The European conflicts stretched right to Atlantic Canada’s shores
In 2003 I attended the opening of the Juno Beach Centre, Canada’s Second World War museum at Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy. Juno is where 14,000 Canadian soldiers stormed ashore on D-Day.
The prime ministers of France and Canada joined 1,200 Canadian D-Day vets and 3,800 family members for the opening. All across Normandy signs read, “Welcome to our Liberators” and “We Will Never Forget.”
For many Canadians born after the Second World War it’s not a matter of forgetting as much as not knowing about Canada’s role in both world wars. Canadian veterans, whether they served on land, at sea or in the air, didn’t talk about their war experiences. They were mostly mute on the subject. My father, who was with the 88th Battery R.C.A., went overseas in 1940 and returned in time for Christmas 1945. He saw action in Italy, France, Belgium, Germany and Holland, but never spoke of it.
His one war story, which elicited “a look” from my mother, was of running out of money on a pub crawl in Nottingham, England. With no way to pay for a ride back to base, he went to the sherriff asking for a jail cell for the night.
In Normandy, the veterans I met regretted their silence because it left succeeding generations ignorant of Canada’s significant contribution to the war. As symbolic anniversaries mounted, our veterans began to share their experiences. Not for glorification, but for the sake of historical accuracy.
One man with an interesting experience is Haligonian Russell Hubley. He flew 60 missions in the Second World War. On June 6, 1944, Hubley and his crewmates returned to base to learn they had dropped the first bombs on D-Day. “We had no idea. We thought we were going on a regular bombing raid to bomb a heavy gun emplacement inside France. When we got back we went to the briefing, they just said, “You have just opened the invasion.” That’s when we found out. We were surprised.” Hubley received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service, which in June of this year was supplemented by France’s Legion of Honour.
There are many forgotten or untold war stories like this one, ranging from quirky to profound. On the quirky end is the story of how Ransford Bucknam from Halls Harbour, NS, became an admiral in the Ottoman navy. Bucknam moved to Hantsport, NS, and later to Maine where he was employed to deliver two Philadelphia-made ships to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in Turkey. There he twice saved Sultan Abdul Hamid II from assassination and was rewarded with the title “Bucknam Pasha” and, as befit someone in his position, a harem. Bucknam, who had a wife in America, made the best of the situation by accepting the Sultan’s gift. Reports are unclear about when he died exactly—some say 1915 and others say 1919—though it would seem he refused to continue service with the navy after the war began.
A heart-breaking story is that of George Price from Port Williams, NS. Price was the last man killed in the First World War. Under the terms of the Armistice, hostilities would cease at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. According to Margrete Kristiansen, an interpreter at the Prescott House Museum, Price was shot by a sniper on November 11, 1918 and died just before war’s end.
In those last minutes of his life, Price gave a crocheted flower—a gift from his girlfriend in Saskatchewan—to a young Belgian woman who ran to his aid. At a 1991 dedication of a bridge in Belgium near the spot where Price was shot, that girl’s daughter gave the framed, blood soaked flower to Price’s nephew, George Barkhouse of Kingsport, NS. Barkhouse, who was born in 1929, says his mother had been down with other young people at the school grounds celebrating war’s end, then came home to the crushing news of Price’s death.
While the men fought, the women also served. In new her book, Those Splendid Girls, Charlottetown-based nurse educator Katherine Dewar writes of the contribution made by 115 Island women who served as front-line war nurses. “Their fathers were premiers, judges, merchants. They could afford to send their daughters to Boston or New York to prestigious hospitals or to the Royal Vic in Montreal,” for training, says Dewar.
As we commemorate significant anniversaries this year—the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, and, in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War—University of New Brunswick historian, Dr. Marc Milner says we shouldn’t think of war as an event fought in distant lands because both wars came to our shores.
Halifax and Sydney were the main staging ports for convoys supplying the Allies. In the Second World War, Saint John, NB was a staging port for coastal convoys and a shipbuilding centre. St. John’s, NL was a refueling and repair port, and a base for convoy escort ships providing coverage against German U-boats. St. John’s also had a reputation for fun. “The sailors tended to like St. John’s much better than they liked Halifax,”says Halifax transportation historian, Dan Conlin.
Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay also provided a safe harbour for a meeting between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There they developed the Atlantic Charter, which detailed Allied goals for the war and post-war world.
