Four men hold up a large piece of a torpedo after the German U-boat attacks.
German U-Boat Attacks at Bell Island
© Lt Gerald M. Moses, Canada. Dept. of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, PA-188854.

During the Second World War, Newfoundland’s Bell Island, a strategically vital iron-ore processing and shipping centre in Conception Bay, was targeted by German U-boats seeking to disrupt the supply of iron ore to Canada’s steel mills. In September and November 1942, ships in Bell Island’s harbour and Scotia Pier itself were attacked by German U-boats, with the sinking of four merchant ships, the loss of 70 men, and the destruction of the pier. The soldiers and civilians of Bell Island cared for the survivors and buried the dead from the U-boat attacks. The funerals were the largest in the history of Bell Island, and the deadly attacks spurred the Canadian and Newfoundland governments to construct anti-submarine nets at Conception Bay in December 1942.

For much of the 20th century, Bell Island was a strategically important site for Newfoundland and Canada. Its iron ore mines were a major supplier for Cape Breton’s steel mills, accounting for more than one-third of Canada’s steel production and an integral part of Canada’s military-industrial war effort. Their strategic value and their vulnerability to attack from the sea was quickly recognized by the two governments. Two 4.7-inch guns and two searchlights in the nearby cliffs were installed and manned by Royal Canadian Artillery personnel until the Newfoundland Militia’s 1st Coastal Defence Battery took over in August 1940.

When the war broke out in 1939, Nazi Germany sent its U-boats into the North Atlantic to destroy the merchant ship convoys supply line between North America and Great Britain. For Bell Islanders, the U-boat anti-merchant terror struck its greatest blows in 1942. On September 5, two ships at anchor in Bell Island and nearby Little Bell Island, SS Saganaga and SS Lord Strathcona, were sunk just before noon by German U-boat U-513. Despite being fired upon by other ships in the harbour and by the Newfoundland Militia’s shore battery, U-513 sailed away from Bell Island intact.

Even with an increase in naval strength around Bell Island, German U-boats attacked Bell Island again two months later. In the early morning of November 2, U-518 fired a torpedo at Anna T, a 3000-ton coal boat anchored off Bell Island’s Scotia Pier. The torpedo missed Anna T and struck the pier, causing more than $30,000 in damage (a considerable sum in 1942) and shattering windows on the island. U-518 then fired two torpedoes at SS Rose Castle and also sank The Free French vessel PLM 27 before escaping.

In addition to engulfing four merchant ships, the German U-Boat attacks killed 70 men and thousands of tons of valuable iron ore sank to the bottom of Bell Island’s harbour. In the aftermath of these tragic events, the doctors, nurses, and ordinary civilians of Bell Island cared for the survivors. The 1942 attacks continue to resonate today, generating books, articles, and television documentaries, as well as the interest of sports divers seeking to explore the sunken iron-ore vessels that are still visible on a clear day.