THE BATTLE OF THE ST. LAWREHCE
For five tragic months 'of 1942 U-boats hunted in St. Lawrence waters, scoring 23 kills. Here's a story that's never been told
ON MAY 12, 1942, newspapers all across Canada screamed with headlines telling that a merchant ship had just been sunk in the St. Lawrence River by an enemy submarine. In Ottawa that afternoon a rumor got around that not one but two ships had been sunk.
Next morning in the House of Commons a member asked the Hon. Angus L. MacDonald, Minister for Naval Services, whether the rumor was true. MacDonald explained that a policy of strict secrecy had been adopted for security reasons. “But,” he added, “I think I should tell the House that another ship was sunk in the same general locality, at about the same time.”
The news had already been broadcast by the German radio, which announced with great glee and a special chime of bells that the sinkings had produced tremendous consternation in Canada.
1 hey hadn t, but nobody felt any easier in his mind knowing that the enemy had now struck in
the great river that led deep into the country’s heart.
But from that spring day in 1942 until the end of the war the curtain of secrecy was lifted only occasionally to give guarded and carefully screened glimpses of what was happening along the St. Lawrence and in the Gulf. Even today most Canadians have little more than a dim idea of the river war, and many a citizen has never heard about it at all. Up to now only a few senior officers and cabinet ministers have ever known the full story.
There was good reason to keep it dark. In the five months the attacks lasted 23 ships were torpedoed, totaling 70,000 tons. And in them 700 people were killed by the crashing blast of explosions, by drowning, or by exposure to bitter weather.
That was the truth. The rumors were something else again.
Toward the end of August, 1942, three small transports carrying United States personnel and supplies to Goose Bay on the coast of Labrador were torpedoed in the Strait of Belle Isle. Two
of the ships sank and 250 lives were lost. A week later on the other side of the Atlantic, in Gourock, Scotland, a Canadian officer was told the story —with a couple of rather striking differences. A convoy of huge troop-carriers had been cut to pieces and 6,000 soldiers had been drowned.
Late that summer of 1942 strange tales began to reach Montreal from various summer resorts along the south shore of the St. Lawrence. Parties of German officers and men were landing in dinghies from U-boats in the river, dressed in Canadian naval uniforms and speaking perfect English, and having themselves a wonderful time dancing with pretty girls at the local pavilion.
The facts in this case were that now and again, when their hard-worked little ships were nearby for a few hours, Canadian sailors came ashore on short leave, with the full knowledge and consent of their envious captains, who mostly had to stay on board and try to catch up with their paper work.
A small coastal schooner put in for supplies one afternoon at a port on the north shore of the river. Next day it was common knowledge for hundreds of miles on either side of tiie port that a German submarine had tied up at the jetty in broad daylight and her commander had walked up to the general store, as hold as brass, and bought a couple of eases of canned fruit for his crew.
This was fiction. But the truth about the war in the St. Lawrence was grim enough. About the middle of April, 1942, the German submarine U-553 left her base at St. N a zaire, in occupied France. What happened to her then bas been learned from German naval documents since the war ended, and it is a story of tragic importance to Canadians.
U-553, after crossing the Atlantic ! and going as far as Boston, found the new coastal convoys out of that port were too efficient to make hunting profitable. Her captain, LieutenantCommander Thurmann, turned north, and on the night of May 9, 1942, he slid like a shark into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence.
By the next day he had reached the western end of the island of Anticosti, only 35 miles from the mainland of the Gaspé Peninsula. U-553 spent the night on the surface with her hatches open to the soft spring air; so close to the village of Port Menier that her crew, sprawled comfortably on deck, could see the lighted house windows. Thurmann through his binoculars could see the dark shapes of people walking on the village street.
Thurmann dived at dawn on the 11th and lay on the bottom in about 100 feet of water all day. At dark he surfaced again and headed westward into the river toward the Gaspé coast I at a speed of nine knots (that is, about I 10 land miles an hour).
The Second Hit Amidships
Just before midnight the U-boat captain sighted a merchant ship lumbering through the water, heading straight for him. It was the 5,000-ton British steamer Nicoya, with a crew of 76 and 10 passengers—a mother and her baby, and eight seamen from a ship which had been sunk in the Caribbean.
