14 Newfoundlanders Carried To Watery Grave On The Troopship Nerissa
When the war clouds burst over Europe in September, 1939, with all their fury the call went out from Great Britain for experienced seamen to man her merchant ships. She particularly looked for seamen from Newfoundlanders as their seamanship both in the Merchant Navy and Royal Navy was held in high respect throughout the world. Great Britain was not found wanting for Newfoundlanders from every bay, village and town flocked to the colours in droves. They served on merchant ships which flew the Red Duster, the British Merchant Seaman Flag, better known to Newfoundlanders as the Red Ensign.
Over 7000 Newfoundlanders served under the Red Duster or on other ships which flew allied flags from their mastheads. Some of our seamen were at sea from the time when the opening salvos were fired until the enemy hauled down his colors nearly six years later after victory had slid from his grasp.
During the early stage of the war our merchant ships were poorly armed, in fact, many of them were armed with guns, which were used in the Boer War and the First World War.
However, several months after the war was in full fling the badly needed guns were flowing from the bomb scarred factories in the British Isles.
While cargoes were discharged in port, guns were installed; some were new, but of a very small calibre. However, as the war moved into its second year larger and more modern weapons were installed.
At last, the merchant navy found its teeth and the teeth were sharp. They bit deep as the U-boat skippers discovered when many of them drew blood from the U-boat marauders, which were prowling the stormed tossed and bitterly cold Atlantic.
This article is dedicated to those men who sailed in the ship SS Nerissa which marks the 48th anniversary of her torpedoing.
Let us roll back the calendar to the year 1926, when the ship Nerissa became a familiar ship in Newfoundland waters. The Nerissa was a passenger and cargo ship of 5583 tons. She was the final ship to be built for the old established Red Cross Line service between New York, Halifax and St. John’s. Her registered owners were New York Newfoundland Steamship Co. Ltd., the managers of which were C.T. Bowring Company Limited of Liverpool. The latter had opened this service in 1884. The first ship used being their brand new ship Miranda. Winter conditions could be arduous and to face up to the ice floes the Nerissa was given a specially built strengthened hull with an ice breaker type stem which from a point near the watering sloped back sharply to the keel.
The Nerissa was built in Glasgow and her passenger capacity was 163 first class passengers and 66 second class. In all she was an exceptionally well-equipped ship, yet she was built in a remarkable short time. Her owners needed her for the opening of the 1926 season and when they stressed this Nov. 3, 1925 – the day when the contract was signed – many thought that Hamilton’s would never achieve the deadline. However, the keel was laid within a week and the ship launched March 31. She ran preliminary trials May 27, 1926, and during further runs in loaded condition she did over 15 1/2 knots. On June 5 she was away on her maiden voyage to New York. She arrived in St. John’s June 12, 1926, and sailed June 16.
The Red Cross Line depended largely on the American tourist trade and this became increasingly affected by the trade depression. By 1927 it was decided that the service must be closed down and at the end of 1928 the Red Cross Line with its three ships, Nerissa, Rosalind, and Silvia, were sold to the Furness Withy Group. They then became part of the Bermuda & West Indies Steamship Co., with their funnels repainted in Furness Withy style, black with two red bands – one narrow and one wide. The Nerissa continued on the New York-Halifax-St. John’s run at least until 1931. She was then switched to warmer routes, still based in New York but running to Bermuda, also to the West Indies as far south as Trinidad and Demerara.
I now pick up the Nerissa in her wartime role as it applied to Newfoundland. Her first voyage with Newfoundland troops took place June 14, 1940. She was carrying 214 troops, 23 were Newfoundlanders who were being transported overseas as members of the Royal Air Force while 191 were known as the Fourth Royal Artillery Contingent. They were later to form the nucleus of the 59th Newfoundland Heavy Royal Artillery Regiment.
