Bell Island Battery
Bell Island, Conception Bay
During World War II the ore from the Bell Island Iron Mines was supplying the Sydney steel mills with iron resulting in the production of nearly one third of all steel in Canada. The steel was being used by Canada to build munitions and vehicles needed for the fight against Germany. With the “Battle of the Atlantic” underway, both Canadian and British governments grew concerned that an attack on the island could result in disaster for their progress in the war. Because of this in the spring of 1940 work began on constructing a coastal defense battery on Bell Island.
The Bell Island Battery was the first WWII military station built in Newfoundland outside the main Canadian bases at Gander and Botwood. The battery consisted of two 4.7 inch quick firing guns located on concrete platforms overlooking the Dominion and Scotia loading piers (near the current ferry terminal). When it opened in the summer of 1940, the Canadian Army manned the site until the Newfoundland Militia took command of the battery after they went through proper training.
During the war the Bell Island Battery would become one of the only sites in Newfoundland to see action. On September 4th, 1942 German U-boat U-153 followed the ore ship, Evelyn B into the Bell Island port. After waiting around until the following morning Kapitan-Leutnant Rolf Ruggeberg fired multiple torpedoes at the SS Saganaga and the SS Lord Strathcona, sinking both and taking 29 lives in the process. The Newfoundland Militia who were stationed at the Battery fired several shots at the U-boat but never did sight the vessel. The citizens of Newfoundland were shocked that a U-boat would attack a civilian ship in a guarded sheltered bay and displayed the islands vulnerability to U-boat attack. The failed attempt of the battery to protect the harbour was blamed on inadequate equipment and so, as a result, the Bell Island Battery was equipped with large searchlights and troops were placed on high alert in case of a follow up attack.
Two months later the next set of attacks came when a German U-boat entered Conception Bay on the night before November 2, 1942. U-518 carefully made its way into the harbour under the command of Kapitan-Leutnant Friedrich Wissmann. The U-boat fired its first torpedo at the freighter, Flyingdale which was tied to the pier. The torpedo missed the ship and passed under its hull, exploding once it hit the pier. Next, the U-boat fired at the ore carrier, the SS Rose Castle and the French vessel, PLM 27. 28 men were lost on the Rose Castle and another 12 with the PLM 27. Although a corvette warship and two motor boats quickly responded to the attacks, the U-boat managed to escape the bay undetected.
After the war had ended the site was decommissioned and seen to have no further use. Today the guns and their platforms have been restored as a memorial to those who served in the war. Compared to many other places of the WWII era the Bell island Battery does not offer many exploration opportunities. The site is has been fixed up over the last couple of years and today it stands as a memorial to those who were stationed there and overseas during the war.
Sources & Further Exploring
Bell Island Sinkings. Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website found at www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/politics/bell-island-sinkings.php.
Neary, S. (1994). The Enemy at the Doorstep: The German attacks at Bell Island, Newfoundland, 1942. St. John's, NL: Breakwater Books Ltd.
Rompkey, W. (2009). St. John's and the Battle of the Atlantic. St. John's, NL: Flanker Press.