On the home front

The Battle of the St. Lawrence

By Harvey Shepherd

A review of The Battle of the St. Lawrence by Nathan M. Greenfield

Published on April 1, 2005

The Battle of the St. Lawrence
Nathan M. Greenfield

HarperCollins
$34.95
cloth
276pp
0-00-200664-2

When I was three or four years old, I vaguely recall my parents taking me on a ferry on the Bay of Fundy. There was a life-jacket drill, and a little gun mounted at the stern.

In my memory, the incident has taken on a sort of comic-opera quality. My father was serving his country in World War II in Nova Scotia, teaching Royal Canadian Navy recruits about the submarine-detection system (then called ASDIC, the system is now better known as SONAR), and I had supposed that we were far from the fighting.

As this book reminds us, though, almost thirty ships were torpedoed in the St Lawrence River and the Gulf of St Lawrence, and most of them were sunk. (An appendix lists 24 ships torpedoed, 21 of them sunk between May and October 1942, and three sunk in October and November 1944.) More than 270 Canadians and a hundred others died in “the only Second World War campaign fought inside North America.”

The author, who lives in Ottawa and is Canadian correspondent for two British newspapers, and has commented on pop culture for CBC radio, got interested in the Battle of the St Lawrence in 2001. It is not an entirely untold story: Despite spotty efforts at censorship, much was reported in newspapers at the time, and there have been subsequent media accounts and scholarly studies. Greenfield fully acknowledges this debt, but still felt that a book for the general reader was needed.

Greenfield is also clearly irritated by what he sees as romanticism on the part of some U-Boat buffs towards those who served on these German submarines. He insists tha the U-Boat crews were, after all, part of the Nazi war machine and bought into its ideology.

It is also argued, though not in a particularly organized fashion, that the Canadian anti-submarine effort in this theatre was not the flop some commentators have claimed. While no U-Boats were destroyed in the St Lawrence, Greenfield suggests that Canadian forces, with better use of aircraft and radar, were becoming quite successful in keeping the U-Boats on the run by the fall of 1942. At that time the Canadian government decided to close the St Lawrence to shipping, except for essential coastal and ferry traffic, largely so that escort vessels could be reassigned to support an amphibious assault on North Africa.

The last sinking, in 1942, was the most tragic of the St Lawrence conflict. Almost 140 men, women, and children died when U-69, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Ulrich Gräf, torpedoed a Newfoundland-Nova Scotia ferry, SS Caribou, on October 14. Greenfield endeavours to put the Battle of the St Lawrence in context, and to heighten the drama through bold juxtapositions of vivid detail, strategic factors, information about the physics of underwater explosions, political developments, and snippets of what was going on at the same time in other theatres and in the Holocaust.

While sometimes effective, this all too often results in a hodge-podge. Remarkably little effort is made to assess the strategic importance of the battle, and of the St Lawrence shipping against which U-Boats directed their efforts. The reader is left thinking that, after all, it may not have been that significant. He describes the German decision to send U-Boats into the St Lawrence again in 1944, well after D-Day, as an effort to draw Allied escorts off the North Atlantic. I wonder whether this was not a large part of the story in 1942 as well. mRb

Harvey Shepherd is a freelance writer in Montreal.

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