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Authors: Nathan M. Greenfield

The Battle of the St. Lawrence

BOOK: The Battle of the St. Lawrence
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NATHAN M. GREENFIELD

THE BATTLE OF
THE ST. LAWRENCE

THE SECOND WORLD WAR IN CANADA

This book is dedicated to my children, Pascale, whose excitement when I turned up something or someone new almost equalled my own, and Nicolas, who asked all the right questions when we toured the naval base in Halifax, and to Micheline, who walked with me as I travelled through the undiscovered country of the past.

No Allied seaman could ever stomach the arrogant posturing of the U-boat men that we watched in movie newsreels: the brass bands, the vainglorious songs, the strutting admirals, the buxom maidens draping garlands of flowers about the necks of their returning warriors. Only a Nazi could transform the sinking of helpless merchant ships and the drowning of unarmed sailors into Wagnerian heroics. Certainly we had no such illusions, and when one U-boat survivor attempted an arrogant, arm-in-the-air Nazi salute upon being hauled aboard a Canadian corvette, he was unceremoniously bundled back over the side to rethink the situation.

—JAMES LAMB

CONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

MAPS

PREFACE

INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER
ONE WAR IN PEACEFUL SEAS

CHAPTER TWO
FOUR SINKINGS IN JULY

CHAPTER THREE
THE ORDEAL OF QS-33

CHAPTER FOUR
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF HMCS
CHARLOTTETOWN

CHAPTER FIVE
WHAT CYRIL PERKIN SAW

CHAPTER SIX
OCTOBER WAS THE CRUELLEST MONTH

CHAPTER SEVEN
1943s OPERATION KIEBITZ

CHAPTER EIGHT
1944

EPILOGUES: 1945

IN MEMORIAM

APPENDIX A
TWO SPIES AND A WEATHER STATION

APPENDIX B
ANTI-SEMITISM AND THE
KRIEGSMARINE

APPENDIX C
SHIPS TORPEDOED IN THE ST. LAWRENCE RIVER AND THE GULF OF ST. LAWRENCE, 1942 AND 1944

APPENDIX D
U-BOAT PATROLS IN THE ST. LAWRENCE

SOURCES

NOTES

INDEX

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Copyright

About the Publisher

PREFACE

T
he subtitle of this book—“The Second World War in Canada”—will, no doubt, surprise many.

Wasn’t the Second World War “over there”? In the skies over England? At Dieppe? Across North Africa, Italy, Normandy, Belgium and Holland and in Germany? Weren’t its greatest battles on the Russian steppes and across the Pacific? Canadians fell at Juno Beach, in Ortona, along the canals of Holland, in Hong Kong, and thousands died on the North Atlantic.
1
Over there? Yes—surely not “in Canada.”

But between 1942 and 1944, more than 28 ships were torpedoed, 24 of these sunk, and more than 270 Canadians and scores of others did die—
in Canada.
They died in the Battle of the St. Lawrence, the only Second World War campaign fought inside North America.
2

Many died within sight of land or of the lights that shone from the small towns and villages strung out along the rugged coast of the north shore of the St. Lawrence and Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. One hundred and forty-five were officers and ratings aboard HMCS
Raccoon, Charlottetown, Magog
and
Shawinigan,
four of the dozens of Royal Canadian Navy warships that, after the torpedoing of SS
Nicoya
and
Leto
on the night of May
11
, 1942, were tasked with escorting convoys in Canada’s largest river and the gulf. One hundred and thirty-seven men, women and children—including forty-nine civilians (of whom eleven were under ten years old), forty-nine Canadian and British servicemen, eight American servicemen and thirty-one crew members, most of whom were from Port aux Basques—died when
a torpedo fired from U-69 mortally wounded the Newfoundland-Nova Scotia ferry SS
Caribou
at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1942. Another hundred men—Finns, Belgians, Dutchmen, Greeks, Englishmen and American GIs and sailors—died, victims too of the torpedoes fired by the fifteen German U-boats that between 1942 and 1944 invaded Canada’s home waters; one ship, SS
Carolus,
was torpedoed 10 kilometres downriver from Rimouski, Quebec, fully 600 kilometres from the Atlantic and some 250 kilometres from Quebec City.

Like all battles, myths have accreted to the Battle of the St. Lawrence. One holds that the government staged the sinkings to help sell Victory Bonds. Another, which surfaces from time to time on uboat.net, is that U-boats landed to buy groceries. Still another tells of German officers stopping for a beer and to listen to music at an
hôtel.
By far, however, the most persistent myth is that wartime censorship prevented word of the battle from reaching beyond the Gaspé.

