Saturday, September 5, 1942, was like any other Saturday morning for the crew aboard the Saganaga. The vessel lay quietly at anchor, fully loaded with 8,800 tons of Bell Island iron ore. The forty-eight members of her crew were either relaxing or looking after personal matters. Some of the officers had even launched a boat over the side to fish for a meal of cod.
Lying at anchor off Little Bell Island, which is located about two miles south of Bell Island itself, were the Lord Strathcona and the Evelyn B.
According to Naval intelligence, the Saganaga and the Lord Strathcona were loaded with iron ore waiting for a convoy to Sydney, N.S. In accordance with established practice, the captains of the two streamers were in St. John‘s attending a conference with naval authories on convoy arrangements. The Evelyn B was loaded with coal and was awaiting a place at the Dominion Pier to unload her cargo.
The PLM 27 was also loaded with a cargo of ore for Sydney, N.S. and was at anchor near Lance Cove, Bell Island.
Another ship, the Rose Castle, was loading at the Scotia Pier, and the Drakepool was discharging freight prior to loading ore at the Dominion Pier.
In an official statement he made to Captain W.S.D. Brand of the Royal Canadian Navy, William Henderson, Chief Engineer of the Lord Strathcona, described the weather as being fine and clear and the water was very calm. According to Henderson "he and other crew members of the Lord Strathcona were on deck at the time and there were no corvettes or other naval craft to be seen in the Bay."
Henderson also reported that the first torpedo hit the Saganaga about midship on the port side at 11:07 a.m.(Atlantic Daylight Time) Henderson remembered that "he pulled out his watch and noted the time." Before he could count to three, "a second torpedo literally blew the Saganaga to pieces. "Debris and iron ore was thrown up about 300 feet and, before the last of it had fallen back into the water, the Saganaga had disappeared."
Henderson estimated that the Saganaga sank within fifteen seconds from the time the first torpedo hit. The first torpedo broke the ship in two.
Henderson further reported that the submarine could not be seen and that the guns on the ship were therefore of no use. In the absence of the captain, he ordered the crew of the Lord Strathcona to take to their lifeboats, as "there was no knowing at what instant a torpedo might hit their ship."
The crew of the Lord Strathcona at the time consisted of forty-two sailors and three naval gunners. The forty-five men got away from the ship in two lifeboats and endeavoured to rescue some of the crew of the Saganaga who were struggling in the water.
Henderson "saw at least a dozen dead bodies floating in the water and later parts of bodies were washed up on shore." The lifeboat he was in went to the rescue of the third mate of the Saganaga, who was found to have head injuries.
In record time small boats put out from Lance Cove to rescue men from the Saganaga. The Saganaga also had a crew of forty-eight men, including three naval gunners. Thirty of the crew were later reported missing.
The first torpedo slammed into the Lord Strathcona at 11:30 a.m. between the engine room and the bow. By this time all the crew had left the ship. A second torpedo hit the vessel between the engine room and the stern. The ship then sank in approximately 1.5 minutes. The crew of the Lord Strathcona landed at Lance Cove, where they were looked after by the residents.
Meanwhile, the officers and crew of the Evelyn B had remained with their ship. They fired their guns, and are credited with saving the PLM 27, which was also on the anchorage that day.
The shore battery, manned by the Newfoundland Militia, also went into action and fired a series of rounds towards the anchorage. The battery, however, did not actually sight the submarine.
In a secret report for the period ending midnight September 6,1942, Flight Lieutenant Noel Catt of R.C.A.F. Halifax reported that a Hudson aircraft from Torbay joined by a Digby from Gander were on the scene of the sinkings soon after the attack, but a ceiling of 200 feet prevented them from searching the area.
On September 6, 1942, Head Constable William (Pop) Russell of the Newfoundland Constabulary submitted from Beil Island a report on the sinkings to Chief of Police P.J. O‘Neill in St. John‘s. Part of his report is as follows:
".. at 12:00 noon on the 5th. Inst., Mr. Jarnes A. Rees reported to that he had just received a telephone rnessage from his wife at Lance Cove informing him that there was an explosion near where the ore boats were anchored and asked him to come home quickly. I drove him to Lance Cove irnmediately. When a short distance up the road from where the boats could be seen at anchor, Mr. Rees informed me that one of them was gone as there were four there when left for work early in the morning. While we were talking there was another explosion and we saw the seconcl ship go down."
