You can listen to this podcast episode on Canadian History Ehx
The Battle of the St. Lawrence
The Second World War was the most destructive period in human history. No corner of the globe was untouched by the war and while North America did not see much in the way of combat, there were still battles.
One such battle is one we don’t often hear about, since it was so much smaller than the other sea battles of the war.
It was the Battle of the St. Lawrence, and it was fought over the course of several years in the St. Lawrence Seaway, the most important stretch of water in Canada.
First, a bit of background. When the First World War ended, the economy was tough and Canada felt a sense of security with the presence of the Royal Navy, as well as the proximity to its ally the United States. This resulted in the Royal Canadian Navy having few ships, and most were not up to the task of defending the country’s coast.
With the onset of war, Canada had six destroyers but the responsibility of the Canadian navy to protect North Atlantic convoy routes the navy quickly grew in size as the war dragged on. By the end of the war, Canada had the third largest allied naval power in the world with 400 ships and 100,000 men and women serving.
The Canadian ports were crucial to the resupply effort of the United Kingdom. Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia became convoy assembly ports. Halifax handled the faster priority convoys that carried troops and essential materials, while Sydney handled slow convoys that moved larger materials. Each port was heavily fortified and had extensive coastal artillery manned by soldiers in the Canadian army and Royal Canada Navy. Anti-torpedo nets were also in place, and strict blackouts were followed to protect the harbour.
No landings of German personnel ever took place at these ports, but the German U-Boats were a presence throughout the war years, targeting the convoys leaving for Europe.
Beginning in early 1942, German U-Boats began to attack domestic coastal shipping along the east coast of Canada in the St. Lawrence River. It would last for the next two years and would have a significant impact on the morale, and it would take the lives of several Canadian soldiers. It would also be the first time since the War of 1812 that naval battles were fought in Canada’s inland waters.
The Canadian government was expecting U-boats to start entering the St. Lawrence and on March 25, 1942, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King stated that “Officers of the Canadian naval service have expressed the view that within a few months, submarines may well be found operating within the gulf and even in the St. Lawrence River. It is known that enemy submarines can leave their bases on the European continent, voyage to the shores of this continent, seek their prey for some day or weeks and return to their bases without the necessity of refueling.”
To protect shipping, A new base was opened in Quebec on May 1, 1942. It had one 18-metre vessel and no aircraft and would prove inadequate for what was coming.
At first, there were no plans by the German Navy to attack shipping in the St. Lawrence River and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Navy focused only on the convoys at first and any early attacks on shipping was considered to be random and opportunistic rather than planned.
The first attack was on May 12, 1942 when U-553 torpedoed and sank the British freighter Nicoya at the mouth of the St. Lawrence near Anticosti Island. Several hours later, a Dutch freighter was attacked by the U-boat before it departed for a patrol in the North Atlantic. That U-Boat would be lost off the coast of France on Jan. 20, 1943. The U-boat sent out a message stating its periscope was unready for action. It was never heard from again.
According to the crew of the Nyoka, “We had no gunners on watch. We never used watches in the St. Lawrence and we were only due to start them in the morning after we were sunk.”
At the time of the sinking of these two ships, the Royal Canadian Navy only had four ships guarding the Gulf of St. Lawrence. One was a mine-sweeper, two were motor launches and one was an armed yacht. In order to deal with this new threat, the navy deployed five Flower-class corvettes. These ships were traditionally considered to be the smallest type of warship and were not up to the task to guarding the Gulf.
The Canadian Navy’s main priority was protecting convoys to England, the Soviet Union and North Africa. As a result, the Royal Navy would send some ships to protect convoys within the St. Lawrence area.
For the residents along the coast of the St. Lawrence, seeing warfare so close to their home was something that startled them. It wasn’t just the noise of the ships being hit by torpedos, or returning fire. Debris and bodies would float ashore from the two ships that were sunk, which was something the people were not expecting to see. In order to protect morale, the Canadian government ensured censors kept the media from reporting on the incidents. Any news came from local gossip. The government also put blackouts in place on the coast, and army units were sent on patrol along railway lines and on roads.
The gossip tended to create tall tales that spread throughout the area. Future prime minister Pierre Trudeau heard local tales of U-boat crews coming ashore to buy provisions from Quebec shopkeepers as he hiked through the region. One Newfoundland woman said in a report to the military that she saw a flying U-boat, while other villages around the Gulf of St. Lawrence had reports from people who claimed that they were out in their fishing vessel and went aboard a U-boat and they were held there for several days. Another man in 1944 said that he was drinking with friends in a Quebec City tennis club and several tables over he heard people speaking German but he dismissed it at the time.
News began to reach Canadians about the danger to shipping lanes and both media and politicians criticized the government for not doing enough to protect shipping.
On July 18, 1942, Prime Minister King held a secret session of the House of Commons, something that is extremely rare, to privately inform MPs about the campaign against U-boats.
