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U-boats And The Spy Who Came Ashore: Navy, Part 48

Saint John Harbour Defence Craft 15 on patrol during the Second World War. [PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE]

Saint John Harbour Defence Craft 15 on patrol during the Second World War.

While residents of British Columbia waited for the war to reach their shores in the early months of 1942, submarines attacked along the east coast for the first time since 1918. For most historians the assault on Canada’s shipping began with the sinking of the steamers Nicoya and Leto in the mouth of the St. Lawrence on May 12. There is no denying the impact on the collective Canadian psyche of this brazen incident in the main seasonal artery of Canadian trade, but Canada’s trade links had been under siege for months by then.

When the St. Lawrence closed for the winter in November each year, Canadian east coast cargo handling, including the longshoremen who handled it, shifted to east coast ports, especially to Saint John, N.B., and Portland, Maine. Between November and May each year Saint John was Canada’s premier Atlantic commercial port. With considerably more alongside cargo handling capability (20 loading berths) than its Nova Scotia rival (12 in Halifax), Saint John cleared an average of 60 to 70 ocean-going ships per month during the winter.

Portland was crucial, too. And although its importance as a ‘Canadian’ winter port had diminished since the beginning of the 20th century, the direct and short rail links to Montreal remained vital. These were joined in November 1941 by the opening of the Portland to Montreal oil pipeline. This saved 2,000 miles of steaming for tankers operating to the Caribbean, and allowed the refineries of Montreal to receive some crude oil throughout the winter months. In addition, two of Portland’s seven berths were grain-loading facilities operated for the export of Canadian produce. Although the volume of Canadian cargo handled in Portland was small compared to Saint John—just 38 ships in 1941—it remained a valuable conduit for Canadian trade in the winter.

There was no “Battle of the Gulf of Maine” in 1942, but it was the first place where Canada’s economic arteries came under sustained U-boat attack. This happened as a result of two factors. First, the second wave of U-boats sent out for Operation Paunkenschlage—the assault on the North American coast in January and February—focused their efforts between the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the Nova Scotia coast. Attacks along the Nova Scotia coast concentrated southwest of Halifax, between Yarmouth and Liverpool, where six vessels were sunk close inshore. Secondly, U-boats plying the Great Circle route to the American coast sank ships in the offshore during their transits. The danger of an attack in this area during the winter was precisely why Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill recommended in 1910 that the Royal Canadian Navy have, in addition to the major dockyards at Esquimalt and Halifax, a naval station at Yarmouth.

German submarine attacks in this area in early 1942 are generally portrayed as part of the campaign against Allied shipping or the assault on America. But the concentration of U-boats and sinkings off southern Nova Scotia from January to May 1942 put Canada’s winter shipping routes under direct attack, too.

After a hiatus in April, a series of U-boats penetrated into the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine in May, and scored their first success two days before the attacks in the St. Lawrence began. In early May, U-588, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Viktor Vogel, was assigned to patrol between Halifax and Cape Sable situated on the southern tip of Nova Scotia. These were waters plied routinely by Canadian shipping, including freighters routed from Saint John to Halifax for convoys, and the aging Greek tramps that carried coal from Cape Breton to the New Brunswick port to keep its bunkers supplied. It was also a focal area for Canadian traffic from Caribbean and American ports. After having missed an American ship in the approaches to Halifax harbour on the 9th, Vogel moved south of Cape Sable and in the early hours of May 10 sank the 4,031-ton Canada Steamships vessel SS Kitty’s Brook, bound from New York to Argentia, Nfld.

After returning to the Halifax area for several days and finding naval and air patrol too oppressive, Vogel returned to the Gulf of Maine in mid-May. There, on the 17th, he sank the Norwegian steamer SS Skottland while hunting 60 miles southwest of Yarmouth. Twenty-three survivors were sighted the next day by the Royal Canadian Air Force and rescued and taken to Boston by the Canadian fishing boat O.K. Service IV.

The ex-RCMP patrol boat Invader plies the waters in Saint John, N.B.’s, inner harbour. [PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE]

The ex-RCMP patrol boat Invader plies the waters in Saint John, N.B.’s, inner harbour.

Vogel had poor luck with his next target, the SS Fort Binger, operated by the Free French on the night of May 17. His first torpedo missed, and the second merely thumped into the side of the ship and failed to explode. Fort Binger’s crew, now fully alert, manned their guns and a surface battle ensued. While the freighter manoeuvred frantically, trying to ram the U-boat, U-588’s deck gunners fired at least seven shells into the ship without serious effect. When the range opened sufficiently to allow Fort Binger’s single, four-inch gun to bear, its crew placed four rounds close enough to force Vogel to submerge. Fort Binger landed one dead and four wounded crewmen in Yarmouth the next day.

The navy’s operational history describes this as a “wild encounter that marked the end of U-588’s adventures on the fringes of the Canadian zone.” That may be strictly true: the Gulf of Maine was the southern edge of the Canadian coastal zone of operations. For their part, all Germans who operated in the area described it of marginal importance as well, complaining of constant fog and a lack of targets. But Canadian historians have been too willing to dismiss the area as a “fringe” and to take the Germans at their word about the dearth of targets: in May 1942 Saint John alone cleared 112 ships for other ports, and ran nine convoys to Halifax.

Convoys and effective control of shipping in the area were the keys to defending this vital route. Since Saint John was not an operational base and had no escorts to control, naval authorities used the steady trickle of Halifax-based escorts passing through Saint John for repairs to run an ad hoc system. Three convoys sailed to Halifax before the end of March 1942, an unknown number in April. In May, there were so few escorts available that the sailing of five vessels and several convoys were delayed. This may help explain why U-588 and U-135 found so few targets, and it remains a curious—and unexplained—fact that the delays coincide precisely with the arrival U-boats specifically tasked with attacking shipping off Saint John.

