As historian Michael Hadley wrote, the star shells “cast a cone of light as far astern as Raccoon’s lonely station off the convoy’s port quarter, where she was seen—by all accounts—for the last time.”
It was fortunate for the Royal Canadian Navy and for the Canadian government that attacks by U-165 and U-517 in August and early September 1942 took place in the remote reaches of the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Indeed, since the attacks took place off Newfoundland and Labrador they were not even in Canadian waters. The same was true of the daring attack by U-513 on the iron ore ships alongside the loading wharf at Wabana, Nfld., on Sept. 5, 1942, which will be the subject of another story. For the time being, it is important to realize that German U-boat skippers Eberhard Hoffmann and Paul Hartwig were just getting started. Their following attacks in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence and in the river itself brought the smouldering national debate over the competence of both the navy and the government into a full inferno.
Having successfully attacked convoys funnelling through the narrow entrance to the Strait of Belle Isle, U-517 and U-165 moved south in early September and took up similar ambush positions in the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence River. Hartwig in U-517 positioned himself off Cap Gaspé, while Hoffmann moved U-165 into the river off Matane, Que. Once again the convoys came to them, and did so in conditions that once again made it well nigh impossible for the navy to respond effectively.
The first sign that U-boats had returned to the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence came on Sept. 3 when the tiny armed yacht His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Raccoon reported the phosphorescence of torpedo tracks passing close by and directly under her bridge. Raccoon (the former yacht Halonia) was part of a group escorting convoy QS-33 (Quebec to Sydney) near Matane. Only the fact that she had been mistaken for a deep-draught merchant ship saved Raccoon. The ship’s captain, Lieutenant-Commander J.N. Smith, Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, reported the incident and dropped a few depth charges—to no avail. The culprit was Hoffmann in U-165 whose report on his attack was picked up by Canadian direction-finding stations. No one had to second-guess what Smith had seen: the U-boats were back.
Hoffmann spent the next three days stalking the eight-ship convoy. He had reason to be cautious. QS-33 had a fairly strong escort and, despite the poor weather which hampered Canadian planes, fairly continuous air escort as well. The corvette HMCS Arrowhead, carrying modern 10-cm radar, commanded by the very skilled and experienced Commander E.G. Skinner, RCNR, who was the senior officer of the escort. Skinner’s group consisted of the new Bangor-class HMCS Truro, two Fairmile motor launches (MLs) and Raccoon. Their convoy was organized into two four-ship columns, with Arrowhead leading on the port wing (the ‘seaward’ side) sweeping with her radar, Truro forward on the starboard wing closest to the coast, one ML out front, and Raccoon and the other ML astern on the convoy’s quarters. Given the dearth of modern equipment in all the escorts except Arrowhead, it is not clear what more Skinner could have done.
By late on Sept. 6, Hoffmann, dodging air patrols, had worked ahead of QS-33 and was in position to fire. His two-torpedo spread that night hit the 4,729 ton Greek ship Aeas, laden with lumber from Trois-Rivières and 1,490 tons of steel. Bouyed by the lumber, Aeas settled slow enough for most of her 41 crewmen to escape: only two died. The ship finally sank following the explosion of her boilers (which caused some to believe that the first explosion was boiler related, too). Skinner responded by conducting a fruitless asdic search and firing star shells to illuminate the scene. The navy now knew that asdic was not much good in the river, but Skinner had to try. He fired star shells in the faint hope of catching the attacker on the surface. As historian Michael Hadley wrote, the star shells “cast a cone of light as far astern as Raccoon’s lonely station off the convoy’s port quarter, where she was seen—by all accounts—for the last time.”
What Smith and HMCS Raccoon did over the next two hours will never be known. Shortly after midnight two explosions were heard astern of QS-33. The motor launch Q-065 at the rear of the convoy later reported seeing two columns of water rising in the night sky and the sound of a ship’s whistle. It was assumed Raccoon was attacking a contact with depth charges, and so Q-065 went about her own work. Skinner was concerned enough to sweep the area, but when he did not see anything, Arrowhead quickly resumed her position ahead of QS-33. The next morning, Skinner reported to the wireless station at Gaspé that Raccoon was not in sight and not in contact: all subsequent attempts to raise her failed. It seemed that Smith, his ship and 37 men had simply disappeared.
And so they had. Hoffmann had fired three torpedoes and two of them—three quarters of a ton of high explosive—probably struck almost simultaneously. Since U-165 was also later sunk with all hands on her way home, we will never be certain. It seems likely, however, that tiny Raccoon—all 377 tons of her—was completely shattered, and that everyone on board was killed or mortally wounded by the blasts. It was only weeks later when a portion of the ship’s bridge, some signal pads, a life preserver carrying the word “Halonia” and the body of Sub-Lt. Russ McConnell came ashore that Raccoon’s loss was confirmed.
The sinking did not end the ordeal of QS-33. Hoffmann’s attack report of Sept. 6 was picked up by Hartwig, who had just reached the Gaspé coast. Reasoning that QS-33 would hug the shoreline, Hartwig spent Sept. 7 working himself into position to intercept the convoy as it cleared the river. By the afternoon his diligence was rewarded when QS-33 steamed over his position. All Hartwig had to do was line up the targets and fire his torpedoes. In the end, he fired three and all three struck.
