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Busy Little Port: Navy, Part 44

The east side of Saint John harbour during the Second World War. [PHOTO: PROVINCIAL ARCHIVES OF NEW BRUNSWICK, FRANK O’BRIEN COLLECTION]

The east side of Saint John harbour during the Second World War.

Naval historians have naturally concentrated on the great naval base of Halifax, and on the secondary naval bases developed at Sydney, N.S., and St John’s, Nfld. And much has been written on the role of minor ports and bases, such as Gaspé, Que., in the Battle of the St. Lawrence in 1942. Through it all, Canada’s major east coast commercial port, Saint John, N.B., scarcely earns a nod, but between the freeze-up of the St. Lawrence River in late November until its re-opening for shipping in May, Saint John was Canada’s busiest commercial port.

During the winter of 1941-42, when U-boats struck along the coast of North America, an average of 60 ocean-going cargo vessels cleared Saint John each month. The small naval establishment in the port played a key, but utterly forgotten role in securing Canada’s vital commercial traffic from the enemy.

In 1939, Saint John’s only permanent naval presence was the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve division HMCS Brunswicker, a stone frigate. The modest naval shore-establishment developed during the Second World War focused on naval control of shipping (NCS). It also supported the port’s crucial refit and repair facilities.

On Aug. 31—before the war was formally declared—Captain J.E.W. Oland, a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, flew in from Vancouver to assume the post of Naval Officer in Charge, and was joined within hours by Commander P.B. Cross, RCNVR, and a small staff from Halifax. Cross was no stranger to the city, having commanded HMCS Brunswicker for 13 years.

Routing, cipher work and intelligence reporting started on Sept. 1, while the balance of the staff arrived the following weekend. And so even before Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 3, a basic NCS organization was in place and working in Saint John.

The port was also the dedicated Contraband Control Station for all shipping from the Western Hemisphere hoping to pass through the Allied blockade to European ports. All of these eastbound ships had to have their cargos and paperwork checked in Saint John to ensure their shipments were not destined for Germany, and that they were not carrying munitions or other contraband in aid of the enemy.

Saint John by then had an extensive system of coastal fortifications, and the army had plans to modernize and expand them, but the city was never a naval base. Oland, therefore, had to improvise a small fleet to support his work and that of the fortifications. This began with the acquisition of three small ex-RCMP patrol boats and their crews. The boat Vigil II—already in Saint John—was quickly transferred to the RCAF for service as a crash boat in support of the coastal artillery liaison flight based at the city’s airport. The other boats, Captor and Acadian (renamed Invader), arrived from Halifax on Sept. 5, and operated from Pier 5 at Lower Cove. Both vessels provided Oland with the transportation needed to begin inspecting ships entering the port.

An examination anchorage was soon established southwest of nearby Partridge Island where ships could be stopped and checked before proceeding into the harbour. Captor and Invader began examination services on Sept. 19, and were supported after Sept. 25 by an examination battery of two six-inch guns (originally from HMCS Niobe) manned by the army. Any vessel refusing to stop for examination or acting strangely received a warning shot across its bow. Once cleared, the ships could enter the harbour.

Ships await inspection in  the examination anchorage off Partridge  Island, May 1943. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA108409]

Ships await inspection in the examination anchorage off Partridge Island, May 1943.

Several other key elements of the Saint John naval establishment were added in September 1939. A site for the Port War Signal Station (PWSS)—the primary point of communication with shipping traffic—was surveyed at Mispec Point. While the station was under construction—up until early 1941—the navy maintained a PWSS staff on Partridge Island. Accommodation for the crews of Oland’s tiny fleet was acquired on Sept. 26, when the Dredge No. 1 was taken over and commissioned as HMCS Captor II. Unquestionably the ugliest vessel ever to serve as a RCN depot ship, Captor II gave her name to the Saint John naval establishment.

