Every Haligonian knows the significance of Dec. 6, the day the First World War came home. Two ships, one carrying munitions, collided in the harbour and the resulting explosion destroyed a broad swath of the city and killed some 2,000 people. What few know today is that in July 1945, Halifax narrowly avoided an even worse disaster.
The Canadian Ammunition Depot, popularly known as the Bedford Magazine, was located on Bedford Basin’s northeast shore. It was a modern facility, originally constructed in 1927 and substantially enlarged during the Second World War.
The Royal Canadian Navy was decommissioning ships and discharging sailors at a furious pace, which could only happen after a ship was unmunitioned. The facility was bursting at the seams.
Everything from small arms ammunition to depth charges, anti-aircraft shells and tons of TNT, filled the reinforced magazines, stacked high on the wharf and piled in the open across the base. There were large stockpiles of RDX (Research Department eXplosive), a new, volatile and incredibly destructive explosive stored willy-nilly throughout the facility. If these had caught fire, the blast would have dwarfed the 1917 catastrophe.
As Haligonians sat down to supper on July 18, 1945, a beautiful summer day, explosions started booming from the Bedford Magazine.
The largest came at 4:00 a.m., on July 19, when a concentration of over 360 depth charges and bombs went up, leaving a huge crater. Officials evacuated Dartmouth and Halifax north of Quinpool Road.
For some 36 hours firefighters, including naval volunteers, struggled against the fire, finally overcoming it. There were intermittent explosions but the dreaded giant blast never came.
Within a week Mayor Allen M. Butler, writing in The Chronicle, was calling for the magazine’s closure. The Halifax Herald asked, “Did ammunition dumps grow up in the Bedford depot to an extent that overtaxed the facilities of the establishment, having regard to the safety factor?”
Vice-Admiral G. C. Jones was planning a Naval Board of Inquiry. It would conclude the initial fire, “was due to unauthorized smoking” compounded by, “the over stowing of Magazine Buildings and the stowage of explosive stores in the open.”
In April 1946 the RCN announced, “Most of the magazines destroyed in last July’s explosion at Bedford will not be rebuilt…The Halifax magazine will primarily be used in future for servicing the fleet operating out of the port and in such a capacity, will not be required to handle the large quantities of explosives it contained at the time of last year’s accident.”
There was only one fatality: the sailor who sounded the alarm. Patrolman Henry Raymond Craig, 33, “attempted to proceed to the scene to help extinguish the fire. He was killed by the ensuing explosion before he could reach the scene,” according to his mention in dispatches.