SS Cari­bou makes an im­pact

Pride of the New­found­land ferry ser­vice de­stroyed by wartime en­emy

Cape Breton Post - - Weekend - Ran­nie Gil­lis Celtic Ex­pe­ri­ence Ran­nie Gil­lis is a re­tired teacher and guid­ance coun­sel­lor who lives in North Sydney. An avid writer, pho­tog­ra­pher and moto-jour­nal­ist, he is the au­thor of sev­eral books and has writ­ten travel sto­ries for var­i­ous Cana­dian a

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.

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