WWII Sailor in the Battle of the Atlantic

Our dad, George K. Broatch, rarely talked about his World War II service as a signalman in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). When he did, he’d often begin with: “I knew as soon as I enlisted that I’d made a terrible mistake.” What usually followed was: “And I hated every minute of it.” The latter comment may have been a bit exaggerated. Or not. In any case, he posted a collection of black-and-white photographs and news clippings in the family album that offer a quick sketch of his life as a sailor.

Dad likely enlisted in 1942. He appears in uniform in two murky photos in the family album, which he labeled “Montreal, 1942”. With him are his eldest brother, Nelson Lewis, known to family as “Lew”; and older sisters Cyrena Elizabeth, “Betty”; and Margaret, “Peggy”. Dad told me that Lew, Betty, and Peggy lived and worked in Montreal for a while. They ranged in age from their early to late 20’s at the time. Aunt Peggy took this photo of Dad, Aunt Betty, and Uncle Lew in a park in Montreal. Her note on the back reads, “Three bums I snapped in the park”.

I’m quite certain Dad was on leave from training at the Royal Canadian Navy’s Communications School in Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec, when the photos were taken. It was located just 35 miles east of Montreal.

As a signalman he learned to use flags of various colors and designs to send coded messages from the deck of a ship to nearby ships. This allowed a ship’s radio channel(s) to remain open for other urgent communications. He told me with a twinkly smile when he was about 80 that he was “pretty good at it”. I didn’t realize until five years after his death, when I read about signalmen’s responsibilities, how complicated the job was.

His training would prepare him for two-plus years helping to fight the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted nearly six years – the longest continuous front of World War II. Assigned to the river-class destroyer HMCS (His/Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship) Skeena, he and his 180 or so shipmates were among thousands of sailors charged with escorting and protecting the slow moving ship convoys, which transported desperately needed munitions, clothing, food, and personnel, between Canada and Great Britain. Without these supplies, the war in Europe could not have been sustained.

Dad’s ship made around a dozen roundtrips per year between Newfoundland and Northern Ireland, or Newfoundland and Iceland. He told me when he was about 90 years old that the sailors sometimes saw torpedoes ripping through the water just feet ahead of their ship. These torpedoes were fired by German U-Boats (submarines), which were the single greatest threat to Allied vessels in these critical North Atlantic shipping lanes. The U-Boats attacked the convoys in groups called “wolf packs”, a tactic Allied commanders were not prepared for.

Prior to 1943 the RCN struggled with outdated equipment, an insufficient number of destroyers, and other problems beyond the crews’ control. Starting in March of 1943, the Royal Canadian Air Force began providing cover for the convoys. And by 1944, the RCN had greatly improved its anti-submarine warfare overall. Throughout the war, Canadian sailors shouldered the heaviest responsibility for protecting the North Atlantic convoys.

Luckily, because of the age requirements for enlistment, Dad missed most of the earlier, more deadly years of the war. However, according to the online Canadian Encyclopedia, 70,000 Allied seamen, merchant mariners, and airmen died during the Battle of the Atlantic, including about 4,400 from Canada and Newfoundland.

It was sobering to look at photos of sea battles from World War II, to read first-person accounts of war at sea, and to research Dad’s ship. He and many of his shipmates were teenagers–the age of high school students–when they enlisted to fight a war. Those who returned home were very lucky.

Links to related information from the Government of Canada

The War of the Atlantic 1939-1945

For a close-up, personal account of what the daily life of a Canadian sailor was like in the Battle of the Atlantic front, I highly recommend the article below from the Veterans Affairs Canada website, written by Navy veteran Clarence Mitchell. It’s full of details about daily life onboard various ships:

WWII Navy — From Boys to Men

Photo: Depth charge exploding just off a ship’s bough. George Metcalf Archival Collection CWM 20000224-015_4 Battle of the Atlantic: U-Boats and Convoys Canadian War Museum

2 responses to “”

  1. Again, Linda, this is most impressive! Thank you sooo much for your time and research into our history and families.

    I do have one question…..Do you mind if I forward any of this information to Wendy Broatch Holmes? I speak with her from time to time. She is not on Facebook. I think she might enjoy these stories.

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