Cobalt Mining Legacy

HMCS Cobalt – Cobalt’s Namesake Goes to War

In early 1939, war clouds were looming in Europe. Germany, led by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party, better known as the Nazi party, was becoming increasingly belligerent and bold in it’s territorial claims. While many still hoped for peace, others saw war as inevitable, and began preparing for the worst.

Great Britain, as an island with limited natural resources, has long been a trading nation, dependant on trade across the sea to obtain resources and goods. In World War I, Germany had threatened to starve Britain into defeat by strangling the maritime lifelines upon which Britain depended. Food, lumber, minerals, fuel, manufactured good, and soldiers – all arrived in Britain from other countries, including Canada, by sea. Sink the ships carrying those supplies, and Britain’s people, factories, and soldiers would starve.

But in World War I the surface fleet of the Royal Navy was the most powerful in the world, and despite a naval arms race in the years before the war, Germany knew that it could not use surface ships to starve Britain – the Royal Navy was too strong. So while the surface fleets played a dangerous game of cat and mouse for most of the war, Germany unleashed a new menace in the efforts to starve Britain into surrender – submarines. German submarines, known as Unterseeboot, or U-boats, prowled the waters off Britain in seach of targets. In the end, the German efforts to starve Britain by the U-boat campaign failed, but the U-boats sank many ships, and were a major threat.

After World War I, Germany was forbidden to construct U-boats, but after Hitler took power in 1933, development of new and improved U-boats began. By 1939, the growing German U-boat fleet was not longer a secret. The Royal Navy knew that if war came, they would be faced with another U-boat campaign, and again faced with the threat of starvation.

One of the keys to beating the U-boats in World War I was the introduction of convoys. Previous to this, merchant ships had crossed the Atlantic alone, and usually with no naval ship to protect them. Unless they were very fast, lone merchant ships like this were easy prey of the U-boats. By grouping merchant ships in convoys, and protecting them with an escort of naval ships, the odds of surviving a U-boat attack improved, and more merchant ships were able to arrive safely in Britain.

Convoy seen from the air in World War II

Unfortunately, the Royal Navy of early 1939 did not have enough ships to escort convoys in the event of war. Years of cuts to defense spending had left the navy unprepared. A stop-gap measure was needed to be able to bring the needed escorts into service quickly.

The corvette was born. The design for the corvette was based on a whaling ship, and the ships could be built quickly and cheaply in civilian shipyards not accustomed to building naval ships. The first group of corvettes, known as the “Flower-class” since the corvettes in the Royal Navy were all named after flowers, was ordered in July of 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of war. The initial orders were placed with shipyards in Britain, but in January of 1940, the first order was placed with Canadian shipyards.

With Canada’s entry into the war, the tiny pre-war Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) began a very rapid expansion. The RCN was destined to become the 3rd largest navy in the world by the end of the war, and would go on to play a very important role in the battle against German U-boats, knowns as the Battle of the Atlantic. And that growth was built on the backs of corvettes, and the men from across Canada that served on board these rugged little ships.

Canadian corvettes were not named for flowers. Rather, they were named after small cities and towns across Canada. And Cobalt was to be one of the first towns in Canada so honoured. His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Cobalt was one of the first corvettes ordered for the RCN. She would be joined by 124 other corvettes in RCN service. She was built in a shipyard in Port Arthur, Ontario, now known as Thunder Bay. Construction of HMCS Cobalt began in April, 1940, and true to the intention that corvettes be built quickly, she entered service with the RCN just 8 months later, in November 1940. A significant accomplishment in a country with little experience building naval ships. HMCS Cobalt carried the pendant number K124.

HMCS Cobalt early in the war

Corvettes were not large, and they were not glamorous like the sleek, fast destroyers, or the much larger cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers. But ships like the Cobalt were vital. Less than 200 feet long, and with a crew of up to 85 men, they were not built for comfort. Some said they would roll on wet grass. Needless to say, in the heavy seas of the North Atlantic the ships and their crews could be thrown around like corks. Due to their slow speeds, convoys took about 2 weeks to cross the Atlantic, and it could be an exhausting ordeal for the corvette grews, even if no U-boats were encountered. Cramped, damp conditions below deck offered little relief to off-duty crews trying to eat and sleep, and those on-deck faced the cold spray and lashing winds of the North Atlantic. In winter, ice buildup made conditions on-deck even more uncomfortable and dangerous. And while the engine room offered relief from the cold and the spray, those serving below deck had little prospect of escape if their ship was torpedoed.

Left: Canadian corvette HMCS Penetang in heavy seas Right: Ice buildup on the Canadian corvette HMCS Brantford

The career of HMCS Cobalt was typical of Canadian corvettes fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic. For a time she served on the “triangle run” between Halifax, New York and St. John’s. While the Cobalt is not credited with sinking any U-boats, she did do valuable service.

In August of 1943, HMCS Cobalt came to the aid of a tanker loaded with gasoline. The tanker had been involved in a collision and fire had broken out on board. Gasoline was vital to the war effort, and under the command of Acting Lieutenant-Commander Ronald Judges, the Cobalt went into action to save the tanker and its cargo. The Cobalt drew alongside the burning tanker, and a group of volunteer crew members from the Cobalt boarded the tanker. Facing intense heat, the boarding party waged a two-hour battle against the blazing gasoline, and succeeded in putting out the fire. For this action, the commanding officer of HMCS Cobalt was mentioned in dispatches, and one of the members of the boarding party, Engine Room Artificer Fourth Class James Werely was awarded the British Empire Medal.

HMCS Cobalt late in the war

The crews of corvettes like HMCS Cobalt were drawn from across Canada, but they often tried to personalize their ships to strengthen the ties with the towns and cities for which they were named. The corvettes had a 4” gun on the forward part of the ship, and on many corvettes the metal shield around this gun was painted with art work depicting something about the ship and the town for which it was named. The gunshield of the Cobalt featured an angry looking bumblebee wearing a miner’s helmet. The bumblebee was brandishing a stick of dynamic and the prospector’s hammer with one pair of arms, and smashing a swastika with a small jack hammer with the other set of arms. Thus, Cobalt’s mining heritage was put to sea in the war against the U-boats.

HMCS Cobalt survived World War II. Like most corvettes, its service with the RCN was ended soon after the end of the war. She later became a merchant ship, and was finally scraped in South Africa in 1961.

One of the Cobalt’s sister ships, HMCS Sackville, still survives as the last example of the Flower-class corvettes. Like the Cobalt, the Sackville was part of the first group of corvettes ordered for the RCN. Today, the Sackville is maintained as a museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia. For more information about the museum, go to: http://www.hmcssackville-cnmt.ns.ca

Currently, there are no other websites dedicated to HMCS Cobalt. If anyone has any stories, photos or other information related to the Cobalt that they would be willing to share, please feel free to contact the website author.

HMCS Arrowhead, sister to the Cobalt, in 1940 (Department of National Defence)