IT is often repeated parrot-fashion that while a great many Americans died in the Second World War, continental North America was subjected to only a few attacks, mostly on shipping off its east and west coasts, and no major battles took place there.

That may be true of the US, though Japanese troops did occupy some of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska in June, 1942 – thousands of American and Japanese soldiers died when they were eventually evicted a year or so later – but it most certainly is not true of Canada.

For it was 75 years ago today that the Battle of the St Lawrence began, and the Canadian people saw bloody war up close and personal.

Conducted on the German side entirely by U-boat submarines, and with the Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force pitted against them, the forgotten battle began with the sinking of the 5300-ton British cargo ship Nicoya and the Dutch-registered 4700-ton freighter Leto on May 12, 1942, at the mouth of the St Lawrence river. Six of the 88 crew on the Nicoya were killed, while 12 of the 53 people on board Leto perished.


IT appears that the commander of the U-553 had carried out an opportunistic attack up the Gulf of St Lawrence on Canada’s Atlantic coast. Kapitanleutnant Karl Thurmann was later awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler for his action.

His success showed the way for the German Navy – the Kriegsmarine – to inflict serious damage on shipping entering and leaving the St Lawrence River, Canada’s most important trade route from where ships destined for the Atlantic convoys would depart for their rendezvous off Halifax and Sydney in Nova Scotia.

Essentially, the battle was part of the much wider Battle of the Atlantic to protect the UK’s vital supply routes from North America, but the Battle of the St Lawrence is recognised by war historians as a battle in its own right, given the unique nature of the conflict.

The Canadian military had been caught unawares by the first sinkings, there being only four Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) vessels protecting the mouth of the St Lawrence, which empties into the eponymous Gulf, the largest estuary in the world.

More RCN and Royal Navy ships were added to the original four while the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) greatly increased its patrols over the St Lawrence river and its gulf.

The next attack would be even more successful from the German point of view. On July 6, Captain Ernst Vogelsang took U-132 into the Gulf of St Lawrence. He sank three ships in little over half-an-hour – the Greek-registered cargo vessel Anastassios Pateras of 3300 tons, and the 4300-ton Belgian-registered Hainaut. In the St Lawrence River itself, off the coast of Quebec, U-132 sank the 2500-ton British Merchant Navy ship Dinaric, but was herself attacked and damaged by HMCS Drummondville and four aircraft of the RCAF. Eight crewmen from the sunken ships were killed, while a few but unknown number of German submariners also died.

Two weeks later in the Gulf, U-132 sank the British freighter Frederika Lenson of 4300 tons, four of her crewmen being killed. The ship did not sink but was beached with her hull split and declared a loss.

In August and September, the U-boats really struck hard. In the space of three weeks, U-157 sank nine ships and the RCN corvette HMCS Charlottetown. The first ship to be sunk was a passenger vessel, the US-registered Chatham, but excellent lifeboat drills and the swift arrival of American and Canadian ships meant that only seven passengers and seven crew died.

Many of the attacks began to happen in the straits that led from the Gulf to the Atlantic. The ferry SS Caribou was sunk in October with the loss of 137 passengers and crew, the heaviest loss of life in Canadian waters in the whole war.


THE battle was now well and truly joined, but the vast majority of the Canadian people knew nothing about it. From the outset, Canadian authorities imposed a blackout on news of the conflict in the St Lawrence.

Bodies were washed ashore, however, and local residents could not help seeing the explosions and fires aboard sinking ships.

The Canadian defence forces now knew the war was right on their doorstep, and greatly increased their presence around the St Lawrence, which also caused a great deal of gossip.

The Gulf of St Lawrence and the river were closed to international traffic, such was the impact the U-boats were having.

Still, not one newspaper or radio station reported on the developing battle, which is why it has been largely forgotten.


BY late 1942, the RCN and RCAF were harassing the U-boats everywhere they went and the German Navy commanders decided to redeploy their diminishing number of submarines to the Battle of the Atlantic. They returned in 1944 when the St Lawrence was reopened, and in November, 1944, U-1228 sank HMCS Shawinigan with the loss of all her 91 crew. The dead included Dudley “Red” Garrett, a former professional ice hockey player – an award in his name is given each season to the best rookie in the American Hockey League.

The U-boats remained a threat into 1945, but no more vessels were sunk and two U-boats surrendered in the St Lawrence river after VE Day. Total Allied losses were 27 ships lost and 340 killed, while only a few U-boat crew members died.

It is still seen as a strategic victory for the Canadians, however, as the U-boats were eventually removed from the St Lawrence.