When Thurmann sighted Nicoya (the moonlight was so bright he could even see the streaks of rust on her elderly side) he dived and waited. Twenty-four minutes later she had come, unsuspecting, into point-blank ! range. Thurmann fired a torpedo ; which hit her near the bow. The blast smashed two of her lifeboats and tore a great hole below the water line, and she began to sink at once.
I When he saw this through the periscope Thurmann brought U-553 to the surface. Then, at his leisure, he fired a second torpedo. It hit her squarely amidships. Nine minutes later Nicoya went to the bottom, the first ship sunk I by enemy action in Canadian inland waters since the war of 1812.
Seventy of Nieoya’s men and the 10 passengers took to the boats and made for the Gaspé coast, about 12 miles away. Six of the crew, the third engineer, the bos’n, the carpenter,
I a deck boy, a fireman, and one of the soldiers she carried as a gun crew, went over the side in a raft and were never seen again.
The boats couldn’t keep together during the night and came ashore at : various places. (The mother and the baby, alone in one of them, were I mercifully carried in by the current.)
I The people in the little villages near which the boats landed, notably Chloridorrne and St. Y von, took the 80
survivors into their homes and gave them hot drinks and what clothes they needed (most of the survivors were only half dressed). The next day cars and ambulances came from Gaspé and brought the well and the wounded back to town where there was a hospital and plenty of lodging in the tourist hotels.
Out in the river, meanwhile, U-553 had turned to the northwest, moving on the surface at about eight knots. At 2.40 in the morning of May 12, a little over 20 miles from the spot where Nicoya had gone down, Thurmann sighted another merchant ship. This time lie didn’t bother to dive. The coast of' the Gaspé Peninsula is high and hilly in those parts and he was able to creep up unseen by keeping between the ship and the shore so that he was cloaked in the dark loom of the land.
The ship was the Dutch cargo steamer Leto, about the same size and appearance as Nicoya. She made a fine target. The Northern Lights were particularly bright that night and Leto stood out sharply against their pale, shifting curtain in the sky. Thurmann fired at close range and one torpedo did the work.
The Signals of Disaster
Twelve of Leto’s men were killed instantly, and the ship sank in six minutes. The survivors were picked up from their boats a little while later by a British merchant ship which escaped attack because U-553, as soon as Leto went down, turned around and headed out of the St Lawrence for the ocean and home.
The rescue ship took Leto’s survivors to Father Point, 135 miles up the river toward the City of Quebec. Here they were transferred to the pilot boat Citadelle, and brought to the jetty —the same jetty that Dr. Grippen the wife-murderer and his girl friend Ethel LeNeve had been brought to in July 1910 when they were taken from a liner in the river as the first criminals ever to be tracked and caught by wireless telegraphy.
The villagers of Father Point were wonderfully kind, as all the villagers of the St. Lawrence shore were to be right to the end of the U-boat sinkings; but their warm-hearted welcome came too late for one of Leto’s survivors. Arsene Michaud, a thin, wiry old man, then an undertaker in nearby Rimouski and now retired, well remembers being telephoned from Father Point that morning of May 13 to come and get the body of Willem Koning, who had died aboard the rescue ship on his way to safety.
Koning, who had been an engineer officer of a torpedoed Dutch tanker, was in Leto as a passenger on his way I to serve in another tanker. He had been asleep in his cabin near the engine room when U-553’s torpedo struck (Michaud remembers that the body was “all blackened, as if it had been burned,” but that there were no actual wounds).
A fading page in Michaud’s account book shows that he charged $50 for the coffin and for burying Koning. Among the Michaud souvenirs is a snapshot taken by the graveside in the little cemetery at Father Point. It shows Leto’s master, Captain Egbert Hendrik Vanderveen, in a surprisingly neat and fresh uniform, looking with strained calm at the dead face of his passenger just before the coffin lid went down.
On the grave now, seven years afterward, there are flowers and a plain tombstone, which says in Dutch that Willem Koning, born 3 September 1909, died in the service of his fatherland May 12, 1942. The 19th victim of U-boat warfare in the St. Lawrence, he was the first of them all to be buried in Canadian soil.
