Description of the 39th Crossing of the Atlantic by Troop-Transport SS Nerissa

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


War Diary

War Diary



Ships Attacked
NERISSA (Torpedoed 30/4)

(British 5583 tons, independently Halifax for Liverpool) Request you will sail RESTIVE and TENACITY to assist NERISSA torpedoed in 56 deg. 08′ N., 10 deg. 27′ W. at 2230/30. (F.O.I.C., G., Greenock 0004/1 to N.O.I.C. Londonderry)

NERISSA sunk am picking up survivors in 056 deg. 15′ N., 010 deg 20′ W., (VETERAN, 0813/1 to C. in C., W.A.)

90 survivors ex NERISSA five hospital cases. E.T.A. Lough Foyle 1600. Request survivors may be moved to allow me to catch O.B. 316. (VETERAN 0940/1 to C. in C W.A.)

If possible transfer survivors to LINCOLN and then proceed in execution of previous orders. (C. in C., W.A. 0954/1 to VETERAN) Your 0954 LINCOLN reports 17 hours from me. Have two cot cases and require to top up. Consider most expedient course as in my 0940. Request approval. (VETERAN 1204/1 to C. in C., W.A.)

Your 1204/1. Approved, as intended.

(C. in C., W.A., 1402/1 to VETERAN)

Report Of An Interview With Mr. J. Gaffney

Report Of An Interview With Mr. J. Gaffney



7th May, 1941

We were bound from St. Johns, Newfoundland, to Liverpool, with 1,800 tons of general cargo. We were armed with a 4″ gun, a Bofors gun, 2 Hotchkiss, 2 Lewis guns, P.A.C. rockets and 3 depth charges. The confidential books, with the exception of the wireless code which was locked in the wireless room, were thrown overboard in a weighted bag. The number of crew, including 2 Naval gunners and 6 Military gunners for the Bofors gun, was 112, of whom 3 were injured and 83 are missing. We had 175 passengers and 3 stowaways on board, of whom 123 are missing.

We left St. Johns, N.F. on 24th April sailing independently. We proceeded without incident until 30th April. During the afternoon of this day we were met by an aerial escort, consisting of 1 Lockhead Hudson aircraft, which remained with us until 1700 that night, when he was relieved by another machine which left us at 1915. The next we knew was at 2234 when in position 55 deg. 57′ N 10 deg 06′ W. we were struck by a torpedo in the engine room on the starboard side. The wind at the time was N.E. force 3 – 4 and the sea was moderate. The weather was cloudy but fine and the visibility good. We zig-zagged continually and at the time of the attack were on zig-zag No. 18. Immediately after the torpedo struck us the ship commenced to settle by the stern with a slight list, and the engines stopped dead. We were given orders to abandon ship. My boat, which was No. 1, and No. 7 boat managed to get away, but before the other boats could get clear, two more torpedoes struck the ship almost simultaneously. One of these torpedoes struck between No. 3 and 4 holds and the Chief Steward said that the 3rd torpedo struck the magazine, and that the exploding shrapnel was terrific and was responsible for killing many people. It was a very loud explosion. I distinctly saw a flame when the second torpedo struck us and there was a strong smell of cordite; but I do not know if a column of water was thrown up.

Immediately after this the ship took a heavy list to starboard and commenced to settle by the stern. As a result of this the boat deck was almost level with the water, and the people waiting to embark were almost thrown into my boat, causing it to capsize, and we were all thrown into the water.


D.T.D. D.E.M.S. Section
Cdr. Robertson MacDonald, NID. Mr. R. Allen.
Admiral Dreyer Cdr. Boyle, Room 13, Basement
C. in C. Western Approaches. N.I.D. XI.
Captain Beswick. D.A.S.W.
N.I.D. 8 D.T.M.I.
N.I.D. 9. 73 O.B.2.
Cdr. Oswald, D.N.O., London Files (2).
Sec. To A.C.N.S.
D.N.C. Bath.
Lt. Cdr. Edwards
Commander Winn


There were 2 large rafts and upturned boats floating about in the water and a number of people managed to cling to them. I managed to stear clear of No. 1 boat and as I fought my way out I could just see the NERISSA’s head sticking up out of the water, and I think she must have sunk in about 4 minutes. There were about 35 people hanging on to my boat so I swam to a raft on which were 4 people and climbed on to it. We eventually picked 16 more survivors up on to the raft.

