The Battle of the St. Lawrence
of the shuddering explosion;
of the parading soldiers;
of the thundering gun;
of bated breath;
of the crucial decision;
of life ebbing away;
But always and above all,
Everywhere the silence of the loved one who will not return.
This is true all over the world, and it is now true on the waters of the St Lawrence, in Canada.
Excerpts from the travelling exhibit Impacts : The Battle of the St. Lawrence, 1942-1944 presented from 2003 to 2007.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
Events in Europe in the summers of 1938 and 1939 announced a new war, coming 30 years after the one that was to have been the war to end all wars. In August 1939, several countries were preparing feverishly for the coming conflict. Two days after the invasion of Poland by Hitler's armies on 1 September, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. In Canada, preparations had also been under way for some weeks, but in keeping with the promises of Prime Minister King, Canada declared war on its own for the first time in its history. This highly symbolic gesture was made by the members of the House of Commons in Ottawa on 10 September 1939.
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In September 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy, with only about ten warships and 3700 members, was not ready to take on all the tasks that might be entrusted to it. As the months passed, the Canadian industrial machine swung into motion, though not always without trouble and upheaval. The technology resources were deployed slowly, and the training of the sailors was short and rough. But despite the obstacles, Canadians succeeded in building up a navy comprising nearly 100 000 members and 350 warships. This new world war was also a war which went on intensively in the air. In Canada, for example, a hundred training centers for flyers from the whole British Commonwealth were built. Over 70 000 pilots trained on these bases later went on to fight in Europe. But it was always on land that the harshest battles took place. The Canadian Army with its hundreds of thousands of soldiers fought on most fronts during the war, distinguishing itself in Italy, France and the Netherlands, and elsewhere.
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THE WAR AT HOME
Canadians, though torn between duty and the justification for combat, faced fire and horror as often as other nations.
Total war, striking the entire planet, was now a familiar concept. No one was really safe. Even in Canadian waters, submarines were torpedoing convoys carrying materiel and foodstuffs to help Europe survive. On the ocean, these ship convoys were at the mercy of the packs of German submarines in what was called the Battle of the Atlantic. In Great Britain and on the European continent, the land was ablaze from north to south and from east to west. Like an insoluble puzzle, the pieces locked into one another to form an apocalyptic picture. The Battle of the St Lawrence was one of these pieces on the edge which, if lost, could lead to the fall of all the others.
Between May 1942 and November 1944, 26 ships were torpedoed in the waters of the St Lawrence River and Gulf. Mainly during the 1942 and 1944 shipping seasons, German submarines plied Canadian waters. In the Gulf, despite the protection provided by the convoy escorts, losses were recorded near the coasts of Quebec, Newfoundland and Cape Breton.
Although the figure of 26 ships torpedoed is large, only a minority of all merchant ships were lost. After their departure from Québec, the ships would assemble in small convoys off the Bic Islands. They would then be escorted down the river and into the gulf by warships. The planes of the Royal Canadian Air Force watched the horizon, carrying out thousands of patrols. Thanks to them, on many occasions the plans of the German submariners were thwarted, saving many sailors and passengers from death.
All these ships and their crews, transporting troops, passengers, foodstuffs and materiel of all kinds, sailed with all lights extinguished and occasionally met fishing boats or coasting vessels. On sea and land, both civilians and military personnel discovered a different pace of life ? that of a Second World War naval battle.
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THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC
The outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic was one of the crucial elements in the Allied victory. America, despite its enormous industrial potential, could not help its allies in Europe if merchant ships were unable to reach the English seaports.
In many North American ports, including that of Québec, ships were loaded before joining up with other ships for the perilous ocean crossing.
Off the shores of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the northeastern United States, dozens of ships would thus await the warships which patrolled on the periphery of the convoy. Aboard the frigates, destroyers and especially the corvettes, the surveillance was constant. The German submarines could strike anywhere at any time.
