In the little Newfoundland coastal village of Lance Cove, Bell Island, war was a thing of history books; of distant places and of other times. It was the hearing of stories of deeds of valour by young men who “went off to war”, and it was a sad remembrance each July 1st of those who never returned.
All of that was to change within an hour one very ordinary autumn afternoon when on September 5th, 1942, a German U-boat ventured into Conception Bay where ore ships lay waiting in the anchorage. Suddenly the air was filled with the frightful roar of exploding ships, of angry gunfire and the screams of drowning men. This event was soon followed by another of even more treacherous and tragic proportions. War had come to the very doorstep of Lance Cove. It was one of the few places in North America to have experienced so directly the horror of the war’s modern capacity for death and destruction.
Though history might have taught him differently, the Commander of U513 that day, Korvettekapitan Rolf Ruggeberg did not comprehend as he celebrated, that his successful actions that day were a far cry from the victory his country sought. Only time would determine the inevitable winner of the war and what was to become its longest battle; The Battle of the Atlantic.
In September 1942 Britain had already known her “Finest Hour”. The Commonwealth had rallied to her aid and not the least amongst them was little Newfoundland, the cornerstone of the Empire, who, relative to her size and resources, as in 1914-18, had made, in terms of emptying her coffers and reddening the fields of Europe, one of the greatest contributions of all. The mighty Luftwaffe had been driven from the skies over England and the “Battle of Britain” won. The sea lanes to Murmansk and elsewhere in the broad Atlantic would be kept open in defiance of Doenitz’s lurking predators, albeit at a mind numbing sacrifice by men of the Merchant-Navy and the valiant volunteer sailors manning the little corvettes of the Royal Canadian Navy that escorted them. The Desert Fox was about to meet defeat at “El Alamein” at the hands of Monty. The humiliation of Dunkirk was being avenged in no uncertain terms.
So was the state of the world on the night of September 4th 1942 when U-513 stealthily made its way into the peaceful waters off Lance Cove. With windows open to the wholesome sea breeze and the somnolent whispering of waves lapping on the shore, the community slept, blissfully unaware of the evil in their midst that was about to defile its waters with the litter of sunken ships, and the gentle loveliness of a new Autumn day with the screaming of drowning men and the terrifying thunder of gunfire.
What follows is an account of the events of September and November 1942 as witnessed by a sixteen year old boy named Lloyd Rees and recounted by him while still vivid in his memory. While I have taken the liberty to make minor editorial changes, re-ordered some paragraphs and changed the tense to what Lloyd wrote many years ago, the story and words remain his. I am quite certain my old friend would not mind.
As was the case with the original work, this edited and re-worked version remains dedicated to Lloyd’s parents, James and Mary Rees as well as to all the people of Lance Cove and Bell Island whose compassion and caring during those fateful days stood in stark contrast to the enigma of Lloyd termed “man’s inhumanity to man”.
Lloyd on Lance Cove Wharf. Copyright Lloyd Rees
A Wolf at the Door
September 5th, 1942 was one of those Newfoundland days that started out with a cozy-grey promise of Indian Summer loveliness. A light mist lay over Lance Cove and Conception Bay, softening the outline of the distant hills, but seeming to magnify and cast in stark relief, Little Bell Island, the ore ships riding peacefully at anchor, and the Port de Grave fishing boats with their peculiar little barked spankers and raised fore-cuddies, tending their trawls in the early morning silence. The only sounds were the muffled clanking of wakening shipboard activity and the greedy squawking of sea gulls, swooping in search of breakfast over the undertow swells that hove ashore and receded in a never-ending rattle amongst the polished stones of the landwash that lay only a few yards from Lloyd’s bedroom window. They were the familiar sights and sounds of Lance Cove, and, though not always noticed, they whispered unobtrusively in the background of the playful and busy din that all was well.
Five ore carriers, the SS SAGANAGA; SS LORD STHRATHCONA; PLM 27; SS ROSECASTLE and the SS DRAKEPOOL were in Conception Bay that morning. Both the SAGANAGA and the LORD STRATHCONA had finished loading ore and were now waiting in the anchorage for instructions to join one of the main convoys between St. John’s and Halifax. In 1942 enemy U-boat activity was at its peak in the North Atlantic and many thousands of tons of allied shipping were being lost every day. The ROSECASTLE and the DRAKEPOOL were in the process of being loaded and were tied up at Dominion and Scotia piers, while the PLM 27 was standing by, awaiting her turn in her usual anchorage spot just off the wharf in Lance Cove.
During the night a small British coal freighter, the EVELYN B, had arrived and was anchored at the western extremity of the anchorage, which, as things were to turn out, was a lucky circumstance for some of the other ships in her company. The EVELYN B, recently arrived from Sydney, Nova Scotia, was carrying a cargo of coal for DOSCO’s (Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation) coal yard from which most of Bell Island’s residents obtained their main fuel supply, and for the company’s auxiliary power plant located at the Dominion pier.
All of the younger lads recognized the coal boats and welcomed them when they arrived because during the summer holidays it meant the chance of getting “hired on” for a shift or two with the unloading crew. It was dirty work and hard work unless one was lucky enough to get taken on as a “checker”. But the pay was good: $27 for a forty-eight hour week. One of Lloyd’s proudest memories was of presenting his first full week’s pay to his mother, Mrs Mary Rees. Crisp Newfoundland bills neatly folded in a little brown envelope that had been handed to him by Mr. Peter Pitts from the paymaster’s wicket. For a “gaffer”, to line up with the men on pay-day was an experience that had to be as loaded with mixed emotions as almost any primitive “coming of age” ritual. However, even without the pay cheque, being caught up in the “rough-and-tumble” camaraderie at one of the piers would have been sufficient reward for most young fellows.
That particular day though, Lloyd’s dad, Mr. James Augustus Rees or “Jimmy Gus” had other plans in store for Lloyd. Jimmy Gus was a blacksmith and his forge was located at the foot of Steel’s Hill, about three and a half miles from their house on Lance Cove beach. Instead of walking there as Mr Rees did every day, he suggested that since it was Saturday, such a nice morning and because Lloyd was home from school, they would harness their pony ‘Old Dan’ to the box-cart and take him to work. Unfortunately it was not just for the ride. Mr Rees had fenced the small parcel of bog land behind his forge with the intention of making it into a garden in his spare time. He already had more than enough gardens under cultivation to occupy all his spare time, but that was his way. Gardening was a leisure activity and never regarded as being real work. To walk “in over the hill” on a Sunday afternoon to “see how the gardens were doing” was a pleasure that was discounted by Lloyd, given the fact that he’d be working there on Saturday evening until after dark.
Old Dan was a Newfoundland Pony, about twenty years old and weighing not much more than six hundred pounds. However, pound for pound, like other members of his now almost extinct breed, Dan was probably the strongest, most durable, and most gentle of any four-legged creature on the face of the earth. Lloyd and Dan’s job that day would be to gather up top soil and cart it into the garden to cover over the bog.
Lloyd’s pony Old Dan with brothers Don and Jim Rees. Photo Courtesy of the late Lloyd Rees.
Lloyd wasn’t particularly thrilled with the prospect of having to spend his day off school with a pick and shovel, but neither did he recall feeling “hard done by”. In those days having to pitch in and lend a helping hand with whatever work needed to be done was something learned early by all young people growing up in Lance Cove.
As they set out up over Pitts’ Hill the mood was cheerful. Mr Rees was whistling some ditty or other in his peculiar manner of being able to do so without puckering his lips. It was a habit Lloyd suspected he cultivated to keep himself company on his long walks to and from work. Not much else was stirring. Everything was so peaceful; almost drearily so. In that sense it was good to be going to the forge where at least there was never a dull moment. How could anyone possibly suspect or even imagine the high drama being unfolded, even at that very moment, beneath the glassy surface of Conception Bay.
The previous night while the community slept, a German submarine, the U-513 – brand new off the Deutche Werf, Hamburg and on her first patrol, arrived at the mouth of Conception Bay. After having departed her original patrol area in the Straits of Belle Isle she had moved south with the hope of finding a better hunting ground. On the night of September 4th she followed the little coal freighter EVELYN B into the bay. Having observed that freighter go to anchor, the U-boat settled down on the muddy bottom to await the dawn.
