In Search of the "Charmed" Nerissa



I have this feeling that I can remember the day when a small ocean liner named Nerissa must have bewitched me or I wouldn't be writing this 58 years later. I was a reporter in Halifax in wartime 1941. I spent a lot of time covering what a British admiral called "the most important seaport in the world," and one day that April someone drew my attention to a ship in the harbor and said she went out into the perilous Atlantic on her own, i.e., no warships, no convoy. In fact I'd learn, a lot did, but I didn't know that then.

I saw a lot of ships in those dark World War II days, a fair number of them far larger and more prepossessing than she was. Yet Nerissa is the only one whose name and identity I've remembered ever since. And the only one that would inspire me to spend months as I entered my 80s tracking down what happened to her. Why? I really don't know why except that it must have done something to me to think of her hoping to escape both German submarines and giant surface raiders. Now I realize she has bewitched others too, still does, that she was said to have done it to her own crew, and that what happened to her is more dramatic and sad and fascinating than I could have guessed. And historic too, for it's unique in the records of Canada's war.

The Glasgow-built, Furness Withy-owned 5,583-ton Nerissa was 15 years old in 1941 and she'd been in and out of Halifax and St. John's, Nfld., regularly in the coastal travel business. In July 1940, with Britain reeling and alone in frontline defiance of Nazi Germany, she was drafted into war service. Her new captain, big, handsome Gilbert Watson, 58, had just survived his fourth sinking in two wars and in the next eight months his Nerissa had so many narrow escapes in convoy and in battered Liverpool harbor that the Associated Press would report that her crew saw her as a "charmed ship."

But when I saw her, I now realize, that crew faced recent orders that would test any charms to the limit. Britain's situation was so desperate that in November '40 Winston Churchill's cabinet had ruled that the upper speed limit for ships sailing alone should be lowered from 15 knots to 12. Nerissa had just done it a second time, Liverpool-to-Halifax, and her only trouble came, ironically, when she ran into an east-bound convoy and survived several submarine attacks. Her charms or luck or good fortune had worked, again-at the very time the cabinet had had since January an Admiralty recommendation that the speed level of lone ships be raised back to 15 knots because so many were being sunk: But the change was delayed till June, and for Nerissa, at 14, that was no help at all.

What's more, it's a curious fact that even as passengers were boarding her in Halifax on April 20, German U-boat commander Erich Topp gathered his off-duty crew together during a patrol off Ireland to celebrate an almost sacred occasion. It was the 52nd birthday of Adolf Hitler, and for Germans there was magic in the Feuhrer's name. The brilliant Topp himself was a firm believer in this man who'd restored German pride after defeat in 1918, had conquered Western Europe, driven the British home. Was winning the war he'd started.

Early next morning Nerissa sailed, went to St. John's, then set off for Liverpool carrying valuable cargo and 306 people: crew, military and civilian passengers including 125 men in Canadian army and navy uniforms and one young couple named Lomas with three children. When told they'd travel alone, it had to shake even three soldiers who wanted so much to get to the most dangerous place in the world that, separately, they had stowed away. In all truth, the whole contingent was proof that the threadbare, isolationist, war-hating Canada of the recent past now was determined to fight this war to the end, whatever the end might be.

By April 29, after an uneventful voyage, they'd reached the approaches to Ireland, and knew the possibility of attack was high. But now in daylight there was a protecting British Coastal Command plane overhead even as, somewhere below, Topp's U552 prowled as one of five U-boats arrayed in a line looking for prey over a distance of 10 sea miles. His boat had been damaged and this would be a troubled day, with attacks from air and sea as it neared a convoy, swift dives, gingerly resurfacings. Then shortly before midnight Topp got a message telling him to prepare to withdraw to port if his boat needed repairs and had sufficient fuel. Yet on into the 30th he kept trying to find a convoy. Then in mid-afternoon came a blunt order, "Go to Nazaire," i.e. to his base on the French coast. And he didn't go.

