Newfoundland Attacked by Submarines

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 30, -0001 12:00 AM
Most people believe that the Second World War was fought in Europe and Asia, and that none of it touched North America. For the most part this is true.

Newfoundland was the exception. It was the one part of North America where the war was very close to home. The Caribou was sunk in October of 1942, by a German U-boat, taking 137 lives. Other ships were sunk by German submarines around the province, as well as in other areas this side of the Atlantic. But the only place where the war was brought to land on the Atlantic side of North America was in Newfoundland. First, there was a secret weather station set up by the Germans in Labrador to assist them in their relentless pursuit of Allied ships (this station was not discovered until years after the war ended).

On March 3, 1942, German U-boat 587 fired three torpedoes which struck the land on the north and south sides of the entrance to St. John's Harbour. Then at Bell Island in 1942, torpedoes struck the Scotia loading pier and four ore boats were sunk while taking on iron ore at Lance Cove. Two Canadian ships, the Lord Strathcona and the Rose Castle, fell victim to enemy torpedoes in broad daylight on September 5, 1942. A British ship, the Saganaga and a French-owned ship, the PLM 27, which was being used by the British, were blown up at night by German U-boats on November 2, 1942. Sixty-nine lives were lost in the two attacks.

Ron Hammond, who now owns a fish and chips restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, was a boy living on Bell Island when the attacks took place. He recently came to visit me at Downhomer and told me about the two incidents. The following story was told in his own words.

It was a bright sunny Saturday morning just before lunch, I was standing at a garden fence watching and listening to the sailors on the two oil carriers that were anchored off Lance Cove. My father was cutting the head off a hen for Sunday dinner, and I couldn't stand the sight of blood so I looked around and looked at the boats. I was listening and I was watching one of the ships. I forget the name now, but it was the first one that was sunk. I was looking right at her when she blew right out of the water.

There was a lot of commotion and the boat next to it anchored out, the life boats started coming down over the side. Some were half in the air, and half in the water. Some had let go of the ropes and there was total confusion.

They were trying to see if they could save anybody I suppose. Then about twenty minutes or a half hour after the first ship blew up, the second one blew right up in the middle and settled down into two pieces. There was a big cloud of dust in the sky, Then the two pieces of the boat slipped slowly below the water.

"What about the first boat, was she blown in two?" I asked.

The first boat was blown to pieces. There was just one big ball of dust. I remember seeing people all around, running all over the place. I wasn't allowed out of the yard. My father told me to go indoors, and I went in the house and looked out the window. My mother called me down for dinner, and she called dad in and I asked dad what happened. He said, "A terrible thing happened. A lot of people got killed. That's what happens when people can't live with each other. They fight with each other, and they kill each other."

Just a few hundred yards from where I lived, right over the cliff, the Militia, they used to be called the Home Defense, they came in trucks and were all over the place. They were running and jumping over the fence, and they were spraying bullets across Conception Bay. Some people said they killed hens over in Manuels, but I don't know how true that is.

"What were the Militia shooting at out there?" I asked.

They were shooting at nothing. They were shooting at the water, but apparently, I heard after that they couldn't get their guns aimed, so the bullets were landing over in Manuels.

"Could they see any Submarines out there?"

No, but I saw a submarine, and I told my father. After the ships were sunk, sometime late in the afternoon, I saw her through the bedroom window. I told my father, and he said, "You didn't see anything, and now don't you look out that window. Stay away from the window." But I actually saw it, true as God is my judge.

I remember that night, they had certain people, certain men in the community, they called them air raid wardens, they had to go around in the night time to check on the windows to make sure there was no light coming out the windows. There were special black curtains, they were pulled tight, and before the lights went on this had to be done. You would be reported, if they could see any light through those curtains.

Of course, I had to be smart and take the flashlight and go out and start shining the light up in the air like this, just to be different, just because I was told you couldn't do that, well we had a flashlight to go to the outhouse.

On Sunday we didn't go in the garden to finish our weeding, which we had planned, but we did go to church.

On Monday morning we went to school and we said a prayer for all the men who lost their lives. Then we carried on with our lives. There was no messing around with it after that. I was ten years old at the time.

Then on November 2nd, we were all in bed asleep, and suddenly everything shook. There was noise like thunder roaring, it would stop and go again within seconds. Then I heard, "Help! Help! Help!" way off in the distance. There were probably many voices, and they were all crying out for help. I remember walking out of the bedroom door in the hall and my father was putting his clothes on to go down to the beach. He told me to go back to bed, and "don't turn any lights on."

Everybody was in the dark, and then I heard stories after of how they were out in the boats and the guys would grab someone in the dark, almost get them in the boat, but, with oil and everything, they would slip right out of their hands back into the water and they would be gone. I saw bodies in blacksmith Jimmy Rees's barn on the beach. I remember going down over the cliff over the bank, and crawling up and looking in through his manure disposal hatch. I looked in there, and there were three or four bodies on the floor and the door was opened leading to the barn. The bodies were left there, until somebody came and took them away. There was total confusion.

I know they had a big funeral on the Island and they were buried. I remember going down to Dr. Joe Penney and getting my tooth pulled before I went to the Mass. I think there were four or five caskets in that church. We buried them all down on the Bell Island Beach but, years after, the families or the government wanted the bodies back, and I think it was Andrew Murphy who looked after digging them up. My uncle, Pat Hammond, he went with Andrew to help dig them up and ship them back home to wherever they were from.


In his book, The Enemy On Our Doorstep, Steve Neary says, I could never understand why submarines were able to enter Conception Bay and wreak such havoc. The defense of Bell Island was a top priority of the Newfoundland and Canadian authorities. There was a coast defense battery on the Island, the first to be established in Newfoundland. Moreover, a Royal Canadian Navy corvette and two fairmiles patrolled the bay regularly, and Torbay Airport was only a few miles away on the Newfoundland mainland. How could these defenses fail?

But fail they did.

After the second attack, an inquiry was held at the Knights of Columbus Hall in St. John's to shed some light on how these attacks happened. Ironically, a month after the inquiry the K of C Hall was burned, taking 100 lives. Some people believe this fire was set by a spy put ashore by a German U-boat.

The Board of Inquiry found that the commanding officer of the HMCS Drumheller, the corvette assigned to patrol the area, was given no specific orders, but he did not take steps to organize the patrol to the best advantage of the forces available. Also, they found that he did not take action immediately after the torpedoing to order all ships to search for the submarine. The captain was not censured because Admiral Bidwell felt the commanding officer did do something, even if he didn't do the best thing, and the inquiry ended.

The iron ore mines closed on Bell Island in 1966, and ore ships no longer call. On a clear day you can see the remains of the ore ships sunk by the German U-boats resting on the bottom encrusted with marine plants and ocean-bottom silt. Rick Stanley, who owns and operates Ocean Quest Adventure Tours, specializes in taking divers down to view and photograph the wrecks.

Ron Hammond went on the become a Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer, a correctional officer in Ontario, the owner of a hair dressing business, a landscaping business, a greenhouse business, a flower shop, and a Newfie store in Blind River. He now owns Ron's Famous Fish and Chips in Blind River and owns and operates a second branch on Great Northern Road in Sault Ste. Marie. But in all his travels he has never forgotten the sinking of the ships on Bell Island when he was a boy. When I recently spoke to him he said, "I still have the picture in my mind, the same as if it was yesterday."
- Story by Ron Young, founding editor