Guest blogger and ProGenealogist: Simon Pearce
As Remembrance Day nears we reflect on the sacrifices made by Canadians during and since both World Wars and focus on some of the lesser-known events of World War II (WWII).
Canadian men and women made a huge contribution to the war effort at sea between 1939 and 1945, whether it be with the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), the Royal Navy or aboard merchant ships. Canadian personnel serving at sea were in the firing line as soon as Britain and Canada declared war on Germany on 3 and 10 September 1939 respectively.
War on the Waves
The campaign at sea, known as The Battle of the Atlantic became the longest continuous military campaign of WWII and spanned the entirety of the war in Europe. Faced with the threat of
German submarines known as U-boats, Allied convoys ran the gauntlet of the Atlantic in a bid to deliver vital materials to Britain and later the Soviet Union. The merchant ships delivering goods were at obvious risk, but so were Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) ships that provided escort duties for the convoys. During this period, German U-boats inflicted heavy casualties on Allied shipping; Canada and Newfoundland alone lost over 1,600 Merchant Navy personnel while it is estimated that the majority of the RCNs 2,000 casualties were sustained during the Battle of the Atlantic.
However, the war was brought dangerously close to home between 1942 and 1944, with Canadian Inland Waters becoming the frontline during The Battle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, as German U-boats infiltrated the Cabot Strait and the Strait of Belle Isle. During this period, German U-boats sank 23 naval and merchant ships in the Saint Lawrence River and in the Gulf of St Lawrence, resulting in the loss of life and shipping, but also prevented desperately needed supplies from crossing the Atlantic.
Uncovering the Men & Women Who Served
Wishing to learn more about the Canadians involved in The Battle of the St. Lawrence, I spent time exploring collections available on Ancestry which revealed some fascinating individuals. Perhaps some of the collections discussed below will help you research your own ancestors who took part in the battle or who served in other campaigns during WWII.
The HMCS Charlottetown
Our research led us to explore the fate of His Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Charlottetown, part of the RCN. On the outbreak of war, the RCN had four destroyers to its name but it witnessed rapid growth, becoming one of the largest navies in the world by the war’s end, with just under 100,000 men and women in its ranks.
Charlottetown went to sea on its maiden voyage in December 1941 and was engaged in escort duties in North America before transferring to the Gulf Escort Force in July of the following year; necessitated by the growing presence of U-boats in the Gulf of St Lawrence. On 11 September 1942 Charlottetown, taking part in escort duties between Québec and Sydney (Nova Scotia), was sunk near Cap-Chat, Quebec by the German submarine U-517, claiming the lives of ten of the 64 crew. Amongst the casualties was Charlottetown’s Commander, 44-year-old Acting Lieutenant-Commander John Willard Bonner.
The UK, Navy Lists, 1888-1970, an excellent resource for tracking the appointments of British and Canadian naval officers, indicates that Bonner was appointed a Temporary Lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve on 8 September 1939. This source is particularly valuable if you are waiting for, or do not have access to the individual’s service file, held by Library and Archives Canada. However service files of deceased servicemen and women are available on Ancestry in the Canada, World War II Service Files of War Dead, 1939-1947 and contain a wealth of military and genealogical information. We located John’s file I order to learn more about his background, experience and connection to the Battle of the St. Lawrence.
John’s ‘Occupational History Form’ states that he was employed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.) before the war, commanding a patrol ship in the Marine Section. John’s 22 years’ experience at sea, along with the experience of many other seafaring volunteers would be a huge asset for the RCN following the outbreak of war. In addition to service on shore establishments, John served aboard three sea-going ships in the Atlantic between 1939 and 1942, the French, Rimouski and the Charlottetown.
Losses in shipping were not necessarily reported to the press straight away, giving the authorities time to inform the families of the deceased of their loss and to avoid immediately tipping-off the enemy of their success. This is evidenced in John’s service record, which contains a typed letter addressed to his wife Mary on 13 September 1942, two days after his death. The letter confirms an earlier telegram stating that John was missing and believed lost at sea, stating ‘he must be presumed killed’.
The letter continues: ‘It is for the public interest that the name of his ship and the fact that she has been sunk should not find its way to the enemy until such time as it is decided to publish the fact in a Naval Casualty List.’ Indeed, the loss was not an announced until 18 September, by the Canadian Navy Minister, as can be seen here in the Alberta-based Lethbridge Herald. According to the article, which continued on an additional page, Charlottetown was ‘fighting off an enemy submarine attack on a convoy’ and was sunk in heavy fog.
John’s obituary can be found in the Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police obituary card index and notices, 1876-2007 collection on Ancestry; the obituaries for members of the R.C.M.P., whether they died during the war or after, can provide a fascinating insight into their military service. John joined the R.C.M.P. in 1932 and had previously spent eight years as a ship’s officer with the Great White Fleet of the United Fruit Company, sailing from Boston and New York to the West Indies, amongst other experience at sea.
The SS Caribou
John was one of 340 estimated Allied casualties who lost their lives at sea during the Battle of the St. Lawrence between 1942 and 1944. The heaviest loss inflicted during the battle was the sinking
of the passenger ferry the SS Caribou; not only were merchant ships engaged in transporting supplies to Europe, but they also ferried civilian passengers, military personnel and materials within Canadian waters. The Caribou was sunk by U-69 on 14 October 1942, while sailing from Port aux Basques, Newfoundland to Nova Scotia with the loss of 137 on board, including civilians. Given that the Caribou was registered to the port of St. Johns, Newfoundland, I consulted the Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada, Crew Lists, 1864-1942 collection to learn more about the crew who found themselves on the front-line during this period.
One crew member was Bride Fitzpatrick, who had been serving at sea from at least 1935 and was aboard the Caribou on its fateful voyage in October 1942. Bride’s entry in the Ancestry index takes
you through to the original crew list on the Maritime History Archive website, part of Memorial University in Newfoundland. 58-year-old Bride was born in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland and was employed on board the Caribou as a Stewardess for $39 a calendar month; some sources claim Bride was 61-years-old. Bride’s
entry comes on the last page of the crew list, which also contains the following note:
‘Torpedoed by enemy action 14th Oct. 1942 at 3.45am. Approx 20 miles of Channel Head. 15 survivors’.
In contrast to the sinking of the Charlottetown, newspapers were permitted to report the sinking of the Caribou within days. On 17 October for example the Ottawa Citizen published a casualty list under the heading ‘Missing and Rescued in Ferry Boat’s Loss’, which contained Bride’s name amongst the missing. The sinking of the Caribou emphasises the danger Canadian and Allied ships faced not only in the Atlantic but within Canadian waters. Although 1942 proved to be the most successful year for the U-boats in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, minor forays were conducted in 1943 and further attacks were resumed in 1944, but with less success. The improvements in Canadian anti-submarine warfare, amongst other factors, saw the last attack in the Gulf occur in November 1944 with the sinking of HMCS Shawinigan; all 91 crew members lost their lives.
Discover more stories of the Canadian men and women who served in WWII on Ancestry.ca.