At the heart . . . of operations

In 1943 a little known operation brought together the Canadian Armed Forces and the German Navy at the mouth of the Chaleur Bay. On the German side, Operation Kiebitz planned the recovery of some U-boat officers who had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Northern Ontario by having them picked up by a U-boat. On the Canadian side, Operation Pointe Maisonnette put in place by the Navy and by the Army sought to apprehend these escaped German prisoners of war and seize the submarine sent to recover them.

OPERATION KIEBITZ

Context

During the Second World War, several German prisoners of war were incarcerated in Canadian camps. Canada's geographical location and climactic conditions supported this choice. Several prisoners, considered dangerous because of knowledge or abilities that could be advantageous to the enemy, or because they belonged to groups deemed dangerous, were kept under close watch far from the main scenes of the conflict.

 

Introduction

Despite the distance of these camps from the Atlantic, many prisoners put together escape plans and, in certain cases, acted upon them. This was the case for German prisoner Otto Kretschmer, instigator of an escape plan that resulted in a vast military operation involving the German Navy and the Canadian Army and Navy. The operational strategy called Operation Kiebitz by German authorities had as objective the escape of German prisoners and their boarding a submarine waiting for them in the Chaleur Bay.

The Canadians planned counter-attack, Operation Pointe Maisonnette, had two goals: to capture one of the escaped German prisoners and to capture the submarine whose mission it was to take the fugitives on board.

I. The German prisoners' escape plan

Camp 30, Bowmanville, Ontario

The escape thought up by Otto Kretschmer had its roots in Camp 30, in Bowmanville, Ontario. Located on Lake Ontario, some eighty kilometres from Toronto, this camp holds, behind its walls, prisoners of war that have exceptional combat records and are likely to attempt several escapes.

 

 
carte
 
Map identifying Bowmanville, Ontario and Pointe Maisonnette, New Brunswick

From Luce Deschênes Damian's and Raymond Damian's Atlas régional du Québec et du Canada, p. 112.

 

 
Escape preparations

In the fall of 1942, Officer Kretschmer, nicknamed the Atlantic Wolf, devises an escape plan that would allow four officers, including himself, to escape from the camp. The other three are also submarine officers: Kapitänleutnant Hans Ey of U-433 sunk on November 16,1941, Horst Elfe of U-93 sunk on January 15, 1942 and Joachim von Knebel-Döberitz, executive officer. In a L'Action catholique article published in 1957, Krestchmer explains how he came to choose Pointe Maisonnette as the rendezvous point.

I had an atlas that I got in England; it was a nice school atlas that we could use to study the Canadian Atlantic shoreline.

At the point where the St. Lawrence empties into the sea, along the shores of its wide mouth, we located a large number of bays. One of them, called the Chaleur Bay, attracted our attention because of a cape that protruded into it and which would favour an escape. The cape was called Pointe Maisonnette.

We could easily reach Pointe Maisonnette in three of four days if walking conditions were the least bit favourable. Once there, it would be possible to board a submarine sent by Admiral Dönitz. The critical part was convincing the BdU, the Commander-in-Chief of the submarine fleet, Admiral Dönitz, to send us a submarine.

Excerpt from the work of
Yves Bernard and Caroline Bergeron,
Trop loin de Berlin. Des prisonniers
allemands au Canada
(1939-1946), p. 216.


Detailed scale model of the tunnel dug by the prisoners in the camp in Bowmanville

From Yves Bernard's and Caroline Bergeron's Trop loin de Berlin. Des prisonniers allemands au Canada (1939-1946), p. 218.

Through the spouse of von Knebel-Döberitz, Admiral Dönitz's secretary, prisoner Kretschmer enters into contact with the Commander of the Kriegsmarine. In an encoded letter, he shares his intentions to escape and proposes the location for the recovery of the fugitives by submarine. After he obtains the Admiral's agreement, preparations to achieve the escape are undertaken. The escape from camp will be made through a tunnel whose exit is fairly far outside the camp and the barbed wire. To fool the guards, they dig three tunnels at once. After four months, two of the tunnels are abandoned so that efforts can be concentrated on the third one. More than 150 men work on the tunnels, taking turns on night and day shifts. Some men prepare the materials required for the prisoners' escape, such as dummies to substitute for the escapees, false identification papers, civilian clothing and goods.

During the work, encoded messages are sent to Germany, providing updates on their progress. In August 1943, as the work is progressing nicely, a communication through encoded letters and radio transmission sets the date for the escape of the four German prisoners. Another encoded letter from Admiral Dönitz indicates that a submarine, the U-536, commanded by the Lieutenant Schauenburg, will surface for two hours every night over a two-week period starting September 23, 1943. Therefore, Kretschmer and his three fellow officers will have 14 days after their escape to make it to the rendezvous point of Pointe Maisonnette in the Chaleur Bay.

