The Battle of the North Atlantic

Incredible as it may seem, the British Royal Navy had a tradition that all navigating bridges should be open to the elements, a holdover from sailing ship days. In this picture, the man on the far left is wearing an officer’s cap, so he is most likely the officer of the watch, that is the deck officer who is actually “driving the ship”. The man to right, wearing the knit watch cap, is a lookout although being on the bridge he is probably an experienced sailor. You can see how bundled up both men are and both of them seem to be wearing rubberized waterproof suits, under which they would usually be wearing two shirts, two heavy wool sweaters, a duffel coat, in addition to heavy gloves, double socks, and sea boots. Even so, water trickled into their clothes.

HMS Columbine was a Flower Class corvette launched in 1940. These ships were miserable to serve in and would “roll on wet grass,” wrote author Nicholas Montserrat who served on one. They were constantly damp. One never got dry. They had no refrigeration. Food was terrible. Crew quarters totally were totally inadequate and unhealthy as reported time and again by Royal Navy medical officers. Ventilation was appallingly bad with little fresh air getting into the ship. Water alternately condensed on the inside hull of the ship or froze to it. Officers usually had an inch or two or water in their staterooms.

This is a “short forecastle” or “fo’c’sle” corvette, meaning the distance from the bow to the navigating bridge is quite short. This ensured that in any kind of weather, the bridge watch would be under a constant deluge of water. The Flower Class corvettes were based on the design of a whaling ship. They were not built to Royal Navy standards in terms of water tight compartments, thickness of armor plate, etc. Instead, they were built in civilian shipyards all over the UK. Some were built in Canada.

This is a photo of the open bridge of the Canadian Flower Class Corvette, HMCS Trillium. The Canadian Navy compiled a record of breathtaking incompetence during World War Two. Nearly all of their effort went into providing escorts for convoys in the North Atlantic for which they eventually had over 75 Flower Class Corvettes. Unlike the other self governing Dominions (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, et al), Canada refused to integrate its men into the overall Royal Navy. Her Majesty’s Canadian Navy was so poorly trained that in the middle of the most desperate phase of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Royal Navy requested the Canadian Navy be withdrawn entirely from convoy escort duties and never used for anything. This wasn’t possible politically and Churchill told the RN to deal with the Canadian Navy as best they could. During the war in the Atlantic, the Canadians didn’t sink more than one U-Boat by themselves.

Lookout duty was harsh in the North Atlantic where it is cold almost all of the time and very cold most of the time.

[Image courtesy of Life.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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