Trevor Tasker 'The Halifax Explosion'



Trevor Tasker, November 1997

At 9:05 on the 6th December 1917, a munition ship exploded in Halifax harbour,(Nova Scotia, Canada). This explosion was so vast that it killed over 2,000 people and completely flattened two square kilometres of northern Halifax. This was the
greatest explosion of the Great war, and the largest man-made explosion until the dropping of the bomb at Hiroshima in 1945.

The war in Europe demanded and consumed vast amounts of people and materials from the new world. Halifax is a deep natural harbour, which was ice-free. since the 1812 war, the harbour was defended by a series of forts, Halifax was now a garrison town, as well as a naval dockyard and harbour. In early 1917 the admiralty officially introduced the convoy system to help reduce the losses from u-boats. The inner harbour, known as the BEDFORD BASIN, was ideal for an anchorage to asssemble the convoys, and was used in both world wars.

In December 1917, the Bedford basin was full of merchant ships. The naval escort were in the outer harbour; opposite the naval installations, One of these was HMS HIGHFLYER; a Hermes class Cruiser. In August 1914 the Highflyer had caught the
German ex-liner turned Armed Merchant Raider; Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse, refuelling at sea, and sunk her off the West African coast at Rio del oro, (Halpern 1994).

The harbour was also open to neutral ships, (though their crews were not allowed ashore for security reasons). One of these was a Norweigian ship the SS IMO, she was steaming alone, and had 'Belgium Relief' written on her sides to emphasise her
'neutrality' to u-boats, she was on her way to New York to load relief supplies for Belgium. The IMO was behind schedule by having to wait for coal, with this and being empty, she may have been travelling at a faster speed than normal, when she left
the Bedford Basin.

The French Ship SS MONT BLANC came from New York where she was loaded with a cocktail of explosives and volatile material. The ship had her holds lined with wood, using non sparking copper nails, but too many volatile cargos had been mixed together. The Mont Blanc entered Halifax with 2,300 tons of wet and dry picric acid; (used for making lyddite foir artillery shells), 200 tons of trinitrotoluene, (TNT), 10 tons of gun cotton, with drums of Bezol; (High Octane fuel) stacked on her decks. The Mont Blanc was on her way to the Bedford Basin, but arrived too late to be let through the anti submarine nets, and had to wait until the next day to enter the harbour.
On the morning of the 6th December 1917, the IMO weighed anchor and headed for the sea, while the Mont BLanc entered the harbour; the collided in the bottleneck known as 'the Narrows'. Some of the Benzol dums broke loose, spilling on the deck, and soon caught fire. The intensity of the fire, and it's volatile cargo, Captain Le Medec ordered all hands to abandon ship. TheMont Blanc on fire, drifted towards Halifax where she rested against pier 6.

At around 9.05 am the Mont Blanc blew up, the whole ship disintergrated. The pressure blast flattened the immediate area for two square kilometers, and devastated an area of 325 acres, most of the windows in Halifax were blown out, (Kitz,1989).
About 1,600 people were killed by the blast., eight crew of HMS Highflyer were splattered against the ship's superstructure, (Monnon, 1977). A mushroom-shaped cloud rose kilometres high, and 3,000 tons of the splattered ship rained down on the
area. The ship's gun landed near Alboro Lake (2km away), and the stock of one of her anchor's landed in a wood 5km away. The Narrows were boiling with the slashes of shrapnel, also falling were rocks;believed to had been sucked up from the harbour bed.

Next came the pressure wave which washed up the shore line and rocked the ships nearby, some from their moorings, some smaller vessels (e.g. Tugs) were overwhelmed and sunk. This man-made 'tsunami' travelled across to the shores of Dartmouth, it was funnelled up Tufts cove, (due north of the explosion) where there was a settlement of the Micmac; (native American tribe of the area). The whole encampment was washed away by the gigantic wave.

The Halifax area opposite the Narrows was heavily populated, a rising hill gave an excellent view of the ship on fire. Naturally there were many spectators, which resulted in high cases of blindness/eye injuries among the thousands of wounded, as glass windows shattered.

