Even 60 years later, Ted Read clearly remembers that overcast afternoon of Sept. 7, 1942 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence when Nazi torpedoes sank his and two other merchant ships. “The cook had just yelled, ‘Get outside, there’s something going on,’” recalls Read, then a 17-year-old second cook, now living in Alexandria, Ont. “Before I could even get out of our cabin, I heard the thud of the first one getting it. A moment later, I felt a thud amidship and was thrown over onto the deck which was now awash. As she rose in the water, I heard the third one get it.”
Within three minutes his coalcarrying laker SS Oakton had broken in half and sunk. But all its 19 men survived, a feat they credited to Capt. Alfred Brown’s incessant emergency drills. The sinking happened in the early days of the now all-but-forgotten Battle of the St. Lawrence, the only major Second World War fighting to take place within North America. The sea battles, which raged just a few kilometers off Canadian
shores from Rimouski, Que., to the Strait of Belle Isle between Labrador and Newfoundland, lasted off and on until nearly the end of the war. By the time the fighting stopped, German torpedoes had sunk 19 merchant vessels and four warships, including HMCS Charlottetown and HMCS Shawinigan, two of Canadas redoubtable corvettes. Nearly 350 Canadian and Allied men, women and children died, while thousands on the nation’s East Coast lived in fear of invasion.
On May 11, 1942, the day the battle began with the sinking of the British freighter SS Nicoya, 15 km off the Gaspé Peninsula, Canada had been at war for almost three years. During this period, parts of the peninsula had become a complex of forts whose big guns were trained nervously on the horizon. There, and throughout Atlantic Canada, hundreds of volunteer spotters looked for signs of enemy activity, especially submarines.
Still, despite these measures and Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s warnings of possible attacks in the St. Lawrence, when the Nicoya sank that May night, it came as
a shock. “A terrific explosion rocked our houses as though there was an earthquake,” is how one Gaspésien described that first sinking in a news report at the time. A torpedo had struck just behind the Nicoya’s engine room, blasting a huge hole in the ship’s port side and ripping apart so many steam lines that Capt. E.H. Brice, according to his operations report, found it “impossible to give orders, hear anything and almost impossible to see.” The Nicoya sank “within seconds,” added Brice who, along with his surviving crew, swam to lifeboats and rafts through the oil and wreckage-covered waters. But six of the 76 men aboard drowned.
The following day, as headlines screamed news of the sinking, Ottawa imposed a news blackout on the emerging hostilities in Canadian waters. But in the ensuing months of 1942, as 18 more merchant vessels and two warships went down, even wartime censorship could not staunch the rumours, especially in Quebec where both the dead and survivors of one ship after another—and even a torpedo—came ashore.
Urged on by the province’s press and stories—which turned out to be true—of spies being landed ashore, Quebec Premier Adélard Godbout demanded stepped-up protection of the Gaspé. Sasseville Roy, the area’s MP, called on the navy to pull as many ships off convoy duty as necessary to secure the St. Lawrence. But naval minister Angus Macdonald refused, telling the
Commons that he would not “change the disposition of one ship for all the questions he [Roy] may ask from now to doomsday.” Instead, Macdonald ordered the St. Lawrence closed to transoceanic shipping, as well as the laying of minefields in the Strait of Belle Isle and the Cabot Strait between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
Even if Canada had denuded the North Atlantic convoys, it’s far from certain the sinkings could have been stopped. The problem lay not so much with the numbers of Canadian ships and planes, or even with the equipment then available (though it did lag behind the Royal Navy’s), as with the nature of the waters in the St. Lawrence and the ocean gulf, and anti-submarine warfare itself. Following the British example, Canada’s navy boss, Rear Admiral Percy Nelles, put his faith in the newly developed sonar. Little was it realized, however, that the telltale “ping” that guided where to drop depth charges—and at what depth—was distorted by the mixing of fresh and salt water.
The men of Eastern Air Command, who flew out of bases such as Sydney, N.S., Chatham, N.B., Summerside, PE.L, and the towns of Gaspé and Mont-Joli in Québec, batded huge distances, famously poor weather and, at times, sheer bad luck as they tried to find the German subs. (In September, 1942, a bomb dropped on the infamous U-517 lodged in its hull without exploding.) Still, though Canada’s air and naval forces failed to register a single “kill” in the gulf, U-boat captains in 1942 feared them and advised against further missions because of “numerous unexpected patrol vessels [and] good co-operation with air” cover. The German U-boats stayed away for more than a year, returning in 1944.
Of the underwater captains who operated in Canada’s waters, none caused more havoc than Paul Hartwig of U-517, the man who sank the Oakton. From Aug. 27 to Sept. 15, 1942, Hartwig claimed nine ships, including two other Canadian vessels. His Sept. 3 sinking of the laker SS Donald Stewart cost more than the lives of the three men who died—thousands of tons of aviation fuel and cement were lost, setting back by months the completion of the Allied air base at Goose Bay, Labrador, thus depriving the North Adantic convoys of the air cover that helped keep the wolf packs at bay. Hartwigs third Canadian kill came eight days later, at 8:03 a.m., when
two of his “eels” struck the Charlottetown, killing three men instandy. Hartwig later recalled witnessing through his periscope the agonies of the men—seven of whom died—caught in the shock waves of the Charlottetown’s exploding depth charges.
Only once after the Nicoya sank did naval minister Macdonald lift his news blackout to name a ship sunk in domestic waters. On Oct. 20, 1942, he confirmed that the Newfoundland-Nova Scotia ferry SS Caribou had been torpedoed six days earlier in the Cabot Strait with the loss of 137 lives, including 22 women and 14 children. His speech girded the public for the
struggle that would last another 2xh years. “If anything were needed to prove the hideousness of Nazi warfare, surely this is it,” Macdonald said. “Canada can never forget the SS Caribou.”
One Canadian who has not forgotten is I Ted Read. “As soon as the Oakton rose in £ the water,” he recalls, “I was on my feet 1 running to cut the line holding the lifeboat I in, so she could be lowered into the water. I Then I shimmied down the line into the I boat.” That night he landed safely in the 3 town of Gaspé and a week later he’d signed aboard the Oakton’s sister ship.
But after the Caribou was sunk—and he had turned 18—he joined the Canadian Army. “We couldn’t do anything when they sunk us,” he remembers. “Now, I wanted to fight back.” He did, as a wireless operator in a tank, making his way through Sicily, up Italy and later helping to liberate Holland from the Nazi yoke. Only after the war did Read learn that on the night of Nov. 24, 1944, as his tank prepared to go into battle on the Lombardy Plain, a U-boat torpedoed a ship in the St. Lawrence for the last time, HMCS Shawinigan, killing all 91 men aboard. E3
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