This doomed ship saved Newfoundlanders — and defended Russians — before its demise 80 years ago

·3 min read
The S.S. Bellaventure is famous across the Atlantic for its roles in war and disaster. (Maritime History Archive Public Photo Catalogue/Memorial University - image credit)
The S.S. Bellaventure is famous across the Atlantic for its roles in war and disaster. (Maritime History Archive Public Photo Catalogue/Memorial University - image credit)

The strange tale of a heroic ship with ties to both Russia and Newfoundland prompted one Russian diplomat this month to mark the anniversary of its demise.

Russia's newest ambassador to Canada noted it had been nearly 80 years since the famous sealing ship, the S.S. Bellaventure, was destroyed in the Second World War.

In 1941, the Bellaventure — at that point christened the Alexander Sibiriakov, renamed after it was sold to the Russians — "started to work for the convoys and brave the more severe Arctic conditions, German U-boats and enemy fleet forces," said Oleg Stepanov.

The Bellaventure was fitted with guns, and its crew battled bravely in an encounter with a German warship on Aug. 25, 1942.

Its Russian captain and crew refused to surrender, Stepanov said in his early December speech, succumbing to enemy fire.

"Both the ship and the crew [are] legendary in my country," he told the St. John's audience.

Sealing disaster saviour

Prior to its second life as a warship, the vessel was an icebreaker that sailed among the ice floes of Newfoundland's shores.

Just before its sale to Russia, the Bellaventure was moored among sealers in 1914, the year of two simultaneous disasters that claimed 251 lives.

Memorial University Library Archives
Memorial University Library Archives

One of those disasters involved a crew of seal hunters that had been left stranded on sea ice for two days in frigid temperatures. Dozens had died from the cold, but some survivors managed to reach the icebreaker and request help.

"It's known as the rescue ship," explained Jenny Higgins, author of Perished: The 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster.

The Bellaventure's captain sent out his crew with blankets, stretchers and food to fetch survivors and board them onto the ship.

"It was decided that the Bellaventure would be the one that would steam back to St. John's … with the survivors and the bodies," Higgins said.

Tying together two worlds

The vessel's storied past has left its mark on the histories of two disparate places, Higgins said.

"It's in the curriculum in Russia, and it's also in the curriculum in Newfoundland.… It's interesting to see how ships just go off and take on a second life, or a second kind of mythology, in a whole other part of the globe."

Stepanov called the Bellaventure "our mutual legacy ship," one that has forever intertwined Newfoundland and Russia.

In Russia, the ship is "officially named a heroic ship of the war," he said. "This heroic deed is taught in schools. Children know about [it]. And because of the tremendous price my country paid in combating Nazism in Europe, we take it very close to our heart."

Stepanov offered stamps and a painting of the Bellaventure to patrons at the Crow's Nest, where he commemorated the upcoming anniversary of the ship's demise.

"We also remember and treasure the heroic sacrifices of our allied friends, and the Canadian input in our common victory is tremendous," he continued.

"So based on [those] positive pages of our history, I believe we have to get [future] generations educated about that, in order to bring our countries closer together."

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