Articles

THE BATTLE OF THE ST. LAWREHCE

The day U-517 slipped into the river was a sad day for the Allies. In six weeks it sank 11 ships on Canada's doorstep, took 286 lives

JACK McNAUGHT November 1 1949
Articles

THE BATTLE OF THE ST. LAWREHCE

The day U-517 slipped into the river was a sad day for the Allies. In six weeks it sank 11 ships on Canada's doorstep, took 286 lives

JACK McNAUGHT November 1 1949

THE BATTLE OF THE ST. LAWREHCE

The day U-517 slipped into the river was a sad day for the Allies. In six weeks it sank 11 ships on Canada's doorstep, took 286 lives

JACK McNAUGHT

Conclusion

WAR CAME to the St. Lawrence on the night of May 12, 1942, when a Nazi submarine sank two rust-streaked tramp steamers waddling down river in the moonlight, eight miles off the Gaspé coast. In July a second U-boat sank four more ships in the Gulf. After another monthlong lull a third submarine, now known from German records to have been U-517 under Lieut.Com. Paul Hartwig, nosed into the Strait of Belle Isle on August 27 and all hell broke loose.

Before he headed for home six weeks later, Hartwig had torpedoed 13 ships and sunk 11 (one September afternoon he got three at once, firing two torpedoes from his bow tubes and one from astern). His victims were always in convoy. The escort ships always attacked, and the hunt sometimes lasted for hours; but U-517 always escaped with nothing worse than a shaking from the depth charges they dropped. Singlehanded her commander defied the Canadian Navy, and made his defiance stick. Almost half the 70,000 tons of shipping sunk in the St. Lawrence and its approaches, from the beginning of the submarine campaign in May 1942 until the end in mid-October, fell to U-517’s torpedoes. And in the crash of their explosions, or by drowning or exposure afterward, 286 lives out of the five-month total of 700 were lost.

Hartwig’s deadly work began the night he entered the Strait, after an uneventful run across the Atlantic from his base in the dank concrete U-boat pens at the German naval port of Kiel. Toward midnight on August 27 (there was a bright moon and he could see for miles), he sighted a convoy of six ships and three escorts, close inshore between Barge Bay and York Point on the coast of Labrador just west of Belle Isle. The ships, all American, were on their way from Sydney, N.S., with men and stores for a U. S. station in Greenland.

U-517 attacked at once. Her first torpedo hit the Army transport Chatham, which sank half an hour later. Two hundred and fifty of the 562 on board died in the blast and in the freezing black water. Before the sharp smell of high explosive had blown clear of Chatham’s twisted deck, Hartwig struck again. This time his target was the Arlyn, a small merchant ship on charter to the U. S. Maritime Commission. Three of her 54 people were killed instantly. Six disappeared and were never found. The rest of the survivors, except 14 men of the gun’s crew who had to Continued on page 47 swim (they were picked up eventually, half-dead with cold, by the steamer Hajurand), swarmed into boats and rafts and made for the barren shore. Next day they too were picked up, and taken back to Sydney with the 312 survivors from the transport. A third ship, the Laramie, was torpedoed but not sunk and by bold and skilful seamanship was brought to harbor.

From Hartwig’s point of view this was a good beginning. Diving to avoid attack by the stricken convoy’s escorts, he lay for the rest of the night and all next day on the bottom. At dark on August 28 he surfaced, and slid southward along the Labrador coast. On the night of September 2, with Labrador nearly 100 miles behind and the mainland of Quebec only an hour away to starboard, Hartwig saw a wonderful target outlined against the Northern Lights. Two Canadian convoys, one outward-bound from Montreal to the great RCA F base at Goose Bay in Labrador and the other running down from Goose Bay to Montreal, were about to pass.

U-517, half awash to reduce the chance of being sighted without also reducing speed (she could only make about four knots submerged, compared with 15 or so on the surface), closed in for the kill. Presently sharp eyes on the bridge of HMCS Weyburn, a corvette of the escort, spotted the U-boat’s conning tower, a squat black hump a little darker than the night, trailing a thin shining wake of broken water.

