THE GREAT HALIFAX EXPLOSION
I've spent a good deal of time on these Halifax pages discussing the fact that there was an explosion in Halifax in 1917, and I bet you are all eager to learn more about it. And so you should be too, because it wasn't just any explosion. It was the largest and most-powerful man-made explosion that the world had ever seen in the pre-Atomic Age.
We need to turn out attention to World War I and in particular the events of late 1917. The British had been busy throughout the autumn storming the Passchendaele Ridge just outside Ieper and the expenditure of ammunition and explosives had been astonishing. Of course, all of this ordnance needed to be replaced in a hurry.
British factories were already working flat out and in fact on 19th January 1917 a British munitions factory at Silvertown in the East End of London had departed for the hereafter along with a very large part of the neighbourhood and 73 of its employees, due to the pressure of work. One consequence of this was that ammunition and explosives had to be brought in from elsewhere, and one source was from the American side of the Atlantic. A great deal of other supplies and other items were being brought in from North America and it all had to come by sea. In view of the U-boat menace in mid-Atlantic these ships were brought over in convoys in which they could be better-protected. One of the main assembly points for the Atlantic convoys was Halifax
On the morning of 6th December 1917 several ships were leaving port to sail to Europe. One of these was a ship with quite an interesting history, being formerly a sister ship to the famous Titanic. The neutral Norwegian ship Imo had been built as a livestock carrier for the White Star Line's Liverpool-New York route and was known as the Runic. Now, however, she was sailing on an errand of mercy - to deliver relief supplies to the occupied Belgians.
As the Imo sailed out of Halifax, steaming into Halifax came the 3121-ton Mont Blanc. She had set out from New York looking for a convoy to join so that she could sail to Europe in company and in comparative safety.
And when you consider her cargo, you will understand why safety was a prime consideration for the Mont Blanc, for she was carrying anything but relief supplies on an errand of mercy. Reports of her cargo manifest differ quite considerably, but the best estimate seems to be that she was carrying 35 tons of benzol, 300 rounds of ammunition, 10 tons of gun cotton and 2,300 tons of picric acid, better known by its chemical name of trinitrophenol or by its common name of lyddite, the important constituent of artillery shells. In case that isn't enough, Mont Blanc was also said to be carrying about 175 tons of TNT.
I've mentioned that the entrance to Halifax harbour is arranged in a kind-of one-way system. Ships leaving port keep to their right side of the channel (the Halifax side) and ships entering port keep to their right side (the Dartmouth side), but due to an obstruction in the outbound channel, the Imo had moved across into the Dartmouth channel. Here, she found herself face-to-face with the Mont Blanc.
The Mont Blanc signalled to the Imo to move back to her own side of the channel but the Imo replied that she was planning to move even farther across, perhaps relying on the Mont Blanc to maintain her course so that the Imo could pass the Mont Blanc on the inside - who knows? That would seem to be the impression of the captain of the Mont Blanc, for he gave the order for his ship to turn to port, to move into the middle of the channel.
This highly-dangerous series of manoeuvres may well have been inspired by the speed of the Imo. She was reported to have been a fast ship and if she had had any kind of speed up while sailing out of harbour it would have been difficult for her to have made a sharp turn to her right. But how insistent she might have been to remain on her course and how willing she might have been to take part in these dangerous manoeuvres might have been quite another thing entirely had she known of the nature of the cargo that the Mont Blanc was carrying. Ships carrying explosives were obliged to display a mandatory signal - a large red flag - but for reasons known only to her captain, the Mont Blanc was not.
A tragedy might still have been avoided if both skippers had kept their heads, but suddenly and inexplicably, and also simultaneously so it seems, both captains had a dramatic change of heart and called for "full astern", the naval equivalent of an emergency stop. Suddenly losing headway like that, the ships drifted on the tide and current into each other and the bow of the Imo cut a deep wedge into the side of the Mont Blanc. The grinding metal produced a shower of sparks, and this immediately set fire to the Mont Blanc
A disaster here could still have been averted. The easiest and quickest way to extinguish a dangerous fire on an ammunition ship is to open the sea cocks and sink the ship. Even if the explosives were to continue to burn under water, the water pressure will deaden the blast. But the gallant crew of the Mont Blanc took to the lifeboats and fled the scene, leaving the burning ship to drift aimlessly about the harbour. A disaster was therefore assured.