The first hit was the Greek steamer Mount Pindus, a 5,729-ton vessel laden with general cargo and 89 tanks for Britain. The second torpedo also struck a Greek freighter, the 3,826-ton Mount Taygetos which was carrying a similar cargo. The third hit the 1,727-ton Canadian coastal and Great Lakes steamer Oakton, filled with coal from Sandusky, Ohio, destined for Corner Brook, Nfld. All three ships sank within 15 minutes, but casualties were mercifully light: none from Oakton, two from Mount Pindus and five from Mount Taygetos. When motor launch Q-083 arrived at the Gaspé naval station later in the day she carried 78 survivors. They were quickly put on a train for Montreal. As Hadley astutely observed, that Gaspé to Montreal rail line “provided reporters with direct access to unauthorized news throughout the U-boat campaign.”
After the attack, Hartwig took U-517 deep, well beyond the capability of the asdic carried by QS-33’s escort. The only serious threat to U-517 in the aftermath of the assault on QS-33 was from the air. In fact, both U-165 and U-517 were constantly hounded and attacked by aircraft in September, but the Royal Canadian Air Force had no better luck than the RCN in delivering a fatal blow to the two intrepid submariners.
Like the navy, much of the air force’s equipment and tactics were inappropriate for what they were trying to do. Aircraft with dark paint schemes flew too low and were easily seen. In addition, depth-charge pistols could not be set to explode at the surface. Training, too, was rudimentary. Among Eastern Air Command squadrons, only 113 (Bomber Reconnaissance) flying out of Chatham, N.B., had adopted the latest white camouflage schemes and higher patrol altitudes of the RAF Coastal Command in late 1942. These made maritime patrol aircraft harder to see, not just because their colour blended better with the sky and clouds, but because a high-patrol altitude forced U-boat lookouts to crane their necks looking up. This all helped Pilot Officer R.S. Keetley to totally surprise Hoffmann off Anticosti Island on Sept. 9, but his initial attack was delivered too high and U-165 escaped.
While German radio gloated over the victory against QS-33, describing Canada’s escort fleet as third-rate, and Canadian newspapers and MPs demanded action, Hartwig and Hoffmann continued to hunt. The presence of air patrols in the entrance to the St. Lawrence convinced both men that, instead of searching for targets, it was better to slip into the convoy route along the south shore and let the targets come to them. Hoffmann once again moved upriver, while Hartwig lingered off Cap-Chat. It was off Cap-Chat that Hartwig had a chance encounter with two escorts from SQ-35 that were en route for the base at Gaspé.
The escorts were the Bangor Clayoquot and the corvette Charlottetown. Clayoquot was short of fuel, so the ships were not zigzagging. Conditions were calm, with a low-lying fog: asdic conditions were, as usual, poor. Nothing suggested danger, although local citizens later reported they had seen a U-boat and had tried to warn naval authorities. They were still watching when the first of Hartwig’s torpedoes struck Charlottetown on the starboard quarter at about 8 a.m. and then a second struck near the same place a few minutes later. According to survivors’ reports, the torpedo strikes killed only one man, an engineer. The rest escaped largely unharmed, and Charlottetown sank by the stern in about four minutes. The one man who went down with the ship was Seaman John Garland who had handed out life preservers before rescuing the ship’s dog, Screech.
In the scramble to get away only the starboard lifeboat and a few of the ship’s Carley floats were cleared: most men went into the water. Charlottetown’s skipper, Lieut. J.W. Bonner, RCNR, had ensured that all of his depth charges were set to ‘safe’, but it is believed that the shock of the torpedo strikes damaged at least one of the pistols. As the ship sank, that charge—and possibly several others, historians cannot agree—exploded. The shock killed five men in the water and seriously injured 13 others. Bonner was among the dead. His body was recovered and lashed to a piece of rudder from the portside lifeboat, but it drifted away and was never found.
Clayoquot immediately searched for the attacker, dropping depth charges and in the process shaking her wireless set into disrepair before she could signal. The first reports of the attack arrived in Gaspé from civilians. Unable to locate U-517, Clayoquot settled in to rescue work, which took hours to complete as broken and numbed men were recovered as carefully as possible from a wide area. Charlottetown’s sick berth attendant, Cecil Bateman, himself wounded by the depth charge explosion, was later Mentioned in Dispatches for his tireless efforts in treating the hurt as they came aboard the Bangor. Survivors were landed at Gaspé that afternoon, where three more died of their injuries, bringing the death toll to 10.
The subsequent Board of Enquiry was critical of Bonner’s decision to steer a steady course, and it urged that crews wear life jackets while at sea. Given that the latter were then made primarily of cork and were cumbersome, this was not a popular—or enforceable—idea but it did lead to the development of the more serviceable and effective kapok life jacket. The casualties from Charlottetown’s own depth charges—eight of the 10 deaths and many of the wounded—also prompted action to help men get out of the water faster when their ship sank: replacing Carley floats (those racetrack shaped rafts which look like modern inflatable swimming pools) with self-launching life rafts. The latter were square, wood-framed platforms built around several 45-gallon oil drums that were in use by merchant ships. They were held in place by a mechanism that could be tripped easily (or automatically when the ship sank) giving men something to scramble onto.
With the attack on QS-33 and the sinking of both Raccoon and Charlottetown, the battle in the St. Lawrence had taken a desperate turn. But Hartwig and Hoffmann were not yet finished. The loss of Charlottetown, witnessed from the shore by civilians, dominated newspapers from Sept. 18-24. By then there was even more bad news from the St. Lawrence.
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