The short life and bravery of Telegraphist Sydney Shinewald recalled on Remembrance Day

We don’t know much about the short life and tragic death of Sydney Shinewald, but more than 75 years after his wartime murder, it is time to tell his story. 

Sydney was born in Winnipeg in 1925, the only child of my great-uncle Charles and his first wife, Jennie. He attended the Jewish Workmen’s Circle School, joined the YMHA and worked after school at the Hudson’s Bay Company.  

Sydney was a typical working-class North Ender until 1942, when he made a fateful decision: he enlisted. He was only 17 and lied about his age.

The Battle of the Atlantic was raging and Sydney fatefully joined the Royal Canadian Navy. After training in Winnipeg, Toronto, and Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., he set sail abord HMCS Guysborough to fight for Canada.

Sydney’s ship saw some action including on D-Day, when it swept the English Channel for mines, protecting Canadian and other Allied soldiers while they stormed the beaches at Normandy. The Guysborough then crossed the Atlantic again, sailing west this time, for Halifax where it was refitted. This gave Sydney the chance to return briefly to Winnipeg, where he spent his 20th birthday on Jan. 4, 1945.   

By then, the war was nearly over, but not quite won. And so, in early March 1945, Sydney and 91 other Canadians set sail to fight once again, this time from Lunenburg, N.S. 

As far as we know, the voyage east was unexceptional and the ship easily reached the French coast. But then, at 6:50 p.m. on March 17, 1945, a German U-boat torpedoed the Guysborough in the Bay of Biscay, killing two of the crew.  The Guysborough was disabled but the damage was not severe. The crew assembled on the deck and began waiting for an Allied ship to come to their rescue. They were given cigarettes to pass the time and calm their nerves.

That’s when the second torpedo struck, and it was a coup de grace. This was a war crime since the Guysborough, by then, posed a threat to no one. 

The ship sank rapidly and the men rushed for the Carley floats—giant inner tubes designed for 12 survivors to cling to the inside, with their lower bodies dangling in the frigid water. In the chaos, 42 men rushed for a single Carley float, so it too nearly sunk. 

But it was too late for most anyway. Many sailors ended up grasping to its edges or to each other, “like seaweed.” If he was still alive by then, Sydney was almost certainly among them.

Darkness fell, the abandoned Guysborough listed and the freezing North Atlantic was rough. A survivor later recounted, “Up and down with each swell, up and down with icy water seeping from mid-gut up to my neck, each time sucking a bit of warmth away…

I remember the total blackness of the night. I remember the eerie silence, only the gentle slushing of the sea around us, no one uttering a sound. I remember the hopeless feeling of isolation and the awareness that I would probably die soon. That I would never marry. Never have children…

With dawn there were fewer of us around the float, and as the hours passed, exposure claimed more. They just drifted away, dead or no longer able to hang on.  The more men the sea claimed, the closer those left got to the float.”

After 19 horrifying hours in the cold, rough ocean, help finally arrived, but it was far too late for most.  Only six sailors remained alive, clinging to the once overloaded float. Fifty-one uniformed Canadians perished, among them Sydney, bringing the total Canadian dead to 53. It was a massacre. 

Three weeks later, the Royal Navy sunk that same German U-boat. Its entire 53-man crew went down – one German for one Canadian. 

And just seven weeks after that, the Second World War ended. But Sydney and 52 others would never come home.

Telegraphist Sydney James Shinewald is remembered on a plaque in Winnipeg’s Chessed Shel Emes burial society building as well as on two modest veterans monuments in Winnipeg’s Jewish cemeteries.

In the farthest north corner of Manitoba, Lake Shinewald similarly honours his sacrifice. Sydney’s name is listed on the cross-topped Halifax Memorial, which commemorates the 3,267 Canadian and pre-Confederation Newfoundlander combatants who died at sea and who have no graves. 

Sydney was not merely killed in action.  A victim of a war crime, his cause of death was murder. Sydney was, therefore, one of the only Jews murdered by the Nazis who can, in no way, be considered a victim of the Holocaust.  Instead, he was a Jew murdered by the Nazis because he was Canadian. 

This Remembrance Day, nearly 77 years after his death, I will be thinking of my cousin Sydney—an almost unknown soldier who never had a funeral—one of more than 100,000 Canadians who never returned home, and a brave young man to whom we could never express our deepest gratitude. 

Benjamin Shinewald lives in Toronto.