Second World War navy officials wanted U-boat attacks downplayed, but Halifax papers were in a war of their own.
By Mark Bourrie | Excerpt from The Fog of War
HALIFAX WAS Canada’s front-line city, the one town in Canada where no one could forget the war. If people needed a reminder, they could just glance at the harbour, which was usually crammed with Allied warships and with freighters engaged in the dangerous task of keeping Britain supplied with food, oil and weapons. Thousands of recruits to Canada’s navy were crammed into the city, along with merchant sailors, crews from Allied fleets, and war workers. It was one place in Canada where a spy could do serious damage to the Allied war effort.
The federal government, at the urging of the navy, slapped special secrecy and
censorship rules on Halifax to prevent leaks of information. The navy’s attitude was summed up well by one of its officers: “Upon sealed lips depend not only our ships, not only the lives of fighting seamen in our warships, and merchant seamen engaged in holding the lifeline firm, but the success or failure of our arms. Should we lose command of the sea, we cannot hope to win the war.” Word hadn’t filtered down to the often-chatty sailors and soldiers who had nowhere to stay but in crowded rooming houses and barracks. Most of
these young people spent their time on the streets and in beer parlours, easy prey for any Axis spies and inquisitive local reporters.
Maintaining a blackout on ship movements in Halifax was a daunting task: anyone could climb a hill in the city or look out from a high building and watch the convoys, warships, and troop transports, including Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, which were used as troop ships.
Through the war, censors kept a lid on details of U-boat attacks off Canada’s coasts, chopping out the most
interesting details, suppressing them completely or delaying them until they had become old news. This was a daunting challenge in a town with so many mobile, chatty people. Attacks by German U-boats along the Canadian and Newfoundland coasts — like the daylight raids on iron ore docks at Bell Island, near St. John’s, Nfld., killing 68 people — were common knowledge in the Maritimes and Quebec, where some people actually watched the action from shore.
Enemy submarines penetrated the St. Lawrence River within 300 kilometres of Quebec City, making it upstream almost to Rimouski to sink ships within easy sight and sound of people on the south shore of the river. Everyone in Halifax knew German submarines lay in wait just outside the city’s harbour to pick off stragglers from convoys: the hulks of damaged ships were often towed into Halifax, where people could see the holes blasted into them by the U-boats. Rescue ships landed sub attack survivors at communities on the Gaspé, in Charlottetown, Halifax and Sydney. The sailors who had lost their ships usually were talkative with friendly reporters, especially journalists like Eric Dennis of the Halifax Herald, who trolled the waterfront bars.
The government and the navy were not eager to spread the news of U-boat losses off Canada for several reasons. Real-time media reports of submarine attacks allowed the Germans to know if the U-boats had found a convoy. Successful U-boat raids made valuable propaganda for the Germans, while Allied media reports of losses could undermine morale. Canada tried to balance itself between the British Admiralty, which wanted every U-boat story killed, and Washington, which was open about losses. Canadian censors were willing to pass human interest stories on survivors of U-boat attacks as long as they did not give explicit details of shipping losses. People needed to know the war had come to Canada’s shores, chief press censor Wilfrid Eggleston believed. They might become angry enough to do something about it: enlist, buy a war bond or volunteer for an overtime shift.
Halifax censor H. Bruce (Jeff) Jefferson was a crotchety, round, bald, and very smart middle-aged man who could not qualify for military duty in the First World War because his left eye wandered. He was a natural reporter with a keen eye for detail and a remarkable ability to cultivate sources, including Angus Macdonald, who left his job of premier of Nova Scotia to be naval minister in the federal government and still ruled as the region’s political boss. Jefferson bounced around the East Coast newspaper business for nearly three decades before landing his war job. His government job gave him the money to fend off the bill collectors that had been chasing him for years because of a bad investment in a small-town newspaper.
If any enemy spies were serious about prying out the secrets of wartime Halifax, they should have snatched Jefferson. He was insatiably curious and he recorded everything on paper and film. Jefferson took pictures of the ships entering and leaving Halifax harbour, but, to maintain secrecy, he developed the pictures himself, and Jefferson’s collection makes up an important part of the Nova Scotia public archives. He kept a detailed diary of events in the city and managed to find time to write thousands of words to Ottawa giving his opinion on everything that happened in Halifax.
