They served at sea

Qualicum Beach and Parksville Legions mark one of the most crucial fights of the Second World War — the Battle of the Atlantic

TRADITIONAL TOT: Royal Canadian Legion member Al McRae distributes traditional navy tots of rum at Sunday’s Battle of the Atlantic service in Qualicum Beach.

It was the longest running battle of the entire Second World War and the one that kept British Prime Minister Winston Churchill awake at night. He knew if the Battle of the Atlantic was lost, everything else would collapse, like a house of cards.

The Battle of the Atlantic was waged from Sept. 3, 1939 to May 4, 1945 and saw thousands of sailors go to a watery grave — the vast majority of them from the merchant marine.

Keeping the lifeline open from North America to Britain was crucial to the war effort, as an average of 90,000 tons of war materials was delivered every single day — keeping the island nation in the fight.

The battle saw a remarkable growth in Canada’s shipping industry, with the 37 merchant ships growing to 175 by war’s end and the dozen or so warships growing to 378.

These warships escorted the merchant sailors between North America and Great Britain, but their presence was in no way a guarantee of safety. In 1942 for instance, the Allies lost 24,000 tons of shipping each and every day. While the vast majority of these were merchant ships, 25 major Canadian warships were also sent to the bottom, along with seven minor vessels.

At Sunday’s ceremony the crucial contribution of the Canadian airforce was also highlighted. Canadian air crews escorted the convoys to the mid-Atlantic, keeping a watchful eye for enemy activity from above. Again, the cost of their valor was high. Over the course of the battle, 145 aircraft were shot down and 543 aircrew were killed.

The contributions of both branches of the service were symbolized by the ranks of both Air Cadets and Sea Cadets — along with members of the Navy League — who lined the walls during the service, which was conducted by Padre Brian Kirby. As well, 19 Wing Comox sent its Aurora aircraft roaring overhead in a dramatic flyby.

The evocative ceremony was attended by mayors Chris Burger from Parksville and Teunis Westbroek from Qualicum Beach, along with Regional District of Nanaimo director Bill Veenhof  and RCMP Staff Sergeant Brian Hunter, Cdr. Gerry Powell from CFMETR and Col. Jim Benninger, from 19 Wing, Comox.