Two U-boats were dispatched to report on traffic into Saint John harbour in May 1942, to attack targets of opportunity in the Bay of Fundy and, in one case, to land a spy. The first to arrive was U-213 commanded by Kapitänleutnant von Varendorf. She had left France on April 25 with orders to land a spy along the Fundy coast of New Brunswick and “where possible, knock off a steamer near Saint John before departure.” The U-boat entered the bay on May 12 near Grand Manan Island, guided by inadequate charts and facing both fog and powerful tides, all of which made Varendorf anxious to complete his task and get out. The submarine passed along the New Brunswick shore, recording navigation light and markers, which still functioned as in peacetime, and the sweeping of searchlights off Saint John. By the early morning on May 13, she lay submerged near Quaco ledge off St. Martin’s, preparing to land “Lieutenant A. Langbein.”

Through his periscope, Varendorf spent the next day scouting the shoreline east of St. Martin’s, trying to find a suitable landing site. Then, at 10:30 p.m. on May 14, U-213 surfaced and approached to within 1,200 yards of the small coastal lumber village of Salmon River. Varendorf was probably drawn toward Salmon River because it was the only community along that dark, heavily forested shoreline that had electric light. Shortly after midnight, an inflatable boat carrying Langbein and three crewmen pushed off through the gathering fog. Langbein was in full naval uniform, the reason being that if he were captured, he would be considered a prisoner of war, not a spy.

What was supposed to be a short trip to the beach turned into a four-hour ordeal with the enormous Fundy tide. Langbein was nonetheless deposited near Salmon River and the inflatable boat returned to U-213. On May 16, as the U-boat cleared the Bay of Fundy, Varendorf signalled the successful completion of his mission.

But he was only partially successful: Varendorf attacked no shipping in the bay, and he blamed persistent poor weather for his inability to find a target. As Michael Hadley concluded, German U-boat command blamed the captain’s “poor tactical record on lack of aggressiveness.” The only contact with U-213 while she was in the area was made by a Norwegian destroyer off Yarmouth, which attacked it on May 15 without result.

Langbein also failed in his mission. Once ashore, he buried his naval uniform and radio, and in civilian clothes walked the long road into St. Martin’s. No one at Huttge’s General Store, where he bought a ticket to Saint John, questioned his outdated Canadian two dollar bills and oversized American money. Langbein eventually settled in Montreal and was soon arrested for failing to pay his brothel bill. “Booked under a fictitious name, according to the conventions of the day for customers caught in flagrante,” Hadley wrote, “he paid his caution and was quickly released.” It was later determined that Langbein had worked in Canada before the war, and had been a frequent patron of The Half Way speakeasy in Flin Flon, Man., where he was often found in the arms of Blonde Annie and Suede Anne. When his money finally ran out in the fall of 1944, Langbein surrendered to the RCMP who uncovered his charred radio and clothes. Langbein spent the rest of the war in an internment camp.

The other U-boat off Saint John in May 1942 posed a much greater threat, but its failure to encounter any shipping probably had fortuitous and long-term positive implications for the security of the port and the bay. In late May, U-553—fresh from its exploits in the St. Lawrence—entered the Bay of Fundy specifically in search of ships using Saint John. The Germans knew Saint John had a large harbour, with deep water alongside, and a dry dock, but that was about it. German worldwide radio propaganda broadcasts were already lauding the success of Korvettenleutnant Karl Thurmann. So unlike Varendorf of U-213, Thurmann was no shrinking violet.

U-553 arrived off Saint John harbour in the early hours of May 27 and immediately surfaced in full moonlight to have a look. Thurmann’s War Diary reads: “Six miles off St. John. Radio and navigation beacons as in peacetime. Barrage at harbour entrance with a powerful search light which apparently is tested a couple of times at the outset of darkness. Lay stopped on the surface.”

The Zoarces participates in ship examination duties in the controlled anchorage off Partridge Island, N.B. [PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE]

The Zoarces participates in ship examination duties in the controlled anchorage off Partridge Island, N.B.

Thurmann signalled a report to headquarters, and then spent the next five days watching the port and signalling his observations. Canadian naval intelligence knew he was in the area, but Thurmann’s brazen use of his wireless every night appears to have gone undetected. Direction finding stations had difficulty early in the war locating transmissions from close inshore. There is (apparently) no evidence that Thurmann’s presence off Saint John occasioned extraordinary care in routing—although we know there were delays. Thurmann saw no shipping and was inclined to blame U-boats hunting south of Halifax for a general chill in ship movements.

There were few operational forces available locally to search for him, but they came close once. In the dark hours on the morning of May 29, U-553 lay on the surface as aircraft flew overhead and escorts steamed to within 1,000 yards of the sub without ever spotting her. Thurmann put these efforts down as an exercise, but they may have been hunting for him. At this stage of the war few Canadian small ships or aircraft had radar, and finding U-553 in the darkness would have been a stroke of luck. In the event, Thurmann reported—completely erroneously—to his headquarters that Saint John “is not used as a loading terminal for convoys.” The “lively coming and going” of small escort vessels suggested to him that Saint John was a support base for escorts, used to “take the pressure off the convoy assembly ports.” U-553 sank several ships off Nova Scotia and in the Gulf of Maine before heading home.

The U-boat was the last one to enter the Bay of Fundy during the war, and the last to hunt off Saint John. Thurmann’s reports were probably the cause of abiding German disinterest. Certainly there were targets aplenty, especially in the winter. It seems that the Germans had no idea of the seasonal fluctuations in Canadian shipping and the importance of Saint John. The same might be said of generations of Canadian naval historians, including this one.

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