Loss Of S.S. Nerissa
The following is a narrative by Lt. Colonel G.C. Smith of the events which occurred when the above named ship was sunk by enemy action off the North coast of Ireland, on the night of April 30th - 1st May, while proceeding in an Easterly direction.
At 2230 hours I was playing bridge with Mr. Baldwin Raper as my partner and with Captain W.H. Embree and Lieutenant R.G. Paul. At that time we had decided to play one more rubber before joining the farewell festivities of the trip, as the ship was due to dock some time on1st May.
At about 2232 hours there was a bad explosion and all the lights on the vessel were extinguished. The four of us immediately got up and proceeded presumably to the boat deck. I myself went to my cabin, where I woke my room-mate, who had not awakened previously, and told him what had happened, at the same time picking up my haversack and British warm.
I then proceeded to the boat deck, en route carrying up the youngest baby on the boat. I handed the baby over to her Father on the boat deck, by No. 2 Lifeboat. Preparations seemed to be well in hand to get that boat away. I then proceeded to No. 1 Lifeboat where the Ship's Commander (Watson), was superintending the launching of No. 1 Boat. As the Officer in charge of No. 3 boat was absent and had presumably been killed by the first explosion, the Captain asked me to take charge and get No. 3 away. About this time No. 1 commenced to lower to the water. Up to this period there was no evidence of any panic or unwillingness. I went to No. 3 Boat and supervised the filling of it. Just as I was about to order it to lower away, Captain Watson came over to me and himself took charge. Just after No. 3 had commenced to be lowered, a second torpedo struck with a tremendous explosion. The Canadian soldier who was holding the falls of the after end of this boat was shocked into letting go of the fall, consequently the boat dropped into a vertical position and all its passengers were thrown into the sea or into No. 1 Boat.
After the second torpedo hit, the ship started to settle very rapidly and although there was still no panic, people began to jump to save themselves. There was a rope ladder hanging over the side and I climbed down this and got into No. 1 Boat. This was the last that I saw of Captain Watson. Just after I got into the Lifeboat the ship seemed to settle suddenly, causing a large wave, which struck No. 1 and capsized it. I came up underneath the Boat and had a certain amount of difficulty in getting down under the water and out of the boat again, as my life preserver tended to hold me up. Just as I came to the surface the third torpedo struck the ship and she went down very rapidly then, almost as far as I could see on an even keel but stern first, as her bows were straight up above me in the air. From what I heard afterwards, I believe the officially reputed time from the first torpedo until the ship completely disappeared was 3 mins. 5/8 secs. In any event, I know that my watch stopped at 2236 hours, which was presumably the time I first hit the water.
After the ship disappeared I swam around, helping different people and particularly looking for Mrs. Stewart French, who had been in the Lifeboat immediately in front of me, but was unable to find her anywhere.
I periodically rested myself by hanging on to the upturned No. 1 Boat. There appeared to be at this time about ten to twelve people sitting across the keel of this boat, of whom I recognised by their voices, Lieut. Paul, and Major Stewart French. About this time I saw a raft about 15 yds. Away and decided that the chances were better on this raft than on No. 1 Boat, so I swam over to it, helping an American Ferry Pilot over with me. Another chap on the raft, who I later identified as Mr. Wyllie, also a Ferry Pilot, helped this other lad on the raft and then helped myself up on to it.
Shortly after getting on the raft the person that I had helped up, died. He had apparently been badly wounded in one of the explosions.
The Ship's Officer, who was on the raft, took charge immediately and his conduct throughout the whole of our trip was very praiseworthy. We soon learned that there were 20 people on the raft.
I am convinced that the submarine did not surface, as we were particularly looking for it and although the sky was overcast, could see quite a long way along the surface of the water, and for the purpose of records, the fuel oil of the ship did not catch fire.
Throughout the night nothing of any consequence happened, although we could hear and see voices and lights from other boats and rafts.
About 0200 hours a plane was heard overhead. All rafts and boats attempted to signal this plane with flashlight, but could not attract its attention. Shortly afterwards there was a lot of activity about 20 miles away. There appeared to be flares dropping from the plane. We assumed they were looking for us, but could not get any verification of this later.
At dawn a Coastal Command aeroplane appeared over us, obviously looking for us as he flew down to about 50 ft. above us and signalled "O.K." on his Alvis Lamp, then flew away in the direction from which he had come. About an hour after this a Destroyer, which later turned out to be H.M.S. Veteran, appeared. At first she did not do anything about picking up anybody, as she was afraid that the German Submarine might still be in the vicinity and waited until H.M.S. Hunter, another Destroyer, came up. The "Veteran" then proceeded to pick up all survivors that she could find by coming alongside boats or rafts and transferring survivors direct from raft to ship, while the "Hunter" steamed around, keeping an eye open. After all visible survivors were picked up, the "Veteran" proceeded to Lough Foyle, while "Hunter", who had not picked up any survivors, proceeded in a Northerly direction on convoy duty.
The "Veteran" provided the survivors with blankets and an issue of rum and all clothes were semi-dried in the boiler room. At about 1830 hours the party was transferred to H.M.S. Kingcup, a Corvette, which took us to Londonderry. While on the 'Veteran" a role call was taken and disclosed that there were 83 survivors out of, as far as it was possible to determine at the time, about 295. The 83 survivors were made up as follows:
As far as the Canadian Army was concerned, the losses were 30 Officers and 60 Other Ranks.
Lieut. Colonel J.C. Burness, P.P.C.L.I., who had been O.C., Troops, on board, was not seen by me after the torpedo, nor was my late bridge partner, Mr. Raper, and although enquiries were made by me, I could not find anybody that had seen either of these two, although S/Major Edwards, R.C.C.S., told me that the young boy who Mr. Raper was looking after, had been on a raft with him but had some time during the night disappeared off it.
After a day and a half rest in Londonderry, I took the survivors who were capable of travelling, to London, via Belfast, Heysham and Liverpool, being met at the last named by Lt. Col. N.B. MacDonald, R.C.A.S.C., who took over the party and escorted us to London. We arrived in London at 2230 hours, 4 May 41.
SURVIVORS EX NERISSA
Reference: RG24, National Defence Series C-1, Reel C-5276
File: 8823, Access code 90
File Title: Court of Inquiry - Sinking of SS NERISSA and Loss of Canadian Army Personnel
Outside Dates: 1941
Finding Aid number: 24-14
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