During late August, the commander of Germany’s submarine forces, Admiral Karl Dönitz, deployed three U-boats off the Strait of Belle Isle where they could attack convoys that supported the construction of new American air base facilities at Goose Bay, Labrador, or convoys that were bound from Sydney to Greenland. Thus began the tag-team blitz of Paul Hartwig’s U-517 and Eberhard Hoffman’s U-165, which would inflict the greatest shipping losses of the Gulf of St. Lawrence campaign.
On August 27, the pair launched their assault with a daylight attack on LN-6, a small Quebec-Goose Bay convoy, and SG-6, an American-escorted convoy bound from Sydney to Greenland. Just as the two convoys entered the Strait of Belle Isle, Hartwig torpedoed the US Army troop transport Chatham, which was carrying 562 passengers. The transport would become the first American troop ship lost during the Second World War. Lieutenant G.S. Hall, commanding the nearby convoy LN-6 escort HMCS Trail, broke away and joined the rescue effort that followed, helping to pluck sodden, oil-covered survivors from the icy waters.
Only 13 people on the Chatham perished thanks to these courageous efforts and those of the US Coast Guard ships escorting convoy SG-6.
The next day the U-boat duo struck at SG-6 again. U-165 torpedoed the merchant ship Laramie, while U-517 attacked the US-registered Arlyn. The Laramie survived to limp back to Sydney, Nova Scotia, but Arlyn and nine of her crew found their last resting places deep in the Strait of Belle Isle.
Hartwig’s next victim was the first Canadian merchant vessel to fall prey during the Battle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Donald Stewart, a bulk “canaller”—so called because it was small enough to navigate the pre-St. Lawrence Seaway lock system—was owned by Canada Steamship Lines of Montreal and was sailing for Labrador laden with aviation gas and bulk cement to be used by the US Air Force for runways under construction at Goose Bay. At 1:30 a.m. on September 3, Hartwig’s war shot ripped through the canaller’s hull just forward of the engine room, turning the ship into a floating inferno and killing three. Lieutenant Tom Golby, commanding HMCS Weyburn, spotted the U-boat and went full ahead, hoping to ram it. Then he fired with the corvette’s 4-inch gun, and finally dropped a couple of depth charges as the submarine dived. Hartwig managed to escape his attackers, in large measure because of problems with the corvette’s asdic (sonar) system.
The loss of the Donald Stewart set back vital construction at Goose Bay for months.
Hours after Weyburn’s action, a Digby aircraft, piloted by Flying Officer J.H. Sanderson of 10 Squadron (Gander), made the Royal Canadian Air Force’s first attack on a U-boat in the Gulf theatre. Sanderson swooped down to launch an attack on U-517 from only 45 metres above the surface of the water. Unfortunately, his depth charges went off prematurely, doing more harm to his aircraft than to the submarine.
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