Victoria Men Recall Night Of Terror And Freezing On A Sinking Lifeboat After Ship Was Torpedoed
BY ANDREW PETROZZI
Times Colonist staff
Victoria men recall night of terror and freezing on a sinking lifeboat after ship was torpedoed
The last time their hands met was in a slowly sinking lifeboat in the cold waters off the northern coast of Ireland.
Sixty years later, in a Colwood backyard, the two Second World War veterans met again. Brought together by a bizarre twist of fate, they reminisced about the dark night of April 30, 1941 – the first time they met.
Sgt. Vernon “Vern” Bruce, 80, and Lieut. Lionel “Jack” P. Cockrell, 82, both lived in Victoria prior to the outbreak of the war. Both enlisted at Work Point Barracks. Cockrell enlisted in the Army in 1936. Bruce enlisted in 1939 and was assigned to the Corps of Military Staff Clerks.
Both men were instructed to report to the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Nerissa, a British merchant ship, that normally served a route from Bermuda to New York City to Halifax but had been pressed into wartime service. Bruce and Cockrell travelled across Canada without meeting and boarded the Nerissa on April 21 in Halifax bound for Britain.
On the night of April 30, 1941, the Nerissa was steaming along about 560 kilometers north of Ireland in the cold, dark seas of the North Atlantic. German U-boats patrolled the icy waters and that night, shortly after 10 p.m., U-boat 552 put two torpedoes into the Nerissa’s starboard side.
Bruce was in his cabin on a lower deck, resting before watch duty. He was wearing only a shirt and underwear.
“I heard the first explosion,” Bruce told a Daily Colonist reporter in 1942. “And I felt the second.”
Bruce was knocked unconscious, and awoke to find himself in the corridor outside his cabin.
Water surging in through the gaping holes swept him into the engine room. He managed to grab a ladder and climb to an upper deck.
He saw a lifeboat leaving and jumped in without grabbing a life jacket. On board, he tied himself to the craft.
Cockrell had come off watch at 10 p.m. and taken a shower. He was in his bunk with only pants and boots on when the torpedoes struck. He too was knocked unconscious and when he came to, he made his way on deck and tried to lower a lifeboat with his friend Lance-Bombardier Peter L. Cockburn, another Victorian.
It was that lifeboat Bruce jumped into as it went over the side of the sinking Nerissa.
“It was rough to begin with,” Bruce recalls. “When the lifeboat was launched it was overflowing. I crawled on just as it was leaving . There was a piece of line there and I tied myself in so I knew I’d at least stay with it.”
Just then, a third torpedo from U-boat 552 hit the Nerissa’s port side and almost split the vessel in half.
LIFEBOAT: FURIOUS BAILING HELPED SOME SURVIVE BONE-CHILLING COLD
The guys let go at the stern end and the (life) boat tipped,” Cockrell says. “Everyone fell into the ocean and we were just hanging on to this bloody rope.”
The Nerissa exploded, split in two and according to Cockrell, sank in about three-and-a-half minutes.
The lifeboat bobbed to the surface, half full of water. Bruce, partially clothed and still tied to the boat, struggled in the unforgiving cold of the North Atlantic.
“I remember you very well Vern,” Cockrell said when they met again July 26. “When Peter and I got down the rope, we got into the stern of the sunken lifeboat and saw you floundering in the water. You were reaching out. Between your grabbing and us pulling, we got you into that bloody boat.”
As they watched from the water, the Nerissa’s skipper, Capt. George Watson, a First World War vet who’d been ‘fished’ – sunk – several times before, stood on the bow. He fired three flares into the air and yelled ‘Good luck boys’ as he went down with his ship.
Bruce and Cockrell’s ordeal was just beginning.
A plug normally in a hole in the bottom of the lifeboat had been removed to drain rainwater and hadn’t been replaced. The lifeboat, already partially filled with water, began to sink.
The 21 men aboard, already suffering from exposure, bailed water with their hands to keep active and stay afloat. As they drifted away from the sinking Nerissa, they noticed what they thought was a moving raft and salvation. They were dead wrong.
What they say was the conning tower of the U-boat as it surfaced to view the carnage. They ducked and quickly quieted to avoid detection. The U-boat slipped back under the water, leaving the lifeboats untouched.
Throughout the night, the terrified men watched flares as the U-boat “wolfpack” in the area communicated with each other.
“We were out of our element. We’re soldiers,” Cockrell says.
“Soldiers are trained if they’re shot at, he goes to ground, he retreats or he advances. But the ground is there and someone is there to help if you’re hit and you know it.
“All of a sudden here we are, out of our element, in the bloody water. There is no one to help us. We don’t know what to do. And we can’t do anything except wait to die.”
Through the night, the wind blew icy cold and waves broke over the lifeboat. Then it rained and the sea became calmer. They sang songs and recited The Lord’s Prayer, trying to stay awake and alive.