When the night war came to the river, signals from the two torpedoed ships were picked up by the Canadian Marconi Company’s wireless station VCF at Father Point. The telegraphist who was on duty at the time, J. P. DesRosiers, is still stationed there, as he has been ever since 1919. A gentle, greying man with a benevolent voice, he well remembers how Nicoya’s signal (a string of S’s followed by her call letters and her position) came crashing hoarsely through the normal teedlings and beepings of the loudspeakers in the radio room.
Now in 1919 it surprised him that he was not surprised—at first. His standing orders, drawn up against precisely this emergency, were that he was first to forward the distress signal by telegram to naval headquarters in Ottawa marked for absolute priority. Immediately after that he was to pass the signal by phone to the naval station at Rimouski. He did these things automatically, he says; and it wasn’t until about five minutes later that he suddenly realized what they meant.
Here was a ship, torpedoed by a German U-boat and sinking fast in the river he knew so well, practically—or so it seemed then — at his doorstep. When the second distress signal came, from Leto less than three hours later, DesRosiers again went through the emergency routine, and again it took him a moment or two to grasp the full significance. When he did grasp it, he says, his thoughts were bien lugubre. —gloomy and depressing indeed.
As he worked the familiar brass sending key (VGF’s stream of ordinary wartime messages had to go on) he had a heavy heart. What, he wondered, would people say if they knew what he knew—a secret he kept faithfully from everyone until the survivors of Leto were landed and told their stories to the shocked and horrified villagers of Father Point. This, DesRosiers thought sadly, might well be only the beginning. Such signals, as like as not, would come night after night to the windswept masts of VCF and ship after ship would sink in the familiar waters of the river.
Torpedoes in the Night
Rut for the next three weeks it seems that such dire forebodings were not justified. After U-553 had radioed its report of the sinkings to the German Admiralty it kept unbroken radio silence until it left the Gulf (it was well clear by May 22), and headed for home. There was no further enemy submarine activity in the Gulf or the St. Lawrence proper during the rest of May and the whole month of June.
Then, some time during the first few days of July, another U-boat, whose number is not known, entered the St. Lawrence and on July 6 torpedoed three ships, the British Dinaric, the Belgian Hainaut, and the Greek Anastassios Pateras. All three were in convoy. (By the time this second U-boat reached the river convoys had been running for some weeks. They had been started according to plans the Navy had made the previous March, but had been put into effect only after U-553 struck, because of the critical shortage of escort ships.)
This particular convoy, a couple of hours before the dawn of July 6, was about 10 or 15 miles from the little village of Cap Chat on the south shore. The shattering blasts of the torpedoes were so loud thev woke most, of the villagers and to this nay there are some people who insist the explosions made their houses shake.
The men on the bridge of the Dinaric, the first ship hit, had sighted the submarine which was partly surfaced. But they didn’t recognize it as a U-boat and the ship took no avoiding action. A few minutes afterward the torpedo struck, and it was too late. She heeled heavily over on her side almost at once and the Captain ordered her to be abandoned.
All Dinaric’s crew, except four men who had been instantly killed in the engine room, got away in the boats. They were later picked up by HMCS Drummondville, one of the escort ships.
Forty survivors from Hainaut, which had had one man killed, and 26 from Anastassios Pateras, which had lost three firemen in her smashed boiler room, also took to the boats. They, however, were not picked up and had to row to the shore. It would have been a weary haul at the best of times because of the strong St. Lawrence currents. To men half-stunned with shock and deafened by the sudden appalling thunderclaps of the torpedoing, it was the endless labor of galley slaves chained to their oars.
The crew of Anastassios Pateras had barely time to pull clear of the ship when she sank with a sudden rush, as though an enormous hand had reached up from the bottom of the river and pulled her down. They rowed around for about half an hour (they were all in one boat) near the place where she and the other two ships had been sunk. Once their boat was almost cut in half by a ship which was lumbering desperately through the dark at top speed to escape being torpedoed itself.
Dry Socks for Wet Sailors
It, took them almost four hours to reach the shore near Cap Chat. They found the villagers there to greet them with open arms and take them to various homes where they were fed and given dry clothes.
This merciful work seemed to the captain of the Greek ship to come spontaneously from the warm hearts of the inhabitants, and so up to a point it did. But it was also directed by the president of the local Red Cross, Romuald Roy, a smallish and rather deaf man with quick dark eyes, who remembers it now as a time of great but wel 1 -mean in g con f u sio n.
