The Empire Sailor, ca. 1930s, when it was still the Cellina. SUPPLIED

Only the dead have seen the end of war, opined Plato. One simply needs to examine human history for validation. Author John Steinbeck called it “a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”

World War II delivered carnage on an epic scale, with more than 70 million killed, of which 50 million were civilians. Russia and China each lost over 20 million to starvation, disease, and enemy fire.

Born in the mid-1950s, I escaped the horror of being a combatant in World War II, conveyed with stark realism in such cinematic spectacles as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. I count myself lucky. Even amongst civilians, the scars of war ran deep. Think of the Blitz of London, the firebombing of Dresden, and the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima.


My grandfather Cyril grew up in Manchester, England, and served aboard HMS Hercules in WWI, a dreadnought-era British battleship, which saw action in the Battle of Jutland. He never spoke much of his naval adventures, but his hearing loss was no doubt due to the ship’s thunderous guns which heaved shells towards enemy vessels on the horizon. Emigrating to Canada with his family in 1919, Cyril worked at McKinnon Industries (later General Motors), in St. Catharines, as an electrical supervisor, and settled in Port Dalhousie. He retained his love of ships and boating, a passion that was passed down to his three sons.

The clouds of war loomed again in the late 1930s. My dad was too young to enlist, but his eldest brother, my uncle Ken, joined the Merchant Marine as an able seaman in the effort to sustain Great Britain with food and supplies. It was hazardous work, with German submarines (U-boats), surface ships, and aircraft preying on convoys as they steamed undauntedly across the North Atlantic.

Ken was a prolific letter writer, regularly sending bulky envelopes home to his parents and younger siblings. During a voyage south to Argentina and Uruguay in December 1939, he described encountering spies in the cafés of Buenos Aires, and seeing the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee in Montevideo harbor. (The ship was penned-in by the Royal Navy, and the German captain opted to scuttle his boat rather than risk capture or destruction in battle with the loss of his crew.)

Harrowing experiences were commonplace on the open ocean. Ken wrote of abandoning ship when his merchant vessel Gracia was struck by a mine in January 1940. The crew was subsequent rescued from the frigid waters of the Irish Sea.

Most of his duty was aboard the Empire Sailor, a vessel of over 6,000 tons that had been captured by the British at Gibraltar in 1940 (it had previously been an Italian merchant ship called the Cellina). Fitted with several deck guns to defend itself from marauders, Empire Sailor made several crossings of the Atlantic. It was bombed by enemy aircraft off the Hebrides in 1941, and was forced to seek repairs in a Glasgow dockyard. Thereafter, it joined a convoy bound for Halifax out of Liverpool.

German U-boats were an ever-present menace off Canada’s east coast throughout 1942. Some brazenly attacked ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where sonar-equipped destroyers had a hard time tracking them in the deep and tempestuous waters.

British propaganda poster. VOICE GRAPHIC

On the evening of November 21, 1942, Ken’s convoy was 200 miles southeast of Sydney, Nova Scotia, when it was attacked by German submarine U-518. The sub fired a spread of torpedoes at a trio of merchant vessels, including the Empire Sailor. All three ships were hit.

Now here’s where the story gets murky. My uncle was a victim not of a fiery explosion, or drowning, or hypothermia. His killer was something much more insidious.

Only three senior officers aboard the Empire Sailor were aware of the dangerous cargo the ship carried in its hold: 270 tons of phosgene gas in cylinders, 60 tons of mustard gas in drums, and 100 tons of commercial cyanide. (85% of the 100,000 soldiers killed by gas in the previous world war died of phosgene poisoning.)

Unfathomably, only the ship’s senior officers had been issued gas masks. The 60 crew had none, and were totally unaware of what toxins were stored below decks.

The torpedo explosion blew the hatches off one of the holds, and six ruptured cylinders of phosgene fell on deck aft of the bridge. The captain immediately gave the order to abandon ship. Bags of weighted diplomatic mail, enroute to the Admiralty in Ottawa, were thrown overboard. All but three missing crewmen left minutes later in four lifeboats, as the ship took on a 15 degree list to port.

Within an hour, a Canadian corvette and minesweeper appeared on the scene, and rescued the crew. Shortly thereafter, the Empire Sailor’s bow rose up, and she sank to her watery grave.

The ordeal of the survivors had only just begun. Phosgene gas can take hours to kill. On the passage back to Nova Scotia, the rescued men commenced coughing and choking. Frothing at the mouth, they died in agony. In all, three crewmen were lost in the torpedo attack and 20 died from phosgene gas, asphyxiated by their own cargo.

Some in naval circles demanded an inquiry, given that no precautions had been taken onboard for the crew, given the lethal load they carried. Ordinary service respirators (gas masks) would have adequately protected them. Senior brass decided to bury the issue, and no investigation took place. One can only imagine how the morale of merchant seaman was affected once the truth leaked out in Halifax.

Canadian propaganda poster. VOICE GRAPHIC

Many consider the use of poison gas in warfare as unethical, even criminal. But Canada has had a long involvement with chemical weapons. The Canadian Corps was gassed by German troops at Ypres in April of 1915, and in retaliation deployed the weapon zealously in battle thereafter. The historian Jack Granatstein once commented, “We like to think of Canada as pure, but Canadians [in WWI] gassed everything that moved whenever they could.”

In WWII, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made it very clear to Hitler that if Britain were attacked with poison gas, Allied bombers would saturate German cities with phosgene in retaliation.

Ken was buried at sea, age 24. He was one of approximately 1,600 from Canada and Newfoundland who perished in the Merchant Marine. One in eight who served were killed in action, which was far higher proportionately than the 2,000 men who died serving in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic.

My grandparents received a telegram from the War Ministry, advising that Ken had been lost at sea, with of course no mention that he had succumbed to “friendly fumes.” In their grief, they donated a baptismal font in Ken’s memory at St. Andrew’s Church in Port Dalhousie. His father also penned a heartfelt article in the McKinnon’s newsletter, exhorting his workmates to produce only the best equipment for the troops overseas, as this was civilian industry’s role in paving the road to victory.

The sub that sank my uncle’s ship did not survive the war. U-518 was lost with all 56 hands when depth-charged by American destroyers off the Azores in April, 1945. Launched in 1942, the sub sank nine Allied ships and damaged three others during its short lifespan. Submariners considered themselves the cream of the Kriegsmarine (German navy) but paid a heavy price for their success. By the war’s end, 793 U-boats had been sunk, taking with them 28,000 crew. This 75% casualty rate was the highest of any branch of service amongst all combatants in the war.

By comparison, about one million Canadians served in the armed forces during WWII (about 10% percent of the population) and approximately 45,000 lost their lives. That’s a 4.5% casualty rate. The highest Allied losses were amongst air crews in Bomber Command, where over 57,000 were killed in action (a 46% casualty rate).

By the end of the war in 1945, Canada possessed the world’s third largest navy. Some 25,000 cargo ships had been safely escorted across the Atlantic, delivering nearly 165 million tons of supplies to Britain and to the Allied forces that liberated Europe.

On Remembrance Day, we reflect on the sacrifice of those who fought for our freedom. Of those whose action in the face of clear and present danger portrayed the best of human valor. Of friends and family loved and lost.

Lest we forget.



  1. Excellent read my friend. It truly puts it all in perspective how lucky we are today thanks to so so many! Thank you Don

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