17 December 2016

the terrible story of The Halifax Catastrophe - Dec 1917

Halifax was first established as a fortified settlement by the English in 1749, and expanded to become the capital of Nova Scotia by 1900. It served as a garrison city for the armies of the British Empire, but when the British forces withdrew, Halifax faced decline. Fortunately the port facilities were developed, new fact­or­ies were built and this Canadian city became Nova Scotia’s commercial centre (pop c60,000).

Halifax was one of the best ice-free harbours in North America. So when WW1 brought thousands of allied cargo ships to Canada to await convoy to Europe, they chose Halifax. By 1917 the Germans had unleashed submarine war­fare, causing massive problems for the Allies.

Now consider the two vessels at the centre of the Halifax Disaster. Imro, a Norwegian freighter commanded by Capt Haakon From, was scheduled to leave Halifax for New York on 5th Dec 1917, picking up relief supp­lies for war-torn Belgium. Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship commanded by Capt Aime Le Medec, was due to arrive on the following day, and was laden with tons of the explosive lyddite, TNT, gun cotton and the highly inflammable benzole on deck.

Given the 24-hour gap between their intended departure times, Howard Baker asked why did these two vessels arrive at the same time, at opposite ends of the narrow channel linking Halifax harbour to the Atlantic ocean? Alas the Mont Blanc had arrived a day early, just minutes AFTER the anti-submarine boom sealed off the narrows for the night. And a delay in the delivery of steam coal to the Imro forced it to spend an extra night in Halifax harbour.
The relic of SS Mont Blanc,
in Halifax harbour 

The harbour was flattened
photo credit: New York Times

Immediately the boom was raised, early Thursday 6th December, the two vessels weighed anchor and steamed towards each other, but the waterway was normally wide enough for two vessels to pass! A later Court of Enquiry had to untangle the captains’ orders and signals that preceded the collision. No-one present on the bridge of the Imro survived to give evidence. Did the two vessels veer into each other’s path while trying to get out of it?

The impact drove the bow of the Imro through the starboard side of the Mont Blanc, slicing into the #1 hold and split­ting open the drums lashed on the foredeck. Benzole cascaded through the torn plating on to the lyddite below, just as the Imro reversed. Ignition was immediate; the foredeck of the Mont Blanc was ablaze. As his burning vessel drifted landwards and there was insufficient time to scuttle the ship, Capt Le Medec was powerless to do more than protect his men. Le Medec gave the order to abandon ship and in seconds the lifeboats were away.

As the blazing Mont Blanc drifted into Halifax harbour, the road overlooking the docks filled with spectators and trams slowed to all­ow passengers to witness the drama. Across the city people clustered at office windows and on factory roofs to view the spectacle.

The Halifax Fire Department dispatched its trucks just as the Mont Blanc ploughed into Pier 6 and came to rest. At 9 am, the Mont Blanc blew up! Capt Le Medec and his crew had reached the shore seconds before the explosion, and had fled along the beach, to survival.

The explosion blasted the vessel into fragments, split the bed of the harbour and sent smoke and debris surging 5 ks into the sky. The sea boiled and nearby ships sunk. Buildings collapsed; bridges were swept away; cars and trains were hurled around; railway tracks were destroy­ed. The roads opened into fissures, while trees and telegraph poles snapped away. Then the blast wave scythed down houses, factories, churches and schools. A hurricane of airborne wreckage roared back to fill the vacuum created by the blast, foll­owed by red-hot steel fragments that fell out of the sky. A thousand fires flared up across the city, fed by gas from fractured mains.

The crowds of spectators were hit by the full explosive force and were torn apart; the roadway on which they had congregated was first buried by wreckage and then swamped by the tidal wave that swept in. The boats tackling the fire were hurled away and their crews totally wiped out. The city’s Fire Chief and his deputy had reached Pier 6 seconds before the detonation, and they were crushed to death by deb­ris. Imro's Captain Haakon From and his crew were killed as the blast threw the drifting ship on to the shore.

In the city, 200 children and their carers died beneath the ruins of the city’s orphanage, as did 400+ of the worshippers at the Anglican church of St Mark. Of the 75 men working at Hill’s Foundry near Pier 6, only 2 survived. 100 of the children who had answered the register that morning at Richmond School were dead by 9.07 am. The Canadian Govern­ment Railway lost 69 employees.

Within 30 minutes of the blast, rescue teams were beginning to dig out the dead and injured, working in conditions made worse by a fierce blizzard. By 4pm the fires were under control, and the next day a relief committee was established to organise medical care for the survivors and shelter for the homeless. Note the burned out homes in the photo: 

 Canadian soldiers looked for survivors and dead bodies

Stunned survivors wandered around in the snow
The international response was impressive. Millions of pounds poured in from Britain, Australia and the rest of the Commonwealth. From the USA, special trains left Boston carrying medical supplies, 500-bed hospitals, doctors, nurses, orderlies, blankets and foodstuffs. Des­pite the massive destruction to the railway system, the main lines were cleared two days after the blast. Electricity and gas supplies were restored within a week. Nonetheless there were many locals, including officials, who thought far more could have been done to help the survivors restore normal life AND to remember and honour the dead.