“It started out there was 21 of us in the boat. When they picked us up there were 12 alive,” Cockrell says. “The rest died during the night. We couldn’t get the bodies out because we were too tired.”
Cockrell’s recollection only begins to reveal the horrors the two men shared.
“One of the ship’s crew was in the boat and he was in a white jacket,” Cockrell says. “His body was under the seats and it kept floating back and forth and hitting our bloody legs. He was just a young fella. He died just like that.”
Bruce adds: “You had to keep pushing them away with your feet. Guys with life-jackets were still floating around…. I’ll never forget it.”
They both recall an unknown Eastern Canadian sailor who, sitting with the rest of them up to his waist in water, kept shouting to bail harder and struck any man who showed any signs of sleepiness. He died shortly before they were rescued.
Bruce almost ended up as a casualty.
“If you stopped, you were dead. I couldn’t get going again and Jack and Peter were sitting alongside me,” Bruce says. “I was just about ready. I said ‘Well, I know it’s coming. I’m going to go. What the hell? I’m so tired. Who cares?”
“They saw me starting to go over and started to give me a slap around and said, ‘C’mon, you got to get going. You got to get going.’ I said, ‘I can’t. I’m dead. I just can’t move.'”
“It took about a half-hour before I got my toes moving again because it was so cold. Finally I got going. It was about daylight then so I kept going. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been pushed,” Bruce says.
Cockrell adds that as he slapped Bruce in the head to keep him awake, his hand would come back covered in blood. Cockrell recalls saying, “If I keep this up the guy’s going to need a transfusion.”
Bruce had suffered a head injury when the Nerissa was torpedoed. Exposure however was their greatest enemy.
“You just don’t give a damn. You know you’re going to croak,” Bruce says, describing the effects of exposure. “The only thing that kept me going was that I thought this is going to raise hell with my mum, so I’ll keep going as long as I can.”
At daybreak, they saw a Hudson bomber overhead. The Nerissa had managed to get off an SOS before sinking. By l0:30 a.m. two British destroyers had arrived. Almost 12 hours had passed since the Nerissa had gone to a watery grave.
After they were rescued, Bruce and Cockrell did not see each other again.
Both men were sent to hospital in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Cockrell and Cockburn were not seriously injured and were released shortly after their arrival. They lost their personal belongings when the ship went down.
“The padre came along and I bummed half a pound off him to get downtown to buy a beer, so they kicked me out,””recalls a chuckling Cockrell.
Bruce’s injuries were more serious and he soon grew ill as a result of exposure. Bruce was the only survivor of the seven Corps of Military Staff Clerks aboard.
An article in the May 7, 1941 Daily Colonist reported the loss of 122 Canadians, including 11 Vancouver Island men, as a result of the torpedoing. Little else was said. It would take until late 1942 for Bruce to be interviewed by the Daily Colonist and explain what happened.
It was not until late July this year that Bruce found some of the forgotten names of the others aboard the Nerissa. He discovered a clipping of his 1942 newspaper interview in his medical file when he went for an X-ray.
Curious, Bruce discovered Cockrell was in Victoria. After confirming Cockrell was on the Nerissa and the part he played in saving his life, Bruce arranged to meet with him. Cockburn, also still in Victoria, was contacted by Cockrell but declined to attend the meeting.
According to the Daily Colonist, over 300 lives were lost with the sinking of the Nerissa.
For the two men, questions still abound about that fateful evening. They are both sure there was something in the Nerissa’s hold that made it a target.
“What was she carrying that was so important that he had to put three torpedoes into a vessel that weighed only 5,600 tonnes?” Cockrell says referring to Erich Topp, the U-boat’s commander and one of the most decorated commanders of the German navy.
Cockrell also mentions the presence of 12 Americans onboard in civilian clothing. Pearl Harbor was not attacked until Dec. 7, 1941, which brought the Americans into the global conflict.
For Bruce and Cockrell, the chance to share their harrowing experience after so many years was an amazing opportunity.
Getting up from the patio table, the two embraced in a stiff hug. Two old soldiers sharing a war story or two, brought together by circumstance, united by fate.
EXPLOSION CUT SHORT ACT OF HEROISM
Vernon “Vern” Bruce, 80, and Lionel “Jack” P. Cockrell, 82, recall fondly the last moments of glory for some of their fallen Victoria comrades.
Both men reflected positively on the memory of Sgt.-Major Owen Bentley.
Cockrell recalled seeing Bentley offer his life-jacket to a newlywed woman aboard the Nerissa. His act of heroism was short-lived, however, when an explosion below decks killed them both.
“He was a good man,” said Bruce.
Bruce was friends with Cpl. John L. Leadbetter, who died from exposure in the lifeboat during the night.
“We were singing the Beer Barrel Polka at the time,” Bruce told the Daily Colonist in 1942. “Suddenly Johnny just pitched forward. He was dead.”
Times Colonist Wednesday August 8, 2001