The corvette’s captain, Lieut. T. M. W. Golby, at once ordered full speed and headed for the submarine, intending to ram her. Hartwig waited calmly until Weyburn was less than 1,000 yards away. Then he turned, fired a torpedo squarely into the Donald Stewart, a small lake steamer in the nearer of the two convoys, and crashdived just as the foaming bow of the corvette was within seconds of smashing into U-517’s shark-shaped hull.

flames from the stricken Donald Stewart lit the river where the U-boat’s wake ended with her dive. Weyburn’s wheel went hard over, and the corvette came leaning round to attack before the submarine could go deep. But the throwers of the depth charges failed and only two of the barrel-like 300pound charges could be dropped, one from each of the rails astern. They

weren’t enough. In U-517 a few electric lights went out when the whump of the explosions jarred wires loose; but otherwise nothing happened to her, and she slanted down fathom after fathom until Hartwig judged her safe and leveled off in the cold darkness of the Strait. Half an hour afterward Weyburn gave up the hunt, and steamed to help the burning Donald Stewart while the scattered convoys formed column again and went their ways.

They Hunt in Pairs

Next day, another submarine, whose number is not known, joined U-517, and the two of them headed westward into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. By dark on September 6 they had reached the river proper, and were not far off the liftle Gaspé village of Cap Chat when they sighted a convoy bound for Sydney from the river assembly point at Bic Island, less than 150 miles below the city of Quebec.

It was escorted by two corvettes, two Fairmile motor boats, and HMCS Raccoon, a small steam yacht which the Canadian navy had bought early in the war and converted into a gallant but highly vulnerable fighting ship or, more strictly speaking, into a makeshift escort vessel with a gun mounted forward and a crew of 37 officers and men.

Observing that he was up against what appeared to be a pushover, Hart -wig ran in on the convoy from the shadow of the hilly shore five miles away, and dived. At 10 o’clock he fired a torpedo at the Greek merchant ship Aeas. It killed the wireless operator and one of the firemen when it struck (people in Cap Chat were waked by the explosion, and some who rushed to their windows could see flames) and the rest of the crew took to such boats as hadn’t been smashed to splinters.

Hartwig was all set to take U-517 closer and fire again at another ship when Commander E. G. Skinner, in the corvette Arrowhead, found him by submarine detector—the famous and mysterious Asdic—and made an attack with depth charges. Commander Skinner, a Newfoundlander with long experience at sea in peacetime and fresh from an ocean convoy run which he hated to leave because he figured river duty would be dull, almost got his man.

U-517 hadn’t been able to dive deep enough for real safety, although there were 900 feet of water beneath him, when Skinner’s depth charges let go. This time all the wiring of the submarine’s lights was jarred loose and the operator in his listening-room could hear Arrowhead’s propeller thumping dangerously near. So Hartwig decided to follow out one of Hitler’s cherished ideas and release a Pillenwerfer.

This w'as a metal gadget about the size and shape of a can of soup which U-boats could blow out of a special little tube when the enemy came too close. The thing was full of tiny holes, which let water into a chemical substance that at once began to give off a mass of hubbies. This mass, sinking very slowly, sounded to searching Asdics so exactly like a U-boat that only the most talented experts could tell the difference; and even they were seldom quite sure.

Unfortunately Arrowhead made this natural mistake and followed the false lead of Hartwig’s Pillenwerfer long enough to let U-517 escape. After this the corvette, and the other escorts which had gone hunting with her, began rescuing the survivors from Aeas. The last of these were hauled aboard about an hour before sunrise, and the naval ships took their stations ahead and at the flanks of the convoy. That is to say the corvettes and Fairmiles did. Raccoon was missing.