Things were quiet for the next couple months until July when U-132 entered into the Gulf and sunk three ships in a 12 ship convoy over the space of half an hour on July 6. The ships lost were two British ships and a Greek ship. The HMCS Drummondville, along with four Warhawk planes from the 130 Squadron of the RCAF, dropped depth charges and were able to damage the ballast pumps of the U-boat. The U-boat would lose some fuel and a few crew members as it dove to the bottom of the Gulf where it hid for 12 hours. It then moved out into the Atlantic to conduct repairs. Later that year in November, the u-Boat would be sunk off the coast of France.
One month later, U-517 sank nine ships and damaged one more over the course of two weeks. This U-Boat would hold the distinction of sinking the first Canadian ship when the HMCS Charlottetown on Sept. 11. The Charlottetown had been returning to base with a minesweeper. Struck by two torpedoes on her aft side, she went down quickly but most of her crew were able to get off the ship. Several died though when depth charges went off as the ship sank. Lt. Commander John Bonner, and eight of his crew, were killed out of the crew of 64. At the time of its sinking, the Charlottetown was only one year old, and had launched on Sept. 10, 1941.
U-165 also arrived around this time, but it only sank a small armed yacht after several attacks on merchant shipping. The HMCS Raccoon had been purchased by the Royal Canadian Navy in 1940 and had been in the area of the St. Lawrence during the first part of September and had been involved in a few attacks over the course of several days.
On Sept. 6 at 12:12 a.m., two loud explosions were heard astern of the convoy. The crew of one ship saw two sprouts of white water in the distance and assumed the Raccoon was dropping depth charges. The Arrowhead swept to the back of the convoy and did not se the Raccoon in its position. The convoy continued on and were torpedoed farther out in the Atlantic the following day.
As for the Raccoon, several escorts began to search for the armed yacht but nothing was found and the search was abandoned. Several weeks later, the body of a crew member of a piece of the ship washed ashore at Anticosti Island. It is believed that a torpedo caused the boiler of the ship to explode, killing the entire crew.
With attacks increasing in the St. Lawrence, the RCAF began to step up its patrols and protection of convoys. On Sept. 9, the RCAF made its first attack on a U-boat when Pilot Officer R.S. Kettles dove on U-165 near Anticosti Island. He did not do much in the way of damage on the sub, but increased naval and air activity frustrated the efforts of the sub to attack convoys. As well, two old Royal Navy destroyers from the Western Local Escort Force came into the St. Lawrence to provide added protection.
On Sept. 24, within 24 hours, the 113 squadron saw U-517 seven times and attacked it three times. Two of those attacks were by M.J. Belanger, a 23-year-old former flight instructor in Quebec. While the U-boat was not sunk, Belanger continued to harass the U-boat as it left the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Five days later on Sept. 29, after U-517 had returned to the Gulf, Belanger made a third attack on it, exploding depth charges all around it but not sinking it. The U-boat was heavily damaged and several sailors inside were injured by the attacks. For his determined efforts on the U-boat, Belanger was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
All the attacks in the St. Lawrence closed the seaway to all trans-Atlantic shipping, with only coastal trade surviving. This would put extra strain on the CNR, and the ban on shipping would last until 1944. Around this same time, the U-boat U-91 would begin attacking a convoy coming from the United Kingdom, harassing it all the way across the Atlantic into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Along the way, the U-boat would sink the HMCS Ottawa off the coast of Newfoundland. Hit once by a torpedo the ship lost the ability to maneuver. Ten minutes later, it was hit again and sunk within ten minutes. A total of 114 crew members would lose their lives, with 69 surviving.
In October 1942, the attacks continued from U-boats. The SS Caribou, a Newfoundland Railway passenger ferry was torpedoed by U-69 near Sydney, Nova Scotia. The ferry had been in service between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia since 1928 and had been loaded with men, women and children when it was attacked. In total, 137 people died and signalled that the war had arrived at the home front for Canada. Many consider it to be the most significant sinking in Canadian waters during the Second World War. Among the dead were Captain Ben Taverner, who died with his sons Stanley and Harold, who were the first and third officers. Of 118 military personnel on board, 57 died. Of 73 civilians, 49 died and of the 46 crew, 31 died. Five pairs of brothers, all crew, were killed as were 10 children.
The HMCS Grandmere was the lone escort of the Caribou and it had to follow Navy directives and attack the U-boat. After 90 minutes, the Grandmere gave up the chase for the U-boat, and came back to get survivors. Two people would die of exposure from being in the waters. The captain of the Grandmere was haunted by his decision to delay a search for passengers, even though he was following protocol. He would say, “Oh my God. I felt the full compliment of things you feel at a time like that. Things you had to live with. You are torn. Demoralized. Terribly alone. I should have gone on looking for the submarine but I couldn’t. Not with women and children out there somewhere. I couldn’t do it any more than I could have dropped depth charges among them.”