Lloyd Rees, seventeen-year-old son of James Rees, was helping his father in the family forge, three miles away from Lance Cove. There was no telephone in the forge, so Lloyd‘s mother telephoned the Stone familly nearby. They sent their young son Billy to teil James Rees that he was urgently wanted on the telephone.
Having received the shocking news that two ships had blown up and gunfire could be heard near Lance Cove, James Rees telephoned Head Constable Russell, who drove him to Lance Cove in the police car. Young Lloyd then harnassed up the horse and headed home as fast he could.
In a paper prepared in 1993, Lloyd Rees provided an eye-witness account of what he saw when he arrived at Lance Cove beach. He described the scene as a "bad dream." A great crowd had gathered on the beach near the wharf, many of them crew members from the sunken ships. Small boats, manned by the residents of Lance Cove, were frantically searching for survivors and the bodies of victims.
As Lloyd Rees watched from shore in shock and amazement, he observed the 3,000 ton coalboat Evelyn B zigzagging around the anchorage where the ships had been torpedoed, with her stern gun "blazing." He attributes the "spunky" action of the crew of the Evelyn B, especially gunners Eugene Walters and Pete Meade, for saving other ships, thus avoiding further bloodshed and destruction that day.
When Head Constable Russell arrived at Lance Cove beach, he found Dr. Walter Templeman already there. Templeman examined thirteen survivors of the Saganaga as they came ashore.
The survivors were then rushed to the home of Alfred Rees, where they were supplied with dry clothing. Four of the survivors who were suffering from shock and slight wounds were sent to Dr. Templeman‘s surgery.
When three bodies were found, they were taken to the police station. They were then examined by Dr. Templeman who issued death certificates. Mr. Reid Proudfoot, the General Superintendent of the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation, authorized the purchase of three caskets at a cost of $60.00 each and Andrew Murphy, the local undertaker, took charge of the bodies and prepared them for burial. The three bodies recovered were of Herbert Swain, Wiliiam Terry and George Harrison. Arrangements were made to bury them in the Church of England cemetery.
The three dead seaman were waked at the police station on the night of September 5. Hundreds of Bell Island residents attended the wake and brought so many wreaths that at the funeral the next day an extra hearse had to be used to carry them.
At the funeral, the Great War Veterans‘ Association, Royal Navy and Newfoundland Militia provided guards of honour. The funeral was the largest ever to be held on Bell Island, with the procession stretching from Town Square to the Anglican cemetery, a distance of approximately one and a half miles. A few hours after the funeral the body of another seaman, Thomas Wood, was brought to the Island by the ferry Maneco, which operated between Beil Island and Portugal Cove.
On September 6 Head Constable Russell also urgently requested buoys to mark the locations where the two ore carriers had been sunk. Apparently, the mast of the Saganaga was above water, while the wreck of the Lord Strathcona constituted a hazard to shipping between the eastern end of Little Bell Island and Lance Cove.
Russell pointed out that if a vessel came in at night,
or even in daytime, and proceeded to anchorage without taking on a pilot,
there could be another tragedy.
U-513 the submarine that sank the Saganaga and the Lord Strathcona had left Kiel, on the north coast of Germany, on August 7, 1942. The vessel was under the command of Rolf Ruggeberg and was an IXC type U-boat built at the Deutsche Werft, Hamburg, Germany.
When the crew were told they were headed for Newfoundland, there was complete surprise, because they had been issued tropical gear. Because the submarine was equipped with a second refrigerator, the crew believed they would be operating in the South Atlantic.
Not much time was lost in crossing the Atlantic and U-513 arrived off the Strait off Belle Isle in about 14 days. She did not enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but patrolled only the entrance to the Strait. After about ten unsuccessful days Ruggeberg decided to try his luck farther south.
Observing ships entering Conception Bay and anchoring off Bell Island, U-513 followed the Evelyn B into the bay on the night of September 4,1942. Once in the bay, the submarine lay on the bottom in about 80 feet of water.
