L/Bdr. L.P. ‘Jack’ Cockrell, R.C.A.
Of the 125 Canadian troops who boarded the Nerissa only 35 survived. Jack was one of these soldiers. He showed tremendous courage in the 9 hours he spent in the North Atlantic waiting to be rescued.
The following is Jack’s statement from the “Court of Inquiry”:
“It was about 10:30 at night when the torpedo struck us. Most of the fellows had taken off their boots and jackets. The lights went out, and the first thing I definitely remember of what I was doing, I was in the passage way. I started up the stairway and then went back to see if my friend Cockburn was alright. I didn’t see him and presumed he had gone on deck. I ran to Lifeboat Station No. 3 and found him there. I would say there were between 35 and 40 in the boat. The crew were not there to launch the lifeboat so we started to let the boat down ourselves. One end dropped into the water and the other end gave way suddenly and the whole boat submerged. When it came up there were 20 men hanging on to it. It was right side up but was leaking badly. There was no plug in it someone said. It didn’t sink completely. We had something to hang on to. During the night 8 of the men died from exposure. We were about 40 feet from the Nerissa when the second torpedo went in and later the magazine blew up. We were picked up in the morning. Twelve of us were left in the boat – myself, Sgt. Butler, L/Bdr. Cockburn, and Sgt. Bruce of the Canadian Army personnel.”
These are some of Jack’s memories from Douglas How’s article “In Search of the ‘Charmed’ Nerissa”:
Jack Cockrell found himself on the cabin floor, dazed, in running water. He seized a haversack with emergency gear, a flashlight and his beloved mouth organ. He found the stairwell to the boat deck jammed and men trying to open a door. He and another soldier broke through it with a fire axe and the rush was on.
For hours there was dying in No. 3 lifeboat, with water coming in as fast as it could be baled out. The living were too weak to remove all who no longer did. “I think,” Cockrell would say, “most of us had a close mental relationship to death many times.” There were hours of drenching waves, despair, cold, then hope when a plane flew overhead. Cockrell used his flashlight to signal. He saw no reaction, but others said they saw an “O.K.” signal. When the flashlight failed he began playing his mouth organ to “cheer people up” but soon ran out of tunes and energy.
At dawn, Cockrell would say, “we seemed to be alone on a very large ocean except for the occasional body drifting with the current.” Of the estimated 21 men from No. 3 who had seen Nerissa vanish, only 9 he believed were alive, and he was drifting into a stupor, a sort of gentle fatigue. “I didn’t feel the cold. I felt like putting my head down and sleeping.”
For years, scattered survivors and others have gathered information about the Nerissa, notably Jack Cockrell. He remembers her sinking as the salient episode of his war, “far worse” than being wounded and sent home as an armoured corps officer in Holland in 1944. Years ago he set out to write about it because he felt it should be done, gave up when he realized he didn’t have enough experience, then generously sent me what he’d accumulated.
COCKRELL, Lionel Philip (Jack) Passed away suddenly on the snowy evening of December 21, 2008. He was born in Norwich, England on the 28th of October 1918. Jack and his family emigrated to Vancouver, B.C. in November 1922. Only a few months later, due to family misfortune he was placed in an orphanage and later became a ward of the Children’s Aid Society. Jack received his early education in Vancouver. He joined the Militia in 1934. Two years later Jack joined the permanent force at Work Point Barracks as a member of the 5th Heavy Battery, R.C.A. It was during this time he met his future wife Dorothy McVie. The young couple were married in Esquimalt, at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on December 2, 1939. At the outbreak of W.W. 2 Jack served for short periods of time at Black Rock, Breakwater Battery and Golf Hill until posted overseas to the 1st Field Regiment R.C.H.R. Jack survived the sinking of the R.M.S. Nerissa in April 1941. He was commissioned at the Royal Military Academy in February 1944 and posted to the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps. He served in Europe with the 25th Armoured Regiment and the 28th (B.C.R.) Regiment. Jack was wounded in October 1944 and was returned home to Victoria, B.C. a few months later. After a period of convalescence he served for a brief time with the Royal Canadian Dragoons. Jack left his military career in September of 1947 to join the Federal Civil Service (D.N.D) as an Ammunition Examiner at Colwood. A promotion to Assistant Chief Inspector meant a cross country move to Ottawa. The next move took the family to Bedford, Nova Scotia where Jack became Superintendent of the Ammunition Laboratories. A further promotion meant a move back to Ottawa with even greater responsibilities. The next chapter in Jack’s career was with the Federal Government’s Indian Affairs and Northern Development Branch. He served as a senior consultant with Parks Canada, Indian Affairs and the Department’s Administration and Finance unit. His work resulted in extensive travel both in Canada and foreign countries. Jack claimed that these were his happiest, most challenging and productive days of his working life. A massive heart attack at the age of 58 brought an end to his employment with the Federal Civil Service. As soon as Jack regained his strength, he went back to work on a contractual basis with Park’s Canada and successfully completed several projects before “”calling it a day””. Retirement brought Jack and Dorothy back to Vancouver Island, where Jack devoted the same energy and enthusiasm to volunteer work as he had to his military and public service careers. Dorothy formed a band and taught Jack to play the drums, for the next 15 years they played at many afternoon tea dances and entertained at care homes and charity events. As a member of Branch #91 of the Royal Canadian Legion, Jack served as President, as a Service Officer, Chairman of several committees as well as Zone Commander for South Vancouver Island. His major projects for the Legion were organizing the B.C. Ceremony for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Memorial Wall in Victoria’s new arena. Jack continued to serve on committees until reaching his 86th birthday. Jack was predeceased by his parents Horace and Elsie. His sisters Marjory and Dorothy. He is survived by his wife Dorothy, sister Kathleen Clifton, Vancouver. Sons Robert Cockrell (Lesley) Victoria, John Cockrell (Pam) Rocklin, California, and daughter Maureen Miller (Dave) Nepean, Ontario. Grandchildren, John (Heather) Salem, Oregon, Carrie Ann (Daryl) Rocklin, California, Shannon Miller, Ottawa, Ontario, Jessica MillerPoos (Mark) Ajax, Ontario. Great grandchildren, Hayley, Evan, Calli, Jacob, Brianna, Jazzlyn and new baby Ella Claire. Many nieces, nephews as well as great nieces and nephews. A special thank you to Joanne and Greg for all their support and friendship to Dorothy and Jack over the past few years. Jack was a man who strongly believed in service to country and community. He loved a challenging debate, a good laugh and the Toronto Maple Leafs, but most of all he loved his family and his good buddy Fuji. He will be deeply missed! Memorial service to be held at a later date. Notification of time and place will appear in the Times Colonist. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Jack’s name to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, 107-1001 Cloverdale Avenue, Victoria, V8X 4C9. 519025