When daylight arrived, Korvettenkapitan Rolf Ruggeberg brought his boat to periscope depth to survey the confines of the anchorage in which he had daringly ventured in the darkness. Having been at sea since August 5th without making a kill, his delight can be well imagined when he spotted not just one, but five freighters within range. Two of those freighters were only a few hundred yards in the distance and sat deep in the water with their precious cargo of iron ore, a commodity critical to the allied war effort. Understandably, any interest in the little EVELYN B was temporarily abandoned.
Because of the inexperience of her crew and the shallowness of the water in the bay the U-boat’s manoeuvrability was severely limited. Add to this the excitement of their first engagement with “the enemy” and it is not surprising to learn that the firing of the first salvo of torpedoes directed at the SAGANAGA turned into a real fiasco. The first two torpedoes were discharged from U-513’s forward tubes without their electric drive motors having been switched from “charge” to “fire” resulting in them sinking harmlessly to the bottom. The chastened crew, boys really, since few of them were more than twenty years of age, manning the U-boat’s bow tubes, having flubbed so embarrassingly their first engagement, set about preparing the two remaining bow tubes for firing. In the meantime, Ruggeberg guided the submerged craft into position so that the two stern torpedoes could be brought to bear. Here the torpedo men had better luck and those two ran true, exploding almost simultaneously into the belly of the SAGANAGA. In less than thirty seconds, even before the smoke had cleared or all the flung debris settled back upon the water, SAGANAGA had disappeared from sight. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have escaped uninjured from such a holocaust, yet, by some miracle, thirteen of the forty two who were on board did.
With no compensation having been made for the alteration in buoyancy after firing its torpedoes, the U-boat bobbed close to the surface and in that vulnerable position came perilously close to meeting an ignominous end. This unexpected change in depth also brought U-513 dangerously close to the LORD STRATHCONA, so close in fact that it collided with her stern, damaging the U-boat’s conning tower and causing it to bounce down heavily to the bottom where, fortunately for Ruggeberg the seafloor was sandy and not rocky as was indicated on his chart.
During U-513’s momentary loss of depth keeping ability, she was spotted by gunners Mr. Eugene Walters and Mr. Pete Meade on the EVELYN B who were able to get off a couple of shots, one of them narrowly missing before the U-boat managed to scurry deeper beneath the surface. After regaining buoyancy control U-513 maneuvered into firing position and fired two more torpedoes from its forward tubes. It did not take the weapons long to cover the 550 yards to the LORD STRATHCONA which slipped beneath the sea 1 1/2 minutes later. Her watery grave was so shallow that her remains were clearly visible lying on the bottom.
Had the first torpedoes in the U-boat’s arsenal not been wasted, the fate of the LORD STRATHCONA would certainly not have been so long-delayed. Many questions have subsequently been raised as to why this ship made no attempt to escape, unlike the EVELYN B and the PLM-27, when, as it turned out, there was probably a fair chance of her being able to do so. This argument is well documented for those who wish to pursue it further.
The dud firing of U-513’s first two torpedoes turned out to be a lucky circumstance for the PLM-27 as well. As has been noted before, she was anchored in close proximity to the two other loaded ships. Now all six of the U-boat’s readied torpedoes had been fired and it was necessary to reload. This provided time for the PLM-27 to get underway and out of range. For Commander Ruggeberg to have any hope of overtaking her, it would have meant coming to the surface where the U-boat’s powerful diesel engines could drive her in excess of eighteen knots, as compared to only seven while submerged. There were eight torpedoes remaining in his arsenal, plus eight more strapped down on deck for later use, but to his chagrin, these would have to await another time. With the pugnacious little EVELYN B in hot pursuit and being now almost directly under the guns of the shore battery, his top priority became one of executing an escape without further mishap being caused by his inexperienced and now jubilant crew.
S.S. LORD STRATHCONA
Much of this information only came to light after the U-513 had herself been sunk on July 19th, 1943 by an American PBY aircraft. Seven of her crew of fifty-three, including her Commander at the time, Friedrich Guttenberger who had sunk the HMS ARK ROYAL, were rescued by the USS BARNEGATE. Several of the surviving crew had been onboard during the action of 1942 and recounted their stories during interrogation. Details also emerged when the Ruggeberg’s log books became available after the war.
Lloyd had managed to load up old Dan with a couple of loads of topsoil for the garden before the twelve o’clock whistle at the distant mines blew indicating it was lunch time. Mr Rees and Lloyd were toasting their sandwiches over the hot coals of the forge when young Billy Stone came running down the hill from his house with the message that Mr Rees was “urgently wanted on the phone”.
The party on the other end of the line was his wife Mary with the incredible news that an ore ship, the SAGANAGA, had blown up! There were a lot of men in the water and a lot of shooting going on. Some people were saying that it was the boiler on the ship that had exploded, but Mrs Rees didn’t think that was the case. Any uncertainty about the cause of the explosion was quickly dispelled when about thirty minutes later a second ship, the LORD STRATHCONA, blew up.
Lloyd’s younger brother Don was ill at the time with rheumatic fever and was sleeping on a cot downstairs where he could be more easily tended. Jim, Lloyd’s youngest brother, was not yet three years old, and his mother was five months pregnant with his baby sister, Vivian.
Their house, perched precariously on the seashore and being closest to the terrifying commotion in the bay, must have seemed like a frightfully vulnerable place to Mrs Rees. Fearing for the safety of her children, she believed it best if she took them in over the hill to her mother’s place, which she did with the assistance of her daughter Vera who was thirteen at the time, and Fanny Vaters the housekeeper. In the meantime the house would have to be left unattended. Because of this Mrs Rees wanted Jimmy Gus and Lloyd to return home as quickly as possible.
It was not only Mrs Rees who was frightened by the chaos erupting in Lance Cove that fateful Saturday morning, for surely it must have also been an equally terrifying experience for all the men, women and children who witnessed it. Many of the men of Lance Cove were at work, many of them deep in the iron ore mines beneath the sea and unaware in the shuttling cacophony of their noisy work place of the tumult raging on the bay. The ore they were busily mining was a strategic commodity in the struggle to eradicate the lair from which had sprung the predator. Now, unbeknownst to them, that predator was seeking vengeance on its would-be destroyer at the very doorsteps of their homes.
The horror of seeing ships, hardly noticed before in their familiarity, exploding and sinking beneath the sea, hearing the screaming of terrified and drowning men in the cold water, the chilling screech of shells whizzing past from the shore battery; melded with the thunderous roar of the guns on the ROSECASTLE, PLM 27, and the EVELYN B as she scurried in frenzy amidst the white geysers tearing up the placid surface of the bay…Is it any wonder that Mrs Rees wanted to flee with her children to some safer place? It would not be so the next time around! She and Fanny Vaters and all the women in Lance Cove would be much too busy then, ministering as best they could to the cold, wounded and dying men who came or who were brought into their homes to be afraid any longer.
Having received this shocking news, Mr Rees immediately phoned Pop Russell, the head constable of the Bell Island Constabulary, who, surprisingly, had not yet been informed about what was happening. In a matter of minutes he was at the forge in his police car to pick up my Mr Rees and together they sped off towards Lance Cove beach. Lloyd was left with instructions to lock up the forge and bring Dan home.
Needless to say, old Dan returned to Lance Cove at a much quicker pace than his leisurely trot earlier in the day. With Lloyd standing in the box-cart and hanging on for dear life to a secured loop in the reins, he galloped straight out almost all the way and soon arrived at the rise in the road just before Mr. Tom Lahey’s store. From there Lloyd had only a partial view of the anchorage, but he could clearly see the widening circle of debris marking the spots where the ships had gone down. There were also some small boats bobbing around and gunfire could be heard from the shore battery further to the east and closer to the loading piers.
Hurrying on, Lloyd and old Dan soon arrived at the top of Pitts’ Hill. From there the scene that lay before him, now all in clear view and much closer, seemed more like a bad dream than anything that could be real. What was the most incredible sight was that of the EVELYN B, zigzagging around the anchorage like something gone berserk! Her gun blazing away almost non stop, and each time she swerved into a sharp turn it looked as if she were teetering on the brink of capsizing. Lloyd never imagined a ship like that could move so fast. It was unbelievable!
