A Newfoundlander Caught in the Halifax Explosion

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 05, 2019 10:53 AM

Caught in the Halifax Explosion

The heroic story of Able Seaman George Critch

By Lester Green


George Critch was born at Shoal Harbour (Cavendish), Newfoundland on November 20, 1892, to Garrett Bryant and Jessie Critch. His father died when he was a child. His mother married James Dodge in December 1898, and moved the family to Northern Bight, where George was raised with two stepbrothers, William and Eli, along with two stepsisters, Violet and Annie. In October 1914, George signed his enlistment papers, completed his training and sailed overseas aboard HMS Carthaginian. He underwent intense naval training on HMS Vididat Devonport before he was deployed to HMS Alsatian.

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Able Seaman George Critch of Shoal Harbour and Northern Bight, NL

After two years at sea, followed by a two-month furlough back home in St. John’s at HMS Briton, Able Seaman Critch was assigned to the Canadian Navy. He was with HMCS Niobe in Halifax the day that no one in Canada has ever forgotten.

Critch and five other members of the Canadian Navy were oblivious to the events that were about to unfold in Halifax harbour on the morning of December 6, 1917. They were immersed in their work supplying air by hand pumps to two navy divers in the water. They were completing repairs on a dockyard pier when they were struck by a pressure wave from a massive explosion.

The disaster was a direct result of human error in directing ship traffic in the harbour. This miscommunication led to the departing Norwegian ship, IMO, colliding with arriving French vessel, Mont-Blanc. The Mont-Blanc was heavily laden with munitions destined for overseas. There was no special protocol for passage of ships carrying dangerous cargo, and this likely led to the collision of the two vessels.

When the two ships struck, the impact caused the benzol barrels stored on deck to leak, which was ignited by the sparks created by grinding metal ships, setting off a fire that led to one of the greatest man-made tragedies to occur in North America during the First World War - the Halifax Explosion.

At the dock where Niobe crew had been working, the resulting wave killed five of the six sailors who were manning the air pumps. The fate of the two divers was in the hands of an injured and shocked Able Seaman George Critch.

When he realized the divers were still in the water, the adrenaline rush gave Critch the strength to make his way to the collapsed rubble of the pump house. He squeezed his way under the debris and located the pump that, thankfully, was still in working order. Lifting the wreckage with one hand, he began working the pump, which normally required four men to operate, forcing air down the tube that saved the divers. Chief Master-at-Arms John Gammon, who was in command of the dive crew, had also survived the blast and assisted the divers onto the badly damaged dock.

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Seaman Robert Smith and Able Seaman George Critch (courtesy of Shelley Smith)

For his heroic deeds, Gammon was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Able Seaman George Critch was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (Naval).

Six months after returning to his home at Northern Bight, George married Alice Smith of Gooseberry Cove. Her family was all too familiar with the atrocities of war. She had lost one brother, Luke, on HMS Laurentic. She suffered the mental anguish at home, alongside her mother and younger brother, Jim, while waiting for the safe return of her remaining four brothers.

An article in the Evening Advocate on January 12, 1920, describes their December 22 wedding. All the groomsmen had served overseas, reminding us that many families in the Southwest Arm area, where more than 100 men served their country, were affected by the Great War.

On November 11, take a moment to reflect on the Halifax Explosion, which history records as one of the greatest tragedies of the entire war for Canadians. Thousands of lives were lost in this civilian disaster - not overseas, but here at home.