The Battle of the St. Lawrence as a Whole

World War Two

World War Two was a global armed conflict that took place between 1939 and 1945. Millions of Canadians signed up during the war; a total of 1,031,902 men and 49,963 women. Unfortunately, 44,927 of these brave men and women lost their lives, 53,145 of them were injured, and 8,271 were captured and held as prisoners of war (Source: Votre Marine en Action).

The Battle of the Atlantic

During World War Two, fighting took place on the ground, in the air, and also at sea. The different factions were fighting to control the sea routes between the Americas, Europe and Africa. Between 1939 and 1945, more than 100,000 men and women joined the ranks of the Royal Canadian Navy. Regrettably, the Royal Canadian Navy suffered the loss of over 2,000 lives. What’s more, 752 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force also lost their lives during naval operations (Source: Votre Marine en Action).
There were six waves of German U-boat incursions within Canadian inland coastal waters. On January 13, 1942, the Montreal Daily Star announced the first wave of attacks with the headline: “War Comes to Nova Scotia”. This signalled the beginning of Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat) on North American coasts. Between January and March 1942, Operation Paukenschlag sank 42 ships within Canadian waters (Source: HADLEY, 1985).

The Battle of the St. Lawrence

It was the Ottawa Journal that first coined the term “Battle of the St. Lawrence”. It was not, however, a battle per se, but rather a series of German U-boat incursions into the river. Known as the Canadian theatre of World War Two, this naval war primarily took place close to inhabited areas. The Germans’ main aim was to obstruct supplies headed towards Great Britain and the allied forces (Source: HADLEY, 1985).
Despite the fact that German U-boats had been sailing the St. Lawrence for some time and that several ships had already been sunk within Canadian waters, the Battle of the St. Lawrence began with the sinking of the SS Nicoya and the SS Leto during the night of May 11 to May 12, 1942. Following this attack, the Ministry of Naval Affairs published a press release, and on May 17, the St. Lawrence defence strategy was put in place. The convoy system was established and the lights on the Gaspé lighthouse were switched off. On September 9, 1942, the St. Lawrence River was closed to marine traffic (Source: HADLEY, 1985).
Between 1942 and 1944, fifteen German U-boats penetrated Canadian waters. Eight sunk and damaged merchant ships and Royal Canadian Navy boats. Twenty-two (22) ships were sunk in Canada, sixteen (16) of which were sunk in Quebec during the Battle of the St. Lawrence (1942-1944). Many other ships were damaged but managed to stay afloat. During the Battle of the St. Lawrence, approximately 147 members of the Royal Canadian Navy and 89 members of the Canadian Merchant Navy lost their lives, as did the 136 passengers aboard the ferry SS Caribou (Source: Votre Marine en Action).
Despite their success, it was a difficult campaign for the U-boat commanders. Canadian forces, particularly the air force, attacked often and with precision. Their retaliation damaged many U-boats to the extent that commanders often had to retreat and dive into the abyss. Some U-boats were hit, but none were sunk (Source: André Kirouac, 2004).

To introduce the Battle of the St. Lawrence we have selected some extracts from the book Rien de plus noble (2002).

[…] the tightening of the allies’ defence in the Western Atlantic between February and May 1942, persuaded [Grand-Admiral Karl] Dönitz to deploy his U-boats in less highly protected waters. (chapter 8, p. 473. Translated into English)
The U-boat campaign on the St. Lawrence began by chance, but would come to be of the highest importance, first of all for Canada and ultimately for German operations. […] U-boat U-533 was damaged by escorts south of Newfoundland in May, 1942. Serious mechanical failures added to the damage, Commander [Karl] Thurmann believed that he could not begin repair work whilst in the highly defended waters surrounding Halifax. As a result, he decided, rationally, to retreat to calmer waters in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, which had just been freed of its winter covering of ice. This allowed him to ambush ships picking back up their activities in coastal waters. Shortly after midnight on May 12, Thurmann arrived off the northern coast of the Gaspé peninsular and quickly sunk two ships, the Nicoya and the Leto. These two vessels had left Montreal on May 10, one was headed towards Halifax and the other towards Sydney to join the trans-Atlantic convoys. (chapter 8, p. 474. Translated into English)
On May 9, Convoy QSS-1, the first improvised convoy, monopolized all available escorts. The following day, the Nicoya and the Leto left Montreal unescorted and headed towards Halifax and Sydney to join trans-Atlantic convoys. (chapter 8, p. 478. Translated into English)
[…] the tightening of Canadian defence in the autumn of 1942, in particular the offensive air patrols, made the submarines’ traditional chasing tactics impossible, and thus, the Germans “evacuated” the St. Lawrence at the end of autumn 1942. (chapter 8, p.528. Translated into English)

For more information on the Battle of the St. Lawrence:

W. A. B. Douglas et al., No Higher Purpose: The Official Operational History of the Royal Canadian Navy in The Second World War, 1939-1943, volume II, part I, St. Catherines, Vanwell Pub., 2002.

GREENFIELD, Nathan M., « La bataille que le Canada a choisi d’oublier », Magazine Gaspésie, vol. 40, no. 1, summer 2003, p. 29-30.

GREENFIELD, Nathan M., The Battle of the St. Lawrence, Scarborough, Harper Collins Publishers, 2004, 286 p.

HADLEY, Michael L., U-boats Against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters, Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, c1985, 416 p.

HADLEY, Michael L., « La bataille du Saint-Laurent », Magazine Gaspésie, vol. 40, no. 1, summer 2003, p. 15-19.

SARTY, Roger, « Une défaite presque totale pour le Canada ? », Magazine Gaspésie, vol. 40, no. 1, summer 2003, p. 31-35.

SARTY, Roger, War in the St. Lawrence: The Forgotten U-Boat Battles on Canada’s Shores, Toronto, Allen Lane, 2012, 355 p.

TRÉPANIER, Louis, « 1942 : la Bataille du Saint-Laurent », Revue d’histoire du Bas Saint-Laurent, vol. 9, no. 3, October-December 1983, p. 85-96.

Battle of the St. Lawrence,

Battle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence,

The Summer of 1943: An Episode in the Battle of the St. Lawrence River – Surveillance, Defence and Propaganda,

Battle of the St. Lawrence,

U-boat Operations,

Photos of the Battle of the St. Lawrence,

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