The EVELYN B having spotted the enemy U-boat and having fired upon it, quickly weighed anchor and was underway by the time the LORD STRATHCONA was hit, but not before lowering and manning lifeboats in an effort to save some of the men of the SAGANAGA. In recognition of his gallantry and that of his crew, Captain Clayton L. Guy, a native of Burgeo, was Mentioned in British Admiralty Dispatches and was later made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
The Pugnacious Little EVELYN B.
Because of the spunky action of that little ship and the alertness of her gunners, fewer men were to die that day than would have otherwise been the case. The ROSECASTLE and PLM-27 were given a temporary reprieve. Foolhardy indeed would have been Ruggeberg had he dared to expose the periscope of his craft once more in the presence of such fury. The PLM-27 was still in range and the ROSECASTLE and the DRAKEPOOL still tied up at the piers. These latter two, as he noted in his log, had been spotted by Ruggeberg on his way into the anchorage earlier in the morning and he planned to deliver to them, and the loading piers, a coup de main on his “way back out”. How terribly frustrating it must have been for him to have this extraordinary opportunity foiled by such an unlikely adversary as a little coal tramp.
The U-513, being a type IXC U-Boat, carried a compliment of 22 torpedoes. The six positioned in her firing tubes were now discharged, so there was need to rearm. Either Little Bell Island or Kelly’s Island would have provided total protection from the shore battery in order to carry out whatever preparations were necessary for the continuation of the attack. A low fog bank hovering over the calm water limited ceiling visibility to a mere couple of hundred feet, so there was little chance of her being spotted by patrolling aircraft, and it would be several hours yet before the RCN Corvettes and Q-boats which had set out from St. John’s would arrive on the scene.
Commander Ruggeberg chose discretion as the better part of valour and while insuring that his ship remained submerged, retraced his course out of the bay and into the relative safety of the open sea. The surface ripple supposedly caused by the retreating U-boat was observed by Captain Saunders of the ferry, MANECO. It passed under the guns of the shore battery and within only a few hundred yards of the ships at the loading piers. Many other books written on the subject of the attack state that U-513 shadowed the EVELYN B while leaving the bay. This is unlikely however seeing as the EVELYN B went to anchor on the far side of Little Bell Island and didn’t leave the bay until the next day.
A great crowd of people had gathered on the seashore near Lance Cove wharf, many of them obviously crew members of the sunken ships who had made it ashore. The risk of being so exposed to the presence of real danger appeared in all the hubbub and confusion to be of no concern. If it were, there was no evidence of it. Had the U-boat been forced to surface, the temptation on the part of its fanatical crew to shell the area might have been too much to resist. Amongst the vehicles near the wharf were several canopied army trucks from Bell Island’s Militia and a few private cars and trucks from Wabana. Pop Russell’s white police cap could be seen in the melee, and it was he who seemed to be in charge of whatever procedures were being carried out for the evacuation of the survivors.
Out in the anchorage, most of the rescue craft, lifeboats launched from the EVELYN B and the LORD STRATHCONA, and fishing boats from Lance Cove, were gathered around where the SAGANAGA had gone down. Butler’s custom’s boat was the only one of those small craft that Lloyd could recognize as it looked for victims amongst the flotsam.
Lloyd had arrived in the yard and was unharnessing Dan with the intention of putting him in the barn when Mr Rees appeared with instructions that he was to take Dan in over the hill to the “big garden” pasture. Not wanting to miss any of the excitement Lloyd rebelled at this, but the look of chastisement he received in return warned him that this was not the time to argue his case. At first he assumed that it was because of the saturated and exhausted condition of Dan that his dad was so edgy, but he realized later that it was more likely because he wanted his son removed from whatever it was that was going on in and around the house at the time.
The thirteen survivors and the three bodies from the SAGANAGA were brought ashore to the wharf in Lance Cove. Dr. Walter Templeman had now arrived on the scene and examined the rescued men. Those needing further medical attention were rushed immediately to his surgery in Wabana. Those in better shape were taken to the homes closest to the seashore where they were provided with reviving nourishment and dry clothing. Later that day the survivors were assembled in the town hall and provided with new outfits by the Women’s Patriotic Association, an assemblage of virtually all the women of the community who devoted their skills and spare time to providing warm knitted clothing and other necessities for the boys overseas. The three bodies having been examined by Dr. Templeman were laid temporarily in Jimmy Gus’ back store. It was this, presumably, that he did not want Lloyd to see.
For that first foray by a marauding member of the “Atlantic Wolf-Packs” into the seclusion of the anchorage, the services of the homes in Lance Cove were not much required. The day was warm, it was broad daylight, and even though the water was cold the surviving men who were exposed to it were soon cared for and whisked away to warmth and shelter by the civic and military personnel who were quickly on the scene. It was to be very different when another wolf returned for a second kill in November.
The guns at the shore battery were still firing and Lloyd could see that other gunfire, besides that of the EVELYN B, was coming from the ships tied at the loading piers. The PLM-27 who had been anchored just off Lance Cove had weighed anchor and had disappeared somewhere out of sight, presumably heading out the bay in order to seek the protection of the approaching corvettes. Shells were exploding all around the anchorage, and because of the low elevation of the guns; particularly those on the ships, some of the shells were skipping unexploded off the surface. It seems almost a miracle that there were no casualties from friendly fire across the bay. One 4 inch shell likely from the ROSECASTLE or EVELYN B did however find its way, luckily without unexploded, into a woodpile in St.Phillips.
Amongst the crowd still lingering about the harbour wharf, the talk was no longer about it having been overheated boilers that caused the explosions. Although it would be some time yet before the reality of it would sink in, everyone knew what had really happened. Death and destruction on such a brutal scale, so unthinkable and so alien to the pastoral serenity of Lance Cove, was not something that could be easily assimilated. Nor was it any easier to accept that war, believed to be so far away, could come so close to their doorstep.
Later in the afternoon when it appeared that the submarine had been driven off, the EVELYN B retreated to safety on the far side of Little Bell Island where she remained until the following day when she was escorted to St, John’s by an RCN Corvette. Undaunted however, the brave little EVELYN B returned within days to unload her cargo of coal at the pier and then set out once again, without convoy, for Sydney.
Because of the unexpectedness of the attack and the suddenness with which she sank, there was great loss of life on the SAGANAGA. Of her crew of forty-three, twenty-nine perished and of those only four bodies were recovered.
The crew of the LORD STRATHCONA were more fortunate. After the torpedoing of the SAGANAGA which had been anchored within hailing distance, they expected the fate of their ship to be similar and immediate. However, because of the clumsy manoeuvring of the U-boat, there was adequate time for the order to abandon ship to be completely carried out. Of her crew of forty-five, not a single man was lost or injured.
The following day saw the largest funeral service ever witnessed on Bell Island up to that point in time. The three bodies, all of British seamen, recovered on the day of the sinkings, were provided with coffins by DOSCO and waked overnight in the Wabana municipal building. Hundreds of local residents, the survivors of the sunken ships, crew members of the ships remaining in harbour, military and civic dignitaries and a guard of honour accompanied the funeral procession as it wended its way towards the Church of England cemetery where the remains were laid to rest. The body of a fourth British seaman which was recovered later, was later interred in the same place.
The water where the SAGANAGA went down was so shallow that the tip of one of her masts remained protruding above the surface for many months afterwards. Apart from being a serious hazard to navigation in the anchorage, it made it very easy to locate her position. Often when the water was calm and clear, the younger lads in Lance Cove would row out to look down upon her shattered hulk. It was an eerie and unsettling experience that not everyone dared do, especially since the body of one of the victims could be clearly seen spread-eagle on the foredeck with one of his arms trapped beneath a piece of the wreckage. That body remained visible until an accumulation of seaweed, snagged by the wreck, concealed it from sight.
