50 NORTH: AN ATLANTIC BATTLEGROUND

Reviewed by: LCDR D B COLLINS RCN (RETD)

It is a treat to see an old favourite reissued after many years, especially when it is enhanced by a fulsome introduction and explanatory footnotes.

Alan Easton was a product of Conway (1917-19) and served in the merchant navy for 10 years before retiring from the sea as a young ship’s master. In 1940 he heeded the call as many did and joined the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve. Given that the RCN had very few qualified skippers in a time of expansion, Easton was immediately given command of a corvette destined for convoy duty. He had four ships in all until ill health forced him ashore in 1944.

In 50 North, named after the latitude, his successive commands: HMC Ships Baddeck, Sackville, Matane (a frigate) andSaskatchewan (a destroyer) all had nicknames, Knave, Queen, King and Ace. It was in Sackville (Queen) that he was awarded the DSC in 1942 for sinking one U-Boat,  and possibly another. Later during the D-Day landings he was mentioned in despatches. Baddeck was his shortest and most frustrating command as the ship was beset by engineering difficulties, but he was soon transferred along with his entire ship’s company to Sackville, another corvette – those sturdy workhorses of convoy duty during the Battle of the Atlantic.

In many ways, 50 North reads like a non-fiction version of The Cruel Sea. In his first two ships Easton was virtually the only seaman in the wardroom with novice crews plucked for the duration, many from the Canadian prairie. It remains a huge testament to his skills as a seaman and a leader that he moulded his ship’s companies into formidable fighting forces. Called ‘Pappy’ by his men as he was much older than most of them, he had that light touch which motivated and inspired.

Sackville deserves special mention as she survives today as Canada’s naval memorial, now alongside in Halifax, NS. She is the last of 226 corvettes built during the war and holds a place in the annals of the RCN much as Victory does in the Royal Navy.

The volume, of about 200 pages, was originally published in 1963 but was largely written by Easton after he left the Navy in 1945. It is a factual and anecdotal remembrance of his time at sea with occasional lapses into dialogue that are close but not exactly as spoken. In Canadian naval history, 50 North was virtually the first recounting of a Canadian commanding officer’s experience at sea with the triumphs and heartbreaks that accompanied ships in the North Atlantic. Sometimes mere survival was the benchmark against which survival was measured.  Easton writes fluently and is extremely readable, even today.

This reissue is accompanied by a useful introduction by noted Canadian naval historian Marc Milner and enhanced by official naval historian Michael Whitby who has done some light editing and added footnotes to inform readers of some of the personalities and events Easton does not flesh out in his original script.

For anyone still interested in the Battle of the North Atlantic from a Canadian officer’s perspective, and who has not read the original (or even if you have), 50 North will delight you.