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Looking back: The sinking of the S.S. Caribou

Melissa Samms is a local history enthusiast with their fingers in several pies. They studied at MUNL and CNA before moving back home to Codroy Valley, where they help with community development and project coordination. They can be reached by email at:

On the night of October 13th, 1942, Benjamin Taverner was reportedly worried about his scheduled ferry crossing. He had every right to be, because in the early hours of October 14th, 20 miles south of Port aux Basques, the SS Caribou sank. In five minutes the ship was under; struck midship at 0350, she was entirely gone by 0400. She wasn’t the only one, either – 10 allied vessels including the SS Caribou were sunk in waters around Atlantic Canada between October 9th and 14th. They were all targeted by German U-Boats.

The ferry normally carried 180 passengers; however, during World War II she was listed in the Janes Fighting Ship list as a troop transport. This meant that she would carry service personnel as necessary, increasing her normal carrying capacity from 180 to 243. On the night the SS Caribou sank there were 237 passengers, of whom 164 were considered on active duty.

Normally after an attack the aggressor would pick up survivors and wait for them to be retrieved by their allies. But during conflict off the coast of West Africa, American Aircraft attacked U-Boats U-156, U-506, and U-507 while they were picking up survivors from the RMS Laconia, even after being notified that rescued allied personnel were on board. In response, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz issued what became known as the Laconia Order. Crews were not to rescue or help survivors anymore, and were ordered to sink all ships regardless of size.

So U-69 followed orders. After striking the SS Caribou, the vessel hid beneath the wreckage of the ferry before leaving with the SS Caribou’s escort, HMCS Grandmère, in pursuit. The survivors were left on their own.

It took around five hours for survivors to be rescued. After the attack, struggling with the lifeboats, and the cold of the night, only 100 passengers were left. Of the 118 military personnel, 57 perished. Of 73 civilians, 49 were lost. Of the 46 crew, 31 died, including Captain Benjamin Taverner and two of his sons – first officer Stanley, and third officer Harold. Fishers from Port aux Basques took to the water as soon as they heard the news to search for bodies. Out of 137 people lost at sea, 34 were found. Eleven families in Channel-Port aux Basques were left without a patriarch.

Afterwards the Royal Canadian Navy allowed media outlets to report on the sinking to help prevent rumours. It was permitted almost immediately; an extremely rare occurrence of wartime censorship being temporarily lifted.

After the war, Grand Admiral Dönitz’s Laconia Order was included in his list of War Crimes charged during the Nuremberg Trials.

A memorial to the victims still stands in Channel-Port aux Basques and it remains one of the most devastating attacks on this side of the Atlantic during World War II.

For more information about the sinking of the SS Caribou, I recommend reading It Happened in October. Copies are available at the Railway Heritage Museum in Port aux Basques through the South West Coast Historical Society.

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