Able Seaman J.A. René Brunette was among the four per cent of Quebec residents that voluntarily enlisted in the Second World War. As a member of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, Able Seaman Brunette was a part of the convoys protecting Merchant Marine supply ships as they made their way to England. The role of the Merchant Marine is often overlooked, but their ships crossed some of the most dangerous waters in the Second World War, helping essential provisions to reach a desperate England during the Battle of Britain. November 11th is Remembrance Day, the day we remember those who sacrificed their lives in war. Memory Project speakers are available to speak year-round and instill the importance of remembering, not just on Remembrance Day, but every day. Able Seaman Brunette’s audio interview is available on The Memory Project website (thememoryproject.com).
I was French-speaking and I knew a little bit of English but not a lot, eh! At our house, we read newspapers like Le Droit and Le Journal, which existed during that time. My father always worked in French and English so we had a general idea of the language. In my line of work, I would say that it was often the English-speaking people who gave me a chance.
When I boarded the ship, there were two gentlemen from Ottawa, one named Bonhom and another named Burke. We were delegated to that ship, and then the coxswain, who was the assistant officer and in charge of all the people, he approached me and he said, “If you have any trouble with those English, you tell me Brunette!” But he was English-speaking himself. His last name was Cunningham and he was from Dorval.
They sent us to Sydney, Nova Scotia to board our ship. When we got there, we had to sleep in a big garage that had beds set up on benches. The next morning, when we got up and looked outside, there was a big ship called a corvette. We didn’t even know what that was! We boarded; we were three young men from Ottawa who were assigned to that ship. The corvette was called HMCS Hepatica. It was an English name, since the ship was based on a style of ship from England that served the coasts, so it wasn’t very wide. It was 33 feet wide and 200 feet long and there were over 70 people aboard. It was a bit cramped!
There was a device called sonar, which was placed on the bottom of the ship. It was something like a barrel under the ship which sent frequencies underwater and received them again four times faster than they were sent out, so that we could detect a whale or a submarine or an old shipwreck or anything like that, or rocks or fish. It was very handy.
It was early on during the war, and all the supply ships and things like that operated on their own. When the submarines detected them one by one, they had a chance to shoot. Mr. Churchill [the Prime Minister of Great Britain] decided that no ship should ever go out alone from any given place; they had to go out together in convoys. If we hadn’t been able to bring over the munitions, the food supplies, and things like that, the transport of the troops, then England would have been in trouble. It was Germans who were in the submarines.
First off, the submarines: after [the Germans] invaded France, they were building submarines in Brest off the Atlantic that was the starting point. They were banding together in groups. Sometimes there were up to 20 submarines that banded together in a group to try and stop our convoys. Then us, the convoys, we managed to slip out to protect our ships, even though we had lost a lot of supply ships by then, we slipped out to protect them.
Often people say that it was the Air Force that won the battle, but in our opinion, it was us, the Merchant Marine and the Navy who helped a lot and who helped to save England. Because if we hadn’t have been able to bring over the food supplies, the munitions, the shells and other things like that, then the Air Force wouldn’t have been able to move. Oil, gas, things like that; we provided the support. In my opinion, we were the backbone of the entire organization.
Some of the frigates were built in Canada and they were given the names of cities. They were a bit bigger and faster than the other ships. The HMCS La Hulloise was a frigate that was a bit bigger and faster and it had 150 sailors aboard. It was more modern and was equipped with everything imaginable; sonar and we even had something new, a grenade called the “hedgehog” [an anti-submarine weapon]. It was installed on the ship’s front deck, in front of both cannons, and it could launch. It was about 21 inches long and 3 inches in diameter, and it could launch grenades ahead at submarines when they were close.
We had just left the group, the convoy, and we were escorting ships to various different cities such as Liverpool and Southampton and places like that. So we were three ships together, two others and us, and we received an order to go patrol the Irish Sea around the northwest coast of Ireland. So we departed northwards and at around 11 o’clock at night, the radar picked up something. It indicated that there was a submarine ahead of us. We didn’t think that it could be possible. We were so close to the coast that we could see the red lights on the buoys, like on the Ottawa River. We were so close to land. The captain said, “How could it be?” And then the sonar repeated its signal that there was a submarine ahead of us.
So, then we did something that we were never supposed to do during a time of war, but the captain took a chance: we approached and the captain turned on a huge spotlight so that we could clearly see the submarine. When it saw us and the light from the spotlight, it started to descend — to “crash” you could say — to lower quickly to the bottom of the bay. We relayed the coordinates to the two other boats that were with us and we started dropping charges/torpedoes on them. After a few minutes, say within 10 minutes of having started our attack, we saw some flotsam come up through the water. I would say that the attack lasted about 40 minutes all in all and then we started patrolling the waters again until the following morning.
The next day, we went back to see if there were any survivors and there were none. There were 44 dead [submariners]. We even picked up a notebook that included a letter which a young marine was undoubtedly writing to his mother... He thought that he would be home for Easter. It was March 8th. I will never forget that date since my mother’s birthday is the following day. A lot of us cried and prayed for them; we were all under a lot of pressure. It was very touching, very touching.