At the beginning of the war, the Allied losses were catastrophic. Especially in the middle of the Atlantic, where the limited range of the aircraft of the time prevented them from protecting the convoys, the U-Boote torpedoed hundreds of ships. Gradually, the evolution of technology and the experience of the Allied navies led to a reversal of this state of affairs. They were so successful that by early 1944 they could say that the Battle of the Atlantic was won and that the way was now open for a landing on European soil.
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THE CONVOY SYSTEM
During the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allied navies resorted, as they had during the Great War, to a complex system of maritime convoys to deliver supplies to Great Britain and the Allied forces. Merchant vessels, escorted by warships, would group together off the coasts of North America to cross the Atlantic Ocean together.
The task was gigantic. It was necessary not only to provide for an adequate number of merchant vessels and warships, but also to determine their movements, plan the cargoes to be carried, and be able to evaluate potential losses and the most effective means of defence.
Each convoy had its own code. For example, the very first convoy to cross the Atlantic, from Halifax on 16 September 1939, was the HX-1.
The letters used refer to the origin and destination of the convoy. Thus Convoy QS-12 leaving Québec for Sydney, Nova Scotia, was the 12th convoy to make this trip.
The convoys also moved at the speed of the slowest ship in the group.
A convoy sailing at a speed of less than 9 knots was identified by an S at the end of its code number. The largest convoy of the war, with its 167 merchant ships, carried the code number HXS-300.
Whether the convoy was sailing on the St Lawrence or the Atlantic, the strategy was the same. The merchant ships were grouped together, with the most important cargoes, such as oil or munitions, in the center. On the periphery, the corvettes and destroyers patrolled to prevent enemy submarine attacks. All these ships then tried to cross the ocean without incident by moving in long zigzags to make the enemy's task more difficult.
"I would take the signals from the convoys. Sometimes there were 75 or 80 ships in the convoy and I would take their last signal. I knew that the German submarines were waiting for them not far away, and I was afraid for them. I would say a prayer for them to cross the ocean safe and sound, but there were some that were sunk."
Vicki La Prairie, WRCNS, Signalman in Halifax
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TWO VERY SPECIAL WAR PRIZES
On 6 May 1945, the day of the German capitulation, two German submarines were still patrolling in Canadian waters. U-Boote U-190 and U-889 surrendered to the Canadian authorities in accordance with orders received. They were boarded by the crews of warships, who ran up the White Ensign, the flag of the Canadian Navy, on their conning towers. The two prizes were carefully
examined and one of them was even used for a series of visits to the ports of eastern Canada. The public could visit a real U-Boot in either Gaspé or Québec.
After the war, the two submarines entered service for the Canadian Navy. Strange at it may seem, Canada, for a short time, owned two German vessels, HMCS U-190 and HMCS U-889. In January 1946, U-889 was transferred to the United States, while U-190 was sunk over the minesweeper HMCS Esquimalt off the Canadian coast. The unfortunate crew members of this ship had had the misfortune of being torpedoed by U-190 barely three weeks before the end of the war. This planned destruction of U-190 thus took on a highly symbolic character and concluded another chapter in the struggle for control of the seas.
The "U-190", a German submarine, will soon be in Québec
"The public will be admitted to visit the German submarine ‘U-190’, captured off Newfoundland shortly after the end of hostilities. It will be tied up at Shed no. 18 on 11, 12, 13 and 14 August and the profits will go to the members of the United Nations merchant marine. Admission will be $0.25 for adults and $0.15 for children. Members of the sea cadet corps "Champlain" will mount guard during the visit of the submarine and the Canadian corvette ‘Thetford Mines’, which will also be open to visitors."
L'Action Catholique, 10 August 1945
"NAZI SUBMARINE IN QUÉBEC: Early next week, the people of Québec will have the opportunity to see German submarine 190, which surrendered to the Canadian navy after the capitulation of Germany."
Le Soleil 8 August 1945
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THE WAR RIGHT IN MY KITCHEN
1942. Death is now close, too close. Not that there are land populations threatened as in Europe, but who, in the villages along the St Lawrence, can imagine sailors from here and elsewhere dying in Canadian waters? Yet it is true: the war has come to Canada. Its impacts affect daily life, routines and conversations.
