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Battle of St-Lawrence shipwrecks found off Gaspé coast with help of fisherman

Shipwreck hunters turned to Guy St-Croix, a local fisherman, who witnessed the 1942 Battle of the St-Lawrence, for help to find torpedoed merchant ships.

Shipwreck hunters find torpedoed boats thanks to 90-year-old witness of WWII attacks

Second World War memories of a Gaspé, Que., fisherman help archaeologists find 5 shipwrecks in the river 2:26

On Sept. 15, 1942, teenager Guy St-Croix was out fishing off the coast of Gaspé, Que. when he found himself caught in the middle of a deadly naval battle.

The 17-year-old was watching a convoy of 30 merchant ships sailing out to sea when another fisherman turned to him and remarked, "Now would be a good time to see if there are any submarines in the Gulf."

"He didn't even finish his sentence when the first ship exploded," St-Croix said.

The boat had been hit by a torpedo launched from a German U-boat.

St-Croix saw two ships sink that day. Four people died.

Eyewitness help

Seventy-three years later in the fall of 2015, a team of wreck hunters went looking for those ships. But they weren't where the military records said they should be. 

So they turned to eyewitnesses for help.

Erik Phaneuf, an underwater archaeologist who was part of the team, said they used information about St-Croix's old fishing grounds and the memories of another woman who saw the boats sink to locate the wreck.

"We narrowed down an area a little bit outside where the archives told us the boats should be, and we actually found the wrecks where [St-Croix] said they would be," said Phaneuf.

Guy St-Croix watched two ships sink after they were torpedoed by U-Boats in the Gulf of the St-Lawrence (CBC NEWS)

St-Croix told him one of the ships had broken in two before it sank. Military archives made no mention of that.

"He was the one who was right, not the primary sources that forgot to mention this little bit of information," he said.

"He lived the battle."

Little-known history

The Battle of the St-Lawrence isn't one that stands out in the annals of history for many.

"We imagine all the people fighting across the Atlantic, on the other side, in Europe, but we actually had fights here in Quebec, in the Gaspé peninsula," Phaneuf said.

"Grenades [depth charges] were exploding, and ships were sunk by U-boats."

Erik Phaneuf, underwater archaeologist, is part of the team that located five WWII shipwrecks in the Gulf of the St-Lawrence. (CBC NEWS)

Phaneuf and his team found five wrecks this summer: 

  • Mount Taygetus.
  • Mount Pindus.
  • Oakton.
  • Saturnus.
  • Inger Elisabeth.

Over the three-year battle, 27 ships were sunk in the Gulf of the St-Lawrence. More than 300 people died.

Caught in the battle

St-Croix remembers vividly that after the U-boats fired on the ships, most of the fishermen cut their lines and raced back to shore. 

He stayed behind to reel in his nets.

The convoy of merchant ships changed course and headed straight toward his fishing boat.  The military boats charged with protecting the merchant fleet started launching underwater grenades. 

St-Croix suddenly found himself caught in the middle of a battle on the open sea.

"The spray was flying up 30 feet in the air," recalled St-Croix. "It was close to us. We were scared."

Heritage Canada paid for the researchers to locate the wrecks in time for the 75th anniversary of the start of the battle next year.

Phaneuf says locating the ships will not only help keep the history alive, but also memorialize those who died when the ships sank.

The torpedoed wreck of the Inger Elisabeth rests at the bottom of the Gulf of the St-Lawrence at a depth of 130 meters. (Photo courtesy of CIDCO)

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