Last updated: December 13, 2019 at 16:03 pm
Overlooking the Strait of Belle-Isle on the south coast of Labrador, Forteau Bay has served for time immemorial as a strategic gathering and staging area for explorers, hunters and warriors both friend and foe. Amerindians, Vikings, Basque hunters, French colonists and Jersey fishermen came in search of sustenance or to take shelter from the tempestuous passage that separates Labrador from Newfoundland. Yankee and French privateers attacked the isolated community during the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. German submariners prowled for enemy vessels in their attempt to choke the supply line between Great Britain and the Free World. Today, visitors to the picturesque area will find archaeological vestiges bearing witness to almost ten millennia of human activity as well as natural attractions such as breaching humpback whales, rolling capelin, diving gannets and drifting icebergs.
At the head of Forteau Bay lies L’Anse Amour (population 8), which is home to the tallest lighthouse on the east coast of Canada. Yet the very beacon that sailors anxiously sought out long before the advent of GPS navigation also marks the spot where several ships met their demise, including HMS Lily in 1890 and HMS Raleigh in 1922.
ABOVE: Point Amour Lighthouse, in Labrador, is the tallest lighthouse on the east coast of Canada. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
At the time of her loss, HMS Raleigh with her crew of 700 was the pride of Britain’s North Atlantic Squadron. The flagship of the Royal Navy’s America and West Indies Station had long fascinated Mack Sprague and Chris Harvey-Clark when they led a team of divers to explore the shipwreck on its 90th anniversary in August 2012. The project that was three years in the making was headquartered at Navy Island Dive Co. in St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick. Over this period, Mack and Chris recruited divers from the Maritimes, Québec and British Columbia who would be part of the rediscovery of this little-known page of British naval history insomuch as the ship was British and that Newfoundland and Labrador were not yet Canadian at the time of the tragedy.
ABOVE: HMS Raleigh at Pier D, Vancouver (British Columbia) in December 1921. Photo by City of Vancouver Archives (Public Domain)
‘Hands to collision stations!’
The loss of the 12,000-ton (fully loaded) heavy cruiser took place in the summer of 1922 after a long tour of U.S. and Canadian cities, which took the newly built Raleigh around the continent and as far inland as Montreal. But the highlight of the journey was a rare call by a British warship in Washington D.C., the first friendly visit by the Royal Navy since the War of 1812. Several weeks later and with the tour coming to a close, the short career of the Raleigh would come to an abrupt and dramatic end having never fired a shot in anger. After departing from Hawke Bay, Newfoundland, in the early morning of August 8, the Raleigh crossed the Strait of Belle-Isle on course to the small community of Forteau where she had made a brief stopover the previous year. Although on official business, the side-trip was meant to offer respite to some of the ship’s officers in the form of a fishing sortie on the Forteau River. As she approached the coast, the Raleigh entered a dense fog bank and her lookouts soon lost sight of land. A series of bad decisions would ultimately result in the ship ploughing into the rocky shore of Point Amour, only 100 metres (330 ft) from the landmark lighthouse. The merciless reef would once again live up to its former colonial name of Pointe-aux-morts (Point of the Dead).
Less than a minute after the shoreline frighteningly came back into sight, the Raleigh grounded herself with a deafening crash even though the engines had been fully reversed in a desperate attempt to avoid the collision. Unable to dislodge his ship from the gut-ripping rocks, the commanding officer soon realised that the situation was hopeless. “Bump, crash, bump. Imagine 12,000 solid tons of steel being lifted up and crashed down against something very hard, every fifteen seconds” wrote midshipman Stephen Carlill in his diary. He would eventually retire as Vice Admiral KBE, CB, DSO.
“Bump, crash, bump. Imagine 12,000 solid tons of steel being lifted up and crashed down against something very hard, every fifteen seconds.” — Midshipman Stephen Carlill | HMS Raleigh
Several crewmembers from the first lifeboat to abandon ship were drowned when it was washed onto a jagged ledge, which led some of those aboard to jump out in a panic. Tossed about on the rocks and pulled back to sea by the waves, nine stokers and three seamen went under, some never to be seen again. Once a lifeline had been secured to shore, subsequent attempts in boats and Carley floats allowed the rest of the crew to leave the stricken ship without further loss of life. All the while, villagers gave assistance after being alerted by Isabella Davis who was the first resident of L’Anse Amour to witness the unfolding commotion. Fires were quickly lit on shore to comfort the shocked and soaked crew made even more miserable by a bitterly cold wind.
