In late August of 1939 the clouds of war gathering over Europe were becoming very, very dark. Germany was poised to invade Poland at the drop of a hat. It was becoming clear, that unlike the conquest of Czechoslovakia the previous year, this action would likely lead to war between Nazi Germany, Britain and France.
Against this backdrop, On the 25th a German freighter sailed into Botwood to load concentrates from the ASARCo Mine at Buchans. With the outbreak of war, she was to be one of the first enemy vessels seized by the allies. Simple enough? The actual story is a little more complex.
The Christoph Van Doornum was owned by a German firm and was under the German flag, but the financing provided to the German firm in 1937 to purchase the ship, had been provided by a British firm. In 1939 that firm, William Cory and Sons, was still owed over forty thousand pounds sterling in repayment [i] In the event of war with Germany that money would be gone.
Even more intriguing is the fact that on August 25, 1939 while the ship was some 25 miles out from Botwood a cable had been received ordering all German merchant vessels out to sea or into a neutral port. The Captain of the Doornum had ignored the message preferring to take a chance on loading its cargo and getting out to sea before hostilities started.[ii]
The gamble failed. Shortly after loading the ore concentrates the ship was ordered arrested at the insistence of William Cory and Sons.[iii] Police constables boarded the ship and placed a guard on August 26. Soon a force of 10 police constables from Grand Falls, Botwood and St. John’s was assembled to prevent the ship and its crew of 25 of soon to be enemy aliens from escaping.
On September 1st Newfoundland customs officials sealed the ship’s wireless set. That day Germany invaded Poland. On September 3rd Great Britain declared war on Germany, that same day the local police constable ordered the ship formally seized. The swastika was lowered and the union jack raised in its place.[iv] The Christoph Van Doornum was now a prize of war. This act may possibly have been the first act of War on the North American continent during that conflict. The crew was soon shipped to St. John’s for internment. Here they were held at a camp at Pleasentville, until they were eventually shipped to camps in Mainland Canada.
In an interesting twist, the Christoph Van Doornum ended up being renamed the Empire Commerce and was at one point chartered by Bowater Newfoundland to be used as a paper carrier.[v] In June of 1940, while laden with a cargo of wood pulp the Empire Commerce hit a mine off of the coast of Kent and was severely damaged thus ending her days at sea.[vi]
[i] Bassler, Gerhard Vikings to U-Boats p. 225