Watching two ships sunk by a Nazi U-boat at Bell Island ranks as my most vivid memory of The Second World War. I wonder how many others shared that disturbing experience on that fateful day, Saturday, Sept. 5, 1942.
An intriguing report a few days ago in the National Post, Toronto edition, recalled that tragedy through the eyes of Rolf Ruggeberg, the submarine captain responsible for the sinkings. 29 sailors died that day aboard the iron ore carrying steamships Lord Strathcona and the Saganaga.
The story was told in his war records discovered by his daughter and donated to the Bell Island Community Museum. Ruggeberg was commended by Adolph Hitler for his feat and survived the war, serving as military attaché in London where he met and married a British woman. Her daughter found his war records in an attic chest after he died. For details about the Bell Island Community Museum and an undersea tour of the former Bell Island Number 2 Mine, go to http//www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/Planyourtrip.Detail.210290
My view of the Bell Island sinkings was from seven miles away near the old railway station on the beach at Kelligrews, Conception Bay. I clearly saw the hull of one ship almost perpendicular to the surface, while a second was partly grounded. Dozens of others watched as I did, realizing what was going on but of course seeing no sign of a U-boat. Only one man came equipped with a long spyglass for a much closer view, but only a few were able to share it.
Strangely enough, my great friend Tom Howley, with whom I shared many experiences over the years, only told me recently that he saw that same submarine attack from another Conception Bay vantage point. His family went for a drive that day and stopped for lunch at the Pop Inn, a popular eatery in Topsail. From there, they had a great view of Bell Island, and watched with amazement the same sad story enfold before their eyes. Tom only told me about this after reading my account of it in my recently published memoir, Gower Street.
So maybe there are many others having similar recollections?
Wartime censorship forbade any news reporting on the sinkings so, except for people on the scene at Bell Island, few if any details became publically known.
Fortunately, Steve Neary in 1994 published The Enemy on our Doorstep, a comprehensive account of the two ore ship sinkings that occurred at Bell Island that year. A second submarine attack at Bell Island sank two other ships on November 2nd .
I knew Steve quite well from his days as a frequent contributor of news items during my reporting days and as a union organizer and political activist on Bell Island, and as a politician for, I believe, three different parties. I never imagined he would turn out to be an historian as well!