Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

 War-Time Propaganda Whoppers

"Very few of the soldiers ... seemed to know what happened. They all thought the ship had been turned around on account of the mumps or measles on board." [Truth]
"She [Canadian troop vessel Awatea] was running along with a destroyer on either side when two subs rose to port and starboard. The one to port fired a torpedo and the destroyer on that side either got in the way or steered into its path to protect the troop ship."
"The torpedo hit the destroyer and its magazine blew up, killing all aboard." [Fable]
"I am to block all newspapers ... every effort is being made to keep it quiet." [Truth]
H.B. (Bruce) Jefferson, Atlantic Regional Censor of Publications, Halifax, August 24, 1942

"A streak of white had suddenly ribboned the ocean's surface as the wake of the torpedo headed for Awatea. It was seen aboard a United States destroyer in the escort. Its engines racing, the destroyer slashed its way to the side of the liner with its cargo of humanity and deliberately absorbed the torpedo intended for Awatea."
The destroyer was ripped to shreds."   [Propaganda]
Ottawa Journal, June 30, 1944 "Sacrifice of US. Saves Canadians"

"I have never heard of this. For the censor not to know? That's unusual. Jefferson knew about every ship movement and had access to senior naval sources. He heard all the rumours and talked with all the reporters. His journal shows that."
Stephen Kimber, journalism professor, University of King's College, Halifax
File    The USS Ingraham destroyer.

Halifax City, on Canada's east coast, is no stranger to disasters. In both World Wars, dreadful accidents occurred resulting in wholesale loss of life and destruction. In 1917, the harbour was full of ships reflecting battles on the near horizon with an assembly of transatlantic convoys carrying troops and supplies, including explosives to the war front. A Belgian relief vessel and a French munitions carrier collided in the harbour and soon afterward a massive explosion levelled a good part of the city, killing 1,900 people, injuring 9,000 and destroying 1,600 buildings.

Rescuers Work After the Halifax Explosion - Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-022744
Rescuers Work After the Halifax Explosion.  Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-022744
The second occurrence took place during World War II, when two troop ships, Awatea and Lititia set off bound for Scotland in a convoy of ships. "7:20 a.m. Awatea backs away from pier 20 and follows the Letitia to sea", wrote wartime censor, Bruce Jefferson, keeping careful note of all ship movement from Halifax Harbour. Nazi U-boats were known to lurk in the North Atlantic between North America and Europe.

The two troop ships had an escort guarding their passage; a U.S. battleship, a cruiser and 11 destroyers. The USS Ingraham, a 205-metre-long warship held deck guns and dozens of depth charges; steel barrels packed with explosives, primed to explode near submerged submarines. The battleship moved that day through dense fog off Sable Island, ten hours out of Halifax when it received a message that a German submarine had been spotted.

Immediately the destroyers began to move swiftly back and forth between the troop ships and supply vessels, searching for the submarine in the fog-shrouded atmosphere. Aboard the Ingraham its sailors had armed and unlocked the depth charges, in preparation for dumping them into the sea on a U-boat. It was dark as Hades with the fog laid over. Awatea's bow rammed into US Buck's stern and seven sailors, trapped in the destroyer, died

Five minutes later the supply ship USS Chemung sliced the Ingraham head on, splitting it in half and sinking it immediately. Hundreds of sailors trapped inside the ship drowned or were tossed into the frigid waters. The armed depth charges exploded, and the sea was churned into a bloodbath. Of the Ingraham's crew of over 300 men, 11 survived.

National Archives of Canada      A Convoy in Bedford Basin, Halifax, Nova Scotia on April 1,1942    National Archives of Canada

Awatea made its way back to Halifax, its bow ripped apart. The thousands of soldiers aboard the troop ship had no idea what had happened. The explosions were described to them as depth charges targeting submarines, hardly noted by most of the troops fast asleep when the collisions too place. Naval authorities were concerned to keep the true story of what had occurred from public knowledge. It suited their purpose to stick with the story of a German U-boat firing on the convoy.

In reality, a U.S. Navy board of enquiry report released at the conclusion of the war clarified what had really occurred. The escorts' sonar systems, likened to underwater radar, had in all probability picked up the presence of a school of dolphins. The heavy fog had disguised reality from a fleet on the lookout for the presence of ubiquitous and feared German submarines known to sink merchant marine vessels and warships alike in the North Atlantic.

 In New York City the East Coast Memorial recalls the tragedy and the memory of all those lost lives is memorialized. But during the war years although the censor may have had a fairly good idea of what had actually occurred, the story that went out served the war-propaganda drama machinery of the day, not the pedestrian verity of cause-and-effect.

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