About 2 hours later we saw 9 flares in the sky away to the South, and we thought that they were possibly from some destroyer which was looking for us. About ½ hour later I heard a ‘plane passing over us; it sounded very much like a German machine to me, and we were doubtful about flashing. However I had a small torch with me and flashed an S.O.S. to the aeroplane. I do not know whether he saw it or not, but in any case he took no notice of us. During the hours of darkness, something passed us in the darkness and I am almost sure that I saw the outline of the submarine.

At daybreak a bomber circled us and signalled “O.K.” and about 1 hour later the Destroyer VETERAN came out, and picked us up. We were later transferred to H.M.S. KINGCUP and eventually were landed in Londonderry.

We were carrying 5 bags of Admiralty mail and also a small amount of ordinary mail. This was all locked in a locker in the chart room which was not in any way damaged by the explosion, so there is no doubt that this mail went down with the ship.


Loss Of S.S. Nerissa

Loss Of S.S. Nerissa


The following is a narrative by Lt. Colonel G.C. Smith of the events which occurred when the above named ship was sunk by enemy action off the North coast of Ireland, on the night of April 30th – 1st May, while proceeding in an Easterly direction.

At 2230 hours I was playing bridge with Mr. Baldwin Raper as my partner and with Captain W.H. Embree and Lieutenant R.G. Paul. At that time we had decided to play one more rubber before joining the farewell festivities of the trip, as the ship was due to dock some time on1st May.

At about 2232 hours there was a bad explosion and all the lights on the vessel were extinguished. The four of us immediately got up and proceeded presumably to the boat deck. I myself went to my cabin, where I woke my room-mate, who had not awakened previously, and told him what had happened, at the same time picking up my haversack and British warm.

I then proceeded to the boat deck, en route carrying up the youngest baby on the boat. I handed the baby over to her Father on the boat deck, by No. 2 Lifeboat. Preparations seemed to be well in hand to get that boat away. I then proceeded to No. 1 Lifeboat where the Ship’s Commander (Watson), was superintending the launching of No. 1 Boat. As the Officer in charge of No. 3 boat was absent and had presumably been killed by the first explosion, the Captain asked me to take charge and get No. 3 away. About this time No. 1 commenced to lower to the water. Up to this period there was no evidence of any panic or unwillingness. I went to No. 3 Boat and supervised the filling of it. Just as I was about to order it to lower away, Captain Watson came over to me and himself took charge. Just after No. 3 had commenced to be lowered, a second torpedo struck with a tremendous explosion. The Canadian soldier who was holding the falls of the after end of this boat was shocked into letting go of the fall, consequently the boat dropped into a vertical position and all its passengers were thrown into the sea or into No. 1 Boat.

After the second torpedo hit, the ship started to settle very rapidly and although there was still no panic, people began to jump to save themselves. There was a rope ladder hanging over the side and I climbed down this and got into No. 1 Boat. This was the last that I saw of Captain Watson. Just after I got into the Lifeboat the ship seemed to settle suddenly, causing a large wave, which struck No. 1 and capsized it. I came up underneath the Boat and had a certain amount of difficulty in getting down under the water and out of the boat again, as my life preserver tended to hold me up. Just as I came to the surface the third torpedo struck the ship and she went down very rapidly then, almost as far as I could see on an even keel but stern first, as her bows were straight up above me in the air. From what I heard afterwards, I believe the officially reputed time from the first torpedo until the ship completely disappeared was 3 mins. 5/8 secs. In any event, I know that my watch stopped at 2236 hours, which was presumably the time I first hit the water.

After the ship disappeared I swam around, helping different people and particularly looking for Mrs. Stewart French, who had been in the Lifeboat immediately in front of me, but was unable to find her anywhere.

I periodically rested myself by hanging on to the upturned No. 1 Boat. There appeared to be at this time about ten to twelve people sitting across the keel of this boat, of whom I recognised by their voices, Lieut. Paul, and Major Stewart French. About this time I saw a raft about 15 yds. Away and decided that the chances were better on this raft than on No. 1 Boat, so I swam over to it, helping an American Ferry Pilot over with me. Another chap on the raft, who I later identified as Mr. Wyllie, also a Ferry Pilot, helped this other lad on the raft and then helped myself up on to it.

Shortly after getting on the raft the person that I had helped up, died. He had apparently been badly wounded in one of the explosions.

