During the night of 11th to 12th May, 1942,
the inhabitants of Cloridorme, a fishing
community in the Gaspé Peninsula,
were awakened by an explosion that shook
up their houses as an earthquake may have
done. Some lights could be seen out at sea,
then vanished; in the morning, lifeboats
drifted ashore. After several hours of searching,
111 survivors were rescued, seven men are
The attack made the headlines and public
opinion was alarmed. A threat that no one
had dared mention until then, had just materialized:
German U-boats in the Gulf of St. Lawrence;
Nazi Germany threatening Canada from within.
Public opinion demands an explanation and
protests against censorship.
German submarine U-553, under Kapitänleutnant
Karl Thurmann, lying in ambush in the Gulf's
dark waters, had torpedoed two Dutch freighters,
Nicoya and Leto. This first
attack in the Gulf was to be followed by
several others. The coastline affords many
hiding-places for an ambushed submarine;
in addition, the ASDIC (sonar detection)
system is rendered useless by the fact that
in the Gulf, water presents layers of contrasting
temperatures. Between May and November 1942,
18 ships are sunk in the River and in the
Gulf, including two RCN (Royal Canadian
Navy) vessels. On November 9th, 1942, a
German spy, Alfred Waldmar von Janowski,
is brought to shore by U-518 in New
Carlisle. Apparently lacking the required
discretion, he was rapidly found out and
intercepted by the police.
Canso flying boats were flown
by RCAF crews patrolling the
Atlantic and the St. Lawrence
coasts. Canso 9798 of 160 (BR)
Squadron, RCAF, is shown during
mercy flight in Newfoundland,
13 October 1944.
Archives of Canada, PA-070818.
Defence measures are upgraded. The RCN
sets up a convoy system to protect freighters
and creates an escort force based in Quebec
City, made up of smaller ships: Bangor-class
mine sweepers, Fairmiles,
and armed yachts. The Royal Canadian Air
Force (RCAF) increases the frequency of
its air patrols. 117 (BR) Squadron is detached
from its Dartmouth base and three or four
of Canso flying boats are sent to Gaspé
to take part in the operations in the Gulf.
Meanwhile, the other flying boats from 117
(BR) Squadron and several Hudsons from 113
(BR) Squadron monitor the eastern sector,
at the entrance of the Gulf.
was on the surface heading 240° moving
at 8-10 knots. Pilot throttled back fully
and dove, manoeuvering to attack from
astern dead along track of U-Boat."
on U-754 by Hudson 625 of 113 (BR) Squadron,
July 31st, 1942
Some submarines were sighted but almost
invariably managed to escape air and naval
patrols. Only one, U-754, is destroyed
by a Hudson from 113 Squadron off Nova Scotia
on July 31st, 1942. The Canadian government
does not seem to believe in the efficiency
of these measures and responds to criticism
without much conviction. The German perception
of the situation was, however, quite different:
having been often detected by Canadian patrols,
the enemy overestimated the actual efficiency
of the Canadian coastal defence. On debriefing
to their Commander-in-Chief, Admiral
Dönitz, German U-boat commanders
present incursions in Canadian territorial
waters as a major risk. As a result, in
the fall of 1942, Dönitz decides to
discontinue submarine warfare in the St.
Lawrence. Unknowingly, Canada has won a
battle against the enemy.
Unfortunately, that success was to have
a tragic conclusion: expelled from the St.
Lawrence River by Canadian patrols, U-69
cut across the route of the ferry linking
North Sydney, Nova Scotia, with Port-au-Basques,
Newfoundland. On October 13th, 1942, it
surfaced under a moonless sky, and attacked
the ferry, S.S. Caribou, unseen from
her escort, HMCS Grandmère.
At 0321 on the 14th, it fired on the ferry:
Caribou sank so fast that only one
lifeboat could be launched. Of the 237 persons
on board, only 101 survived. All 46 crew
For Canadians and their political representatives,
German incursions into the Gulf were events
of unprecedented gravity. Actually, this
was nothing in comparison with the crisis
facing Allied navies.