In summary, as Howard Baker showed, the port city of Halifax had bustled with ships carrying WW1 troops, relief supplies and munitions across the Atlantic Ocean. We know SS Mont Blanc exploded and disintegrated in sec­onds, and 3.8 sq km of Halifax was destroyed. The Halifax Relief Com­mission reported 1,963 dead, 9,000 injured and 199 blinded! But this was an underest­im­ation since calcul­ations were confined to the recov­er­ed bodies of Halifax residents and could not account for the sail­ors lost at sea. SS Imo survived and returned to service in 1918.

Unbelievable photographs were taken by Royal Navy Lt Victor Magnus, a British sailor who'd been based in Halifax. Magnus was very lucky to survive the Halifax disaster - after the war, he returned as a Marine Underwriter in Essex, had a family and died peacefully in 1969. His photos have emerged nearly 100 years after they were taken and show the appalling Halifax Explosion. The photos were recently discovered in Cornwall by his daughter, Ann Foreman; she took them to the Imperial War Museum London in 2014.

A Memorial Bell Tower overlooks the area devast­ated by the Halifax Explosion. It commemorates those who were killed, injured, orphaned or lost their homes back in Dec 1917. In 2017 the Fort Needham Memorial Park will balance the needs of the local community for recreation space with the significance of the park as a respectful memorial for the Halifax Explosion.


Deb said...

It would have been bad enough had the ships collided and sank. The real catastrophe was that the munitions ship ran into the harbour and killed so many ordinary citizens.

Train Man said...

In Canadian history lectures, I think we have not examined Nova Scotia very much. I'd never heard of the Halifax Catastrophe.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is difficult to imagine why a disaster of this magnitude has been relatively forgotten. Perhaps because of the war, people were more focused on the news from the front, especially compared to a tragedy whose nature was accidental.

Also, people tend to forget even major events. In the U.S., the most famous city destructions are the 1871 Chicago fire, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, but these were large cities with connections all over. Most people, however, know nothing about the great Portland, Maine fire of 1866, or Boston in 1872 (although that was in a major city, and just a year after Chicago). I'll bet that in Halifax, the disaster is still talked about.
P.S. Here is a photo of the aftermath of the Boston fire:

Andrew said...

I have never heard of this tragedy. What an amazing tale and a terrible loss of life, and awful injuries. Long may you continue to surprise and shock me.

Hels said...


I understand that. In war time, ships are sunk, either accidentally or intentionally, and seamen by their thousands lose their lives. I am thinking for example of the Lusitania where 1,200 passengers and crew died in 1915. Yes it was a non-military ship, but a] it was sailing in what the Germans called a war zone and b] it was carrying war munitions during the worst years of WW1.

Most of the Halifax citizens who died seemed to be school pupils, railway workers, residents of an orphanage, wharfies and congregants in church :(

Hels said...

Train Man

true! Nova Scotia became one of the four founding members of Canada in 1867 when it joined New Brunswick and the Province of Canada in Confederation, so we cannot even say it was a very late joiner.

Newfoundland, for example, joined in 1949 so there would be little discussion of that province in my lectures on early Canadian history.

Hels said...


I wonder if local people really do tend to forget even major events. The Granville rail disaster occurred in January 1977, killing almost 100 passengers and crippling another 210. Clearly young people, born since 1977, might remember their parents' stories but they won't have an emotional response of their own. And outside Sydney, people will have no first-hand emotional response of their own, just second hand images gained from tv news broadcasts. But there are memorials every year, full of pain still.

When we were touring Chicago and San Francisco, I was very aware of the 1871 Chicago fire and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The guides discussed _in detail_ how the tragedies affected the cities' architecture, population spread, their economies, memorials built, World Fairs held etc..

Your point about the Portland fire of 1866 is well made. Despite having visited Maine, I had never heard of the fire.

Hels said...


same here! The Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower on Fort Needham overlooks the area blown apart back in 1917. It was dedicated, on a newly built church, in 1921. Did people outside Halifax know about the memorial bell tower?

Then a new tower in Fort Needham Park was built decades later (in 1985) and The Fire Fighters Monument was erected in 1992. I had to ask my Canadian colleagues what their tower and monument memorialised!!

Michael S said...

There was a novel written about it, Barometer Rising, by Hugh MacLennan. We studied it in high school, which made it not so attractive... but to get an idea of what was going on in Halifax at the time, it is worth a look, I think.

Hels said...


Many thanks, I found the book! The 1948 edition of Barometer Rising (with notes and questions for school students) is available in our National Library, Canberra. But note the book was banned from Manitoba (and elsewhere?) schools in 1960 because of the vulgarity of language. Did you reach maturity without any harmful, long term effects?

bazza said...

I had vaguely heard of the Halifax disaster but had no idea what it was so thank you for this comprehensive explanation. We have a tenuous hold on our lives and this kind of event could be around the corner for any of us. Let's all resolve to live our lives as meaningfully as possible!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabuous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


in order to humanise the story, "Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion" was a two-part mini series that was shown on CBC Television in 2003. There may well have been some serious historical inaccuracies in the programme, but largely its intention was honourable - to answer why did this terrible event happen to us? The answer was exactly as you put it - we have a tenuous hold on life and this kind of unpredictable, catastrophic event could be around the corner for any community on earth. Even when good people are on their knees in prayer or caring for orphans.