What made matters worse was that in a densely-populated area like this where there was little if anything by the way of entertainment, a very large crowd of curious bystanders had gathered to watch the excitement, totally unaware of the deadly cargo of the Mont Blanc. Had they seen a red flag flying from the Mont Blanc, they would have been elsewhere. A long way elsewhere too, and pretty quickly at that.
Just 20 minutes after the initial collision, the ship collided with Pier 6 and set it alight. This was immediately followed by a blinding flash of light that caused not only the Mont Blanc to disappear, but also 325 acres of Halifax, a large part of Dartmouth, and a great many of the spectators.
It was estimated that over 1600 people were killed instantly and that nearly 500 others died later of their injuries (the total has been subsequently revised downwards to an official number of 1951). What does not seem to be in dispute is that of the local primary schools in Richmond and Dartmouth, only 10 children survived. More than 200 were killed in the Dartmouth School alone. Every child and member of staff at the Protestant orphanage at 1274 Barrington Street was killed.
Maybe it is wrong to say that the Mont Blanc disappeared. They were still pulling parts of her out of the countryside weeks later. In fact she was scattered to all points of the compass over a radius of 3 miles from the epicentre of the explosion. But then again, that isn't a surprise. The explosion, the largest ever in the pre-nuclear age, shattered windows 50 miles away and was heard as far away as Prince Edward Isle. As I mentioned elsewhere , a piece of something - it may even be part of the Mont Blanc - became embedded in the wall of St Paul's Church at the foot of the Citadel during the explosion.
A tidal wave, said to be of 50 feet, was created in the harbour. 46 other ships reported some kind of "involvement" in the incident, although that is not strictly true as a couple of these 46 ships were also blown to pieces with no survivors and so there was no-one available to report anything. One ship that sank in the harbour, the Sambro was not refloated until the 1920s.
And so with a story like that to tell, I was off to look for the scene of the disaster and any surviving relics.
But as for the scene of the disaster, I'm afraid that I was destined to be just a little disappointed, for there isn't really anything to see. Pier 6 has since been incorporated into the Canadian naval dockyard and is all fenced off from the public and so you can't go to visit it. My best estimates put it somewhere like just there behind that building.
There is a reason why I can be fairly certain about the location of Pier 6 because there is some kind of marker or line of sight. This gap in the line of trees here is said with quite some authority to have been specially created to lead directly to the scene of the explosion.
Just across the river is the town of Dartmouth and you can see by all of the modern construction there that either it is a completely new housing site or that there has been a dramatic clearance programme over there. And if you think about it, here I am up quite a steep bank, and yet over there the land looks quite open and relatively flat. Any explosion over on this side of the Narrows would rebound off the bank here and be reflected over the flat terrain just across there. It's therefore no surprise that significant damage was caused in Dartmouth.
You might be wondering where I was while I was taking that photograph. If so, I can tell you to head out of Halifax into the North End of the city, along Gottingen Street, turn into Young Street and then into Needham Street. And at the end of that street you will find Needham Park.
For some reason which only they themselves might be able to explain, the good city fathers of Halifax mention not a word of Needham Park in any tourist literature that I have seen and so it seems that it's being left to me to tell you something about it.
Needham Park is probably the highest point of the north end of the city and it was home to Fort Needham, one of the outer defences of the harbour. I'm not sure when it was originally built, because there is very little written about the history of the fort but it said to be armed with cannon and defended by a force of 50 men. It was refurbished at the beginning of the 19th Century and proper barracks were installed, but these barracks, and almost everything else that was here, were totally swept away in the explosion.
A memorial to the dead was erected here, overlooking the scene of the tragedy. Some bells, said by some to have belonged to a church that was destroyed in the blast, were recovered and installed here. At 09:00 every 6th of December, these bells ring out and a memorial service is held here.
It's really quite poignant being up here at the scene of so much death and destruction, and a quiet word or two was certainly appropriate. But I wonder what kind of quiet word or two was said up here on 18th July 1945 when an ammunition magazine around the corner on the shores of the Bedford Basin exploded.
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