Lt. Russell Paul’s Account of the Sinking
We left London, Ontario in the early hours of 18 April 1941 with a certain amount of trepidation. After all it was the first war any of us had been in, and we were heading into the thick of it. The blitzes were in full swing over England, and at that time there was no indication of any slackening. Presumably a lot of things would happen before we saw that part of Canada again.
I was in charge of a party of five other ranks from M.D.1 [Manning Depot No. 1 – London, Ontario]. Their wives and sweethearts were down to see them off, which incidentally is a mistake. You’ve said all there is to say long before, and the few minutes waiting for the train to move seems like years, with everyone endeavouring to be cheerful and making a hash of it, and at five in the morning one’s spirits are hardly at their peak.
I had said my goodbyes the night before, so when the train did get underway I was in perhaps the best shape. I suppose everyone at one time or another realizes the possibility that they might not come back. One or two of my group must have had a premonition. They were in the dumps for some time.
The journey to Halifax was uneventful. As we went along we picked out and became acquainted with other members who were proceeding on the same draft, until quite a sizeable group had accumulated.
We arrived at Halifax at 2300 hrs. 20 April 1941, and while waiting for our baggage heard that our ship was a small one and would be unescorted. It hurt our ego to think they would take such chances with such important persons, so we didn’t believe such silly tales.
After much waiting and a long trip in a crowded car, we finally got aboard and found that the rumour about her being small at least was correct – “Nerissa – 5,000 tons”.
Before turning in, the following information was extracted from various sources:-
The Nerissa’s speed was 14 knots, 15 if she was chased.
We would probably be leaving sometime during the night.
We would be going alone.
This was her 13th crossing during the war, in view of which she was called “lucky”. If only her luck would hold!
In all it wasn’t a rosy picture. I wrote a letter to my wife just in case, and gave someone on the dock two bits to post it.
We slipped away during the night. I heard the engines start, but there seemed no point in getting up. There would be no bands or cheering crowds to wave us goodbye. This secrecy business takes a lot of the joy out of a war.
In the morning we were out of sight of land, and realized fully that we were really on our way. I was placed at the Purser’s table with the Purser, an English F.O. returning from Africa via Canada, a conducting M.O. Lieut Parks, Lt.-Col. Smith and Sam Robertson, Canadian War Correspondent who had been home on leave.
We spent a day in St. Johns, Nfld. and incidentally picked up a couple of stowaways – soldiers anxious, no doubt, to see some fighting.
Passengers included 100 Canadian troops and 15 to 20 officers; a number of British navy, air force and army officers and men, and possibly twenty or thirty civilians. In all, including the crew, about 300 persons.
Our armament consisted of a stern 4-incher, a Bofors ack ack, and a number of Lewis guns, the latter to be manned by us.
After four days out we were advised to sleep in our clothes, carry our lifebelts at all times, and have a panic bag packed. All of which we did religiously.
On the night of 29 April the Admiralty ordered a change of course. The Captain was perturbed, and he evidently would have preferred to continue on his own. It was the first time he had been interfered with. Still we changed course to come down the West coast of Ireland.
On 30 April we had a plane escort all day. I was on lookout duty on the bridge in the afternoon. I saw a swamped lifeboat and some wreckage, which impressed on me the fact that things do happen at times. The wind was quite high.
The Purser had a cocktail party that night, which the Captain honoured with his presence. It was the first time he had been off the bridge for three days. He admitted he had been worried, but he figured we were O.K. then and would sight land in the morning.
Naturally he made us all feel good. We had crossed the ocean all on our own, and we really enjoyed the cocktail party and dinner as well.
After dinner four of us adjourned to the lounge for a game of bridge. At approximately 1030 I was playing three no trumps and having a difficult time of it. The lounge was comfortably filled. Some air force chaps were playing and singing at the piano, and there was that hum of conversation above the steady beat of the propeller. Our journey was nearing completion, when suddenly an explosion occurred, not a stunning one, but the lights went out immediately, and for half a second there was complete silence while everyone caught their breath. I remember thinking “well, here it is”.
I made my way along the passageway to my cabin, realizing too late I had forgotten my lifebelt under my chair. There was no sense in going back in the dark. Passed a steward in his white coat running along the passage, he was the only person I saw downstairs.
My cabin was the far end one and should have been easy to find. I went in what I considered was it, but couldn’t find my bag, which I had placed in an accessible place, so I assumed I was off the track, and decided to let it go.
The door to the stairs leading to the boat deck was jammed and I realized I would either have to go back to the bow or across to the other side. Decided on the latter. I remember very vividly the smell of cordite.
I made the boat deck O.K., but my boat was No. 1 on the starboard side and it now necessitated walking more than half way around the ship. I passed one lifeboat being filled and remarked that there was no sign of panic whatever. The first lifeboat I passed on the starboard, No. 8 I think, was hanging crazily from its davits. I presumed it must have been directly above where the torpedo hit.
No. 3 was being loaded, and I walked on and finally reached No. 1. It was fairly well filled. No one seemed in any particular hurry. People were still getting in, although now with some difficulty as the ship had taken on a list, and the boat was swinging out a couple of feet from the ship side. Talked with Pithart, my cabin mate, who was very properly dressed with his greatcoat and haversack slung. He said he had been in the cabin, and I asked him why he hadn’t brought my bag. I was wishing I had it and my coat.
One chap was using a torch. About 50 people yelled to him to “put it out”.
Someone suggested that I had better hop in, so I hopped in the stern. The boat was lowered at once, and we reached the water without incident. I unlocked the rear fall, and the others got out the oars. The Captain, still on the ship, kept us close by. I heard later he was waiting for the stewardesses, who never did show up.
