Search for Deadly Submarines

Fairmiles of the 82<sup>nd</sup> Flotilla stop off at the Gaspé after buffeting winter stroms on the the way down the St. Lawrence to Halifax. Library and Archives PA 134348

Fairmiles of the 82nd Flotilla stop off at the Gaspé after buffeting winter stroms on the the way down the St. Lawrence to Halifax. Library and Archives PA 134348

Now the Royal Canadian Air Force threw all it could into the search for the deadly submarines. It rushed further bombers to Mont-Joli. Knowing that the very presence of air cover could deter the U-boats, the RCAF’s Eastern Air Command even ordered aircraft from the Operational Training Units in Greenwood and Debert, Nova Scotia, and from the General Reconnaissance Schools in Summerside and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, into the air. Improved air cover could do little, however, if weather conspired against the defenders. And that is what happened with convoy QS-33. It was enveloped by fog between Cap-Chat and Gaspé and emerged the worst-mauled convoy of the Gulf contest.

Ironically, heavy air cover elsewhere drove the U-boats further up the Gulf, west of Pointe-des-Monts, where the St. Lawrence narrows to 50 kilometres in width. There, they intercepted eight merchant ships, escorted by the corvette HMCS Arrowhead, the minesweeper HMCS Truro, the armed yacht HMCS Raccoon and two Fairmile launches. The convoy was off Cap-Chat shortly after 10 p.m. on September 6, 1942, when U-165 sank the Greek merchant ship Aeas with a torpedo, killing two. The Arrowhead, the lead escort, turned back and through the glow of starshell, its captain, Commander E.G. Skinner, saw the Raccoon zig-zagging in search of the submarine. That was the last time anyone saw the little warship—a torpedo caused her boiler to explode and she sank in minutes.

A few days earlier near Matane, the Raccoon had seen two torpedoes cross its bows at perilously close range, but had escaped unscathed. Now, its luck ran out. At 1:12 a.m. on September 7, as the convoy passed Rivière-la-Madeleine, two loud explosions rent the night. Ships in company guessed they were hearing depth charges dropped by the Raccoon as it continued to pursue U-165. Only later was it discovered that the sounds were those of a German torpedo ripping through the converted yacht.

HMCS Raccoon and its entire crew of 37 were lost in an instant. One of those who perished was Supply Assistant John Sheflin. As his ship went down, a train sped through nearby Rivière-la-Madeleine carrying his wife Marguerite and two pre-school children. They had made a spur-of-the moment decision to move from Toronto to join family in Eureka, Nova Scotia, so that they could see Sheflin when he took his occasional shore leaves. It would be years before his family discovered just how close together they were, before tragedy tore them apart forever.

The next day, U-517 attacked the diminished convoy. Hartwig lay in wait just off Cap-Gaspé, as his prey slowly advanced towards him through fog and mist. Within short order, he sent three more merchant ships to the bottom. The Battle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence claimed the Greek registered ships Mount Pindus and Mount Taygetus. Two seamen perished in the first and five in the second. The Oakton, owned by the Gulf and Lake Navigation Company of Montreal, was Hartwig’s next target. His torpedo struck its engine room, killing an oiler and two firemen, then sending a cargo of coal destined for Corner Brook, Newfoundland, to the bottom. Lieutenant Bill Grant in Fairmile 083 rescued 17 survivors from the Oakton, along with 61 sailors from the two Greek vessels.

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