The Strangest Wreck on Sable Island?

Sable Island is frequently called “the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” because of centuries of shipwrecks that have piled up on its shoals. This island, a remote sliver of dunes and scrub far off the Nova Scotian coast, is Canada’s newest national park. Recently I became aware of a curious relic on the island, close to the West Light.

Sable Island UC from AT2

“Lifesaving” Universal Carrier, Sable Island. (courtesy of A. Taylor) note inventive “barrel” some wag has stuck in the front armoured plate where the Bren Light Machine Gun would have been fitted!

Familiar with Second World War vehicles, the photo, sent to me by a relative currently on the Island, clearly showed the low silhouette of a Universal Carrier, a light tracked-vehicle used for many roles by the Canadian Army from the early years of the War until the mid-1960s. My first reaction was astonishment, but there was an image or two online of the wreck, and a “Motor Museum” enthusiastic online article about building a miniature of this vehicle which explains: “Our model represents a Universal carrier which was used to tow lifeboats, a job previously been done by horses, up and down the coast to launching positions suitable for the crisis at hand. Little is known about it but it is our tribute to the brave souls who saved countless lives and to a weapon of war that ended it’s days saving lives not taking them.”

A fan of Sable Island lore, I decided to see what I could find out at Library and Archives Canada. At least some of the story comes out in 1946-1952 Department of Transportation reports about the equipment on the Island.  Shortly after the War, the DOT, then responsible for the facilities on the Island, was evaluating new lifeboats for the Humane Establishment, the lifesaving and shore patrol facilities.  Up to this point, horses or oxen had been used to help haul the boats (on a wheeled cradle) out from the station boathouses to launching sites. The file details tests of US Coast Guard designs for modern lifeboats. An idea was put forward that mechanical transport would be preferable to animals, and using surplus carriers seemed an inexpensive solution.

CWM_Universal Carrier no.2MkII

One of the Canadian War Museum’s carriers, painted with markings for the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, Royal Canadian Armoured Corps  (author’s photo)

There were mixed opinions of the suitability of a carrier, with some parties (including the Chief of Aids to Navigation) thinking it would soon be immobilized in the sandy dunes. Attempts at procuring a test vehicle were frustrated when a vehicle offered up from War Assets stocks in Debert, N.S., was found to have over 2,000 miles on it (DND ordnance personnel had advised the transportation officials this was too much to guarantee reliability). The eventual 1942 Ford carrier was shipped all the way from Longue Pointe Ordnance Depot, near Montreal, to Dartmouth, N.S., and sent out to the island in the usual steamer resupply on Canadian Government Ship LADY LAURIER, accompanied by a Willys MB Jeep (I have no idea what happened to this). After a lot of casting about online, I located this tweet and image:

Using the carrier to tow a trailer and boat-crew, early 1950s. You’d think pneumatic tires may have helped! (photo credit: Ernest O’Hara, permission graciously granted by Our Sable Island Home)

Whatever the trials and tribulations of this carrier on the Island, the era of modern navigation made shipwrecks (mostly) a thing of the past, and the stations were all abandoned in 1958. The carrier, like much else, became derelict. Today, it is a conspicuous wreck from the last phase of the Humane Establishment’s Century-and-a-half of life-preserving efforts.

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Captured First World War Searchlight update

This 120cm Siemens-Schuckert German Searchlight, captured by Australian units near Roy, Belgium was on display at the Canadian War Museum under the Voodoo jet, in Lebreton Gallery through late 2014. I previously posted about its history. It had been stored on a rack in the Transportation and Artillery vault, with the rear facing out. It is nice to see how intact it is, and that staff did a great job of reassembling the lens and components. No other similar unit has been found amongst the trophies brought back to Canada. I hope this impressive artifact finds a permanent home on display to visitors to the museum!

Siemens-Schukert large searchlight. Photo by author.

Siemens-Schuckert large searchlight, Lebreton Gallery, Canadian War Museum. Photo by author.

MG 08 Machine Guns: Belt-fed Malice

Author's photograph

The War Museum’s Spandau 1917 manufactured gun #4943d, complete with barrel armour, and muzzle and shield armour, water reservoir to circulate water through the barrel, and optical sight.

