February 26, 1972
Fred Longland Report Declassified From Government
Classified Canadian Government Report
The Great Halifax, Nova Scotia, Disaster of December 1917, by Fred Longland
Soon after the start of the First World War I enlisted at Toronto in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. I was living at the time at Elmira, N.Y. U.S.A., and the move caused me a few heart burning, as I had a good berth with an electrical firm. On the other hand, there was my duty to the Old Country to consider, and the knowledge that most of my friends in Waterloo, Liverpool, were keen members of the 10th Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment, The Liverpool Scottish. By now this battalion would be training somewhere in England; perhaps already in France. Whether to join my pals in England or become a member of the Canadian Forces by enlisting in Toronto was the problem I had to solve. I must say the latter was more attractive, as the rates of pay for the Canadian “Tommy” was one dollar and ten cents per day, with the prospect of a handsome gratuity at the conclusion of service of 600 dollars or if preferred, a quarter-section of land in Alberta, with agricultural machinery supplied by the Government on hire-purchase.
Finally, I chose the navy and enlisted as a seaman. There was not much time wasted in preliminaries; a party of 20 men was due to leave the next day for Halifax N.S. via Montreal; a 30-hour journey. The recruiting officer seeing from my papers that I had at one time served as a lance-corporal in the Liverpool Scottish, put me in charge. To get this lot on the train, keep them from straying, too much liquor etc, was a thankless job. Anyhow it was accomplished, but not without real trouble when the train crossed the Quebec border from Ontario.
Quebec is peopled almost entirely by French Canadians then, as now, bitterly opposed to war. So when the names of the stations began to appear French, I knew we were in Quebec and wondered if the stories I had heard about their jeering at volunteers, were true. I was not long in doubt; as the train stopped at Trois Pistoles and our uniforms were spotted, the jeering began, accompanied by most unpleasant remarks, which it was just as well were not properly understood. I however caught the word “cochon” frequently and I knew what that meant.
When the train was en route for the next station, my wild boys held a meeting at one end of the car which boded no good for the jeerers at the next stop. An hour later St Genevieve was due, and I regarded our arrival with grim foreboding. Sure, enough as the train slowed down, our boys moved to the doors and when we had stopped, opened them quickly, grabbed a jeerer each who was lifted in bodily, dumped on a seat and sat on till the next station. As this next stop was St Jerome 3½ hours away, it can easily be understood what an uproar this started. I tried to intervene but was told to shut up or else! This went on until the situation got really alarming. We arrived at a junction with a stop of some fifteen minutes. As I feared, the conductor on the train, had wired ahead and two “Mounties” complete with red tunics, yellow stripes and gun in holster, boarded the train.
There was now no further argument. One of the “Mounties” remained on the train until we reached Montreal where we were charged with disturbing the peace. Then I had a brain-wave. I sent a wire to Aemilius Jarvis, a rich Torontonian, so-called “father of the Canadian Navy”, explaining our plight. His influence with the Naval Dept was soon felt as we were released and put back on the train at Bonaventure station en route for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
We pulled in at the old North Station at about 8.00 pm and were met by a petty officer, mustered our kit, and marched to the dockyard for H.M.C.S. “Niobe”.
I was now a seaman recruit in full training. Later on my attention was drawn to a notice stating that a competitive examination would be held at the Naval College. I entered, and I don’t think it was the result of the examination so much as the interview, which passed me. Sometime later I was appointed Sub-Lieutenant for N.I.D. duties. The change from the lower deck to the wardroom was a welcome one. I may sound like a snob, but the lower-deck conditions were really bad in the older type of ship during war-time.
Sometime after this I was appointed liaison officer to a Russian, Admiral Sternov, who with his staff had to return to Russia the long way, London to Halifax by sea, Halifax to Vancouver by train, and Vancouver to Vladivostock by sea, then the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow. So I joined them at Halifax. Unfortunately, a sad incident occurred on the train the second day out; Admiral Sternov’s young Flag Lieutenant blew out his brains; nobody knew the reason.