Here and there people talk about what they see or think they see. Some are intrigued, others pass comments. Conversations are supplied with stories of spies from afar and the bodies of sailors found on the beaches and buried in parish cemeteries. Some people recover items as well, for torpedoed ships are sometimes towed to shore or run aground, like the ship in the bay at Grande-Vallée.
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THE BIG UPHEAVAL
War has arrived, and its demands must be met. Already, food is being rationed and the men are enlisting. Now that the fighting is going on right in front of their villages, the people living along the St Lawrence are learning that night lighting must be eliminated, that motor vehicle headlights must be painted over and that that they must contribute to surveillance of the coast. Will a spy come ashore perhaps? Who knows?
To comply with the blackout measures, the people have to install blinds in the windows of their houses and paint over the upper half of their car headlights. All streetlights are extinguished, and even ships sailing on the river must submit to the requirements by masking their portholes.
The purpose of limited lighting is to prevent the German submariners from using the light from the shore or from boats as landmarks for navigation or targets for attack: when a ship passes in front of a lighted village, its backlighted silhouette stands out, making the ship an easy prey for submariners.
"Certain types of curtains have been put on the market in Montreal, designed especially for blackout periods. Here is one of black felt, easy to install, guaranteed to intercept any ray of light. If also has the advantage that it can protect people inside the house from shards of glass if an explosion occurs near a window and breaks the panes."
Écho du Bas Saint-Laurent, 15 October 1942
The Canadian authorities also had devices built and issued to lighthouse keepers to reduce the brightness of lighthouse lenses. However, orders to use them were never given during the Second World War.
Lighthouse keepers, with the help of this device, were to use an oil lamp as a light source. The device was fastened to the base of the lens, which rotated at the usual speed. Since the lamp was placed in the central well of the device, only the light passing through the three holes in the well was visible. The brightness would then be greatly reduced.
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THE SPY ALFRED LANGBEIN
On 13 May 1942, submarine U-213 was very close to the coast of New Brunswick.
Alfred Langbein came ashore in a boat.
His orders were to transmit information to the German authorities concerning troop movements, the locations of industries and activities in Canadian ports.
With his civilian clothes, $7 000 in American banknotes and false papers in the name of Alfred Haskins, he went to Montreal, where he was arrested during a raid in a brothel. Fifty dollars was sufficient to buy his way out of this scrape, and subsequently he went to Ottawa, where he spent practically two and one-half years partying in the clubs. When his money ran out, he surrendered to the Canadian authorities, who dug up the communications equipment he had left at the spot where he arrived, and soon learned that Langbein was a spy only in name. After the war, he went back to Germany and rejoined his wife.
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THE SPY WERNER VON JANOWSKI
About 5:50 in the night of 8 to 9 November 1942, near New Carlisle in Chaleur Bay, a boat slipped toward shore. It had just left the German submarine U-518.
The mission of Agent Janowski, who was on board, was to go to Montreal and prepare for the arrival of saboteurs the following spring.
He went to the Hôtel Annett in New Carlisle for a wash and change. However, his accent, the smell of oil about him, and the outdated banknotes he used for paying his bill attracted the attention of the people at the hotel. The son of the owner, Earle J. Annett, alerted the Provincial Police, who arrested Janowski aboard the train that was taking him to Montreal. For over a year, Janowski worked as a double agent for the Canadian government. However, his counter-espionage activities when his arrest was reported in the press. The German espionage service thus discovered the duplicity of its agent.
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THE WAR ON MY RIVER
In 1942, a deadly new battlefield was added to the already numerous existing ones, as the St Lawrence River and Gulf became a scene of combat and the waves took away sailors who were too young to die.
The sailors of the Royal Canadian Navy, aboard their armed vessels, escorted conveys and patrolled the waters in search of the formidable German submarines - the U-BOOTE.
For the sailors aboard merchant vessels travelling down the river in convoys, the atmosphere was one of fear, for they could never guess when they might be attacked.
Within sight of all these sailors, the villagers along the shores of the river were witnesses to veritable naval battles.
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HELL AT SEA
The seamen of the Merchant Marine played a decisive role during the Second World War. The delivery of food supplies to Great Britain and of the materiel necessary for Allied military operations depended on their work.