After the blast, the rain of shrapnel, and the destructive wave, came the fires. The blast had turned houses into kindle wood, and also overturned coal and wooden stoves, which were in widespread use due to the winter temperature. Being a Naval port and Garrison town, there were lots of 'disciplined and organised' rescue workers available, but an hour after the explosion a rumour spread that the Naval Magazine at Wellngton Barracks, (near Admiralty House), was on fire and there was going to be another explosion. There was a massed exodus away from the north, to citadel hill and the parks to the south. The naval magazine did not blow, and was made safe by dumping its contents into the harbour. Slowly the rescuers moved back to the area, however, by nightfall another factor was to contribute to the final death toll; the worst blizzard for years. "It was almost as if Fate, unconvinced that the exploding chemicals in the hold of the Mont Blanc had struck a death blow to Halifax, was now calling upon nature to administer the coup de grace". (Bird, 1995, page 108).

Other rumours were widespread. Halifax was being bombed by Zeppelins, or maybe a German Naval bombardment. Anti-German hysteria was high, which was taken out on survivors with German sounding names. Earlier in the year, in Britain, a munitions factory had blown up, even though it had been proved to be an accident, people prefered to believe it was the 'darstardly Hun'. This was proof enough, (Sainsbury, 1917). The same stubbon belief, that it was 'somehow' the work of the Germans, still persists in Halifax today, by some survivors of the explosion, (Kitz, 1989).

News of the disaster spread quickly and funds came from around the world, even as far away as New Zealand. Most of the rescue relief came from the state of Massachusetts who sent the most comprehensive relief aid from the port of Boston. Not only medical staff and supplies, but food, clothing, transport, and even glass and glaziers. Every year Halifax presents Boston with a giant Christmas tree to show that thier help in December 1917 will not be forgotten.

It is 80 years since the Halifax explosion, what is thier to see at Halifax? In September 1997 I toured the area. In the CITADEL there is a museum which graphically illustrates Halifax Military History, emphasizing the defensive forts of the harbour. At the MARITIME MUSEUM OF THE ATLANTIC, there is an exhibition with video, "a moment in time" on the 1917 explosion, with artifacts found on the site, one of them a clock, broken and scortched by the explosion is very poignant, a reminder that this was the largest man-made explosion until Hiroshima. Admiralty House, (which had its roof blown off in the explosion), is now the MARITIME COMMAND MUSEUM. Before the explosion Admiralty House was used as a naval hospital, one of the patients was Alfred Sprinket, who after the explosion left his bed, and went over to the house opposite,
which did not sustain too much damage, but had the door blown off, and found an empty bed to get into until rescued. (Sprinket, 1996) I stayed in a B&B opposite the Maritime Command Museum, and wondered if it was the same house that Sprinket had found shelter in. At Fort Needham Hill in 1985 a monument to the victims of the explosion was unvieled. The MEMORIAL BELL TOWER has a carillon of bells taken from a church in the blast area. At FAIRVIEW CEMETERY there is a memorial to the unidentified of the "Great Disaster". I found a headstone to four members of the Stacey family; all died
6th December 1917. There was a plaque by the headstone,to another family member killed on the same day. He was in the "66th Regiment". The local militia consisted of the 63rd Halifax Rifles and the 66th Princes Louise Fusiliers, (Monnon,1977). Also in this cemetery are 125 victims of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

The 1914-18 war was the first world wide war. Combatants came from many areas of the world, and the battlefields encompassed many continents and many oceans. Halifax was a part of that war, not only was she a major supply line to the trenches, (in people, horses, supplies and munitions), but for one terrible day; Halifax, Nova Scotia, experienced the death and destruction of this worldwide conflict. "A son of the Lieutenant Governor, Lieutenant Eric Grant, on leave from France, said that the sights were worse than anything he had seen in the trenches". (Kitz, 1989, page 60).

Trevor Tasker, November 1997.