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Did the Allies win the Battle of the St. Lawrence?

He is an award-winning journalist, editor, photographer and Legion Magazine staff writer. He has reported on the downfall of South African apartheid and from war fronts in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Illustrations by Joel Kimmel

Stephen J. Thorne says NO

The Battle of the St. Lawrence was a limited engagement by opportunistic German U-boat captains to harass shipping in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, to a smaller degree, the St. Lawrence River itself.

What amounted to a series of attacks spilled into the Cabot Strait and Newfoundland’s Conception Bay, where German unterseeboots sank the ferry Caribou off Port aux Basques and five cargo ships at the anchorage off Bell Island, Nfld., respectively.

The “battle,” such as it was, was adjunct to the epic, high-seas confrontation that took place over the war’s six-year duration as the wolf packs of German Admiral Karl Dönitz hunted down the transatlantic convoys supplying Britain, the Soviet Union and the North African campaign.

U-boats sank 3,500 merchant vessels and 175 warships and killed more than 72,000 merchant and navy seamen. But the cost was great: 783 U-boats were sunk and 28,500 of 40,000 submariners were killed—believed to be the war’s highest casualty rate.

Capitalizing on Canada’s weak home defences, German subs operated within sight of coastal villages.

The Battle of the St. Lawrence lasted parts of three shipping seasons, and the bulk of activity took place primarily in one—1942, during which U-boats conducted a campaign, Operation Drumbeat, along North America’s entire eastern seaboard into the Caribbean.

Capitalizing on Canada’s weak home defences, German subs operating within sight of coastal villages even forced a partial shutdown in gulf shipping activity between late-1942 and late-1944.

Dönitz eventually decided he had bigger fish to fry—namely, the plethora of ships carrying troops and materiel through the gauntlet on the notorious North Atlantic Run.

“The only thing that ever really frightened me was the U-boat peril,” Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, wrote in his postwar memoir, citing his country’s “potential strangulation” due to the mounting losses in critical men and supplies aboard transports primarily sailing out of Halifax, Sydney, N.S., and St. John’s, Nfld.

The gulf offensive involved 17 U-boats. A handful of them sank 23 merchant vessels and four warships at a loss of about 340 lives, along with six ships and some 200 more lives in Newfoundland waters. Not inconsequential, by any means.

But while several U-boats were damaged and their crews suffered casualties, no German sub was sunk in the gulf.

Twelve of those subs were eventually destroyed in operations far from Canada’s near-shore waters. Of their 631 crew, 526 were killed in action—a staggering 83 per cent.

The Battle of the St. Lawrence served as a wake-up call to Ottawa, as Operation Drumbeat did to Washington. In that sense, it was a win for the Allied cause, motivating both governments to augment coastal defence.

To declare it an Allied victory, however, is a stretch. As near-shore defences and tactics developed, the limited number of U-boats involved moved on to bigger and better things. The Allied triumph would come later. 

The editor of Legion Magazine and the former editor-in-chief and associate publisher of Canadian Geographic. He is also the author of the Biggest and Best of Canada: 1000 Facts and Figures.
Illustrations by Joel Kimmel

Aaron Kylie says Yes

The loss of hundreds of lives and fewer than three dozen ships in the Battle of the St. Lawrence should not be minimized. Nor should those losses be torpedoed out of proportion in evaluating the fight’s outcome.

The series of attacks re-inforced the fact that the realities of the Second World War could come within shooting distance of Canadian homes and led to the growth of Canada’s homeland defence. 

“The sinking of the SS Caribou brings the war to Canada with tragic emphasis,” said Minister of Defence for Naval Services Angus Macdonald days after the ferry was sunk by U-69 on Oct. 16, 1942.

The attack hit close to home for Atlantic Canadians, Newfoundlanders and, particularly, for Quebecers, many of whom were originally opposed to Canada’s participation in the war. It hastened support for both the war and the development of the Royal Canadian Navy in domestic waters. 

 The growth included measures to counter the incursions: the opening of naval base HMCS Fort Ramsay in Gaspé and the mobilization of the Gulf Escort Force, which included two corvettes, five Bangor-class minesweepers, three Fairmile motor launches and one armed yacht.

The aggressions inspired other defensive developments, too: the creation of the civilian Aircraft Detection Corps, which emcompassed some 1,320 volunteer observers in Quebec, Atlantic Canada and Newfoundland, as well as the start of routine anti-submarine air patrols, involving 14 area squadrons. 

The ship loss rate is estimated at just 1.2 per cent.

These efforts put a quick end to the relatively few attacks in the region’s waters. During the battle, just 33 vessels were sunk—the vaunted unterseeboots, meanwhile, had taken out some 6.3 million tons of Allied shipping in the North Atlantic in 1942 alone.

As Canadian naval historian Marc Milner wrote in 2012, “historians have long known that losses to local convoys in the Canadian coastal zone in 1942 were actually negligible.” The ship loss rate is estimated at just 1.2 per cent.

Interestingly, the largest deployment of U-boats in Canadian waters occurred in the fall of 1942. But, as Milner wrote: “The Canadian victory in the St. Lawrence in late 1942 was the quiet work of intelligence and operational staffs, routine and targeted patrols, growing skill on the part of the defenders and new technologies. No one noticed at the time but the Germans.”

When Kapitänleutnant Ernst Vogelsang of U-132 returned to Europe in mid-August, he reported the situation in the Strait of Belle Isle as “unfavourable.” By November, the defence was so stout that U-183 refused to enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

“It is not a tale of great drama: no unknown U-boat kills have been uncovered, and there was no single decisive battle,” wrote Milner, but “it was a clear Canadian victory.” 

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