Newfoundland may be an island but, as many of her natives know, there is nothing insular about her strategic position or her history. “Whatever Newfoundland has been, she was never trivial,” wrote the gifted St. Johns writer Margret Duley in 1949. “She was too rooted in the sea and the sea came before the dry land.”
The doughty veterans who drop memorial wreaths in the North Atlantic the first Sunday of each May are commemorating one of the most underreported and yet significant slices of Second World War history — the Battle of the Atlantic, the struggle to keep the watery lifeline open to the British Isles and thus hold Adolph Hitler’s war machine at bay.
“Amid the torrent of violent events one anxiety reigned supreme,” summarized Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime leader from 1940 to 1945. “[D]ominating all our power to carry on the war, or even keep ourselves alive, lay our mastery of the ocean routes.”
This year, 2012, is a particularly apt time to recapture the outlines of what could be called the island’s deadliest year. Most people now old enough to look forward to their CPP cheques will remember as youths seeing a familiar black and white picture adorning homes from Bay Roberts to Bay de Verde and far beyond.
That would have been the image of the S.S. Caribou, the 2,200 ton coastal ferry between Port aux Basques and North Sydney on the run from 1925 to 1942. On the night of Oct. 14, 1942, Caribou was torpedoed by a German submarine, U-69, with a frightful loss of 133 people — including William Hogan from Irishtown.
The effective architect of much of this tragedy was Admiral Karl Donitz of the German Navy. In December 1941, with the Americans soon to be a force in the war, Donitz scanned his marine maps and reached the conclusion which was keeping the British War cabinet awake at nights.
“Between Canada and Britain are the islands of Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland. All these lie near the flank of the shortest, or ‘great-circle,’ track between Halifax and Scotland,” wrote one historian. “Forces based on these ‘stepping-stones’ could control the whole route by sectors.”
The first wave of Donitz’s U-boat submariner attack came in June 1940 to April 1941, with deadly results. In November 1940, 440 lives were lost when the armed merchant cruiser, Jervis Bay, with three Newfoundlanders on board, had been sunk after valiantly saving at least 33 of 38 ships in her convoy.
“A wave of shock and revulsion swept the country,” wrote Peter Neary (Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949, page 162).
Now, with the United States in the war, the pickings for Donitz along the North Atlantic glittered irresistibly. This new “happy time” for the U-Boat captains was practically initiated by U-587 firing three torpedoes at St. John’s Harbour on March 3, 1942, hitting Fort Amherst and rattling windows on Cabot Tower.
Phase Two of the Battle of the Atlantic was on and 1942 would prove the deadliest year. British and American estimates fell between 6.1 and 8.3 million tons of shipping lost that year. The navies of three countries were stretched to the breaking point, along with their Merchant Marine.
From Bedford Basin in Halifax would sail the vitally needed convoys, rendezvousing with other American flotillas off the Grand Banks or skirting north through the Straits of Belle Isle, a geographic killing ground Donitz and his planners knew well.
According to humorist Otto Tucker of Winterton, 1941-42 was the year the war struck home. Serving as a roof-warden in St. John’s, he remembers one nurse at the Fever Hospital pouring out her fears one night about the booming noises just off the Narrows.
“The Germans is off our shore all da time an’ our boats is after ‘em … Blessed mudder o’ God, I ‘llows dis is da night we’re all gonna be blowed up.”
Margaret Duley captured the way the war had come right up to her shores. “It was equally impossible not to realize the near submarine warfare when the wrecks came limping in; when the ships anchored full of tragic holes, and with weary lists that told their own tales. As long as contemporary memory lasts, who will forget the wreck that stood for so long with a great hole raised high above the water-line through which the gulls swooped, to be lost for a second, before they reappeared on the other side … a bad advertisement for the Battle of the Atlantic.”
It was one thing to hear “the King’s Speech” over the wireless in September 1939, or relays of Winston Churchill’s “never surrender” in June of 1940, and accounts of the hunting of the Bismarck in May 1941. Now, all of a sudden, in 1942, total war had certainly reached us and our world would never be the same.
