While the world was at war during World War II, both sides of the fight mobilized their troops to many strategic global battlefronts. Although the American continent was relatively calm, the Atlantic Ocean had become a graveyard of ships due to attacks from German submarines, known as U-Boats. The Nazis had bet on submarine warfare, and many of their subs sailed the waters of the Atlantic, causing damage to many allied vessels. Canada was no exception to these attacks. One of these battles took place in the waters off the quiet island located in Conception Bay, Newfoundland: The Battle of Bell Island.
The Battle of the Atlantic
Canada, along with the Dominion of Newfoundland, had been part of the Second World War since its beginning in 1939. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Battle of the Atlantic had become an important battlefront. German submarines sought to destroy merchant ships transporting supplies to Europe, depriving the Allies of important resources.
Bell Island, located on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, was home to one of the largest iron mines in the world, an activity that thrived the small island’s economy since the 1890s, making it the largest mine of the British Empire. It was central to the ever-increasing production of weapons.
Prior to World War II, Nazi Germany struggled to build a large army. For this they needed iron, which they got from Bell Island. In fact, Germany became the main customer for iron produced on the island and only between 1935 and 1939 and almost 3 million tons of iron were sent to Germany. It was evident that a position as strategic and desirable as Bell Island would be the target of the German submarine fleet, which ironically had been built with Allied iron. Aware of this, two 4.7-inch Quick Fire guns were readily placed as powerful artillery pieces in an attempt at coastal defense. Raw materials for war were a major priority. The allies would make every effort to protect their cargoes.
U-boats Arriving in Conception Bay
In May 1942, the Germans began to carry out submarine operations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, an episode known as the Battle St. Lawrence. The battle of Bell Island would be one of the confrontations in the enemy’s operations. The first of the fighting took place off the coast of Bell Island and began with an attack from the German submarine, U-513. This sub was part of the 10th German flotilla, led by Commander Rolf Rüggeberg, and departed on August 7, 1942 from the port of the German city of Kiel to conduct its very first naval operation. The sub stayed for 7 days in the Strait of Belle Isle without confrontations, but after receiving orders to advance on Bell Island, the attack was imminent. Reaching Conception Bay on September 3, the sub was thwarted by defensive reflectors, making a night attack impossible. The U-boat crew was forced to wait until the next day.
Battle of Bell Island First attack
The following day, September 4, 1942, the Germans started their movement. The submarine set its sights on its first target: The Evelyn B, a ship that transported iron ore. Luckily for its crew, the sub that followed the ship to Conception Bay did not fire. But, it detected other ships through the periscope: The SS Saganaga and Lord Strathcona. The next day, at approximately 11:32 am, the German submarine fired on the Saganaga. However, the enemy crew had forgotten to switch the torpedo battery switch from “charge” to “fire”, so the torpedoes sank without causing any damage to their targets.
A few minutes later, at 11:45 am, the submarine fired 2 more torpedoes, which hit the bow and stern of the Saganaga and sank the vessel within minutes. After this, the submarine rose uncontrollably, causing its conning tower to collide with Lord Strathcona. After adjusting its position, it fired 2 torpedoes at 12:16, which hit the bow and stern of the freighter, quickly sinking it as well. The German submarine then fled the scene, while the coastal guns fired at it. However, the Newfoundland Militia could do nothing against the attack. This invasion left 29 sailors dead on both of the sunken ships. The population was shocked by how a submarine was able to enter the bay and sink two ships, despite being in a protected position. It was clear that Bell Island was vulnerable, and measures were taken to reinforce the area. They installed larger searchlights and troops were placed on high alert for another possible attack.
Battle of Bell Island Second attack
While the quiet Bell Island community reeled from the harshness of war, the U-513 submarine returned to Europe. But only two months later, the submarine U-518, part of the second flotilla and commanded by Friedrich Wissmann, was on its way back to carry out a new attack. The submarine entered Conception Bay on the night of November 1, managing yet again to evade detection, despite the fact that the area had been heavily reinforced once more.
Once in port, the sub fired at the Anna T, but missed. The torpedo passed under the stern of the Flyngdale, exploding on the dock. This explosion alerted the defenders, who quickly mobilized two Fairmile fast motorboats and a war corvette, the HMCS Drumheller. At this, the Germans rushed and fired at the Rose Castle and the French ship Lyon Marseille 27, which both sank, leaving 40 dead. Despite the patrols approaching the scene, the German submarine quickly fled. Once again, the Germans had successfully attacked and managed to escape.
WWII Aftermath in Newfoundland
The population was shocked by this new attack, and by the fact that despite measures being taken, the defenses were unable to intercept the submarine. Newfoundland Governor, Humphrey T. Walwyn, was infuriated by the attacks, contacting the Chief of Staff, Captain F.L. Houghton, telling him that it was insane to leave the ships unprotected in the bay. However, no further measures were ever taken to reinforce the position.
Suspicion of a possible spy, as it did not seem possible that the Germans could enter without problems, arose. The captain of the Lyon Marseille 27 was investigated, because despite being a Free French ship, he was not aboard the ship the night of the attack. After an investigation, he and other crewmembers were found to be innocent. In fact, only a week later, the submarine U-518 landed a spy named Werner von Janowski in New Carlisle, Quebec, who was quickly captured.
Despite this, at the end of the war, the victory in the Battle St. Lawrence went to the allies and the submarines surrendered at the end of the war. The Battle of Bell Island is a little known episode of the Second World War that lives on in the memory of the inhabitants of the tiny island. The battery that still stands on Bell Island became a monument that tells a living story: A story of fighting in the waters of Conception Bay, Newfoundland.