Loss of the Caribou, The
DESCRIPTION: The steamship Caribou is torpedoed and sunk and passengers are lost. "Here at Channel ... widows and sweethearts and orphans cry and fret" Most of the men "belonged to" Port-aux-Basques. "The funeral was the largest ever known here"
EARLIEST DATE: 1951 (Guigne; MUNFLA/Leach)
KEYWORDS: grief war travel death drowning funeral commerce sea ship shore disaster wreck religious children family orphan
Oct 14, 1942 - The ferry Caribou was torpedoed by a German submarine going from North Sydney Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland; 137 lives lost. (per Guigne, Northern Shipwrecks Database)
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Guigne, pp. 244-246, "The Loss of the Caribou" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Douglas How, _Night of the Caribou_, Lancelot Press, 1988, p. 144, "(Remember the Caribou)" (1 excerpt, from H. Thornhill's _It Happened One Night_, plus three other pieces from the same source)
Ernest Poole, "The Caribou" (on MUNFLA/Leach)
cf. "Spancil Hill" (tune)
The Swiler's Song (File: RySm144)
NOTES [3044 words]: Channel is a town once separate from the town of Port-aux-Basques, at the southwest corner of Newfoundland. - BS
The combination is now known as Channel-Port aux Basques (How, p. 142), but it appears that most of the crew of the Caribou came from Channel, the English part of town.
Wikipedia has a medium-sized entry ("SS Caribou") which, as of January 2018, had no photo but an extensive set of references, mostly to magazine articles or books which mentioned the ship only briefly. There is one book, How's, specific to the tragedy, plus a graphic novel for children, Jennifer Morgan, Almost Home: The Sinking of the S. S. Caribou, which I have not seen. In addition, the well-known Newfoundland writer Cassie Brown published a book The Caribou Disaster, which was later republished (with some pretty irrelevant additions) as Writing the Sea. It contains a reprint of a newspaper article about the Caribou tragedy, but it is short and doesn't say anything not covered in How's book (or indeed in the Wikipedia article), although it has a few photos I haven't seen elsewhere; her account is all human interest stories.
American histories of the Battle of the Atlantic rarely mention the war in Canadian waters, but as Britain derived more and more help from Canada, and became more and more dependent on Newfoundland (not yet part of Canada) as a naval base, the region around Newfoundland and the Maritimes became the site of the naval Battle of the St. Lawrence. The first major casualty was the British freighter Nicoya, sunk on May 11, 1942, by the U-533 (How, p. 18). Over the next half a year, the U-boats sank dozens of ships in the area.
The Caribou was a large car ferry, sailing from Sydney in Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques in southwest Newfoundland, a 96 mile trip (How, pp. 26-27); this is where Newfoundland is closest to mainland Canada (excluding the almost unpopulated areas north of the St. Lawrence), and remains a ferry route today.
The Caribou was important enough to rate an escort, but all that was available was a minesweeper, the Grandmere a member of the Bangor class (How, p. 26). The Bangors were new (built in the 1940s; Grandmere herself was commissioned in December 1941 and had had a lot of work done even after that -- indeed, her main wireless conked out when she most needed it; How, p. 66) but had the old triple expansion engines rather than the more powerful turbines, and were armed with only a single 3-inch gun an a handful of light anti-aircraft guns (Jane's, p. 69). Worth, p. 121, calls their anti-submarine capabilities "modest" -- but the submarine threat was so great that the Bangors were pressed into the role despite their severe limits. At least they had depth charges and ASDIC (sonar), although a request to install a radar set in the Grandmere had been turned down because the supply was too constrained (How, p. 40). She was commanded by 32-year-old Lieutenant James Cuthbert (How, p. 26), who was a member of the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (Greenfield, p. 183) -- meaning that he wasn't even part of the "regular" reserve, but was a merchant sailor who had a few classes in naval affairs (Greenfield, pp. 163-164). He had sea experience; hardly anyone else aboard did (How, p. 41) -- the immense expansion of the Canadian navy meant that, at this stage, there simply wasn't enough cadre to properly officer the ships.
The Caribou was considerably older, and larger, than her guardian. Built in 1925 for the Newfoundland railway system (How, p. 30), her construction was particularly strong to help her deal with the ice. She was designed to make fourteen and a half knots, meaning that at top speed she could cross between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in about six hours, not counting the time navigating the harbors (where submarine attack was unlikely), although apparently the usual crossing time was eight hours (How, p. 33). She could carry fifty cars and 400 passengers (150 of them in first class), and she had facilities to keep them occupied during the crossing.