 

The escape

One week before the date set for the escape, plans are abruptly changed because of two incidents. One night, while the prisoners are sleeping, the ceiling above which they piled the earth from the tunnel caves in. The earth removed from the tunnel is hidden in the dormitory ceilings. The guards, alerted by the racket and intrigued by the quantity of earth fallen from the ceiling, begin looking for its source. As camp authorities did not discover the third tunnel, Kretschmer, faced with the urgency of the situation, decides to take action the same night. However, on the day he proposes this, a second incident occurs which puts an end to the four German officers' escape plan. While a prisoner digs close to the camp fence to fill his flower boxes with earth, the earth beneath his shovel gives way, uncovering the third tunnel's exit to the guards. The prisoners who were to escape are arrested and put under close watch.

What Krestchmer and his companions are unaware of is that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has known about their plans for quite a while. In fact, the RCMP were working with Canadian Military Intelligence, who managed to decode the contents of the messages between the prisoners and the German Admiralty. Amongst other items, they have their hands on maps of Eastern Canada. Little, Commander of Canadian Military Intelligence during the Second World War, tells how they discovered the escape plan: "A suspicious parcel was sent to one of the German prisoners at the Bowmanville Camp. After opening it cautiously, we found a map for a rescue operation in the Chaleur Bay. Alerted of this, I went to see Admiral Nelles, as well as the Army officer responsible for the prisoner of war camps, to explain the situation to them and to propose a plan."

Excerpt from Little's interview
in the series Seasoned Sailors

To learn more about the escape plan, Commissioner Harvison of the RCMP had a microphone probe installed that picked up the presence of a tunnel and sounds of digging. The discovery of the escape plan was obviously not shared with the German prisoners. The RCMP's and camp authorities' intention was to let the Germans continue digging and to capture them once they came out of the tunnel. The two incidents that occurred did nothing but accelerate Kretschmer's planned escape.


German prisoners of war: Wolfgang Heyda, First row, second from left Jean-Guy Dugas collection
Photo: Canadian Armed Forces (B 121)

Faced with the failure of Kretschmer's plan, Kapitänleutnant Wolfgang Heyda, another officer incarcerated at Bowmanville, proposes his own escape plan.

Basing his arguments on the presence of the German submarine off Canadian shores, Heyda convinced Kretschmer, the senior camp officer, to accept his proposal.

Though it uses a less scientific approach, Heyda's plan makes up for it by its audacity and recklessness. He is provided with false national registration papers as well as a false document signed by the Naval Chief-of-Staff, Admiral Percy Nelles. In addition, he is given civilian clothing, a boatswain's chair, which is a rope chair that can be attached to cables, and nails are hammered into his boots to make crampons.

After donning his civilian clothing and hiding the mate's chair beneath his clothes, Heyda hides in a hut used for sports while a dummy takes his place for the evening prisoner count. At nightfall, taking advantage of a diversion orchestrated by the other prisoners, Heyda leaves his hiding place and scales a fence pole with the help of his crampons. At the top of the fence he gets into his mate's chair, attaches himself to the ropes and vaults himself over. He manages to land on the other side without mishap and without being intercepted by the camp guards. After his escape from Bowmanville, Heyda makes his way to Bathurst, New Brunswick, on September 26, 1943. He then continues on foot until he reaches the rendezvous point of Pointe Maisonnette. En route, he is intercepted by a military patrol, but his false papers and his civilian clothing save him. At the end of the evening, he finally arrives at the rendezvous site.

II. The secret mission of German submarine U-536

Schauenburg and Operation Kiebitz

In July 1943 Kapitäleutnant Rolf Schauenburg is charged with a special mission on Canadian shores by Admiral Karl Dönitz, Chief-of-Staff of the German Navy Back on the base in Lorient, France, after a weeks' leave, Schauenburg learns that the operation he is charged with is aimed at recovering four escaped German prisoners along the shores of Chaleur Bay. Before his departure, the submarine commander receives a special dispatch containing maps and sealed instructions that he is to open only upon arrival at destination. The crew is not to know of the nature or location of the mission before the submarine is in sight of the lighthouse of Pointe Maisonnette.

 

U-536 en route to Canada

After leaving the base at Lorient, on August 29, 1943, U-536 first travels north of the Azores to undertake a patrol. Attacked by a RAF Wellington aircraft (Royal Air Force) while leaving the Bay of Biscay, U-536 continues on her route. This is when she received the following signal for the German Admiralty: "Commander Schauenburg, begin Operation Kiebitz on September 12. " Therefore, Schauenburg heads for the Canadian shores to arrive in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on September 16, 1943. At the mouth of the Gulf, he manages to slip through a flotilla of Canadian ships on patrol. In the September 1956 issue of the German magazine Krystal, quoted from the work Trop loin de Berlin. Des prisonniers allemands au Canada (1939-1946), Schauenberg talks about his trip to Chaleur Bay:

We had sailed in large arcs towards Anticosti Island. We continued on towards Chaleur Bay. Our orders were to enter into contact with the prisoners and to wait for their light signals from September 26, onwards.