Not. long afterward, two immensely loud explosions sounded in the grey distance astern. A Fairmile was sent to investigate, but found nothing whatever. Raccoon was never seen again. Some time later the body of one of her sailors was washed ashore on Anticosti Island. The other 36 simply disappeared likt* the little yacht, without trace. It is thought she was torpedoed by the second U-boat, which had joined Hartwig in the Strait of Belle Isle on September 3.

Instead, he surfaced at. dawn and followed the Convoy down the Gaspé coast all day, keeping far enough behind to lx* unseen from the ships and, with great luck, not being spotted by Hit* RCAF aircraft which provided air cover during the daylight hours. It, was his plan to wait for dusk, run in on the convoy again, and attack once more.

Three Ships in One Volley

'Phis he did, with his usual insolent d¿tring, when the grey ships were a scant 15 miles west of Cape Gaspé.

At five minutes past five in the evening of September 7 U-517 got right into the convoy, past the necessarily inadequate escort. That fall, with more and more duty in midocean, along the Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean, the overburdened Canadian Navy hadn’t nearly enough ships to go properly round. Its senior officers had made the hard choice, hotly criticized by certain members of parliament from the St. Lawrence region, between weakening more vital escort runs even further and letting river convoys go with not much more than token protection. SÍ) that evening Hartwig was virtually unchecked as he crept up on his target, and got into position for an astonishing feat.

Dead ahead of him were the Greek Mount Bind us and her sister tramp Mount Tayegetos. Dead astern, looming in the twilight when he swung his periscope round, was the Canadian Oakton. Hartwig chose the moment, then ordered two torpedoes from the how tubes and one from the stern tube to be fired, all within seconds.

All three hit their mark. In Mount Taygetos, with 28 men aboard, five were killed in the engine and boiler rooms —the chief engineer, the second engineer, a greaser, a fireman and the donkeyman.

In Mount Pindus it was the same story except that she lost her second engineer and one fireman. The rest of

her crew, 35 shivering sailors cursing in a dozen languages, were picked up at the same time as the survivors from Mount Taygetos. So were the 17 survivors of little Oakton, a lake steamer in which an oiler and two firemen were lost.

U-517 hung around in the Gaspé Passage for a few days, between the mainland and Anticosti Island, waiting for another Quebec-Sydney convoy to come along. Instead, on the foggy night of September 11, Hartwig sighted the corvette Charlottetown and the minesweeper Clayoquot, heading home alone to the Gaspé base from Bic Island where they had left an upriver convoy.

Ilis Last Shots Were Misses

Ordinarily Hartwig, who had a low opinion of Canadian escort ships, would have saved hLs torpedoes for later merchantmen but this target was altogether too tempting. He fired two torpedoes into Charlottetown (corvettes, on the whole, were more efficient escorts than the minesweepers) and she sank in exactly three minutes. Six men were killed as they swam when her depth charges exploded beneath them and 10 died altogether, including Lieutenant-Commander J. W. Bonner, her captain. Clayoquot went after U-517 at once, since counterattacks were always made before rescue was begun, hut didn’t find her. After it was certain the submarine had escaped, Clayoquot picked up the 55 survivors of the corvette and brought them to Gaspé.

Shortly after noon on September 15 Hartwig attacked another convoy, making for Quebec from Sydney, when it. was about, eight miles off Cape des Rosiers in the neighborhood of Gaspé town. This time it wasn’t so much like shooting fish in a barrel, because the escort, was stronger than usual. An ageing British destroyer was with it, and might well have proved a formidable foe. However, it didn’t, and U-517 was able to sink two ships, the Norwegian lnger Elisabeth and the Dutch Saturnus, within six minutes.

Once more, as he had with Arrowhead's convoy, Hartwig dropped astern after the attack and followed the ships at a safe distance. Once more he escaped detection by the RCAF aircraft with the convoy.

Early next morning, the convoy having traveled 150 miles upriver toward Quebec and reached a point near the village of Mechins, U-517 torpedoed two more ships.