These Russians were real aristocrats, cultured gentlemen in every sense of the word, and the young man’s suicide cast a deep gloom over the whole party.
In due course I found myself back in Halifax at the end of October 1917, reporting to the “Niobe” for draft again. I think it was the end of November 1917 that “Seagull Patrol” was moved to Sydney, Cape Breton to deal with the German submarines very active outside this port and Louisburg and all along that coast up to the French Islands of St Pierre and Miquelon.
So here I was back again on the old “Niobe” reporting to the Drafting Officer. “Chippy” Carpenter was an old shipmate of mine and the next few minutes were happily spent in reminiscences and light-hearted conversation. Happening to glance through a porthole I noticed a ship inbound for the anchorage at Bedford Basin, and remarked to “Chippy”, “There’s no doubt about the nationality of that vessel; look at the size of her flag”. I left him and found my way up to the boat deck to take another look at the ship with the large flag at her stern. She was “Mont Blanc”, a French vessel arriving from Galveston, Texas with a load of explosives, 3,500 tons of T.N.T. and 3,000 tons of Luddite, as well as a deck cargo of benzoyl contained in steel drums, a very dangerous cargo. By this time, I had returned to the upper deck to take another look and found “Mont Blanc” well advanced towards the Narrows, the entrance to Bedford Basin, and at the same time a Belgian Relief ship in ballast outward bound was coming out. Maybe it was due to the latter being in ballast and so not answering her helm, but she appeared to lose steerage-way, and I could see at once, unless some miracle intervened, there would be a collision, and so it happened.
This was serious, and I moved to the forecastle deck for a better view. The next thing was a series of minor explosions as the benzyl drums ignited and exploded. By this time the fire had begun to get a serious hold, and a large column of black smoke rose from the deck of the stricken ship. I stepped on a bollard and placed my hands on the shoulders of a chief petty officer to steady myself.
Practically the whole ship’s company had assembled on the forecastle as the word “ship on fire” got around, and I thought “There’s going to be trouble here before long unless I am very much mistaken”. I turned to Jock standing next to me and said, “They’ll never put that fire out” and I had hardly spoken the words when there was a blinding flash, an awful shudder, and a bang which made me think it was the end of the world. I felt as though I had been hit in the face with a big flat board. There was a momentary stillness, and then boiler tubes, rivets, and jagged steel plate from the hull were flying all around us. I saw a large piece hit the foremost funnel of our ship and completely flatten it; flying debris destroyed our other three funnels. It was imperative to take cover quickly, but I could find none as the crowd on the forecastle deck must have thought the same. Every conceivable hole and corner were occupied; some were even hanging down ventilators. There was nothing else for me to do but to run the whole length of the deck to reach the after companion-way when I would be behind armour and safe. But the explosion had caused a large tidal wave to sweep across the harbour, lifting our ship to an acute angle and throwing me down violently on the steel deck. I had to crawl the rest of the way and thankfully reached the shelter of the after deck badly bruised.
What an unholy mess the main deck was in; 19 men lay dead without a mark of any kind on them and the wounded crowded the sick bay for attention. One poor fellow was bleeding to death and nothing could save him. It seems he suffered from that condition known as hemophilia when even a cut finger can be serious.
By noon the ship was on an even keel but adrift from her moorings. Willing hands rectified this, and a little order began to appear out of complete chaos. The scene in the harbour was unbelievable. Cargo ships partially wrecked, drifted about out of control; the Belgian Relief ship “Imo” involved in the collision, had been flung so far up on the Dartmouth beach that it took expert engineering to get her back in the sea again. A large tug-boat was reposing on No. 2 Pier, dropped there by the tidal wave. Four large cargo ships were complete wrecks with their middles cut out as though by a giant scythe.
I was detailed now to take a platoon and look for dead sailors on the streets, and in the schools, which had been turned into morgues. The bodies just as they were picked up, were in the boy’s side of the school, and when cleaned up a bit were laid out in the girl’s side for identification. It was my job to go into the streets and wherever I saw a pair of bell-bottomed pants, to heave out the remainder and lay it on one side.
