During the Second World War, Newfoundland played a pivotal role in Allied naval strategy for the North Atlantic. Three of the island’s military installations were of particular importance: the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) base at St. John’s, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) station at Torbay, and the United States naval/air station at Argentia.
In addition to the defence of the Western Hemisphere, the safeguarding of Allied trans-Atlantic convoys from German attack was a priority. Protected by Canadian, British, and American navies and air forces, the convoys carried much-needed war supplies from North America to Britain. Without this link, Britain would not have had the means to survive the Nazi onslaught.
Based in St. John’s, the Newfoundland Escort Force (NEF) was established in 1941 to escort convoys through the dangerous mid-ocean gap between where Canadian escorts left a convoy and Royal Navy escorts picked it up. The force consisted of six Royal Canadian Navy destroyers and 17 corvettes; and seven Royal Navy destroyers and four corvette.
The Naval Base at St. John’s: HMCS Avalon
When the formation of the NEF was approved in May 1941, St. John’s was already becoming a defended harbour and the base for the Newfoundland Defence Force. An anti-torpedo baffle was installed at the entrance to the harbour, and an Examination Service was created using two former Newfoundland Customs Cutters. A 4000-tonne Admiralty fuel tank was constructed, and a Port War Signal Station, a High Frequency Direction Finding Station and a radio beacon were erected at Cape Spear. In addition, Cabot Tower was manned as a Port War Signal Station, and Fort Amherst was employed as an Examination Battery. This battery was completed by the Canadian Army by the fall of 1941, but in the interim four mobile 155-millimetre guns and two eight-inch railway guns, manned by American troops, were installed in and around St. John’s.
All the same, St. John’s had “the leanest of facilities.” Its harbour was small, just 700-metres wide and roughly two-kilometres long, and a tangle of fishing stages, ships’ storehouses and finger piers, most of which were in decay. The Royal Canadian Navy developed a plan that provided more than 7,000 linear feet of jetty space and included fuel tanks and an underground magazine on the Southside, a 1,000-man barracks, a 250-bed hospital, and a radio station in Mt. Pearl.
This was expanded in 1943 after an Admiralty delegation travelled to St. John’s and met with senior NSHQ officials to plan improvements to the base. To continue the build-up of forces in Britain for an invasion of Europe, St. John’s needed to maintain a minimum of 50 escorts. The delegation recommended that a new machine shop complex and naval stores building be constructed on the Southside, and the Dockyard storehouse be converted to a light engineering/electronic shop. The delegation also called for a new 1000-square metre harbour craft/boat repair shop with haul-out, plus an 80-vehicle garage for the existing barracks complex. In addition, a new 250-bed hospital would be built in the city’s West End.
Training facilities were also part of the plan, and included classroom and signal training space provided by an annex to the Southside barracks. Elaborate simulator trainers, including an anti-aircraft dome teacher and tactical anti-submarine attack teacher, would also be installed on an adjacent site. Furthermore, a Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship training range would be erected on the cliffs at Cape Spear, and when completed in 1944, mounted both anti-aircraft and larger calibre practice artillery pieces. Harbour defences would be improved, with the controlled minefield in the Narrows upgraded and enlarged, and a fully-equipped boom defence depot built at the Admiralty’s wharfage on the Southside. These new facilities necessitated an additional 2,350 personnel.
Over the course of the war, 545 escorts were stationed at St. John’s at various times, not including motor launches. During the same period, the number of naval personnel serving at St. John’s rose from less than 1,000 people to more than 5,000. What had originally been planned as only a defended harbour ended the war as a naval base of considerable importance.
Royal Canadian Air Force Station, Torbay
At about the same time that Canada decided to establish a naval base at St. John’s, the Government also approved the construction of a Royal Canadian Air Force base near the community of Torbay, just outside St. John’s. Forces stationed there would provide harbour protection for St. John’s and Wabana, Bell Island, as well as patrol the convoy routes east of Newfoundland.
In July 1941, I Group Headquarters was established at St. John’s and, on August 15, Group Captain C.M. McEwen assumed command. His responsibilities included the control of all RCAF units in Newfoundland (there were also RCAF aircraft at Gander and Botwood) and, more particularly, operations in support of the NEF. RCAF Station Torbay opened in October 1941 with two runways, and in November, four Hudson bombers from II (British) Squadron arrived from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
From this point on, convoys were offered air cover as far east as 400 miles. For anti-submarine sweeps and reconnaissance patrols using both Hudson and Digby anti-submarine bombers, this was stretched to 600 miles. In light of the dramatic increase in passenger traffic between Newfoundland and Canada, in February 1942, the Newfoundland Government approved the Canadian Government’s request to open Torbay airbase to a regular Trans-Canada Airline service between the two dominions.
United States Naval Air Station, Argentia
The American military base at Argentia was particularly important, as it was here that the commander of all naval forces in the Western Atlantic (until 1943) flew his flag. Initially, the United States foresaw Argentia as a base for trans-Atlantic escorts and naval patrol aircraft. On September 17, 1941, five US destroyers from Argentia met a convoy east of Newfoundland and escorted it across the Atlantic. Six months later, an aircraft out of Argentia sank the first U-boat credited to American forces just south of Trepassey.
However, by this time, the US Navy had pulled almost all of its naval assets out of the Atlantic and into the Pacific theatre to counter the Japanese advances. On the other hand, the British had established a Royal Naval Air Station at Argentia and were using the American facilities to repair and refit Royal Navy escorts. Unfortunately, even though the repair/refit facilities at Argentia were operating below their full capacity, the Admiralty reserved them for the exclusive use of British escort groups, limiting RCN access to emergency repairs only. The RCN ultimately developed a repair/overflow facility at Bay Bulls, just south of St. John’s.
The facilities at Argentia continued to expand. With the completion of a $3 million ship repair unit plus a 7,000 ton floating dock and various recreational facilities, Argentia served as a base for the shakedown cruises of some of the US Navy’s newest battleships. In 1943, with the war in the Pacific having turned in favour of the Allies, the USN returned to the Atlantic in full force. Hunter Killer Groups scoured the Atlantic for the now elusive, but still dangerous, U-boats. It is interesting to note that the last American warship to be lost in the Atlantic during the Second World War was the Argentia based USS Frederic C. Davis sunk by U-546 south of the Flemish Cap on April 24, 1945 with the loss of 115 of her crew.