On this day ninety years ago, an event occurred in the port of Halifax that is largely forgotten today, even though it was as devastating as the attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York. It happened as the Great War was raging and involved two ships that collided in the harbour and is simply known as the Halifax Explosion.
While working on my last book, Ocean Titans, I was aboard a bulk carrier called the MV Antwerpen as she was sailing up and down the eastern coast of North America. Part of that journey involved carrying a load of gypsum from Nova Scotia to Florida, and on a sultry evening in late summer we were outbound from Halifax’s Bedford Basin when the Antwerpen passed the site of the explosion.
At just past 2300 hours, the freighter was bearing up on a course heading of 121 degrees, making Slow Ahead as she passed beneath the MacKay Bridge and entered what is called The Narrows. We were following the course all outbound vessels take to leave this harbour, waters that have seen the passing of countless wartime convoys over the last century. As I stood on the starboard bridge wing that night, I realized we were also on the same course heading that another merchant vessel took nine decades earlier, a journey that would be short and exceedingly deadly.
Just past 0830 on the morning of December 6, 1917, the SS Imo was leaving the Bedford Basin bound for New York to be loaded with relief supplies for Belgium. She was about two-thirds the size of Antwerpen and had been a cattle carrier before the war, part of the White Star Lines fleet that also included the Titanic. At the time of her outbound transit, Halifax was a main transshipment point for men and supplies being sent to war torn Europe, with dozens of vessels coming and going through the harbour each day.
Approaching SS Imo inbound from the U.S. was a French munitions ship, the Mont Blanc, making for the Basin to join up with a convoy. Mont Blanc was laden with 400,000 pounds of TNT in her holds, as well as various other explosives and ammunition packed on her deck.
In an era before radio communications and traffic control was as regulated as it is today, the Imo and the Mont Blanc approached each other here in The Narrows, head on. The ships were supposed to pass port-to-port, that is left side to left side as on most automobile highways, but the Belgian relief ship was moving too fast and veering close to the French munitions vessel. Like two cars on a narrow country road, the Imo and the Mont Blanc were stuck in a deadly game of chicken: who would make the right move? In the end, neither did. At about 0845, the outbound Imo – on the same track that Antwerpen was following that evening – rammed her bow into the Mont Blanc. Sparks flew as metal careened off metal, igniting the explosives on the deck of the French vessel.
For the next fifteen or so, confusion reigned. The Imo drifted towards the northern shore of The Narrows, near Dartmouth, while the crew of the Mont Blanc fled their burning vessel for the lifeboats. Aflame in the waters of Halifax harbour, the Mont Blanc began to drift towards the south shore and Pier Six, as crowds gathered to watch the event. At about 0900 that morning, the munitions vessel was close alongside the pier when the TNT erupted.
View from a distance of thirteen miles of the column of smoke raised by the Halifax Explosion. May be the only photograph of the blast itself. (National Archives of Canada)
Within seconds, the Mont Blanc erupted in an explosion that would be the largest one made by Man until the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945. A mushroom cloud like no had ever seen before filled the sky above Halifax; the Mont Blanc disintegrated into 3000 tons of shrapnel worse than anything seen in the trenches of Europe; the buildings on shore were flattened, ships were thrown on their sides and most every window in the city was shattered. Over 1600 people died instantly; within days the toll would rise to 11000 people seriously injured or killed. It was said that for a moment you could see the bottom of the harbour as the water exploded upward. The devastation was beyond comprehension.
As Antwerpen passed the scene of the explosion, I remember pausing for a moment to think what it must have been like for the mariners on those two vessels, especially the crew of the Mont Blanc who knew what lay in their ship’s holds.
The price paid by merchant mariners of all nations in the last two World Wars was atrocious. There really is no other way to describe what these mostly unarmed men endured feeding the war effort. When it comes to a nation’s power at sea, the image of a cruiser, destroyer, battleship, aircraft carrier or submarine springs to mind. We believe these are the implements of political change by other means, to paraphrase Machiavelli. The term “navy” refers to the ships of war of a nation and though we might assume this to merely mean fighting vessels and their uniformed support ships, this ignores the importance of commercial shipping in times of conflict. Indeed, when nations go to war, their commercial ships can be transferred – by law – to the “Merchant Navy”, a fleet of vessels tasked not to support economic interests but, rather, the strategic interests of a country.
In the last two World Wars, commercial ships were invaluable in creating a lifeline between Europe and North America and the sailors who manned these paid dearly for their wartime contributions. To be a merchant mariner in either war meant you were far more likely to die than if you were serving in uniform on a naval vessel. To give you an idea of the dangers, consider that 534 Allied merchant ships were sunk in the Second World War just from enemy mines. That works out to about one in ten ships lost, because over 5000 cargo vessels were sunk in that war. In the Atlantic Ocean alone, 50000 civilian mariners died between 1939 and 1945, killed by U-boats, surface raiders, aerial bombardment or by the ever-present fury of Mother Nature. They died of horrible burns caused by explosions, gunned to death as they clung to flotsam or drowned alone in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
For their heroic service in helping to defeat the enemy, many merchant mariners found that once the war had ended they were treated as second-class veterans, denied pensions and other benefits accorded to their naval brethren. In Canada, it took until 1998 before these men received official government recognition and compensation. Unfortunately, little has changed. When it comes to war, the role of mariners remains as invaluable to governments today as it has throughout history, but their contributions continue to be overshadowed by others. Rarely has a conflict been waged without the support of sailors manning cargo vessels, whether it be the Trojan Wars, Napoleon’s conquests, the Korean Conflict or the struggle to remove Saddam Hussein. When Roman triremes headed across the Mediterranean towards Egypt, cargo ships filled with amphorae followed them, and the plunder seized by Spanish conquistadors in the Americas was shipped home on merchant galleons that would be attacked by the English Navy.
It’s interesting to note that since 1971, Nova Scotia has donated a Christmas tree to the city of Boston, in thanks for the assistance that was provided to the people of Halifax after the explosion. And while the Halifax Explosion brought the First World War in Europe home to Canadians on a horrific scale, it has never been properly commemorated on a regular basis, nation-wide here. That’s a tragedy.