Finding the Freedom, the Discovery

Gene Peterson   Jul 01, 2023

By Gene Peterson

Within view of Sambro Light and Chebucto Head, Nova Scotia an intense sea battle had ensued.  A couple miles east of Mad Rock, near the location of the S.S. Daniel Steinman, lies the oil tanker British Freedom. It is on the edge of the separation zone for outbound shipping traffic of Halifax Harbour.  On the cold winter morning of January 14, 1945, villagers of Halifax Harbour witnessed the battle as the British Freedom, the Martin Van Buren and the Athelviking were torpedoed by the U-1232 during one of the final sea battles of World War II. The attack was audacious, and the U-boat commander earned an Iron Cross for his merit. The desperation of the collapsing German war machine was obvious when the sub returned to the pier in Saint-Nazaire.  It was sparsely lighted and only a few of the flotilla’s brass found time to greet the returning protagonists. The daring attack made by the U-1232 and its remarkable escape during a counterattack, are previously noted in part one.  In 1995, the tanker British Freedom was found by the Canadian Department of Natural Resources while side scanning the harbor. The site, in 220 feet of water, had remained undisturbed for over 50 years. Currently, a wreck symbol indicates its discovered location on the latest charts.

In contrast, two previous attacks were also within the harbor view in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The bold raids took place in Conception Bay near the village of Lance Cove. The following narrative is not amplified. On September 4, 1942, the U-513 crept in with the convoy and settled near the Wabana anchorage. Like a plot from a Hollywood war movie, the German sub U-513 tucked itself under the stern of the SS Evelyn B and trailed it into harbor.  Allied ships sailed here for the ore extracted from Bell Island’s deep iron mines, crucial for making steel and thusly for the war effort.  Before the war, the Germans traded with Canada for the iron commodity. Aware of the valued war asset, the German command sent U-boats to plunder the allied supply ships at the start of the war. On the morning of September 5, Captain Rolf Ruggeberg of the U-513 waited for the ships to be fully loaded, then fired upon the Lord Strathcona two torpedoes. The German torpedo crewmen failed to arm the torpedoes which did not damage the ship but did alert the harbor of the invaders. Immediately, the Evelyn B detected the sub and opened fire as the U-513 plunged beneath the surface safely avoiding the intensity of the deck gun.

In the late afternoon of September 5, at 4:15 p.m., the brash commander fired two additional torpedoes at the S.S. Saganaga. Both torpedoes struck dead center with such explosive force, it cracked the hull of the ore carrier in half. The intense blast catapulted the ships massive bow anchor hundreds of feet into the air. The anchor then careened down, landing midship, carrying tons of chain with it. The heavy burdened ship went down in minutes with the crew of thirty. Witnessing the explosion, Captain Charles Stewart of the SS Lord Strathcona pulled anchor and took aggressive action ramming the U-boat’s conning tower to sink the predator. Ruggeberg took the sub to the bottom of the bay and accessed the damage.  Although jolted by the impact, the functional sub surfaced and again fired two torpedoes from its stern tubes at the Canadian ship Lord Strathcona. Thirty-one minutes after the Saganaga sank, the Lord Strathcona also sank. The waters were crowded with drowning and injured sailors. Alerted rescuers from the cove picked up survivors and the dead as escaping ships fled the harbor.  
The U-513 slipped out of the harbor concealed in the chaos and the nights blackness. Exacerbating the harbor’s inadequately prepared state, two months later, a second bold German assault mirrored the earlier sneak attack. Without protective barriers or submarine cables, the harbor remained freely accessed.  At 3 a.m., on the morning of November 2, 1942, the U-518 under K/L Friedrich Wissmann, edged into Conception Bay undetected in the cover of darkness. Wissmann hugged the bluffs of Bell Island, masked in the dark shadow of the cliffs. The German invaders could see car headlights traveling overhead on the above fringes. Cognizant that the harbor may now be fortified with heavy artillery and spotlights, Wissmann wasted no time and took swift action.  At 7 a.m., the commander fired a torpedo at the three-thousand-ton collier, Anna T, lying in anchor. The torpedo missed, running just below the stern of the Flying Dale berthed at the Scotia Pier, and obliterated the dock. Even though it was an unintentional miss, this faux pas turned out to be the only direct land attack on the East Coast of North America during World War II.  Warned by the explosion and wary of the previous attack, the other ships began to make headway for the open sea. This time Wissmann adjusted the torpedo depth and took aim at the 7,546-ton ore ship, Rose Castle. Firing two bow torpedoes, he sent the freighter to the bottom, sinking it with the loss of 28 men. Several fishing boats and rescue launches from the village managed to save Captain Walter J. MacDonald, seventeen of his crew and two gunners from the Rose Castle in the frozen waters.  After sinking the Rose Castle, Wissmann took aim on the French vessel Paris-Lyon-Marseilles 27, firing just a single torpedo. The charge struck the PLM-27 amidships on her port side, sinking the ship in less than a minute. Seven crew members were lost in the blast. The master, Jean Baptiste along with thirty-five crew and six gunners managed to swim to the rocky beach in Lance Cove.  They were taken into local homes, received first aid, were warmed up and given coffee and sandwiches. A temporary morgue was set up in the house of Emma Rees on the shore of Lance Cove.  Infuriated by the sinkings, the Governor of Newfoundland, Admiral Humphrey Walwyn castigated the Chief of Staff, Captain F. L. Houghton. He declared to Houghton, “It was madness to let ships lie unprotected”. Houghton rejected the reprimand standing fast on his primary duty protecting the harbor of St. John.  Soon the Canadian Provinces placed barriers in all the harbors including Conception Bay, St. John, and the highly trafficked Halifax Harbour. This was done to deter another invasion inside the boundary waters of these crucial ports. This prevented further attacks within the inner harbors, but the approaches remained a shooting gallery for guileful hunters.

