The Mystery Ships of Nova Scotia in the First World War by John N. Grant

In 1917, a small fleet of six schooners sailed from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland ports as live bait for German U-boats. This fleet of mystery, or “Q” ships were lightly armed and offered themselves up as decoys for the marauders threatening the convoys setting off from Canadian ports, their purpose tightly veiled in secrecy. The cunning behind the idea: lure submarines into close range, while making them think they’d captured a small civilian ship, then sink them with 12-pounders, Maxim machine guns and small rifle fire, a strategy the British Navy had put into place in Europe with some success.

“A small volume, this book tells a remarkable tale almost unknown in Atlantic Canada, not to mention anywhere else.”

Ridiculed on shore for not serving in the war, the crews were engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse with an enemy who could outgun and outrun them, who had the potential of sending them to a very cold, watery grave with a single torpedo. They braved the seas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Grand Banks for one season, facing both extreme danger and extreme boredom, then, as author John N. Grant puts it, “sailed into anonymity” their service was acknowledged by neither the Canadian government nor the Royal Navy in England. The ships were sold, and their crews scattered; some of the names of these men are still unknown–unrecorded and unrewarded.

A small volume, this book tells a remarkable tale almost unknown in Atlantic Canada, not to mention anywhere else. Grant weaves together a fascinating story of these brave men–a motley mix of civilians and professional naval men–pulled from the meagre sources available. As a sailor, Atlantic Canadian and a WWI writer, I found this book both educational and entertaining. Evoking the glorious days of wooden ships and iron men of the Atlantic coast, it combines this salty history with wartime feats of espionage and daring. Evocative, one can almost smell the tang of tarry ropes and hear the creak of weathered deck boards moving under your feet. The characters who made up these crews and the naval officers who ordered them to sea come alive through delightful little details.  

 In Grant’s conclusion, he writes: “There were no monuments erected to the men and ships of Nova Scotia’s Mystery Fleet. There are no plaques honouring the captains and crews…” And that is a real shame. However, there is now this book and this story told. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in our maritime, naval and wartime history, or anyone searching for a salty yarn that just happens to be true.

This book can be purchased directly from Breton Books here.

John N. Grant, a native of Guysborough, NS, is a graduate of St. Francis Xavier University, the University of New Brunswick, Dalhousie University and the University of Toronto. He taught in the public school system, was a Research Associate of the Atlantic Institute of Education, a professor at the Nova Scotia Teachers College, and retired from St. Francis Xavier University. He is a member of the Board of Historic Sherbrooke Village, the Little White Schoolhouse Museum, the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, the Nova Scotia Teachers College Foundation, and was a member and later Chair of the Board of the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. He has published articles and books on African-Nova Scotian history, the history of academic costume in Nova Scotian universities, the history of education, and local history. He has been interested in the Mystery Fleet since he was first told the story by the then elderly Captain Byron Scott in Sherbrooke, NS, fifty years ago.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Breton Books (Sept. 12 2019)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 170 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1926908716
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1926908717

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Heather McBriarty is an author, lecturer and Medical Radiation Technologist based in Saint John, NB. Her love of reading and books began early in life, as did her love of writing, but it was the discovery of old family correspondence that led to her first non-fiction book, Somewhere in Flanders: Letters from the Front,and a passion for the First World War. She has delivered lectures to the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, NB Genealogy Society, and Western Front Association (Central Ontario Branch), among others, on the war. Heather’s first novel of the “Great War”, Amid the Splintered Trees, was launched in November 2021.

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