Remembrance Day, 2023, will once again be observed at memorial services in churches, Legions, and at cenotaphs everywhere in South Dundas, and throughout our entire nation. We have lost too many young people in too many wars, lost their hopes, their dreams, their futures, to ever forget them. On this one day out of the year many of us will gather to quietly say, “We remember you. Always.”
Most of us know the names of Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, The Somme, Beaumont-Hamel – ferocious battles from World War I. Ask Canadians about the Invasion of Sicily, the courageous disaster at Dieppe, the ultimate triumph at Juno Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and they will recollect at least some details. Canadians gained a reputation in 1914, and again in 1939, for their courage, their doggedness, their sheer fighting spirit. Why there is even a story that whenever the German High Command spotted the Allies sending Canadian troops to the front of the trenches in the Great War, they passed the word along to their troops – “We’re in for a hell of a fight.” At the very least, most of us tend to know something of the far-flung European battles of World Wars I and II.
However, far fewer of us know the stories of those months when Hitler’s war came to our own doorstep, ravaged our own shores. It is time to remember the men, women, and, sadly, children, who died in the attacks on Canada’s east coast. On this Remembrance Day, we should honour them as well.
From the moment England declared war on Germany in 1939, it fell to Canada to keep Atlantic convoys of food and war supplies moving from North America to a beleaguered Great Britain. And, with just as much determination, German U-Boats were dispatched to sink those convoys. However, what many Canadians don’t realize, even today, is that several of those U-Boats actually entered the St. Lawrence – and proceeded to destroy ships, both military and civilian, right in our very heartland. In the early days of WWII, we had no aircraft, and one 18 metre naval vessel anchored at Gaspé as our defences on the river. It was rare for ships to even have gunners on watch.
May, 1942, U-553 entered the St. Lawrence. May 11, it sunk the merchant ship, ‘SS Nicoya.’ Two hours later, the freighter ‘SS Leto’ was torpedoed and sunk: 12 of her 43 crew died. In July, U-132 (also moving freely in the St. Lawrence) hunted down a convoy of 12 ships en route to Sydney, Nova Scotia, torpedoed and sank three of them.
The carnage continued. Subs would rendezvous with German tankers off the coast and immediately re-enter the St. Lawrence. September 6, U-165 hit a convoy of eight merchant vessels, and even sank the armed yacht, ‘Racoon,’ which was supposed to be escorting them: her entire crew of 38 died. U-517 attacked the same convoy again the next day and sank three more freighters.
Yet most Canadians – with the exception of those people in Quebec and the Maritimes who actually witnessed the explosions, saw the dead being brought ashore – knew almost nothing about these attacks. The reason: national security and morale. Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the War Cabinet did not want a “general panic” in Canada, and did not want Canadians to learn that the enemy was right on their doorstep. The media was hushed up, reports buried. The dead were quietly laid to rest. Security was eventually stepped up along the river and Bay of Fundy: ships and gun boats patrolled the rivers, inlets and bays – especially when it was rumoured that U-Boat crews were actually coming ashore in some places.
As the war shifted from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the number of U-Boats in the St. Lawrence grew smaller. But not before U-69, in the Cabot Strait, made the deadliest attack of all, October 14, 1942.
U-69 spotted the ferry ‘SS Caribou,’ with an escort, ‘HMCS Grandmere,’ night crossing from North Sydney to Port aux Basques carrying 237 passengers and crew. The sub fired a single torpedo. As the ‘Grandmere’ frantically dropped depth charges, the ‘Caribou,’ went down in just five minutes. Only 102 people survived. Among those lost were 10 children, the captain, nursing sisters, many crew and five sets of brothers. While there were many instances of selfless heroism as passengers fought to help each other, there was little that could be done. U-69 escaped back into the Atlantic. The death of the ‘Caribou’ would be one of the few times that media censorship was actually lifted. In front page stories, all Canadians learned of the tragedy.
With the nature of the war changing in Europe, subs were finally pulled from the St. Lawrence. In November, 1943, the ‘HMCS Shawinigan,’ preparing for Atlantic escort duty, was torpedoed by U-1228 off Port aux Basques. She sank so rapidly that she never even got off a distress signal. All 91 of her naval crew died.
The ‘Shawinigan’ was the last official casualty of what is now know as the Battle of the St. Lawrence.
This Remembrance Day 2023, remember that many who also paid the ultimate price for Canada, may not have actually worn uniforms. November 11 is their day too.