Submarine Offensive Moves to Canada's East Coast
One week after Fort Ramsay was commissioned, Karl Thurmann, captain of U-553, piloted his U-boat into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He had been assigned to Operation Drumbeat, Germany’s strategic submarine offensive against North America’s eastern seaboard. Since its start in January 1942, the offensive had scored 48 victories against ships in Canadian east coast waters. Now, a new phase began as the battle thrust westward toward Canada’s heartland.
On the night of May 11, Thurmann sighted the Nicoya, a British freighter carrying war supplies, sailing outbound from Montreal. He torpedoed it 15 kilometres north of Pointe-à-la-Frégate. Before morning light, he also sank the Leto, a Dutch freighter chartered to the British Ministry of War Transport, off Rivière-la-Madeleine. Six merchant seaman died in the first attack and a dozen in the second.
The next day, amidst media accounts of survivors’ lifeboats drifting ashore in the Gaspé region, Naval Service Headquarters announced that:
…the first enemy attack upon shipping in the St. Lawrence River took place on 11 May, when a freighter was sunk. Forty-one survivors have been landed from this vessel. The situation regarding shipping in the river is being closely watched, and long prepared plans for its special protection... are in operation. Any possible future sinkings in this area will not be made public, in order that information of value to the enemy may be withheld from himFootnote2.
This development led to a major reinforcement of the Gaspé site and the creation of the “Gulf Escort Force” with its two corvettes, five Bangor Class minesweepers, three Fairmile motor launches, and one armed yacht. This force assumed primary responsibility for escorting Québec–Sydney convoys. Along with the Sydney Force, consisting of two Bangor minesweepers, six Fairmile launches and two armed yachts, they constituted the leading naval forces available for Gulf services.
On the night of May 8, 1942, Eastern Air Command picked up a false report of a U-boat sighting from Cape Ray, Newfoundland, and commenced anti-submarine patrols over the Gulf on May 11, 1942. Before sunset, it received word of the sinking of the Nicoya. Air reinforcements were hastily dispatched to a training airfield at Mont-Joli, Quebec. Eventually, 117 (Bomber-Reconnaissance) Squadron, equipped with Canso and Catalina aircraft, was sent to North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Although at half-strength already, 117 Squadron also formed a detachment at Gaspé. Thirteen other squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force would eventually join the fray, notable among them 113 (Bomber-Reconnaissance) Squadron of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Its Hudson aircraft would be credited with the overwhelming majority of airborne anti-submarine attacks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence by the end of 1944.
During the remainder of the ice-free season, the Canadian Navy’s modest inland escort force and its air counterparts fought against a canny and highly successful foe that operated with daunting success.
In July 1942, Ernst Vogelsang piloted U-132 into the Gulf. On July 6, within half an hour, he sank three ships from the twelve-ship convoy QS-15: the British registered Dinaric and Hainaut and the Greek vessel Anastassios Pateras. Eventually depth charge runs by HMCS Drummondville, commanded by Lieutenant J.P. Fraser, drove the submarine to the bottom, where it hid for 12 hours. Four Curtiss Kittyhawk fighters from 130 Squadron in Mont-Joli, lead by Squadron Leader J.A.J. Chevrier, scrambled to join the attack. Chevrier’s aircraft disappeared during the mission, never to be found.
On July 20, Vogelsang added to his tally. He torpedoed the British merchant ship Frederika Lensen west of Pointe-à-la-Frégate, killing 10 merchant sailors.
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