Until 1941, U-boats had stayed away from
U.S. shores to avoid giving America a reason
to join the war against Nazi Germany. But
the December 7th, 1941, Japanese attack
on Pearl Harbor resulted in direct U.S.
military involvement: Admiral Dönitz
was now free to attack unescorted freighters
and tankers in U.S. territorial waters.
At the end of December 1941 and in January
1942, Germany launched two attacks in the
western half of the North Atlantic, a stretch
of ocean where unescorted merchant ships
were an easy prey. Two groups, one made
of five Type-IX, long-range U-boats, and
a second one of six, smaller, Type-VII submarines,
were tasked with attacking all ships sailing
from Sydney, Halifax, Boston, New York or
Cape Hatteras, with an objective of destroying
as many as possible. As a countermeasure,
unofficial convoys were rapidly organized
and available warships sent to protect them.
This shift to targets in North American
waters forces the Allies to restructure
their escort forces. In February 1942, the
Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF) and the
US escort forces are grouped under the common
designation of "Mid-Ocean Escort Force"
(MOEF). That force is comprised of 12 groups
of six ships each (two destroyers or equivalent,
and four corvettes). The five "B"
groups (British) and the four "C"
groups (Canadian) are based in St. John's,
while the three "A" groups (U.S.)
use the Argentia, Newfoundland, naval base.
Convoys now follow a more southerly route
and MOEF escort ships operate between St.
John's and Londonderry, in Northern Ireland.
Escort commanders are instructed to remain
in close contact with their convoy to ensure
protection at all times; rescuing imperiled
ships or hunting down enemy submarines must
never deprive the convoy of a needed escort.
torpedoed merchant ship aboard
HMCS Arvida, 15 September
of National Defence / National
Archives of Canada, PA-136285.
Canadians also had to protect convoys destined
to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk in the USSR.
For the Third Reich had turned against its
former ally, which it attacked on June 22nd,
1941; for months, nothing could stop the
advance of German forces into Russian territory
but the cold: the formidable Nazi war machine
came to a halt with winter. There was still
some hope to save Russia. Winston
Churchill believed that Russia's
resistance against the onslaught of German
forces could only weaken the common enemy.
As a result, he suggested to US President
that the Allies unite with Stalin and supply
communist Russia with all it needed to fight.
That material - tanks, airplanes, trucks,
jeeps, explosives, weapons, shoes, radios
- had to be shipped from Loch Ewe in Scotland
or from Reykjavik in Iceland to Murmansk
or Arkhangelsk. The sea route to Murmansk
was 1600 kilometres long and left a definite
impression on the sailors who took it. During
the short summer, the days were almost 24
hours long, which favoured German aircraft,
ships and submarines. In the dark of the
winter, the violent storms and the ice that
built up everywhere on the ships were even
In February 1942, the Western Local Escort
Force (WLEF) is also created to ensure protection
of merchant ships between Halifax and the
meeting point, off Cape Race, Newfoundland,
where MOEF ships take over for the Atlantic
crossing. As air and naval defence against
U-boats along Canadian coats improves, German
submarines move further south and, in March,
ships need to form convoys for the Boston-Halifax
leg of the trip as well.
"I closed U-boat
to ram at full speed. He opened fire with
all his guns and for about 35 minutes
the action continued at a point blank
range of about 100 to 300 yards. A second
degree fire broke out
Assiniboine and the destruction
With such a massive deployment going on,
neither the RCN nor the RCAF have much time
left for modernizing their equipment, or
even ensuring regular maintenance. Repeated
operations infringe on the normal rest periods
of crews and training suffers as well. Resources
are already stretched when, in the summer
of 1942, U-boats start entering the Gulf
of St. Lawrence to launch torpedo attacks.
The RCN Under Fire
In the Atlantic, U-boats inflict major
damages and casualties to Allied navies.
The Kriegsmarine increases its submarine
fleet and, in the fall of 1942, has some
200 U-boats (compared to 91 when the year
started). Of those 200 submarines, more
than a hundred operate in the Atlantic,
of those some 45 are on patrol duties at
any given time, while 60 are sailing towards
or from their operation theatres.