The Ship’s Officer, who was on the raft, took charge immediately and his conduct throughout the whole of our trip was very praiseworthy. We soon learned that there were 20 people on the raft.

I am convinced that the submarine did not surface, as we were particularly looking for it and although the sky was overcast, could see quite a long way along the surface of the water, and for the purpose of records, the fuel oil of the ship did not catch fire.

Throughout the night nothing of any consequence happened, although we could hear and see voices and lights from other boats and rafts.

About 0200 hours a plane was heard overhead. All rafts and boats attempted to signal this plane with flashlight, but could not attract its attention. Shortly afterwards there was a lot of activity about 20 miles away. There appeared to be flares dropping from the plane. We assumed they were looking for us, but could not get any verification of this later.

At dawn a Coastal Command aeroplane appeared over us, obviously looking for us as he flew down to about 50 ft. above us and signalled “O.K.” on his Alvis Lamp, then flew away in the direction from which he had come. About an hour after this a Destroyer, which later turned out to be H.M.S. Veteran, appeared. At first she did not do anything about picking up anybody, as she was afraid that the German Submarine might still be in the vicinity and waited until H.M.S. Hunter, another Destroyer, came up. The “Veteran” then proceeded to pick up all survivors that she could find by coming alongside boats or rafts and transferring survivors direct from raft to ship, while the “Hunter” steamed around, keeping an eye open. After all visible survivors were picked up, the “Veteran” proceeded to Lough Foyle, while “Hunter”, who had not picked up any survivors, proceeded in a Northerly direction on convoy duty.

The “Veteran” provided the survivors with blankets and an issue of rum and all clothes were semi-dried in the boiler room. At about 1830 hours the party was transferred to H.M.S. Kingcup, a Corvette, which took us to Londonderry. While on the ‘Veteran” a role call was taken and disclosed that there were 83 survivors out of, as far as it was possible to determine at the time, about 295. The 83 survivors were made up as follows:

Canadian Army 3 Officers
32 other Ranks
Norwegian Air Force 1 Officer
Canadian Navy 1 Officer
5 Ratings
Civilians 6
(including 3 American Ferry Pilots)
Ship’s Company 4 Officers
31 Other Ranks

As far as the Canadian Army was concerned, the losses were 30 Officers and 60 Other Ranks.

Lieut. Colonel J.C. Burness, P.P.C.L.I., who had been O.C., Troops, on board, was not seen by me after the torpedo, nor was my late bridge partner, Mr. Raper, and although enquiries were made by me, I could not find anybody that had seen either of these two, although S/Major Edwards, R.C.C.S., told me that the young boy who Mr. Raper was looking after, had been on a raft with him but had some time during the night disappeared off it.

After a day and a half rest in Londonderry, I took the survivors who were capable of travelling, to London, via Belfast, Heysham and Liverpool, being met at the last named by Lt. Col. N.B. MacDonald, R.C.A.S.C., who took over the party and escorted us to London. We arrived in London at 2230 hours, 4 May 41.


SMITH, G.C. Lt.-Col. Can. Arm. Corps
PITHART, R.R. Lieut. 2nd A.A. Regt. (Can.)
KEELAN, G.F. Pte. B/95405
COCKRELL, L.P. L/Bom. P.7471
FALCONER, J.N. Pte. A/99621
MACPHIE J.E. Pte. C/30757
CHISHOLM, J.V.B. F/13127
TILBROOK, S.A. Staff Sgt. P.35106
BUTLER, H.J. Sgt. H/2835
SAULL, J.L. Sgt. D/92718
FITCH, D.C. Pte. D/106990
GALLAGHER, C. Gunner P/4448
SCHARFE, P.E. Sgt. Mjr. P/39777
HARTINOUS, H. Pte. B/93826
NADEAU, J. Pte. D/56323
SYVIET, H. Pte. E/38196
YEAGER, A.R. Pte. D/121043
EBBENSEN, J.J. 2nd Lieut. RAF (Norwegian)
POWELL, J. Gunner K/20071
BOUDIEA, J.A. H/20291
BILAK, J. H/19818
HOLT, J.W. Gunner P.4641
EDWARDS, J.R. Sgt. Mjr. P/39645
STOJAK Sgt. L/25603
WOODWORTH, P Gunner F/80905
MCGOVERN, F.J. Sgt. Newfoundland