Instead, late that night he recorded something quite different: "2340 (Berlin time, two hours later than Nerissa's British time) shadow at 320 degrees, course easterly, approaches fast. Not dark enough for attack. Running parallel at full speed and approaching slowly. Shadow crisscrosses (zigzags) strongly, steamship, rather big. All torpedoes prepared." Top had chanced upon Nerissa, was cautiously getting set to attack just when word spread that her Captain Watson had said she should now be through the danger area and have clear sailing to Liverpool. In fact, close to an hour passed after Topp saw that shadow. He saw a phosphorescent glow on the sea and decided 1,000 metres was as close as he should get, and that he should fire three torpedoes "because of unclear shooting position."

Navy Sub-Lieut. H. C. Ledsham, a lookout on Nerissa's bridge, "had no intimation an enemy was near." In one cabin, Mounties turned soldier finished playing cards and John Mara laid his lifejacket aside and left for a washroom. In another cabin, artillery NCO Jack Cockrell had a smoke, stripped and had a shower. Though he hoped the danger was over, he hedged his bets, stretched out in underwear, trousers and sweater. Sgt. Frank Stojak and four others were singing and telling jokes. In the officers' lounge Lt. Col. Gordon Smith was playing bridge. The Lomas family's baby carriage was on the promenade deck, attached to the rail. In his steward's white jacket, John Spencer was finishing serving drinks in the bar. Many years later he and the only other crew survivor research has found, both living in Corner Brook, Nfld., would have quite different memories of what they felt about their ship being charmed, being lucky, that night or ever. Says Russell Musseau, then 20, "we were a happy-go-lucky crew in a happy ship.

But Spencer, then 26, says he was nervous and apprehensive. Already torpedoed once, he had several life jackets hidden away in key places, just in case.

No one saw the first torpedo coming. Topp would say it "hit at stern" at 0027, his time. Nerissa's Chief Officer Joe Gaffney would report the time as seven minutes later when "a violent explosion occurred below the water line on Nerissa's starboard side directly below two lifeboats." He ran for the bridge to get the captain's orders even as the ship stopped dead, hissing, listing, lights out, alarm system useless, cabins in turmoil. In Sgt. Stojak's words: "Imagine, peace and quiet, jokes and friendship one moment, then terror, horror." He grabbed his life preserver and scrambled to the deck where the lifeboats and rafts were.

Gilbert Watson had rushed there to supervise his orders to abandon ship. Water was pouring in even as the torpedo explosion pitched John Mara against a steel washroom partition. Dazed, he made his way into a corridor where so many men were rushing past that he couldn't get his lifejacket but did get to his lifeboat. In the bar, John Spencer saw glass flying everywhere and headed for his nearest lifejacket. Jack Cockrell found himself on a cabin floor, dazed, in running water, seized a haversack with emergency gear, a flashlight and a beloved mouth organ. He found the stairwell to the boat deck jammed and men trying to open a door. He and another soldier broke through it with a fireaxe and the rush was on. Yet at No. 3 lifeboat he found men standing around waiting for instructions.

In fact, the mood was so orderly, so calm that army RSM John Edwards borrowed a flashlight, got his life preserver in the lounge, money, a coat and a bottle of brandy in his cabin. When Col. Smith got to his cabin his roommate was still asleep. He woke him and got to the boat deck where he helped Captain Watson, calmly directing people into the two surviving starboard boats. Able Seaman Russell Musseau rushed to his own, No. 7, one of the two smaller boats at the stern, passed a baby carriage, saw no baby and when he got to his boat there was no one there. Joe Gaffney already had a loaded No. 1 in the water, and just then Jack Cockrell saw Sgt. Maj. Owen Bentley "give his lifejacket to a soldier, heard him say, 'You haven't been married long. You'd best put this on.'"

Said it just before the first of two more torpedoes struck and split Nerissa in two. She was sinking rapidly when the ammunition locker blew up, took numerous lives, filed the air with debris; John Mara: "the whole middle portion of the ship exploded." A soldier holding the after fall (rope) at the rear of Mara's No. 3 lifeboat, was shocked into letting go, and suddenly it was hanging and passengers were being hurled into or near No. 1 just as it lurched heavily from a wave set off by the third torpedo. One was John Spencer and when he surfaced from numbing depth he found he was under a capsized No. 1. So did army lieutenants Ralph Pithart and Russell Paul but all three managed to get on and cling to the overturned boat, Pithart thanks to someone's leg that he used to lift himself up. John Mara made it to the sea in the falling No. 3, only to find it filling with water and under siege by those around it. He stayed.