As the Law of Unexpected Consequences worked overtime, names such as Goose Bay, Argentia, Gander, Fort Pepperell and Torbay were leaping from relative obscurity to localized fame as nearly 20,000 Newfoundlanders found work and new lives during the famous “base-building boom.”
Churchill recorded simply, “The most important [base] for the North Atlantic convoys was Argentia, in Newfoundland” (The Grand Alliance, page 138).
The Battle of Bell Island
Meanwhile, the cruel war at sea proceeded mercilessly and methodically. In February, 1942 came the wreck of the United States vessels Pollux and Truxton off St. Lawrence, an event commemorated with honour earlier this year.
In happier counterpoint, that summer the USO erected its first building in St. John’s, known later as the Memorial University Annex. There, entertainers such as Frank Sinatra sang and actor Hal Holbrooks squired his Newfoundland future wife around the dance floor. Newfoundland service clubs were famous early on as the Caribou Hut and the Crow’s Nest took on the air of “an oasis, free of air raids, lights on, the people friendly, and chocolate, ice cream and other goodies freely available,” according to one British sailor.
Such comforts were direly needed for sailors dicing with death outside the Narrows. The Knights of Columbus had answered the call and their creative conversion of a building near the St. John’s CLB Armoury into a hostel for weary servicemen and their dates unintentionally sparked one of the war’s great tragedies.
Ninety-nine young men and women would perish there in a raging fire the night of Dec. 12, 1942. At the time, sabotage by Nazi agents was suspected, but further research seems to have ruled this out.
There was no lack of clarity, however, about the actions off Bell Island on Sept. 5, 1942. Two iron ore carriers were sunk at anchor, one of them, the S.S. Saganga, losing 33 shipmates.
St. Johns diarist Helen Porter remembers it well. “In the late summer of 1942 [sister]Violet and I were sitting on the beach at Manuels, where we usually managed to spend a holiday each year, when the water rumbled and we saw, just across Conception Bay off Bell island, what appeared to be an explosion. We later learned that two iron ore ships had been blown up right at the pier …”
On Oct. 14 came the devastating tragedy of the S.S. Caribou and then, in almost Shakespearean fashion, on Nov. 5, disaster struck Bell Island once again.
As historian Steve Neary recounted in The Enemy on our Doorstep, in spite of precautions taken after the first attack, another enemy sub, U-518, was able to boldly enter Conception Bay and steer between the three islands that made up the Bell Island chain close enough to see the headlights of cars ashore.
Circling back, the German skipper saw the silhouettes of three steamers lying at anchor. In about 10 minutes, 28 men on Rose Castle and 12 Free French crew members of PLM 27 (Paris-Lyons-Marseilles railway) were dead. This was war and lightning had indeed struck twice.
Heavy toll on convoys
If the Bell Island-Caribou attacks represented one level of tragedy, the seemingly interminable life-and-death scrapes of the plodding convoys — conducted far away from the media glare — marked the Battle of the Atlantic as an all-out military struggle.
Two convoys were severely mauled in August, a month in which 108 ships were lost with more than half-a-million tons of supplies.
In The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Montsarrat calculated a grim overall box score of 30,000 seamen killed, 3,000 ships sunk and 780 U-Boats sent to the bottom. Commander Frederick Watt attributed the turning of the tide in 1943 to the “desperate holding action of the merchantmen” that “had succeeded in buying time for an adequate military buildup” (In All Respects Ready, page 198).
The desperate drama of swaying ships about to capsize, men clinging to lifelines or plunging into icy water with and without life-preservers, the oil, the fires, the frantic attempt to reach out to helping hands in the jolly boats — these were part of the reality that made up the horror of the Battle of the Atlantic, a period none involved will ever forget and whose sacrifices we ignore to our own disservice.
Neil Earle is an adjunct history professor at Citrus College in Glendora, California, but calls Carbonear home.