Sinking of the Caribou

The year 1942 was a bad year for shipping off the east coast of North America. With the German declaration of war on the United States shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the gloves came off. Admiral Karl Dönitz, the head of the U-boat arm, had long planned for an assault on North America, but had been held back by Hitler's insistence that American ships were not to be attacked. With the entry of the United States into the war, this restriction was lifted. Dönitz unleashed Operation Paukenschlag on January 12, 1942, when Reinhard Hardegan's U-123 sank the British steamer Cyclops approximately 100 miles southeast of Cape Sable, Nova Scotia.

SS Caribou, ca. 1920s - 1940s
SS Caribou, ca. 1920s - 1940s
The North Sydney to Port-aux-Basques passenger ferry SS Caribou was sunk by the German submarine U-69 on 14 October 1942.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (Coll. 115 16.07.002), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Over the next few months U-boats sank a total of 44 ships in Canadian waters with the loss of only two U-boats. The Gulf of St. Lawrence was found to be the richest hunting ground and during what became known as the Battle of the St. Lawrence, U-boats attacked seven convoys, sank 20 merchantmen, a loaded troopship, and two Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) warships. The pièce de résistance, so far as domestic impact was concerned, was the sinking of the Sydney to Port aux Basques passenger ferry SS Caribou by U-69 on the night of October 13/14, with the loss of 136 people including 10 children.

U-69 and the Sinking of the SS Carolus

U-69, under the command of Kapitän-Leutnant Ulrich Gräf, entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence through the Cabot Strait on September 30, 1942. Finding no targets, he cruised up the St. Lawrence River and on the night of 8/9 October sighted the seven-ship, Labrador to Quebec convoy, NL-9. Despite the presence of three escorting corvettes, Gräf sank the 2245-ton steamship SS Carolus with the loss of 12 of her crew. This sinking, a mere 275 kilometres from Quebec City, caused an uproar in both Quebec and Ottawa. However, it would be nothing compared to the distress caused by the sinking of the Caribou a few nights later.

October 13, 1942

The Sydney to Port aux Basques ferry SS Caribou left Sydney at approximately 9:30 p.m., on October 13, 1942. On board were 73 civilians, including 11 children, and 118 military personnel, plus a crew of 46. Just before departure, the Caribou's master, Captain Benjamin Tavenor, ordered all passengers on deck to familiarize themselves with the lifeboat stations. Both he and his crew knew of the danger of U-boat attack – on the previous trip, the Caribou's escort had attacked a contact, but without success. This might have been U-106, which had attacked a Sydney to Corner Brook convoy nine hours later.

Escorting the Caribou on this trip was the RCN minesweeper, HMCS Grandmere. According to her log, the night was very dark with no moon. Grandmere's skipper, Lt. James Cuthbert, was unhappy about both the amount of smoke the Caribou was making and his screening position off the Caribou's stern, which was in accordance with British naval procedures for a single escort. Cuthbert believed the best place for Grandmere to be was in front of the Caribou, not behind, as Western Approaches Convoy Instructions advised. He felt he would be better able to detect the sound of a lurking U-boat if he had a clear field in front to probe. He was correct, for in Caribou's path lay the U-69.

The Attack

Gräf had actually been searching for a three-ship grain convoy heading for Montreal when at 3:21 a.m. he spotted the Caribou “belching heavy smoke” about 60 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland. He misidentified the 2222-ton Rotterdam-built Caribou and the 670-ton Grandmere as a 6500-ton passenger freighter and a “two-stack destroyer.” At 3:40 a.m., according to Grandmere's log, a lone torpedo hit the Caribou on her starboard side. Pandemonium ensued as passengers, thrown from their bunks by the explosion rushed topside to the lifeboat stations. For some reason, several families had been accommodated in separate cabins and now sought each other in the confusion. In addition, several lifeboats and rafts had either been destroyed in the explosion or could not be launched. As a result, many passengers were forced to jump overboard into the cold water.

Assistance from HMCS Grandmere

Meanwhile, Grandmere had spotted U-69 in the dark and turned to ram. Gräf, still under the impression he was facing a “destroyer” rather than a minesweeper, crash dived. As Grandmere passed over the swirl left by the submerged submarine, Lt. Cuthbert fired a diamond pattern of six depth charges. Gräf, meanwhile, headed for the sounds of the sinking Caribou, knowing that the survivors left floating on the surface would inhibit Grandmere from launching another attack. However, U-69's manoeuvre went unnoticed by Grandmere and Cuthbert dropped another pattern of three charges set for 500 feet. Gräf fired a Bold, an asdic decoy, and slowly left the area.


At 6:30 a.m. Grandmere gave up the hunt and started to pick up survivors. They were too few. Of the 237 people aboard the Caribou when she left North Sydney, 136 had perished. Fifty-seven were military personnel and 49 were civilians. Fifteen-month-old Leonard Shiers of Halifax was the only one of 11 children to survive the sinking. Of the 46-man crew, mostly Newfoundlanders, only 15 remained. Five families suffered particularly heavy losses: the Tappers (5 dead), the Toppers (4), the Allens (3), the Tavernors (the captain and his two sons), and the Skinners (3). The press truthfully reported that "Many Families [were] Wiped Out."

Survivors of the SS Caribou, 14 October 1942
Survivors of the SS Caribou, 14 October 1942
Unidentified survivors of the SS Caribou, which sank off the coast of Newfoundland on 14 October 1942 after being torpedoed by a German submarine. Of the 237 people on board, only 101 survived.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (Coll. 115 16.07.034), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

News of the Attack Reaches the Island

News of the sinking sparked much outrage as victims' friends and families, and the populace at large, condemned the Nazis for targeting a passenger ferry. An editorialist with The Royalist newspaper in St. John's wrote that the sinking “was such a useless crime from the point of view of warfare. It will have no effect upon the course of the war except to steel our resolve that the Nazi blot on humanity must be eliminated from our world.” As bodies were recovered, the burials started. The Channel/Port aux Basques area was the worst hit as many crewmembers of the Caribou were local men. A funeral on October 18 for six victims was attended by hundreds of mourners, and a procession that followed the bodies to the grave sites reportedly measured two kilometres long.

The Burgeo took over the Caribou's former route after the sinking, but eliminated night time sailings. To further reduce any possibility of attack, the Canadian navy ordered the ferry's escort to navigate a zig-zag path in front of the vessel rather than follow from behind.

The Attack on the Rose Castle

The U-69, meanwhile, remained hidden in Newfoundland waters, and on October 20, attacked the ore carrier Rose Castle traveling to Bell Island from Sydney. This time the torpedo did not explode and the vessel escaped unharmed. The U-boat, out of torpedoes, headed for home and was eventually sunk the next February by the British destroyer HMS Viscount while attacking a convoy east of Newfoundland. All 46 of the U-69's crew were killed in the attack.

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