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Creston Valley Goes to War

RCNVR

Davidge, Des

Des Davidge of Wynndel, in his HMCS Cornwallis training uniform

Hess, Fred

Fred Hess

Holder, Tony

Tony Holder

Truscott, Lew

Creston Review, May 1945

The Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve was formed in 1923, at a time when the Royal Canadian Navy was facing severe budget restraints.  It provided a way to keep the Navy active and recruiting, at a minimal expense. 

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy was badly depleted due to these budget restraints, and the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve played a vital role in building the Royal Canadian Navy. By calling up the Naval Reserve and recruiting new sailors through it, the Royal Canadian Navy expanded rapidly and, by the end of the war, was the third-largest navy in the world.  Most of its 100,000 members were in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve.

The wartime RCNVR, unlike the Royal Canadian Navy, was full of recruits who had little or no maritime experience; many of them were from inland areas of the country and some had never even seen the ocean. That was certainly the case for many of the recruits from the Creston Valley.

Out of approximately 700 people from the Creston Valley who joined the armed forces, about one-fifth of them joined the Naval Reserve.  A few joined the Canadian Merchant Marine, the Royal Canadian Navy, or the women’s branch, the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (Wrens).

After 1942, many of the Creston Valley recruits went through training at HMCS Cornwallis, the Royal Canadian Navy’s training base in Nova Scotia. Boot camp was followed by the skills they would need at sea, including seamanship, signalling, gunnery, and emergency drills. Although the training program was intended to be six weeks long, the demands of the Battle of the Atlantic often shortened this period. Very few of the newly-trained recruits had any time at sea before going on active duty.

Most of the newly-trained sailors, including those from the Creston Valley, wound up on convoy duty. Their work was demanding and exhausting, tedious and terrifying by turns. Life at sea soon turned the raw recruits into hardened, capable seamen.

The  Wolfpacks of German U-Boats threatened Britain’s survival by cutting off the supplies coming to her from her overseas empire.  Over the winter of 1940-1941, German submarines sank roughly 250,000 tonnes of British shipping per month.

Beginning in September 1939, the ships and crews of the Canadian Navy and Volunteer Reserve played a crucial role in escorting convoys of merchant vessels through the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Iceland. As the war progressed, the RCN assumed additional escort duties, and, by late 1944, was providing escorts for Allied convoys along the entire convoy routes, all the way to Britain.

The RCN also provided convoy escorts in other parts of the world.  Canadian corvettes and destroyers protected merchant ships on the Murmansk Run as they brought crucial supplies to a beleaguered Soviet Union. RCN escorts provided protection for Allied task forces as they landed in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and supported the landings at D-Day on 6 June 1944. Maury Murphy of Erickson took part in both of these duties: He was serving aboard HMCS Woodstock when that vessel participated in the D-Day landings; and was on HMCS Prescott escorting supply ships from the Mediterranean to Britain.These duties taxed the capacities of the RCN and RCNVR, which began the war with only eleven ships and 3,000 men. Until new ships could be built, and new recruits trained, the men and women of the Naval Reserve endured exhausting, dangerous tours of duty, crossing the Atlantic repeatedly to protect the convoys of merchant and transport ships from the U-Boats.

The workhorses of the RCN and Volunteer Reserve were the corvettes.  These were small, highly manoeuvrable vessels, manufactured in both Britain and Canada. They were of a simple design, so they could be produced, and produced quickly, in small shipyards with no experience in wartime production. 267 “Flower” class corvettes were built during the war.  Although not terribly fast, the corvettes exceeded the speed of a submerged U-Boat, and their manoeuvrability made them ideal for escort duty and submarine hunting. A large proportion of the Valley’s Volunteer Reservists served in the corvettes, including Tony Holder. These little ships were not comfortable to live in, and were highly vulnerable to torpedoes: they had very few compartments below the waterline, and a single torpedo strike could cause them to sink extremely quickly, with few if any survivors. 

Submarine hunting soon became routine duty for the sailors from the Creston Valley, and they took part in their share of attacks. Maury Murphy’s ship Prescott attacked and sank U-163 in Biscay Bay on 13 March 1943. Tony Holder served on HMCS Parry Sound, attached to Escort Group C-7 on convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic.  He was on board the Parry Sound on 18 April 1945, when she attacked a U-Boat that had sunk four ships in the convoy. Fred Hess, radar operator on HMCS Fennel, took part in a 30-hour attack on U-744 in March 1944. The corvettes eventual sunk the submarine. 

The RCN and RCNVR turned the tide of war in the North Atlantic.  The Canadian warships and their crews ensured the safe completion of 25,343 merchant ship crossings, carrying 181,643,180 tons of cargo and a significant proportion of the Canadian and US forces for the eventual victory in Europe.

Even after Germany surrendered, the role of the RCN and the Volunteer Reserve was not over. The ships and their crews took command of surrendered enemy vessels and crews, then escorted Canadian troops and crews back to Canada. Maury Murphy and Guy Browell, on board HMCS Woodstock, were sent to Scotland to pick up the crew of a minesweeper and bring them back to Canada. That minesweeper turned out to be HMCS Thunder, with Lew Truscott aboard, fresh from the excitement of having accepted the surrender of the German auxiliary minesweeper FGi 07 in the Bay of Biscay, north of Spain.