The sinking of the SS Caribou, in the Cabot
Strait, with the loss of 135 lives in October 1942, was for Newfoundlanders
, the most significant event of World War Two. Newfoundlanders are no strangers
to tragedy and the history of the island is filled with tales of shipwrecks
and marine disasters.
In practically every disaster the fault could be laid to the inability of man to predict the forces of nature, or poor judgement on the part of humans. The loss of the Caribou can be attributed to neither but was the result of a cool, calculated and deliberate act.
The story begins on Tuesday, Oct 13th 1942 at North Sydney. All afternoon the ferry terminal had been bustling with activity as the SS Caribou was being prepared for its evening sailing to Port au Basque, a 100 mile voyage. The clattering of steam winches could be heard above the shouts as cargo, including 50 head of cattle were hoisted from the dock and into the holds of the vessel.
As the military and civilian passengers began to arrive early in the evening, they were met at the Gangway by the Purser. Tickets were examined, accommodation assigned, and they were escorted to their cabins by stewards who briefed them on the location of their lifeboat stations. There was no lifeboat drill.
In his cabin Capt Ben Tavnor examined his sailing orders and prepared for departure. German U Boats had recently been active in east coast waters, penetrating far into the St Lawrence River and there had been a number of sinkings. The Caribou would observe "blackout" regulations and sail a zig zag course under escort by the RCN minesweeper Grandmere.
The Caribou carried three lifeboats on each side. Two were amidships, the other near the stern of the vessel. Each lifeboat was certified for 50 people. The amidship lifeboats were out of their davits and swung out so that they were ready for immediate launching. The lifeboats at the stern were secured in their davits to prevent them being damaged in heavy seas. As well wartime regulations had resulted in a number of liferafts and floats being installed on the vessel.
Just before 8.00 PM the ships whistle blasted the "all ashore that's going ashore" warning, the gangway's were pulled up and the Caribou with a crew of 45 and 206 passengers backed slowly away from the pier.
At the same time, at the Navy Dock, the Minesweeper Grandemere under command of Lt James Cuthbert was also putting to sea. A Bangor class vessel it carried a crew of 45 with a top speed of 15 knots. It was equiped with an underwater detection device called asdic, however it was not effective at close range. It did not carry radar which would detect surfaced vessels.
The "Western Approach Convey Instructions" were for the Escort to follow the Caribou at a distance of approximately 1/4 mile, but both Cuthbert and Tavnor privately thought it would be safer for the Carribou to follow the escort.
Late that night the German U-Boat U69, under command of Lt Graf surfaced about 20 miles southwest of Port au Basque. She had been in Atlantic coastal waters for two months and had sunk several ships including one in the St Lawrence River. Rolf was now leaving the Gulf and moving to new hunting grounds in east coast waters before completing his patrol.
The U-boat activity and sinkings in home waters had resulted in much increased surveillance during daylight hours by RCAF aircraft from bases in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Rolf was forced to keep his submarine submerged during the day and could only come to the surface at night to recharge the batteries and air out the vessel.
It was a dark night with a medium swell and temperature of 54 degrees Farenheit. The Caribou has been following her zig zag course and by 3.00 AM was about 25 miles from Port au Basque. The passengers and crew who were not on duty had long bedded down for the night and the vessel was quiet. In another couple of hours they would be preparing to land at Port au Basque.
At about the same time the U69 was cruising on the surface when Graf sighted two vessels, one he describes as a freighter being followed by a destroyer, 1/4 mile behind. He gave the order to move his ship ahead to a more favourable position for a torpedo attack on the freighters starboard side.
Once in position he gave the order to fire, and the torpedo was ejected from the submarine with a burst of compressed air. Then its counter rotating propellers bit into the water, driving it forward at a speed of over 30 mph. Only a string of bubbles marked its path as it raced towards the unsuspecting Caribou.
At approximately 3.30AM the torpedo struck the Caribou amidships, and its warhead of high explosives tore a huge hole in the starboard side. Practically all of the engine room staff and an unknown number of the passengers and crew on that side of the vessel were killed outright. The two lifeboats and the radio installation were destroyed as well. The lights went out almost immediately, there are further explosions in the engine room as boilers exploded and the vessel started to settle.