On the port side, disaster was more immediate. The navy's Ledsham was helping get No. 2 boat launched even as two fellow junior officers helped Mr. and Mrs. Lomas get their three children into it. In seconds RSM Edwards saw all seven and the boat disappear in the second torpedo explosion. Amid this chaos, Captain Watson told Col. Smith to put a rope ladder over the side and go. Smith did, survived a plunge into the sea, an escape from under capsized No. 1 just in time to see Nerissa vanish. Watson remained to help people trying desperately to live. His parting words to Smith were, "the best of luck to you." His own luck had run out. He many well have died from the third explosion, doing a captain's duty.

Even as Nerissa vanished, one brave man fired a final flare and radio distress signals kept going out till the end. For she went down in four minutes, leaving multiple horror behind. Years later Jack Cockrell would write about clinging to No. 3 boat: "The things that happened next I'd rather forget, but have found it impossible: the agonizing screams and cries of men in the water, the fighting to get into a lifeboat that was full of water and in danger of capsizing." Amid this, Col. Smith heard a man cry out for his wife until it was clear there would be no answer, ever. In No. 7 lifeboat, men had to work frantically to get clear of the sinking ship, only to discover a plug was out and water gushing in. Musseau stopped it with a thumb and when in the baling the plug was found he kept it in with his foot. And they kept saving others.

"Lifeboats are lowered, light signals are emitted," the watching Topp recorded. "Radioman signals up to last second . A flare is shot while the ship is going down. Rears up, bow emerges high over water and sinks vertically." Then there were dark, drenching hours for survivors and for those who survived not long enough. Joe Gaffney made it to a raft and took charge. Col. Smith got there while helping a wounded, dying man. It took Ledsham at least half an hour but he got there too: "The bow of the ship disappeared within five yards of my face and the sea was swarming with men."

In U552, Topp "learned from radio signals the steamship is Nerissa," got out a book that revealed her tonnage and that she could accommodate 229 passengers, and decided that explained "the high superstructure" and his own overestimation of how big she was. No one would ever know how many died in her cabins or in the corridors, how many capsized lifeboats in desperate efforts to lower them. No one would ever know whether all three Marconi men stayed together to get those distress signals away; it would only be known that none of them survived, and that the signals were crucial in saving those who did. Canadian war correspondent Sam Robertson was said to have reached the boat-deck rail, then left to get something, didn't make it back. Joe Gaffney would say 33 got away in No. 7 boat, designed to hold 26, that others clung to two rafts and two capsized boats, and still others drifted in lifejackets hoping to be picked up. Some were sure they saw the submarine rise among them, and voices called out for help and others told them to stop for fear of what it could do to them. In fact, Topp had fled "place of alarm as soon as possible. Steamed away under full speed for an hour, then slowed to low speed." To him, the rescue survivors hoped for could bring attack.

For hours there was dying. In No. 3 boat, with water coming in as fast as it could be baled out, the living got too weak to remove all who no longer did. "I think," Cockrell would say, "most of us had a close mental relationship to death many times." There were hours of drenching waves, despair, cold, then hope when a plane flew overhead. Cockrell used his flashlight to signal. He saw no reaction, but others said they saw an "O.K." signal. When the flashlight failed he began playing his mouth organ to "cheer people up," but "soon ran out of tunes and energy." Then, even as they baled, men turned to prayer. Some found comfort in keeping in touch with others by flashlight. On the Gaffney raft, men pulled in others until they drifted away from where it was possible to rescue more. By then there were 19 or 20 aboard, without food, water or cigarettes and doubtful that the raft was maintaining its level in the water. It was upside down, couldn't be guided or propelled. Water kept washing over it, over No. 3 boat and the men on capsized No. 1. There Pithart and Paul did their best to help an army sergeant who wanted to talk about his family, drifted off, came to and wanted to pray, then died and was washed into the sea. Of the 30-35 originally in No. 1, Pithart would say, about 16 got back on it after it capsized and half of those were not there in the end.

