The war’s fourth branch

Surrey’s George Robin Hooper recalls serving as a young cadet aboard a Canadian merchant ship during the Second World War.

Merchant ships assemble in Bedford Basin

In May 1943, shortly after leaving its spawning ground in a Quebec shipyard, George Robin Hooper’s cargo ship, the newly built 10,000-tonne Riverview Park, huddled with two dozen other vessels in Halifax Harbour’s protective Bedford Basin.

When the go-ahead was given, the ships squeezed into The Narrows and slipped past McNabs Island into the Atlantic.

Within two days, the Canadian vessels would be joined by dozens of others from the U.S. East Coast, their cargo destined for Liverpool, England.

It was Hooper’s first time at sea with the Canadian Merchant Navy, and he would not see home for two years, by which time he’d have four military service medals.

Hooper was 16 years old, and a civilian.

“We did get the right to wear decorations (after) operating in dangerous waters, in war zones and so on,” he says.

Hooper, who lives in Fleetwood and celebrated his 90th birthday on Aug. 6, was a merchant marine for 40 years.

He had always wanted to go to sea, and got his mother’s blessing.

She wrote a letter to the federal government giving her permission to hire him at 16.

Before long, the Alberta-born and Vancouver Island-raised teen became an apprentice in Montreal and then Quebec City – an indentured cadet in a four-year contract, at which time he’d receive training to become an officer in the Canadian Merchant Navy and post-war civilian marine organizations.

Left: A launch delivers supplies to a merchant ship preparing to join a convoy out of Halifax, December 1942. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada

Throughout the war, the merchant navy was composed of 12,000 men and women, backed by the full strength of the Canadian shipbuilding industry.

Part of the massive war effort, Canadian ships became the property of a Crown corporation, the Park Steamship Company Limited, which commissioned shipping firms to operate vessels on its behalf.

By 1945, the company had taken over 127 10,000-tonne Park class ships, 43 4,700-tonne Gray class freighters and six 3,600-tonne tankers – all built in Canada. In all, some 410 merchant ships were built in Canada during the war.

Their job was to bring goods including food, oil, vehicles, weapons and ammunition from North America to the UK.

England was threatened with being starved of both food and war materials since the Second World War started in September 1939, and things got worse in 1940 when France fell and Germany controlled most of the west coast of Europe.

While the German surface fleet was a nuisance early in the war, the U-boat (“unterseeboot” in German) was the bigger strategic threat, routinely torpedoing ships within their reach.

Only shipping, from both Canada and the U.S., kept Great Britain’s war effort afloat.

Merchant mariners bore much of the brunt of the Battle of the Atlantic. Their casualty rate was one in seven, a higher percentage of total casualties than those suffered by any of Canada’s fighting services.

About 1,500 Canadians died, including eight women. Fifty-nine Canadian-registered merchant ships were lost during the war, some as close to home as the St. Lawrence River.

Left: Hooper at 90 today. Photo by Boaz Joseph

England would probably have not survived the war had it not been for the efforts of crews on merchant vessels from the Commonwealth and the U.S.

Even the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, wrote in the second volume of his Second World War memoir: “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

As Hooper set off in May 1943, the fortunes of Battle of the Atlantic were passing to the Allies, thanks to better convoy tactics, more escort ships, long-range planes and better anti-submarine technology.

While the threat of U-boats was receding, crews were still on edge, and had the regular difficulties of their duties – including bad Atlantic weather – to contend with.

In the convoy that set out just prior to his first one, Hooper lost a family friend, whose ship was sunk by a torpedo. His friend was rescued by a British destroyer, but the following day, he drowned when the rescue ship itself was sunk.

Canadian merchant ships, protected by corvettes and destroyers, moved back and forth across the Atlantic in convoys – using lessons learned in the First World War.

They were spaced “only a few thousands of feet apart, in columns,” says Hooper, adding that, under conditions of radio silence, ships used flags and shutter lamps with Morse code to communicate. (After a few months of practice, Hooper got good at using both.)

“We had to maintain those stations in convoy because (we) had to be herded like sheep.”

It took two to three weeks to cross the ocean, as the convoy could only travel as fast as its slowest ship.

“Convoys had to be slow because they had to stick together for protection.”

Riverview Park, with a crew of 26, was a Canadian-built version of the U.S.-designed Liberty Ship.

Left: A crew unloads a ship in Liverpool, England. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

While it had the same hull as the U.S. design – built for ease of construction, to out-strip losses at sea – the Canadian version had an older British-style superstructure that was less convenient for its crew. To move from one compartment to the other, they had to go outside.

Still, Hooper has no complaints about his working conditions.

“We didn’t suffer from lack of food.”

He also had a cabin which he shared with another cadet.

“We were used for any kind of ‘deck’ duty – anything other than the engine room,” he recalls.

His focus was on training and credit for future roles.

“You had to have four years of sea time ‘on deck’ to set into an officer’s position at some point.”

His ship had five Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) personnel (“ratings”) who had access to the ship’s primary armament, a four-inch cannon at the stern and four Oerlikon 20mm cannons.

For practice, Hooper and his crew mate were given permission to fire the ship’s pair of .50-calibre machine guns.

He recalls performing that practice duty “with great glee.”

Hooper’s convoys were not attacked during the last two years of the war, although there was one submarine alert.

He did, however, have a close call one day shortly after the war.

He was a second mate by then, and had control of the ship in The English Channel.

“All of a sudden, I saw this thing right dead ahead. It was this great black thing covered with prongs and seaweed.”

He calculated the best thing to do was nothing – no turning, and no change of speed.

“It was too close to do anything. I held my breath and waited and it came down the side of the ship. The wash kept that mine about two feet away from the hull, and it kept that position all the way down.”

After the war, Riverview Park, was taken over by other civilian crews under new owners. According to government records, the ship was renamed Shelburne Country in 1946, Lily in 1954, Ebro in 1960, and was finally scrapped in 1967.

The Canadian Merchant Navy, to which she belonged, had effectively evaporated by 1950 as all of its ships had gone back to civilian control.

Left: Survivors of two sunken merchant ships crowd the decks of a rescue trawler in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in April 1943. Photo by R. Wright, courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

After the war, rising in the ranks, Hooper would become an officer and eventually the captain of auxiliary ships engaged in support of the RCN and Canadian Coast Guard (sometimes performing ocean rescues on specialized ships), and in later years, he became a marine surveyor and accident investigator.

Retired in the early 1980s, Hooper captained the ferry Expo False Creek during Expo 86.

Although the Second World War was just a fraction of the time Hooper spent at sea, he’s proud of what he did as a merchant marine.

“They gave us the same medals as the armed forces. “(We) were considered an essential service just like the army and navy.”

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