Dubbed the “Queen of the Battlefield” or the Devil’s Paintbrush (because of the way it swept across a battlefield in strokes), the MG08 Heavy Machine gun is one of the iconic weapons of the First World War. The German Army was well-equipped with Spandau and DWM manufactured MG 08s when the war began. Both the British Vickers and the 08s were refinements of Sir Hiram Maxim’s basic design. An 08 could fire as much as 500 rounds a minute, and was fed by a cloth sewn belt of 250 rifle-caliber bullets. The crew was highly trained to be able to remedy every one of the guns frequent stoppages (jams, etc.) quickly. 08s were carefully placed to maximize their effectiveness on the battlefield, and overlapping fields of fire gave way to cleverly placed guns that fired at oblique angles, to avoid tell-tale muzzle-flashes or frontal exposure of the crew. The July 1916 opening of the Somme offensive proved to Commonwealth armies that the MG08’s defensive power could not be overcome by waves of massed infantry assaults. The same lesson was learned in similar casualty figures in botched French and Russian attacks. Allied armies eventually trained specialist snipers (again the Germans had been far ahead in this) to eliminate crews. The Germans adapted by protecting the gunners with body armour and fitting the MGs with special shields to protect the gunner. The snipers learned to target the water sleeve on the barrel, to disable the gun. As long as static war prevailed, the MG08 had a huge defensive advantage. Still, combined tactics of preparatory bombardment, rehearsals, barbed wire cutting raids, creeping barrages, sniping, accurate counter-battery fire, close support from mortars (and rifle grenades), and squad level tactics that avoided masses of men grouping together, all helped lessen the losses.

MG-08 #2685, in the mud at Passchendaele, reconstruction of saturated, cratered landscape at Canadian War Museum

MG-08 #2685, in the mud at Passchendaele, reconstruction of saturated, cratered landscape at Canadian War Museum

These guns had held up many an advance, and battalions were very proud of their destruction or capture. Many Canadian Victoria Crosses (some posthumously awarded) were also awarded for eliminating machine gun positions. Crews could face harsh treatment by CEF soldiers who had watched their pals gunned down. The regular soldier thought of artillery as almost an act of nature, like a hurricane to suffer through; If you were unlucky, your sector got pounded. If you were really unlucky, “a shell had your number on it.” In contrast, the machine gun was personal. It spewed malice, in the form of spitzer-tipped, full-metal-jacketted rounds cutting across “No Man’s Land.” Astonishingly, about 2,500 machine guns, mostly of this type, were brought back by the Canadian government as war trophies. These are difficult to locate, as many were scrapped, many were sold off to private collectors, some went missing, and some ended up in museums.

U-Boat deck gun, the research continues!

Krupp 8.8 cm 30 calibre quick-firing deck gun, no. 1972, produced 1916

Krupp 8.8 cm 30 calibre quick-firing deck gun, no. 1972, produced 1916 (author’s photo)

Sometimes you go about as far as you can researching something, and you still don’t have the answers you crave.  This happens surprisingly often with museum artifacts, as the chain of provenance and the wealth of detail that might have accompanied the artifact breaks down, and what you are left with is partial documentation, rumour, enigma, and frustration!  Such is the case for me when I consider the German Ubts naval gun, 8.8cm, 30 caliber, serial no. 1972, produced in 1916 by Krupp, in their Essen works.  Today this piece is on display in LeBreton Gallery, at the Canadian War Museum.  This is a breech-loading, quick-firing gun that used a vertical sliding breech block.  It was likely an adaptation of a design for torpedo boats and other small craft, and could stand long periods of immersion in salt water. I have now researched this streamlined submarine deck gun 2 times professionally and now lately, because it has become a grudge match.  This gun is unique, and important, simply by its rarity.  There are no others in Canada like it, and indeed, there is not even what you would expect would be more common, a deck gun from a Second World War U-boat.*  There are very few of these in existence, and most were recovered from wrecks.  It may be the only WW1 Krupp gun of its exact type in near perfect condition.  The submarine campaign featured periods of restricted and unrestricted submarine warfare, where the imperial German navy tried to cut the supply lifelines to Great Britain and hamper the Allied war effort in Europe.  Deck guns were used for shelling ships when the sub was on the surface, to save torpedos, or to allow the crews to evacuate.  This gun might have sunk merchant ships and killed their crew members.

