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They were together to the end on a fateful ferry trip to Newfoundland

Sub-Lt. Agnes Wilkie (right), who died when the SS Caribou was torpedoed in 1942, was the only known Canadian nurse in the Navy, Air Force or Army to be killed by enemy action in the Second World War. Her friend and fellow nurse Margaret Brooke (left) was also on that ferry, but survived its sinkingand went on to live to be 100. — Contributed
Sub-Lt. Agnes Wilkie (right), who died when the SS Caribou was torpedoed in 1942, was the only known Canadian nurse in the Navy, Air Force or Army to be killed by enemy action in the Second World War. Her friend and fellow nurse Margaret Brooke (left) was also on that ferry, but survived its sinking and went on to live to be 100. — Contributed

Nursing sisters and close friends Agnes Wilkie and Margaret Brooke were plunged into danger when the SS Caribou was torpedoed 78 years ago today

For the 78th year now, the autumn leaves fall gently on her grave. She has rested in St. John’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery far longer than she ever walked this earth. Here Agnes Wilkie lies, half a country away from home. She is one of 137 victims of the largest marine disaster in Canadian history.

Back in 1942, the steam ship Caribou was the passenger ferry linking the island of Newfoundland with Canada. The young country’s train company, The Newfoundland Railway, operated the ship running between Port aux Basques and North Sydney, Nova Scotia. Although it was primarily a civilian ferry service, many people were upset that it was also being used to transport military personnel. It was feared the Nazi U-boats would therefore view it as a legitimate target. German U-boats had already been sinking ships up and down the St, Lawrence Seaway, five in September alone. Early in the morning of Oct. 14, 1942, those fears about the SS Caribou would become a deadly reality.


Today, Oct. 14, marks the 78th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Caribou, which went down in the early morning hours of Oct. 14, 1942. — Contributed
Today, Oct. 14, marks the 78th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Caribou, which went down in the early morning hours of Oct. 14, 1942. — Contributed

Agnes Wilkie was born in Oak Bluff, Man., and grew up on the Prairies. A small, demure woman, she was 38 years old when she stepped forward to serve, having already been nursing for some time at the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg. She had a reputation for being kind and extremely competent at her profession. The Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve was lucky to have her as a nursing sister, stationed far away from home on the Atlantic. She was barely six months in the service, and was now returning from her first leave, a trip home.


Ten minutes before four in the morning, all hell broke loose. The torpedo’s explosion threw Margaret across the room, landing on top of Agnes.


Travelling with her on the long train journey from Winnipeg was 27-year-old nursing sister Margaret Brooke from Saskatchewan. They had quickly become close friends. Brooke had already achieved a degree from the University of Saskatchewan and was certified as a dietician. She, too, had just finished her first break from military life, enjoying a nice visit with friends and family.

Their train arrived just in time to connect with the SS Caribou for the night crossing to Newfoundland. The ship’s crew was an uneasy bunch. Capt. Ben Taverner knew it was a full moon, and the smoke from the Caribou could been seen for kilometres. There was a naval escort, the minesweeper Grandmere, but it offered little comfort. After some delays, just before 10 p.m. the ship slipped from her berth and headed out into the Cabot Strait.

Settling in down in their cabin, Agnes and Margaret decided to look for their life-jackets “just in case” and figured out how to put them on before storing them away again and getting into bed. Agnes had also found a flashlight, which she placed by her bed.


Nursing Sister Margaret Brooke was honoured for her bravery. — Contributed
Nursing Sister Margaret Brooke was honoured for her bravery. — Contributed

Ten minutes before four in the morning, all hell broke loose. The torpedo’s explosion threw Margaret across the room, landing on top of Agnes.

“I knew what had happened, but for a second, couldn’t do anything. Agnes jumped up and grabbed the flashlight and climbed up for our lifebelts,” she later recalled in a letter to her brother. They also grabbed their naval coats and managed to make their way to the main deck. At this point they were lucky. Many other cabin doors had been jammed shut as the explosion twisted the frame of the entire ship and now, it was quickly sinking.

On deck, they found what Margaret described as “one terrified mob” as they struggled to get to their assigned lifeboat. It had been shattered. The sea was quickly claiming the ship. The two women did not know what to do next. Before they could jump clear, they were sucked under as the Caribou headed for the bottom. Barely five minutes had passed.

“How we got away from her, I don’t know,” recalled Margaret, “but we clung together somehow all the time we were under, and when we finally reached the surface, we managed to find a piece of wreckage and clung to that.”

Eventually, a piece of overturned lifeboat floated by and they were able to grab onto the ropes on its side, along with other survivors. A soldier, who had managed to climb up on the overturned boat, pulled up Margaret and then Agnes. But it was still pitch dark and there was no help in sight. Unknown to them, the escort Grandmere was under military orders to hunt the submarine. If it stopped to pick up survivors, it could be torpedoed as well. Hours passed. The cold and the wet started to take its toll. One by one, they slipped away.

The much smaller Agnes lost consciousness and let go, but Margaret reached for her and hauled her back, spending hour after hour clinging to Agnes with one hand, while holding on for dear life with the other.

The wind was picking up. Around daybreak, a big wave washed over the wreckage, and Agnes was gone.

“A wave pulled her right away from me,” she wrote. ”She didn’t suffer (as she was unconscious) but it was so terrible to see her go.”

Less than an hour later the few remaining survivors, Margaret among them, were finally rescued by the minesweeper.


The grave of Agnes Wilkie at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in St. John’s. —  Contributed
The grave of Agnes Wilkie at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in St. John’s. — Contributed

Later that day Agnes’s body was one of the few recovered by a fishing schooner that had joined the search. One hundred and thirty-seven soldiers, crew, women and children were dead. Agnes’s body was brought by rail to St. John’s and she was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. No members of her family were able to be there to say goodbye.

Margaret Brooke was the first Canadian woman to be awarded the Order of the British Empire for her bravery that terrible night. The citation reads: “For gallantry and courage. After the sinking of the Newfoundland ferry SS Caribou, this Officer displayed great courage whilst in the water in attempting to save the life of another Nursing Sister.” She remained in the navy until 1962, achieving the rank of lieutenant-commander and later earning a PhD in paleontology. Margaret Brooke lived to be 100 years old.


The HMCS Margaret Brooke. - Contributed
The HMCS Margaret Brooke. - Contributed

Shortly before she died, she was informed one of the Navy’s new Arctic and Offshore patrol ships would be named after her. The HMCS Margaret Brooke was launched last fall. Michelle Tessier from Grand Bank will be its first commanding officer. Tessier was recently quoted as saying, “In everything I do representing the ship that will bear her name, I aim to do it in a way that honours her memory and makes her family proud.”

Sub-Lt. Agnes Wilkie was the only known Canadian nurse in the Navy, Air Force or Army to be killed by enemy action in the Second World War. A lake has been named in her honour in her home province of Manitoba.

If ever you find yourself in St. John’s with a little time to spare, why not drop by Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the gravesite with the plain marker that simply says, “Nursing sister Agnes W. Wilkie R.C.N. 14th October 1942, and pay your respects. She deserves nothing less.

Reg Sherren is a freelance journalist and author of the recently released memoir “That wasn’t the Plan.”


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