The claim appears to have a good pedigree, stretching back to the hours after SS
Nicoya’s
sinking on the night of May 11, 1942. The news release that confirmed the sinking declared that “any possible further sinkings in this area will not be made public in order that information valuable to the enemy may be withheld from him.” At first, the policy seemed to have teeth, at least in the House of Commons, where on May 13 the Speaker ruled against Gaspé MP Sasseville Roy’s attempt to pry more information from Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government. The cutline on Jack McNaught’s October 15, 1949,
Maclean’s
magazine article, “The Battle of the St. Lawrence,” is “A story that’s never been told.” Twenty-three years later, Peter Moon’s “The Second World War Battle We Lost at Home,” published in
Canadian Magazine,
was subtitled “The War Story Our Leaders Kept Quiet.” James Essex subtitled his 1984 memoir,
Victory in the St. Lawrence,
“Canada’s Unknown War.” The claim was repeated in 1995 in Brian and Terence McKenna’s NFB film
U-boats in the St. Lawrence.

The famed “fog of war” conceals much, but in this case it hardly hid much about the Battle of the St. Lawrence from Canada’s kitchen tables and radios.
3
The newspapers of May 13, 1942, jumbled
Nicoya
and
Leto’s
stories, but they clearly told Canadians that ships had been sunk in the St. Lawrence. Three days later, the
Ottawa Evening Citizen
reported that the sinkings had caused the war risk premium for ships using the St. Lawrence to double from 1.5 to 3 per cent.

On July
IO
, Roy asked in the House if the “minister is disposed to make a statement” about the torpedoing of “three more ships … last Sunday night.” According to
L’Action Catholique,
“half the people in Quebec City” knew of the sinkings before Roy asked the question. The sinkings of USS
Laramie
and SS
Chatham, Arlyn
and
Donald Stewart
in late August and early September 1942 did not make the newspapers. The sinkings of HMCS
Raccoon
and SS
Aeas
on September 6 and SS
Oakton, Mount Taygetus
and
Mount Pindus
on September 7 did. A week later, headlines told of the loss of HMCS
Charlottetown.
Canadians read that “the torpedo tore into the engine room, trapping the men on watch before they could reach the upper deck. Clouds of black smoke rolled along the decks. Before they could launch the lifeboats the vessel went down by the stern, just as the survivors jumped clear and into the frigid water.” They read of their sailors being killed within sight of land when their own depth charges exploded.

On September 13, the
Ottawa Evening Journal
told of the “daring midday attack” that had sunk SS
Frederika Lensen
the previous July. Two days later, the
Journal
‘s headline read “U-BOAT SINKS SHIP BELOW RIMOUSKI.”
L’Action Catholique
asked,
“Ce qui se passe en Gaspésie?”
(“What is going on in Gaspé?”). The stories that followed the sinking of
Caribou
on October 14 spared readers little: “Bodies were found floating a short distance from where the ship was attacked,” and a “number of caskets are being forwarded by train to Port aux Basques.”

In early November 1942, Naval Minister Angus Macdonald spoke out against the rumour that U-boat crews were coming ashore to buy supplies; he gave the number of ships sunk in the “whole river and gulf area” as twenty. The
Halifax Herald
overstated things by saying, “R.C.A.F. ‘Gets’ Another U-boat,” but, nevertheless, gave Canadians more than a few details about the air war being conducted against the Nazi invaders.

In March 1943, newspapers reported Quebec legislators Onésime Gagnon’s and Roy’s charges that the problems in the navy’s command structure had prevented it from reacting to save a convoy that was attacked
the previous September 15 and that as many as forty ships had been sunk in 1942. On March 17, 1943, papers reported Macdonald’s speech, which not only defended the navy but also included the names of every ship sunk in 1942. After a tour of the Gaspé’s naval and army bases,
La Presse’s
Roger Champeaux declared,
“Tout Gaspésien est devenu un soldat.”

In mid-1944, thousands of Canadians received copies of
Canada’s War at Sea,
a government-sanctioned book they had subscribed for a year earlier. Entitled “The Battle of the Gulf,” chapter 4 tells a remarkably complete story of what was happening both on the St. Lawrence and in Parliament in 1942 and 1943. The torpedoing of HMCS
Magog
in October 1944 was not reported until April 18, 1945, less than a month before the end of the war. On December 7, 1944, under the headline “Canadian Corvette Sunk with All Crew—Five Drown, 85 Missing on Shawinigan,” the
Ottawa Evening Journal
told of the corvette that had been torpedoed on the night of November 24.

Why then the myth that the Battle of the St. Lawrence is Canada’s “unknown war”?

Professor Roger Sarty, whose pioneering work on the history of Eastern Air Command (EAC) is a model of both scholarship and clear writing, suggested one reason at a conference held in Rimouski, Quebec, in May 2002 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the start of the battle. The generation of historians that immediately followed the war viewed the battle as a defeat—a view from which Sarty politely, but firmly, dissents—and thus sought to downplay it. In his
Far Distant Ships: An Official Account of Canadian Naval Operations in World War II,
Joseph Schull devotes a mere 14 (of 432) pages to the only naval campaign in Canadian waters; he characterized the battle as a “defeat,”
tout court
.
4

BOOK: The Battle of the St. Lawrence
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