As you approach la Ville de Québec from the River almost everything is lost in the iconic splendor that is the escarpment crowned by the Chateau Frontenac. But as powerful as that image was – and 32 photos of the vista would suggest it was – something drew my attention away from the Vieux Ville and the splendors of early Québec within minutes of stepping out on the veranda of our cabin. There on Pointe-à-Carcy close to the Musée naval de Québec was a memorial; a statue that was waving but from the distance it was difficult to say if it was a welcome or a farewell.
Later in the day we approached the Memorial from the canal that leads into the Marina basin for a closer look. Created in 2002 by Raoul Hunter it commemorates the 267 members of the Merchant marines from Québec who died at sea in the Second World War.
The Canadian Merchant Navy has been often overlooked when the histories of both the Great War and the Second World War are spoken off. It was not until 1992 that Merchant Marines were acknowledged as veterans by the Government and awarded limited benefits. It was took another 10 years, and a hunger strike by four former Marines, before they were given the full recognition that was due them. It should be added that the Royal Canadian Legion was no better and refused for many years to recognize the men and women who were the lifeline that kept them fed and armed during those years of conflict.
A young man – and many of the men and women who joined the CMN were too young or too old to be accepted into the regular military – carrying his duffel bag, woolen cap in hand sets off. My friend Jeffrey suggested that perhaps he is waving goodbye to his mother or girl friend.
Approximately 12,000 women and men from Canada and Newfoundland – which at the time was not part of Canada – served in the Merchant Navy primarily in the Battle of the Atlantic but also in other theatres of war. Of that number between 1,600 and 2,000 died at sea – the records were poorly kept and many Canadians served on other foreign and Allied ships. Of the four services they suffered the highest casualty rate.
The first Canadian merchant marine casualty of the war was Hannah Baird of Verdun, Que. She was a stewardess aboard the passenger liner Athenia headed to Montreal when it was torpedoed by U-130 without warning. It was the first ship sunk during the war; the date was September 3, 1939 – two days after the invasion of Poland and the same day that Britain and France declared war.
Victory depended on keeping the trade routes open and on men, munitions, military machinery, parts and fuel being carried by converted passenger ships, freighters and merchant ships being shipped to war-torn Europe and the Pacific. It was estimated that an average Park Ship could carry enough food to feed 225,000 people for a week – a real concern for troops and civilians in sea-locked Britain and a Europe where agricultural land had become battlefields. Convoys were often given minimal protection by available battleships, and aircraft and U-boats in “wolf packs” tracked and torpedoed them. And though the North Atlantic was vital to the war in Europe ports in Asia, Africa, South America, the Antipodes, and the Far East were all of major importance and as dangerously vulnerable.
What struck me about Hunter’s young Merchant Marine was his face – it is so young, so vulnerable, and so sad. It is difficult to say if that sadness comes from him leaving his loved ones behind – perhaps for the first time – or perhaps a premonition that he would never kiss his mother goodbye again or hold his sweetheart in his arms again. Looking at it closely gave me an incredible sense of loss. As a Memorial it had achieved its duty – to make someone think of the sacrifices made.
The Battle of the Atlantic was not won by any Navy or any Air Force, it was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of the British and Allied Merchant Navy.
– Rear Admiral Leonard W. Murray
In doing a bit of quick research on the Canadian Merchant Navy I came across several sites that tell fascinating stories of this group of little known and often less praised war heroes. I think it is a history worth delving into a bit deeper.
Valour at Sea – a detailed history from the Government of Canada
Canada’s Merchant Navy – a more personal and perhaps less whitewashed account of the Merchant Navy’s history in the Canadian Legion Magazine.
On this day in 1850: The Roman Catholic hierarchy is re-established in England and Wales by Pope Pius IX.