The Battle Of The St. Lawrence Begins: Navy, Part 49

February 17, 2012 by Marc Milner

Survivors of the steamer Nicoya, May 1942. [PHOTO: C. IAN TATE]

Survivors of the steamer Nicoya, May 1942.
PHOTO: C. IAN TATE

In the early morning darkness of May 12, 1942, U-553, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Karl Thurmann, sank the steamers Nicoya and Leto, 16 kilometres off the Gaspé coast. Thurmann had pursued the 5,364-ton British freighter Nicoya for roughly an hour before the first torpedo struck. In the 19 minutes it took to deliver the final killing shot, most of Nicoya’s 87 crew and passengers got safely away. They landed at the tiny Gaspé villages of Cloridorme and L’Anse-à-Valleau. Those aboard Leto were less fortunate. Thurmann found the 4,712-ton Dutch steamer by chance several hours later and sent her to the bottom in 12 minutes with one well-placed torpedo. Only a small boat and a raft got clear, and most of the survivors were in the water for a couple of hours before being rescued. Twelve of Leto’s 43 passengers and crew perished.

The sinking of Nicoya and Leto did not, as conventional wisdom would have it, signal the commencement of the German attack on Canadian shipping: that had been going on for a while. But it did signal the start of a campaign that brought the shooting war into the church halls and kitchens of coastal communities, and deposited the flotsam and jetsam of war along their shorelines. It was impossible to stop tongues from wagging, the press from bleating and Parliament from debating the deep penetration of the enemy into Canadian waters. Most wanted to know how the Royal Canadian Navy could have let it happen.

The RCN had long anticipated U-boat attacks in the Gulf of St Lawrence, and by 1941 had developed elaborate plans for launching a counteroffensive. These plans included establishing “strike forces,” essentially groups of two corvettes, at key points throughout the St. Lawrence River and Gulf to respond to any attack. In addition, roving “hunting and strike forces” would, in co-operation with Royal Canadian Air Force patrols, carry out prolonged searches to root out attackers. The objective in both cases was to sink subs. In early 1942, none of these measures, except the air patrols, was in place.

The attacks on May 12 took everyone by surprise, even the Germans. U-553 was tasked with operating in the Atlantic off Newfoundland. But damage suffered on patrol encouraged Thurmann to find a quiet area to effect repairs, and so he slipped into the Gulf. His movement into the entrance of the river was therefore fortuitous, not least because the shipping season had barely begun. Thurmann’s timing was perfect.

His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Raccoon. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA183637]

His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Raccoon.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA183637


The RCN’s lack of preparation in the Gulf—even after years of anticipation—was not entirely its fault: by the spring of 1942 it was simply too stretched to deploy forces in an area not yet under attack. Since January, when RCN planners concluded that only the British and American navies could actually win the war at sea, the navy had committed itself to maximizing its efforts to free British and American forces to do just that. The decision was as rational as it was selfless—and in time it would blow up in the RCN’s face.

The root of the problem was that the European war was now a global one. This not only put enormous pressure on Allied naval forces, but also profoundly altered the RCN’s operational role and its vision of its own fleet development. As late as the fall of 1941, only Commodore Leonard Murray, in charge of the Newfoundland Escort Force, seemed convinced that fighting U-boats was the future of the RCN. Senior officers in Ottawa expected the war to be over in two years, and so they remained focused on acquiring ships for the postwar fleet. As Vice-Admiral H. G. DeWolf, who was in 1942 the Director of Plans at Naval Service Headquarters, recalled many years later, the navy made no plans in 1941 for the long-term maintenance, let alone modernization, of its growing fleet of escort vessels. Its only concession was to let contracts to build nine marine haulouts on the East Coast. Then the Japanese struck, changing everything.

The 1942 expansion of the war at sea thrust Canada’s escort fleet into prominence, and pulled it in several directions at once. The importance of operations east of Newfoundland was confirmed during the winter, as American destroyers drifted away to the Pacific or U.S. coastal waters. The “North Atlantic Run,” now part of the Mid-Ocean Escort Force, became the RCN’s premier operational tasking.

But soon even Canadian mid-ocean forces were thinned out in response to German attacks in the Western Hemisphere. These forced the RCN to formalize—with the establishment in February 1942 of the Western Local Escort Force based in Halifax—local escort arrangements for ocean-going convoys between Nova Scotia and the Grand Banks. That same month, the first of an expanding series of local convoys began sailing between Sydney and St. John’s. Boston to Halifax convoys under Canadian escort followed in March and about a week later the first Canadian oil convoy left Halifax for Trinidad (later Aruba). These convoys operated virtually without loss in 1942, despite German attempts to attack them.

His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Drummondville. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA166581]

His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Drummondville.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA166581


Not surprisingly, as the ice cleared from the St. Lawrence in the spring, a new convoy system between Sydney and Quebec City (the QS-SQ series) was mustered—the Gulf Escort Force, using ships of every shape and size. Among them were new Bangor-class minesweepers, which were transferred en masse to escort duty on May 1, 1942, leaving the mine-clearing task to auxiliary vessels. Even the British, stressed as they were, found 10 short-range destroyers to help in the western Atlantic in early 1942. A few corvettes, with their much-needed radar, were assigned to the Gulf escort group. So, too, were several armed yachts, a motley collection of private vessels taken up for service early in the war and given animal names such as Cougar and Raccoon. To support these new operations, the RCN began to develop its Sydney base into a full-fledged naval facility and expanded the base at Gaspé.