Like most of Newfoundland's best ships, she sometimes served as a sealer in the spring before resuming her regular duties; in 1935, under Billy Winsor (for whom see "Capt. Frederick Harris and the Grates Cove Seal Killers of 1915"), she took the most seals of any ship in the fleet -- often a sign that she handled well in the ice. But that was her only sealing voyage.
For the last fourteen of her seventeen years, her commander had been Benjamin Taverner (How, p. 31. "Taverner" is How's, Galgay/McCarthy's, and Greenfield's spelling; Hanrahan spells is "Tavernor"). He was only the third captain the ship had ever had (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 63). He was 62 years old in 1942, and approaching retirement; as early as the 1910s, he had been responsible for various marine rescues as captain of the SS Kyle (Hanrahan, pp. 72-77). By 1942, he had two of his sons as junior officers -- Stanley Taverner, 32, was his first mate; 22-year-old Harold Taverner is his third mate (How, p. 32). None of them would survive the disaster. Nor were the Taverners the only sailing family to be hit hard; the largest fraction of the Caribou's crew were from Port-aux-Basques, the Caribou's home port, and nearby Channel (How, p. 32).
The passengers on the ship included six infants of no more than two years old, and five other children under the age of ten (How, p. 53).
Ironically, the ship had been rebuilt and strengthened just a few months before, and had better lifesaving equipment than at any time in her career. What's more, Captain Taverner took the lifeboat drills seriously (How, p. 33), and was serious about keeping her blacked out. He knew he had reason to worry; four days earlier, Oberleutnant Ulrich Graf's U-69 had sunk another vessel, the Carolus, which was about the same size as the Caribou and in a convoy with a heavier escort, in Canadian waters (How, p. 35). The Caribou did not manage to practice good "smoke discipline" about the smoke from her funnel, though, and apparently Captain Taverner wasn't happy about sailing at night (How, p. 46; according to How, pp. 130-132, etc., this eventually became a political hot potato regarding who gave the order and why. It's an interesting question: by sailing at night, the authorities made it harder for a submarine to spot the ship -- but they also made it harder for the ship and her escort to see the submarine, and it meant that the two Canadian ships could not see each other or conduct an efficient rescue. My personal feeling is that ships were safer at night, but that this was offset by the fact that everyone would be sleepy and inefficient).
Lieutenant Cuthbert of the Grandmere often tried to get to know the commanders of the ships he escorted, but he had never met Ben Taverner (How, p. 44). Did it matter? Who knows? The two ships left port at about 8:00 p.m., the Grandmere first (How, p. 44). They rendezvoused around 9:30, and began zigzagging at a speed of 12-13 knots (How, p. 46). In the darkness, of course, the Grandmere had no way to spot a submarine near the surface; ASDIC only worked on subs below a certain depth, and as mentioned, the Grandmere had no radar. Plus the mix of hot and cold water, and fresh and salt, in the mouth of the St. Lawrence made ASDIC less than reliable. What's more, doctrine said that the Caribou should sail in front, so the noise of her propellers meant that the Grandmere's ASDIC couldn't search forward (How, p. 62). And the blacked-out ships were not supposed to contact each other by wireless or blinker (How, p. 60); Captain Taverner didn't even know where his escort was located.
Not a good situation when facing a skilled opponent like Graf; the U-69's skipper was still in his twenties, but he had been in the navy for seven years, and was smart and skilled enough to have risen through the enlisted ranks to become an officer. And he had won the Iron Cross, both first and second class (How, pp. 49-50).
The U-69 picked a great time to attack if it wanted to cause civilian casualties -- it was around 3:30 a.m. (How, p. 58, although the three ships involved all logged somewhat different times), and the Caribou so close to Newfoundland that she was soon to stop zigzagging as she prepared to go into the harbor -- if indeed she hasn't already straightened out her course (How, pp. 59, 115). So everyone who could get to sleep probably was asleep.
Not surprisingly, U-69 had a hard time identifying her targets with much precision -- she guessed the Caribou at 6500 tonnes, three times her actual displacement. But Graf correctly identified the lead ship as a freighter/passenger vessel, and the second as a warship (How, p. 61). He fired a single torpedo, which hit the Caribou amidships (How, p. 63). Her boilers apparently exploded soon after; she went down very quickly (How, p. 72).
Some have regarded this as an atrocity, but it should be stressed that many passenger ships were converted to wartime use; there was no way for Graf to know there were civilians aboard. And she carried military cargo -- and reportedly was carrying as much freight as was legally allowed, which might have hastened her sinking (Greenfield, p. 185).
