An escort guarding Convoy QS-33 in the St. Lawrence River, HMCS Raccoon was attacked and sunk by a lurking U-boat. Four merchant ships were also sunk.
Aboard the HMCS Raccoon, Royal Canadian Navy Reserve sailors’ eyes scanned the surface waves for enemy vessels. The ASDIC provided underwater acoustics, pinging and listening for echoes of lurking German submarines. Previously a large American pleasure yacht named Halonia, the Raccoon was purchased by the Canadian government in World War Two, then armed and put into military service. On September 6, 1942, the vessel was en route with other escorts, guarding convoy QS-33. The group of merchant ships was plying the St. Lawrence River, bound from Quebec City for Sydney, Nova Scotia.
With the Flower-class Corvette HMCS Arrowhead in the lead, the eight merchant ships sailing in two rows were secured by a Bangor-class minesweeper, the HMCS Truro, two Fairmile motor launches and, a half mile astern, by the armed yacht HMCS Raccoon, ML 164. Visibility was poor at only about ½ mile and a misty nightfall proved black. Cautious by the perceived presence of U-boats, the searching eyes could see nothing. The ASDIC emitted a ping, its unreliable echoes could have been created by cold water, schools of cod… or an enemy submarine.
Merchant Ship Torpedoed in St. Lawrence
Jolting the quiet night, a torpedo slammed into the SS Aeas at 10:10 pm. Exploding, the lead merchant ship sank quickly. Examining the dreadful situation, “HMCS Arrowhead launches a star-shell to light up the area for boats picking up survivors, and her lookouts clearly see Raccoon zigzagging along behind, apparently hunting the U-boat,” said Charmion Chaplin-Thomas in “HMCS Raccoon and the Battle for QS-33.”
Prowling undetected under the deep waters of the St. Lawrence River, the German U-boats 165 and 517 stalked the convoy QS-33. After torpedoing the SS Aeas, U-boat 165 again disappeared into the deep. If Raccoon crew saw the submarine, they could not have made contact with the rest of the convoy – the vessel had no radio-telephone. Messages were sent by flags and Morse code by lamp or wireless, and “at night with a U-boat lurking, she doesn’t communicate at all,” noted Chaplin-Thomas. But U-boat 165 remained skulking nearby.
RCN Escort Boat “HMCS Raccoon” Missing
Three hours later, near Bic Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence early on September 7th, crew aboard other escort ships heard explosions. They saw plumes of water rise high into the air at 1:12 a.m. Since HMCS Raccoon was armed with a depth-charge launcher, the men thought it was the escort yacht detonating charges at the U-boat. Lookouts scanned the river, but the Raccoon was nowhere to be seen in the dark night. HMCS Fort Ramsay signalled the command for the Raccoon to report her position. There was only silence.
The U-boats were not finished with the assault on the merchant convoy. The other submarine, U-boat 517, prepared for action. In the late afternoon, enemy torpedoes were launched at the remaining merchant ships. In a mere minute’s time, three torpedoes struck three merchant ships, sending the vessels, the supplies and crew to the bottom of the chilly St. Lawrence River.
HMCS Raccoon Debris and Crewman Surfaced
That sad day in September 1942, four merchant ships were lost. Corvettes searched for the HMCS Raccoon but found nothing. Days later, only a few bits of debris and the body of one crewman, Lieutenant R.H. McConnell, were found. The armed yacht’s crew of 37 perished, including Lieutenant Commander John Norman Smith.
Twenty days later, a Royal Air Force aircraft sank U-boat 165 on its way home on September 27, 1942. The submarine commanded by Korvetten Kapitan Eberhard Hoffmann “was lost with all hands in the Bay of Biscay,” noted the entry on “Ship Details: Raccoon HMCS,” Kriegsmarine and U-boat History.
Armed Yachts in “Animal Class” of Vessels
The Raccoon was built in June 1931 at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. (The Bath company built pleasure boats and navy vessels.) Originally dubbed the Halonia, the vessel was a yacht purchased by Charles A. Thorne. Urgently requiring smaller ships for the war effort until new equipment was built, the Canadian government purchased the Halonia and other yachts early in WWII. Weighing a solid 358 tons, the yacht was refurbished as a military vessel and commissioned in June 1940. Painted battleship grey, the boat could travel at a speed of 11 knots. Originally patrolling unarmed, it was later fitted with a depth-charger and a 3-inch machine gun. One of 21 armed yachts of the Royal Canadian Navy (16 in WWII, 5 in WWI), the HMCS Raccoon was part of the “Animal Class”vessels used for coastal duty.
The sunken yacht’s name was resurrected twelve years later. In 1954, the Fairmile motor launch HMC ML 079 was renamed the HMCS Raccoon.
- Chaplin-Thomas, Charmion, “HMCS Raccoon and the Battle for QS-33,” National Defence and the Canadian Forces
- “The Naval Reserve,” The Naval Museum of Quebec