Margaret Martha Brooke, MBE, dietician, naval officer, war hero, paleontologist (born 10 April 1915 in Ardath, SK; died 9 January 2016 in Victoria, BC). Brooke was a nursing sister during the Second World War and survived the torpedoing of the SS Caribou. For her heroism immediately after the sinking, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), the first Canadian nursing sister so recognized.
Margaret Brooke was brought up in rural Saskatchewan, where her father was a farmer and her mother a schoolteacher. In 1933, she left home to attend the University of Saskatchewan and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in household science. She then moved to Ottawa to complete her dietetic internship and earned a certified dietician designation.
Second World War
In March 1942, Margaret Brooke enrolled in the Royal Canadian Navy at HMCS Unicorn, the naval reserve division in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Since there was no naval category for her profession (dietician), she was made a nursing sister with the rank of sub-lieutenant. She went on to serve in various naval hospitals across Canada and in Newfoundland. ( Newfoundland became part of Canada in 1949).
Sinking of the SS Caribou
While she was stationed in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Margaret Brooke survived the torpedoing of the SS Caribou. This was a ferry that regularly crossed Cabot Strait from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. Due to the threat of German submarines in the Atlantic, the ferry was escorted by ships from the Royal Canadian Navy. ( See Battle of the Atlantic.) Brooke and her friend, Sub-Lieutenant (Nursing Sister) Agnes Wilkie, were passengers on the ferry when it was struck by a German torpedo in the early morning hours of 14 October 1942. The minesweeper HMCS Grandmère immediately set off in pursuit of the German submarine U-69, in accordance with naval orders.
The ferry passengers rushed to the remaining lifeboats, frantic to escape. Many had to jump overboard. When the torpedo hit, Brooke and Wilkie put on their life belts over their heavy navy coats and went on deck where, in Brooke’s words, they found “one terrified mob.” Unfortunately, the two women did not realize that they should have jumped clear of the ship and were sucked under when it went down.
In a letter to her brother, Brooke later wrote, “How we got away from her, I don’t know, but we clung together somehow all the time we were under and when we finally reached the surface, we managed to grab a piece of wreckage and cling to that.” Shortly afterward, they joined others clinging to the ropes of a capsized lifeboat. A soldier pulled Brooke up onto the boat, and together they lifted Wilkie out of the water.
The cold October air and even colder water soon began to take its toll, and Wilkie developed hypothermia. She passed out and began to slip into the water, but Brooke grabbed her and hauled her back. She held on to Wilkie until dawn, one hand hanging on to a lifeboat rope and the other her companion. As Brooke later recounted, “I did manage to hold her until daybreak but then a wave pulled her right away from me. She didn’t suffer [due to unconsciousness] but it was so terrible to see her go.”
Of the 4,480 nursing sisters who enrolled in all three services during the Second World War, Wilkie was the only one to die due to enemy action. By contrast, 53 nurses of the 2,845 who served during the First World War died on duty.
After an unsuccessful search for the German submarine, the HMCS Grandmère returned two hours later to pick up survivors. Only 101 were rescued of the 119 civilians and 118 military personnel aboard. (See Sinking of the SS Caribou.)
Brooke’s award of an MBE was published in the London Gazette on 1 January 1943. Her citation reads: “For gallantry and courage. After the sinking of the Newfoundland Ferry S.S. Caribou, this Officer displayed great courage whilst in the water in attempting to save the life of another Nursing Sister.”
Did you know?
Margaret Brooke was the first Canadian woman and nursing sister to receive the MBE during the Second World War. However, she was not the only one so recognized. Lieutenant (N/S) Norah Deirdre Ross Hughes of the RCAMC was awarded the MBE on 5 January 1946. In total, 40 Canadian female military personnel received the MBE in recognition of their service during the Second World War.
After the war, Margaret Brooke remained in the navy and retired in 1962 as a lieutenant-commander. She returned to Saskatchewan and entered her alma mater, where she received a BA and PhD, majoring in biostratigraphy and micropaleontology. After graduation, she stayed at the university as an instructor and researcher. Brooke retired in 1986 and moved to Victoria, British Columbia, where she led an active life. She lived on her own until she was 97 and was in good health until the fall of 2015.
HMCS Margaret Brooke
On her hundredth birthday, Margaret Brooke received a telephone call from the Minister of National Defence. He informed her that the second of six new Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships would be named HMCS Margaret Brooke in her honour. Brooke was “astounded” and observed that “the navy doesn’t just go round naming its ships after people.” It marked the first time a Canadian warship had been named after a woman, as well as the first time for a living person. The ship was launched on 10 November 2019, to be followed by sea trials before delivery to the navy.