Chapter 6. The War Years, 1914-45

6.11 Newfoundland Goes to War

The situation in Newfoundland was different. The Dominion had lost its autonomy and democratic legislature in the economic trenches of 1934; thereafter it was administered by a Commission of Government comprised of four British appointees and three Newfoundland representatives. In effect, the ex-Dominion was a colony once more. That meant that when Britain declared war, Newfoundland was instantly at war as well. It also meant that, although there was a Newfoundland Regiment to provide home-defence, there was no separate Dominion regiment sent abroad: the colony’s volunteers were absorbed directly into British regiments.

The war had a revivifying effect on the North American economy as a whole but especially in Newfoundland. Gander and Goose Bay became pivotal to the Royal Airforce’s mustering of aircraft being shepherded from factories in Canada to the UK; St. John’s was a naval centre and watchtower for the western Atlantic. Thousands of Canadian troops were deployed across the island and Canadian oversight of Britain’s military interests in the region was general. The American presence was even larger, running to 10,000 personnel. Newfoundland was of enormous strategic importance, a fact that led to a welcome economic surge and a sudden modernization of infrastructure.

Newfoundland was also at risk in a way that no part of Canada was, with the exception of Halifax. Naval convoys providing food, arms, and other resources to a besieged Britain poured out of the St. Lawrence and Nova Scotia, drawing the unwanted attention of German submarines. U-boat attacks multiplied quickly and disasters occurred with fearsome regularity. The Newfoundland ferry Caribou was one such casualty in 1942 when a torpedo attack took the lives of 137 crew and passengers.[1] Ships carrying iron ore sailing from Bell Island were sunk; indeed, any vessel sailing from the outports might be considered target practice for the U-boats. The submarines could be used, as well, to shell land targets: in March 1942, three torpedoes were launched against ships and facilities in St. John’s harbour. Rumours circulated (and continue to do so) of U-boat bases nestled in the many inlets of Labrador and there is hard evidence of a German automated weather station along the mainland coast. Given the catastrophic magnitude of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, it is easy to imagine the anxiety felt by Newfoundlanders in these circumstances. The war was not in Europe; it was at their door, peaking inside.

Key Points

  • Newfoundland was restored to British administration in 1934.
  • As a consequence, Newfoundland automatically followed Britain into the Second World War.
  • Because of its geopolitical value, Newfoundland experienced a sudden rush of investment in logistics and the arrival of thousands of troops from Canada and, later, the United States.
  • WWII provided the Newfoundland economy with a boost and it simultaneously put its shipping and people at greater risk than was the case in Canada.

  1. Margaret R. Conrad and James K. Hiller, Atlantic Canada: A Concise History (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2006), 179-80.