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A Nurse at Sea and a Doctor on Land

For the week of Monday, March 6, 2017

On March 9, 1942, Margaret Brooke enrolled in the Royal Canadian Navy as a Nursing Sister Dietitian at the rank of sub-lieutenant, and later became one of Canada’s most prominent palaeontologists. Originally from Ardath, Saskatchewan, Brooke was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for her actions during the sinking of the SS Caribou.

SS Caribou Postage Stamp
© Library and Archives Canada / Philatelic Record / 2255923

During the Second World War, German U-boats operating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence sank 23 ships before Allied forces finally forced them out of Canada’s coastal waters in 1944. It became known as the Battle of the St. Lawrence.

On the evening of October 13, 1942, the passenger ferry SS Caribou left Sydney, Nova Scotia, for Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. Torpedoed at 3:51am, Newfoundland time, the Caribou sank in just five minutes. Brooke and fellow navy Nursing Sister, Sub-Lieutenant Agnes Wilkie, were on board.

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Sub-Lieutenant Margaret Brooke in her dress uniform
© Department of National Defence

The attack destroyed, or damaged many of the ferry’s lifeboats which forced the two friends to jump into the frigid waters. Suffering from hypothermia, Brooke and Wilkie clung to an overturned life-raft along with other survivors. Wilkie lost consciousness and Brooke found herself holding onto the raft with one arm and her friend in the other. It took more than four hours for her to be rescued. Despite her best efforts, Brooke could not save her friend.

Brooke served in the navy until 1962, retiring as a lieutenant-commander. Afterwards she went on to earn a PhD in Paleontology at the University of Saskatchewan, publishing many studies in the field.

On April 10, 2015, Margaret Brooke celebrated her 100th birthday and learned that the Royal Canadian Navy was naming a new ship in her honour, the HMCS Margaret Brooke. The ship is part of the Harry DeWolf class of vessels, which are named for “Canadians who served with the highest distinction and conspicuous gallantry in the navy.”

March 8 is International Women’s Day! To learn more about women in the Canadian Armed Forces, read First Female Major, Making Waves: Women in Uniform, and We’re in the Navy Now! in the This Week in History archive. This year is also the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the St. Lawrence, a designated national historic event. For more information read Enemies in our Waters!

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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