ABOVE: HMS Raleigh hard aground at Point Amour, Labrador, in 1922 (Public Domain).
Labradorians to the Rescue
Finding refuge and nourishment for the hundreds of men in such a remote and desolate location was no easy feat. Most of the 600+ surviving officers and crew spent the night in the buildings of the Point Amour Lighthouse station where nurses from the Grenfell mission and local residents, including the Davis family, tended to the distraught sailors. Others crowded homes in L’Anse Amour and Forteau. Isabella Davis had to walk over many a sleeping refugee to tend to her crying baby as the men lay about in every quarter of her small home. Of the many locals who aided the Raleigh’s crew in 1922, the lighthouse keeper, Jeff Wyatt, and the Davis family of L’Anse Amour were especially prominent in the commanding officer’s report on rescue operations. In recognition for their kindness to the crew, the Davis family who had first settled in L’Anse Amour 60 years prior to the tragedy were given the Raleigh’s piano and were later granted ownership of the land by King George V. The Forteau Grenfell mission received 15 tons of coal and a framed picture of the Raleigh from Admiral Pakenham.
Ninety years later, the Davis family still reside in the same house a mere kilometre (0.6 miles) from the remains of the Raleigh. Expedition leaders Mack Sprague and Chris Harvey-Clark were graciously welcomed by the Davis’, including Cecil and Rita Davis, and their daughter Lisa who reminisced on the fateful day and on how their family had tended to so many unexpected guests.
Ship and Crew Left Behind
The number of sailors remaining on land gradually diminished as they were transferred to relief ships that began to arrive on the following day. The majority were soon on their way back to England on Canadian Pacific liners. A few stayed behind to prevent looting by dozens of Newfoundlanders who, having mistakenly heard of the loss of a merchant ship, had crossed the straits to partake in their share of the spoils.
As was customary at the time, casualties were interred in a common plot by their fellow crewmembers yet there was little or none of the symbolism that accompanied a young Archaic Indian girl to the hereafter only a stone’s throw away at the oldest burial site in the New World. Roughly 7,500 years earlier, the body of the native girl was covered in red ochre and wrapped in skins when placed in a large pit with much-valued offerings of tools and weapons at what is now known as the L’Anse Amour National Historic Site of Canada. It could be said that comparable homage to the lost crewmen was unconsciously left on the shipwreck, which reminds us to this day of the deceased’s sacrifice for their country. It is also ironic that both groups of travelers as well as the crew of HMS Lilly fell curse to the much-prized Atlantic salmon after they had been drawn to the Forteau River to fish several millennia apart.
It is also ironic that both groups of travelers as well as the crew of HMS Lilly fell curse to the much-prized Atlantic salmon after they had been drawn to the Forteau River to fish several millennia apart.
ABOVE: Cursed fish… Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) in the York River, near Gaspé, Québec. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
Following the funeral and after the last of the crew had departed for home, the Raleigh was paid off and abandoned by the Royal Navy. Thus she remained steadfastly perched on the shallow seafloor in full view of passing liners shuttling travelers and immigrants between the U.K. and Canada. Despite being battered by the sea and stripped of all valuables by salvers from 1922 to 1926, the far too recognizable silhouette of the cruiser soon became an embarrassment for British pride and the Admiralty. After the Raleigh’s navigating officer and captain were court-martialled and discharged from the navy, something had to be done to permanently erase one of the biggest blunders in British naval history, this royal eyesore in Labrador.
After the Raleigh’s navigating officer and captain were court-martialled and discharged from the navy, something had to be done to permanently erase one of the biggest blunders in British naval history, this royal eyesore in Labrador.
ABOVE: Wreckage from HMS Raleigh at Point Amour, Labrador. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
Final Destruction and Salvage
In 1926, a small fleet of His Majesty’s ships sailed into Forteau Bay on a mission to obliterate the Raleigh. The rusting wreck was thoroughly blown apart after her large guns had been removed for transfer to Halifax. Hidden from view at the surface, a large quantity of ammunition nonetheless remained in the hulk of the gutted ship. This lethal cargo that created a long-term hazard that still haunts the site today would eventually lay claim to yet another victim when a 10-year-old boy was killed after throwing a round from the Raleigh into a bonfire. Scores of other fused shells, including massive 7.5 inchers, were to become museum pieces and backyard ornaments, most of which have since been recovered by demolition teams.
