Description of the 39th Crossing of the Atlantic by Troop-Transport SS Nerissa
By George S. Edgerton-Bird, Commander R.N. N.O.I.O. Northern Ireland.
Orders were to report to the Naval Authorities at the Prince’s Landing Stage at Liverpool at 2:00 p.m. At the appointed hour I duly presented myself. A large crowd of varied service personnel had already assembled. Large piles of baggage, including my own, lay scattered around. After a wait of an hour or so in the drizzling rain, all of us getting more and more irritable, the clink and rattling of the chain in the hawsepipe of a nearby vessel, her sides streaked with red dust and the white of salt spray still showing on her funnel, indicating that she was only recently in from sea, attracted our attention. A few minutes later her anchor, covered with a large dollop of good Mersey mud, hove in sight and slid home with a bang, the mud falling back into the river with a loud splosh. A deep-throated blast on her siren rent the air and with a wisp of steam feathering away from her funnel, she slowly edged alongside. The name on her bow was NERISSA.
After she had secured we embarked. One by one we were closely scrutinized. Passports and other “documents” were examined. After locating my cabin I made a tour of the ship. She was of fairly ancient vintage and of about 5,000 tons. Her peacetime business lay in the banana trade on the West Indies run. But, overnight, all this had changed. Now, she bristled with guns, depth charges and smoke floats; in fact she looked like a young battleship.
We sailed on the tide that night-and not in convoy. Next day saw us pounding into the Atlantic against a long, grey, oily, westerly swell, our engines full out and our stern vibrating like a wild thing each time it rose as we made good a full seventeen knots. As our bow dipped to the oncoming swell cascades of white spray were flung on to the fo’c’s’le head. We now proceeded to get our box kite into the air. This we flew from the mainmast head. A large, clumsy affair and the bane of the Chief Officer’s existence, it was used as a deterrent against imminent dive-bombing.
Shortly after noon a Sunderland flying boat put in an appearance. Dropping as it were, straight out of the heavens, It circled the ship three times at masthead level carefully avoiding the box kite. Then, flashing Bon Voyage on an Aldis lamp it flew off in an easterly direction.
Conspicuous notices throughout the ship warned passengers to sleep in their clothes until we were well across the Atlantic. All should have footwear and a warm overcoat and muffler ready for slipping on at a moment’s notice. We were also ordered always to carry our life belts. And whilst on the subject of night attire, a young Pole on board certainly carried out these orders to the very letter. Each night he disrobed, then slipped on his pajamas and dressed again. In the morning the procedure was in reverse. I became very friendly with him but I never fathomed the reason for his peculiar idiosyncrasy.
A few days out we steamed north of Ireland close enough to see the snow-capped volcano.
Gun practice was carried out daily. Calcium flares were dropped over the side as a target for the four-inch guns aft and some very creditable shooting was consistently demonstrated by the Army gun’s crew specially attached to all Defensively Equipped Merchant Vessels-better known as DEMS.
During the forenoon on the fourth day out I happened to be leaning over the forward bridge rail yarning with the Captain. We were at the moment discussing the magnitude of an eastbound convoy-a veritable Armada of merchant ships of every size and description-under the surveillance of a fifteen-inch battleship of the REVENGE class which later on I found out was the RESOLUTION, one of my old ships of 1914-1918 days.
“Torpedo right ahead” suddenly yelled the lookout. There was no time for evasive action. The tell-tale track was rapidly nearing us and the torpedo is always ahead of the track. Gripping the rail I waited for the detonation. It never came. The track slid down our port side certainly not more than six feet away. As I watched it pass, my thoughts a riot of what might have happened, I was suddenly jerked back into the present.
“Torpedo fired on the starboard bow, Sir,” screamed the lookout. I glanced ahead. There was the track, barely fifty yards away and heading straight for us. That “tinfish” too, slid down our starboard side barely a fathom away.
“My God, that was a near shave,” the Old Man exclaimed. Scarcely had his words been spoken when another torpedo broke surface well out on the starboard bow, and praise be, ran wild on the surface heading away from us at right angles.
“They always come like that, just like a bolt out of the blue,” the Captain went on casually. And he should know considering he had been torpedoed four times in the two wars.
Not a glimpse of the U-boat did we see, not any indication of the tell-tale feather from the periscope. There was no doubt whatsoever that the Unterseeboot Kaptain had been watching us for some time at periscope depth. Skillfully and without being seen he had maneuvered into a most favourable position for these shots. It was no fault of his that they missed. Fortunately for us, at the very moment he had fired we had altered course towards him on the new leg of our zigzag. And it was fortunate for us that he had fired “Woolworth” torpedoes, used solely against merchant ships. Had they been of the magnetic head-type or one of the “homing” torpedoes-well, this story I fear might not have been written.
For the remainder of the day, arm-chair tacticians and strategists held a council of war. In the Smoke Room over their gins and bitters they babbled platitudes. They reenacted the whole course of events, thrashing out fathoms deep their versions and going through the whole gamut of diagnosis.
It was about 6 o’clock-that peaceful hour blissfully suspended twixt late afternoon and dinner. I had just gone to my cabin to tidy myself up. Suddenly the ‘Alarm’ sounded throughout the ship. Almost simultaneously our gun opened fire. All hell broke loose into one gigantic cacophony. Grabbing my uniform jacket I made my way on deck at full speed. A good half-mile astern white plumes rose from the sea. The passengers with amazing rapidity assembled at their stations only to be ordered to take cover but to remain in readiness to go to their boats at short notice. From my point of vantage I could see the submarine. Each time she fired the white plumes crept nearer to us. Her shooting so far as deflection was concerned was perfect; it would only be a matter of minutes before her shell would be falling on board us. Our own shooting, though right for line, was short of range. We were still running into a long westerly head swell our stern rearing itself into the air as we pitched. Each time our propeller broke surface we shuddered violently and it seemed as though our stern would surely part company with the rest of the ship. And from our funnel we belched a cloud of black smoke which drifted astern like a pall. The submarine was making heavy weather of it too. Through my binoculars I could see her pitching into it shipping it green right over her conning tower and I wondered how on earth her for’ard gun’s crew managed to keep their feet under such conditions.
We dropped a couple of smoke floats. In a matter of minutes a bank of impenetrable white smoke, which looked for all the world like cotton wool, obliterated the seascape astern. “Cease Fire” was ordered. The Hun must have passed the same order, for from now on an uncanny quiescence prevailed. Capricious Dame Fortune had again certainly kept vigil over us.
Eight bells had just struck the following morning. I was having breakfast when the ‘Alarm’ sounded again. This time it turned out to be the Free French submarine SURCOUF, mounting two 8-inch guns-the biggest submarine in the world. She was on the surface about a mile distant fine on the port bow and there was no mistaking her; exchanging signals with her we continued on our westerly course.
Two days later we reached Nova Scotia and let go our mudhook in the welcome haven of Halifax harbour. So ended the ship’s thirty-ninth wartime crossing of the North Atlantic.
Ten days later in a subway in New York I experienced that kind of shock that makes a man feel sick from the very pit of his stomach. I was cursorily glancing through the New York Herald Tribune when the name NERISSA struck my eye. I read the account, then read it again before the full realization sunk home.
On her homeward voyage-the 40th-the good ship NERISSA went to her watery Valhalla. She was lost with all hands. [ note: not so ]
May God bless her memory and all who sailed in her.
Naval Ordnance Inspection Journal, July 1950, page 21-24.
D.N.D. Directorate of History: “39th Crossing” G.S. Edgerton-Bird