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When submarines prowled Pictou Harbour – Part 1

Princess Juliana of the Netherlands reception with the Dutch Submarine O 15 crew at Pictou Lodge.
Princess Juliana of the Netherlands reception with the Dutch Submarine O 15 crew at Pictou Lodge. - Submitted

Past Times by John Ashton

During the Second World War, the Port of Pictou became a crucial cog in the effort to defeat Nazi Germany. Many stories abound of the great activities in Pictou Harbour during this time in our history. This account involves stealth manoeuvres, a Princess, a Hollywood movie filmed in Pictou and a German U-Boat in Pictou Harbour.

On Sept. 3, 1939, and just 10 hours after Britain declared war on Germany, the British passenger ship SS Athenia was torpedoed by U-Boat 30 off the coast of Ireland with a loss of 112 lives among her 1,418 passengers and crew. The U-Boat captain had mistaken the liner for a warship. This would be the first ship causality in the six-year Battle of the Atlantic.

Germany’s submarine effort would cause great grief and destruction “and their subs missed no opportunity to attack shipping so vital to Europe’s economic survival.” This Battle of the Atlantic was called “one of the fiercest – and in many ways the most crucial – of all armed confrontations of World War 2.” Before the war, Britain and her Allies thought that the U-Boat threat “would never become a significant force in any future war” with Germany and it would be a “manageable problem.” However, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a gut feeling and stated, “The only thing that ever frightened me during the war was the U-Boat peril.”

The terrible cost of ships attacked or sunk, and lives lost by the German U-Boats over the course of the war was staggering. For the first four months of 1939, an estimated 165 Allied vessels descended to the deep crossing the Atlantic. This catastrophe became a crisis and the Allies were “ill-prepared for the U-Boat onslaught that Nazi Germany unleashed during the first three years of the war.” By war’s end the Battle of the Atlantic would claim some 36,200 sailors, 36,000 merchant seamen, 3,500 merchant vessels and 175 warships. Early in the war the German command changed their attack strategy by forming the dreaded “Wolf Pack,” where they could employ mass-attack manoeuvres against convoys.

Efforts to bolster the Canadian Navy were ramped up during the early stages of the war, with help from the American’s 50 overage destroyers given to Canada in exchange for leases on British bases in the Western Hemisphere. And in the “last months of 1940, 14 small, half-equipped, sketchily manned, steel Canadian-made warships passed down the St. Lawrence River.” The famed corvettes began their journey and their legendary history.

Canada produced well over 100 of these vessels. Winston Churchill called them “cheap but nasty,” because they could be built inexpensively with relatively no experience in naval construction. The corvette was called Canada’s “signature vessel.” These ships were “designed along the lines of a whale catcher for coastal duty.” The corvettes were pressed into service as “mid-ocean escorts in the vital role of keeping open the Atlantic lifeline by protecting the convoys of merchant vessels that transported vital war supplies and food to the United Kingdom.” This huge convoy effort came under the command of Granton, Pictou County-born Rear Admiral Leonard W Murray. The Canadians constructed two versions, both being 62.5M, or 209' long, 10M (33') wide, a displacement of 950 tons, able to carry a 70-man crew at 16 knots max, which was still good enough to catch the U-boats. Depth charges were the main weapon, but overall, they were lightly armed.

The new corvettes and minesweeper fleets needed seaport bases, and most were stationed at the larger harbours in Halifax, Sydney, St John’s, N.L., and other smaller centres, including the Port of Pictou. The corvettes and crews also needed quick training on how to detect and fight the U-Boat threat. Anti-Submarine Training Schools (AST) were established in the ports of Halifax, St John’s, Digby, Bermuda and Pictou in the war years. Although the Pictou AST was moved back to Halifax during the winter months for safety purposes.

In the spring of 1941 activity began in the Town of Pictou to set up an AST School. By August, Lieut. Bob Welland was in charge and he reported, “my first thought was to meet the mayor of Pictou, John F. MacDonald, who helped him secure accommodations at the Braeside Inn and find work space for his staff.” Headquarters would be located at the old Fogo House (Pictou Golf Course) where it was used as a command centre and a signal station. Each naval trainee would go through one week’s training and Lieut. Welland exclaimed “It should be for a year. Pictou was a fine place; their cooperation was exhausting. My recently acquired knowledge of Scottish reels and dog-nosed fights fitted right into Saturday nights in the town.”

While in Pictou the Royal Canadian Navy carried out engineering, gunnery, seamanship and Asdic (Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) training. The Asdic system located underwater objects by transmitting an acoustical pulse of energy, then listening for any echoes returned from that object.

A gratifying plus for the training in Pictou Harbour and Northumberland Strait was the seconding of the Dutch Sub O15 in the summer of 1941 and “O15 became the first submarine to serve in the RCN in WW2.” While based in Pictou the Dutch crew was visited by Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, and a “tea” reception was held at the Pictou Lodge where everything except tea was served. The Dutch sub eventually returned to Halifax and in 1942 made the Atlantic crossing and resumed naval duties on the European coast.

With O15’s soon departure, demands were made to secure more training submarines on the East Coast. The United States offered to loan 18 1920s-vintage subs until the war’s end. The Port of Pictou would benefit from the American kindness in the summer of 1942; the renamed RN P512 and RN P553 subs arrived for duty and to “offer escort ships a tame submarine and safe harbor to hone their anti-submarine hunting skills.”

In Julie H. Ferguson’s fascinating book, Through a Canadian Periscope: The Story of the Canadian Submarine Service (1995), several pages are dedicated to the submarines and crews based in Pictou during the war.

Through a Canadian Periscope offers a colourful and thoroughly researched account of Canada's silent service. After describing the activities of the submarine service during and after World War I, author Julie Ferguson details the careers of the Canadians who served with distinction in British submarines in all theatres of World War II, as well as the British submarines lent to the RCN to train their crews and escort groups.

This vivid account celebrates the individuals who dedicated and in some instances, gave their lives to Canada's submarine service”.

Next Past Times: Hollywood War Movie Filmed in Pictou – Part 2

Historical Research Sources

Through a Canadian Periscope: The Story of the Canadian Submarine Service, Julie H. Ferguson

Roger Litwiller, Canadian Naval Historian,

Beth Henderson, Pictou Historical Photo Society

Teresa MacKenzie, McCulloch Heritage Centre

David Burrell, Pictou

Raymond Gregory, Pictou

Pictou Advocate Oct. 7, 2009 – Steve Goodwin

North Atlantic Run, Marc Milner

The Canadian Submarine, J. David Perkins

The Canadian at War 1939/45, Vol. 1 Readers Digest

Corvettes Canada: Convoy Veterans of WWII Tell Their True Stories

The Naval Service of Canada, Gilbert Tucker
Mobilize!: Why Canada Was Unprepared for the Second World War, by Larry D. Rose

John Ashton is a self-employed historical author, visual/graphic artist and lives in Bridgeville, Pictou County.

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