By Susan Flanagan
The Crow’s Nest Officers’ Club is a refuge. Today it is a refuge from cell phones and iPods. Back in the early 1940s it was a refuge from German U-boats that lurked below the surface of the North Atlantic just metres outside the harbour.
In order to fully understand the role of the Crow’s Nest in World War II you have to appreciate that overnight St. John’s went from a poor coastal community of 40,000 to a full-scale garrison town; a defended port essential to the Allied success in World War II. Virtually every aspect of life was transformed by war. There were air raid drills, black outs, anti-aircraft artillery and militiamen to keep order. The first American troop ship to enter the harbour offloaded 1000 of the 13,000 servicemen who would be stationed at NewfyJohn. Army trucks now rumbled down dirt roads that formerly served as playgrounds for children who were treated to chocolate bars and bottles of Coke by servicemen. So many destroyers and merchant vessels filled the harbour that many ships were double berthed down the middle. St. John’s was so chock-a-block full of American and Canadian servicemen; there weren’t enough rooms to put them in.
To accommodate the sudden influx, barracks were constructed as fast as materials arrived. Mess halls, hostels and dance halls like the Caribou Club on Water Street and the Knights of Columbus on Parade Street provided meals and barn dances so servicemen could forget the horrors of war. But it wasn’t until 1941 when the head of the Navy in St. John’s procured a fourth-floor loft between Water and Duckworth streets that seagoing officers had a place to call their own.
It is thanks to Captain Mainguy, who recognized the mental toll the Second World War was having on his men, that young officers, after a tour of duty, could head up the 59 steps to the Crow’s Nest, order a drink, and let Sailor the resident cat, help them unwind. (Note: Sailor was a mother to eight sons serving at sea.)
It’s hard to fathom that some of the men for whom the Crow’s Nest was established were not yet old enough to drink or vote. Imagine these men/boys at sea for weeks protecting merchant vessels in their trans-Atlantic crossings or scooping up some of the 6,000 torpedoed survivors from the frigid North Atlantic. For naval officers stationed in St. John’s, the war was very close and the Crow’s Nest was a place to hide away from it all.
On opening night in January 1942 Captain Mainguy noticed a naval officer carving his ship’s name into the ceiling (the marks remain today, just ask barkeep Joy Griffin to point them out). Realizing he’d be fighting a losing battle, Mainguy decided to embrace the graffiti and proclaimed that any Allied ship entering port was welcome to decorate four square feet of wall however they saw fit. When officers from the HMCS Wetaskiwin heard this, they scurried down to their ship and took a painting called Wet-Ass Queen to display in The Crow’s Nest. The painting shows a queen sitting in a puddle of water shaped like Newfoundland – a play on the ship’s name. The sailors on board the ship then wanted a new Wet-Ass Queen painting for the ship and one was done on the wall that shielded the foremost gun. Thus the practice of gun-shield art was born. Ever since, the walls shielding the guns on destroyers have been painted to represent the ship and crew, much like the noses of fighter planes. And ever since Captain Mainguy’s pronouncement, naval vessels on their inaugural visit to St. John’s have bestowed gun-shield art measuring 2’ by 2’ on The Crow’s Nest making the walls a visual history of those who fought for Britain in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The walls today look exactly like they did in WWII. In fact visitors who make their way up the narrow steps to the fourth floor loft alongside the War Memorial feel like they are walking into a time capsule. Much of what they see is what those young officers saw 73 years ago. The big fireplace, the long wooden bar, the periscope from U-Boat 190 that surrendered off Cape Race at the end of the war.
One thing that has changed at The Crow’s Nest however is that now, whenever the door is open, women are welcome. In fact in 2014 the Club got its first female president. A far cry from when women weren’t allowed in at all, or when they could visit on Tuesday evenings as long as they “not clutter up the bar.”
President Margaret Morris, who spent 42 years in the naval reserve joining as a high-school student and working her way up to commanding officer with HMSC Cabot, is a treasure trove of information about the Nest. If you’re lucky enough to meet Morris at The Crow’s Nest, she will gladly share some of its history, like the story of the Spikenard Spike, the Barbershop Brigade, Newfoundland’s first prisoner of war camp, or how the German periscope ended up getting inserted through a hole in the roof by a crane.
The Crow’s Nest is catered by Red Oak, and is open to the public for lunch on Friday’s from 12 – 2 pm. Reservations are not required unless you are bringing a large group. Club dinners are reserved for members.Membership at the Crow’s Nest varies depending on where you’re from. If you live on the Avalon, yearly fees are $150. If you’re from outside the Avalon, membership will cost you $40 per year or $500 for your lifetime. And no pretending your primary residence is really your cabin in Terra Nova. That would definitely demonstrate a lack of OLQ (officer-like qualities).
The Crow’s Nest “Newfie Bullet” cocktail
When National Beverages Magazine called the Crow’s Nest, saying they were looking for a signature cocktail from each province, bartender Harold Hiscock used a crew of regulars as taste-testers, and The Newfie Bullet was born. “It had been a very pleasant couple of hours,” Horwood wrote of the affair, “because by the time everyone approved the ingredients, we were all half canned.”
The Newfie Bullet
11/2 ozs. Newfie Screech rum
1 oz. Newman’s Port
1 oz. Crème de Cacao
Dash of bitters
Slice of lemon
Top off with Ginger Ale and Soda
Serve on ice
Susan Flanagan is a journalist who believes that visitors to St. John’s haven’t truly experienced the city until they’ve spent an hour relaxing in the Crow’s Nest.