'Charmed' Nerissa Ran Dead Out Of Luck
By Dennis Foley
The Ottawa Citizen
Fifty years ago this week, telegraph messengers in Canada scrambled to their bicycles to deliver a batch of war telegrams.
They were next-of-kin messages, bad news from the Department of National Defence.
The messages were sent by mail to families in Ottawa and Hull, which had a disproportionately high number of sons on this casualty list.
The letter sent to Meyer Glatt at 428 Rideau St. stated:
Because of wartime secrecy, it could take months for families to learn what had happened. This time, though, the news reports spelled out the bare bones of the disaster.
First came a radio report about a noted war correspondent reported missing at sea.
The following day, May 5, 1941, The Evening Citizen carried a short, front-page story of two Ottawa soldiers and an educational officer from Glebe Collegiate missing at sea. No mention was made of what happened to the ship or the fate of other passengers and crew.
The extent of the disaster leaped out from a headline stretching across the paper's front page the next day: TOTAL OF 122 MISSING IN LOSS OF SHIP, OTTAWA AND HULL TOLL INCREASES TO 17.
Navy Minister Angus Macdonald had released news of the sinking in the House of Commons.
But there were few other details because of wartime restrictions on information. The name of the ship was never released, nor the final, higher, death-toll. Those facts, and others, were contained in secret records that weren't declassified until 1986 and 1990.
A total of 84 Canadian servicemen and nine civilians were among the 207 passengers and crew lost when the British-owned SS Nerissa was torpedoed. Seventy-three of the servicemen were soldiers, the Canadian Army's worst loss to that point in the war.
An army court of inquiry report, dated May 17, 1941, disclosed little. The two-paragraph document simply stated the Nerissa was sunk by enemy action near midnight off the northern coast of Ireland on April 30, 1941. Three officers and 32 military personnel of other ranks were saved; "13 officers and 60 ORs (other ranks) … perished."
There was no mention of the 11 Canadian sailors who also went down with the ship, or the loss of non-Canadian military personnel, civilians and 83 crewmen.
The army's cursory summation didn't satisfy John Ponting of Nepean, who had lost a boyhood friend and army buddy in the Corps of Military Staff Clerks in the sinking.
At the time, Ponting was also a clerk in the Corps. He knew there had been considerable internal criticism about the Nerissa sailing without escort while carrying so many skilled people.
But as the ship was under British registry and orders, any official inquiry into the sinking would have to be conducted overseas.
Ponting doggedly pursued the sinking through Defence Department archives and other sources. He finally collected enough information to piece together what had happened that fateful night.
He learned the Nerissa had been a 5583-ton coastal cargo-passenger ship running between Halifax, New York and Bermuda before the war. With so many sinkings in the Atlantic, the small ship was defensively armed and pressed into war service.
As she criss-crossed the ocean, she managed to evade torpedoes, submarine attacks and bombs. After 39 successful, action-packed crossings, her crew regarded her as a charmed ship.
On April 21 she sailed from Halifax in a convoy but left the group to make a stopover in St. John's, Nfld. She then continued on alone.
The trip across the North Atlantic was uneventful until 10:34 p.m. April 30. A torpedo struck the ship's starboard side, causing a violent explosion that knocked out the lights and smashed two lifeboats.
The ship stopped dead, quickly listing to starboard. Orders were given to clear away the lifeboats and rafts.
Army personnel reached the boats first and began swinging them out. But the men weren't trained to handle them and only two lifeboats were successfully launched.
A second and third torpedo struck the ship causing an ammunition locker to explode and throwing some passengers into the sea. A shock wave caused an overloaded lifeboat to capsize.
The small Nerissa began to sink almost immediately. Capt. George Watson, who had survived four previous sinkings in two wars went down with his ship.
Pte. J.H. Mara, one of five RCMP officers serving with the Provost Corps or military police, provided a graphic account of his experiences in a letter home that somehow reached Defence Department archives.
Mara was plopped into the sea, clinging to the stern of a lifeboat when its fall ropes were dropped.
"Eventually, the bow came down but the boat was swamped," he wrote. "Some of the boys got out and swam for it, two of them being RCMP lads, and they found a raft.
"The remainder of us, 19 in all, stayed put, as the air-tight drums in the bow and stern kept us afloat. Had we had any more in the boat, it would not have held us."
"We only had two of the ship's crew with us, one a steward who went mad and died within an hour, the other the ship's doc who did not say anything all night. In fact, I did not know he was with us until next morning."
Mara wrote of how it rained during the night and how men in the boat baled with their hands to keep it afloat.
"After a few hours some of the men started to go and by the time we were picked up (after 8 ˝ hours in the water) we (had) lost seven of the 19. Our feet got so stiff that we could hardly move and only managed to get two overboard, the rest were floating about in the boat …
"It was quite an experience but not as bad as it sounds as we knew we would be picked up the next day due to the fact there was an escort plane to meet the ship.
"All we had to do was keep moving and keep warm. The cries of the people in the water when the ship went down, was the worst. We could not do a thing …
"We were told they got the sub that did us in the next night. He deserved the worst fate possible…if he had let it go at one torpedo I think that most of the people would have been saved."
That report was wrong. The German sub that hit the Nerissa was still in service at war's end.
The sinking of the Nerissa was of singular interest to the Canadian army.
"This is believed to be the first occasion, either in this war or the last when Canadian soldiers have lost their lives by enemy action at sea while in transit (to England)" Major C.P. Stacey, later chief historian for the Defence Department, wrote in a report.
Stacey also noted the sinking had caused the largest loss of Canadian Army personnel to that date in the war.
It remained at war's end the Canadian Army's only loss of troops en route to England.
"It never should have happened," said Ponting. "It was very poorly arranged."
© 2004 SS Nerissa +++ All rights reserved