The city’s most important paper, the Halifax Herald, was owned by the Dennis family, and the reporting of one of its members, Eric Dennis, would dominate Jefferson’s censorship workload. Dennis worked the bars and flophouses of Halifax’s dockside, talked his way onto some of the blasted freighters and wrote dozens of stories based on interviews with sailors and passengers who recounted their survivals of U-boat attacks, harrowing escapes from wrecks and long voyages in lifeboats and successful counterattacks against the subs.
There was a strong local demand for this news. The Halifax dailies went into the war locked in a nasty fight for circulation. The Herald combined an aggressive home distribution sales campaign with a ferocious approach to news gathering. After the war, Eric Dennis believed his dominance of the coverage of wartime Halifax shattered the spirit of his competitors at the Chronicle. Certainly, it hurt their business: The Herald’s circulation rose by 55 per cent during the war, while the Chronicle’s stayed flat. After the war, the Chronicle was absorbed by the Herald.
Still, Jefferson actually acted as a buffer between naval authorities who wanted a complete blackout on all action off Canada and the reporters who wanted to mine the deep vein of wartime news in Halifax. Jefferson often tangled with naval intelligence (whose complaints were sometimes called “bleats” in the censors’ correspondence) and Navy Public Relations Officers (PROs) who, Jefferson and his bosses in Ottawa believed, tried to prevent, for political reasons, legitimate press investigations of incompetence, bungling and waste.
Because of censorship and the tight control of information by the navy, the press killed some of the most dramatic local stories of the war. The Canadian public did not know that more than 500 passengers heading to the Goose Bay, Labrador airbase construction site run by the U.S. Air Force barely managed to escape the torpedoed Chatham in the half-hour before she went under in the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador on Aug. 27, 1942. For weeks, the censors killed eyewitness stories that came out of Boston and northern Ontario, spread by construction workers who survived the attack.
On the night of Oct. 14-15, 1942, U-69 sank the Newfoundland to Nova Scotia ferry Caribou in the Cabot Strait, killing 137 people. In the early hours of the next morning, Jefferson was told of the attack by a Halifax army public relations officer. Ottawa censor Warren Baldwin was in town helping Jefferson deal with the U-boat attack stories coming out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and neither man got much sleep. Baldwin was awakened by a reporter from the Halifax Herald who demanded permission to contact the relatives of the Caribou victims.
Despite being warned off the story until the next of kin had been officially notified, the Herald pressed on. At 9:30, cable censors reported the Herald was trying to get telegrams through to the families of casualties in the Kentville district. Those telegrams were stopped, so the Herald’s switchboard began placing long-distance calls. The local newspapers created a code name for the attack, “swim meet,” and cobbled together a rough list of the people who had drowned.
The first day’s coverage in the Halifax Herald was just a bare-bones story. The Herald’s reporters spent the day looking for eyewitnesses and found two women survivors who had been landed at Halifax. One of them, Gladys Shiers of Dartmouth, was knocked unconscious when she went into the water. Her 14-month-old son Leonard had drifted away in the darkness but was pulled into a lifeboat at the last minute by a sailor. He was the only child of 22 aboard the Caribou who had been saved. When the editors submitted their story, Jefferson cut Shiers’ description of the counterattack by the minesweeper Grand Mere but let the reporters run the woman’s dramatic story. A story in the Halifax Chronicle quoted one survivor saying two torpedoes had struck the Caribou. This was left in since other stories reported only one “and this would confuse rather than inform the enemy.”
The sub attack stories subsided in late 1942 as the shipping season ended and the U-boats left the gulf for better hunting in the Atlantic. In December, the gulf was closed to ocean shipping and U-boat attack stories in the St. Lawrence became old news west of Montreal.
The U-boats made a second major incursion into Canadian coastal waters in the summer and fall of 1944. The assault began with a German mine-laying foray off Halifax in the late winter and the torpedoing of the SS Watuka in convoy SH-125 off Halifax by U-802 on March 22. The Canadian Press did not report on the attack until mid-July. Grand Admiral Doenitz sent four U-boats into the Gulf of St. Lawrence that year. At 2 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1944, U-1223 torpedoed HMCS Magog as she escorted convoy ONS-33 past Pointe-des-Monts, blowing the stern off the frigate and killing three men. On the night of Nov. 24, U-1228, on its way out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, sank the corvette HMCS Shawinigan, killing 91 men. Censors slapped a news blackout on those attacks.
