I worked as a bartender in an officers club when I was in university.
It was called The Crow’s Nest and was opened during the Second World War for naval officers who operated from St. John’s, Nfld., to blow off some steam and have some much-needed fun.
It was needed because these guys were part of the convoys that kept Britain alive during the dark days of the war when that country stood almost alone against Nazi Germany.
The Germans were trying, with some success, to cut off Britain’s much-needed supplies from Canada and the U.S. so the navy set up a convoy system in which naval vessels would escort supply ships heading across the Atlantic Ocean and protect them if they were attacked by German submarines, which operated in groups called wolf packs.
Hundreds of supply and navy ships were sunk during that part of the war, which was called the Battle of the Atlantic, and the guys who visited the Crow’s Nest lost a lot of friends and comrades to the German torpedoes.
Unlike much of the rest of North America, the war was close for Newfoundlanders and Nova Scotians as the German submarines sometimes preyed on shipping just off our shores.
Several cargo ships loading up with iron ore from mines on Bell Island, which is close to St. John’s, for the Allies’ war machine were torpedoed and sunk in 1942, and a passenger ferry was also sunk off of Newfoundland with the loss of more than 100 people aboard, during the same year.
With St. John’s being so important as a base for the convoy ships, large gun placements were constructed along the harbour and a huge chain mesh was placed at the harbour’s narrowest point to the open sea that would be lowered and raised to allow friendly ships in, and keep hostile ones out.
I’ve heard numerous stories from the old navy men at the Crow’s Nest about supply and navy ships running for their lives toward the harbour with U-boats close behind.
Realizing their prey was escaping, the U-boats would sometimes fire off torpedoes in an attempt to hit the ships before they escaped to safety behind the chain, and occasionally the torpedoes would grind up on the beach, just below where the Crow’s Nest was located, unexploded.
It was a scary time for the people of St. John’s, who feared that it was only a matter of time before the German forces, who were winning the war at the stage, would try to capture the city as part of their preparations to invade Canada and the U.S.
I remember the hushed and reverent tones the old veterans, many of whom I suspect have passed in the decades since I knew them, used at the bar when they talked about those times.
I was fascinated that so much action took place so close to where I grew up.
It’s sad that there are fewer and fewer of these vets around to tell us first-hand accounts of the war years, and I see that as a loss for those who have never had the honour to meet and talk to them.
(Robert Barron is a reporter with the Cowichan Valley Citizen. He can be reached at Robert.Barron@cowichanvalleycitizen.com)