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Enemies in our Waters!

For the week of Monday September 20, 2010

On September 25, 1942, air force pilot M.J. Bélanger made his first attack on a German submarine that had entered the St. Lawrence River. Bélanger’s attack was part of the larger Battle of the St. Lawrence, which began when hostile German submarines entered Canadian waters.

Labourers working on a corvette.
© National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada
The darkest year of the Battle of the St. Lawrence was undoubtedly 1942. Canada’s air and navy defences were not nearly as well trained or equipped as the skilled German submarines, resulting in many tragedies. One German submarine, U-69, travelled within 300 kilometres of Québec City and sank a freighter, killing 11 people. The same submarine then went on to cause more damage when it sank the civilian ferry Caribou in the Cabot Strait. A joint Canadian air-sea operation was able to rescue some survivors, but many innocents died in the attack. The success of German submarines, such as U-69, demonstrated how vulnerable Canada was to seaward attacks. Many Canadians came to realize that the Second World War would not only affect Europe, but Canada as well.

The year 1942 was not completely devoid of successes, however. The Royal Canadian Air Force 113 Squadron was established in New Brunswick to train pilots for combat against submarines. M.J Bélanger was one of these pilots. Although Bélanger’s first attack on September 25 had failed to sink a German submarine, he had a second chance to attack on September 29. That day he fired twice and inflicted heavy damage on the submarine. Bélanger was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his determination.

A finished corvette (H.M.C.S. Halifax).
© Ken Macpherson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-145502

Canada learned its lessons from the 1942 campaign and German submarines would never enjoy the same level of success again. Corvettes, a type of ship designed to combat submarines, became increasingly important in Canada’s strategy to protect its waters. Corvettes were easy to manoeuvre and designed to sustain North America’s diverse climate. They also began to escort civilian ships, ensuring the Caribou tragedy was never repeated. Advanced sensing devices and more experienced sailors were also two improvements that granted the Canadian navy more success. By 1943, Canada had the skills required to meet Germany’s submarines on an equal level.

In 2000, the Battle of the St. Lawrence was designated a national historic event for bringing the Second World War home to Canadians.

For more information on the 100th anniversary of Canada’s Navy, see past This Week in History stories Sails Away! The Canadian Navy is Born, Canadian Made Commander-in-Chief and Courage, fortitude, and determination: Canada's Merchant Navy. Also visit The Canadian Naval Centennial 1910-2010 web site of National Defence and the Canadian Forces.

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