SS Nerissa by Harry Butler
How does one begin a story that has not only been interesting but also has a touch of sadness at the same time?
SS Nerissa was torpedoed on the 30th April 1941 by U-552, a Type VIIC submarine under the command of Erich Topp, 200 miles north of Liverpool inward bound.
However, my story about Nerissa started some time ago also.
A retired Metropolitan Police officer friend gave me a copy of a London Police Pensioner publication, issue number 9, September 1998, which published a letter from a retired officer making enquiries about the Nerissa. He wanted to know if anyone could enlighten him about something he had read in a book, "The Fourth Service". That "175 North-West Mounted Police together with their horses" were on board the SS Nerissa when she was torpedoed by U-552. He had made diligent searches but to no avail and had asked if readers in Canada could furnish more information. One does not know if he had any success as the editor of the magazine did not respond immediately. Time went on and whilst on a visit to my son in Australia my grandson entered a Canadian memorial website for me. Someone had posted a message asking for information about the SS Nerissa. His uncle in the Canadian army had survived the sinking and he left a memorial to the victims of the Nerissa and Colonial and Canadian officers that served in the British Army during WW2. Sadly, for some unknown reason I was unable to send an email to that person.
Upon my return to the UK , via Albany, Western Australia, I went to a local library and whilst browsing through the military books I came across the book, "The Fourth Service - Merchantmen at War 1939-45," by John Slader. Low and behold, there it was, the reference to the "175 Mounties and their horses." Since then I have discovered the same claim in another book, "Atlantic Star," by David A. Thomas, ref. pages 75 and 76.
Time rolled on and when I eventually arrived home there was an email waiting for me from a lady in Canada - Ann Hentschel. She had found my memorial to Canadians lost on the SS Nerissa. She informed me that she was born in England but emigrated to Canada with her parents when she was a young lass, and that she had lost an uncle on the Nerissa, a steward in the British Merchant Navy. I was also to learn that over the years efforts had been made to publish a book. The Nerissa was the only troopship to lose Canadian troops en route to England in WW2. Ref. The Canadian Army 1939-45. An Official Historical Summary, by Stacey, C.R., Page 31.
The person interested in writing the Nerissa story had "passed the bar" but Ann had not given up. One delved away at the National Archives and ex-records. Time went on and another of the "quirks of life" was when I found a book and a contact on the Canadian internet. A pleasant person to chat to and, by an off-chance, I asked him if he had heard of the Nerissa, the only ship to lose Canadian troops during the War. One could not believe it when he told me that he had lost an uncle on the Nerissa. It turned out that he was Ann Hentschel's brother. Amazement would be an understatement.
Over a period of time I was able to assist the folks in Canada supplying bits of information. In the meantime two Canadian Army survivors had been found - Len Saull and Herbie Coles. I contacted Len Saull and informed him of my interest in the ship Nerissa and his response was terrific. Incidentally he had married an English lass who was a "War Bride". I have since met both of these chaps and their families.
Another indirect victim was John Baltus from Toronto. You may ask why I stated victim but John's father was lost on the Nerissa - one John Henry Baltus - when John was just nine months old. John (junior) was interested in my research about the ship and I was invited to meet his mother Mary at her apartment for lunch. I was to learn that the family had had a tough time. John presented me with a 177-page history of his family and a reference to the Nerissa story.
Meanwhile, Ann informed me that another person had made contact with her - Sheila Hewson - sister of Corporal Francis Gordon Harrison, CSMC from Saskatchewan, another casualty of the Nerissa. But this time there is a different twist. I will backtrack now.
Before I went to Canada (on the 28th August until 8th September 2003) Ann provided me with details of casualties washed ashore from the Nerissa. There are memorials in Canada and England remembering the men and women lost on the Nerissa. However, below is a list of men who washed ashore and are buried in the Republic of Ireland and Scotland.
Edward Gorton ROBBINS' headstone inscription includes the ship name SS Nerissa. This would indicate he was a member of the crew. He was a Sub. Lt. in the Royal Canadian Navy. Sadly his gravesite is located in an old derelict cemetery called Killaghtee Old Graveyard. Further down the road from Killaghtee is the Port of Killybegs. Here I found the gravesite of Corporal Duncan Bell, RAMC. His headstone inscription shows just his name and date 30.4.1941. I am led to believe a rescue ship may have been stationed at Killybegs during WW2.
I confirmed that the people mentioned below were on the Canadian Army Court of Inquiry List and the National Archives List of Casualties Lost at Sea - 334/100.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
Ernest Walter WINSPEAR; age 30; British Merchant Navy; deck steward; Upper Fahan Churchyard; County Donegal.
Edward Gorton ROBBINS; age 21; Sub.Lt., Royal Canadian Navy; Killaghtee Old Graveyard; County Donegal.
Duncan BELL; age 41; Corporal, Royal Canadian Medical Corps; Killybegs Cemetery; County Donegal.
Victor CLARKE; age 31; T/CSM. Royal Canadian Army Service Corps; Girvan (Doune) Cemetery; Ayrshire.
I have paid my respects to the above chaps on behalf of Ann plus taken photographs of the headstones. Next year (2004) I hope to complete the following:
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
Thomas Elvin MITCHELL; age 20; Lt., Carleton York Regt. RCIC; Kilcommon Erris Churchyard; County Mayo.
John Robert TOWNSHEND; age 38; Captain, Royal Canadian Artillery; Bonamargy Cemetery, County Antrim.
George Dixon MORROW; age 56; 2nd Lt., Royal Canadian Artillery; Ballinakill Churchyard; County Galway.
Francis Gordon HARRISON; age 21; Corporal, CMSC; Easky (Roslea) Cemetery; County Sligo.
Archibald Graham WEIR; age 55; Wing Commander, Royal Air Force; Kilcommon Erris Churchyard; County Mayo.
Kenneth Brown COLLINGS; age 42; Air Pilot - Air Transport Auxiliary; USA; washed ashore at North Uist.
John Victor TREE; age 38; Flt. Lt., Royal Air Force; Kilnaughton Military Cemetery; Isle of Islay, Argyll.
ANOTHER TWIST OF FATE
Whilst visiting Girvan (Doune) Cemetery in Scotland, low and behold another Canadian buried there, Sub Lieutenant Frederick Southam KER, RCN, lost from HMS Godetia 6th September 1940. She was in collision with the merchant ship Marsa sailing late at night and neither ship showing navigation lights. While in Canada I met his brother David Ker, living in a place called Dundas.
My visit to Canada coincided with Merchant Navy Day (3rd September 2003) at a place called Wasaga, Ontario. This fitted in with our plans to go there on our way to Ottawa. The League of Merchant Mariner Veterans of Canada, Toronto Branch. Our hosts were Mr. and Mrs Jack Stapleton (MN), 488 Moseley Street, Wasaga Beach, Ontario, LOL 2P0.
Harry Butler - October, 2003.
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