German U-Boat Attacks At Bell Island (1942) National Historic Event
The German U-Boat attacks at Bell Island in 1942 were designated a national historic event in 2019.
Historical importance: Commemoration of the attacks by German U-Boat at Bell Island during the Second World War.
Commemorative plaque: Bell Island Seaman's Memorial, Lance Cove Beach, Bell Island, Newfoundland and LabradorFootnote 1
During the Second World War, this island was the target of two deadly torpedo strikes by U boats. U 513 and U 518 disrupted the supply of iron ore to Canadian and British steel mills by targeting this strategically significant mining and shipping centre, which was vital to the war effort. The 1942 attacks resulted in damage to the Scotia pier, the sinking of four ships, and the deaths of Allied sailors, bringing the war home to Newfoundlanders. In the weeks that followed, the governments of Newfoundland and Canada worked together to install anti-torpedo nets around the ore-loading piers and increase patrols in Conception Bay.
The German U-Boat attacks at Bell Island (1942)
During the Second World War, Newfoundland’s Bell Island, a strategically vital iron-ore shipping centre in Conception Bay, was targeted by German U-boats seeking to disrupt the supply of iron ore to Canadian and British steel mills. In September and November 1942, German U-boats attacked ships in Bell Island’s anchorage, sinking four merchant ships, killing nearly 70 Allied sailors, and heavily damaging Scotia Pier. The soldiers and civilians of Bell Island cared for the survivors and buried the dead in what were the largest funerals in the island’s history. The deadly attacks spurred the Canadian and Newfoundland militaries to increase patrols and construct anti-torpedo 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 and during the Second World War were an integral part of Canada’s military-industrial war effort, accounting for more than one-third of Canada’s steel production. Their strategic value and vulnerability to attack from the sea was quickly recognized by the Newfoundland and Canadian governments. Two 4.7-inch guns and two searchlights in the nearby cliffs were installed and initially manned by Royal Canadian Artillery personnel until the Newfoundland Militia’s 1st Coastal Defence Battery took over in August 1940.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Nazi Germany sent U-boats into the North Atlantic to destroy the supply line between North America and Great Britain by attacking merchant ship convoys. For Bell Islanders, the campaign struck its greatest blows in 1942. On 5 September, two ships anchored 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 anchorage and the Newfoundland Militia’s shore battery, U-513 sailed away unscathed.
Even with an increase in naval strength around Bell Island, German U-boats attacked again two months later. In the early morning of 2 November, U-518 fired a torpedo at Anna T, a 3000-ton coal boat anchored off Scotia Pier. The torpedo missed its target and struck the pier, causing more than $30,000 in damage (around $475,000 in 2021) and shattering windows on the island. U-518 then fired two torpedoes at SS Rose Castle and sank The Free French vessel PLM 27 before escaping.
In addition to engulfing four merchant ships, the German U-Boat attacks killed nearly 70 men and destroyed thousands of tons of valuable iron ore, much of which sank to the bottom of the ocean. Some said that the sound of the explosions could be heard as far away as St. John’s, bringing the war home to Newfoundlanders. The 1942 attacks continue to resonate today as the subject of books, articles, and television documentaries, as well as attracting the interest of divers exploring the sunken iron-ore vessels that are still visible on a clear day.
Other national historic designations associated with this one:
The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.