One, the Greek Joannis, sank slowly enough to let all her company (nobody had been killed) get away in boats for the four-mile row to land. The other, the British Essex Lance, broke almost in half hut didn’t sink and was eventually towed to Quebec and repaired. She had been bombed and gunned by German aircraft in the English Channel the year before, and was to be sunk exactly a year and a month from then in mid-Atlantic. But that morning she survived; and only one of her crew was killed.

With the sinking of Joannis and the crippling of Essex Lance, Hartwig headed homeward through the Strait of Belle Isle, with radioed orders directing him to go to Lorient in occupied France instead of to the U-boat pens at Kiel, where he had been based when he set out on his mission. He fired his last four torpedoes at a Greenland convoy sighted in the Strait; and, exceptionally for him, missed with them all. By October 5 he was in the open Atlantic. In six weeks he had sunk 13 ships, totaling 31,101 tons, and killed 286 men all in the St. Lawrence River and its approaches.

No sooner had Paul Hartwig gone than a fourth U-boat (but it may have been a fifth or sixth or seventh: there is no way of knowing for sure) crept into the Gulf to take his place. On October 9, toward midnight, the new arrival was well upriver when it sighted a convoy steaming along the south shore near the fashionable summer resort of Metis. What happened then, tragic though . it was (the British tramp Carolus was sunk, with a loss of 12 lives), had extraordinary and faintly comic overtones.

At 10 minutes past midnight, in the snug living room of the lighthousekeeper’s house on Metis Point, 21year-old David Gendron was writing a love letter. Everyone else was asleep— his father Octave the lighthousekeeper, David’s 12 younger brothers and sisters, his mother, and pretty blond Esther Leblanc who taught school in the village and hoarded with the family. Suddenly a dull booming roar sounded out in the river, and the living room windows rattled in their wooden frames. Presently there came a series of other crashes that made the whitepainted house stir on its rock foundation.

At this point, according to one rumor that had spread halfway to Quebec by morning, the lighthousekeeper fled screaming from the house and left his children to their fate. What actually happened was that Octave ran to the lighthouse and up the spiral stair to the platform of the light, 79 feet above the water. Here he studied what could he seen through his old brass telescope, concluded rightly that, a submarine attack was going on, and decided the RCAF station at Mont Joli should he told about it at once.

To do this he would have to drive the family car, a well-polished black sedan, the three and a half miles from the Point to the nearest phone, which was in Metis village. That being so, he thought it best to take the youngest children along. The slamming hangs of the escort’s guns, and the white lights of the star shells they were firing to illuminate the water in case the U-boat should surface, seemed to be closer and closer. As Octave puts it, looking wisely down his nose, the arc of the search was widening. And speaking less technically, he says he was afraid the littlest Gendrons might get hit. (He stoutly denies another rumor then current, that he insisted the enemy was firing at his house.)

Asked how many children he took with him, Octave grins. “I didn’t count. I just kept piling them into the car until it wouldn’t hold any more, closed the door, and drove for the phone as fast as I could.” Mrs. Gendron and the schoolteacher stayed put.

The Caribou Tragedy

It wasn’t very fast (the road is fantastically rough for the most part), but he made pretty good time. He left the children beside the highway, where the road from the point joins it, with instructions to the senior infant present to look after the rest until Papa got hack from the village. Then he went on to make his report to Mont Joli. Six minutes after he hung up the receiver, he says, a bomber roared out over the point and headed for what Octave calls the battle.

“After that,” he says, “the Government gave me a phone for the house, so I could make my reports faster; which I’d been at them all along to do.”

With the sinking of Carolus, followed by Octave’s triumph about the phone, there were only two more torpedoings in the submarine campaign in the St. Lawrence. The first of these was in the strait between North Sydney on Cape Breton Island and Port aux Basques, at the southwestern tip of Newfoundland.

