For the citizens of Bell Island, Newfoundland, World War II came knocking on their front door like a duct cleaning salesman.
Bell Island was a source of high grade iron ore (the world’s richest ore in fact) critical to the war effort, and Newfoundland as a whole sat right on vital trans-Atlantic shipping routes that supported the Allied war effort. The Bell Island mining efforts were so extensive that a number of the mines extended out under the ocean water.
Before the war, Germany purchased the majority of Bell Island’s iron, and after the war began, that production was shifted to wartime ship building in Canada. This made the island and the entire area an obvious target for German forces.
To put this into perspective, while there were no colour coded terror alerts in the 1940s, people were pretty much locked into full freak-out mode (insert Donald Trump metaphor here). The Canadian government, at the request of the Government of Newfoundland, developed defense plans for Newfoundland in case it was invaded by the Germans (Newfoundland, was not technically part of Canada yet).
The first attack on Bell Island happened in September of 1942. The German U-boat U-513 followed a small ship into the harbour off Bell Island. The U-boat spent the night under water, then rose to periscope depth in the morning to sink the ships Strathcona and Saganaga. 29 men died between the two ships when they sank.
Rolf Ruggeberg, captain of the U-513 fell in love with Newfoundland, sketching the coast and photographing the terrain he found. Ruggeberg won an Iron Cross for his efforts around Bell Island, which was a bit “iron-ic” considering the chief export of the island.
Two months later, in November of 1942, another U-boat, U-518, snuck into the harbour. Captained by Friedrich-Wilhelm Wissmann, U-518 also sunk two ships: the Rose Castle, killing 28 men, and a French free ship that had previously survived the first attack by U-513 – PLM 27. Another 12 crew were killed. One of the torpedoes shot by U-518 missed its target, blowing up against one of the loading docks for iron ore on the island’s Scotia Pier.
Bell Island was one of the few locations in North America directly attacked during World War Two, and it might be one of the few places on land that were attacked by a torpedo (it does seem rather silly when you think about it, but the damage was still extensive).
The two attacks so close together led to fears that there was a spy involved. Fingers were pointed at the captain of PLM-27 (he was there for both attacks and France was under German occupation), but authorities eventually cleared him. U-518 did put a spy named Werner von Janowski ashore in Quebec, but he was quickly captured by Canadian authorities and turned into a double-agent.
While the Rose Castle sank in November of 1942, her story didn’t end there. In 2000, divers found the body of one of the torpedoes that sank the ship. The O-ring from the torpedo (the part that held the warhead) was presented to the Mayor of Wabana (essentially the capital of Bell Island). It now resides in the provincial museum (along with a lot of other amazing things people probably pay no attention too).
The wreck of the Rose Castle, along with the other ships sunk in the Bell island area, have become popular diving sites. The waters of the Newfoundland area are rich with biodiversity and the ships have become artificial reefs. They are considered to be war graves, so divers are required to treat the sites with respect.
When many people think of Newfoundland, they think of screech, fishing and the “Newfie accent”. Most people don’t know that the “Rock”, for a time, was on the front lines of World War 2. It’s amazing what we forget in less than a hundred years. The tensions of the war actually set the stage for Newfoundland to join Canada, and after the war had ended in 1945, Newfoundland became the 10th province of the Canadian Confederation on March 31, 1949.
- Pat Brennan. “A piece of Second World War history is alive on Newfoundland and Labrador’s Bell Island“, Postmedia News. Accessed September 01, 2016.
- “Bell Island Mining History“, Bell Island Community Museum. Accessed September 01, 2016.
- “Iron Ore Mines of Bell Island“, Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador. Accessed September 01, 2016.
- “Battle Of Bell Islands“, Wikipedia. Accessed September 01, 2016.
- “Werner Von Janowski.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 01, 2016.
- “Mesmerizing Underwater Photos of WWII Shipwrecks That Sank in Canada.” Atlas Obscura. 2016. Accessed September 01, 2016.
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