Merchant navy vets endured wartime stress

Enemy u-boats could be lurking anywhere underneath the waves

Merchant Navy veteran Bill Emberly

At night, the lights on Bill Emberly’s merchant navy cargo ship were blacked out, to ward off attack from German u-boats skulking in the ocean.

It took three harrowing weeks for convoys of ships to transport goods and personnel from Canada to Britain during the Second World War.

The veterans of Canada’s merchant navy fleet played a vital role in the Battle of the Atlantic, a six-year endeavour that helped ensure victory for the Allied forces in Europe.

“The reason we’re all here is that six-year battle in the Atlantic for the convoys. If we didn’t win that battle … we’d have lost the war,” Emberly says.

For that reason, Emberly, who joined the merchant navy as a teen, is on a quest to create a Battle of the Atlantic monument that would be unique to the Island.

It would pay homage to Canada’s civilian merchant navy, the Royal Canadian Navy vessels that escorted the merchant ships and the Royal Canadian Air Force bomber planes that patrolled the skies above.

The average merchant navy veteran is 88, Emberly says, and there are 95 veterans living in Greater Victoria.

“Nationally, we lost around 70 (merchant navy vets) last year.”

One of the most lasting memories for Emberly occurred during a 150-ship crossing in an area of the North Atlantic known as “the black pit.”

The convoy used a flashing light system for communication in the darkness. Emberly sat in the flying bridge at the top of the ship and was responsible for reading the signals. If his attention waned for even a moment, it could mean the difference between life and death.

“It was a dark night; you couldn’t see a thing. We were towing a little skiff behind us in the water, and the fluorescence in the water lit it up, but that was all you could see,” he recalls.

A German “wolf pack” of U-boats was detected and a signal was relayed to increase speed. Emberly communicated the message to the ship’s captain, who misread the light signal and instead made a 45-degree turn.

“We cut right across a convoy of 150 ships and never touched a damn thing. It is utterly amazing,” he says.

When morning came, the merchant ship’s captain realized his mistake – and his luck – when the crew found themselves alone in the Atlantic. They spent the next two days playing catchup.

While the crew eventually found their convoy, there were many merchant mariners who never made it through the war.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the Canadian navy in the success of the war effort, Emberly says.

“By the end of the war, Canada had the third-largest navy in the world. There were only about 10 million people in Canada at that time and we put 1.3 million in uniform. We really made a name for ourselves.”

– With files from Erin McCracken

dpalmer@vicnews.com