The Caribou's lifeboats were little use. Some were smashed. Those in the rear, since they had not been swung out, survived -- but passengers filled them before they could be swung out, meaning that they could not be launched! (How, p. 73). Only two would make it into the water (How, p. 74). And one boat did not have its seacocks in place -- in other words, it had holes in it! (How, p. 82). Fortunately it hauled a Newfoundlander aboard, and he straightened things out (How, p. 83).
The best guess is that it was only four to five minutes from the time the torpedo hit to the time the Caribou went down (How, p. 76). This means that we don't really have much knowledge about what happened aboard during those few minutes; many lives were lost, and survivors didn't have much time to see what happened, and memories of such stressful events are often inaccurate.
To add to the problems of the survivors, they were in northern waters in October. Best guess is that the air temperature was 46 degrees F when the Caribou went down (How, pp. 92-93). Not too bad, for that time of night at that time of year. People who never went into the water could survive that. Those who got wet -- either from sea or spray -- would have a harder time.
The wind made it worse. It was 12 miles per hour at the time of the torpedoing; it rose to about 20 miles per hour over the next several hours. Passengers in the boats avoided the wind and covered themselves as best they could (How, p. 100).
Convoy doctrine said that, in the event a ship was damaged, the escorts should not attempt a rescue; their job was to go after the submarine. So that was what the Grandmere did. The escort could see U-69, and headed for her at top speed; apparently Lt. Cuthbert wanted to ram (How, p. 67). Graf could perhaps have escaped on the surface, or even won a surface battle -- his ship was slightly faster than the Grandmere, with a top speed of 17 knots (although it would take time to get up to speed), and it also had a heavier main gun -- indeed, it was the larger of the two vessels (Worth, p. 69). But, in the dark, Graf couldn't tell details of the Grandmere; what he knew is that an escort was coming for him, and he chose to dive rather than fight (How, pp. 72-73). The Grandmere dropped a series of depth charges without hitting U-69 (How, p. 78). The submarine then headed for where the Caribou sank, correctly anticipating that the Grandmere could not track, and would not attack, it there, where the survivors were gathered (How, pp. 85, 92-93).
The Grandmere never did get an ASDIC trace. She hunted for at least eighty minutes, and possibly as much as two hours, but never located the U-69 (How, p. 95). At the end of that time, she gave up and went to rescue the Caribou survivors. This of course meant that U-69 could have sunk her too -- but Lt. Cuthbert correctly guessed that the sub was not hunting in the area any more. As it turns out, it was staying down -- because it can't hear the Grandmere's ASDIC! (How, p. 97).
Around 6:00, as it grew light, the Royal Canadian Air Force sent out a plane to search for survivors (How, p. 98); sadly, the plane and ship seem to have had trouble communicating (How, p. 100). Another plane, and four navy ships, joined them later (How, p. 106). But most of the rescues were done by the Grandmere, which picked up its first survivors around 6:30 (How, p. 99). At about the same time, small craft started to set out from Port aux Basques despite the worsening seas (How, p. 101). The town prepared a makeshift hospital for the survivors that were expected shortly (How, p. 103) -- although the Navy, being the Navy, ordered the Grandmere to make for Sydney rather than nearby Port aux Basques. (Given that Port aux Basques didn't have electricity or running water at that time -- Greenfield, p. 191 -- that may have been for the best.) The authorities also try to keep the whole thing quiet -- but it seems that everyone knew (How, p. 110-111). It could hardly be kept secret at Port aux Basques, since bodies start to arrive there on the following evening (How, pp. 113-115).
There is some uncertainty as to how many were aboard; Galgay/McCathy, p. 63, says 237, but most of the other writers give totals that add up to 240 (plus or minus one).
The total losses are listed as 136 by How; Galgay/McCarthy, p. 66, Greenfield, p. 182, and Ryan/Drake, p. 43, say 137 were lost. There were 103 or 104 survivors (How, p. 107; the discrepancy in the number of survivors is unexplained; Galgay/McCarthy, p. 66, says that the Grandmere rescued 103 but that two died after rescue, which again shows how confused the records were). The casualty rate among women was higher than among men; only eight of 26 survived, and most of them needed hospitalization (How, p. 107). Only one of eleven children survived (How, p. 110). Just 15 of the Caribou's crew of 46 survived; the captain and his three senior officers were all dead (How, p. 109). It is said to be the worst single loss Newfoundland would suffer in the entire war. The port of Channel suffered the highest losses -- 16 men and one woman (Greenfield, p. 182). Given that the area was reported to have only about two thousand people (Greenfield, p. 191), meaning that it lost about 1% of its population! Supposedly there were 21 widows and 51 orphans in the area (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 66).
