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Vets remember six-year battle at sea

Battle of the Atlantic marks 70th anniversary
Chris Bolster

Seventy years ago this month, the Allied navies of World War II turned the tide of battle against the German submarine fleet in what has been called “the longest and hardest battle ever fought at sea.”

The Battle of the Atlantic, fought over six years of fighting in Europe, secured the supply lines from North America during World War II and ultimately made the Allied forces’ D-day invasion possible.

Powell River’s Charlie Ickringill and Ron Fraser, both veterans of the battle, will gather this weekend with members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the Powell River Sea Cadets Corps Malaspina and the public to pay tribute to the sacrifices that were made during the battle. Originally established in 1950 as the first Sunday in October, the commemoration was moved in 1951 to the first Sunday in May.

For almost six years the Royal Canadian Navy escorted over 25,000 ships to Europe from 1939 to 1945. Ickringill, 87, was 16 years old when he volunteered for the Canadian Merchant Navy. He grew up in a military family in Vancouver and was already attending navigation school when he received notification to report to the recruiting centre. He was one of the few merchant mariners who received gunnery training on a merchant ship.

He went to a training facility on Lapointe Pier in Vancouver designed to teach gunners to shoot anti-aircraft guns at incoming bombers.

“As [long] as I was firing ahead of the Stutkas it was okay,” said Ickringill. “The pilots would be able to see the tracer bullets coming up in front of them and it didn’t sit too well with them.”

After his training he set out on the newly-built SS Cromwell Park, as the third and youngest gunnery officer.

Before the war Canada did not have a large merchant fleet, but by 1942 the federal government had established the Park Steamship Company, a Crown corporation, with the task of dramatically increasing the number of cargo ships which could be deployed to carry food and military supplies to Great Britain and Russia. The 10,000-tonne ships were built as a standard class to make them easy to repair. Over the course of the war more than 127 Park ships, 43 Grey-class freighters and six 3,600-ton tankers were launched from Canadian shipyards.

German U-boat submarines used a system called wolf packs to attack convoys of Allied merchant ships and their military escorts sailing across the North Atlantic from the shores of Great Britain right into the St. Lawrence River. At the height of the battle in 1942, the Allies lost on average one 10,000-tonne ship every 10 hours for 31 straight days.

“The hardest parts were seeing guys in lifeboats as we went by,” said Ickringill. “We couldn’t stop. That brought the war home for me.”

The scariest experience of the war Ickringill recalls was facing a German torpedo boat attack. They’d tie up to the buoys that marked the channel that had been swept for mines and wait for convoys to approach, he said.

“In the middle of the night all hell broke loose,” he said. “I happened to be on the bridge at the time. They got a half a dozen ships in a matter of minutes. I jumped behind an oerlikon [a ship-mounted gun]. I was thinking they were in shore.”

When a star shell was shot into the air to illuminate the seas, Ickringill saw the six torpedo boats. “They were there in the dark and I was waiting for them,” he said. “Well I knew this was E-boat alley. I don’t know if they were shooting at me though.”

Although he witnessed ships sinking and torpedo boat and submarine attacks on the convoys he sailed with, his ship wasn’t sunk.

By 1943, advances in radar and sonar meant that submarines could be more easily detected and American long-range bombers started to diminish the threat.

Of the 24 Canadian warships lost during the battle, eight were sunk in coastal waters including the HMCS Esquimalt, the last on April 16, 1945. It happened less than a month before Germany’s surrender.

When Ron Fraser, 89, joined the Fisherman’s Reserve at 18, he did not imagine that he’d be transporting Allied invasion troops across the English Channel only a few years later. Fraser had moved to Powell River in 1930 when he was six years old. His father was an ironworker and had come to work at the mill.

At the outbreak of the war, the Canadian government hired civilian fishermen to sail through all the small coves and inlets on the coast to keep watch for enemy vessels. After spending only a short time patrolling the coast in fishing boats, he joined the navy and trained as a combined forces gunner for landing craft.

“In 1942 they started shipping us over to British naval bases that had landing craft,” said Fraser. “I worked with the Canadian army and navy over there.”

Fraser said that during the D-day invasion he was constantly busy transporting men and equipment between British naval bases and the coast of northern France.

His landing craft was one of the first to hit Juno Beach, the landing place of the Canadian Forces on June 6, 1944.

“It was a bit of excitement now and again,” said Fraser. “We’d go in, hit the beach, drop the troops and turn around and go back to England to pick up another load. The first two weeks of the invasion were quite hectic.”

He did that for about a month and followed the troops up the coast as they advanced on Belgium and the Netherlands. “Wherever the Canadian troops were going we dropped them off,” he said.

When asked about what stands out the most for Fraser about his experience he said “going home.”

By the time the invasion forces were storming the beaches, the merchant fleet was sailing more or less unimpeded between North America and Britain.

“I hardly felt we were contributing at all,” said Ickringill. “We were just sitting out there with a cup of tea while these guys were fighting.”

“During six protracted years, more humans, ships and materiel were lost than in all the naval campaigns of the previous 500 years combined,” wrote Canadian military historian John Boileau on the scale of the battle. “It was arguably also the most decisive campaign of the Second World War.”

Seventy-one Canadian and Newfoundland merchant ships were lost and over 2,200 men and women died. The Canadian Navy lost over 2,000 sailors and over 700 Royal Canadian Air Force pilots and crew.

Ickringill and Fraser will speak at the commemorative service beginning at 11 am, Sunday, May 5, at Texada Island United Church in Van Anda.