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08 November, 2014

ON LAND, AIR AND SEA THEY SERVED


HMCS Atholl K15 was a modified Flower-class corvette that served with the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War. She fought primarily in the Battle of the Atlantic as a convoy escort. She was named for Campbellton, New Brunswick, however due to a conflict with a Royal Navy ship with the same name, her name was chosen to commemorate the town instead of being named for it directly.

What follows is a recent conversation with a Canadian Legion comrade recalled by Rev. Bob Johnston of Saugeen Shores.

HMCS Atholl began its short life journey in April, 1943 on the shipbuilding docks of Quebec City. Don Cochrane was a teenager growing up in Calgary. The two, boy and ship, were destined to meet and spend over three perilous years together on the Atlantic crossing. Their task was to protect heavily-laden allied merchant vessels from German submarines.

On Remembrance Day we will honour those who served their country in times of war and as peacekeepers. History books and classroom lessons have always presented the “big picture,” those dates and places of significant battles, the politics of war, the maps, the strategies. While this is important, an understanding of war can also be gleaned by hearing the firsthand stories of those men and women who were there to witness the shaping of that “big picture.”

Don and I recently talked about his war service. With a smile he reminded me that that were “ no oceans around Calgary.”. Like himself, most of the young men who joined the Canadian navy had no prior sailing experience. In 1942, the 18 year old -- and admittedly-reluctant student -- shut his books and enlisted.

The Atholl was one of 122 corvettes designed and built in Canada specifically for escort service in the North Atlantic. The ships were small, about 200 feet long and 33 feet wide. While sturdy and seaworthy, they bobbed and rolled in the water like a fisherman's float.

After the war Winston Churchill acknowledged that his greatest fear during that long struggle against Germany was the danger of Britain being cut off from receiving vital supplies from North America. And destroying those vessels of the Merchant Marine was precisely what U-boat commander-in-chief Karl Donitz had in mind. In the shipping lanes between Newfoundland and Europe lurked his Nazi “wolf packs.” They waited patiently to torpedo any unarmed ships who entered their killing zone, carrying food, munitions, motor vehicles, heavy guns and oil to beleaguered Britain.

The Canadian Navy, with its seven destroyers and growing fleet of corvettes were primarily assigned to protect the Western half of the Atlantic. Despite our small population Canada successfully provided almost half of all the escorts in the Atlantic campaign.

Don quickly discovered he was seasick! Four years later he was still seasick. On one occasion, just after he finished dinner and relieved a buddy on duty watch, his fellow sailor hungrily inquired as the dinner menu. Don`s reply?:

“I can`t remember but if you can wait five minutes I will show you.”

In our conversation Don chose to remember the good memories -- the long walks in the Irish countryside during their rare shore leave -- or meeting a young British woman who was also in the Service and his conniving to be on duty whenever her team came aboard ship to do work. Peggy and Don eventually were married right on the corvette, something else the resourceful sailor managed to pull off.

Deeper memories are there, perhaps lurking under the surface much like those U-boats. In the black darkness of night, a merchant ship could suddenly be torpedoed, its flames lighting up the sky and illuminating the oil-covered faces of the crew slowly drowning in the frigid water.

Don's corvette still saw action for months after the war officially ended. They had to round up remaining U-boats that had refused to surrender. It was only when he saw the dozens of captured subs lined up at St. John`s did Don finally realize the extent of the dangers he had survived at sea.

The Atholl ended her life in 1952, chopped up and being sold for scrap in Hamilton. Don has long ago joined the ranks of the senior citizens and has trouble with his hearing. He is saddened by the reality that the war took the lives of some of his best friends, he also regrets that the conflict robbed him and thousands of other young Canadian men and women of four or five years of  “normal life” between adolescence and adulthood. 

He does recognize and appreciate that he entered the Service as a directionless, vulnerable boy and, how wearing the uniform, quickly became a man of discipline with inner strength and core values. On Tuesday he will remember.

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