The U-518 continued to haunt the coastline searching for prey and covertly dropped a spy, Werner Alfred Waldemar von Janowski, alias William Brenton, in Chaleur Bay a week after the attack in Conception Harbor. Janowski was captured when Earle Annette, the heedful son of the owner of the Hotel New Carlisle noticed inconsistencies in his speech, dress, outdated money, and his Belgian matches. After following him to a railway station, Annett contacted Constable Alfonse Duchesneau of the Quebec Provincial Police. Duchesneau boarded the train for Montreal with the suspect and after some exchanges, Janowski admitted his baggage contained a radio and that he was a German agent. Janowski spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war in England.  The U-518 escaped from Chaleur Bay and Wissmann continued to ravage the sea on six more successful patrols. On April 22, 1945, Under the command of twenty-two-year-old Oberleutnant zur See Hans-Werner Offermann, the U-518 was sunk off the Azores with hedgehogs and depth charges during its tenth patrol. The young captain and fifty-six crew members perished in the sinking.

Provincial shore divers discovered most of the coastal wrecks strewn throughout Halifax Harbour. The deeper wrecks beyond one-hundred thirty feet accessible by boat remained unscathed. In the summer of 1994, after several successful boat hunts with Captain Jim Smith, we determined it was time to start looking offshore for other undiscovered wrecks standing alone on the harbor floor. Renowned and highly sought after, the British Freedom torpedoed by the U-1232 was an elusive quest. Within the limits of technical diving, the massive tanker was in a challenging search location. Historical accounts put it within the incoming or outbound approaches to Halifax Harbour. Anchoring in the lanes was prohibited due to the volume of transportation making way in and out of the harbor.  The narrow lanes allowed no options to detour shipping in the highly trafficked port. The depths would require a few hours of time to conduct diving operations with safety. Logistically, if the wreck were found in a lane, it would remain un-divable without extensive permits and possibly hazardous detours. The harbor trade is so intense, that if it was found in either lane it may not be possible to get clearance from the harbormaster to dive.Hooking up with a local captain like Jim Smith was a golden chance. Jim knew many of the regional divers and boat captains that were hunting for shipwrecks. A few co-ordinates were passed on to Jim and he knew we would be eager to check those sites. Many of the anomalies were rocks, but occasionally we happened upon a hunk of a shipwreck hull, boiler, or a patch of contiguous beams. Unlike the familiar flat sandy bottom off the Jersey Coast, the bottom grounds off Halifax are lumpy, uneven patches, filled with ship sized boulders, cliffs, pits, and dips. This made it difficult pinpointing a wreck location. A bottom scanner recorded glitches which required visual confirmation to verify a shipwreck. Plummeting a shot line marker to a 200-foot-deep rock was a disappointing affair. Divers became weary of these look and sees, mandating such exploits to one or two attempts per day. In one instance of searching, I spent nearly two hours swimming in the rocky crags off the Sister ledges. I depleted the battery in a scooter and had switched to a second set of tanks but continued to swim searching various pinnacles of rocks. Even the most faithful of divers who wait topside can grow weary of this indolence. The doldrums of staring at a blank sea caused a few to dress down in the sweltering heat. Getting a crew to bear that type of tedium is challenging.  This is the wager one must tolerate if you seek to find something new. Many times, in the past, these loyalists persevered without reward. Sensing the amount of time passing, I ascended, and addressed the group. I could tell Captain Jim was also becoming drained maneuvering the boat as he and lookouts followed my exhausted bubbles. I asserted to the group that if I did not see anything within the next dozen minutes, we would head in.  