If there was apprehension hanging in the air in the coming days as the residents looked out over the anchorage, and concern for the ships that continued to come to their moorings there, increasing rather than diminishing in numbers, there was never in anyone’s mind a shadow of doubt of what the inevitable outcome would be. Indeed, the blackout regulations were taken more seriously; the rationing and other minor inconveniences treated with greater tolerance, but now there was a better understanding of what some of the best of the young men of Lance Cove and Bell Island, off to war in their navy uniforms, were having to contend with, and a deep-seated certainty that in the end they would prevail.
Upon returning from taking Dan to his pasture, Lloyd did not tarry long at the beach but went instead to his grandmother’s house to see how his mother and the others were doing. He found them all standing around the front-yard gate, gazing in bewildered silence at the subsiding chaos in the distant anchorage. Mrs Rees, with baby Jim held closely in her arms was weeping; still very much shaken by the harrowing event that had brought her there.
Looking out upon the littered surface of the bay, once more restored to relative calm and quiet, it was hard to grasp the nightmarish reality of the past four hours; hard to imagine that this beautiful place was no longer a safe haven from the ravages of war; hard to imagine that the flotsam drifting incongruously on the outgoing tide was all that remained of the ships that a few hours ago had been riding peacefully at their moorings; it was harder still to imagine that beneath that shimmering surface lay, silenced forever, the voices of so many young men who such a short time before awoke to welcome the splendour of that beautiful autumn day.
Mr Rees arrived shortly thereafter and together they all returned to their home on the beach; changed forever, as were all the people in Lance Cove, and Bell Island by an event that robbed them of the innocence of their isolation. Nothing would ever be the same again; nothing could ever be the same again. The world had suddenly become a much smaller place; the concept of distance and of being far removed from that with which was almost impossible to identify, rudely redefined. The long arm of an unseen enemy had reached into their midst and could return. They knew that now, with a certainty soon to be confirmed by an even more treacherous act of cruelty. But the next time, there would be no time for crying.
Part 2 – No Time for Crying
Sunday , November 1st 1942 was All Saints Day in Newfoundland. While the Church of England residents in Lance Cove were attending Church Service at 3 p.m., the ore carrier SS PLM-27 moved from its berth at the loading pier to the anchorage. The only thing unusual about this was how close she was to shore when she dropped anchor. She was so close in fact that after church Lloyd stood on the wharf and called out to Tony, a young black deck hand not much older than himself, whom he had befriended while he was on shore leave during one of the earlier visits of his ship to Bell Island that previous summer.
Because of the noisy clatter on the ship, it is unlikely that Tony would have heard Lloyd call out to him from the wharf, but he did see him there and waved from the railings on the foredeck. Lloyd walked over to Mr. Hussey’s store where some of the young folk usually gathered after church for ice cream and other treats. The conversation was mostly about the PLM-27 being so unusually close to shore and speculation as to whether the water there would be deep enough to cover her if she should get sunk. It would not be long before they were to find out that indeed it was.
There was another seaman on the PLM-27 whom some of the local boys got to know or at least got to recognize because, besides being one of the few white crew members, he was so different in other ways. The local boys called him ‘Pop’ for he seemed to them to be an old man, although it is doubtful if he would have been much over fifty. ‘Pop’ would come ashore with the rest of the crew who were on shore leave and set out with them for the taverns and shops of Wabana. However he always returned alone, long before the others, to sit on Lance Cove wharf and await the arrival of the launch that would take him and his companions back to their ship.
On summer evenings just about every young lad in Lance Cove gathered on the wharf to jig tomcods, “conners” (blue perch), flatfish and sculpins. Late in the evening was the best time because it was then that “seacats” (catfish) and huge “maiden-rays” (skate) came in to shallow water to feed. Lloyd clearly recalled ‘Pop’ on some of those summer evenings sitting on the bollard on the wharf; always the same one, the one farthest out on the southeast corner of the wharf, the packages with which he had returned placed near his feet and guarded carefully. There he sat, sometimes for hours on end watching the young lads play. As young boys are apt to do, they sometimes teased him. It was not however in a cruel manner but rather more in an effort to communicate with him which of course was impossible because of the language barrier. The PLM (Paris-Lyon-Marseilles) was crewed mostly by French-speaking sailors, likely from the French colonies in Africa, . ‘Pop’ seemed like such a gentle and kindly man who tolerated mischievousness with a smile as if he too in his obvious lonesomeness wanted only to make friends.
‘Pop’ was the first person Lloyd ever watched die. The men who brought him ashore, scantily clad and fouled with bunker oil, placed him on the daybed in Lloyd’s kitchen. ‘Pop’ died in the midst of men crying from the cold and retching from the oily sea water they had swallowed; in the midst of women trying to comfort them and cover their nakedness with bed sheets or whatever else they could find that was not already sopping wet. This was done while at the same time trying to get close enough to the stove to keep the kettles boiling for hot tea; downed by the shocked and shivering sailors as fast as it could be brewed. That was the surroundings in which ‘Pop’ lived out the last few minutes of his last visit to Lance Cove. Dr. Templeman sat beside him, wiping away the grime from his still gentle face and holding his hand with such obvious tenderness and compassion as to much defy any ability to describe it. It was a profoundly moving scene and all the more so because of the shocking incongruity of its setting.
As Lloyd stood there filled with remorse, feeling terribly guilty about the times he and others had teased ‘Pop’, he wondered, as he would many times in the future, who the gifts he purchased on his shore leave were intended for. It was comforting to think that they were for his own children in some far off place, and if so, he would have understood the thoughtless ways of the young boys and known that they meant no harm or disrespect. After about fifteen minutes or so, Lloyd heard Dr Templeman say, “he’s gone”. The good doctor then hurried off to do what he could for the other injured and the dying men needing his attention in some of the other homes in Lance Cove.
‘Pop’s’ body was quickly moved to make room for others who needed that place on the daybed, and in the haste of the moment was placed on the floor of the pantry where it hindered access to whatever might still have been remaining on the pantry shelves. Lloyd recalled Fanny Vaters pleading with some of the men to take enough time off from their rescue work to remove the body to some more respectful place.
Sailors Being Sailors
During those hectic war years, shore leave for some of the other ships’ crews was not always as orderly as those of the PLM-27. The Greek sailors were particularly boisterous and if they happened to be around when there was a dance at one of the local schools a row was inevitable. On one occasion Lloyd saw them fight amongst themselves with beer bottles and one old man had a bottle smashed on his bald pate. Apart from being a little bloodied, he seemed none the worse for the blow. They were a tough and rowdy bunch! On other occasions they would sometimes return from their visit to the taverns intoxicated and in a mood for “raising Cain” by terrorizing any young girls who happened to be around and by attempting to take fishing boats from Lance Cove beach without permission. No one would volunteer to row them back to their ships in that condition. This sometimes resulted in fisticuffs with the locals of Lance Cove and on one occasion what started as a scuffle turned into a real brawl that might have ended in bloodshed had cooler heads not prevailed.
It happened one night when a group of about twenty Greek sailors returned, ‘three sheets to the wind’ from the taverns in Wabana. Failing by offers of money and by threats to persuade anyone to row them out to their ship, they tried to take some small fishing boats that were tied up at Lance Cove wharf thereby inviting a fist fight with some of the local boys who were on hand.
The area near the wharf was known as uncle Solly’s meadow (likely named after Mr Solomon Rees), where there was a small field for pitching horse shoes. It was the hang-out place for all the young people in Lance Cove in those days, and a rendezvous point for the lads and girls who were of courting age. On summer evenings it was a jolly place to be, for, besides fishing off the wharf and pitching horse shoes, there were many other games such as hide-and-seek, burrow-up and “bazzing marbles” that were engaged in depending on the age of the group and the mood of the moment. The constant traffic of foreign sailors to and from the ships that were nearly always anchored off shore, added only another dimension to the ongoing excitement and fun.
