New Britain Quartz Mine

A mysterious mine in New Britain, Colchester County, is rumoured to have been mined by the Canadian military during WWII, but like a wartime spy show, there are no known records about the operation.

The New Britain quartz mine, on Gerrish Mountain, near Five Islands, was a very small mine. The workings consisted of a tunnel about 10-15 metres long that followed a quartz vein.

The tunnel was on the west bank of the East River, about 25-30 metres up the bank from the river. Immediately above the tunnel, the vein was also worked in the cliff face where small openings can still be seen. The site is quite wooded today.

Most of the production was from one quartz vein. The vein is irregular in width but is generally 10-20 centimetres wide, although it reaches almost a meter wide in some places. Adjacent to the main vein are numerous other, narrower, extensional quartz veins, some of which have also been worked.

We have done considerable research but can find no records that tell us when the deposit was found and mined, or by whom. This is unusual. Most historical mines generated records that provide us at least some information about them but searches of files and requests to various agencies and organizations have turned up nothing.

It is said that quartz from the site was shipped to the United States for use during the war effort but we could find no documentation to verify this.

Quartz crystals were critical in the war because they were used in devices such as radios and ASDIC sets. ASDIC was an early form of Sonar and was a key tool on ships for detecting German submarines (U-boats).

Prior to the war, Brazil was by far the biggest provider of electronics-grade quartz crystals. A small amount of quartz was also produced by Madagascar, but it was a French colony and France was under German control for much of the war.

With the significant increase in demand for quartz during WWII, the Allies’ made a concerted effort to find deposits. A WWII document from Canada’s Department of Mines and Resources, called the “Prospectors Guide for Strategic Minerals in Canada,” encouraged prospectors to search for minerals needed for the war effort, including quartz. The Guide said, “…the discovery of economic deposits would be a real contribution to Dominion, Empire and Allied security.” It emphasized that “…national freedom itself is at stake.”

Canada became an important manufacturer of ASDIC sets starting in 1940.

ASDIC is often said to stand for Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee, but multiple sources write that this is incorrect and that the name was really a reference to the British Admiralty’s Anti-Submarine Division. The story is that the Oxford University Press asked the Admiralty in 1939 what ASDIC stood for and due to the passage of time – ASDIC dated back to the first world war – and bureaucratic mix ups, the Admiralty said it was an acronym for a committee that had never existed.

The ASDIC transmitter was located in a dome under a ship’s hull and it emitted a sound signal at regular time intervals. The sound waves travelled through water and, when they hit a solid body, bounced back as an echo, which was intercepted, amplified and then heard by the operator.

The return sound wave also set in motion a stylus that recorded the echo on a chart. Position was estimated based on the direction of the echo, and distance based on the delay between emission and interception. The operator would immediately notify the bridge of any suspicious reading.

ASDIC relied on quartz crystals that were cut into disks and used to convert electrical impulses into the outgoing sound signals (ping!), and then converted the response echoes back into electrical impulses. ASDIC/Sonar are similar to radar but radar does not work well underwater.

In 1940, ASDIC detection could locate a submarine, a whale or a school of fish at a distance of 2,000 metres.

The “Prospectors Guide for Strategic Minerals in Canada” specified that crystals had to be clear as possible (no white or cloudiness within the crystal) and free of any fractures, gas bubbles or other inclusions. The crystal faces could not have any naturally-occurring etched patterns. They had to be at least one inch in diameter and between 2.5-3 inches long. They should not weigh over 10 pounds.

The quartz that remains at the New Britain mine is mostly milky-white. However, clear crystals can be seen in broken rock on the ground and it is possible that clear crystals were the focus of extraction.

According to “A Bridge of Ships” by James Pritchard, 10,400 pounds of ore could produce 840 quartz disks, which were cut and polished at the Department of Mines and Resources’ plant in Renfrew, Ontario. Quartz shortages appeared early in WWII. By February 1941, only 6,400 pounds of quartz were in hand, almost 4,000 pounds short of minimum requirements.

By January 1942, the Renfrew plant had no quartz left and two-thirds of its cutting saws were idle. Staff would have no work for significant periods but then work double-shifts when the plant received a quartz shipment.

The first workable Canadian-built ASDIC appeared in July 1941. By the end of 1943, approximately 2,600 complete sets had been manufactured. In addition to being used on Canadian ships, Canadian ASDIC sets were shipped to England, British naval establishments around the world, the United States, Russia and Mexico.

ASDIC was considered a triumph of Canadian manufacturing and it played an important role in the war. According to the International Churchill Society, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote after the war that “…while ASDIC did not conquer the U-boat, without ASDIC the U-boat would not have been conquered.”