Starting in September 1942, convoys leave
from New York rather than Halifax, forcing
merchant ships in Canadian ports to form
smaller convoys from Saint-John in New Brunswick,
Halifax and Sydney in Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland
ports, until they reach the meeting point
off Cape Race where they are integrated
in larger trans-oceanic convoys. The WLEF
is tasked with escort duties from New York
to Cape Race, a distance of 1,800 kilometres,
i.e. more than half the 3,300 kilometres
separating Newfoundland from Northern Ireland.
Several WLEF ships cannot sail the whole
distance and must leave the convoy to refuel
in Halifax while others take over.
Navy and RCN destroyers and corvettes
alongside Jetty No. 4, HMC Dockyard,
Halifax, 16 October 1942.
by Jackson G. Kempster. Department
of National Defence / National
Archives of Canada, PA-106063.
These measures are effective and drive
U-boats back towards the mid-Atlantic sector.
In the fall of 1942, Germany nevertheless
still has several advantages over the Allies:
Allied aircraft do not have the range to
patrol the whole Atlantic route from their
Newfoundland, Iceland or British bases,
leaving an unprotected area south of Greenland,
the "black pit", from which U-boats
benefit. Moreover, a recent modification
to the Enigma encryption machine
has made U-boat radio communications once
again unexploitable by the British cryptological
services, while Germany has broken the British
Number Three Code, used for communications
with convoys. The situation appears so desperate
that in November 1942, Churchill creates
an anti-submarine warfare committee, that
he chairs himself. Admiral Sir Max Horton
is appointed Commander-in-Chief of Western
The safe and timely
arrival of the convoy at its destination
is the primary object of the escort. Evasion
attains the primary object and should
therefore be the first course of action
considered. The object as laid down has
been the subject of a good deal of criticism
on the grounds that it is not offensive
Max Horton, Western Approaches Tactical
Policy, April 1943.
The stern of
HMCS Saguenay was blown
off by the explosion of its
depth charges after being rammed
by a freighter on 15 November
1942. The destroyer could not
be made seaworthy and was later
used as a training ship.
by John D. Mahoney. Department
of National Defence / National
Archives of Canada, PA-153500.
For Canadians, the situation keeps getting
worse: the RCN has lost three destroyers
in the fall of 1942: Ottawa, sunk
by U-91 on September 13th; St. Croix,
torpedoed and sunk by U-305 on September
20th; and Saguenay, damaged out of
commission on November 15th, when her depth
charges exploded after she was accidentally
rammed by a freighter. In addition, Assiniboine
must be dry-docked for an extended period
of time following action against U-210
on August 2nd. The RCN's escort fleet cannot
meet the demand. For lack of time, its ships
are not as well maintained as those of the
Royal Navy or the U.S. Navy, and mechanical
breakdowns are more frequent. Crews suffer
from fatigue, and lack experience and technical
The Western Approaches Command officers'
opinion of Canadian escort groups is quite
negative, as they are considered the less
effective of all three allies. On December
17th, 1942, Churchill sends a telegram to
King, asking that Canada take over the less
dangerous Great Britain-Gibraltar route,
which amounts practically to requesting
Canada's withdrawal from the MOEF. The RCN
staff is furious, and considers that Great
Britain is - to a large extent - responsible
for that state of affairs. The Royal Navy,
while continually requesting additional
support from the RCN, has not provided its
Canadian counterpart with the state-of-the-art
navigational equipment and armament found
on its own ships.
Unfortunately events bring more misfortunes
on the Canadian escort groups. Between December
25th and 29th, 1942, convoy ONS-154, under
the protection of Canadian escort group
C1, loses 14 ships to an attack by a large
U-boat pack. C1 had only one destroyer,
HMCS Saint-Laurent, as the second
one was unable to get under way. Although
it has gained in experience, C1 still lacks
cohesion when working as a combat unit,
a situation resulting from frequent changes
of crew imposed by emergency situations.
The RCN must face the fact that Canadian
escort groups need more training.
At the end of 1942, the situation appears
desperate. The Battle of the Atlantic is
raging, the enemy seems invincible and casualties
are mounting. And yet, within a few months,
things will change dramatically.