Confusion and panic reigned as passengers and crew searched for family and friends and fought their way through the darkened passages onto the deck. The two lifeboats on the port side quickly filled and were launched but not without problems.
The sea-cocks of both boats were open to prevent the accumulation of rainwater and they started to fill with water. This was discovered and rectified in one of the boats but the other was so crowded that it was impossible to fix before it filled with water and capsized.
The crew who went to launch the stern lifeboats found them filled with people and still in their davits. They were asked and begged to get out so the boats could be swung out but they seemed paralysed with fear and refused to move.
As the vessel started to slide under, some passengers and crew, with or without lifebelts, jumped into the water and attempted to make their way to the life rafts, floats and other debris which was floating in the area.
Sadly, many of those in the stern lifeboats were still there when the Caribou lifted her stern and started her dive to the bottom of the Cabot Strait 1600 feet below. It was only about five minutes since the torpedo struck and it was all over.
On board the Grandmere the crew saw the torpedo explosion and then the surfaced submarine. Cuthbert immediately ordered full speed ahead and turned his vessel towards the sub with the intention of ramming it. Graf who was watching as the Caribou ssnk, saw the Grandmere's intention and immediately gave the order to dive. As the last crewman scrambled down from the conning tower the hatch was secured, the ballast tanks filled with water and its propellors drove U69 deep below the surface.
As Grandmere passed over the spot where the submarine had disappeared a pattern of depth charges was dropped, but without any obvious results. Cuthbert knew there would be survivors in the water but naval instructions made submarine hunting his top priority. It was only after several hours of unsuccessful searching for the submarine that he was able to return to the scene of the sinking just as dawn was breaking.
In the following hours he was able to find and take on board 103 survivors before heading back to Sydney. Unfortunately two died before reaching port.
Rumours about events leading to the disaster quickly spread and in this they were aided by wartime secrecy. The Grandmere was accused of not being close enough to the Caribou or or having returned to Sydney early. Some said she had depth charged close to survivors in the water, while others said the submarine had surfaced and machine gunned those in the water.
A review of German Naval documents many years later proved none of these allegations were true. The U69's log pinpoints Grandmere about 1500 yards behind the Caribou in its proper position. Graf knew his enemy would be reluctant to drop depth charges in the area of survivors and so doubled back and sought refuge in the safest area he could think of --450 feet below the surface where the Caribou had sank. Running silently he was eventually able to slink away and eventually made his way back to his base in France.
Fishermen from the nearby Newfoundland southcoast communities also went to the scene of the sinking and picked up a number of bodies, including those of nine Canadian service personnel. They were brought ashore to Port au Basque, where the local inhabitants built coffins and prepared them for burial.
On Oct 19th they were placed aboard a train and shipped east for burial. Bodies of the three members of the RCAF were removed at Gander and buried in the RCAF cemetery on 20 Oct 1942. The bodies of the Army and Naval personnel, including Margaret Wilkinson, the only Canadian Nurse killed by Enemy Action in WW2 continued on to St John's for burial .
Details of the three RCAF victims as contained in the Common wealth War Graves records are as follows:
CUMMINGS A.C.2 Thomas Henry, R/170525, R.C.A.F. 14th October, 11942. Age 20. Son of William and Alice Cummings, of Toronto, Ontario . Plot 3. Row 4, Grave 27.
Epitaph - God took him home, it was his will, but in our hearts he
ELKIN Cpl. Herbert Harold, R/52455, R.C.A.F. 14th October, 1942. Age 24. Son of Herbert and Georginia Elkin, of Hamilton, Ontario. Plot3. Row 3. Grave 21.
Epitaph- Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his
life for his friends
TRUESDALE A.C.2 Lawrence William, R165602, R.C.A.F. 14th October, 1942. Son of William and Gladys Truesdaye, of Hamilton, Ontario. Plot3, Row 3, Grave 20.
Epitaph- Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his
life for his friends.