Battle of the St. Lawrence, Part 3

"A Roar like Thunder:" The sinking of HMCS Shawinigan, November 24, 1944

Photo: Canadian Navy archives

Ship's company of HMCS Shawinigan, all lost at sea on the night of November 24, 1944

On November 27, 2010, in Port-aux-Basque, NL, the Canadian Navy honoured the 90 crewmembers of HMCS Shawinigan, lost during the Battle of the St. Lawrence. This is the third of five articles about this event.

HMCS Shawinigan was one of the first corvettes. While she did spend time shepherding merchantmen to Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and back, the majority of her duty was carried out in Canadian waters.

On November 24, 1944, Shawinigan and the US Coast Guard cutter Sassafras escorted the ferry SS Burgeo on a round trip from Sydney to Port aux Basques. With the first leg of this escort completed, Shawinigan remained at sea patrolling the route she would take with Burgeo the next day. The corvette, however, never showed up when Burgeo arrived at the rendezvous.

It was not until the end of the war that the Navy learned what had happened. Interrogations of the crew from the U-1228 revealed that this submarine detected the Shawinigan at approximately 9:30 p.m. and fired a Gnat torpedo. It slammed into the corvette's stern. Shawinigan sank fast and the submarine's captain heard six explosions which he believed came from depth charges going off as the ship sank.

Shawinigan's destruction was loud. One shore observer reported hearing an explosion followed by three minutes of silence and then "a roar like thunder." Another told authorities that he heard what sounded like a "case of dynamite" followed by the same thunderous rumble. Even the master of the Burgeo attested to "a strange noise" that had caused his house to tremble.

The Burgeo's master did not make the link between the mysterious noise in the night and the fact that Shawinigan missed their planned rendezvous in the morning. Worse yet, he maintained radio silence. This greatly delayed the navy's search for the Shawinigan as it did not learn that the corvette was missing until the ferry arrived in Sydney. The delay meant that any attempts at search and rescue would come too late for anyone who might have survived the sinking for hours in bone-chilling water. No survivor, in fact, was found.

The fact that the ship was lost so close to home has haunted the navy. Some of its members began making requests in the 1960s for sonar searches off Port aux Basques to locate Shawinigan's final resting spot. Those searches were not conducted, but the desire to find the corvette never diminished. An active attempt was made again in the 1990s.

The most recent search began in 2006 with a proposal by the Naval Reserve community in support of the Navy's Centennial celebrations. It started with an analysis of new information obtained from historical archives. The potential search area proved large, however, as the project gained momentum, support from other elements of the Navy began to grow. The details of that search will be the subject of the next article.