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1942: U-boat sinks SS Caribou off Newfoundland

On Oct. 14, 1942, the Second World War comes crashing onto the shores of Newfoundland. German submarine U-69, prowling the Cabot Strait comes across the passenger ship S.S. Caribou returning to Port aux Basques. The U-boat lets fly a torpedo and blasts the Caribou out of the water. Some 137 passengers and crew are killed in what would be the final and most tragic attack in the Battle of the St. Lawrence.
• The S.S. Caribou was an 84-metre long steel ship that could carry 284 people or 1,100 tons of cargo. It was built at the A. Goodwin Hamilton Adamson shipyard in Rotterdam, Netherlands at a cost of half a million dollars. The ship launched on June 9, 1925 and arrived in St. John's on Oct. 22, where it made 3,600 crossing between North Sydney, N.S. and Port aux Basques, N.L. for the Newfoundland Railway.

• At about 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1942, the S.S. Caribou was about 65 kilometres from its destination of Port aux Basques when it was sighted and torpedoed in the starboard beam by the German submarine U-69. It sank in less than five minutes.
• The ship's sole escort, the minesweeper HMCS Grandmère, attempted to ram the submarine, then dropped six depth charges when the U-boat crash dived.

• According to HMCS Grandmère captain Lieut. James Cuthbert, naval orders required him to look for and try to destroy the submerged submarine instead of attempting to save the Caribou passengers. He was torn with grief and after 90 minutes the Grandmère joined the rescue effort.
• U-69 hid silently about 140 metres below while the S.S. Caribou's survivors were being rescued at the surface. Eventually the submarine retreated and returned to its base in France.

• The S.S. Caribou was carrying 237 people - 46 crewmembers, 73 civilians and 118 Canadian, British and American military personnel. Of that number, 137 men, women and children were killed.

• Among the dead, were 31 of the crewmembers, including the ship's master Ben Taverner, and his sons Harold and Stanley (both first officers), and five other pairs of brothers.

• In a rare occurrence, two female personnel were killed in the disaster: Bride Fitzpatrick of the Newfoundland Merchant Navy, and Canadian Nursing Sister Agnes Wilkie. Both were the only women in their respective services to be killed during the Second World War. Another Nursing Sister, Margaret Brooke, was named to the Order of the British Empire for her efforts to save Wilkie's life aboard a life raft.
• Among the civilian casualties were at least five mothers and ten children.

• The sinking of the Caribou was a final event in the Battle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which saw 23 ships downed and at least 340 people killed at the hands of German U-boats (short for "Unterseeboot".) These submarines penetrated the St. Lawrence River and got within 300 kilometres of Quebec City. It was the only time since the War of 1812 that enemy ships killed Canadians in their own inland waters.

• For Newfoundlanders (who were not yet Canadians) the sinking was one of the most significant events of the war. It revealed to Newfoundlanders and Canadians alike that the war was not a distant European event, but an immediate threat to their own shores.
• Soon after the Caribou incident, German Admiral Dönitz decided that there was too much opposition and too few successful sinkings to justify staying in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The U-boats were withdrawn.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News
Broadcast Date: Oct. 14, 1992
Guest(s): James Cuthbert, John Domini, Leonard Shires, Arthur Taverner
Reporter: Reg Sherren
Duration: 3:12

Last updated: February 7, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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