Captor and Invader were found to be too small for regular and reliable duty in the examination anchorage, so the ocean going tugs Murray Stewart and Ste. Anne were acquired, arriving for duty in mid-October. This allowed Captor and Invader to concentrate on inner harbour security, which they did for the balance of the war. The final piece of the puzzle—a patrol force for the harbour’s outer reaches—was at least temporarily filled in January 1940 when HMCS Cartier, a former hydrographic survey ship fitted with one four-inch gun and four depth charges, arrived to patrol the bay.

The primary task of Oland’s establishment was controlling shipping in and out of the port. Saint John was Canada’s busiest year-around commercial port, and it possessed an alongside berthing and cargo handling capacity that was much larger than capacities at Halifax or Sydney. Oland’s first report, submitted on Feb. 29, 1940, listed 1,187 vessels entering the port since Sept. 1, 1939. Most were local coastal and fishing vessels, but the examination service boarded 299 foreign ships, and Oland’s NCS staff routed 197 ships either independently to overseas destinations or—in the case of 73 ships—to Halifax for transatlantic convoys. The examination service was so busy in late 1939 that four additional vessels were pressed into service. Control and routing of shipping remained the Saint John naval establishment’s primary wartime task, a responsibility that involved close liaison with NCS centres at Halifax and Quebec City, and with the regional NCS centre in Ottawa.

In January 1940, Saint John became a major centre for Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS), and Oland added staff to oversee that duty. DEMS were commercial vessels that had been equipped with some form of defensive equipment, from guns to armour plating around the bridge to barrage balloons, degaussing equipment (to protect against magnetic mines), other anti-mine equipment and small arms. Thirty-seven DEMS inspections were done that first month, and the work remained unrelenting during the war. In the early years, much of the DEMS work was focused on the large liners which called at Saint John to refit in the port’s huge dry dock. Its users included not only fast troop transports, but liners that had been converted into auxiliary naval cruisers dubbed Armed Merchant Cruisers or AMCs. The most famous of these to call at Saint John in 1940 was HMS Jervis Bay, which underwent a summer refit. She was sunk the following November by a German pocket battleship while valiantly defending convoy HX 84 in the North Atlantic. The Jervis Bay Memorial Branch of The Royal Canadian Legion commemorates her association with the city.

By the end of February 1940, Oland’s staff in Saint John consisted of 10 officers, 119 men and three civilians. They were busy through early 1940, as the weight of winter shipping fell heavily on the port: 60 foreign vessels routed in March, 54 in April. The coming of spring did not ease the work. In April, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, and in May, the Low Counties and France. Ships from all these countries scattered widely, seeking refuge, replenishment and repair. The St. Lawrence River opened in late April, but the volume of shipping using Saint John remained high. The examination battery was forced to stop a couple of these ships by firing blank charges. Meanwhile, trouble with foreign crews kept Saint John authorities busy (the local jail became know as the merchant seamen “manning pool”).

In May 1940, the work of the Saint John NCS staff was expanded to include ports throughout New Brunswick as well as the Bay of Chaleur coast of Quebec. Much of this work was done by local customs agents, and by posting naval officers to Shediac, Chatham, Bathurst and Campbellton. Forty-one vessels were routed from these ports in July, most to Halifax and Sydney for convoys.

Plans were also announced in May 1940 that a new class of naval vessel would commence building at Saint John Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company’s yards on Courtenay Bay. The navy had plans to build 54 of these patrol vessels based on a whale-catcher design acquired from Britain in 1939. The first three contracts—for PVs 1, 2 and 3—were let in Saint John. Work commenced on the first two in May, marking the beginning of Canada’s corvette building program. Almost immediately, urgent repair work caused delays in new construction at the yard. Oland’s June report noted that work on PV 2 was delayed by the arrival of the AMC HMS Laconia for repairs. As a result, the contracts for the three patrol vessels proved to be the last warships ordered in New Brunswick during the war. One of them—PV 2, HMCS Sackville—was commissioned in December 1941 and years later became Canada’s National Naval Memorial.

