THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION: 6TH DECEMBER
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, (See illustration page),
was ideal for an anchorage to asssemble the convoys, and was used in both world
In December 1917, the Bedford basin was full of merchant ships. The naval escort
were in the outer harbour; opposite the naval intallations, 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
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; (star [*] on the illustration
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 (See illustration page).
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,
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,
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 untill
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,
(See illustration page), 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).
Link to The Illustration Page.
BACK TO MAIN
BIRD,M, (1995), THE TOWN THAT DIED. a chronicle of the Halifax Disaster,
Nimbus Publishing Ltd, Halifax, N.S.
HALPERN, P., (1994) A NAVAL HISTORY OF WORLD WAR ONE, UCLPress
KITZ, J., (1989) SHATTERED CITY: The Halifax Explosion, Nimbus
MONNON, M., (1977) MIRACLES AND MYSTERIES: The Halifax Explosion,
Lancelot Press Limited, Nova Scotia.
SAINSBURY, F., (1977) "Largest Wartime Explosion: Silvertown, London, 1917"*,
After the Battle, No 18, (pp. 30-34).
SPRINKETT, A., (1996), " Boy First-Class Alfred Sprinket", in The True Glory,
(Ed. M.Arthur), Hodder & Staughton, (pp. 93-96).
* This title does not take the Halifax explosion into account.