Other U-Boat Encounters

During World War II, Canadian and American authorities feared hit and run raids on North American targets and, in fact, German submarines did disembark agents on the east coasts of both Canada and the United States. In one remarkable instance, personnel from German U-boat 537 set up a weather station on the coast of Labrador in 1943. The only documented landing by armed German combatants on Allied soil in North America, the U-boat crew lay at anchor for 28 hours at Martin Bay, near Cape Chidley, while they worked. While a far greater threat to ships at sea, there was cause to fear attacks launched from U-boats on land-based facilties.

The Allied command had good reason to step up their campaign against the dreaded German submarines, and Newfoundland and Labrador figured prominently in their plans from the beginning. As the Battle of the Atlantic progressed, aircraft became ever more important in the fight against the U-boats. An aircraft could cover a larger area faster than any warship, and could pounce on an unsuspecting submarine with deadly effect. The head of the U-boat arm Admiral Karl Dönitz countered this air threat by equipping his U-boats with heavier anti-aircraft weapons and by urging his crews to fight it out on the surface. All the same, most U-boat captains preferred to dive out of harm’s way. The disadvantage was that the U-boat could lose contact with a convoy and take hours to catch up, if at all. To this end, the Allies stationed aircraft in Newfoundland at Stephenville, Gander, Argentia and at Torbay, just outside St. John’s. As RCAF Station Torbay became fully operational early in 1942, its aircraft supplied convoy protection as far east as the Grand Banks, the U-boats’ popular hunting ground.

The operation of the Torbay airbase coincided with greater U-boat activity in local Newfoundland waters. On 3 March 1942, for example,U587 fired three torpedoes at St. John’s. One hit Fort Amherst and two more hit the cliffs below Cabot Tower, according to reports breaking every window in the building. Two days previous, a Liberator aircraft out of Argentia flown by Ensign William Tepune caught U-656, under Kaptänleutnant Ernst Kröning, on the surface in broad daylight a mere 40 kilometres south of Trepassey and destroyed it. This sinking gave rise to one of the most famous radio signals of the war - “Sighted Sub, Sank Same.”

American newspapers reported that after Ensign Tepune disposed of U-656, he transmitted the famous message to Argentia. In fact, he did not. The story was a fabrication, and “Sighted Sub, Sank Same” actually appeared in other news stories at various times in different theatres throughout the war. But it made good press and, at the time, American morale needed encouragement. The devastating attack at Pearl Harbor had occurred in December, and the Japanese were running unchecked throughout most of the Western Pacific. At the same time, German U-boats were ravaging shipping all along the eastern seaboard of the United States. The public clamoured for action and Ensign Tepune’s sinking of U-656 confirmed that American forces were fighting back. That the attack occurred off the coast of Newfoundland rather than New Jersey was immaterial. Indeed, some evidence suggests that destroyers called to the scene by Tepune actually sank U-656. Regardless, he is given credit and it was the start of a long string of victories by the USN over the U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite stories to the contrary, very few civilians in Newfoundland actually encountered U-boats or their personnel during the Second World War. Local stories chronicle people encountering strange men on deserted roads who smelled of diesel fumes, or of U-boats surfacing next to fishing boats to buy fresh fish. Likewise, personal and newspaper accounts suggest that a large number of U-boats were destroyed in the waters surrounding Newfoundland. The truth is that less than a half dozen lie in what are now Canadian waters, and one of those was expended after the war as a target. Evidence suggests, however, that one encounter actually did occur and involved a small schooner from the Southern Shore.

On 1 May 1944, a Liberator aircraft from No. 10 Squadron sighted U-548 under Kaptänleutnant Heinrich Zimmermann east of Conception Bay. The plane attacked, and Zimmermann returned fire and escaped under cover of darkness. However, an alert was broadcast, and when U-548 surfaced off Cape Broyle two days later, HMS Hargood was waiting. Zimmermann took refuge close to the cliffs and while the British warship was conducting its search for the U-boat, the schooner Mary Coady, homeward bound from St. John’s, entered the search area. The Hargood intercepted the Mary Coady and ordered its captain Tom Coady to spend the night out at sea while they hunted the U-boat. Coady complied and left the area. After approximately an hour, one of the crew happened to look over the side of the boat and saw a dark shape underneath keeping pace. The Mary Coady did not have a radio or any way of calling for help, so the captain maintained his course, hoping that in the coming darkness the U-boat would move off. This was the case and, in the morning, the U-boat was gone.

A couple of days later, Zimmermann and U-548 encountered HMCS Valleyfield off the South Coast on its way to Halifax having escorted a convoy. Valleyfield was not as vigilant as it could have been, and Zimmermann attacked it with an acoustic torpedo. The warship went under so quickly that the other two ships in company did not realize the frigate was lost until 30 minutes later. By the time they returned and located the survivors, only 38 of Valleyfield’s 165-man crew were still alive. Most had died of exposure.

Newfoundland and Labrador was in the war zone despite being thousands of miles away from the main battlefields of Europe. Ships and U-boats alike were sunk off the coast and there was always the threat of a direct enemy attack. Blackout regulations were instituted soon after the war began, and provisions were actually made to burn St. John’s to the ground rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Furthermore, thousands of Allied troops were stationed in Newfoundland and Labrador during the Second World War, both to protect it and bring the fight to the enemy. Newfoundland and Labrador not only played an important part in North American defence and the Battle of the Atlantic but also experienced the war first hand.

Article by Paul Collins. ©2007, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

Updated March, 2007


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