Reference: RG24, National Defence Series C-1, Reel C-5276

File: 8823, Access code 90

File Title: Court of Inquiry – Sinking of SS NERISSA and Loss of Canadian Army Personnel

Outside Dates: 1941

Finding Aid number: 24-14


The Sinking Of The S.S. Nerissa

The Sinking Of The S.S. Nerissa


BY 2/LT J.L. Saull

During the war years thousands of Canadian Servicemen were dispatched from Halifax on their way overseas to England with a total loss of only 110 lives through a single torpedoing. The tragic yet unique loss of the SS NERISSA on the night of the 30th of April, 1941, serves to emphasize the effectiveness of the precautions taken by the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy in their tremendous task. Few persons in Canada remember the Nerissa, but her name will be forever imprinted in the mind of the author, who had the doubtful privilege of being aboard her on that last fateful voyage.

We were indeed a motley crew who boarded her on a Sunday night, 20th of April 1941, in Halifax Harbour. Canadian Army Personnel totaled 145 all ranks, made up of a handful of specialist officers, the bulk of the personnel being clerks of various Corps. The total complement of 306 on board was comprised of crew, RAF personnel returning home following training, technicians from the Northern Electric Company in Montreal, nurses and English civilians. Among the civilians was a young couple accompanied by their three children.

Early on the morning of the 21st of April we sailed in convoy and maintained our position for approximately half a day, when we broke off and made for St. John’s, Newfoundland. On arrival there at about 0600 hours on the 23rd, all passengers were allowed to disembark and we spent a delightful day exploring the town. This, incidentally, was the writer’s birthday and it was most pleasant to be afforded the opportunity of spending it on land.

We sailed out of St. John’s Harbour at nightfall and were then informed that the rest of the journey would be made without escort. Most of us felt rather uncomfortable at the thought of the long voyage alone, but soon became accustomed to the prospect, and the many diversions provided by the antics of the she ship helped considerably. She was constructed in such a way as to cause her to continually roll, even on a calm sea. In rough weather this was augmented by a pitching action, with no lessening of the roll. This combination soon had everyone wishing heartily that the enemy would take a hand and end it all.

Quarters were adequate for the size of the ship, she was a 5000-ton freighter, the food was good and plentiful but no doubt the “plentiful” aspect was due to many of the passengers being “hors de combat.” Life was easy and pleasant aboard, we were warned to wear life belts but compromised by carrying them. One attempt was made at life boat drill and, on being assembled on deck it was found that as the boat was displaying both of its characteristics at once, we were unable to stand. As a result, we were given permission to be seated and proceeded to listen to an officer who endeavored to convince us that war was real and war was earnest. The passengers were prevented from falling into the true spirit of a holiday mood only by the antics of the Royal Artillery crew who manned our deadly little Bofors Gun every time smoke was sighted on the horizon. The days passed pleasantly enough for those of us who were “up patients” until the night of the 30th of April.

The scene now shifts to about 200 miles off southern Ireland, the time 2230 hours with the blackness of the night being relieved only by intermittent moonlight. A fresh, cool wind was blowing when the honeymoon came to an end.

The torpedo must have lifted the small ship out of the water. It was delivered amid ship and without warning. When those of us still on deck at the time collected our wits we, inexperienced as we were, could sense the ship was doomed. All activity had ceased, power was off and there was a hiss of escaping steam. She was listing badly by the time we reached the boat deck. The order was immediately given by the Captain to abandon ship and this we tried with varying success. As the ship continued to list, passengers attempted the launching of lifeboats. Some managed this but many boats were knifed into the water and disappeared beneath the waves.

Whilst confusion was rampant, the enemy submarine dispatched two more torpedoes and the small ship split in half and sank immediately. There remained only the long night and the haven of a raft on which nineteen of us had collected. April in the Atlantic is unpleasant, we were constantly awash in the waves as the raft was overloaded and the piercing cold soon began to take its toll of lives. An inventory showed we were without food, water or cigarettes, and there was some doubt as to whether the raft was maintaining its level in the water. However, when it was still afloat by dawn we decided it was at least seaworthy.

Thanks to the efficiency of the wireless operator, whose devotion to duty cost him his life, a message was received at the Admiralty in London and relief was on its way. A Blenheim Bomber sighted us at 0600 hours and at 0750 the smokestacks of two destroyers appeared. After circling for two hours to ensure the area was cleared, they closed in and took aboard the survivors. The crews were kindness itself and spared no effort in restoring us. They provided rum, food and cigarettes, and a fast trip to Londonderry, Ireland.