At the end of this gruesome task, I returned to the ship and had a much-needed brandy in the wrecked wardroom. Then in walked a Commander who said, “Does anyone know of an officer called Longland?” I stood up and said, “Yes Sir, that is my name”. Then he said “There is a man in Victoria Hospital Emergency ward, badly hurt and in his extremity keeps on calling out your name. Have you any idea who it is?” I replied, “No Sir, but I will go along and see”. On reaching the hospital I was taken to where this man lay but could not recognize him at all. He was pitted all over with what looked like bits of cinder and was a nasty yellow colour. I was very puzzled when he started repeating my name and could not make head or tail of it and had to go away. For three weeks he was in a state of coma but when he came conscious, the hospital advised me, and I went down there again. He was sitting up in bed and nearly normal. He said to me “Hello Fred” and I found him to be a youthful friend of mine, the son of the Postmaster at Waterloo. He had remembered where I was serving and, in his extremity, had called my name. This man caused a real sensation in Halifax. He was the chief officer of the cargo ship just moored ahead of us but I had no idea at all he was anywhere near, else I would have gone to see him. The force of the explosion disemboweled his ship, killed most of the crew and the Captain, and blew him 150 yards on to a grass plot in the dockyard, where he landed naked except for one boot and a sock.
On my way back to the ship I was hailed by an undertaker and asked if I could identify an officer he had collected on the road. I found it was Rod Burnett the carpenter, without a mark of any kind on him. It seems that concussion of this kind causes a bubble to form in the blood stream with fatal consequences.
I had hardly returned to the ship, when news was received that the ammunition dump in the dockyard was ringed with fire and in great danger. Volunteers were called for and practically everyone who could respond, including myself did so, and all the ammunition was removed by hand to safety.
By now it was evening, and the sky looked overcast and ominous. Soon it began to snow, becoming worse as the wind rose to a gale. By the time it was dark, we were in the middle of the worst gale I have ever lived through, a real Canadian blizzard. There was further danger now in the harbour. Ships out of control were drifting about with the ebb and flow of the tide; I have never experienced anything like it. Halifax has a large harbour and now it was just like a wild sea. Particularly dangerous were two partially wrecked vessels on fire, one with a cargo of black gunpowder. We simply had to secure this ship, wandering up and down and from side to side in the middle of the harbour, as there was the possibility of another explosion. In such a crowded area, it would have been another disaster.
Eventually she was secured. When we went aboard we found that only one bulkhead door separated the fire from the explosive cargo.
The cruiser “Highflyer” anchored in the middle of the harbour and just back from convoy escort, was in a bad way. Her funnels and part of the upper deck were stove in and her casualties were 25 men killed and many wounded. The Lieut-Commander was on the bridge watching “Mont Blanc” burning when the explosion happened and was decapitated. The lower part of his body was shielded by armour, but his head was exposed to the blast. Her picket boat carrying fire-fighting apparatus, must have reached the doomed ship just as the explosion occurred. Our own picket boat under Boatswain Mattison left with the same object in view; both have never been seen since. The two crews were awarded posthumously Royal Albert Medals.
The French 75 mm gun on the stern of “Mont Blanc” was found six miles away, on the other side of the North West Arm, and the anchor three miles away.
So, ends an episode in my life I will never forget. I re-visited Halifax in 1932. Richmond on the side of the hill had been rebuilt but the marks of the disaster were still obvious. At the time of the explosion Richmond was a small suburb composed mostly of wooden frame houses. Overturned by the force of the blast, the stoves set fire to them and many people were trapped by falling timbers and roasted alive. Many had been at their windows watching the burning ships and were blinded by glass splinters.
When the hard weather set in, stray dogs became a problem which the naval patrol keeping order in the ravaged city had to tackle. The dogs were living on human carrion and were as savage as wolves. Volunteers to shoot them were called for and many were destroyed.
My ship “Niobe” was a complete wreck and I was transferred to Esquimalt B.C., where I was commissioned in H.M.C.S. “Rainbow”. I finished the rest of the war in her patrolling the Pacific.