Thursday, December 6, 2012

Night of the Caribou

It sounds like a nasty fairy tale -- a grandmother, a caribou, and a laughing cow circling each other in a dance of death.

But in fact it was a real-life tragedy that took place during WWII when Germany sent its U-boats deep into Canadian waters.

As a result "ships began going down in flames within sight of people living along the banks of the St. Lawrence." One was just 173 miles below Quebec City.

Another was the Newfoundland passenger ferry Caribou and the subject of this book.

Told in the present tense, it's a heart-wrenching account. We meet various crew members, passengers, and servicemen as they board the ferry and nervously try to settle in for the eight-hour trip from Sydney to Port-Aux-Basques.

The captain, Ben Taverner, is uneasy about the night-time crossing, while the commander of the escort vessel, HMCS Grandmere, is not pleased by his orders, which are to follow the ferry rather than precede it.

Worse, the Grandmere is a minesweeper ("hardly the best choice as an escort") and when the ferry is torpedoed the Grandmere's primary duty is to engage the enemy. Saving lives -- says the director of naval operations later -- is secondary and "not really a commitment of the navy at all."

The ferry sinks so fast that some people go into the water in their skivvies. They sing hymns as depth charges are dropped around them. Three hours pass before the first survivors are picked up. Of the 237 men, women and children, only 101 remain alive, and none of the 50 head of cattle trapped below deck.

The story does not get any easier to read. Clouds of misinformation accompany the disaster, in part because a news blackout must be maintained to avoid providing useful information to the enemy.

The government dare not reveal that its naval resources are so thinly stretched that adequate protection simply cannot be provided to domestic shipping. Those resources are being poured into a conflict much more strategically important -- the Battle of the Atlantic.

The identity of the submarine remained unknown until 1964 when German authorities revealed that it was the U-69 -- aka the "Laughing Cow" because of the emblem on its sail, which was taken from a well-known French cheese, "La vache qui rie." It had escaped unharmed after hiding below the Caribou's survivors. Four months later it was sunk by a British destroyer with the loss of all hands.

The book contains 14 pages of B&W photos and illustrations.

The incident plays a central role in Howard Norman's novel What Is Left the Daughter.

A memorial to the Caribou at Port-Aux Basques