In the final analysis, it was learned that only one boat remained upright and this was the personal escape boat of the RA gun crew. They did excellent work during the night in managing to rescue some 35 survivors from the sea. Unfortunately, there were no women or children who survived. It was learned that the other boats, which were launched in an upright position, were later capsized by the suction of the sinking ship.

Of the 145 troops who boarded the ship only 35 remained and of the total of 306 persons on board, 76 only were spared. The Nerissa had sunk in four minutes from the time of the first torpedo.

RCASC personnel lost at sea
CSM Clarke, Victor
CQMS Calvert, George
A/S Sgt. Gardner, Douglas R.

CQMS Martin, B.A.
Pte. Hogan W.L.

Note: There were 43 CMSC personnel on board. 33 were lost -10 survived


Department Of National Defence Naval Service Report

Department Of National Defence Naval Service Report



H.M.C.S. “NIOBE” Stoke, Devonport, 19th May, 1941

I have the honour to submit for your information a personal report on the sinking by enemy action of R.M.S. “NERISSA” on the night of the 30th of April, 1941.

The Naval Officers and ratings on board were as follows:

Pay. Cor. F.R.W. Nixon, R.C.N.
Lt. Cdr. Nicholl-Caddell, R.N. (Temp)
A/Sub. Lt. B. Harvey, R.C.N.
A/Sub. Lt. E.G. Robbins, R.C.N.
Pay. Sub. Lt. H.C. Ledsham, R.C.N.V.R.
Ord. Tel. W.H. Craig, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. G.R. Craig, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. R.K. McCrindle, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. H.M. Lester, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. J. Hutton, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. R. Stinchcombe, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. S.T. Kitching, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. J.S. Newhouse, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. C.J. Kent, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. W. Coropka, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. R.C. Bristow, R.C.N.
Ord. Tel. G.A. McKay, R.C.N.

Sub. Lieutenants Robbins, Harvey and myself had volunteered for lookout duties on the conning bridge and it was during my Watch that the sinking occurred. The night was exceptionally dark, the sky completely overhung and the horizon indistinguishable. There was a moderate sea and a slight wind. Previous to the time that the first torpedo struck there was no intimation that the enemy was near. An aircraft escort had left us at approximately 1830, reporting all clear.

At approximately 2234 we were struck by a torpedo on the starboard side, midway between lifeboats No’s three and five. The torpedo must have struck the engine room as the whistle, siren and electric bell were all rendered useless. The Captain of the Ship, G. Watson, detailed the extra Second Officer to proceed to the Wireless Room while he went to supervise the lowering of the lifeboats on the starboard side.

He detailed me, along with the extra Second Officer who had returned from the Wireless Room with the report that a message was going out on the auxiliary set, to lower the boats on the port side. The ship at this time was settling slowly and evenly. Within three minutes of the first torpedo, two additional torpedoes struck almost simultaneously, slightly abaft the first, on the starboard side, exploding the magazine containing ammunition for the Ship’s guns and no doubt claiming many lives.

At this point, the Ship broke in two and sank stern first in less than one minute. It is estimated that the time between the first torpedo and the complete disappearance of the Ship, was no more than four minutes.

I did not see Pay. Cdr. Nixon or Lt. Cdr. Nicholl-Caddell at any time after 1930 when they were seen dining together. They were detailed to number one lifeboat on the starboard side but none of the survivors with whom I talked had seen either of them. It is my opinion that they were lost.

I saw and spoke to the Sub. Lt. Robbins and Harvey at number two boat on the port side at which time they were aiding a Mr. and Mrs. Lomas with their three small children into number two boat. This had been done while I was lowering the guard rail. While the boat was being lowered, the second and third torpedoes struck creating general havoc among the passengers. It was observed that until this time the behavior of the passengers was exceptionally good.

As a result great numbers of people, presumably from the starboard side where Lifeboats No.’s three and five had been damaged by the explosions, rushed to the other available boats, resulting in the capsizing of all except No. seven which contained mostly members of the crew. In my opinion Sub Lieutenants Robbins and Harvey were either drowned or injured and subsequently died when they attempted to board No. two boat.