The next morning, U-513 came up to periscope depth and selected a target. Ruggeberg fired two torpedoes from his bow tubes. In the excitement of their first action, however, the torpedo men of the foreends crew neglected to set the battery switch and the two torpedoes the bottom.
Before the next attack the submarine broke sufface, a further indication of an unskilled crew. U-513 was now sighted by the Evelyn B and the gunners on that ship opened fire. (The master of the Evelyn B, Captain Clayton Ouy, a native of Burgeo, Newfoundland, was included in the list published in the November 9, 1943, issue of the London Gazette of those commended for brave conduct when their ships encountered enemy ships, aircraft, submarines or mines.)
Undeterred, Ruggeberg again manoeuvred into firing position and shot the two torpedoes that sank the Saganaga. Because of shallow water Ruggeberg now found himself cramped for sea room and in manoeuvring for another attack U-513 struck the stern of the Lord Strathcona. This collision damaged the conning tower of the submarine. Nevertheless, Ruggeberg was able to fire from his stern tubes the torpedoes that sank the Lord Strathcona. The Evelyn B only escaped attack because of the damage which had been done to the submarine.
When opportunity arose, the U-513 headed out to sea, once again trailing the Evelyn B. The conning tower was then repaired and trial dives undertaken. More torpedoes were transferred from the upper deck containers, whereupon the vessel continued her patrol of destruction.
Interestingly, one week prior to the sinking of the Saganaga and the Lord Strathcona, rumours were rampant on Bell Island that a submarine had been sighted in Conception Bay. These rumours were not without substance.
Thus, the officer commanding the ist Coast Defence
Battery on Bell Island informed his commanding officer in St. John‘s by
memo (the document is now in the Provincial Archives, Pleasantville Repository)
that on Wednesday, August 26, Joseph Pynn, a well known local resident,
had reported seeing a submarine at the eastern end of Bell Island out of
view of the Battery‘s outpost at the Beach (on the front of the island).
There was a blue haze on the water at the time, making it difficult without
binoculars to pick out a specific object (e.g., a periscope). The commander
of the Coast Defence Battery pointed out in his report that three pairs
of binoculars were badly needed, one for each of the unit ‘s outposts.
There can be little doubt that what Joe Pynn saw that day was the periscope
of a submarine. There was, however, no reason, as the author of the memo
sent to St. John‘s rightly concluded, "to think that the sentries were
not on their toes." The Defence Battery had done its best, but its equipment
was not equal to detecting and tracking a wily enemy.
Extracts from the log of U-5 13, September 5, 1942.
Source: U-BOOT ARCHIV, CUXHAVEN — ALTENBRUNCH, GERMANY
The improvements made by the "Wabana Patrol Orders" were not good enough, for in the early hours of November 2 another submarine, U-518, sank two more ships at Bell Island. These were the Rose Castle and the PLM 27. U-518 departed Kiel, Tirpitzhaven, Germany, at 0700 hours on September 26, 1942. This was the maiden voyage of the submarine, and Fredich Wissmann was in comand. He was nicknamed by his ship-mates "the wise guy."
U-518 was under orders to transport a German agent to Canada and to seize every opportunity to attack allied shipping. Captain Wissmann‘s voyage across the Atlantic was almost identical to Ruggeberg‘s. Admiral Donitz, who was in charge of German submarine activity was convinced that the Strait of Belle Isle was a strategie point for ships feeding into the Atlantic convoys.
After arriving off the coast of Newfoundland, Wissmann had no more luck than Ruggeberg. He saw little more than a couple of smallfishing boats so he headed southeast around Newfoundland. When he was 100 miles northeast of Cape Freels, he received final authorization to land the spy who was on board. The landing was to be made somewhere on Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec.
For some reason (this is not explained in the log of the submarine) Wissmann decided to proceed to the Gaspé Peninsula by the long route, that is to say around Newfoundland and into the Cabot Strait. The shorter route would have been through the Strait of Belle Isle and down the Gulf. By taking the longer route Wissmann perhaps hoped to find some targets. In this he was not mistaken.
Two other German submarines operating off the coast of Newfoundland around the same time, U-520 and U-521,signalled Wissmann indicating special opportunities at the Bell Island anchorage.