The Canadian response to the U-boat challenge in the western Atlantic in early 1942 was a triumph of organization and professionalism: a system of escorted convoys that would defeat the submarine at the strategic and operational levels. However, the escorts remained poorly trained and poorly equipped, and skilled senior officers were in short supply. At best, the escorts were a deterrent; at worst, an embarrassment. As events of 1942 would show, they were no match for skilled submariners in the narrow and difficult waters of the St. Lawrence.

But here, too, the tactics required to deal with U-boats in the River and Gulf were beyond the RCN’s ability: the waters were virtually impenetrable by Second World War sonar technology. It is unlikely, therefore, that the RCN’s ambitious plans for “striking forces” to hunt and kill submarines in the Gulf would have worked. The best place to find U-boats in the St. Lawrence—as in the broad reaches of the North Atlantic—was around the convoys, and that’s where the RCN put its escorts.

The RCN issued a terse statement on May 12 about the sinking of Nicoya, announcing at the same time that nothing more would be said about it. When word of Leto’s sinking came through, the Naval Minister, Angus L. Macdonald, issued another, similar press release. Macdonald and the navy could not control the story, however. Indeed, the next day, German press releases and radio broadcasts gloated over the triumph. “This is the first time,” a German news broadcast reported on the morning of the May 13, “that U-boats [have operated] so far from the sea. The news [of the sinkings] broke like a bombshell in Canada and the United States.” They were soon all over the front pages of Canadian papers.

His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Cougar. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA184045]

His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Cougar.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA184045

A firestorm of public anger and discontent about preparations to defend Canada’s most important shipping artery would eventually break out, and it would burn fiercely throughout 1942. For the moment, however, the timing of the May 12 attack intervened in Canada’s domestic politics. Just two weeks earlier, Mackenzie King’s government held a national plebiscite asking to be excused from an earlier pledge not to introduce conscription for overseas service. With the war now a global one, King wanted a free hand. “Conscription if necessary,” King urged in April, “but not necessarily conscription.” English Canada voted 75 per cent to release King from his pledge; Quebec voters rejected his plea by the same margin. News of the fate of Nicoya and Leto reached King on May 12, just as he was about to confront his angry Quebec caucus. A devoted spiritualist, King was soothed by the news from Gaspé. According to the RCN official history, U-553’s exploits, “magically revived his spirits: it was ‘evidence of guidance’—intervention on King’s behalf from the spirit world.”

Fortunately for King, U-553 did just enough to strengthen his hand without—yet—embarrassing his government. The navy had no hunting forces to deploy: its only immediate recourse was to halt independent shipping in the Gulf. While the RCAF increased its air patrols, the Gulf Escort Force was assembled and the first QS-SQ series of convoys departed from Sydney and Quebec City on May 17. Meanwhile, Thurmann slipped away. By May 21, he was in the Bay of Fundy tracking shipping off Saint John harbour.

It was nearly two full months before the next U-boat hunted off Gaspé and the real St. Lawrence campaign began. When U-132 arrived in early July off Cap-Chat, well down the river, traffic was moving in escorted convoys. Along the Atlantic seaboard, where there was ample room for evasive routing, convoys were difficult for individual submariners to find. In fact, avoidance of the enemy was the key to the success of the whole escorted convoy system. But in the “slot” between Father Point and Cap-Gaspé at the lower end of the St. Lawrence, the QS-SQ convoys were confined to a narrow route along the southern shore. Once in place, U-boats could wait for the convoys to come to them. This happened for the first time on the bright moonlit night of July 6, not far from Rimouski, when U-132 sank three ships from convoy QS-15.

The counterattack, and U-132’s own evasive manoeuvres, illustrate many of the problems of anti-submarine warfare in the St. Lawrence River and Gulf that plagued the RCN for the rest of the war. Star shell fired by the escort revealed U-132 on the surface (good radar might have done that sooner) and the Bangor escort Drummondville tried to ram it. U-132 got under before it arrived, but the U-boat struck a denser layer of water some 20 metres down, which checked the dive. U-132 hung there long enough for three depth charges from Drummondville to inflict some serious damage. Eventually, U-132 broke and was able to plunge deeper just as three more charges went off. Frantic efforts finally stopped the sub’s dive at 185 metres, leaving just enough compressed air to blow ballast. U-132’s captain waited several hours before gingerly bringing the sub to the surface. By then, the hunting forces were two miles away, and U-132 escaped.

“The beginning of the ‘Bataille du St. Laurent’,” wrote former naval reserve captain Michael Hadley, “aroused the latent suspicions of many Quebecers that the federal government had been neglecting to provide adequate defences.” The attack on convoy QS-15 was raised in Parliament by an MP from Gaspé and pursued for days. “[H]alf the people” in Quebec City knew about the attacks, and the citizens of the province wanted to know what the government was doing about it. Naval minister Macdonald, unfortunately, was not very sympathetic, portraying “the Quebec populace as a simpering pressure group, whereas ‘not once’ had he heard any ‘complaints’ from his own Maritimes.” As Hadley observed, the debate in Parliament “divided anglophone and francophone by pitting one myth against another,” while Macdonald’s slur “was unfair, and the polarization had unfortunate consequences throughout the war.” The situation only got worse as the summer wore on.

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