Dashing back to the depths, I swam with even more tenacity. Passing ledge after ledge, I was struggling to get ahead in the current. Swimming over the next grouping of rocks, I found myself on a slope plummeting down to a gap. Remarkably, lying in the gap a Scotch boiler rested teetering on the edge of a boulder. Swimming along the cliff-face below, I spotted a rows of portholes attached to a long sheet of rusted steel. I quickly dispatched a lift bag marking the spot and ascended. Waiting on the surface, the faithful crew gathered at the stern of the boat for the update. “A wreck” is all I needed to say. The elated group began splashing over the side as I boarded. I was worn out but rejuvenated by the group’s enthusiasm and the discovery.  You just cannot give up. Doggedness will prevail with luck in the end.  Earning the trust of a group is important for future and more daunting hunts. On the next few trips, similar searches evolved as Captain Jim and I gathered more new areas to probe. After a few more exciting discoveries in the summer of 1995, we eagerly pledged to search again the next spring. Paradoxically that fall, a government scanning project mapped the harbor and fortuitously happened upon an irregularity in the underwater terrain. An unnatural glitch appeared on the side scan, and the British Freedom was exposed. The project put investigative divers on the bow section after the discovery to confirm the structure. The co-ordinates remained confidential, but truth has a way of rising to the surface.

In May of 1996, I readied a group of American and Canadian divers for another search for the British Freedom. This time, we were armed with a side scan and a ROV (remote operated vehicle). No longer would I need to drop down into the cold unfamiliar abyss as a self-contained explorer lighting up giant geological abnormalities commonly known as rocks. Reaching the site where the government discovered the wreck, we dropped the ROV over the side. While Captain Jim finessed the joystick, the tethered robot descended as we enthusiastically watched a monitor in the heated cabin. The anticipation was tremendous as a huddled group viewed the seemingly endless descent into the blue emptiness.  On the back deck, the umbilical was paid out following the undersea satellite to the bottom.  Finally, after the long descent, fish appeared schooling in front of the camera as it neared the pale sand. Scallops lay scattered over the field ahead of the rover, while bottom fish darted out of its path. Ahead, a colossal shadow darkened the ambient light which penetrated the depth. Intently we watched, as Jim maneuvered the ROV ahead.  Before the rover, a massive wall of hull stood blocking forward progress in any direction. Elevating the vessel off the bottom, we could see the sunlight streaming through the ship’s railings. Rising over the edge, we could see the intact stern as the ROV hovered above. In situ for fifty-one years, the ship remained nearly intact.  One could imagine the last moments of battle on January 13, 1945. Gun shells and boxes of ammo remain strewn throughout the wreckage, the deck canted to the starboard from the explosion, the foyer deck gun and anti-aircraft guns remained pointed away from the ship. Both guns looked loaded and ready to fire. The British Freedom sank stern first, yet the bow continued to protrude above the waves blocking the entrance to the harbor. Later that day, HMCS Goderich was dispatched to sink the Freedom with depth charges as the staunch ship continued to float. Of the forty-eight crew and nine gunners onboard, there was only one unfortunate casualty. Engineer William Henderson was lost and trapped below deck when the U-1232s torpedo exploded in the engine room.

