The story about building and arming Canadian merchant
ships in WW II is intricately entwined with that of the British
Prior to our Declaration of War on 10 September, 1939,
Canadian/British merchant shipping was placed under control
of the navy. The Royal Canadian Navy inherited several
responsibilities, including the protection and control
of shipping. This included routing, convoying, ship
examination plus the protection of the ship by its own crew.
It was in this latter task that DEMS (Defensively Equipped
Merchant Ships) came into being.
High value merchant ships had been fitted with naval guns at
the outbreak of war, including the fitting of 43 large calibre
guns which had been stored in Canada by the Admiralty. Generally,
only those Canadian ships which operated in the Eastern Atlantic
and English Channel were fitted with some rudimentary armament,
such as a WW I 'Stripped' Lewis Gun.
The navy was responsible for providing and manning this armament.
It is estimated that between 200 and 400 Canadian naval gunnery
personnel were transferred from our naval fleet to assist the
British in this task during 1940-42.(This included the Channel
Guard) Subsequently, approximately another 1600 naval personnel
were trained for this task.
After the very heavy loss of British/Canadian shipping in the
1940/41 period and particularly after the Fall of France, it was
decided to provide merchant ships with dedicated armament and
specialized gunnery training of both naval and merchant seamen.
Merchant Ship Production:
In the period 1939-1945, we built 438 merchant ships, 217
for our own Merchant Navy with the remainder exported to Britain.
The Canadian ships were added to our pre-war fleet of 41 plus
another 10 acquired. (1) Over sixty Canadian registered/owned
ships were lost.
The 10,000 ton freighters were based on a British 'North Sands'
design. Canada decided that she would expand her own merchant
fleet by building from the same design. Later, we also went
into production of 4700 ton freighters and 3500 ton coasters.
Thirteen of the 10,000 tonners were built as tankers. (2)
Canadian built ships were owned by the Park Steamship
Company, an arm of the Department of Munitions and Supply, and
were operated by Canadian shipping companies. These ships were
named after Canadian parks, ie SS ROCKCLIFFE PARK. Ships built
for the British account were named after Canadian forts, ie SS
FORT QU'APPELLE. Crews for these ships were recruited from
the Merchant Navy Manning Pools, in Halifax, Saint John,
Montreal and Vancouver. In general, the armament built
and placed in these ships was common to both the Forts and
During the war, Canadian industry built over 18,000 naval
guns, most for the British Admiralty but a good percentage
for arming the Canadian and British merchant fleets. (3)
Nearly all Canadian open-ocean and coastal ships were armed,
including the coastal ferry services.
In 1943, a typical 10,000 ton Park ship with a naval
Leading Seaman or Petty Officer Gunlayer and six Seaman
Gunners, would be fitted with the following armament:
(This was in addition to bridge armour and degaussing) (4)
4 inch gun aft
12 pdr (3") forward
4 x 20mm Oerlikons
2 x Twin .50 cal. Machine Guns
20 Rail Anti-Aircraft Rocket Launcher (Pillar Box)
2 x Parachute & Cable devices (600'of Wire)
2 x Fast Aerial Mine devices (1000' of Wire+Bomb)
8 x Smoke Floats
2 x Minesweeping Paravanes and
2 x .303 Ross or Lee-Enfield Rifles
All but about 200 of the DEMS were Gunners,
the remainder were Convoy Signalmen, Telegraphists and Coders
who would serve on the Convoy Commodore's staff. As noted
earlier, probably up to 400 General Service trained personnel
served prior to 1943, these seemed to be third class gunnery
(Quarters Ratings (QR3) and Anti-Aircraft Lewis Gunners (AALG)).
Many of these went on to become the Leading Seamen and Petty
Officer Gunlayers. Because of the shortage of these trained
gunners, many Royal Navy and Royal Artillery personnel manned
the armament in Canadian ships. Conversely, Canadian DEMS
served in Allied ships. It was noted that the number of
DEMS serving at sea in early 1945, was 570. (1) The number
of Canadian DEMS lost in WW II was about fifty with two
thirds of them lost in other than Canadian ships.(5)
After 1942, six junior naval officers (Sub Lieutenants)
were sent from ship to ship to both assess the DEMS' capability
and to oversee training; however, DEMS generally consisted of
very junior naval personnel with the chiefs and petty Officers
plus commissioned officers manning the shore establishments.
In 1943, specialty Canadian DEMS gunnery training was
instituted; these were trained as Seamen Gunners (Third Class),
Gunlayers (Second Class) and Chiefs/Petty Officers (First Class).
The length of the courses varied from six to eight weeks. Prior
to these gunnery courses, a naval recruit would have been
required to pass the four to six week Basic Naval Training,
thereby getting drafted to his first merchant ship about three
to four months after joining the navy. The Leading Seaman
Gunlayer would have served in the navy for a minimum of two
years and had experienced about three ships. The numbers
trained in 1943/44 DEMS gunnery courses were; (1)
Seamen Gunners (O/Sea & Abs) . = 1147
Gunlayers (L/Sea).     =   212
First Class (Chiefs/Petty Officers)..=  110
An assessment of the relatively large armament package carried
in a Canadian merchant ship, would make it obvious that the few
naval DEMS could not man all the armament without help.
The help came from merchant seamen, mainly trained in the DEMS
Training Centres. Most of this training was in the form of
two day courses however, training was also conducted in their
own ship by the naval gunners. The streaming and recovery of
the torpedo nets and minesweeping paravanes were normally the
responsibility of the Mate and Bos'n. The Second Officer was
normally designated as the Defence Officer and responsible
for directing the ship's armament in action. As a result,
he had a lengthier course in the Training Centres.
The Naval DEMS gunnery training in Canada was conducted
in HMCS STADACONA, Halifax, HMCS CORNWALLIS, Deepbrook NS
and HMCS GIVENCHY, Esquimalt,BC. In addition, there were
five DEMS training centres/gunnery ranges established at
Sydney, NS; Halifax/Cow Bay, NS; Saints Rest, NB; Couteau
Landing, Que and Sea Island/Lulu Island, BC. Because we
were part of the British system, there were some sixty
DEMS Bases around the world which provided training,
ammunition, pay and assistance to Canadian naval crews
in merchant ships. (6)
Most of the post-1942 DEMS belonged to the Royal
Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR), were single
and generally under the age of 20. An Ordinary Seaman
DEMS would earn about $53.00 a month, including shipping
company and naval allowances. An Able Seaman would earn
about $63.00. They were paid through a Pay Book, kept
by the individual and paid any arrears in any Naval/DEMS Pay
Office. Ship's Masters would often pay advances where naval
pay facilities were not available. However, the DEMS
Gunners did provide a working pool for deck, engineering
and catering sections. if employed, they received a
merchant seaman's pay but the remaining gunners would have
to double up on their watches but share in the monitory
Canada is a major trading nation and although our
Open-Ocean Merchant Navy is small, our NATO naval commitments
include the protection of Allied Shipping. There is a
proliferation of anti-ship missiles, mines and torpedoes
in the world's arsenals. We may not have heard the
last of DEMS.
The Naval Service of Canada, The King's Printer,Ottawa1951.
Mitchell & Sawyer, "Wartime Standard Ships-Vol II"
Journal of Commerce & Shipping, Liverpool, England. 1966
Kennedy, J.deN. History of the Department of Munitions &
Supply, The King's Printer, Ottawa, 1950.
Reid, Max, DEMS at War, Commoners Publishing, Ottawa,1990.
1939-1945 The War Dead of the Commonwealth,Halifax Memorial
DEMS Pocket Book,(BR 282) The King's Printer, Ottawa, 1942