In downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland, there is an old warehouse overlooking the harbour, that looks as anonymous as all the other brick buildings surrounding it. At least until you look at the roof…
For protruding out of the flat roof, is what appears to be a rather unusual looking aerial. It is thicker than you might expect, and the eagle eyed will notice it curves at the end. It is, quite improbably, a periscope from a Nazi U-Boat captured during World War II.
Even more incredibly, the periscope leads down into the attic, and into a secret bar which has remained frozen in time, much as it was during World War II when the periscope was added.
This perfectly preserved, secret club, known appropriately at The Crow’s Nest, was a hideaway and refuge for Naval officers fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic…
St. John’s is a beguiling, small city, in one of Canada’s wildest and most remote Provinces.
“A queer place, full of heights and hollows, corners and angles”, wrote one traveller in 1872. “A nebulous collection of wooden huts perched higgledy-piggledy upon the stony braes….the larger shops are very respectable and do a great deal of quiet business, for St. John’s being the emporium for the whole island.”
With its naturally formed deep harbour, protected by cliffs on both sides, St. John’s had been a perfect port ever since it was settled as Britain’s first colony in the 1600s. It would prove to be the ideal base for the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest campaign of the Second World War, running almost throughout its entire six years. It was fiercely contested between the German Navy and U-Boats hell bent on destroying the convoys bringing vital supplies to Great Britain from North America. “The struggle for victory over Hitler hinged on getting men, weapons, fuel and food”, wrote Jonathan Dimbleby. “For Dönitz, whose U-boats were attempting to sever the British lifeline across the Atlantic, it was a truth that gnawed at his very being.”
The convoys were protected by the Royal Canadian Navy as far as Iceland, where they were to be escorted to Great Britain by the Royal Navy. The U-Boats hunted in what became chillingly known as wolf-packs, and the desperate fighting was carried out amidst the freezing, perilous seas of the North Atlantic.
Most of the convoys left from Newfoundland, the closest port to Iceland, and St. John’s teemed with naval life. There were many officers’ messes throughout the city, but they were spread out, and during the nightly black outs, it was somewhat tricky to find your way back to ship. Captain Rollo Mainguy decided that what was needed was a central clubhouse for the officers, that was handy to the docks.
The attic of the old Butler warehouse overlooking the entrance to the harbour was chosen in 1942, rented out for the sum of one pound a year, and the officers of the Royal Canadian Navy had their hideout.
It was for official purposes, named the ‘Sea-Going Officer’s Club’, but it became known amongst the young officers as ‘The Crow’s Nest’.
Hidden away, it soon became a cosy, secret refuge from the horrors of fighting in the frigid North Atlantic. “Here the officers of His Majesty’s Navies and the Navies of our Allies engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic, sought and found a secure haven from the perils of the sea. From hence they went forth again to resume the fight”, reads a brass plaque in the clubhouse.
The secretive Crow’s Nest was, as it is today, suitably tricky to get into; entrance was gained via one of St John’s improbably steep side streets, that led to a discreet, narrow staircase of fifty-nine steps. At the top of the precarious staircase is a plain door with a brass plaque : ‘Crow’s Nest Officer’s Club – Members Only.’
It is told that the name was created by one Lt. Col. Peter Stevens, who after huffing and puffing his way to the top of the rickety steps ‘mopped his forehead and gasped, “crikey, this is a snug little Crow’s Nest.”
Today, the Crow’s Nest looks much as it did during the height of one of the most brutal, and vital battles of the war. It is snug and low-ceilinged, with a fireplace. The walls are decorated with colorful, hand painted, gun-room art from the ships that took part, along with mementoes from vessels lost at sea, and captured Germans. And just to the left of the bar, the periscope of U-190 that leads up to the roof. The Crow’s Nest is so perfectly preserved in time, that it appears as if the officers had just left for the sea.
The Crow’s Nest swiftly became a focal point for off duty officers. “Its fame has spread wherever Canadian destroyers, frigates or corvettes have tossed depth-charge patterns, or churned white water down an Atlantic hill to ram a surfaced sub”, wrote naval historian Stephen Leacock. “There are no membership dues and no charge slips; the member might not pass this way again. But the Crow’s Nest is as exclusive as any hideaway of the elderly and rich from the Halifax Club to the lush quarters of the retired colonel in faraway Victoria, B.C. The basic credentials for membership is participation in the Battle of the Atlantic. No other need apply.”
