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Authors: Jennifer Crump

Tags: #JNF000000, #JNF025000

Canada Under Attack (22 page)

The existence of the weather stations was a closely held secret known only to a handful of scientists and to the officers of the U-boat who had landed it. The Canadians remained oblivious to the existence of the German weather station until the 1980s when a German historian found a photograph of a weather station that did not fit with the images he had seen of known German weather stations in the arctic. The coast looked much more like that he had seen in Labrador, Canada. He wrote to W.A.B. Douglas, the official historian of the Canadian Armed Forces. Douglas and members of the Canadian Coast Guard made a trip to the suspected location and were able to recover the remnants of the weather station. The historians had also discovered that a second weather station had been dispatched in 1943 but it had been sunk along with the U-boat that carried it in the Atlantic.

During the Second World War, Canada was home to several extensive military prisoner of war installations. One of these prisoner of war camps was in Bowmanville, just outside Toronto, Ontario. Camp 30 was located in a former boy's school and housed some illustrious prisoners including Otto Kretschmer, an infamous U-boat commander who had sunk no less than 42 ships before he was captured in 1941. In October 1943, the commanders of Camp 30 ordered that

Attack on Estevan Point

The east coast was not the only Canadian shoreline under attack during the Second
World War. Japanese submarines frequently cruised off the west coast, drifting down
from battles in the Aleutian Islands and other locations in the north Pacific. Most
British Columbians were blissfully unaware of the danger that lurked just offshore.
In the spring of 1942, two incidents occurred that severely challenged the sense that
the war was confined to battlefields far from Canada.

On June 19, 1942, a Canadian freighter, the
Fort Camosun
, was just
rounding the tip of Cape Flattery on the northwestern shore of Washington, when
it was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-25. Luckily the ship was carrying a
load of wood, which allowed it to stay afloat until it reached port. The attack on
the
Fort Camosun
was particularly frightening for British Columbia. Canada's
Navy was still tiny in the early days of war and the convoy system used to protect
ships on the eastern seaboard had not been duplicated on the west coast. The only
ships available to protect the west coast of Canada were the Fisherman's Reserve, a
motley collection of fishing boats whose owners and crew had offered their services to
the Royal Canadian Navy.

While one Japanese submarine was attacking the
Fort Camosun
off the southern
tip of Vancouver Island, another was turning its guns on the Estevan Lighthouse
on the northern tip of the island. The submarine fired 25 to 30 rounds of 5.5" shells
but failed to hit the lighthouse or the nearby village of Hesquiat. No casualties were
reported, but the attack marked the first time that enemy shells had struck Canadian
soil since the war of 1812.

In response to the attacks, the Canadian government ordered all lights doused at
the outer stations, which proved disastrous for merchant ships attempting to navigate
the area. A rudimentary early warning system on the outer islands proved to be only
slightly more helpful. Teams of watchers, consisting of a woodsman, a cook, and two
telegraph operators, were installed on the remote Queen Charlotte Islands to watch
for any sign of a Japanese attack on the Pacific. None came. The next attack was
launched in the sky rather than in the sea.

100 German officers, including Kretschmer, be shackled together in retaliation for a recent German order to shoot to kill Allied Commandos.
3
The German officers refused to cooperate and barricaded themselves in the camp mess, armed with iron bars and sticks. Unable to dislodge the POWs, Camp 30 called for reinforcements from another camp. One hundred guards from another camp, armed solely with baseball bats, arrived to help and attempted to storm the mess. The German POWs held them off for three days until an exasperated camp commander finally ordered his men to turn the camp's fire hoses on the mess. The Germans finally emerged and surrendered. The “Battle of Bowmanville” was over.

Additional attempts were made to liberate German POWs in the Maritimes. One U-boat, en route to a hoped for rendezvous with escaped prisoners from POW Camp 70, came under heavy fire from the Canadian Navy when the escape attempt was foiled. The Germans might have thought that the Canadian Navy was underfunded and unprepared, but by 1943 Canada was the third largest naval power in the world and controlled a fleet of no less than 400 ships. The RCN's efforts to expel the German U-boat menace were getting more successful. The Royal Canadian Air Force was becoming equally successful in its efforts to harass the U-boats. Even the Germans acknowledged that their naval efforts were stalling. In late 1943, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz despaired, “We've lost the Battle of the Atlantic!” The U-boat wolf packs had become flocks of lambs. The St. Lawrence was reopened in April 1944.

The German High Command, faced with the growing threat and a dearth of successes was desperate to recover their star U-boat commander, Otto Kretschmer. An elaborate plan was concocted in which Kretschmer would be removed from Camp 30 via a tunnel. A U-boat would pick him up in New Brunswick. The plan was expected to take nine months to complete. Throughout the summer of 1943 the POWs worked in shifts, digging the tunnel with tin cans. The dirt was removed in bags that were scattered over the rafters in the attic of one of the cabins housing the POWs. By the end of the summer the tunnel, dug 4.5 metres below ground, extended over 90 metres. Unfortunately for the ecstatic would be escapees, the Canadians knew all about their tunnel.

When the escape attempt was made only one man managed to get away. He was eventually recaptured in New Brunswick before he was able to meet the expected U-boat.