By 1942, the Germans, who knew the importance of these supply operations, were trying to weaken the Allied forces by attacking merchant vessels. It then became perilous to sail on the St Lawrence River and Gulf.
For that reason, the Royal Canadian Navy decided in September 1942 to create the Gulf Escort Force, to be based in Gaspé. This force consisted of 7 corvettes, 5 Bangor-class minesweepers, 6 Fairmiles patrol boats and 1 armed yacht. This escort force took charge of the convoys sailing from Québec to Sydney, Nova Scotia or Goose Bay, Labrador. In case of enemy attack, the seamen, who were exposed to German torpedoes, had to counterattack and lend assistance to survivors of torpedo attacks.
"In late June 1942, I went aboard a Fairmile-type patrol vessel to make a voyage to Rimouski. We were sailing - Fairmiles Q-064 and Q-050 - with the corvette HMCS Weyburn. Our role included escorting the convoys on the St Lawrence River. On completion of the training exercises with the depth charges, some seamen would jump overboard to recover the fish floating on the surface of the water which had been killed by the explosions. That put fresh food on our tables."
Ian Tate, Officer, RCNVR
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THE CREWS OF THE NAVAL SHIPS
The months which followed the first torpedoings in Canadian waters saw a strengthening of the naval forces destined to protect vessels sailing on the St Lawrence. Minesweepers, armed yachts, corvettes, frigates and also little Fairmiles were to protect and escort shipping while at the same time patrolling and hunting down the enemy.
The fighting was harsh, and often caused damage to the submarines. Without sinking these formidable adversaries, the Canadian sailors did thwart enemy plans and prevent the loss of even more lives.
Five naval ships were torpedoed, four of them Canadian, the fifth a United States Navy tanker. Two other Canadian ships were also lost, one as the result of a collision and the other probably in the course of a storm.
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THE CREWS OF THE MERCHANT SHIPS
The crews of the merchant ships had no real means of defending themselves and so were at the mercy of chance. On the St Lawrence, as elsewhere on the seas, they were escorted by a few warships and sailed in long zigzags over the water. Often it was to no avail, for the German torpedoes struck anyway. Many young sailors, and sometimes mere passengers or combat troops on the way to the front, would be swept to their deaths in just a few minutes.
On the St Lawrence River and Gulf, 21 merchant ships were torpedoed. Seventeen of them sank, while four remained afloat. We present to you here the stories of crew members of 10 of these ships, for which we have been able to gather up first-hand accounts.
Between 1942 and 1944, 15 German submarines, or U-Boote, entered Canadian waters and torpedoed 26 ships. For the submarine commanders, despite their successes, it was a difficult campaign. The Canadian forces, particularly the Air Force, attacked frequently and with precision. No submarine was sunk, a fact which long cast a dark veil over the Canadian strategy. The truth is quite different: the counterattacks damaged several submarines to the point where their commanding officers often had to withdraw and make an emergency dive.
"I told them they should always remember that it could easily be the other way around —that they themselves could have been killed. I said they had to live in a kind of humility — that they would not necessarily be the victors all the time. [...] I said that while we had to be successful we did not have to hate the enemy."
Paul Hartwig, Commanding Officer, U-517
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IS IT IMPORTANT?
The Battle of the St Lawrence was one of many battles in the Second World War. Was it a great battle?
In terms of the number of ships sunk and lives lost, it cannot be compared to what happened in other theaters of the world conflict. However, the Battle of the St Lawrence remains unique, for nowhere else in America did the Germans penetrate so deeply into the continent.
To help you compare, here are some figures:
Second World War
Between 1939 and 1945
1 031 902 Canadian men and 49 963 Canadian women enlisted
44 927 dead
53 145 wounded
8271 prisoners of war
Naval operations and Battle of the Atlantic
Between 1939 and 1945
Over 100 000 men and women join the ranks of the Royal Canadian Navy
Losses in human lives
Over 2000 members of the Royal Canadian Navy
752 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force in naval operations
Over 1600 Canadian and Newfoundland sailors
Battle of the St Lawrence
In 1942 and 1944
Losses in human lives
Approximately 147 members of the Royal Canadian Navy.