Suddenly there was another explosion – another torpedo. I thought “the dirty bastards”. It seemed that two torpedoes was sort of picking on our little ship.
Then things happened fast, and I haven’t a clear idea of the events for the next few minutes. The boat next to us was loaded and two thirds of the way down. Someone must have become panicky and let his rope go. At any rate the front end dropped, spilling all the passengers into the water. The ship itself seemed suddenly to fall over towards us – I could have reached out and touched the boat deck rail.
Whether it was the lurch of the ship, or a wave set up by the second torpedo I don’t know. In any event our boat very quickly turned over, and those of boat No. 3 had company in the water.
I grabbed my nose because I always get mouthfulls of water if I don’t. I seemed to be under the water a long time. When I couldn’t stand it any longer I took a breath and found I was above water. The overturned boat was right beside me, so all I had to do was climb aboard – all out of puff.
In the meantime the ship had straightened up and I was just in time to see her tip up and go down by the stern. She was quite discernable against the skyline. As soon as she disappeared there was a strange silence and a terrible feeling of being alone. In addition it was fearfully dark. Cries of those in the water could be heard, but they didn’t last long. Perhaps we drifted away quickly. There was nothing we could do.
The bottom of our boat was well loaded, 25 I counted. I pulled one chap up behind me who seemed to be in bad shape mentally. Another chap showed up and said he had been trapped underneath our boat when it overturned. He also said there were others still there. I am sure they all got out.
It was cold and we did a lot of shivering. We were packed tightly and it was very hard sitting on a two inch wide keel. Someone up front thought we should sing; the chap that I had pulled up behind me thought we should be praying. Neither idea went over very big. My friend in the rear, however, seemed to be all to pieces. He just gave up and in a very few minutes his head was dragging in the water. I cut off his identity disc and his lifebelt and we let him slip away. We needed the room and the boat was riding fairly low in the water. I used the lifebelt to sit on.
Talked to the chap in front of me and found he was my cabin mate. We wondered if an S.O.S. had got away – only 3 ½ minutes to do it. I wasn’t particularly worried, there seemed other things of more importance.
We began to feel a little more comfortable, although the water was up around our knees. The sea was calm, and we could see flares in the distance and the lights of the odd raft flickering. Another overturned lifeboat drifted alongside with only two occupants. Three of our chaps transferred. We were still heavily loaded.
The wind started to rise about 3 a.m. and the sea got rough. The boat would come up on a swell and just about overturn again. A little later the waves got quite high and we were wet and cold again.
I think it was about this time that a number of the boys started to slip off. By daylight there were only a dozen of us left. And the worst was yet to come. The wind increased and the waves, at times, would wash us off and it was quite a job to climb back on. Fortunately a little later the sea moderated considerably.
I remember one chap, he had hung on during the worst of it, and then for some reason he just let go. We pulled him back on, but it is darn hard work, and a moment later he was off again. He was smiling vacantly and bobbing up and down in his lifebelt. He gradually drifted away. All we could do was watch him go.
By 7 a.m. we had dwindled to five. My cabin mate was getting nearly to the end of his tether and I was forced to hold him on for the last hour or so. I must have considered the possibility of letting go myself, but I can remember thinking how disappointed in me my wife would be if I didn’t make it.
I have often tried to analyze my thoughts and feelings from the time we sighted the destroyers that eventually picked us up, until we were actually safe on board.
Many accounts of similar situations would indicate that a feeling of relief and exultation sweeps over one. If that is true I missed it entirely. I remember one of our crowd drawing attention to the two ships on the horizon, but I can remember no speculation amongst us as to whether or not we would be located, or in fact whether they were even searching for us.
It is true that sighting the ships was not a complete surprise, for shortly after dawn a plane circled us and flashed a signal which was, no doubt, suggesting that we keep our chins up and that help was on the way.
At any rate I did not see the ships from the time they were first seen until one of them stopped a few hundred yards away to pick a few occupants off a raft. Then I had a feeling of resentment that we were second on their list, rather than first.
Looking back now I suppose there is no doubt that we were fairly near the end of our resources. When 20 out of 25 were unable to hold on, the remaining five probably are approaching the point of exhaustion. At any rate when the destroyer finally drew up alongside, none of us could even come close to climbing the very short ladder. So they hoisted us aboard like sacks of corn on the end of a rope.
We officers were taken to the ward room. Our wet clothes were shed and we were wrapped in blankets. A shot of Navy rum stopped shivering, and then ham and eggs and coffee, gallons of coffee – it is quite true that salt water makes one thirsty – and a cigarette. It really seemed worth it all to enjoy these few comforts.
Afterwards we were given a bunk, but it wasn’t so easy to get to sleep. I was awfully tired, but also awfully stiff and sore. But I did obtain snatches of sleep until around 2 p.m. when we were approaching the coast of Ireland. I am sorry that I didn’t have another opportunity to investigate a destroyer while it is on active service. There are so many things that would have been interesting.
We were transferred to a corvette at the closest port, and then taken up the river to Londonderry, where we were quartered for five days with a British regiment. Although everyone was very considerate, they were not pleasant days for I felt so utterly all in. I remember the first night trying to take a bath. I think it was the most painful operation I have ever undertaken. But gradually sleep and rest helped, and by the time we left most of us were fairly well back to normal. Out of 35 military survivors, however, we had to leave eight in the hospital for varying periods.
In any event that ended my first crossing of the Atlantic. It was an experience that I would not willingly repeat, and yet one that I am not sorry to have had.
Lt. Russell G. Paul,
Royal Canadian Army Pay Corps.