The threat of charges may have deterred the Halifax Herald, which contacted Jefferson on Jan. 9, 1945, to protest continued suppression of stories about the loss of the Cornwallis and other sinkings. The Herald’s editors decided to approach Macdonald, who was in Halifax, to ask him to lift the blackout. By then, the Herald was sitting on the stories of the sinking of one destroyer, one corvette, one minesweeper and three freighters. More were to come: in the early morning of Jan. 14, 1945, U-boats attacked a convoy “almost within sight” of Halifax, hitting at least three freighters (and, according to Ken Chisholm of the Halifax Herald, also a navy frigate).
The Halifax newspapers believed coverage of the latest U-boat attacks off Halifax was manipulated by the King government to help Defence Minister General A.G.L. McNaughton’s campaign in the Grey North byelection scheduled for Feb. 5. McNaughton had stayed in Ottawa through the Christmas season, rather than campaign in what was considered a safe Liberal riding. On Jan. 26, he told a campaign rally near Owen Sound he had been too busy to campaign because “today the North Atlantic is, as it has been for months past, alive with German submarines
. . . We are having ships sunk day-by-day.” In frustration, the Herald lashed out with an editorial cartoon that ran in its Jan. 27 edition. Entitled Don’t Gag the Right People, the cartoon showed three figures named “Press”, “Public” and “Radio” gagged with cloths labelled “Censorship” and held in a darkened room.
Despite the protests from the paper, the cloak of secrecy was not lifted on the Christmas season attacks until Feb. 10. The last major attack, on the minesweeper HMCS Esquimalt off Halifax on April 19, 1945, by U-190, killed 44 sailors. Jefferson, under pressure from the navy, kept the story secret until VE-Day, knowing it would be lost in the reports of victory (and, as it turned out, in coverage of the Halifax riots). In the last days of the European war, Jefferson approved a story by Eric Dennis about the possible surrender of U-boats at East Coast ports. On VE-Day Jefferson lifted censorship on all of the Battle of the Atlantic material.
Probably few people in Halifax noticed the “now it can be told” stories, even in the newsrooms. Censorship of the submarine war ended just as thousands of sailors rioted in reaction to a municipal edict to close Halifax’s beer parlours and liquor stores on VE-Day. Jefferson took a keen interest in the Halifax riots, wandering the city gathering facts for a memo sent to Ottawa. He had actually predicted them nine months earlier, saying in a memorandum that the sailors had legitimate complaints about being exploited by Halifax businesses. He let the newspapers run every word of their coverage of the riots, and believed they missed many details. He also passed all of the stories submitted on the Halifax ammunition magazine explosion of July 22, 1945. By then, the focus of the war had shifted to the west coast in anticipation of a long fight with Japan.
The Atlantic coast of Canada was a vital theatre in the war against Germany. Hundreds of Canadian, British, and other Allied sailors and civilians died in the fighting. Censors were called upon to control coverage of some of the most compelling local stories of the war. In selecting Jefferson for the job of Halifax censor, the Directorate of Censorship made one of its best decisions. Jefferson turned out to be strong enough to resist the pressures of both the Halifax media and the city’s powerful contingent of military officers. He was able to maintain consistent censorship of the U-boat war off the East Coast while allowing some important stories of ship losses to be published, sometimes after a relatively brief waiting period.
Still, any coverage of the Battle of the Atlantic and the U-boat attacks in Canadian waters drew criticism from the navy, which sought a complete news blackout of marine actions on both of Canada’s coasts. Despite Jefferson’s tight censorship, relations between the navy and the censors were strained at best, and the navy often left the censors ignorant of important events. This placed the censors at a disadvantage when dealing with reporters, who often knew more about the Battle of the Atlantic than the press censors.
The Fog of War will be published by Douglas & McIntyre this fall.
Because of censorship and the tight control of information by the navy, the press killed some of the most dramatic local stories of the war.