My brother, Sam, who sailed with the Royal Artillery portion of the group said he has forgotten most of the names of those who sailed with him. However, it was difficult to forget the great concerts organized by Max Littlejohn who was master of ceremonies for many of those during the voyage which lasted until July 6, 1940, when they arrived in England. Sam recalls Tom Fennessey who assisted Max by playing the piano and he says he could really knock out the old wartime songs of the first world conflict as well as many favorite local songs.
It might be noted that Littlejohn organized the First Royal Artillery concert on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) London, August 14, 1940. He was master of ceremonies. He dubbed the program Calling From Britain to Newfoundland. Newfoundlanders from all branches of the services took part in the program. It brought a ray of hope and light into the homes of those young men from Britain’s oldest colony who were helping to defend Britain during her darkest hour.
The program, which Littlejohn first aired on the BBC, was the forerunner of Margot Davies’ weekly broadcast on the BBC. Not only did she use the same title for her program but the same format.
She is remembered by a plaque erected in her memory in Confederation Building from funds collected by Littlejohn.
John Finn was a member of the Artillery Contingent during that trip of the Nerissa. He became the first Royal Artillery man from Newfoundland to land in the Battle Zone in France in 1944. Finn was on loan to a Commando Unit when he along with others learned about the detailed plans of the D-Day invasion. He was the only Newfoundlander in the group. Finn could not be released to the 59th Royal Artillery Regiment because he became a classified body so in the small hours of June 6, 1944, D-Day, Finn landed in France with the 6th Airborne Division. He was in action in France on D-Day hours before the first allied assault troops went ashore on the blood stained Normandy Beaches.
Dave Duke of St. John’s made the voyage on her that year. However, it was much quieter than the ones he made later as a member of the Merchant Navy. He among others blazed a glorious chapter in Newfoundland’s Wartime Maritime History when he survived the torpedoing of the SS Kelet.
Bill Stone of St. John’s was also on her. He lost a brother Jim when HMS Stanley was torpedoed.
Bill Vicars also made a trip on her. He lost a brother when HMS Victory was bombed.
Wick Collins was aboard on that voyage. He later served as an officer with the 59th Royal Artillery Regiment.
Frank Wall of St. John’s was one of the RAF Contingent’s members. He became very well known after the war as a fighter for veteran’s rights.
However, another year 1941 in the last part of April she entered St. John’s Harbour after sailing from New York, and a day or so later she nosed her way out through the harbour. She made an attempt to dash across the U-boat infested waters of the North Atlantic. She was carrying a vital cargo of food, etc. for Great Britain. However, more important than that she was carrying some top notch American airplane pilots who were on a special assignment as America had not yet entered the war. I was able to obtain the names of those, however, it has never been disclosed to me what mission they were on.
On April 30, 1941, while the Nerissa was nearing the British Isles, Skipper Erich Topp operating in U-boat 552 sighted the Nerissa and in no time he slammed a salvo of torpedoes into her hull breaking her back. She turned over and plunged beneath the waves, taking with her 207 souls including 11 American pilots. 14 Newfoundlanders paid the Supreme Sacrifice. They were: Frank Andrews, Port de Grave, C.B.; Thomas J. Aylward, Ron McEvoy, James Candow, Henry Snow, William Tiller and Albert Williams, of St. John’s. Edward Young, Quidi Vidi; Malcolm Bailey, Britannia, T.B.; Allister Carter, Greenspond, B.B.; Cecil Ford, Wesleyville, B.B.; Kenneth Thorne, Brownsdale, T.B.; James Wicks, Wesleyville, B.B. and William Langmead, Pouch Cove. Bradley Laite of St. John’s survived. However, he could recall very little other than he spent some 31 hours on top of an overturned lifeboat before being rescued. He recalls there were several survivors – at least one from the West Coast.
The Nerissa transported the 10th Naval Contingent overseas when she ran into a German wolf pack of U-boats. All members of the 10th Contingent were involved and are listed in my book Comrades in Arms, Volume 11.
The RB Weekender, March 5-11, 1989