As it turns out the local boys were handling themselves pretty well in this particular fight. No doubt it would have soon ended in exhaustion and handshakes if a contingent from the local militia unit had not come marching on the scene with rifles shouldered and bayonets fixed. The sailors, as is still the case with sailors and soldiers, immediately turned on the young militiamen and in a matter of minutes had the contingent completely disarmed. The sailors then shouldered the rifles themselves and marched around taunting the soldiers and terrorizing those who stood there watching. Fortunately everyone kept their cool and eventually the sailors, tiring of their mocking game, threw the rifles aside. Still wanting to return to their ship they launched an old fishing skiff that had been lying abandoned on Lance Cove beach for many years; it was anything but seaworthy. Needless to say they didn’t get more that fifty yards from shore before the leaky old boat sank; leaving the hapless crew to swim for their lives. By now it was dark and the dunking in the cold water restored them somewhat to sobriety. Floundering back to the beach they quickly dispersed somewhere out of sight and sound. The next morning when Mrs. Sandy Bennett went to her barn to milk her cows she found some of them sleeping soundly in her hayloft.
That night when Lloyd went to bed he had a strange feeling of unease; whether it was caused by the conversation earlier in the day at Hussey’s store or because of some premonition, there is no way to tell. However, as he was to discover later, he was not the only one lying awake with a feeling of foreboding.
The SS ROSECASTLE was a freighter operating out of Sydney, Nova Scotia and owned by the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation. She was employed in the business of transporting iron ore from the DOSCO mines at Wabana to the DOSCO smelters in North Sydney and carried a crew of forty-three, most of whom were Canadians and Newfoundlanders.
The ROSECASTLE’s Chief Engineer who was suffering from the terrible stress caused by his hazardous occupation remained ashore for this fateful last trip of his ship to Wabana. Though he was due for retirement, Chief Henderson who had been the Chief Engineer on the LORD STRATHCONA when she was torpedoed and sunk less than 2 months before, volunteered to take his place for one last run to Wabana and back. The Chief too had a feeling of impending disaster that night and talked about it with his friend, Mr Ananias Rees, who was the DOSCO Superintendent at the pier. Chief Henderson seemed so distressed that Ananias invited him to spend the night ashore as a guest in his home. Not wanting to leave his shipmates and his ship should he be needed, he declined the invitation. Chief Henderson was also a musician and asked Ananias to take his collection of sheet music home with him for safe keeping; sending along with it a gift of chocolates for the two Rees girls, Doris and Enid. That night Chief Henderson went down with his ship. The music collection that was saved was later returned to his family.
From the Window
From his bed Lloyd could see through his bedroom window the PLM-27 cast in silhouette by the light of a crescent moon. High clouds were scudding overhead with a light breeze blowing from the west and there was a feeling of frost in the air. It was a typical fall night in Lance Cove.
The View From Lloyd’s Bedroom Window. Copyright Lloyd Rees.
He was still lying awake at 3:30 a.m. when suddenly his bed was shaken by a violent explosion and he knew in an instant from the direction of the sound that it was the ROSECASTLE. She was lying off “the point” about half way between Lance Cove and Scotia pier. Lloyd immediately ran to his sister’s bedroom window which overlooked the eastern portion of the anchorage, arriving before the debris flung in the air had settled back upon the water. He could see that the ROSECASTLE, deeply laden with her heavy cargo of iron ore was mortally wounded. A few seconds later, as he watched from the window, she was hit by a second torpedo that tore her apart in a blinding flash. With bow and stern sticking almost vertically in the air she quickly vanished beneath the surface. The loss of life on board was horrendous for there was little time for the men who were sleeping below decks to escape. Those not killed instantaneously by the explosions, crushed by flying debris or drowned by the in-rush of water, would have been caught in the scalding horror of superheated steam bursting from the ruptured boilers. It’s impossible to imagine how anyone could have escaped such devastation, but miraculously some of them did. Of the eight Newfoundlanders who were on board, five were lost; including one young man from Bell Island, John Fillier, who had joined the ship the evening before. Altogether, of her crew of forty-three, only fifteen survived.
Hurrying from his sister’s bedroom, Lloyd paused at the top of the stairway where he could see through his bedroom window that the PLM-27 was starting to weigh anchor and already starting to move in an attempt to get away. Looking back, he sometimes thought about that action on the part of the crew to save the ship as being a foolish act of valour. Surely they must have realized that being anchored in such narrow confines and in the near presence of an enemy U-boat which was surfaced so it could travel at high-speed, their chances of being able to escape where practically nil. Pinned between the cliffs and the U-Boat there was no place they could have turned that would not have brought their ship in even closer range. Their previous good fortune in being able to escape in September, when their ship was similarly threatened, was more a consequence of the inexperience of the U-boat’s crew than it was a consequence of the PLM being able to get out of range before that U-boat could rearm. Had a flare from the PLM been sent up earlier, revealing the surfaced submarine, and it’s guns readied, the odds might have been a little more even. Or, what might have been a wiser decision, to abandon ship, as was the case with the LORD STRATHCONA, it is unlikely that as many lives would have been lost. This however, is simply the wisdom of hindsight, and in any case the crew of the PLM had little time to debate their options. The alarm having been sounded by the torpedoing of the ROSECASTLE, there was at least time for most of the crew to get on deck and consequently fewer lives were lost.
Lloyd’s immediate concern was for his young brother, Don, who was still sleeping in his cot downstairs. Seeing that the PLM-27 was getting underway, and being fearful that if a torpedo should miss, it would likely come ashore and demolish the house, he wanted his dad to move Don to the cellar where he believed he would be safer. This of course was not a very sensible suggestion, seeing as there in the dampness, the cold and the darkness, his chances of dying of terror were at least as great as the house being hit by a torpedo. Mr Rees was hastily dressing to join the rescue party that would soon be gathering on the beach. Lloyd wouldn’t see him again until after daylight.
The time it takes to describe the brief interlude between the sinking of the two ships is much longer than the time it took for it to actually happen. Lloyd was still standing at the head of the stairway, watching the PLM-27 when she was struck by the first torpedo. Instead of remaining there, he ran downstairs and out the front doorway onto the road; still barefoot and still in his pyjamas.
It was while he was standing outside the door that a second torpedo hit the PLM-27; ripping her asunder as if she were made of match-wood. Could Tony or anyone else still on board have survived such a fearful blast he wondered. Her bow section swung up vertically and began to sink, but the stern remained afloat, tipped at a steep angle; her propeller and rudder grotesquely high in the air. Flames were starting inside the remaining hull and what seemed strangely odd was that electric lights were being turned on inside and around the bridge which was located amidships.
The PLM-27, unlike the other ore ships familiar to most, carried her bridge amidships and funnel aft. It was from there that a flare was sent up; illuminating the anchorage in a bright eerie red glow that clearly revealed the submarine, completely surfaced, as it moved slowly westward towards the east end of Little Bell Island. It was directly opposite Lloyd’s house, with what remained of the PLM-27 in between, so that if a torpedo had missed its target his fears would most likely have been horrifyingly realized; particularly if the torpedo had impacted against Lance Cove wharf which was also directly in front of the house.
Standing there on the roadway in his pyjamas, spellbound by the horror of the scene before his eyes, Lloyd waited, expecting any moment to see shell bursts from the shore battery erupting around the surfaced submarine. It was such an easy target, so much bigger than the objects sometimes towed around the bay for target practice, and seeming not in the least bit concerned with being exposed so vulnerably by the flare from the PLM-27. Brazenly and leisurely the U-boat cruised along the surface as if daring anyone to challenge her presence. Slowly the flare fell back into the sea; slowly the stern of the PLM-27, lights still burning, slid beneath the surface, and the evil demon from the deep slithered off into the darkness. Instead of gunfire, the only sound was the screaming of men struggling in the cold water and a strange low-frequency pulsing noise coming from the submarine’s diesels. By now the men from Lance Cove were arriving, running from every direction towards the wharf and beach. Lloyd returned to the house to light the fire in the kitchen stove.
Lance Cove Wharf and Lloyd’s House. It was from the roadway in front of the house that Lloyd observed the final moments of the PLM 27 and watched U-518 disappear in the darkness.
The fire in the hall stove was already going, it was lit as soon as cold weather arrived and kept going all winter. Thinking he’d have lots of time to get dressed after he got the kitchen fire lit, Lloyd was very much unprepared when, before the kindling was sufficiently hot to place on the coals, the first survivors came stumbling through the door to crowd huddling over the cold stove. Some of them, shivering uncontrollably, kept trying to hold Lloyd in their arms for warmth, leaving him helpless to attend to the fire and soon wet and almost as cold as they were. Lloyd had no recollection of when, where or how he finally managed to get dressed and get the fire in the kitchen stove properly underway.
