This is a 4 part series at 8PM EST Sun.-Wed. Nov 8-11. On the History Channel.
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Vets recall life at war on the Atlantic
Posted By LUKE HENDRY THE INTELLIGENCER
It was a "terrible life," and starting Sunday, television viewers will get a new look at Battle of the Atlantic.
Convoy, a four-part, four-hour series premiering Sunday on History Television, includes the experiences of Belleville veterans Norm Russell and John Trafford.
Toronto's Cream Productions was commissioned by British TV firm Darlow Smithson to create the series.
"Without the massive contribution of the Canadians, the outcome of this conflict might well have been quite different," said Mark Carter, Cream's operations director.
"Despite starting the war with a handful of ships and a couple of thousand men, the Canadians ultimately took over the entire convoy system in the North Atlantic."
At least 75 veterans were interviewed, with Russell and Trafford among the roughly 30 who appear on camera.
The veterans served in the Royal Canadian Navy from 1939 to 1945. Trafford worked in communications, Russell in submarine detection.
They even served together in 1941 aboard the First World War-era destroyer HMCS Columbia, though they didn't actually know each other. They met years later in Belleville through a local cycling club.
Staff of Cream Productions, the Toronto company that created Convoy at the request of British TV firm Darlow Smithson, interviewed the pair in Belleville last January.
"Norm and John are great at addressing the early shortcomings of the Canadian navy and the growing pains that it experienced as it struggled to meet its massive obligations in the North Atlantic," said Carter.
"They are both also good at describing the horrendous storms that plagued many convoy crossings during the war," he said. "We really appreciated their contributions."
The Battle of the Atlantic raged throughout the six-year war, pitting Allied warships and supply-laden merchant navy vessels against the German navy.
But in interviews Tuesday and Wednesday, Trafford and Russell were reluctant to say much about their own service, saying they just want people to watch the series to learn from it.
"I don't want to be a hero," said Trafford. "I want people to know what really happened.
"Convoy work is monotonous. It's monotonous beyond words," said Trafford. "You're waiting for something to happen ... and hoping to hell it never does."
He said crews got used to nothing happening "99 per cent of the time.
"After a while you get careless," Trafford said.
"It's not like fighting a battle on land, where you're under attack for hours and hours," he added. "Submarine attacks are sudden and severe and then they're gone."
The weather was often horribly wet and cold. That, combined with food and supply shortages and confining quarters, made weeks-long ocean crossings seem much longer.
"It was a terrible life," Russell said. "That ship was rolling all the time.
"We had to go around with an axe and chop the ice off," said Russell.
Days of bad or little food, mechanical problems, and lots of work also brought underlying stress from the constant knowledge that Nazi submarines could attack at any time.
"There was an area that was wide open for the submarines," Trafford said. "They'd just wait and pop off the ships."
"It was very scary," said Russell. "We lost 12 merchant ships in one night.
"The worst part of my experience was when a ship is torpedoed and people are hanging on to anything they can find. We have to plow through them."
The convoy couldn't risk further attacks by stopping to rescue them, he said.
"It's a case of a few men against hundreds of men."
Below deck, Russell listened to the pinging noise from a sonar dome on the ship's lower hull. As a submarine -- or sometimes even a whale -- approached, the pings increased in frequency. If it seemed likely a U-boat was within striking range, Russell gave the signal to release depth charges, anti-submarine explosives.
"You never really know (if you hit anything) unless the submarine comes to the surface," he said.
Against orders, Russell secretly kept a one-year log of his time aboard Columbia. Elsie Trafford, John's wife, transcribed the log and provided a copy to the show's producers.
Day upon day, the only entry was "at sea with convoy." Other notes recall a crewman suffering from diphtheria, a "little celebration" and skating during shore leave; and the mixed blessings of life aboard the old boat.
"At sea; heading for Nfld; oil running low, food low; weather fine," Russell wrote on Sept. 26, 1941. Things worsened the next day.
"At sea; weather cold; very little food; HMCS Levis sunk with 18 hands missing; J. Edie of (HMCS) St. Laurent missing."
An entry from Oct. 15, 1941 records a day of fighting.
"Submarine sighted on surface at 11:55 (a. m.)," it reads. "Speeded up to catch up to sub; sub fired fish (torpedo) at us and submerged ... Dropped 12 charges; no traces; a ship torpedoed at 23:15 and went down with all hands ... but no sign of sub."
Trafford and Russell said they're glad the television series has preserved some of the stories from the Battle of the Atlantic. Trafford says he hopes viewers will at least watch the beginning, because they may find themselves drawn into -- and even learning from -- the story.
"At least give it a shot, because it's hard to believe," he said.
"You wonder sometimes how you lived through it," said Russell, "but we did.
"If we don't talk about it ... it's lost."
Convoy airs nightly at 8 p. m. Nov. 8-11 on History Television.