Canada Helps Us A Lot

So why did Alister sail to Canada?

As we know Britain needed the Merchant Navy to bring in the food and other supplies. Of course they needed to get it from somewhere and we must be grateful to the countries that supplied us. I wondered how important Canada was here, there is much about the contribution on the RCN but I cannot find anything on the Internet that credits Canada for supplying us so I have done a quick count myself.

Over the summer of 1940 as a ball park I think 31% of our imports came from Canada and 15% from each of Africa, South America, the West Indies and the USA. Of course Canada is 'nearest' so maybe you would expect this, but they clearly kept us going, thanks guys!

You can see that through 1940 and 41 Canada consistently provided around 30% of our supplies. The significant change is that the USA took an increased share. Of course it may well be that goods shipped out of Canadian ports such as Montreal originated in the USA.

The actual volume of shipping from 1940 to 1941 does not appear to have increased. Comparing June 40 and Aug 41 (just because that is the data I have) there were almost the same number of ships (14 less overall) but many of the ships were able to make shorter journeys to the USA. It looks like Canada was running at capacity as it hardly changes.

My estimate is quick and does not take ship capacity into account. I looked at the destination of the ships on OB, On and OS convoys, discarded those clearly delivering, say to the Mediterranean, and just counted the ships. The data come from the fantastic Convoyweb site.

In Summer 1941 the OB (outbound) series were replaced by ON (outbound North) and OS (outbound South) series.

The Royal Canadian Navy

Britain could not have continued without the support of its friends and Canada was a very very important friend. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) made a huge contribution. In 1939 at the start of the war they had six destroyers and five minesweepers, it was tiny. Canada embarked on a major building program, it was a painful expansion as they needed their experience out in the Atlantic and so it was so difficult to provide the manpower to train the huge numbers of new men that were needed. I do not want to get ahead of our time line and the magnificent contribution is very well documented else where. Have a look at:
When the USA did enter the war in 1941 it is significant that this increased the work of the RCN in the Atlantic as many US ships were moved over to the Pacific.

The Port Of Montreal

Before WW2 and for years afterwards it was common for major ports to be in-land and ships started and finished their voyages by snaking up rivers to places such as Montreal and London.

From the neck of the estuary Montreal is about 180 miles up river, it is actually 1,000 miles from the Atlantic. After 2,500 miles across the Atlantic the 1,000 mile journey up to Montreal must have been relaxed as there was no threat of attack and no discomfort from Atlantic weather.

The last 80 miles are not tidal and it is fresh water. These days most major ports are on the coast as ships are too big and in too much hurry to snake up river.

The Dorelian was a general cargo ship of 6,431 gt. The modern equivalent is a container ship. The captain of the container ship Edith Maersk launched in 2007 would probably use the Dorelian in his bath. The Edith Maersk has gross tonnage of 170,794 but only requires a crew of 13, the Dorelian was certified to carry 73 crew.

The Edith Maersk is too big for Montreal however Montreal with its unique access into North America remains a thriving facility: ships of up to 55,000gt are using it, and it handled 12.4m tones of container merchandise in 2007.

OB-156 Outbound To Montreal

On the 26th May Alister left South Wales on the Dorelian, Captained by Duncan Macqueen, his first voyage. The Dorelian sailed from Swansea to join convoy OB-156 just off Pembrokeshire.

A ship such as the Dorelian may travel at 8 or 9 knots. It takes just over two weeks to cross the Atlantic to Canada, maybe two weeks to load up with cargo and of course two weeks to come back.

So that they could enjoy naval protection ships convoyed together with one or more escort ships.  The convoy system had been introduced successfully in the Great (First World) War. To many it was counter-intuitive to put all the eggs in one basket but it was found to work and is statistically sound. However the U-boats adaption to hunt in packs improves the odds in their favour when they do find a convoy.

Convoy OB-156 comprised 11 merchant ships protected by HMS Folkstone. At this time Britain was only able to protect the ships at the start of their voyage out into the Atlantic so the convoy dispersed after three days about 800 nautical miles out from the UK.

Convoys were designated by a route code (OB in this case) and then an incremental serial number (156). The OB series of convoys took ships out of Liverpool heading for North or South America, ships from other UK ports would join up at designated meeting points in home waters.

This series of convoys started when OB-1 sailed on 7th September 1939. On 13th October the first OB convoy, OB-17 was attacked and two ships hit. By the time convoy OB-156 sailed with Alister on 27th May seven ships on OB convoys had been hit by U boats, the last one OB-74 on 17th January 1940.

So when OB-156 set out four months had passed and 56 OB convoys had sailed without loss. Maybe it did not seem too dangerous. Those on the convoys may think it cheeky of me to think that and suggest I might like to try it and see: but if you consider it dangerous in May 1940 then you will struggle for vocabulary soon after.

The Germans had already reached the coast of Norway and as Alister sailed they were becoming masters of France and a very big Atlantic coast. Now it really would become dangerous: in the next three months over 270 allied ships were to be sunk. By 1945 around 3,500 vessels were lost and more than 30,000 merchant sailors had died. Despite censorship I have no doubt every sailor would be aware of the threat.

In May 1940 OB convoys sailed South of Ireland because the U-boats came from Norway and Germany. Soon with the U-boat bases in France this was too dangerous and they would head out North of Ireland. 

Luckily for OB-156 the U boats did not catch them. In fact they did not get an OB convoy for another five weeks, till 2nd July 1940, when they sunk the Athellaird in OB-176. Their first hit since January, but for the remaining six months of 1940 they attacked every second or third OB convoy hitting 32 ships.

That was to come, the Dorelian with Alister starting in OB-156 reached Montreal safely on 6th June 1940.

View OB-156 26/05/1940 in a larger map