At dawn, Cockrell would say, "we seemed to be alone on a very large ocean except for the occasional body drifting with the current." Of the estimated 21 men who'd seen Nerissa vanish from No. 3, only nine, he'd believe, were alive, and he was drifting into a torpor, "a sort of gentle fatigue. I didn't feel the cold. I felt like putting my head down and sleeping." But in the last of night's darkness, another plane had flown overhead signalling encouragement, even as it guided to the scene two Royal Navy destroyers that had spent hours getting there in answer to Nerissa's distress calls. While one, Hunter, prowled about seeking any U-boat, HMS Veteran closed in for rescue and came upon a graphic scene. Sailor Art Halford: "It was still dark and our first contact was the sight of little fairy-like lights dotting the black sea. As we closed, we saw they were attached to the lifejackets of men in the water." And the men were all dead.

Veteran pressed on to the living. Didn't stop or put down lifeboats for fear of attack. Moved as slowly as possible, as near as possible, put a scramble net down and urged survivors to climb aboard. Mara: "Never have I seen such a welcome sight." He and others cheered wildly, but most were so cold and wasted they had to be helped aboard. In all, Halford would say, "we saved 85." And amid great kindness took them to Northern Ireland, some 200 miles away. Saved roughly one in three of the 306 Nerissa had borne on the voyage when her luck and whatever charms she had ran out, taking more than 75% of crew and passengers with her.

She did make history that night: she took to their deaths 85 Canadian servicemen, the only ones to die as passengers in transit across the Atlantic in the six years of WW2, a remarkable fact considering the many ships that were sunk, the hundreds of thousands who did cross, and a major tribute to the navy and merchant sailors who got them there. She also left memories that bewitch people to this day. It's striking, for one thing, that she met her fate through a confrontation of distinctions, for Topp became the third-ranking U-boat ace with 34 sinkings to his credit and surely Watson was a sort of ace too, as a multiple survivor of the things Topp did so well. Yet it's also a striking comment on human priorities that there now is lots of information available about Topp, about Watson virtually none.

Moreover, it's been an absorbing experience to have research expose a singular example of the capacity of tragedy to perpetuate itself. For years, scattered survivors and others have gathered information about Nerissa, notable Jack Cockrell. He remembers her sinking as the salient episode of his war, "far worse" than being wounded and sent home as an armored corps officer in Holland in 1944. Years ago he set out to write about it because he felt it should be done, gave up when he realized he didn't have enough experience, then generously sent me what he'd accumulated. Ralph Pithart has sponged up and shared any information he can find. Clive Gilbert still seeks it because an uncle was in Nerissa's crew almost by accident, and has never been heard of since. Mike Jackman has gathered sinkings information for years because, as a boy, he saw a U-boat sink two ships at iron-mining Bell Island, Nfld., and got fascinated.

Jack Ponting was so furious over the loss of a friend on the lone Nerissa that he dug up all the information he could find and exploded with anger in an Ottawa newspaper on the 50th anniversary of the sinking. Russel Musseau, twice sunk, was angry for years over Ottawa's refusal to give merchant seamen veterans' benefits. In Britain, research turned up an "association for victims of U-boats", and the fact that there are cases where they get together with the Germans who sank them. On the west coast of Ireland, people still look after the graves of Nerissa victims whose bodies washed ashore.

Over it all there still linger the Associated Press story of the sinking that said the crew considered her a charmed ship-and haunting ifs about the night any charm was pressed too far. What if London had not delayed so long its decision to again make 15 knots the speed level for lone ships? What if it had not, for months, even kept it at 23, a policy a historian says losses made "an expensive mistake?" Gilbert Watson once said Nerissa "will get it sooner or later," but what if the odds had not been raised when she sailed alone as part of such a mistake? Would Sgt. Maj. Owen Bentley have died, as he did, if he hadn't given his lifejacket to a young, recently married soldier? What if duty or pride or tradition or courage had not kept those crucial distress calls going out, whether they involved one Marconi man or all three? What if Erich Topp had obeyed that order to return to base? But most haunting of all are things he, a post-war admiral, wrote in a 1984 book that told of his anguish over revelations about the Hitler he'd "blindly" followed: "Nothing," he said, "can drag my generation from beneath the shadows that regime have spread over us." There the ifs are endless.