Unlike other times when the military censored sinking, the censorship was lifted on the sinking of the Caribou to prevent rumours from spreading. U-69 was able to escape any counter-attacks and would sink 72,000 gross register tons of Allied shipping over the course of two years, making it one of the longest lasting U-boats of the war. It would eventually be rammed and sunk by the HMS Fame on Feb. 17, 1943.
In November, U-518 sank two iron ore freighters and damaged another in Conception Bay and was able to land a spy, Werner Von Janowski, on the shore of Quebec. Shortly after landing on the beach, Janowski was captured at New Carlisle railway station. He would become the RCMP’s first double agent, but he provided little in the way of intelligence for the Allies. He would be sent to England in 1943 where he was kept as a prisoner of war. He would go on to work for the Germany Navy in the 1960s and die in Spain in 1978.
Things were beginning to change in the Battle of the St. Lawrence in November and U-183 had been ordered to go into the Gulf to start harassing convoys but it turned away due to the oppressive Canadian patrols that prevented its entry. With the United States now entering into the Battle of the Atlantic, and with the loss of German shipbuilding capabilities to replace losses in battle, U-boats were deployed to primary Atlantic convoy routes and away from the St. Lawrence.
In 1943, word reached the Canadian military and the RCMP that several German prisoners of war at Camp 30 in Ontario were going to attempt an escape and make their way to the northeastern tip of New Brunswick where they would be retrieved by a U-boat. The Canadian authorities arrested all but one of the escapees at the time of the escape attempt and the sole inmate to make it away made his way to the rendezvous point where he was apprehended by the RCMP at the light house on the night of the planned meeting with the U-boat. A task force led by the HMCS Rimouski waited in the harbour and detected U-536 nearby but the U-boat managed to escape despite depth charges falling. U-536 would eventually be sunk in November of 1943 elsewhere in the Atlantic.
Throughout 1943, the RCAF continued to successfully harass U-boat operations in Canadian coastal waters and the Royal Canadian Navy had grown in size and had more resources for detecting submarines. By 1944, shipping lanes were opened up again, just in time for a resurgence of U-boat activity in the St. Lawrence. Now equipped with a snorkel device, U-boats were able to stay under water without having to surface and risk detection.
U-1223 entered the St. Lawrence in October of that year and would severely damage the HMCS Magog. While the ship did not sink, three crew members were killed and the ship was towed by the HMCS Shawinigan into the bay and eventually it made its way to Quebec. The ship was declared a total loss and the crew were ordered by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to not discuss the action and damage with anyone.
In the night of November 24, U-1228 attacked the HMCS Shawinigan, sinking the ship and killing the entire crew of 91 people. Included in the dead was Dudley Red Garrett, who had played 23 games for the New York Rangers prior to enlisting with the Navy. Today, the best rookie in the AHL each season is awarded the Dudley Red Garrett Memorial Award.
No one knew that the ship had sunk until the SS Burgeo, which had replaced the SS Caribou, arrived without the Shawinigan to North Sydney on Nov. 26. Wreckage of the ship, and six crew bodies, were found the following day. It was the worst case of military deaths in Canadian territory during the war.
The attack on the Shawinigan effectively served as the end of the Battle of the St. Lawrence.
One reason that U-boats were so effective within the St. Lawrence was the fact that fresh and salt water mingled in the region, which his the world’s largest estuary. Add in temperature variations and sea ice, and the Royal Canadian Navy’s anti-submarine operations were disrupted and sonar systems were less effective. Frequent fog in the area also made it difficult for the RCAF to make regular patrols. Even with the limitations caused by the St. Lawrence, 440 convoys and 2,200 ships were able to complete their missions and transport supplies and soldiers to the war effort in Europe.
Over the course of the two years of the battle, the Royal Canadian Navy would dispatch 14 frigates, losing one, 31 corvettes, losing two, 35 mine sweepers, losing one and four armoured yachts, losing one. In addition, 15 RCAF squadrons patrolled the seaway, while the United Kingdom provided three ships and one squadron of planes. On the German side, 17 U-boats would patrol the waters during the battle. In all, 24 ships were sunk and no U-boats were never sunk.
The total loss of life for Canada would be 147 members of the Royal Canadian Navy, 89 members of the Canadian Merchant Navy and 136 citizens.
How far inland did the U-boats make it? Recent research says that the farthest a U-boat reached was about 250 kilometres from Quebec City. It is also highly unlikely any U-boat crew stepped off their boats and came ashore. Most likely, anyone hearing someone speaking German was actually hearing someone speak Norwegian, as there were many flight trainees from Norway in the area.
Former U-boat sailors would write memoirs and state that the claim of going ashore was something that would not happen. The one individual to get ashore, the aforementioned Werner von Janowski, was caught and the only money he had was out of circulation bills from 1917.
That being said, in 1943, a U-boat crew did step ashore in Northern Labrador to install an automated weather station. That weather station would not be discovered by Canadians until the early 1980s.
In 1999, 55 years after the battle, the Governor General unveiled a monument to commemorate the battle in Halifax. It includes the names of every sailor who lost their lives in the battle.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, battleofstlawrence.com,