Sackville) would be a place of reverence and reflection dedicated to all those who have died in the service of the Royal Canadian Navy and to recognize all those who have and continue to serve," said VAdm MacNeil.

The project would also play an important part of the revitalization of downtown Halifax (founded 1749) and the continuing development of the historic waterfront as a primary destination for residents and visitors to Nova Scotia.

For more information about HMCS Sackville and the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust, visit
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Title Annotation:SECOND WORLD WAR
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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