Remembering the Battle of the Atlantic

Josh Pennell
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Veteran recalls life at sea during the Second World War

Winston Churchill coined the term “Battle of the Atlantic.” It’s also thought he’s the one who described it as the longest, toughest and most complex naval battle in history.

There was little reminder of all that turmoil Sunday at an annual commemoration for the great naval battle of the Second World War in the uncharacteristically sunny and warm early May day in St. John’s. There were few eyes around who had witnessed any kind of battle on the Atlantic, though there were plenty of people around to remember those who did. Following a service at St. Thomas’ Church on Military Road, a string of about 300 uniformed personnel from various platoons marched from the church down Duckworth Street to Prescott Street to make the turn onto Water Street and finish at the National War Memorial.

How many of those who stopped to enjoy the winding rows of marching bands knew what they were supposed to be remembering is hard to say. Several people could be heard asking what the event is for, and the faces watching through coffee shop windows looked interested but confused. That being said, many people out enjoying the fine weather followed the band through the streets and to the war memorial, where they quickly learned what it was all about.

As the parade made the turn at the bottom of Prescott, and the view of The Narrows showed a blue sky and blue sea, it’s difficult to imagine a time when the fear of German U-Boats came right to the shores of the St. John’s harbour. It’s a reality, though. There were even chain-like anti-submarine nets put across The Narrows at times during the Battle of the Atlantic. Across the street from the Johnson Geo Centre on Signal Hill, there’s tourist information bulletins complete with photographic evidence of such nets.


Following the laying of several wreaths at the war memorial, there was a reception at the HMCS Cabot on the Southside of the harbour. One of the most decorated people there was veteran Charles Starkes. A leading torpedoman, Starkes is one of the few who can speak of the Battle of the Atlantic without referring to the history books. People like Starkes are becoming more and more rare. The Second World War ended in 1945, and time is catching up with the veterans who made it through.

Starkes joined the navy when he was 18. He served aboard half a dozen vessels and even spent a short stint on a submarine, filling in for a few days in the Mediterranean for somebody who had fallen ill.

“I hated the day I went aboard of it,” he says.

“I was three days on it and it felt like three years.”

Starkes says he still has bumps on his head from the brief period he crammed his large frame aboard the sub. He was soaked with sweat the whole time, he adds.

This is one of the few navy experiences he speaks about negatively, though, after signing up late in his teens.

“I was 18 years old and you’re not afraid of nothing when you’re 18 years old,” he says.

During the ocean battles of the Second World War, Starkes says there was little time or point in thinking about what your fate could be.

“You never knew, see. You never knew what was going to happen,” he says.

“You had to be ready.”

There could be weeks without a change of clothes. If a friend died in battle, you buried him and moved on. There was little time for reflection, and giving into it could even be dangerous, he says.

“Never thought about it. If you did, you’d go crazy.”

Starkes brought a crew to the beach in Normandy on a barge on D-Day, and he has the medal to prove it. Starkes dropped the men off and went back to his vessel.

“I never seen none of them after,” he says.

He describes the scene on the beach only as “wicked,” and when pressed a little further for details, he says simply, “It was just one day.”

Starkes actually speaks well of being in the navy, despite the dangers.

“I was glad I done it, but I wouldn’t do it again,” he says.

He learned his trade of being an electrician there.

He smiles when he talks about forming soccer and hockey teams onboard the aircraft carriers. When the war was over, he says it was nice to be out of danger, but once home, he was bored and had a hard time finding work.

“Scattered time you’d wake up in the night and go nuts,” he says.

On one occasion, when he was riding a bus along the top of Long’s Hill with his mother, someone pulled the buzzer to get off and the sound roared through Starkes’ memory as the alarm to get to your action stations. He found himself up and out of his seat and at the door of the bus before anybody else before he realized what was actually going on.

As Starkes and others shared a lunch Sunday on the deck of HMCS Cabot on the Southside of St. John's harbour, a single figure in a dory rowed through the peaceful waters — a starkly different scene from the days of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Organizations: Southside, Johnson Geo Centre on Signal Hill

Geographic location: Prescott Street, St. Thomas, Military Road Duckworth Street Water Street Normandy St. John's

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Recent comments

  • Don Couch
    May 06, 2013 - 17:45

    Mr. Charles Starkes I want to thank you for your service at a time when a lot of able bodied men stepped up to serve their country. A lot of them paid a dear price for it. I would like to urge you to write your memories down for your family so it may be passed to the next generation, lest we forget.

  • Harold
    May 06, 2013 - 08:38

    we owe our freedom and maybe our lives to these people. we don't do enough to thank them. no doubt German submarines were in out coves and bays on many occasions here in Newfoundland, the MV Caribou, the two ore carriers in Conception Bay, Germans may have also walked on our soil. Least we forget.

    • mecatina
      May 06, 2013 - 11:56

      they also had a radio monitoring / communication station hidden on the north coast of Labrador