The PLM-27 was operated under the auspices of the British Ministry of War Transport and was manned mostly by black members of the Free French. All of the first survivors to arrive at Lloyd’s house were crew members of the PLM. Having been aroused so rudely from their bunks, they were clad only in their briefs or else stark naked, except for their life jackets which many of them had subsequently torn in two parts and attached to their feet to provide some protection while walking over the beach stones.
Any attempt to describe the situation existing in the house that morning would be futile and might better be imagined. The babble of foreign languages, men moaning from their injuries, from the shock and the cold, and from the nauseous sea water they had swallowed, the hectic pace of those who were trying to help and to console them. Needless to say there was barely standing room on the floors that were soon covered with discarded clothing, oily sea water and vomit that was at times in places almost ankle-deep. Besides Mrs Rees who was then five months pregnant with Lloyd’s sister, Vivian, and Fanny Vaters, the housekeeper, many other women whose homes were farther removed from the seashore came to help; bringing with them food and dry clothing.
Now, if it can be imagined, in the midst of all this commotion, the main power switch was turned off, creating a total black-out on Bell Island and leaving all in darkness. Apart from flashlights and candles, the only other available light in the house was a single oil lamp that was always kept in readiness for emergency purposes. It was then that Lloyd remembered the tin oil lamp that was hung on the wall in the barn besides the cow stall. It was usually his chore to do the milking which did not always get done before dark; especially on winter afternoons when there was hockey on the pond.
Upon feeling his way into the barn over what he supposed was a heap of discarded clothing, he reached the lamp but found that the head of the nail with which it was attached to the wall was larger than the hole through which it protruded. Not wanting to damage the lamp, it was some time before he could wriggle the hole big enough to free it and by then his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. With the lamp finally freed he turned to head back to the house but was horrified to see that what he’d walked over near the doorway was not only a heap of discarded clothing but the bodies of two men; ‘Pop’ and that of a black man whose eyes were still open and staring blankly in death. In the gray dimness of the false dawn and the waning moon, it was a gruesome sight. Foolhardy he may have been on occasion, but brave he was not. It was Constable Fury who heard Lloyd calling out for help and arriving with his flashlight, he was able to light him out without the necessity of having to step on those bodies again.
Lloyd had other memories of Constable Fury, all of them fond. He was a member of the Newfoundland Constabulary who was posted in Lance Cove at the beginning of the war. Prior to his arrival, a Newfoundland Ranger had been posted there but he operated out of a boarding house and was not much involved in the ordinary events of the community. Constable Fury was a policeman, but he was also a friend of all in Lance Cove. His little guard-house, equipped with a telephone, emergency first-aid equipment and a tiny little coal stove was located on the beach, close to Lance Cove wharf and only a stone’s throw from Lloyd’s house. Many are the hours the young people spent with him there; enjoying his company and his hearty good Irish humour.
One day early in the summer while Lloyd was chopping down a dead tree in the glebe for kindling wood, a portion of the top broke off and in falling, a sharp spike from one of the branches pierced the skin on his forehead just above his right eyebrow tearing an ugly gash. Temporarily blinded, Lloyd was sure that he’d lost an eye. Constable Fury saw him come running down over Pitts’s hill, his face covered with blood. He was in the house with his first-aid kit in hand almost as soon as Lloyd arrived there. It wasn’t long before he had him patched up and assured that no serious damage was done other than a little flesh wound that would soon heal. Lloyd would always have a scar as a souvenir of that event.
On June 10th, 1940, after the fall of France and the Dunkirk humiliation, Mussolini, convinced of the certainty of German victory, brought Italy into the war with the hope that his ‘great friend’, the Feuhrer, would share with him some of the spoils. Britain was now at war with Italy and so, automatically, was Newfoundland.
On that day there were three ore boats anchored off Lance Cove, one of them manned mostly by Italians. Lloyd had a vague recollection that the ship was also Italian, but was not certain. What he was certain about was that on that day Constable Fury commandeered a flat-bottomed skiff that was tied up at Lance Cove wharf and, carrying only his side arm, rowed back and forth to the ship until he had brought all the Italian crew to shore. At the time Lloyd thought it was a wonderfully brave thing that he had done, but upon later reflection it was plain that the Italians were more than delighted to be “captured” and removed to safety. That at least was the impression that they gave as they stood unguarded on Lance Cove wharf; laughing and chatting cheerfully amongst themselves while they waited for their ‘captor’ to complete his round-up and paddle the last of their shipmates to shore.
Now back again to the events of November 2nd. One of the worst handicaps grievously hindering the rescue operations that morning was the heavy bunker oil oozing from the wrecks and congealing on the surface of the cold water in a thick gooey mass. Not only was manoeuvring through it extremely difficult, but soon the little boats involved in the rescue and the men themselves were covered with it while trying to remove the hapless victims from its horrible grip. Their oars became so slimy that it was almost impossible to hold on to them. Under those circumstances, those that were obviously dead were temporarily left so that the rescue boats could make every effort to reach those who were crying out for help.
If there is one thing that stood out most vividly in Lloyd’s memory, it was the screaming in darkness of terrified and drowning men. As the night moved slowly towards the dawn and as more and more survivors swam to shore or were otherwise rescued, the screaming gradually ceased until finally, just before daylight there was only one voice left. That lone voice seemed to be coming from away in the distance beyond where the PLM-27 had gone down; as if whoever it was that was calling out had swum away from the shore in panic or else had drifted away clinging to a piece of wreckage. After what seemed like endless minutes, that voice too was stilled. Of all the tragic events of that awful morning, it is the cry of that one last lonely voice that haunted him. Was that cry for help finally answered, or was it finally silenced in the icy waters; Lloyd never knew.
With the ROSECASTLE being farther from the shore and much farther from Lance Cove wharf, rescue work around where she had gone down was the most difficult. The survivors from the PLM were more fortunate. Those who were not too seriously injured were able to swim to safety before being trapped in the deadly goo and were not so long exposed to the cold water. That and having received warning which enabled most to escape from below deck, resulted in the death toll amongst her crew being relatively low. Of her crew of fifty, only twelve were lost.
Whether or not Tony was amongst those lucky survivors, Lloyd was unable to find out even though he searched for him and inquired. Hopefully he was taken to one of several other homes in Lance Cove where survivors were being cared for. With so much going on, it was hard to tell who was where. A few survivors on a raft, and some bodies, were picked up by an RCN Corvette that arrived on the scene in the early dawn, but it is most likely that they would have been members of the ROSECASTLE’s crew.
There was not much Lloyd could do in the house to help other than tend the fires, but with so many women bustling around the kitchen stove he was hardly needed for that; certainly it was no place for anyone who did not have some useful task to perform. Someone else had gotten the fire going in the little Franklin dining room stove.
Going outside, Lloyd met up with some of his buddies who were standing together in a group. There was Dan Churchill, Thomas Hammond, Bill Rees and his cousin Sterling Rees, amongst others. Two or three of them decided that they would walk down along the shore to see if they could find anyone who needed help. They had not gone far, not more than quarter of a mile, when they heard splashing and could tell from the florescence in the water that someone was swimming near the shore. Upon coming closer they saw that it was a huge black man who appeared to be quite capable of taking care of himself. He looked them up and down suspiciously. Not being able to communicate with him, they kept their distance and watched as he crawled up on the beach, made slippers for his feet from his life jacket and set off towards the house. It had been at least an hour and a half since the PLM-27 had sank, so they wondered why it had taken him so long to swim to shore, considering that many of the others had arrived in a much shorter time. Concluding that he must have swum up from the ROSECASTLE, or floated in on some wreckage, they continued on their way a little farther. The farther they went the more uneasy they became, but relieved that they didn’t find anyone else. It was a scary feeling and a scary place to be.