Approximately 225 other persons, including 89 members of the Canadian or Allied Merchant Marine and the 136 passengers of the ferry SS Caribou
The submarine which penetrated farthest into the content, U-69, was only 325 kilometers from Québec
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For centuries, the St Lawrence has been both an artery of commerce and navigation and an invasion route in time of conflict. The St Lawrence system gives vessels access to the heart of the North American continent. The river route must be both accessible and secure.
In time of conflict, the task is difficult. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, just as in 1918 or 1942, or even since September 2001, the question of coastal defence is a colossal challenge.
A gulf as wide as a sea and one of the greatest rivers on the planet offer grand and unique landscapes, but how are they to be protected?
The question is just as crucial today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, as it was over 200 years ago.
Lexicon of frequently used abbreviations
CGS: Coast Guard Ship. Identifies ships of the Canadian Coast Guard.
DGRS: Degaussing Gear Range Station. A base which used magnetic waves to intercept ships passing by a precise point. On Île d'Orléans, such a point was the building from which a submarine cable led out.
HMCS: His Majesty's Canadian Ship. Abbreviation designating any ship or base under the control of the Canadian Navy. After the Second World War, we would see the French abbreviation NCSM for Navire canadien de sa Majesté.
NOIC: Naval Officer In Charge. Identifies the place where the officer responsible for base operations and naval control worked – e.g. NOIC Québec, NOIC Rimouski or NOIC Gaspé.
PWSS: Port War Signal Station. A base for naval signalling or control work or training.
RCAF: Royal Canadian Air Force.
RCN: Royal Canadian Navy.
RCNVR: Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. The reserve sailors of the Royal Canadian Navy.
WRENS: Women of the Royal Canadian Naval Service. The women's corps of the Royal Canadian Navy. The "C" of "Canadian" was replaced at the time by an "E", to make this acronym easier to pronounce.
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THE BATTLE OF THE ST LAWRENCE
1942 – 1944
THE MUSEOLOGICAL APPROACH
In this exhibition, we have opted to present the events of military history through the lens provided by historic objects. For the designers, a museum object is not only evidence of, but also a witness to the war on Canadian soil. The stories told are intimately linked to the objects as representative of an event: the BATTLE OF THE ST LAWRENCE and its IMPACTS.
We extend our special thanks to
Ms Maureen Spence-Hall and Mr Roy Woodruff,
who have been and will remain the sources of inspiration for this exhibition.
The producers dedicate this exhibition to the memory of all those,
military or civilian, who were witnesses or actors in
the Battle of the St Lawrence.
Project directors: André Kirouac, Naval Museum of Québec; Jean Lavoie, Gaspé Museum
Designers: Julie Fournier and André Kirouac, Naval Museum of Québec
Writer and historian: Julie Fournier, Naval Museum of Québec
Curator: Stéphane Sainte-Croix, Gaspé Museum
Researchers: Julie Fournier and Caroline Lantagne
Editors: Caroline Lantagne and André Kirouac, Naval Museum of Québec
Translation: Maritime Staff Translation Services
The Gaspé Museum and the Naval Museum of Québec wish to extend their thanks to the persons and organizations who participated directly or indirectly in the production of this exhibition.
Dr Michael L. Hadley, Victoria, British Columbia
Dr Marc Milner, University of New Brunswick
Dr Roger Sarty, Ottawa
Dr Nathan Greenfield
Leading Seaman Marie-Claude Gagnon
Able Seaman Marie-Andrée Morin
Canada Department of National Defence
Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Center, Ottawa
Maritime Command, Ottawa
Directorate of History and Heritage, Ottawa
Naval Reserve of Canada, Québec
Maritime Staff Translation Services, Halifax
National Film Board of Canada
National Archives of Canada
National Archives of Quebec, Québec
Société Radio-Canada Archives, Montreal
Université du Québec à Rimouski
Canadian War Museum
Lighthouse and Beacon Museum, La Martre
Maritime Museum of Quebec
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Museum
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