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N.L. contributions to the Second World War

The men on this merchant ship survived a torpedoe attack during the Second World War. This was the scene as they docked in St. John's, September 1942. — Gerald Milne Moses/ Library and Archives Canada
The men on this merchant ship survived a torpedoe attack during the Second World War. This was the scene as they docked in St. John's, September 1942. — Gerald Milne Moses/ Library and Archives Canada -

By Quentin Holbert

Special to The Compass

Crisp autumn winds blow through November, capturing all within its icy grips. Legions endure, persevering to hallowed grounds across the island.

This week, Remembrance Day will take hold of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador. Different people have different approaches to the day; some attend local memorials; some make pilgrimages to distant battlefields and memorials; some contemplate in silence; and some carry on as they would typically, remembering but carrying on.

For myself I continue with my studies, exploring the stories and experiences of those that lived, died, and endured conflicts spanning history. While Nov. 11th approaches, we can reflect on some of the Newfoundlanders’ stories.

Newfoundland faced significant economic challenges in the late 1930s. The aftermath of the First World War, between the mass loss of life and substantial financial expenditure, directly resulted in severe economic difficulties in many rural communities.

These issues compounded with the Great Depression in 1929 and, by 1932, the island was bankrupt. Great Britain assumed administrative control of the island by 1934, and this authority was codified when World War II erupted in 1939.

The American naval and army base in Argentia, crica 1943. — Archives and Special Collections, QEII Library
The American naval and army base in Argentia, crica 1943. — Archives and Special Collections, QEII Library

The Great War Veterans Association, mainly to popular acclaim across Newfoundland, pledged full support for the British government during this second global conflict. The financial problems of the province meant that Newfoundland could not raise its independent regiment like during the First World War, but Newfoundlanders still found ways to help.

Newfoundland itself became a military base; as the front line against potential German expansion into North America. The Canadian and American militaries constructed airfields across the island and used the island as a final outpost before convoys crossed the perilous Atlantic, which U-Boats prowled for their prey. These bases have had multiple impacts: several vital facilities developed across the Island and some, including the airport in Deer Lake, are currently in civilian use. There was a considerable influx of labour, although one negative was that Newfoundlanders were frequently paid less than their Canadian and American counterparts. American and Canadian culture exploded in St. John’s, which has had an enormous impact with linking Newfoundland to continental North America.

Some people were dislocated for the construction of these bases. For many young women there was an influx in viable suitors; like all courtships, the results varied widely from immeasurable happiness to despair.

Soldiers and supplies still needed to reach Britain. To do so, they had to cross the Atlantic Ocean, which during 1942 and 1943 was at its deadliest. The Merchant Marines, under the protection of massive convoys, ensured that these essential resources reached Britain. Approximately 10,000 Newfoundlanders volunteered for the Merchant Marines with an estimated 333 killed in action.

The S.S. Caribou was torpedoed off the southwest coast of Newfoundland in 1942. 137 people were killed.
The S.S. Caribou was torpedoed off the southwest coast of Newfoundland in 1942. 137 people were killed.

Even in scenarios with no direct service, Newfoundlanders still experienced war on the sea. On Feb. 18, 1942, the USS Truxton (DD-229) and the USS Pollux (AKS-2) capsized at Chambers Cove and Lawn Point respectively with 203 dead. The SS Caribou, a Newfoundland passenger ferry that ran between Nova Scotia and Port a Basque, also sunk in while traversing the Cabot Strait in October 1942. This U-Boat attack directly resulted in 137 deaths and a chilling reminder of how close war was.

Newfoundlanders did serve overseas in Canadian and British regiments. Approximately 1,160 men enlisted in the Canadian armed forces, and at least 500 women in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. Enlistment in the British forces resulted in two distinct units: the 57th and 59th Heavy Regiments.

The 57th regiment was initially stationed in England in case of a German invasion. When this risk was abated mainly by 1941-1942, which was when large-scale aerial attacks on England ended, the 57th was converted into the 166th field regiment and redeployed for later combat in Italy.

The 59th was deployed in North Africa against the Afrika Korps in 1941 and 1942, and in North-West Europe in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium from the spring of 1944 onwards.

Finally, there were the noncombatants that served the armed forces. The Newfoundland Forestry Corps encompassed 3,600 men that were essential for providing much-required wood to the British and Canadian militaries. There were also several hundred Newfoundlanders that worked as mechanics and labourers on British airfields, providing critical service to the British Royal Air Force.

Memory is not the same for everyone, and different people remember events and individuals differently. Communities forge their memories together, usually in Newfoundland Labrador on July 1st and Nov. 11th, and share their histories and share stories.

This November, think about the stories you have heard. Are they of heroism or sacrifice? Are they of grand importance or useless wastes? Somewhere in between the two extremes? When the wild winds blow through your homes on Saturday, there may be a whisper of a story that you have never heard before. Listen.

Quentin Holbert, originally from Hants Harbour, is currently completing a masters degree in history at the University of Calgary.

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