A little-known, but significant, Maritime wooden boat story
by John Soosaar
“Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces supported by strong air forces began landing Allied armies this morning on the coast of France”
BBC broadcast, June 6, 1944
When Allied forces fought their way across the bloody beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 following an unprecedented naval bombardment, they were soon tracked by a flotilla of huge Maritime-made wooden barges, packed with supplies essential for the upcoming European campaign.
Lost in the mists of history, the little-known story of these barges carrying supplies and machinery for the vast allied armies which would soon be battling their way across the continent came to light after the 75th D-Day anniversary commemoration ceremonies in France last June.
Searching through a collection of photographs of wartime construction projects undertaken by my father-in-law, the late H.G. Mingo, president of Eastern Woodworkers in New Glasgow, I found photos of large wooden barges under construction on the East River in Pictou County and undergoing sea trials off Mahone Bay. Further investigation from various sources including the War Museum in Ottawa, revealed that they were part of a large contract by the British Ministry of War Transport to Maritime companies for what came to be called MINCA (Made in Canada) barges and TANAC tugs for use in the invasion of Europe.
The architect of these unique vessels was W.J. Roué, of Dartmouth, by then the renowned designer of the first schooner Bluenose, the “Queen of the North Atlantic,” as she was known. He regarded the barges as his best work after the Bluenose.
Maritime companies, then known throughout Canada for their expertise in wooden boat construction, built 1,331 of these huge, 50-ton, 72-foot prefabricated barges.
Much of the wood used in the barge construction—spruce, oak, birch, maple and white pine—came from Lunenburg County and the steel braces and other reinforcements from Sydney and Pictou.
Each barge could carry a 150-ton payload at speeds of four knots, powered by a 2½-ton outboard motor or hauled by a TANAC tug. They were ideal for navigating continental canals and narrow, shallow waterways. The barges had a 21.5-foot beam and drew just over six feet of water.
Along with Eastern Woodworkers, other Maritime companies that won wartime barge and wooden tug contracts were Industrial Shipping Ltd., in Mahone Bay, Smith and Rhuland in Lunenburg, J.A. Urquhart in Parrsboro, Irving Shipyards Ltd., in Bouctouche, McMulkin and Son and Ashley Colten, both in Gagetown, NB.
In a book entitled A Spirit Deep Within, Roué’s great-granddaughter Joan writes that he invented the concept of prefab sectional barges that could be disassembled on the deck of a ship and then reassembled to carry supplies. To ensure that his specifications were followed, he travelled by car throughout the Maritimes, regularly visiting each of the firms where the barges were being built. The arduous travel schedule exhausted him, and he often depended on his son Jim to drive to various locations in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Construction of the barges to War Ministry specifications was his obsession, writes Joan, as were the tugs he designed that were being built at Smith and Rhuland in Lunenburg and Industrial Shipping in Mahone Bay.
The barges were first tested in Mahone Bay in October 1943, before a group of War Production Board officials, construction company executives and officers of the three armed services.
General Eisenhower is reported to have praised the quality and usefulness of these gigantic barges.
The British Ministry of War Transport paid a total of $29 million for the barges and fifteen wooden tugs to pull them. The British contracts were a significant boost to the Maritime economy experiencing a wartime slump after the devastating Depression of the 1930s.
Before 1939 Canada’s shipbuilding industry was in decline for nearly two decades, but during the Second World War the shipbuilding program became a major part of the country’s industrial output, producing about 2,000 vessels. Shipyards were kept busy repairing vessels damaged by weather, accidents and during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Shipped overseas in a knocked-down state, each barge was comprised of six sections, re-assembled in the UK and kept tethered in a vast collection in the Thames River across from the Houses of Parliament in London. The first ones arrived in Britain in the spring of 1944 only months before the invasion.
For Eastern Woodworkers, the story began in 1938, when Harold Mingo and his then partner Jim MacKay began their company in a former chicken house on Brother Street in New Glasgow. They were building walk-in cold storage units, restaurant furnishings and remodelling.
As the German threat to Britain grew, it required ever greater resources from Commonwealth countries and Canada was providing, ships and housing for workers involved in war work.
Eastern turned its attention to pre-fabricated homes, manufactured in the New Glasgow plant and assembled on site.
Between 1941 and 42, the company built almost 1,000 houses in New Glasgow, Halifax, Amherst and Pictou, many still in use today.
As Eastern won more wartime work from Ottawa, Mingo designed and built most of the machinery and assembly lines required to meet the urgent demand for pre-fab housing and barges at his New Glasgow plant. A hands-on carpenter, he signed on as project manager to oversee the initial contract for 75 MINCAs.
In her book, A Winning Combination, Faye Mingo, daughter of the late Dudley Mingo, Harold’s brother and project manager for Eastern during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, describes how the brothers—Harold, Dudley, Ernest and Carl—turned Eastern into one of the largest construction companies in Canada after the war.
But the construction of the MINCA cargo barges between 1943 and 1945 marked a major turning point for the fledgling company and helped secure its future.
Faye describes how Eastern, in competition with Brookfield Construction of Halifax, won the initial British contract for 75 barges. Then Harold developed an assembly line designed to ensure that no part of a barge would take more than 15 minutes to assemble. Brookfield could also produce one barge a day with 515 men. Eastern could match that with 350 men.
With that, Eastern won a contract to build another 100 barges and all but 13 were completed before the end of the war in 1945.
Author Stephen Leacock, in the first volume of Canada’s War at Sea, wrote that the Maritime provinces were ideal for wooden boat construction.
He singled out Industrial Shipping Co. Ltd. of Mahone Bay as perhaps providing the greatest service to Canada’s war effort, building the 70-foot TANAC wooden harbour tugs and 46-foot harbour naval craft for the navy in addition to the MINCA barges.
“The hammers of the Nova Scotia builders of wooden ships echo in the hills and inlets of that sea-girt coastline,” he wrote. “From such coastal communities as Yarmouth, Windsor, Shelbourne, Sydney, New Glasgow, Lunenburg, Mahone Bay and many others, have come other wooden boat builders to make their contribution to the war at sea.”
Companies found it hard to maintain a steady workforce because of the seasonal nature of life in the Maritimes. With young men in the military, it fell to those at home to carry on with farming and fishing while still employed on construction projects.
After the war there were numerous advertisements for MINCA barges for sale as surplus in Canada, as a source of wood and other building materials.
One was converted into an excursion vessel in Montreal, the MV Ville Marie.
A headline in the July 30, 1949, edition of The Manitoba Ensign observed that “The Ville Marie Sails from Montreal to Adventure.”
One of the last tugs, the TANAC-V 262, built by Smith and Rhuland in 1945, never made it to Europe. It was sold to Foundation Maritime and renamed Marny M. After a long career at sea it was broken up in 1962.