The Bell Island Wrecks - When the Battle of the Atlantic Awakened the Residents of Newfoundland
Few people know that Bell Island, Newfoundland, Canada was directly attacked during World War II. In 1942, German U-boats twice raided the island in an attempt to disrupt the flow of high grade iron ore being transported from mines on the island. This high grade ore was used to supply steel critical to the war effort. Germans knew that if they could disrupt the flow of ship building materials, even temporarily, then the Allied war efforts would be seriously affected. In two separate attacks, U-boats sunk the SS Saganaga and SS Lord Strathcona followed by the SS Rose Castle, Free French vessel PLM 27 and the loading wharf on Bell Island. In all, 70 men were killed. The sheer temerity of the attack awakened North Americans that they were now on the front line of the Battle of the Atlantic.
Today, experienced technical divers can visit these remarkable war graves, plunging into the cold water to explore shipwrecks resplendent with colorful marine growth. Submerged wrecks become artificial reefs and when they are situated in rich waters like Conception Bay, Newfoundland, they become magnets for biodiversity.
Hundreds of kilometers of mining tunnels plunge beneath Bell Island and under the sea floor of Conception Bay where the WWII wrecks reside. Abandoned decades ago, these mine passages are now flooded. Exploration of these passages reveals a trove of artifacts and the cultural history of mining. The tunnels contain mining relics, pipes, heavy equipment and remarkable graffiti that tells the story of miners who died during their work on Bell Island.
The story of the Bell Island shipwrecks and mines is an important chronicle in the history of Canada. In the 1940s, Canadians were awakening to the conclusion that incorporating Newfoundland into Confederation made sense. But it took a 1948 referendum to show that a majority of Newfoundlanders agreed as well. Newfoundland may not have been part of a Canadian sovereign nation when the Battle of the Atlantic came to her shores, but these tragic activities may have helped usher in a new relationship that strengthened and built and better Canada.