Krupp 8.8cm business end, showing the 32 groove right handed twist on the rifling (author's photo)

Krupp 8.8cm business end, showing the 32 groove right-handed twist on the rifling (author’s photo)

There are two origin myths connected with this gun: One note in the file gave some fairly recent information that it had been linked to U-91.  In the First World War, there were German subs named U-91, UB-91 (a smaller coastal boat) and UC-91 (a mine-laying boat).  UB-91s gun has actually survived and is on display in Chestow, England.  It is the larger 10.5 cm deck gun.  UC-91 was sunk in the North Sea after the war.  That leaves U-91, which is described in January 1918 as having been armed with the more potent mix of both a 10.5cm and an 8.8 cm gun.**  The second potential provenance is more strange, and features an army unit capturing (or at least laying claim to) the naval gun.  In an inventory of war trophy artillery in Ottawa in the interwar era, this Krupp is clearly IDed, but is listed as having been claimed by the 72nd Infantry Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (a Vancouver unit, today perpetuated by the Seaforth highlanders of Canada).  This unit’s involvement with the gun is a key mystery.  There are several possibilities, but they all seem a bit unlikely.  Could the 72nd have picked it up somehow after the war from one of the boats being scrapped along the French coast or in England?  Could both these provenance details be linked? For example, did the 72nd organize to have the gun brought back to Canada from where U-91 was being disassembled on the French coast?  The search continues.

*The closest thing to another submarine deck gun is a 76mm Japanese gun captured during the Kiska landings in the Second World War and today on display in Vernon, BC.  This gun was of the right type to have been used on a sub, but was in fact part of a coastal battery when it was found.

**Michael Lowrey, from Uboat.net, contributed many helpful details about this gun, KTB u-boat war diaries, German First World war submarine armament generally, similar survivors, and possible provenance.

Giant German Wooden Trench Mortars! Be Afraid…be very afraid.

This Australian War Memorial image of an Albrecht likely depicts the largest variety (45cm bore) of this odd weapon. (AWM E 02902)

This Australian War Memorial image of an Albrecht likely depicts the larger (35 or 45 cm bore) type of this odd weapon. (AWM E 02902)
Though they would seem to be the product of a deranged cooper, not a highly industrialized nation that produced Krupp super guns and mortars on mass scale, these were terrifying weapons in the trenches. They lobbed a massive explosive tin dubbed a “coal scuttle” by allied troops. It was a very simple cylindrical tin packed with explosives and iron bits. The weapon normally had a maximum range of about 600m. These came in 25cm, 35cm, and 45cm barrel sizes.  The bottom photo shows an erdmorser (buried trench mortar), which was usually buried in the ground with the rails propped against an embankment or trench wall to roughly aim it at an enemy trench.  The other photos are Albrecht mortars, whose barrels are constructed of wooden staves and reinforced by wire wound round them. 
Albrecht 25cm mortar

Albrecht 25cm mortar, Canadian War Museum (Author’s photo)

albrecht barrel with metal sleeve

albrecht barrel with metal sleeve, which should be along the lower interior of the mortar (courtesy Brome County Historical Society)

Erdmorserspeciallowres

This strange mortar was not an Albrecht, but an erdmorser (another type of wooden mortar whose breech end was buried in the ground, the long trough was then propped up to fire on the target). This appears to have been placed on a standard Albrecht mounting, but whether this was done in the field or for convenience by archives staff here at the War Trophies Annex is unknown. (LAC photo)

Trench mortars offered artillery support to troops near the front lines, and they were sited close to the firing line, making rapid communication and fire tasking possible (unlike fixed artillery located in the rear).  At the outbreak of war, the Germans could draw on many more well-designed mortars than Allied powers, which scrambled to adapt and improvise close-support weapons. Still, the Germans felt the need to produce these unusual wooden mortars.  In Canada today at least two of these rare and strange mortars exist: The Canadian War Museum had a nice example, and the Brome County Historical Society has an un-mounted barrel in the corner of its displays.  Both these are the 25cm varieties.