The fugitives' light signals, made with a powerful flashlight or a light projector, were to indicate the rendezvous site. Once the submarine was in close to the shore, she was to land a German officer, an assistant, and a boat to recover the fugitives.

III. The Canadian Armed Forces prepare for the capture.

Sea preparations

Like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the high command of the Royal Canadian Navy had heard of the escape plan orchestrated by the Germans. The British Secret Intelligence Service, successfully deciphering the communication code Enigma, even intercepted communications of the operational outline.

The Royal Canadian Navy formed a flotilla of ships to patrol the southern area of Chaleur Bay. In fact, on September 25 a destroyer, the HMCS Chelsea, three corvettes: HMCS Agassiz, HMCS Shawinigan and HMCS Lethbridge, five Canadian minesweeping boats, fairmiles and the corvette HMCS Rimouski are assigned to blockade the bay from U-536 upon its attempt to enter it. They are also to sink the German submarine.

For this secret operation, the Royal Canadian Navy uses a new camouflage technique on one of its corvettes. The HMCS Rimouski is fitted with a system of projectors, rendering it almost invisible to the enemy after nightfall. This diffuse lighting technique renders the ship undetectable from afar, and difficult to see and identify from closer up. Lieutenant Pickford, now a retired Rear Admiral, commands the corvette HMCS Rimouski during the operation in Chaleur Bay.


Rear-Admiral John Pickford

Still from the Rear-Admiral R. John Pickford interview in the Seasoned Sailors series
Policy Publishers Inc. photo

Pickford describes the HMCS Rimouski's role in this secret mission:

"They had installed a radar station and observation posts on the beach, and when they received an indication of the presence of the U-boat, HMCS Rimouski, with her diffuse lighting, was to abandon the patrol and enter the bay on her own. Sailing slowly with her navigation lights and her diffuse lighting, she would create the illusion of being a small ship until she was able to capture the submarine."

Excerpt from the collection of interviews
Salty Dips, Vol. 1. p. 4-5

However, this was not the initial plan, which was rejected by the Canadian Admiralty and by the British Intelligence Service, who did not want the Germans to learn that the Allies had discovered and learned how to operate the Enigma machine. The initial plan was to board the submarine on the surface. A team trained for this type of mission would be waiting on board an armed lobster-fishing boat. Once the submarine surfaced, they would board it and throw a chain down the conning tower to prevent the hatch from closing.

 

Land preparations


Rear-Admiral Desmond W. Piers

Still from the Desmond W. Piers Rear Admiral RCN interview in the Seasoned Sailors series
Policy Publishers Inc. photo

Desmond Piers, responsible for the land operations, explains how he was made aware of this secret mission: "One day, I was called into a room where there were 3 men, amongst them Admiral Puxley and Captain Hill, Captain of the Canadian submarines. What we were about to hear was secret and it had to stay that way, even from our spouses. Admiral Puxley began telling us how German prisoners at Camp Bowmanville, in Ontario, had prepared their escape. Kretschmer, a U-boat captain, and other submariners were planning on making their way to Chaleur Bay to be picked up by a submarine."

Excerpt from the interview with Rear-Admiral
Desmond Piers in the series Seasoned Sailors

As early as the summer of 1943, Murray had sent two Lieutenants, Desmond Piers and Hill, to Chaleur Bay to oversee the installation of two mobile radar posts. A battalion of the Royal Canadian Engineers undertook the transport of these radars. Captain Lafond, in charge of this battalion, explains his role in this secret mission:

"I had to organize a convoy of two radars, their generators, the staff required for their operation, about forty soldiers of the R.C.A., a section of combat engineers, as well as 24 drivers from the Army Service Corps. ['] Why all of that' I'm not sure if I found out right away, or only upon my arrival at Bathurst, from the Captain, who was waiting for us. In any event, the objective of this hasty move was to seize a German submarine in Caraquet Bay, north of Bathurst."

Excerpt from the article entitled
Le sous-marin de Maisonnette et les radars de la Gaspésie
in the historical review of the Société historique Nicolas-Denys.

Once the two radars arrived at their destination, they were set up two miles on either side of the Point-Maisonnette lighthouse. Comprised of two trucks and trailers, these units were still highly visible to the enemy. Lieutenant Piers, now a retired Rear Admiral, set up his headquarters in the lighthouse.

His job is to watch out for the arrival of the German submarine on his radar screens and to inform the ships in the bay responsible for torpedoing the submarine.

