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Newfoundland Communities
Bell Island
Centre for Newfoundland Studies

Ceremony will honour memory of victims of German U-boat
by Steve Neary

Attack off Bell Island in 1942 claimed 40 lives

 

 

In the early hours of the morning of Nov. 2, 1942, a little short of two months after the S.S. Saganaga and the S. S. Lord Strathcona were sunk by an enemy submarine in Conception Bay, the same fate was met by two more ships, the S. S. Rosecastle and the Free French ship, PLM-27.

I was 17-years-old in 1942, still attending school, and for me personally, those wartime events will never be forgotten. The confusion on Lance Cove beach when I arrived there at 6:30 a.m., the wreckage along the shore, the bodies in sheds owned by Ralph Rees and James Rees of the area, the injured seamen being loaded aboard a van owned by Mose Higgins (no ambulance was available at the time), are sights and sounds which will forever stick in my memory.

Observing bodies of merchant seamen through open doors at the rear of the police station, and attending wakes and burials in the days that followed the sinkings, have left a traumatic impact on the minds of all of us.

One of the torpedoes fired during the Nov. 2 raid hit the Scotia Loading Pier destroying a large section of the pier, and rocking the Island.

According to W. A. B. Douglas, Director of History, Department of Defence, Bell Island was the only community in North America to have been subjected to a direct German attack in the Second World War. In Canada, to our west (we were not part of Canada until 1949), the only other place subject to direct enemy attack was the Estevan lighthouse in British Columbia by the Japanese.

ENTERED BAY

Secret wartime documents now declassified, indicate that submarine U-518, under the command of a Captain Wissman, entered Conception Bay on the surface after dark on Nov. 1, 1942. It was raining lightly and visibility was poor at the time.

Land was visible on both sides and Wissman could see headlights of several motor vehicles and also a searchlight over the Island.

As Wissman manoeuvred his submarine between Kelly's Island and Bell Island he sighted a shadow close to the Island. He fired his first torpedo at a ship anchored near the Scotia Pier. The torpedo missed its target, ran under the stern of another ship tied up at the pier, the Flying-dile, and struck the pier causing $30,000 worth of damage.

The attack was followed by firing two more bow tubes at the Rose Castle, sending her to the bottom of Conception Bay. Twenty-eight crew-members of the Rose Castle lost their lives, including five Newfoundlanders.

Two of the casualties of the Rose Castle were native born Bell Islanders, William James Filher and Henry King.

After attacking the Rose Castle, Wissman than turned to the starboard to fire at the PLM-27.

The PLM-27 sank almost immediately, with 12 crew members losing their lives.

U-518 then left the scene, after being spotted by lookouts of the coastal command and residents of Lance Cove. It sped around the south end of the Island, turned outward toward Western Bay Head and proceeded to the safety of deeper water. The four-hour action in Conception Bay had taken place entirely on the surface.

STILL VISIBLE

The sunken ore carriers, near Lance Cove, can be seen on a clear day on the bottom of the ocean encrusted by marine life. The bell of the Rose Castle hangs in the Royal Canadian Legion on Bell Island, a grim reminder of this turbulent period in the history of the Island, attesting to a North American invasion of which few Canadians and even fewer Americans are aware.

On the 50th anniversary of these wartime events, many questions still haunt us as to how the enemy was able to "land on our doorstep" and wreak such havoc and loss of life, when the defence of Bell Island was a top priority for the British, Canadian and Newfoundland governments. Maybe some day the full story will be told.

On Nov. 11, a special ceremony will be held at Lance Cove, Bell Island to mark the 50th anniversary of these attacks when members of Branch 18, Royal Canadian Legion, gather to remember those who died.

Plans are under way to erect a suitable memorial near Lance Cove Beach to commemorate the loss of 69 merchant seamen who died as a result of enemy action on the "doorstep" of Bell Island Nov. 2, 1942, and in a previous attack on the anchorage Sept. 5, 1942.

Gordon Hardy, a resident of Ingonish, NS, was a survivor of the Rose Castle. During an interview with Gordon, he broke down in tears as he recalled hearing cries from his shipmates but being powerless to help any of them.

"My own survival," Gordon said, "was nothing short of a miracle." He considers himself  "lucky to be alive."

The caption for the accompanying photo reads:

SUNK OFF BELL ISLAND - The ill-fated ore carrier PLM-27. Its captain and crew no doubt feared the great wide Atlantic infested with German submarines, but perhaps dismissed the possibility that the vessel would be torpedoed inside the sanctuary of a bay in Newfoundland. The PLM-27 and the S. S. Rose Castle were torpedoed by German U-boat 518 in the early hours of Nov. 2, 1942 just a few hundred yards from Lance Cove, Bell Island.

By Steve Neary from the book "Enemy on Our Doorstep"
The ISBN number 0-921692-58-7

 

 

Contributed by Barbara McGrath
Transcribed by Ivy F. Benoit (February 2001)
Revised by July 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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