When U-518 entered Conception Bay on the surface after dark on November 1, 1942, it was raining lightly and visibility was poor. Conditions were not good, therefore, particularly favourable for an attack, although they were beginning to improve.
Land was visible on both sides and Wissmann saw the headlights of several motor vehicles and a searchlight. He proceeded well into the bay without sighting any ships and then, keeping close to shore on the eastern side, steered a notherly course, passing very near Bell Island. Staying to the south of Bell Island, Wissmann next steered between Kelly´s and Little Bell Island. Here he discovered that the northeast passage was covered by a searchlight which swept over the surface every ten minutes.
Wissman ordered action stations when he sighted a shadow close to Bell Island. As he manoeuvred between the islands, he feared that the moonlight would betray the presence of the submarine. At one juncturue he believed the vessel had been detected so he altered back to his original course, hugging the shore this time to escape the searchlight. As he drew closer, he was able to make out three steamers lying at anchor. At that moment the beam of the searchlight swept by again but once more without incident.
Wissmann now knew that he had ten minutes in which to make his attack. He fired his first torpedo. lt missed the Anna T, a coal boat of 3,000 tons anchored off the Scotia Pier, passed under the stern of the Flyingdale, which was tied up at the pier, and then blew up part of the loading pier itself, causing $30,000 in damage.
Wissmann then fired two torpedoes at the Rose Castle, sending her to the bottom. Twenty-eight men, including five Newfoundlanders, lost their lives on this vessel. Interestingly, the Rose Castle had been in a collision with a German ship a few weeks before the outbreak of war in 1939. A young Newfoundland seaman, Joe Parsons of Port aux Basques, was steering the ship up the St. Lawrence River when she was rammed by a German vessel that had slipped its lines in Montreal and was making a dash for the open Atlantic. "The hit-and run indicent", said Parsons later, "was a foretaste of what would happen to the Rose Castle when war was declared."
Wissmann‘s next target was the PLM 27, a Free French Ship of 5,633 tons. This vessel sank almost immediately after being hit and twelve crew members went down with her.
U-518 then left Conception Bay and headed for Cape Race. A Digby bomber spotted the submarine about 40 miles from the cape and launched an attack. A heavy fog rolled in over the area, however, and the aircraft had to end its chase. Wissmann subsequently put the spy he had on board ashore at Point de New Carlisle, Quebec. Wissmann himself survived the war but has since died. On April 22, 1945, northwest on the Azores, U-518 was sent to the bottom by the U.S. destroyer escorts Carter and Neal A. Scott with all hands aboard. By this time submarine was under the command of an officer named Offermann. The American vessels sunk the U-518 with a massive depth charge attack.
lt is worth noting that there had been a previous attempt to sink the Rose Castle.
U-69, the German submarine that sank the ferry Caribou (this vessel ran on the Port aux Basques to North Sydney service), had fired a torpedo at the Rose Castle on October 20, 1942, sixteen miles southeast of Ferryland Head while the merchant vessel was steaming in convoy WB-9. But the torpedo had failed to explode due to a faulty detonator, and the Rose Castle had been able to escape unscathed.
On the eve of the sinking of the Rose Castle and the PLM 27 Governor Humphrey Walwyn had prophesied another disaster unless the naval authorities woke up to the risk they were running by leaving ore carriers at anchorage.
In a letter dated November 2, 1942, (now at the Provincial
Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, Department of Justice and Defence,
Pleasanville Repository) to Sir Wilfrid Woods, the Comissionor for Public
Utilities, Walwyn sounded the alarm. The Govenor had been visiting Conception
Bay and had been horrified to see in the distance the two ore ships at
anchor and the two vessels at the Scotia Pier. "Directly I got back to
St. John‘s", he wrote, "I telephoned to Captain Bidwell, C.O.S. saying
I thought it suicide to let ships lie there, and that they ought to remain
at St. John‘s till a pier was coming vacant." Walwyn also noted that the
corvette on patrol in the bay had been "two miles to seaward." In his reply,
written after the November 2 sinkings, Woods noted that the patrol vessels
had been singulary ineffective: "lt is significant that there were three
vessels patrolling the area when the attack occurred and these three vessels
did not seem to bother the submarine at all."