As well as providing safe staging areas for convoys, Halifax was the main demarcation point for departing troops. “Pier 21...could handle the world’s biggest ocean liners, which were all turned into troop ships. Because it had such superb rail connections you could put a division of troops from the train on to a ship fairly quickly,” says Conlin. “We think that most Canadian soldiers who left for war overseas left from Pier 21, which was their last steps on Canadian soil. It’s kind of a powerful thought.”
In the early days of the Second World War, Halifax became a tourist attraction. Author William Naftel writes in Wartime Halifax: “One type of visitor to Halifax in the early days before war restrictions hit hard was the tourist from a still-neutral United States. Americans were fascinated by the sight of a nation at war, of convoys heading out to sea, of battleships that meant business, of blackouts and recruiting posters…”
And in the litany of war-inspired clandestine operations was one of the largest transfers of wealth in history. Churchill, fearing a Nazi invasion of Britain, ordered the Bank of England emptied and its contents sent to Canada for safekeeping. In 1940, under the codename Operation Fish, valuable gold reserves and securities were packed in crates and sent in several convoy shipments to Halifax. The securities were locked in basement vaults in Montreal’s Sun Life Building and the gold reserves were kept in the bank of Canada’s vaults in Ottawa.
It was a desperate move given that there were an estimated 15 to 20 German U-boats assigned to Atlantic Canada’s coast. They weren’t all here at one time, but they engaged in a lot of action including pitched sea battles off the approaches to Halifax Harbour, Yarmouth and elsewhere.
A map at the Juno Beach Centre shows the location of 24 merchant and naval ships sunk in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence River by German submarines. The toll includes the 1942 sinking of the ferry Caribou on its way from Sydney to Newfoundland in which 137 people died.
“Along the St. Lawrence it was not unusual for people to wake up with stranded people on their front step and bodies washing ashore,” says Milner. “The wreckage of war was right outside their front doorstep.”
In the First World War, a German U-boat even used the fishing fleet as cover. “In 1917 a large U-boat actually gets in amongst the fishing fleet mostly in eastern Nova Scotia,” says Milner, “and gets into the Bay of Fundy and sinks some boats off Grand Manan and a Saint John-based sailing vessel.”
“But most of the nasty work was done east of Scatarie Island [Cape Breton]. And at one point the Germans actually captured the steam trawler Triumph...armed it and used it as a privateer, attacking the fishing fleet until Triumph ran out of fuel. At that point they sank it and put the crew back on the submarine.”
The late Captain Matthew Mitchell of Lunenburg, NS recalled in an interview before he died, that in addition to the usual dangers of going to sea, fishing became an especially stressful wartime occupation. “It was nerve-wracking. In the First World War, the Germans sank a lot of vessels over here. In the last world war they didn’t sink any, but we didn’t know that,” says Mitchell. “So the moment you got outside the harbour you were in a war zone. You would hear and see the German U-boats in the nighttime. They would come up among us to charge their batteries or whatever they had to do because the navy couldn’t get in there to sink ‘em.”
Two U-boats also landed spies, one in St. Martin’s, NB and another across the bay from Bathurst in New Carlisle, Quebec. Fortunately the St. Martin’s spy wasn’t overly dedicated. He quickly abandoned his mission in favour of the bars and brothels of Montreal. His money spent, he turned himself in to authorities. His colleague in the Gaspé was more dedicated but was turned in to authorities by suspicious residents. “The one successful thing the Germans did do was land a robot radio station, Station Kurt, in Labrador. It only worked about a week before it broke down,” Conlin says.
According to Terry Long, chairman of the Sydney-based International Dialogues on Underwater Munitions, the wars’ effects still linger. After each war, the Canadian and American militaries dumped unneeded munitions and chemicals, like mustard gas, at sea. Other bombs were lost when warships sank. Long says there are 3,000 dump sites around Nova Scotia and as many as 6,000 in the region.
Navy divers have surveyed and removed unexploded shells in the Forteau Bay area of Labrador. In June, a young boy walking Saint John’s Mispec Beach found a grenade from the Second World War had washed ashore. Two years before that, a couple walking the same beach found a package later taken care of by CFB Gagetown munitions experts.
“We often think of it as a war fought in Europe,” says Conlin, “but Canadian ports were essentially front-line cities.”