Report Of An Interview With Mr. J. Gaffney
CHIEF OFFICER OF THE S.S. NERISSA.
7th May, 1941
We were bound from St. Johns, Newfoundland, to Liverpool, with 1,800 tons of general cargo. We were armed with a 4" gun, a Bofors gun, 2 Hotchkiss, 2 Lewis guns, P.A.C. rockets and 3 depth charges. The confidential books, with the exception of the wireless code which was locked in the wireless room, were thrown overboard in a weighted bag. The number of crew, including 2 Naval gunners and 6 Military gunners for the Bofors gun, was 112, of whom 3 were injured and 83 are missing. We had 175 passengers and 3 stowaways on board, of whom 123 are missing.
We left St. Johns, N.F. on 24th April sailing independently. We proceeded without incident until 30th April. During the afternoon of this day we were met by an aerial escort, consisting of 1 Lockhead Hudson aircraft, which remained with us until 1700 that night, when he was relieved by another machine which left us at 1915. The next we knew was at 2234 when in position 55 deg. 57' N 10 deg 06' W. we were struck by a torpedo in the engine room on the starboard side. The wind at the time was N.E. force 3 - 4 and the sea was moderate. The weather was cloudy but fine and the visibility good. We zig-zagged continually and at the time of the attack were on zig-zag No. 18. Immediately after the torpedo struck us the ship commenced to settle by the stern with a slight list, and the engines stopped dead. We were given orders to abandon ship. My boat, which was No. 1, and No. 7 boat managed to get away, but before the other boats could get clear, two more torpedoes struck the ship almost simultaneously. One of these torpedoes struck between No. 3 and 4 holds and the Chief Steward said that the 3rd torpedo struck the magazine, and that the exploding shrapnel was terrific and was responsible for killing many people. It was a very loud explosion. I distinctly saw a flame when the second torpedo struck us and there was a strong smell of cordite; but I do not know if a column of water was thrown up.
Immediately after this the ship took a heavy list to starboard and commenced to settle by the stern. As a result of this the boat deck was almost level with the water, and the people waiting to embark were almost thrown into my boat, causing it to capsize, and we were all thrown into the water.
There were 2 large rafts and upturned boats floating about in the water and a number of people managed to cling to them. I managed to stear clear of No. 1 boat and as I fought my way out I could just see the NERISSA's head sticking up out of the water, and I think she must have sunk in about 4 minutes. There were about 35 people hanging on to my boat so I swam to a raft on which were 4 people and climbed on to it. We eventually picked 16 more survivors up on to the raft.
About 2 hours later we saw 9 flares in the sky away to the South, and we thought that they were possibly from some destroyer which was looking for us. About ½ hour later I heard a 'plane passing over us; it sounded very much like a German machine to me, and we were doubtful about flashing. However I had a small torch with me and flashed an S.O.S. to the aeroplane. I do not know whether he saw it or not, but in any case he took no notice of us. During the hours of darkness, something passed us in the darkness and I am almost sure that I saw the outline of the submarine.
At daybreak a bomber circled us and signalled "O.K." and about 1 hour later the Destroyer VETERAN came out, and picked us up. We were later transferred to H.M.S. KINGCUP and eventually were landed in Londonderry.
We were carrying 5 bags of Admiralty mail and also a small amount of ordinary mail. This was all locked in a locker in the chart room which was not in any way damaged by the explosion, so there is no doubt that this mail went down with the ship.
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