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Closing the Gulf of St. Lawrence

The corvette <abbr title='Her Majesty's Canadian Ship'>HMCS</abbr> <em>Shawinigan</em>, a veteran of the St. Lawrence convoy battles. Department of National Defence WO-30-126

The corvette HMCS Shawinigan, a veteran of the St. Lawrence convoy battles. Department of National Defence WO-30-126

Faced with a rising toll on lives and shipping, the Canadian government closed the St. Lawrence to all trans-Atlantic shipping on September 9, 1942, and limited coastal convoys to essential levels. This still left considerable work for the defenders, as 40 per cent of traffic on the Sydney-Quebec corridor supported economically vital coastal shipping. Their task was made all the more difficult by a controversial naval decision to divert 17 desperately-needed corvettes to Operation Torch, the impending invasion of North Africa.

Eastern Air Command positioned itself to better defend the remaining convoys by establishing a “Special Submarine Hunting Detachment” of 113 Squadron in Chatham, New Brunswick. They made their first U-boat attack on September 9, when Pilot Officer R.S. Keetley dove on U-165, about 32 kilometres south of Anticosti Island. He did not do much damage to the submarine, but subsequent naval and air activity in the area frustrated the U-boat’s efforts to attack other convoys.

Still, the losses mounted. HMCS Charlottetown, which had successfully escorted 11 Quebec–Sydney convoys, fell victim to U-517 on September 11. Taking place in broad daylight, the attack horrified onlookers, who saw the debacle from shore. The ship sank within four minutes. Only one sailor was killed as a direct result of the exploding torpedoes, but nine other seamen would perish from injuries sustained in the water when the Charlottetown’s depth-charges and ammunition detonated as it was sinking to the bottom. Those lost included the captain, Lieutenant-Commander John Bonner. Crew member Tommy MacDonald was wounded in the explosions but he tried to retrieve a float for his shipmates. His actions put too much of a strain on his wounds and he died later in Gaspé. Also lost was seaman John “Judy” Garland. After having ensured that most crew members had life jackets, Garland went below to rescue the ship’s mascot, Screech, a dog to which he was devoted. Garland perished in the attempt. Tragically, the dog was already in the water and needed no assistance. Screech was presented to Garland’s mother by surviving members of the crew a few weeks later.

Hartwig’s submarine would end its reign of terror in the St. Lawrence on September 15 with an attack on the 21-ship convoy, SQ-36, adding the Saturnus and Inger Elisabeth to his deadly tally. Despite counter-attacks by a heavy escort that included the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Salisbury, five other warships, and good air cover, U-517 only sustained minor damage. Before the convoy reached its destination, Hoffman’s U-165 would send the merchantman Joannis to the bottom too.

Now, Hartwig was transformed from hunter to hunted, as he endured a series of attacks by warships, and by pilots from 113 Squadron, who were employing new, more effective anti-submarine tactics. On September 16, Pilot Officer Keetley bracketed U-517 with four depth charges, but failed to sink the U-boat. At one point, a depth-charge was caught on the deck of U-517. It was unfastened and thrown overboard. Had the U-boat descended deep enough, the depth-charge would have destroyed it. HMCS Georgian discovered the submarine positioning itself to attack convoy SQ-38 off Gaspé on September 21, and relentlessly pursued the marauder for two hours with depth charge attacks. Finally, the Georgian crew saw the U-boat surface, roll, and sink again. It looked like Hartwig had finally met his end, but he survived, laying low for two days while he repaired damages. Then, it was the air force’s turn to stalk the submarine ace again.

Within 24 hours of September 24, crews from 113 Squadron registered seven sightings and three attacks on U-517. Flying Officer M.J. Bélanger, an experienced 23-year old Québec native who came to the squadron from duty as a flying instructor, made two of the attacks. Neither sank the U-boat. Aircraft continued to harry the submarine as it cruised the Gulf. Bélanger was in the cockpit for another attack on U-517 on September 29. Although his depth charges exploded all around the submarine’s hull, it survived yet again. Still, Bélanger’s attacks had badly hurt the submarine. Later the young airman would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, in large part for his determined attack of Hartwig’s U-boat.

As U-517 and U-165 left the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Admiral Dönitz sent five more submarines to take their places. These found air defences intimidating, and the convoys much better defended. Nevertheless, U-69 was able to creep up the St. Lawrence River to within 300 kilometres of Quebec City. There, off Métis Beach, it sank the Canadian freighter Carolus, taking 11 lives. One of those killed was 16-year old John Milmine of Verdun, Québec, a galley boy sailing in his first ship. More fortunate was Robert Dowson, RCNVR, also of Verdun, who was among the 19 crew members rescued. Dowson, senior of three gunners on the Carolus, was one of about 1,600 members of the Royal Canadian Navy who, along with members of the Royal Artillery Marine Regiment, volunteered to serve in Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) during the war.

U-106 slipped through Cabot Strait and also reported unpromising conditions. Despite that, when convoy BS-31 from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, crossed its path, U-106 sent the Bowood pulp carrier Waterton to the bottom. It was one of five ships lost to enemy action by the Newfoundland paper company during the war. Luckily Waterton’s crew all survived the ordeal. Counterattacks by the armed yacht HMCS Vison and aircraft from 117 (Bomber-Reconnaissance) Squadron drove the submarine below the surface, where it remained at great depth for eight hours. Her veteran commander, Herman Rasch, declared that anti-submarine conditions in the area were “exactly like those in the [Bay of] Biscay” off France, where Allied forces were engaged in an all-out offensive against the German submarines. Rasch would leave the Gulf after three weeks, denied further victories.

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