We were about to experience an epic moment. Although this was not as legendary a vessel as the Titanic or prominent as the Andrea Doria, the British Freedom was historically important. The Freedom was notable in that it was a significant loss during the last epic sea battle in one of the most protected harbors of North America. As Captain Jim hovered the boat over the site, fellow divers Paul Whittaker, Tye Zinck and Jared Rainault dropped a weighted line over the side marking the highest point on the depth sounder. Readied for the dive, I jumped into the green icy brine.  Hitting the sea was punishing as I broke through the thick layer of surface slush. The freezing water instantly gave me a painful brain freeze.  I fought the unsettling nausea in the cold, knowing the numbing sensation would soon ease the pain. This was the coldest deep-dive I have ever made even to this day. During my final ascent, I noted the temperature stood at 27 degrees Fahrenheit.  The Canadians onboard bore huge bottles of Argon purging thicker gas into their oversized neoprene suits stuffed with thick synthetic underwear. I added an electric heat pad in addition to a heavy layer of underwear to combat the cold arduous decompression at the end of my dive. Regardless, it was still a bitter dive where your extremities deadened after ninety-plus minutes of dive time. Reaching the dive ladder to ascend, divers found themselves lifting their numb legs into place on the rungs and massaging their calf muscles to resume circulation before climbing to the deck. Once on board, the post dive elation and adrenaline pulsating through the body shunned the pain. This was a chance opportunity worthy of the temporary anguish.

Even in the frigid water, mental and visual clarity prevailed as I reached the top of the wreck. Cutting the weights away on the tie in line, I swam the boat tether to the highest point on the starboard side where a fifty-caliber machine gun tower stood. I tied the loose end of the line through the gun swivel and watched the pivot rotate as the dive boat tightened the line. You could not have asked for a better place to anchor; no matter where the boat swung in the current, the swivel would turn, and divers could easily locate the tower. Looking down from the turret, one could see the entire stern. On the starboard was an anti-aircraft gun just aft of the machine gun tower. Across the deck on the portside was another 50-caliber machinegun tower. The boilers lie just ahead of the massive exposed diesel engine. Long sections of fuel hoses lay in place on wooden rollers designed to be pulled out when connected to a huge pump system on the deck. A rectangular deck house with a galley lay ahead of a large open deck where a smaller deck house and steering station stood. Behind the steering station, a gigantic six-inch deck gun remained with its barrel pointing abaft of the stern.  On the port side, a hatch was open which was easily accessible to the deck below. I swam down to the stern deck over a rubble pile of loose portholes, dishes, cups, gun-shells, deck lights, deck prisms, the ships helm and a conglomerate of assorted parts and cases of ammunition. Ducking below deck, I swam through the tight passageway where a wooden compass stand remained maintaining the ships direction for half a century. Passing around the curved corridor, gun-shells in leather protective cases leaned against the hallway walls. The starboard side was collapsed opening to a blast hole where sunlight pierced through the blue water. The shocking coldness beckoned me to return to the warmth above. My forefinger was numbed by the cold and locked on to my light. I rose to the gun tower and followed the ascent line. Waiting for my confirmations, a slate was lowered by the anxious team expecting me as I reached my twenty-foot decompression stop. I scratched a few notes, “Freedom, stern, guns, dishes, portholes, helm, Awesome! Go diving!” It was truly a spectacular experience.   Being able to see and sense the aftermath of this dramatic battle firsthand is unfathomable. Watching those eager divers splash over the side was equally rewarding to me as being one of the first to see the wreck. This was a rare event which was well earned by this hardy team of American and Canadian wreck divers after numerous attempts to unveil the lost tanker.  

Over the course of the next two decades, the British Freedom became a popular destination for the technical wreck diving enthusiasts from all over the world. In 2003, the powerful Hurricane, Juan, careened directly into the Nova Scotia coast, battering Halifax Harbour. The British Freedom stern collapsed in the torrent. The starboard side already weakened from the initial torpedo blast crumbled to the seafloor and the deck fell to the sand from the relentless wave surges.  The wreck is now unrecognizable compared to the once intact ship. The scathing effect of the ocean and future powerful storms will certainly reduce the once vast tanker to a rust-pile. The opportunity to dive such wrecks is dwindling. I feel fortunate to have been aligned with these tough, loyal divers that shared my passion. In the most arduous of conditions they remained resolute.

“Don’t wait. The time will never be just right.” Mark Twain













Rocky shores of Nova Scotia's St Paul's Island.