Forgotten History: Halifax

Halifax

Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Halifax has one hard luck history. Part of it is other peoples’ hard luck. But that only helps so much.

Fourteen years ago this month Swissair flight 111 fell into Margaret's Bay, just outside town, killing all 229 people aboard. The Halifax military bases responded. There are two memorials out on the bay.

After the crash, Ian Shaw, a Swiss national who last saw his daughter Stephanie when he drove her to the Geneva airport, moved from Switzerland to the tourist village of Peggy's Cove and built a restaurant called Shaw's Landing, to be near his deceased daughter. Shaw’s Landing only recently closed, Shaw presumably having finally worked through his loss.

•••••

As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.

The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.

Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Altogether they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.

Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies.

•••••

The most horrific tragedy still lay five years down the road, and it was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don't know if it's just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima, either.

•••••

Halifax is an attractive, purposeful, working town. With a population just under a million, it hosts 200,000 cruise ship passengers a year and some 40 percent of Canada’s defense assets. Nova Scotia is the world’s largest exporter of lobster and Christmas trees.

It doesn't look at all like a place afflicted. Perched on two rocky shores, Halifax and it's sister city Dartmouth, across the water, enjoy refuge from Atlantic storms, set back from the ocean. Still further back, the Bedford Basin affords a strategic ice-free port, invaluable in wartime.

With one of the world's deepest and most protected harbors, Halifax always prospered in wartime, from the Napoleanic wars and the War of 1812, and continuing to the onset of World War One, providing men and materiel for various war efforts.

Canada entered the Great War in 1914 as a colony, when Britain declared war on Germany. Canadians were just about unanimous in support. Halifax boomed, and harbor traffic ultimately rose to seventeen million tons a year, from just two.

By 1917, businesses were bursting. Industry struggled to keep up with demand. A quarter of the men in Halifax were serving overseas.

Foreshadowing the U.S. experience in World War Two, women took jobs formerly thought of as men's work. Ultimately, women's suffrage came to Canada in 1918, two years ahead of the United States.

The U.S. held to a position of neutrality. But after a German declaration of U-boat warfare against Atlantic supply lanes and the sinking of both merchant and passenger ships with Americans onboard, the U.S joined the Great War in April 1917.

The first regular, systematic convoy of war material from Canada left Sydney, Nova Scotia’s easternmost harbor, on June 24th, 1917. By October as many as 36 supply ships were assembled for each convoy.

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax describes a typical convoy as five ships abreast with two corvettes out front and one on each flank.

Typically, freighters with deck cargo of tanks, trucks and tankers, other freighters with aircraft, and maybe a heavy lift ship with locomotives sailed alongside rescue ships and an oiler with fuel for the corvettes. A destroyer carrying the escort force commander brought up the rear.

Convoy traffic moved to Halifax from Sydney during winter, owing to the back bay, the ice-free Bedford Basin. The basin, with a surface area of just six and a half square miles, was jammed with ships.

•••••

By winter 1917 a jittery uncertainty had prevailed across the twin cities for months. The Canadians dragged submarine nets across the harbor each night to prevent German U-boats from sneaking in.

Thursday, December 6th, 1917: The SS Imo, an empty Norwegian relief ship en route from Rotterdam and bound for New York to load civilian relief supplies for Belgium, was keen to get a move on at first light.

Coal for its boilers had arrived too late the day before, trapping it in the Bedford Basin, behind the submarine nets, overnight. The Imo had to bide its time another night. It was later than ever.

The same submarine nets prevented the French ship Mont Blanc, arriving from New York laden with war supplies, from sailing into the harbor to join up with a convoy. It spent the night outside the nets.

There was a time, just four years before, when a munitions ship like the Mont Blanc wouldn’t have been allowed into the back bay. But with the outbreak of the war, control of the harbor transferred to the British Admiralty, which allowed munitions ships in.

The Mont Blanc carried a formidable and fearsome load – 5.8 million pounds of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, and ten tons of guncotton. 35 tons of benzol, a high octane gasoline, were stacked in drums across her decks.

Picric acid was a relic of the time, an explosive chemical compound used in artillery shells by the Allies. It was less stable than TNT, which largely replaced it for war applications between the World Wars.

So worried was the New York port authority that when loading the Mont Blanc, they lined its holds with wood secured by non-sparking copper nails before putting on the cargo, and stevedores who loaded the ship wore cloth over their boots.

Both ships, the Imo leaving the Bedford Basin and the Mont Blanc coming in, were intent on making time, and Halifax became ground zero in its own unique horror.

Riding high in the water, the empty and impatient Imo was ready to move. Captain Haakan From, a Norwegian, having sailed twice through Halifax before, must have felt familiar with the harbor. He may have been driving the Imo too fast.

The Narrows is the smallest space between Bedford Basin, the protected back bay, and the twin cities of Halifax and Dartmouth. It’s scarcely two thousand feet wide, and it’s precisely where the Imo and Mont Blanc collided.

Benzol spilled from the drums onto the deck of the Mont Blanc. Fires broke out. The smoke was so thick, the crew couldn’t tell if it was the benzol or the picric acid that was burning, but everyone knew it didn’t matter.

All too aware of what lay ahead, they bailed out frantically for shore, for safety. Townspeople, meanwhile, unaware of the Mont Blanc’s deadly cargo, gathered at the waterfront to watch as flames engulfed the ships.

Halifax’s fire crews raced to the waterfront, responding with horse drawn wagons. The fire chief arrived aboard the town's only combustion engine fire truck. He and most of the town’s fire brigade were incinerated.

When the big blast came, it laid bare two square kilometers. The Mont Blanc became the most potent bomb exploded until Hiroshima. The windows in most of Halifax’s houses were blown out or, more accurately, into their inhabitants faces.

The Mont Blanc exploded into the air and rained fire back down on the town. It's big gun landed two kilometers away. Rocks sucked up from the sea floor fell onto the town, with deadly shrapnel.

The blast was so terrific that a tusnami took the water away and back in across the opposite, Dartmouth, shore, where a settlement of native Micmac indians was entirely washed away.

The town burned. Heating in Halifax homes in those days came predominately from coal and wood stoves, most of which were in full use in winter. The heaters overturned in the blast, setting further fires.

At nightfall a blizzard began, the worst in years, with temperatures plunging to 10 to 15 degrees fahrenheit. People who survived the blast died in place, trapped, frozen in the blizzard.

Halifax was in shock. Rumors swept it. Word spread that the naval artillery stores at the Wellington barracks would explode (they didn't). Dazed and traumatized victims, many with their clothes and even skin burned right off of them, fled like zombies.

Halifax was being bombed by the Germans. Or maybe it was a naval bombardment. Some thought Halifax’s unique hell came from German zeppelins.

Some people were lucky, if only by comparison. People told of being lifted up and deposited up to a mile from where they lived. In the end, as many as 9,000 people lost their homes, some 6,000 were injured, and 2000 were dead.

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