The U-Boat Attacks on the Bell Island Ore Ships in 1942

Designated in 2011 as an Outstanding Historic Event.

Nominator: Richard Stanley, Ocean Quest Incorporated

During the Second World War, the mines on Bell Island supplied iron ore to Cape Breton’s steel mills, accounting for one third of Canada’s steel production. If Germany interrupted this flow of ore, even temporarily, Canada’s war output could be seriously affected.

On the night of September 4th, 1942, a German U-Boat followed the ore carrierEvelyn B into anchorage at Wabana, Bell Island. The next morning and under the guns of the Bell Island Battery, the U-Boat sank two ships: SS Saganaga and SS Lord Strathcona. Twenty-nine men were killed in the attack, all aboard Saganaga. While nothing appeared in the press about this incident, news quickly spread. The public was shaken because the attack had occurred in broad daylight, in an inshore protected anchorage.  The Battle of the Atlantic had suddenly come close to home.

The strategic importance of the Bell Island mines continued to be a target. At approximately 3 a.m. on November 2nd, 1942 another U-Boat entered “The Tickle,” (as the Wabana anchorage was locally known), and found several ore carriers at anchor. A half hour later, one torpedo was fired at the 3000-ton Anna T. It missed and exploded ashore at the loading dock, awakening the whole of Bell Island. Two torpedoes were fired at SS Rose CastleRose Castle sank, taking twenty-eight of her crew with her, five of whom were Newfoundlanders. The Free French vessel PLM 27 was next, and she sank almost immediately after being hit, with the loss of twelve men. In the ensuing confusion, and despite the presence of a corvette and two patrol boats, the U-Boat escaped on the surface in the darkness. In a ten-minute attack, two ships, along with forty men, had been lost.

The fall of 1942 was a difficult period for the people of Newfoundland. In the space of three months, the Sydney to Port-aux-Basques passenger ferry Caribouwas sunk in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the loss of 136 people, including women and children, and four ore carriers were torpedoed at anchor at Wabana, Bell Island, killing 69 men. While the loss of the Caribou was a human tragedy, the sinking of the ore carriers at Bell Island not only had strategic repercussions, but the sheer audacity of the attacks clearly demonstrated to Newfoundlanders that they were at the front lines of the Battle of the Atlantic.

This event is representative of a significant phase in the province’s development – namely Newfoundland and Labrador’s strategic importance during the Second World War specifically, and more generally, the province’s strategic importance in the North Atlantic as an enduring theme throughout the province’s history. This event contributed to the province’s identity by directly connecting residents to a global conflict, and by increasing awareness of the strategic importance of Newfoundland and Labrador’s industries both here and abroad.

Learn more

The Battle for Bell Island: The U-boat Attacks at Wabana, Bell Island in the Fall of 1942 and their Impact on the People of Newfoundland, Commemorations Paper by Paul Collins [PDF]