SS Caribou makes an impact
Pride of the Newfoundland ferry service destroyed by wartime enemy
Back in 1925, after 10 years steady service on the Cabot Strait, the sturdy SS Kyle was reassigned to the role for which she was originally designed — the Labrador coastal service.
Her replacement was a brandnew vessel — named after a majestic animal found throughout Newfoundland and Labrador — the SS Caribou.
For the next 17 years (192542), with the exception of annual visits to the drydock in St. John’s, the Caribou served on the Cabot Strait between Cape Breton and Newfoundland. At that time Newfoundland was not part of the Dominion of Canada. Instead, it was a separate dominion that was part of the British Empire. This meant you had to have a passport and be processed through Canadian or Newfoundland custom’s offices, when travelling back and forth between the two dominions.
On Sept. 3, 1939, England and France declared war on Germany. When that happened Newfoundland found itself automatically at war, because it was a non-independent member of the British Empire.
Canada, on the other hand, was considered an independent member of the British Empire and did not declare war on Germany until one week later.
Over the next three years, the Second World War came close to Canadian shores and various defensive plans were put in place on both sides of the Cabot Strait.
The situation was relatively calm until the spring of 1942, when enemy submarine activity increased in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (including the Cabot Strait). Then, in the five-month period between May and September, German submarines sank a total of 14 ships in that area and many more were badly damaged.
Wartime censorship rules meant that both the Newfoundland and Canadian governments tried to suppress these reports of death and destruction, but the word got out, especially in coastal areas, and the local population became very worried.
As a result of all this submarine activity, several changes were quickly made to the Newfoundland ferry service.
First, the Caribou was provided with a naval escort vessel for each crossing. Second, night crossings replaced the normal three times per week daytime trips between North Sydney and Port aux Basques. Third, a zig-zag course, to confuse any waiting submarines, was now steered between the two ports, which greatly increased the normal eight- or nine-hour crossing time.
In the early evening of Oct. 14, 1942, the passenger ferry SS Caribou slipped away from the government wharf in North Sydney. On board were 238 passengers and crew, while below decks she was loaded with military supplies for the war effort in Newfoundland.
The Caribou had to wait just inside the harbour entrance, while a “gate” in the steel net that prevented submarines from entering the harbour was opened. Passing through the narrow opening, she pointed her bow in the direction of Newfoundland, 100 miles away. She was escorted by the minesweeper HMCS Grandmere.
Later that night, at approximately 3:30 a.m., she was rocked by an explosion that almost lifted her out of the water. Mortally wounded, she immediately developed a serious list to port, while pandemonium reigned, above and below decks. Soon after the torpedo struck, the Caribou lost all of her lights, which made for a very serious situation. The explosion also destroyed two of her six lifeboats and seriously damaged three others.
Within five minutes, the Caribou was gone.
The pride of the Newfoundland ferry service, a proud vessel that had served faithfully for almost 18 years, had disappeared beneath the cold waters of the Cabot Strait taking 137 passengers and crew with her.
There were 101 survivors, most of whom were not rescued until several hours after the sinking. The Caribou carried a crew of 46, most of whom lived in Port aux Basques. Of these, 31 went down with the ship.
Because of wartime security, it took three days for the local newspapers to release the story. The residents of North Sydney and Port aux Basques, however, were well aware of what had happened. They knew within a matter of hours.
The Caribou was the last casualty of the Battle of the St. Lawrence, in which more than 700 people lost their lives. With the Caribou sinking, naval patrols were stepped up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the remaining submarines returned to the wide-open spaces of the North Atlantic. However, although they had left the Gulf, many submarines were still close at hand, and the war off Canada’s east coast was far from over.
The SS Caribou arrives in North Sydney in 1925.
German submarine heads out on patrol somewhere in the North Atlantic in the summer 1942. Did this sub later sink the Newfoundland ferry?
Nineteen survivors of a torpedoed ship (not the SS Caribou) await rescue in the North Atlantic.
Buoys support the anti-submarine net at the entrance to Sydney harbour.