Getting into, and especially out of the Crow’s Nest was tricky, particularly after a few rounds of drinks. “Considering that there are fifty-nine tortuous steps in this ascent, visitors are often impressed by the fact that nobody has fallen down and broken his neck. To date, the only casualty has been a Norwegian lieutenant-commander who crept down fifty-seven steps successfully, fighting a ground swell every inch of the way, and in a sudden burst of confidence tripped over the last two and got a deep gash in his forehead.” – Lieut. Stuart Keate.
At first, officers leaving for the Atlantic would carve their names and ship into the wall. Captain Mainguy was less than pleased. Upon further reflection he considered that if they’re going to do it anyway, he might as well put an official clubhouse stamp on it : each ship was allocated four square feet of wall space, to do with as they pleased. Each ship began to fill their space with plaques, insignia and colourful works of art……angels hurling thunderbolts into the ocean at lurking U-boats, Popeye seizing German bombers out of the sky, favourite pin up girls astride Canadian corvettes.
As much as the officers were proudly championing their ships, they were also leaving behind a memory of themselves, before heading out again into the cruel sea, perhaps never to return.
On one central pillar in the club, there is a spike driven into the wood. The six inch spike came from the corvette, HMCS Spikenard. On the Crow’s Nest’s opening night, January 27th, 1942, in a competition between ships as to who could hammer a spike into the bar room floor with the least number of hits, Lt. Cdr H.F. Shadforth of the Spikenard did his ship proud.
But just two weeks later, whilst escorting a convoy to Iceland, the Spikenard was torpedoed by U-136, sinking with just eight survivors. The spike in the floor of the Crow’s Nest was sawed out and mounted on the pillar in memory of the doomed ship and her crew.
Sitting in the Crow’s Nest today, it is easy to picture the young officers, drinks in hand, crowded around the piano singing, and seeking refuge from the horrors of the battles being pitched in Atlantic. “Sometimes it was to have a drink”, explains historian and former Crow’s Nest President, Gary E.H.Green. “Sometimes it was to have the first hot meal in weeks. Sometimes it was to play a game of cards. Sometimes it was to sit by the fire and talk to fellow officers. The club offered combatants a forum for mutual support and it served its purpose well.”
One wall shows a shell casing painted in red and white stripes to resemble a barber’s pole. During the Atlantic convoys, strict radio silence was imperative to try and avoid detection from listening U-boats. To make the ships of the Canadian escorts distinctive from the massed merchant navy vessels, they painted red and white stripes on their funnels, looking a lot like barber poles.
Drink a whisky or a navy rum, or drink a gin-and-lime
Let inebriation be your final goal:
Pick a lady you’ve selected for a short and merry time
There’s merry men beneath the Barber Pole!
After grey skies that went slipping under keel
When we wallowed outward-bound from Newfoundland.
The Barber Pole Song
Hon. Surgeon Lt. Cdr Anthony Paddon, 1943
The end of the war saw the Crow’s Nest close its doors on June 13th, 1945. But the mass repatriation of officers returning from far flung theatres of war, saw St. John’s maintain a large military presence, and in 1946, the Crow’s Nest reopened, as it has done ever since.
Today, it is still a thriving, private member’s club for Naval Officers. Whilst stepping into the secretive attic does feel like stepping back in time, the Crow’s Nest is still a vibrant club, where current officers relax alongside veterans, and families of those who once served.
Navigating the steep staircase and walking down to the rocks that guard the harbour of St. John’s, it is still possible to see the rusted remnants of the vast wire anti-submarine nets that once guarded the narrows. Its a small reminder of the vital battle that once stretched across the Atlantic, that kept Britain from being forced into starvation, and would eventually bring supplies for D-Day. And overlooking the entrance to the harbour, is an anonymous brick building with a German periscope on the roof, that might be the most remarkable, secret bar you might hope to find.