 

IV. Failure of Operation Kiebitz and Operation Pointe Maisonnette

Prisoner Heyda's capture

Stopped for a second time, Heyda is not arrested by the RCMP, who let him go after checking his identity. Intercepted on the beach a few moments later by sentries, Heyda is taken to the Pointe Maisonnette lighthouse to be questioned by Lieutenant Piers. Convinced that he was dealing with one of the escaped prisoners from Camp Bowmanville, he treats him politely and lets him explain himself. Heyda pretends to be a former member of the Royal Canadian Engineers released to join the Northern Electric Company. He attempts to convince Piers that he is building anti-submarine equipment for the fight against German U-boats in the Atlantic. He has in his possession a release letter from the Canadian Army, an identification card, a letter from the Naval Chief of Staff thanking him for his work, Canadian and American bills and a handmade compass as well as chocolates from the German Red Cross. Several elements conspire to betray him: the nature of his work, the Naval Chief of Staff's falsified signature, the banknotes' date of issue and particularly the chocolates from Germany.

Unmasked, Heyda admits who he is without saying more. The Geneva Convention does not require more information from captured enemies. In Jean-Guy Dugas' work, Opération Kiebitz. Un Rendez-vous à Pointe Maisonnette, Piers describes what happened afterwards:

I offered my regrets, but I had to return him to detention. I telephoned the RCMP. They came in a car and, a few moments later, I handed him over to them.

Heyda was returned to Bowmanville three days later, but with a certain amount of reluctance, as he could inform his colleagues and Otto Kretschmer that his escape plan had been foiled and their intelligence source had been discovered, which was not good for the Allies' cause.

 

Search and escape of German submarine U-536

Waiting for signals since September 26, the crew of the submarine surfaces on the night of September 27 hoping to receive a signal from the escaped prisoners. Baffled by the lack of signals, Commandant Schauenburg signals without receiving a response.

During the questioning of the escaped German prisoner Wolfgang Heyda, the Canadian radar operator receives a contact warning of the U-boat's arrival close to shore. Piers then sends a message to the ships stationed in the bay, informing them of the presence of the submarine. Pickford explains his role on board the corvette HMCS Rimouski:

"Finally, they received a message. It was a radar contact. The plan was as follows: the corvette HMCS Rimouski would enter the bay on her own with her diffuse lighting that rendered her less visible. The navigation lights were out, as would have been those of a Merchant Ship under similar circumstances. We were to sneak up on the submarine and, if possible, capture her. Therefore, we proceeded into the bay lit up like a Christmas tree."

Excerpt from the interview with Rear-Admiral
R. John Pickford in the series Seasoned Sailors.

An English officer who spoke German attempted to contact U-536, but was unsuccessful.

All of a sudden a message in German saying "Come closer, come closer" came in over the radio. However, this message was not correct and it was not sent on the proper frequency. Suspicious, the submarine's captain decides to move further from shore and dive. He plunges to some 30 metres in depth and puts a halt to all activity that could generate sound. Without having received radio contact on the location of U-536, the Canadian ships attempt to hunt her for part of the night by releasing depth charges. Depth charges rain down around the submarine, which only suffers minor damage. After waiting several hours for the attacks to cease, Schauenburg moves the submarine to the middle of Chaleur Bay, some 40 metres in depth. At dawn the next day, around 6 o'clock, the bay is clear: no sign of ships or the U-boat. A day later, while leaving the bay across from Île de Miscou, the submarine becomes entangled in a trawler's nets. The crew manages to free the submarine from the nets only to notice, later on, that debris from the nets was hooked onto the submarine's conning tower.

It was only as nightfall arrived that the German commander decided to surface. He saw three destroyers and fishing vessel approximately 300 metres from him. Spotted almost immediately by the Canadian ships, the submarine quickly dove under and headed for shallow waters along the shoreline. After two hours, the explosions stopped and the submarine surfaced to leave the bay and make its way to Cabot Strait. During this escape, the crew are seriously shaken by the long hours spent under the surface and by the rapid changes in pressure. In fact, many crewmembers lost consciousness and were poisoned by the polluted air they had to breathe. As Schauenburg explains in the magazine Krystal, quoted from the work Trop loin de Berlin. Des prisonniers allemands au Canada 1939-1946:

I had only one objective: finding a quiet area 600 nautical miles south, that is to say, far from the enemy's operational flying zone. We urgently needed to surface to allow the men to recover and to make repairs. The experience in the Chaleur Bay had severely tested us.

On October 5, 1943, while en route for Portugal, Schauenburg communicates with the German Admiralty to inform them of the failed Operation Kiebitz.

On November 20, 1943, HMCS Snowberry, HMCS Calgary as well as HMS Nene sink U-536. Part of the crew survives.