The Sinking Of The S.S. Nerissa
BY 2/LT J.L. Saull
During the war years thousands of Canadian Servicemen were dispatched from Halifax on their way overseas to England with a total loss of only 110 lives through a single torpedoing. The tragic yet unique loss of the SS NERISSA on the night of the 30th of April, 1941, serves to emphasize the effectiveness of the precautions taken by the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy in their tremendous task. Few persons in Canada remember the Nerissa, but her name will be forever imprinted in the mind of the author, who had the doubtful privilege of being aboard her on that last fateful voyage.
We were indeed a motley crew who boarded her on a Sunday night, 20th of April 1941, in Halifax Harbour. Canadian Army Personnel totaled 145 all ranks, made up of a handful of specialist officers, the bulk of the personnel being clerks of various Corps. The total complement of 306 on board was comprised of crew, RAF personnel returning home following training, technicians from the Northern Electric Company in Montreal, nurses and English civilians. Among the civilians was a young couple accompanied by their three children.
Early on the morning of the 21st of April we sailed in convoy and maintained our position for approximately half a day, when we broke off and made for St. John's, Newfoundland. On arrival there at about 0600 hours on the 23rd, all passengers were allowed to disembark and we spent a delightful day exploring the town. This, incidentally, was the writer's birthday and it was most pleasant to be afforded the opportunity of spending it on land.
We sailed out of St. John's Harbour at nightfall and were then informed that the rest of the journey would be made without escort. Most of us felt rather uncomfortable at the thought of the long voyage alone, but soon became accustomed to the prospect, and the many diversions provided by the antics of the she ship helped considerably. She was constructed in such a way as to cause her to continually roll, even on a calm sea. In rough weather this was augmented by a pitching action, with no lessening of the roll. This combination soon had everyone wishing heartily that the enemy would take a hand and end it all.
Quarters were adequate for the size of the ship, she was a 5000-ton freighter, the food was good and plentiful but no doubt the "plentiful" aspect was due to many of the passengers being "hors de combat." Life was easy and pleasant aboard, we were warned to wear life belts but compromised by carrying them. One attempt was made at life boat drill and, on being assembled on deck it was found that as the boat was displaying both of its characteristics at once, we were unable to stand. As a result, we were given permission to be seated and proceeded to listen to an officer who endeavored to convince us that war was real and war was earnest. The passengers were prevented from falling into the true spirit of a holiday mood only by the antics of the Royal Artillery crew who manned our deadly little Bofors Gun every time smoke was sighted on the horizon. The days passed pleasantly enough for those of us who were "up patients" until the night of the 30th of April.
The scene now shifts to about 200 miles off southern Ireland, the time 2230 hours with the blackness of the night being relieved only by intermittent moonlight. A fresh, cool wind was blowing when the honeymoon came to an end.
The torpedo must have lifted the small ship out of the water. It was delivered amid ship and without warning. When those of us still on deck at the time collected our wits we, inexperienced as we were, could sense the ship was doomed. All activity had ceased, power was off and there was a hiss of escaping steam. She was listing badly by the time we reached the boat deck. The order was immediately given by the Captain to abandon ship and this we tried with varying success. As the ship continued to list, passengers attempted the launching of lifeboats. Some managed this but many boats were knifed into the water and disappeared beneath the waves.
Whilst confusion was rampant, the enemy submarine dispatched two more torpedoes and the small ship split in half and sank immediately. There remained only the long night and the haven of a raft on which nineteen of us had collected. April in the Atlantic is unpleasant, we were constantly awash in the waves as the raft was overloaded and the piercing cold soon began to take its toll of lives. An inventory showed we were without food, water or cigarettes, and there was some doubt as to whether the raft was maintaining its level in the water. However, when it was still afloat by dawn we decided it was at least seaworthy.
Thanks to the efficiency of the wireless operator, whose devotion to duty cost him his life, a message was received at the Admiralty in London and relief was on its way. A Blenheim Bomber sighted us at 0600 hours and at 0750 the smokestacks of two destroyers appeared. After circling for two hours to ensure the area was cleared, they closed in and took aboard the survivors. The crews were kindness itself and spared no effort in restoring us. They provided rum, food and cigarettes, and a fast trip to Londonderry, Ireland.
In the final analysis, it was learned that only one boat remained upright and this was the personal escape boat of the RA gun crew. They did excellent work during the night in managing to rescue some 35 survivors from the sea. Unfortunately, there were no women or children who survived. It was learned that the other boats, which were launched in an upright position, were later capsized by the suction of the sinking ship.
Of the 145 troops who boarded the ship only 35 remained and of the total of 306 persons on board, 76 only were spared. The Nerissa had sunk in four minutes from the time of the first torpedo.
RCASC personnel lost at sea
Note: There were 43 CMSC personnel on board. 33 were lost -10 survived
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