When Lloyd returned to the house to inquire whether Mrs Rees needed him for anything, he saw amongst the crowd a young British sailor who could not have been more than twenty years old, sitting alongside the dining room stove. He was still wearing his navy uniform, was in obvious distress and was pleading for information on the whereabouts of one of his friends. Lloyd gathered from his impassioned pleas that he was a gunner on the PLM-27 and that his friend was also a British sailor and fellow gunner. Lloyd thought he knew where his friend was but didn’t say anything until he knew for sure. Sometime before, while he was standing out in the yard, Lloyd saw two men carrying a young man who appeared to be dressed in a sailor’s uniform along the pathway on the beach side of the yard fence. Upon making inquiries, Lloyd soon found out that he was indeed a young British Navy man. His back was broken and he died shortly thereafter in the home of Mr. Ralph Rees. Not having any good news to bring to the young man who was weeping in his dining room, Lloyd stayed away. He was sure the distraught sailor would find out about his friend soon enough.
Daylight finally crept into the sky and it was then that one of the strangest events of the morning occurred. Looking down along the eastern shore towards the Point, Lloyd could see a man approaching, capless but otherwise dressed in full officer’s uniform; including a great-coat which came down to his ankles. The story he told was that while leaping off the side of the sinking ROSECASTLE, a pocket of air became trapped inside his great-coat and it was this that kept him afloat as he swam towards the shore which he reached on the far side of the point. There, he was close to the Scotia pier but could not proceed in that direction because of the headland which rises vertically out of the sea, and so, turning around, he walked towards Lance Cove and was only now arriving.
That seemed like such an unlikely tale that it is not surprising that wild speculation was soon flying around that he was a German spy who knew about the U-boat’s presence and intent, and had hidden himself on shore before his ship was sunk. This was almost certainly nonsense and the figment of overwrought imaginations, but there were many spy stories rumoured in those days and some well founded in fact. One such story had at least some good grounds for credibility.
Lloyd’s spy story happened this way. It was later during the summer of 1943, at about 11 o’clock at night, and Lloyd had gone to the outhouse for a pre-bedtime visit. While he was sitting in the privy he thought he could hear voices out on the water. Sure enough, standing by the fence, he could hear more clearly that the voices were coming from somewhere in the vicinity of Dickie Kent’s motor boat that was moored at the “collars” just off Lance Cove beach. Lloyd could also see the flickering glow from a small flashlight that was being turned on and off intermittently. The men, there were at least two of them out there, were speaking in low voices but no matter how much he strained his ears, he couldn’t understand anything that was being said despite the air being still and the water perfectly calm. Neither was there anything he could see, the night being “pitch-black”, other than the occasional flickering of the flashlight.
Calling his dad from bed and his mom who was still up, they listened together at the fence but could make no sense of why anyone would be out there on the water at that hour of the night. There were no ore boats on the anchorage that might have accounted for their presence. It seemed apparent that whoever those men were, they were up to no good. Suspicious, Mr Rees thought it warranted calling it in to the emergency number he had been allocated as a member of the A.R.P. While Jimmy Gus departed to make the call, Lloyd and his mom remained standing at the fence to see if anyone came to shore; no one did.
A.R.P. stood for Air Raid Patrol. Mr Rees, Mr Peter Pitts, and other men in Lance Cove who were members, were each issued a stirrup pump intended for use in case of incendiary shelling. As members of the A.R.P., they were required to identify themselves by displaying prominently a large card bearing those letters in a window of their homes, and to wear an armband similarly marked; not that anyone actually wore it. Fortunately, there was no occasion when the stirrup pumps had to be used for their intended purpose, although it could quite conceivably have been otherwise. The pumps came in handy after the war for spraying the fruit trees in kitchen gardens.
About half an hour or so after Mr Rees phoned in his report, a Q-Boat came racing up the bay; her powerful searchlight probing into the darkness far ahead. The searchlight was beamed around Dickie Kent’s motorboat; around Lance Cove wharf, along the shore, and in widening circles around the anchorage, but there was nothing unusual to be seen. Since no depth charges were dropped, presumably there was no indication that there might be a submarine lurking somewhere in the neighbourhood. Whoever those men were, and what they were doing off the shore in Lance cove that night, remains a mystery.
The tragic drama that folded in Lance Cove that November night was not an isolated incident commencing and ending there. Though almost insignificant in comparison with some of the more horrendous acts of cruelty and destruction being carried out elsewhere in the world, by its preamble, consequence and affinity, it symbolized the horror and the triumph, the happiness and the sadness of that tumultuous era. Reaching out and down the years, it was a time that marked memories and the memories of those many, many thousands, both friend and foe, whose lives did not remain untouched by its passing.
When daylight came the shore battery opened up, directing its fire towards the western extremity of the anchorage. Residents of Lance Cove could easily hear the whistle of the shells as they whizzed by. A number of military vehicles had assembled along the beach to take away survivors, and some small boats were still searching amongst the flotsam for bodies and possible survivors who might still be clinging to bits of wreckage.
There was no evidence of any serious attempt being made to hunt down the submarine before ten and eleven o’clock that morning. The reason for this, people were told, was that the corvettes and planes assigned to patrol Conception Bay were away (with the exception of 2 Q-boats and HMCS DRUMHELLER); escorting a number of cargo ships from St. John’s to WESTOMP, (the Western Ocean Meeting Point) where allied shipping from the eastern seaboard converged to join the transatlantic conveys. If this was the case, it is likely that the U-boat commander may have been aware of it and picked such a time to carry out his mischief. When the corvettes and aircraft finally did arrive to scour the bay, the waters were severely pounded but, as is now known, the raider they were hunting had long since departed.
Following the sinking of the SAGANAGA and the LORD STRATHCONA, Conception Bay and particularly the area around Bell Island, was patrolled on a regular basis by aircraft and by high-speed submarine chasers referred to as Q-boats because of the manner in which they were identified. Those little craft, mostly wooden hulled, were lightly armed for their own protection, carrying only one small calibre gun on their foredeck. They were also equipped with ASDIC, a submarine detection and range-finding device and on their stern, a deadly rack of depth charges were mounted in throwing traps. They were a familiar sight in Lance Cove, racing up and down the bay, sometimes dropping depth charges which, if nothing else, brought up great quantities of codfish to float belly up on the surface. One day a huge finback whale, measuring fifty feet in length, likely an unfortunate casualty of one of those depth charges, was found floating in the bay and towed ashore to the beach by a local fisherman. Whales were regular visitors to the bay but not many had an opportunity to examine one up-close. The British base for the Western Atlantic Convoy Escort Group was located in St. John’s and was manned primarily by the Royal Canadian Navy. The Canadians as well as their American comrades based at Fort Pepperrell fondly called their adopted city Newfyjohn; from which derived, and stuck, the infamous label for the local population, “Newfie”; one of the more ignoble legacies of the war.
Aircraft based in Torbay also kept a vigilant watch over the ore ships arriving at Bell Island, and it was not unusual to see them carrying out target practice over Little Bell Island. Sometimes while berry picking there, it was not uncommon for boys from Lance Cove to come across fragments of those small practice bombs and, occasionally, one that had not exploded on impact. Foolishly unmindful of the danger, they would drop those over the cliff side, expecting them to make a big bang; they never did. Lloyd often wished that he’d kept one of those brass encapsulated bombs as a souvenir, but considering the possibility of less desirable consequences, dropping them over the cliff side was probably the better choice after all.
Besides the ROSECASTLE and the PLM-27, three other ships were in port on that fateful morning. Two of those ships were loading at the piers and the third, a coal boat, was anchored off the Big Head; only a short distance from the Scotia pier. Those ships were the ANNA T, SS FLYINGDALE, and the SS PENOLVER. The PENOLVER would herself be lost with 26 of her crew on 19 Oct 1943 after hitting a mine layed by U-220 not far from St.John’s
During the initial moments of the attack that night, one of the torpedos fired in the initial salvo by U-518, likely meant for the ANNA T anchored near Scotia pier or the FLYINGDALE moored at the pier, missed its intended target. In doing so the torpedo struck the pier but fortunately this was in an area where it did no serious damage. The crews of the narrowly missed ships and Constable Norman Noseworthy who was on duty that night in his little guard-house nearby, received a frightful shaking up as did most residents of Bell Island who were jolted awake by the explosion that shook the island.