People continued to recover what they could for their personal use or for profit after the Royal Navy definitively abandoned the ship and the affected area to their fates, which was common practice at that time. Some items were taken off the wreck by hand. Others were carried ashore by furious swells. However, the largest and heaviest pieces of loot were painstakingly torn out of the wreck using chains and tractors for sale as scrap metal. Artifacts of all types, including brass fittings, copper wire, silverware, crockery, china, and various furnishings still grace many a seaside home all along the southern coast of Labrador. Yet not all of the spoils were put on display or sold. Several puncheons of rum were rescued not without risk from the ship’s flooded stores, which made for much merriment in the cold and dark winter of 1922. When objects of value were no longer to be found at the surface, salvage divers picked apart the ship’s sunken entrails.
ABOVE: Jean-Robert Bourgeois, Mack Sprague, Roy Mulder and Chris Harvey-Clark survey the wreck site and watch the northern sea gannets plunge diving for schooling fish from the vantage point of the tallest lighthouse on the east coast of Canada. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
The largest underwater recovery operation took place in 1932 when the T.F. & M. Salvaging and Wrecking Company was hired by interests from New York City. The Halifax-registered S.S. Sandbeach sailed to the wreck site to recover valuable items on the seafloor and along the shoreline. After subjecting the Raleigh to another round of intense blasting, divers amassed a full cargo of items which then sailed to be auctioned in the U.S. After a brief stopover in Corner Brook to refuel, witnesses reported watching the heavily laden Sandbeach heading back to sea on its next leg to Halifax. It would never be seen again. Over the following days, much wreckage as well as battered and scalded bodies were found along the shoreline between Highlands and Fischells, which lay just south of Corner Brook. A court of inquiry would later conclude that the Sandbeach, fully loaded with salvaged items, recovery equipment and several cases of dynamite, was destroyed by a violent explosion. In a strange twist of fate, Raleigh’s most sought after relics of fittings, brass, and copper now lie on the seafloor at an entirely different location off southwest Newfoundland.
ABOVE: 1922-2012 – Photo montage of the HMS Raleigh wreck site. Photo from August 9, 1922 superimposed on photo from August 9, 2012. Image © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
2012 Mission Revisits the Raleigh
Notwithstanding the anticipated pitiful state of the shipwreck in 2012, the key objectives were to map and document the Raleigh’s remains and to record the stories of some of the few surviving actors that witnessed the event or its immediate aftermath nearly a century before. Upon initially walking down the path to the wreck site, we caught our first glimpse of the Raleigh in the form of rusting debris of all types and sizes, including pieces from a boiler, much steel plating and what appeared to be turret armature. Upon closer inspection, the beach was still littered with broken sticks of cordite, a smokeless explosive that replaced gunpowder as a propellant for projectiles and that made for an ear-splitting distraction for two generations of daring children in L’Anse Amour. Much to our surprise, the cordite apparently still ignites straightaway even after prolonged exposure to seawater.
Upon initial arrival at Point-Amour, strong winds and crashing waves made diving impossible and we feared the worst but the weather cooperated for the remainder of the mission despite inclement marine forecasts. Over a period of four days and under license by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, most of the wreck’s key features and notable artifacts were thus recorded and buoyed by the dive team for mapping. The overall length of the wreck and debris field was also measured at nearly 200 m (650 ft).
In Forteau Bay, we used the very same dock that had been approached to a mere 20 m by Kapitanleutnant Paul Hartwig’s U-517 in August 1942, exactly 70 years after the German submarine was forced to crash dive into the precariously shallow sandy bottom when it was spotted and pursued by a Canadian patrol vessel.
