The Bell Island wrecks off Conception Bay, Newfoundland are my favourite dive sites.
SS Saganaga & SS Lord Strathcona
September 5, 1942. It was a beautiful fall morning in Conception Bay with clear skies and mirror calm seas, probably much like the conditions I experienced during the first week of July in 2006, some 64 years later.
Beneath the calm surface of the sea, however, U-513 lay in 80 feet of water. Her captain, Rolf Ruggeberg, was eagerly awaiting his first kill.
SS Saganaga, fully loaded with 8,800 tons of Bell Island iron ore, anchored in wait off Little Bell Island for a convoy to escort her to the smelters in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The 48 crew members were enjoying a quiet Saturday; some had even launched a boat to try their luck at catching a cod dinner.
Saganaga wasn’t alone. SS Lord Strathcona and Evelyn B were also anchored nearby. Strathcona was loaded with iron ore, awaiting escort to Nova Scotia while Evelyn was waiting her turn to unload her cargo of coal.
Across the sheltered channel between Little Bell Island and Bell Island, SS Rosecastle and the Free French ship PLM 27 (Paris-Lyon-Marseilles) also lay at anchor. Like Saganaga and Strathcona, Rosecastle and PLM were also Nova Scotia bound. Rosecastle was being loaded with ore, while PLM was already loaded and ready for her voyage west. They would escape the fates of Strathcona and Saganaga that September day.
Torpedoes Strike SS Saganaga
11:07 am Atlantic Daylight Time. William Henderson, Chief Engineer of the Lord Strathcona, hears a sickening sound of explosion as the first torpedo hit the Saganaga about midship on the port side, tearing her in two. In less time than it takes to say Saganaga, Henderson reports that “a second torpedo literally blew the Saganaga to pieces. Debris and iron ore was thrown up about 300 feet and, before the last of it had fallen back into the water, the Saganaga had disappeared.” With 8,800 tons of iron ore on board, Saganaga landed upright on the bottom of the North Atlantic in 15 seconds.
Quickly recovering from the shock of the attack, Henderson gave the order to abandon Strathcona, knowing she faced the same peril. All 45 crew members got off in 2 lifeboats, then attempted to rescue the survivors from Saganaga. Most of the rescue efforts, however, came from the men of Lance Cove. For 30 of the Saganaga crew, September 5 was their last sunrise.
In the days immediately following, morbid curiosity would drive local boy Lloyd Rees and his friends to row out to the wreck. She lay in such shallow depths in water with such good visibility that they were able to look down on her and still see the spread-eagled body of a sailor with an arm pinned on the deck.
Torpedoes Strike SS Strathcona
11:30 am. While efforts were underway to rescue the Saganaga survivors, the crew of Strathcona would witness 2 torpedo strikes against their abandoned ship. Strathcona sank within a minute and a half, but not before U-513’s inexperienced crew accidentally rammed into her stern as it manoevred for attacks, damaging its conning tower in the process.
I enjoyed diving the Strathcona tremendously. Subconsciously, I think, part of it was due to the fact that no lives were lost in her sinking. She’s beautifully decorated with anemones and populated by cod, conners, lumpfish, sculpin, star fish, and various jellyfishes pulsating with their otherworldly inner light. Strathcona’s deck is in about 75 feet of water; the day we dove her, the sun penetrated 75 feet down and illuminated a large area of the wreckage. In my mind, I will always see Strathcona with her debris strewn deck bathed in the dappling sunlight.
November 2, 1942. U-518 had arrived the previous day in Conception Bay, under cover of darkness. This was her maiden voyage, and her captain, Frederich “the wise guy” Wissmann was in command. His mission: to land a German agent in Canada and to seize every opportunity to attack allied shipping.
In the overnight hours, Wissmann fired his first shot. Fortunately for the Anna T and the Flyingdale, which were tied up at the Scotia Pier on Bell Island, Wissmann missed. The torpedo struck Bell Island instead, bestowing the community with the dubious distinction of being the only one in North America to sustain a U-boat hit during WWII.
Unfortunately, Wissmann’s aim improved. His next 2 shots sent SS Rosecastle 150 feet to the bottom. The impact woke sixteen year old Lloyd Rees. From his bedroom window, he saw what he already knew: that Rosecastle had been hit. Running to his sister’s room to get a better view, he arrived to see bits of Rosecastle still raining down on the surface of the sea. Attacked as they slept, the crew hopefully never knew what hit them. Miraculously, 15 of the 43 on board survived.
PLM 27 goes down
Fresh from the rush of the kill, Wissman next trained U-518’s gun sights on PLM 27.
Short for Paris-Lyon-Marseilles, PLM 27 was a Free French ship which escaped Ruggeberg’s attacks that sank Saganaga and Strathcona two months earlier, saved by the counter-fire from the valiant Evelyn B which was anchored nearby.Wissmann tied off the loose end left by Ruggeberg, firing a single well-aimed shot that dispatched PLM 100 feet to the bottom almost immediately, taking 12 crew members with her.
The shallowest of the 4 wrecks, PLM is the favourite of the fishy kind. What I remember most about her is not that she’s so mangled – her shallow depth exposes her to the worst of the weather, including the icebergs that occasionally scraped by. The PLM I see in my mind’s eye is throbbing with marine life. Truly, the sea has claimed the wreckage. If it’s true that we all came from the sea, then it is fitting perhaps that we return to it.
During one dive on the PLM, near the entrance inside the aft cabin, I see a single half-decayed shoe. I signalled for Norbert to come by with the video camera he was aiming about the wreck. As he swam slowly into the room, the light illuminated a bathtub, along with other detritus of everyday life. As Norbert swam back out of the room, I backed up and noticed another shoe on the deck. It strikes me that these shoes were very large.
Diving Our Canadian Heritage
Many divers I meet gush over diving Scapa Flow in England or Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia, yet when I tell them about the Bell Island wrecks, they go “meh”. I’m not really sure why. I do know that we have a treasure trove of WW2 underwater heritage dives, and before I go spending my money elsewhere, I’ll dive right here at home first.
I’m planning to go back to Newfoundland in the summer of 2012. Who’s in?
Source: Rupprecht de Thomas