St. John's & the Battle of the Atlantic
© By Mike Keenan
Winston Churchill wrote, "... the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril." Germany's best hope of defeating Britain lay in winning the Battle of the Atlantic. The continued loss of convoys during World War Two would probably have
led to defeat.
Imagine being a naval officer during the Battle of the Atlantic, having to escort convoys,
constantly hunted and imperiled by enemy submarines. In St. John's, Newfoundland, it was easy for me to get into that mindset while I visited the Crow's Nest, an Officer's Club founded on January 27th, 1942. I sit beside a fireplace with two large brass shell casings flanked on either side, small cozy leather chairs filling the room with a bar and walls loaded with memorabilia such as a gas mask, manacles, a ship's wheel and bell, plaques, helmets, a wooden propeller and battle shields from assorted vessels. The chairs were retrieved from ships as were the tables which have flip-up sides in case drinks slide away at sea. And, of course, there are a million stories that accompany all of the memorabilia.
Popular opinion was that the Club was called Crow's Nest because of the magnificent view it commands of St. John's harbour, an important port dring the war, but an historian recalled that an army officer, name unknown, originated the title. Puffing and winded when he arrived at the top of the steep, narrow 59 steps from Water Street up to the top of the vacant fourth floor warehouse building, he mopped his forehead and gasped "Crikey, is this a ruddy crow's nest?" His many companions were delighted and the name stuck.
When the club held its "preview night" on January 27th, 1942, officers had sawn off jetty shores to squat on. Today, they lounge on comfortable leather chairs before a five-foot open hearth. I gazed at the ship's badges on the walls, immediately steeped in history.
A captain named Mainguy conceived the idea of the badges and ruled that each Navy ship visiting the port would be
allowed wall space two feet square for their gun-shield artwork. These colourful works
of art, reflecting the unique humour of the men serving in the various allied navies, adorn the walls together with crests and souvenirs from visiting vessels and branches of the armed services.
Since inception, the Club has been owned by its members and is known worldwide. It has become a museum of sorts containing many hundreds of mostly military artifacts. In one corner is a periscope taken from the surrender of U-190 at Bay Bull's on May 12, 1945, four hundred miles off St. John's. U-190 became Canada's first submarine and was used as a training vessel from 1945 to 1947. It inspired bad feelings because it had sunk two ships off the Halifax coast, one British and one Canadian. The slim, shiny periscope projects 30 ft. above the building and once was strategically aimed at the local nurses' residence. Now, you may peer outside at St. John's narrows protecting the port, leading into the Atlantic.
There is the sound of a storm blowing outside as I talk to Dick Hislop, a local accountant and the resident U-190 expert. The Club's wide plank oak floors provided temporary stability for many officers who spent their last night on land before setting out to sea and the menace of the subs. If Germany had prevented merchant ships from carrying food, raw materials, troops and their equipment from North America to Britain, Churchill and his people would likely have been starved into submission.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
If you go
City of St. John's: http://www.stjohns.ca/index.jsp
Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism: http://www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/
The Crow's Nest: http://www.crowsnestnf.ca/Home.htm
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