Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Sackville is the only one of 269 Allied corvettes from the Second World War that remains and continues to serve as Canada’s Naval Memorial and a National Historic Site.
Sackville was one of 123 corvettes built in the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia shipyards that served in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) during the war. Sackville was commissioned Dec. 29, 1941 in Saint John, N.B. and escorted convoys from St. John’s, Nfld. to Londonderry, Northern Ireland. She was one of the original members of the famous Barber Pole Group.
The 205-foot Sackville, named after the town of Sackville, N.B., certainly earned her stripes.
Winston Churchill said the Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945) was “the dominant factor throughout the war” and described the quickly constructed corvettes as the “cheap but nasties.” They were the workhorses of the North Atlantic, escorting convoys and engaging German U-boats to maintain the critical lifeline to Britain. Sackville and her sister ships played a significant role in ensuring Allied victory in the Atlantic.
Reservists primarily made up the crews of the 123 Canadian corvettes. They formed the core of the ocean escort groups, defending convoys of merchant vessels from the U-boats. On any given day, dozens of ships carrying food, fuel and other war materials departed Halifax and other East Coast ports for the United Kingdom.
Sackville’s most memorable engagement happened in early August 1942 in the North Atlantic when she engaged three U-boats in a 24-hour period and put two out of action before they were able to escape.
Sackville was then under the command of Lieutenant Commander Alan Easton, DSC (author of ’50 North’). As part of a western bound convoy 250 miles east of Newfoundland, she encountered a U-boat on the surface. At a range of less than a quarter mile, she fired a starshell and forced the U-boat to crash-dive. She then steamed into the swirl of water left by the submerging U-boat and fired a pattern of depth charges. The powerful blast threw the U-boat to the surface before it slipped back into the water and disappeared.
And 90 minutes later, Sackville engaged another surfaced U-boat in a lethal ballet. When Sackville zigged to ram, the U-boat zigged to avoid, but not before Sackville fired a four-inch shell that punched a large hole in the base of the conning tower forcing the sub to return to port.
In September 1943, Sackville came under attack as part of another escort group for the combined westbound convoys ON 202 and ONS 18. During the engagement, the U-boats sank several merchant ships and four escorts including HMCS St Croix, all with a heavy loss of life. During the action, Sackville was rocked by an explosion that severely damaged her number one boiler, probably caused by one of the corvette’s depth charges detonating a torpedo close alongside.
When efforts to make repairs were unsuccessful, it was decided to take Sackville from active service, remove the defective boiler and use her as a training ship for HMCS Kings officer training establishment and harbour loop layer. After the cessation of hostilities, Canada’s other corvettes were sold to other navies or scrapped but Sackville was converted and continued to serve as a naval and civilian oceanographic research vessel until she was paid off in 1982.
In 1983 the Naval Officers Association of Canada took the lead and the volunteer Canadian Naval Memorial Trust (CNMT) was established to acquire and restore Sackville to her 1944 configuration. CNMT has more than 1000 trustees in Canada and abroad and its mission is to preserve Sackville as a memorial to those who gave of themselves or their lives in service to Canada. It continues to be a symbol of a defining national achievement in winning the war at sea.
In 1985, the Government of Canada designated Sackville as Canada’s Naval Memorial to honour the 2,000 sailors who lost their lives at sea and to honour all generations of Canadian sailors including those who continue to serve.
Each year the ship welcomes thousands of visitors at her summer berth next to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on the Halifax waterfront. In the winter, she’s berthed in HMC Dockyard and throughout the year she supports various naval, community, youth and corporate events and activities. Visitors can experience life aboard a Flower Class corvette through displays, artefacts and audio-visual presentations, and learn of the pivotal role of the RCN in the Battle of the Atlantic. During the hostilities, the navy expanded from 3,500 regular and reserve members and a dozen ships in 1939 to 100,000 members and more than 400 ships by 1945.
On June 29, 2010 in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the RCN, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh visited Sackville during the International Fleet Review in Halifax and unveiled a plaque to mark the significance of Canada’s Naval Memorial. In August 2011, Governor General David Johnston, patron of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust, toured the ship and met with veterans and other trustees.
HMCS Sackville is an iconic symbol of the Battle of the Atlantic and the sacrifice of those who gave their lives and of all those who served and continue to serve Canada at sea. Planning is underway to ensure the long-term preservation and operation of the 76-year-old ship as part of the long-term Battle of the Atlantic Place project.