A small convoy, escorted by the armed yacht Vison, outward from Cornerbrook, was attacked in the morning of October 11 by a U-boat whose number is not known, but which was probably not the one that was off Metis the day before. A torpedo hit the little lake steamer Waterton, which was carrying newsprint, when Vison was only a few hundred feet away. The armed yacht at once closed in to counterattack, and at the same moment the RCAF Canso assigned to the convoy, half a mile off and 750 feet up, dived for the stricken ship with full power to make its own counterattack. Just as the Canso passed over the ship, at a height of 150 feet, Waterton was hit by a second torpedo. Steam, rolls of newsprint and fragments of deck shot into the air, and a jagged piece of steel from the Waterton went clear through one wing of the Canso—one of the few recorded instances of a torpedoed ship damaging a friendly aircraft. And although the laker sank quickly, Vison came alongside and rescued all her crew, none of whom so much as got their feet wet.

The last torpedoing of the 1942 U-boat war in the St. Lawrence was the most tragic of all. The Newfoundland Railway’s passenger steamer Caribou, with 237 people aboard including her crew, was hit in the early hours of October 14, about 10 miles from the spot where Waterton went down, and sank in less than three minutes. She was being escorted by HMCS G rand -Mère, a minesweeper, which sighted the attacking U-boat surfaced on Caribou’s starboard beam and immediately altered course to ram at full speed.

Alert little Crand-Mère was a few seconds too late. The submarine fired, struck, and crash-dived when the speeding minesweeper was only 150 yards from her. Grand-Mère dropped depth charges as she passed over the boiling wake of the dive, but the submarine escaped.

The escort left the hunt and began to pick up survivors. In this she was helped bv an RCAF Canso from the North Sydney station, which covered her from the air and guided her to one lifeboat which had drifted sixmiles away and was out of sight from the ship in the dim morning. Finally, with 104 people from the Caribou aboard, Grand-Mère made for Sydney, where the 30 cot cases could be hospitalized. Two survivors died on the way. Counting them, 135 were lost — mostly

soldiers and sailors and airmen returning to Newfoundland from leave in Canada.

After that, there were no further submarine attacks in the St. Lawrence and the Gulf until 1944. On October 14 exactly two years from the day Caribou was sunk, the Canadian frigate Magog was torpedoed in the river off Point des Monts on the north shore, only a little over 200 miles below Quebec. Magog had about 60 feet of her stern blown off, and three men were killed, but she didn’t sink. Neither did the Canadian freighter Fcrt Thompson when she was hit on November 2, about 30 miles farther upriver. Like Magog she was towed to Quebec and repaired, but no lives were lost in her.

That was the end. U-boats, striking in the broad river that leads to Canada’s heartland, had sunk 23 ships totaling 70,000 tons, crippled three others adding to 20,000 tons more. They had killed 700 people in these 25 ships. And because there was no knowing when they might return to strike again, convoys had to be run from May, 1942, until the end of the war, and the aircraft of the RCAF were obliged to circle the waters of the St. Lawrence day after empty day.

The U-boat war in the river was no triumph for the Canadian Navy which did its overburdened best against great difficulties. But it did have the satisfaction of seeing the final capture of the greatest of its troubles—Lieut.Com. Paul Hartwig.

When Hartwig left the St. Lawrence he returned to the U-boat base in Lorient on Oct. 15 where a grateful Führer bestowed on him the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. This was usually given to U-boat commanders who sank 80.000 tons of shipping or more. Hartwig’s total missed this by several thousand tons, but, his daring in the St. Lawrence won him the decoration anyway.

Ribbon pinned on breast, Hartwig once again took U-517 seaward. It was his last foray. On November 21, 1942, when he was 390 miles WNW of Capo Finisterre, Spain, an aircraft from No. 807 squadron of HMS Victorious spotted him, bombed him into surfacing and crippled the U-boat hopelessly.

Hartwig and his men clambered onto deck, formed into neat ranks, sang “Deutschland Uber Alles” and then gave three cheers for U-517 before taking to the boats. They were later picked up by a British destroyer and became prisoners of war. His captors recall that Hartwig remained a calm and efficient prisoner, who, when given the chance, drank like a fish. ★