Photo Showing Torpedo Damage to Scotia Pier
The following summer, during school holidays, Lloyd got a job with the construction crew repairing the crater made in the west end of the pier. His job was to assist with the shovelling of the silt into trolley cars as it was being brought up by the dredge for removal from the site. The crater was easily large enough to conceal a typical two-story house and huge timbers from there were flung up over the cliff side and into adjacent fields by the blast. Seeing this, it was easy to understand how such an explosion could rip apart a huge ship in the manner in which he had witnessed.
The bow of the FLYINGDALE which was loading at the at the pier would have protruded some considerable distance beyond the south-west corner of the dock, thus forming a right-angled nook into which the torpedo entered. That being the case, and from the position of the crater, it was easy to deduce that the torpedo must have been fired from the direction in which Lloyd had seen the submarine. Also, considering the ANNA T was anchored off the head directly in line with that position, it was equally clear that both ships experienced a very narrow miss.
It seems strange that the U-boat commander would not have fired more torpedoes, or being on the surface, engaged with his deck gun the ships tied up at the piers. Surely he was aware of their presence and must have realized the devastating blow it would have been, not only to the island’s mining operations but to the war effort, if he had succeeded in sinking them in their berths. As we now know, Commander Wissmann, concerned with being spotted by the sweeping searchlights and having fired all but one of his six readied torpedos, was pressed for time in which to attack and after sinking the PLM-27 he made his escape quickly around the southern end of the island. If there is any consolation in the harm that was done, it is in the realization that it could have been much worse. U-518 escaped that day but eventually met her end when she was attacked and sunk by US destroyers north of the Azores on 22 April 1945. None of her crew of 56 survived.
Besides the ugly green sea worms also known as sand lance, that were brought up with the silt and eagerly sought after by Greek sailors when they were in port and used by them for bait while fishing for conners over the side of their ship, fragments of the wayward torpedo were also occasionally brought to the surface and dumped on the silt heap. These consisted mostly of shattered fragments of the torpedo casing and hundreds of pieces of perforated celluloid. It was soon discovered that the thin metal of the casing could be nicely polished, so a good deal of this was taken home and shaped into various knickknacks.
Then, one day a piece of the torpedo was dumped on the silt heap that was obviously not a part of the casing. Lloyd happened to be the closest to it and claimed it as his; finders keepers. The object consisted of a bronze cylinder, about two inches in diameter and four inches in length. It was capped on one end by a large hexagon nut and from the other end protruded a highly polished rod to which was attached by means of a swivel joint a shattered piece of steel rod of a larger diameter and about eight inches in length. The cylinder was engraved with an assortment of numbers and various other markings. Other attachments to it were broken off, including its mounting bracket ,of which only a small portion remained.
When lunch time came, being curious to find out what was inside the cylinder, Lloyd hopped on his bike and took it to his father’s forge. There, he clamped it into a vise. He got a bit of a start when upon slackening off the cap, a heavy steel coil spring that had been compressed inside was released and flew apart spattering him with the fluid contents. His father who was nervously watching his curious efforts got a bigger scare than he did.
Later that evening after work, much to his dismay, two officials turned up at the forge demanding that he turn the object over to them. They assured Lloyd that after it had been examined and identified it would be returned. He never expected to see his prize find again, but sure enough after several days it was returned and he was told that it was part of the torpedo’s hydraulic steering mechanism.
Thinking that some day he would fashion this into a lamp, Lloyd stored it away for safe keeping. Unfortunately he never got around to making the lamp and soon afterwards he left home. Years later when he looked for it, it was nowhere to be found and no one knew what happened to it. What Lloyd suspected was that sometime in the course of “cleaning-up” it was gathered up with other odds and ends of metal junk, of which there were usually lots around because Mr Rees’ occupation, and thrown over Lance Cove wharf.
This torpedo fragment is described in detail because somewhere, it is still in existence, likely buried somewhere along the beach at Lance Cove. Being made of bronze it would withstand many years of being exposed to the elements. Someone, sometime may find it again and if they should happen to have read this they will know what it is. What Lloyd did manage to hold onto and greatly treasure as a memento of that terrible November night was a spinning wheel lamp that he made from a piece of the ROSECASTLE’s mahogany railing that had drifted ashore and which he had stored away for such a purpose.
Lloyd’s was not the most interesting fragment of that torpedo to be discovered. One morning, when the water was calm and not yet muddied by the dredging, someone noticed a strange object lying on the bottom off the corner of the pier that looked suspiciously like a large section of the torpedo. A derrick was rigged and after many attempts and with the assistance of a nearby Q-Boat, it was finally snagged and brought to the surface. It turned out to be about a four-foot length of the rear section of the torpedo with its propeller and steering rudders still attached. This was placed on the deck of the Q-Boat and carried away, presumably to the naval station in St. John’s.
After Section of Torpedo fired from U-518 that struck Scotia Pier
The sad events of that tragic night of November 2nd did not end until the following Tuesday when funeral services were held for the twelve victims whose bodies were recovered and, in absentia, for those twenty-eight who remained buried in the deep.
The twelve recovered bodies, placed side by side in their gray caskets, were waked in the Wabana municipal building where hundreds of the island’s residents as well as family and friends from other places, came to pay their final respects. Mining operations were suspended for the day so that workers could attend the funeral services. A guard of honour was assembled which consisted of representatives of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Newfoundland Militia and the Great War Veteran’s Association. These, along with representatives of all the island’s civic organizations attended the huge funeral cortege as it wended its way towards the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
Six bodies, including those that were identified as belonging to the Free French were interred in the Roman Catholic cemetery. After the war the bodies of the Free French victims, being members of the Muslim faith, were exhumed and returned to France for burial in their native land.
On the day of the funeral another body, that of the ROSECASTLE’s third mate, Mr. John Green of Nova Scotia, was discovered floating in the bay. His body along with the body of Captain Walter James MacDonald of the ROSECASTLE were returned to Sydney. The remaining five bodies were interred in the Anglican cemetery.
The five Newfoundlanders who lost who lost their lives that morning, all members of the ROSECASTLE’s crew, were: J. Fillier of Bell Island, H. King of St. John’s, F. Burt and C. Hardy of Rose Blanche and W. McLennon of Placentia. Those Newfoundlanders who escaped were: F. Rees of Bell Island; and G. Hardy of Port-aux-Basques.
As far as can be recalled, few if any ships ever ventured up to the anchorage off Lance Cove for the remainder of the war. Soon after the sinking of the ROSECASTLE and the PLM-27, torpedo nets were strung around the piers; thus creating a pound in which the ships would wait in relative safety for loading or for convoy escort. There were no further losses of shipping to enemy U-boats in Conception Bay. The installation and operation of this pound came under the supervision of the RCN in St. John’s where similar nets protecting against torpedo attacks had been strung across the “Narrows”. Mining operations on Bell Island continued at an even more frantic pace and a new term, “Boom Defence”, was added to the vocabulary. The remains of these booms can still be seen piled in the White Hills not far from Quidi Vidi and many of the large cubic concrete mooring blocks can still be found at the pier, Bell Isle beach and in Lance Cove.
A new sound was also added to the sounds of Lance Cove, and it was many days before the residents who were subjected to its mesmerizing presence became sufficiently inured to permit undisturbed sleep. A “groaner buoy” was placed over the wreck of the LORD STRATCHONA and, even on nights when the water was calm, the undertow swell was usually sufficient to insure knowledge of its ominous and aggravating presence. Silent buoys marked the graves of the less hazardous wrecks.
Towards the end of the war somebody mercifully silenced the pestilent voice of the groaner with a rifle shot. The ships eventually came back to their old familiar anchorage spots, happy once more with lights aglow, shimmering like jewels strung out across the welcoming waters of the bay, as if in celebration of a gaiety too long subdued. Peace had returned, the war was over, and the boys would soon be coming home. It was a beautiful sight.
Anchor recovered from the PLM-27 and now part of the Seaman’s Memorial in Lance Cove
Seaman’s Memorial Lance Cove Bell Island circa 1995
Dedication Plaque at the Seaman’s Memorial