Sixty-eight years ago this month, a German submarine torpedoed the SS Caribou, a ferry travelling from Canada to Newfoundland. Within five minutes, the ferry sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. Margaret Brooke valiantly tried to save her friend Agnes Wilkie, who became the only Canadian nursing sister to die from enemy action in World War Two.
Our Ferry Ride to Newfoundland
By Elinor Florence
The SS Caribou was very much on my mind in June 2016, when we took our first trip to Newfoundland. Our newest province (part of Canada since 1949) is a LONG way from the mainland. Getting there isn’t like hopping on a ferry that takes you from the West Coast to Vancouver Island in less than two hours.
There are two ferries to Newfoundland: the shortest route (178 kilometres) goes from North Sydney to Port aux Basques and takes eight hours (no guarantees, as this depends on the weather); and the longest route (520 kilometres) goes from North Sydney to Argentia just three times a week during the summer, and takes about sixteen hours.
There’s not much in Argentia except a ferry terminal, and it’s still a 90-minute drive to the capital city of St. John’s. But we decided to be adventurous and take the long route. Our ferry was perfectly comfortable, with a lounge and a restaurant, and we slept in a tiny cabin with twin beds.
However, there was nothing to see from our porthole except the heaving Atlantic. We couldn’t even tell where the gray sea met the gray sky.
As I gazed out of this porthole, my thoughts kept turning to what happened to the SS Caribou on that fateful night of October 13, 1942.
Stumbling Across the Real Story
Typically, we Canadians don’t know much about our own history. So it wasn’t until I visited my childhood home in Saskatchewan in August 2016 that I unearthed an old Reader’s Digest from October 1992, with a 24-page book excerpt called “Last Night of the Caribou,” and learned all the gory details.
I was delighted to find it, since I know from personal experience — I wrote for Reader’s Digest myself, from 1996 to 2004 — that the magazine is scrupulous when it comes to fact-checking, a process that is sadly lacking in today’s internet age. Unfortunately, old Reader’s Digest articles are not available online.
Following is a condensed version of the condensed version.
The Fateful Night
On the evening of October 13, 1942, passengers boarded the ferry headed for Port aux Basques. Back then, it was the only ferry to Newfoundland.
The Dominion of Newfoundland wasn’t even part of Canada at the time – but because the war was raging, it was the most highly-militarized place in North America, filled with armed forces personnel from Canada, Great Britain, and the United States.
Of the 192 passengers, 118 were in uniform representing all three branches of the armed forces, including Royal Canadian Navy Sub-Lieutenant Margaret Brooke, who came from a farm near Ardath, Saskatchewan; aged 27; and her close friend Sub-Lieutenant Agnes Wilkie from Carman, Manitoba, aged 42.
After a two-week leave, the two nurses were returning to their duties at the Canadian naval hospital in St. John’s. They had travelled together on the train all the way from Winnipeg.
The passengers composed themselves for the night aboard the SS Caribou, shown here in this colour postcard from the Maritime History Archives.
The Caribou was a respected veteran herself. Built in Holland in 1925, she was the subject of this Newfoundland stamp, advertising a nine-hour crossing between Canada and Newfoundland.
The ferry had an experienced captain, James Taverner, shown here looking over the rail with a pipe in his hand. In the Newfoundland tradition, two of his sons also worked the ferry line, Stanley Taverner as First Mate and Harold Taverner as Third Mate.
Little did the passengers or crew know that somewhere in the coastal waters, a German submarine, U-69, was lurking. It had come out of the St. Lawrence River and surfaced in the darkness, searching for targets.
And it found one. The SS Caribou was only about 40 kilometres from Port aux Basques when the submarine’s torpedo found its mark.
At 3:24 a.m. the passengers were mostly asleep when the torpedo struck. This was no Titanic, where the passengers had time to sing hymns and prepare for their doom. The Caribou’s boilers exploded, her decks listed, and within five minutes she had sunk below the waves, down to her watery grave 1,500 feet below the surface.
During that five minutes, there was a scene of absolute madness and mayhem. The lights went out and the ferry sank in darkness. Many of those who made it onto the deck weren’t wearing their lifejackets. Only two of the six lifeboats, and about a dozen rafts, made it into the ocean.
People were throwing themselves off the deck, sixteen feet above the icy waves. One woman threw her baby overboard and then jumped after it. Another baby named Leonard Shiers was ripped from his mother’s arms by the force of an explosion and both were hurled into the sea.
Margaret Brooke’s Account
Margaret Brooke later described her shipmates as “one terrified mob.”
“When the torpedo struck I was thrown across the room right on top of Agnes. I knew what had happened, but for a second couldn’t do anything. She jumped up and grabbed the flashlight and climbed up for our life belts,” she wrote in a letter sent home to her brother, Hewett, shortly after the event.
She and Agnes didn’t even make it onto the deck. They forced open their jammed cabin door just as the deck fell away beneath them and they were washed into the sea.
“We were sucked under with her. How we got away from her, I don’t know, but we clung together somehow all the time we were under and when we finally reached the surface, we managed to grab a piece of wreckage and cling to that,” she wrote.
A few minutes later, an overturned lifeboat floated by and the two nurses joined about a dozen other people, clinging to ropes hanging from the sides of the lifeboat.