Due to slippery conditions and the long distance to travel on foot from shore, divers were deployed from boats launched in Forteau and neighbouring L’Anse-au-Loup. In Forteau Bay, we used the very same dock that had been approached to a mere 20 m (66 ft) by Kapitanleutnant Paul Hartwig’s U-517 in August 1942, exactly 70 years after the German submarine was forced to crash dive into the precariously shallow sandy bottom when it was spotted and pursued by a Canadian patrol vessel. Little did the captain know that a British heavy cruiser lay alongside… The same thermal layers that had caused the U-boat to unexpectedly hit bottom and that likely saved many a sub from ASDIC detection in the St. Lawrence, were also felt by the divers. On one particular dive, water temperature went from a balmy 16°C (61°F) to 2.2°C (36°F) in just seconds.
ABOVE: Expedition dive skiff and a diver splashing into the water seen through some of the wreckage from HMS Raleigh. Image © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
Forever a Warship
In spite of the unrelenting attack by the sea and salvers for nearly a century in the shallows (≅7.5 m / ≅25 ft) off Point Amour, the flattened remains of the 184-metre (603 ft) Raleigh quickly reminded the dive team that she had once been a redoubtable warship. And although clearance divers of the Royal Canadian Navy had previously undertaken to clear the site of visible threats, dozens of pieces of ammunition, including live seven-inch shells, still lay scattered about the wreckage over an area of approximately 200 m x 50 m (10 ha) (656 ft x 164 ft). Short of removing the tons of steel plating that conceals much of the remaining ordnance, eliminating all of the explosives as well as pollutants that periodically reappear due to storm action would be logistically and financially challenging. The remoteness of L’Anse Amour with its handful population may also be partly to blame. Were this shallow wreck located near a densely populated area, the site would likely have been thoroughly picked apart long ago.
Although individual sticks of cordite appear relatively harmless when compared to the large shells found on the wreck, one should be respectfully aware that at least three British battle-cruisers and crew of that era were lost due to the unsafe handling of the highly volatile substance.
Having been briefed on UUXO’s (Underwater Unexploded Explosive Ordnance) by the Department of National Defence, all divers were under strict orders not to disturb munitions of any type on the Raleigh wreck site. From carbine cartridges to heavy naval artillery shells, the bottom was littered with live explosives, some still fused, some previously blasted in half by navy divers. Loose sticks and pieces of cordite were also strewn about the seafloor. The thickness of the sticks, some still neatly stacked in crushed metal containers, would indicate that most of the remaining cordite was for use with the Raleigh’s main armament of naval guns. Although individual sticks of cordite appear relatively harmless when compared to the large shells found on the wreck, one should be respectfully aware that at least three British battle-cruisers and crew of that era were lost due to the unsafe handling of the highly volatile substance.
We observed numerous other implements of destruction amidst the wreckage, including a torpedo guidance system, a naval artillery range finder and the voice pipe for the aft gun control. It was also believed that salvers had removed all four propellers and yet our very first sight of the ship during the initial dive was of one of the massive screws lying flat with its blades mostly intact. One of the elderly locals who had partly made a living by salvaging metal from the Raleigh was instantly afflicted by ‘Raleigh Fever’ upon hearing of our “discovery.”
ABOVE: An ocean pout (Macrozoarces americanus) hiding under collapsed plating on the wreck of HMS Raleigh. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | Diving Almanac
Generous and Welcoming People
If the wreck itself was what originally got the expedition leaders interested in the Raleigh, it was the human story that would ultimately leave a lasting impression on Mack Sprague. “Ninety years ago, people from this community stepped forward to help strangers in need and that spirit is alive and well nearly a century later.” Local residents welcomed us with open arms and much pride. And just as they gave assistance to the crew of the Raleigh in 1922, our new friends from L’Anse au Loup to Forteau Bay bent over backwards to help repair a broken trailer bearing that threatened to terminate the use of Mack’s boat. We also received much assistance from management and staff of the Point Amour Provincial Historic Site where we established our base of operations in one of the lighthouse buildings. In short, our Labrador hosts treated us like family.
Their attachment to local history was obvious during the annual re-enactment of the Raleigh tragedy at the Point Amour Lighthouse, as it was in the homes of the people that we visited. The Raleigh lives on not only in memory for some families that continue to tell the story and to make use of some of Raleigh’s treasured gifts.
The Raleigh has also established a solid footing in local folklore as illustrated by the following excerpt from The Norfeld and the Raleigh by George Williams:
‘Twas early the next morning the Captain went on board,
His ship was stripped from end to end, and nothing left in store;
It must have been a blessing for ships to go ashore,
One of our British battleships is ashore on Point Amour.’