Project Haida

Introduction

The HMCS Haida today, docked at Hamilton.

Five and a half years, 165 million tons of cargo, and 4000 Canadian lives.

The Haida Project provided students with an opportunity to gain a unique sense of an important and pivotal part of Canadian history. With the support of Andy Irwin, retired RCN officer, and Parks Canada, a lesson unit based upon the role of the Royal Canadian Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic was conducted on board HMCS Haida, an RCN participant in the longest battle of World War II.

The Battle of the Atlantic opened on September 3, the first day of the war with the sinking of the Montreal bound passenger ship S.S. Athenia, and ended with the sinking of HMCS Esquimalt on April 16, 1945, off the approaches to Halifax, Nova Scotia coast, just three weeks from the end of the war in Europe.

This theatre of WWII was the most strategically important theatre of the European (Nazi Germany) campaign. The Atlantic was the only highway across which the essential food, munitions, fuel and manpower could reach Great Britain. After the Fall of France in June 1940, Britain was alone except for this lifeline with Canada and the United States.

Canada was the principal partner at the start of the Battle of the Atlantic but it lacked substantial navy. The US was still officially neutral and so played little or no active role at the start. Britain's Royal Navy was stretched because of home and global responsibilities. Air power was almost none existent and their loomed the new and powerful extension of Germany's naval threat - the U-Boat!

With the German use of France's submarine pens in Brittany, and the denial by Ireland for British Royal Navy bases in Ireland, the task of providing Britain's needs fell to the Canadian and British Merchant marine, and those of others who dared the deadly challenge of the Atlantic and the U-Boat.

Two cities became connected by a marine 'umbilical' link. The Canadian port of Halifax and the British port of Liverpool were to be for over 5 years, the most strategic terminals of the battle. Though thousands of vessels, millions of tons of materiel, and hundreds of thousands of troops made the journey safely from Halifax's Bedford Basin to Liverpool's Pier Head. Many hundreds of ships, millions of tons of materiel and thousands of troops met a dire fate at the hands of the German U-Boats, surface ships and aircraft.

After five and a half years of grueling struggle, the end of this battle saw the allied navies of Canada, Britain and the USA victorious. It is safe to say that had the resolve and bravery of the merchant mariners and that of those who served in the RCN, RN and USN, been less than exemplary, Britain would have had to sue for peace and the outcome of WWII in Europe would have been entirely different.

Project Haida sought to provide some idea of the magnitude, scope and challenge of taking a WWII convoy carrying vital supplies to Britain. Students researched the roles of the RCN, RN, merchant mariners, U-boat commanders, RAF Flying crews, and Western Approaches (Liverpool) Command. Each team presented an overview of the challenges that their groups faced in the areas of operation as the convoy makes its way across the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean.

Tom Dykes, 2008