To protect the ferry, the Royal Canadian Navy had assigned a minesweeper called the Grandmere, which was following in the darkness a short distance behind the Caribou.
But in the case of an attack, the captain of the Grandmere had strict orders to pursue the submarine rather than pick up the stranded passengers.
Reluctantly, the Grandmere gave chase to the submarine while the survivors tried to stay alive. When I picture this horrific scene, all I can remember is this shot from the movie Titanic.
The Fate of the Passengers
It wasn’t long before the frigid water brought on hypothermia.
By 5 a.m., the survivors in the water began to die.
Agnes Wilkie was a petite, slender woman who was racked with cramps. Eventually she passed out and let go of the rope attached to the overturned lifeboat, but Margaret Brooke hauled her unconscious body back, holding onto the rope with one hand and Agnes with the other.
Finally, a half-frozen Margaret could hold onto her friend no longer.
“I did manage to hold her until daybreak, but then a wave pulled her right away from me. She didn’t suffer, but it was so terrible to see her go.”
It wasn’t until 6:30 a.m. in the early morning light that the Grandmere gave up the search for the submarine and began to pick up the survivors in the choppy water, searching for them among the floating dead bodies and debris.
Some of Grandmere’s crew members jumped into the freezing water to assist the exhausted survivors. Two people died even after being dragged on board. Baby Leonard’s mother, who was three months’ pregnant, was rescued in a state of shock, hallucinating.
Just four people were still clinging to the overturned lifeboat, Margaret and three men. The others had all perished.
Only 15 of the 46 crew members survived, and among the dead crew members were five pairs of brothers. In the tight-knit coastal communities of Port aux Basques and Channel, 21 women were widowed and 51 children left fatherless.
Also among the dead were the ferry’s long-time Captain James Taverner, his son Stanley and his son Harold.
Only 101 of the 237 passengers survived the ordeal.
But a small miracle occurred. One of the eleven children on board survived – baby Leonard.
His long white flannel nightgown filled with water and kept him afloat long enough to be snatched up by a man named Ralph Rogers, swimming nearby. Ralph made it onto a life raft and tucked Leonard inside his coat.
After they were rescued, Ralph found Leonard’s mother among the survivors and handed her the baby while she sobbed with relief. This is a photo of Ralph Rogers with baby Leonard.
A public inquiry into the sinking found that nobody was at fault, but the navy eliminated night sailings, mainly so that if a boat was torpedoed, rescue operations could take place in daylight.
Throughout the war, German U-boats haunted the east coast and penetrated the St. Lawrence River, sinking several Canadian ships. The loss of the SS Caribou is considered the worst inshore disaster of the naval war.
On February 17, 1943, the German submarine that sank the Caribou was attacking a convoy in the North Atlantic. She was forced to the surface by depth charges, and then rammed by the destroyer HMS Fame and sunk. None of her 46 crew members survived.
Agnes Wilkie became the only nurse in all three services – navy, air force and army – killed by enemy action in the Second World War.
A native of Carman, Manitoba, she had volunteered for service while working as a nurse at the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg. As a naval nurse, she was serving in St. John’s, Newfoundland, at the time of her death.
Margaret Brooke Honoured
Margaret Brooke was born April 10, 1915, in Ardath, Sask., and grew up on a farm. When she was 18, she and her brother Hewitt left to attend the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, where Margaret earned a bachelor’s degree in household science; and her brother a medical degree. She went to work as a dietitian at the Ottawa Civic Hospital.
When the war broke out, she enlisted in the navy, and was made a nursing sister, with the rank of sub-lieutenant, the entry-level naval officer rank. Her brother enlisted as a doctor and served on the HMCS Skeena, ending the war as a lieutenant-commander.
After the sinking of the Caribou, Margaret worked in naval hospitals in Newfoundland and elsewhere for the rest of the war.
For her heroism, she was made a military Member of the Order of the British Empire, a rare honour. The citation reads: “For gallantry and courage. After the sinking of the Newfoundland Ferry S.S. Caribou, this Officer displayed great courage whilst in the water in attempting to save the life of another Nursing Sister.”
After the war, Margaret stayed in the navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant-commander, the equivalent of major, before retiring in 1962. She returned to the University of Saskatchewan where she studied paleontology, eventually earning a PhD.
In 1986 she retired and moved to Victoria, where she had once been stationed as a naval officer. She never married, and lived on her own until she was ninety-seven years old.
In April 2015, the Royal Canadian Navy announced it would name one of its six new Arctic patrol vessels the HMCS Margaret Brooke, in her honour.
“Lieutenant-Commander Brooke was a true Canadian naval hero,” said Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy.
It is the first time a Canadian ship will be named for a woman, and the first time a living person was named. All six of the new vessels are to be named after Canadians who served in the navy.
“I’ve been astounded,” she said in a newspaper interview. “The navy doesn’t just go around naming its ships after people!”
This is a more recent photo of Margaret Brooke. She did not live to see the ship that will bear her name, since she died in January of this year, at the age of 100.
The HMCS Margaret Brooke, an Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) shown below in this illustration, is now under construction.
We can only hope that Margaret Brooke’s name will resound through history, a permanent reminder of the bravery of our Canadian veterans.
Rest in Peace, Margaret Brooke.
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. This image dated February 1, 1941, shows a German sub much like the U-69 being sent to her death. To see my collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.