Greenfield, pp. 242-247, has a list of all people killed in the Battle of the St. Lawrence, including on pp. 244-246 a list of those lost on the Caribou. Deaths on the Caribou represented almost exactly half the losses on all ships in 1942, and almost all the true non-combatants.
Two days after the disaster, Ottawa finally admitted the story -- and, of course, broadcasts it as an atrocity, an unprovoked attack on civilians (How, pp. 116-117). It should be repeated that, although civilians died, the Allies often used passenger ships like the Caribou for munitions and even as troop transports. The Caribou herself had been so used, and she was escorted by a navy ship (How, p. 126). She was clearly, by the doctrine of the time, a legitimate target.
There were multiple inquests, one made by the authorities at once and two later, after the public outcry -- two of them largely in the hands of one Captain Dalton (How, p. 127). Dalton's first report, which was frankly done much too quickly, accepted some of the atrocity stories; the second was more cautious and gave the Grandmere more credit, although it sounds as if only the report by the Canadian naval forces really gave her her due (How, p. 128).
The Caribou story became a rallying cry for Canada in World War II (with exaggerations and falsehoods, naturally, such as a claim that the U-boat had rammed and/or machine gunned a lifeboat; How, p. 119). This is twice ironic -- ironic first because Newfoundland, which bore the largest share of the cost, was not yet part of Canada; and second because the Caribou was the last ship the Germans sank in Canadian waters in 1942 (How, p. 122), so Canada was no longer under threat after she went down. The Canadian navy did change some of its doctrines (How, p. 133), but with the U-boats going elsewhere, we don't really know if this made any difference.
U-69 and its skipper Graf was sunk with all hands by the Viscount on February 17, 1943 (How, p. 124). It was not until 1985 that her log was examined in detail and it became clear that she had seen both the Caribou and the Grandmere -- reducing but not entirely eliminating the bitterness among Canadians who remembered the sinking (How, p. 146).
In 1986, when a new ship took over the Sydney/Channel run, it was decided to name her the Caribou, and a survivor dropped a wreath near the site of the wreck (Galgay/McCarthy, p. 68).
There are photos of the Caribou and the Grandmere facing p. 76 of How; a plan of the U-69 follows, then photos of Captain Taverner and his sons, of Lieutenant Cuthbert, and others from both ships. Greenfield, in the photo insert preceding p. 131; Ryan/Drake, p. 43; and Neary/O'Flaherty, p. 146 also have pictures of the Caribou; O'Neill, p. 951, shows a memorial card (?) which shows not only the ship but her captain and thirty of her passengers and crew. Galgay/McCarthy, p. 62, shows the Caribou being launched, and p. 66 shows her at sea.
The song as printed by Guigne is mostly historically accurate (not too surprising, given that it was collected just nine years after the event). The Caribou was lost on October 14, to a torpedo, in the early morning. The song says there were fourteen children on the ship, whereas How gives the number as eleven, but that depends on just how you define children. The song correctly lists the captain and two sons among the casualties, although I don't recall any of the printed accounts mentioning their bodies being found. And the recriminations shows just how important the ship was (or, at least, came to be) for Newfoundlanders. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Galgay/McCarthy: Frank Galgay and Michael McCarthy, Shipwrecks of Newfoundland and Labrador, [Volume I], Harry Cuff Publishing, 1987
- Greenfield: Nathan M. Greenfield, The Battle of the St. Lawrence: The Second World War in Canada, HarperCollins, 2004
- Hanrahan: Maura Hanrahan, The Alphabet Fleet, Flankers Press Ltd., 2007
- How: Douglas How, Night of the Caribou, Lancelot Press, 1988
- Feltham: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- Jane's-WWII: Jane's Fighting Ships of World War II (1946; I use the 1989 Crescent Books reprint with modern foreword by Anthony Preston)
- Neary/O'Flaherty: Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty, Part of the Main: An Illustrated History of Newfoundland and Labrador, Breakwater Books, 1983
- O'Neill: Paul O'Neill, A Seaport Legacy: The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland, Press Procepic, 1976
- Ryan/Drake: Shannon Ryan, assisted by Martha Drake, Seals and Sealers: A Pictorial History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery, Breakwater Books, 1987
- Worth: Richard Worth, Fleets of World War II, Da Capo, 2001
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