An aerial view of the  Saint John shipbuilding and dry dock  facilities, December 1942. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA197028]

An aerial view of the Saint John shipbuilding and dry dock facilities, December 1942.

By the summer of 1940, Saint John had settled into a routine. HMC Ships Murray Stewart and the newly arrived Zoarces operated the examination service and remained in that task until the end of the war. HMCS Cartier continued to patrol the bay, while Captor and Invader conducted harbour patrols. DEMS personnel worked on large liners and AMCs called at the dockyard, while the NCS staff controlled the movement of vessels throughout their zone. In August, the examination vessels helped calibrate the new guns at the Mispec Point counter-bombardment battery and approval was received to establish a War Watch Station at Tiner’s Point. Tenders for the Port War Signal Station at Mispec, planned a year earlier, were submitted in September, and in November, as traffic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence River dwindled for the winter, traffic increased in Saint John.

The winter of 1940-41 proved to be the busiest to date. The first Saint John-built corvette, HMCS Amherst, was launched on Dec. 4, while a steady stream of AMCs and warships used the dry dock, including the battleship HMS Ramilles in late winter. Tiner’s Point station opened on Jan. 20, 1941, and the Port War Signal Station at Mispec entered service on March 10. Meanwhile, from December 1940 through to May 1941 an average of 70 ocean-going ships per month called at the port: about half were routed to Halifax or Sydney for transatlantic convoys.

The summer of 1941 proved quieter. Even the number of ships clearing from ports in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was down. The reason is unclear, but the war had settled into something of a routine by the spring of 1941. The intense battles with packs of U-boats in the North Atlantic over the winter of 1940-41 had subsided, and in late June 1941 Germany invaded Russia—shifting almost everyone’s focus eastward. Whatever the reason, the tides of war carried fewer merchant ships to Saint John in 1941.

The dockyard, however, was busier than ever repairing the damage of winter storms and enemy action. By August there were seven vessels in dry dock and three more berthed alongside. The second of the corvettes, Sackville, was launched in May and Amherst underwent sea trials in July. The third patrol vessel, HMCS Moncton, rose slowly on her slip, delayed by repair work on other vessels (she eventually took the longest of any corvette—British or Canadian—to build). Meanwhile, the local naval establishment complained about too few harbour craft and the lack of a patrol vessel in the area. Cartier returned to Halifax in the summer, to be condemned and discarded. HMCS Husky, a former yacht, arrived in September to take up patrol work, but one small, poorly armed vessel was hardly sufficient.

The third winter of the war brought profound changes to the war at sea—and to Saint John. The whole of the North Atlantic was now a war zone. The appearance of U-boats in the western Atlantic at the end of January 1942—and the wave of sinkings that followed—created a tremendous increase in work for the Saint John routing staff, while crew troubles increased as merchant seamen grew wary and weary of submarine attacks. Oland’s appeals for more ships for examination service, harbour and sea patrol duties took on new urgency. By February 1942 he was asking for the establishment of a convoy system in the Bay of Fundy to protect traffic in and out of Saint John.

Oland’s concerns were not unique. Soon ad hoc convoy systems appeared throughout Canada’s area of responsibility in the western Atlantic, as local authorities scrambled to secure their shipping. Once again Oland was forced to improvise, using warships sent to Saint John for repairs as escorts for small convoys routed to Halifax where ships could join the transatlantic convoy system. When the full tide of the 1942 U-boat assault swept into Canadian waters later in the spring, Oland’s ad hoc system was crucial to defending Canada’s commercial shipping.

Much of this forgotten history, including what is described above, is adapted from New Brunswick and the Navy: Four Hundred Years, a book co-authored by myself and Glenn Leonard, available from Goose Lane Editions/The Gregg Centre, Fredericton, N.B.

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