Surrender of the German submarine U-889 off Shelburne, Nova Scotia, May 13, 1945.

U-boats remained in Canadian waters until the end of the war. The HMCS
Clayoquot
was sunk near Halifax on Christmas Eve, 1944, and on April 16, 1945, the HMCS
Esquimalt
was sunk near the same spot where the
Clayoquot
had met her end. The U-boat that had taken the
Esquimalt
surrendered to the Royal Canadian Navy one month later and the submarine was recommissioned by the RCN before it was purposely sunk in an elaborate ceremony — in the very spot that it had sunk the
Esquimalt
— several years after the war had ended.

CHAPTER TWELVE:
THE FIRE BALLOONS

The Japanese Attack on Western Canada

The war in Europe and the war in the Pacific had dragged on for over five years, but in the rural Saskatchewan community of Minton it still seemed very far away. On January 12, 1945, the war came crashing down on Saskatchewan. An 11-year-old boy named Tony Frischholz
1
was one of the first to see it. As he walked along a rural road he saw a strange object bouncing down the road in toward him: a huge hydrogen-filled balloon, almost 10 metres wide. Tony did not know it at the time but the balloon also carried a payload of bombs, enough to destroy the entire Frischholz family. The balloon had already travelled several thousand kilometres across the Pacific Ocean and floated over the Rocky Mountains to drop its payload in the Saskatchewan badlands.

Others had also encountered the balloon that day. It did not take 13-year-old Ralph Melle long to figure out what the balloon carried. Melle was wedged between his uncle and his dad as they travelled in his dad's pickup truck on their way into town. The balloon suddenly appeared alongside the road and Melle watched, entranced, as the enormous globe slowly descended into a badlands valley. His father slowed the truck and all three jumped out to take a closer look. Melle unknowingly stepped on one of the incendiary devices. Luckily that bomb failed to go off, but another destroyed a fence when it suddenly exploded. The group noticed that the balloon and its dangerous cargo had strange markings on it, markings that were soon identified as Japanese characters and numbers.

The strange sight that Frischholz and Melle had encountered was a Japanese fire balloon — a
fu-go
— and it was one of nearly 1,000 that landed in Canada, the United States, and Mexico between the fall of 1944 and April 1945. Japanese engineers had designed the balloon bombs to take advantage of the continuous jet stream of air that occurs high in the atmosphere, which could be counted on to carry the balloons all the way from Japan to the vulnerable American coastline. Their plan was simple and might have proved devastating, if it had worked.

A Japanese incendiary paper balloon that landed off Point Roberts.

By 1944, the Japanese had suffered several major military defeats, including the Battle of Midway, and desperately needed a way to boost civilian morale, divert allied troops, and create a new battlefront on North American soil. Unfortunately, designs for the first Japanese plane capable of a trans-Pacific bombing were still on the drawing board so an aerial attack seemed out of the question. In the early 1930s, during the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese military had carried out experiments, using prisoners of war, with balloons designed to carry both biological warfare agents and military personnel behind enemy lines. The experiments had ended with that war but this new war, and Japan's recent defeats in particular, had renewed interest in those experiments. Japanese military officials conferred with meteorologists and decided that a bombing attack carried out with balloons might just work. The Japanese government hoped that the effort would provide them with a respite from bad news, boost civilian morale, and, with any luck, divert allied troops from other battlefields in order to defend the home front. The plan was to launch balloons carrying incendiary devices that would spark largescale forest fires in the vulnerable and notoriously dry Canadian and American west.

The Japanese military originally designed balloons that were six metres in diameter, able to stay aloft for more than a day, and cover a distance of 3,000 kilometres. But the balloons would have to be launched by submarines lying off the coast of North America — a dangerous prospect, particularly after the defeat at Midway. Faced with those challenges, Japanese engineers designed a much larger balloon — 10 metres in diameter — that could be launched from the islands just off mainland Japan. The balloons themselves were made of laminated panels of paper, shellacked and held together by a potatobased paste. A few were made from panels of silk. They were primarily constructed by Japanese schoolchildren whose school days were frequently shortened in order to accommodate their contribution to the war effort. Few people in Japan, certainly none of the schoolchildren, were aware of the purpose of the balloons. They probably would not have believed it even if they had known. The idea just seemed too fantastical. The reality was much more so.

When fully inflated, the balloons could hold in excess of 6,000 cubic metres of hydrogen.
2
A pressurerelease valve detected and released air according to changes in pressure. Hanging 16 metres below the balloon, suspended by ropes that hung like a chandelier, was a device that took measurements and controlled gunpowder charges that in turn released sand from sandbags that surrounded the device. Also on board were magnesium incendiaries, an antipersonnel bomb, an acid block to destroy any remnants of the device, and some magnesium flash powder to ignite whatever hydrogen remained in the balloon after it had touched down. The goal was maximum destruction and they used every piece of the fire balloon to achieve that. Japanese engineers also quickly discovered that if they kept the balloon's payload at less than 170 kilograms it could rise up to eight kilometres high, more than enough for it to ride well out of range of the Allies' radar and aircraft.

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