Roy also remembers that when the Anastassios Pateras’ boat reached shore the first men out tkrew themselves down on their knees and scooped up handfuls of sand which they kissed passionately while uttering incomprehensible cries of Greek delight.
Fortunately for those of the sailors who spoke neither English nor French it happened that Albert Ajmo, a Turkish-Canadian fur dealer from Quebec, was in Cap Chat on business and had gone with Roy and other men to see what he could do to help. So lie acted as interpreter, having learned Greek in Istanbul.
What principally stays in Ajmo’s mind now from that morning seven years ago was the sight of the lifeboat coming in with the sunrise behind it. It looked, he says, thin and flat like something cut with scissors from a piece of black paper. He also remembers, with an admiration that makes his swarthy face light up even now, what fine work was done that morning by the manager of the Gap Chat branch of the Bank of Montreal, Fernando Houle.
Not long after the Greek lifeboat reached shore the 10 survivors from Hainaut and 20-odd men from Dinaric were landed by HMCS Drummondville at the village jetty. The good people of Cap Chat had now almost 100 survivors to care for. It was comparaLively easy that first morning to get food and drink together for them; finding enough dry clothes was another matter.
The population of Cap Chat was under 1,000; and the spare trousers and sweaters and jackets hanging in cupboards and stowed away in chests were soon gone. Roy remembers that the Greek captain telephoned his consulate at Montreal, urging the consul to get in touch with the Red Cross authorities there and have bundles of clothing rushed to Cap Chat.
Roy didn’t hesitate. If not enough clothes could be found in the private houses of the village, he said, new ones were to be taken from the stocks of local storekeepers. And these he was prepared to pay for out of his own pocket if necessary.
Roy, his wife and daughter Carmen, are too modest to say much about what they did personally for the survivors. But Madame has kept a letter which was sent to her by George Jenkins, who noted under his signature that he was “Mess Room Steward of the late SS Hainaut.”
“Of all the Places and people I have met,” George wrote, “you three French Canadians will always be first Place in my mind. I will say you were wonderful.”
After the torpedoings of July 6 there were no further submarine attacks for a week. Then, at noon on July 12, the British ship Frederika Lensen was torpedoed in the river about five miles north of Cape Magdalen just at the point where the Gaspé Peninsula begins to curve south like a great crooked thumb.
Frederika Lensen was hit on her port side and badly holed. Her master, Captain B. E. Russell, immediately sent away 11 men in a seaboat under his chief officer. After Russell had had a quick look to see what damage had been done he ordered the rest of the crew (four men had been killed by the explosion) to abandon ship in a second sea boat, which he himself took charge of.
When he had waited for a few minutes at a safe distance astern of his
stricken ship, Russell decided to return and make a further examination. He found the engine room and boiler room completely wrecked, but very little water in number three hold.
He began to think it might be possible to save her and asked the commanding officer of HMCS Weyburn, one of the escort ships, to tow him to land. This Weyburn’s commander agreed to do.
Lines were made fast and the tow began at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon of the torpedoing. By 11 o’clock that, night Frederika Lensen had been brought to anchor at Grande Vallée, a little bay about five miles down the coast. Unfortunately the good seamanship of both the captains was wasted. On July 20 official surveyors, who had been sent to Grande Vallée to see what were the chances of salvage, wrote the ship off as a total loss.
After the Lull Came—
From then until the end of August there were no more torpedoings in the St. Lawrence or its approaches. It looked almost as though the U-boats had gone away to stay.
The men of the escort ships began to relax a little. Day after day, mile after mile, the squat grey merchant ships steamed peacefully up and down the river in the columns of their untroubled convoys. The lull lasted only a little more than a month.
On August 27, 1942, U-517 (Lieutenant-Commander Paul Hartwig in command) entered the Strait of Belle Isle. Before he headed out to sea again at the end of September Hartwig had sunk 11 ships, totaling 31,101 tons, and taken 286 lives.
What the other enemy submarines had done was a mere rehearsal. With the arrival of U-517 the curtain was to rise on the really desperate scenes of the river war.
\In the second and concluding installment Jack Me Naught tells the gripping story of how U-517 lurked for a month 'in the river, sank lí ships and escaped scot-free.]