Seeing the large number of passengers making for the port boats, I proceeded for’ard with the hope of reaching some piece of loose wood or other buoyant object. The Ship, however sank before I reached the for’ard hatches and I was obliged to jump into the water. The bow of the Ship disappeared within five yards of my face and the sea was literally swarming with men. It was only after thirty to forty-five minutes of intensive swimming that I succeeded reaching a raft containing no more than five men. Together we succeeded in pulling others on board until with twenty men on board we drifted out of the area where the survivors were floating. Since the raft was upside down it could not be guided or propelled (Two paddles, one of which was later secured, were fastened to the upper side of the raft). One of this party died (presumably from exposure) during the night. The other nineteen plus sixty-five others in boats, capsized boats, rafts and wreckage were picked up by H.M.S. “VETERAN” at 0830 the following day and later transferred to H.M.S. “KINGCUP” who transported us to Londonderry.

I should like to mention, Sir, the wonderful treatment given to the survivors by the officers and men of H.M.S. “VETERAN”, H.M.S. “KINGCUP” and the Naval Staff at Londonderry.

Therefore to the best of my knowledge, and after conversations with many of the other survivors, it may be concluded that the only Naval survivors are myself and the following Telegraphists – Newhouse, Kent, Coropka, Bristow and McKay.

I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your Obedient Servant,
(signed) H.C. Ledsham
Pay. Sub Lieut. RCNVR.

The Commanding Officer

FILE: CD. 2-10; CD. 3-16.
NATIONAL DEFENCE, June 11, 1941.
Source: NS 1037-40-2V.12.
DECLASSIFIED – Authority: DHD 3-3; by ____ for DHist NDHQ; Date: May 15, 1990.


The Loss of the S.S. “Nerissa”

The Loss of the S.S. “Nerissa”


Canadian Military Headquarters,
2 Cockspur Street, S.W. 1,
London, ENGLAND.

The Director,
Historical Section,
General Staff,
National Defence Headquarters,
Ottawa, CANADA

  1. A further report is submitted. This report deals with the loss of the S.S. “Nerissa”, which was sunk by enemy action in the North Atlantic on the night of 30 Apr – 1 May 41 while carrying Canadian Naval, military and air personnel to this country.
  2. This episode is of special interest from two points of view. This is believed to be the first occasion, either in this war or the last, when Canadian soldiers have lost their lives by enemy action at sea while in transit to this country, although the number of troops transported must now approach 500,000. Moreover, the loss of the “Nerissa” occasioned the largest loss of life sustained by the Canadian Army in any single incident of this war to the present time, surpassing by a considerable margin the losses caused by the enemy air attack on LONDON on the night of 16-17 Apr 41 (dealt with in my previous reports Nos. 24 and 25).


  1. The senior surviving officer of the Canadian Army from the “Nerissa” was Lt. Col. G.C. SMITH (CANADIAN ARMOURED CORPS, late R.C.H.A.) who arrived in LONDON on the night of 4 May 41. On 6 May 41 I had an extended interview with Lt.-Col. Smith, and he told me the story of the disaster, to the following effect.
  2. The “Nerissa” was the property of the Furness-Withy Line and was built for the Newfoundland service. She was a small vessel, of about 5,000 tons (I have had no opportunity of discovering the exact figure) and capable of a speed which Lt. Col. Smith believed to be 13 knots but which the report of her Chief Officer (appended hereto) indicates as 14. She had made previous similar trans-Atlantic voyages, for Major F.G. BIRD, R.C.E. lately on duty at C.M.H.Q., tells me that he crossed to this country on her.
  3. On her last voyage the “Nerissa” sailed from HALIFAX, N.S., on 21 Apr 41 and called at ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland, en route to the United Kingdom. In addition to service personnel she carried a number of civilians. Among the latter were some women and children; none of these survived the subsequent disaster. The O.C. Troops on board was Lt.-Col. K.C. BURNESS, P.P.C.L.I., who was proceeding to England to take up the appointment of G.S.O. 1, H.Q. Cdn. Base Units.
  4. The “Nerissa” was making an independent unescorted sailing. The only escort which she received was that afforded by a Coastal Command plane on the last two days of the voyage (29 and 30 April).
  5. The attack upon her took place (see Chief Officer’s report) in Lat. 55-57 N., Long. 10-08 W.; she was then approximately 120 miles out from LOUGH FOYLE. At this time, Lt.-Col. Smith states, her passengers had already begun to feel that the worst danger of the passage was over, and some of them had ceased to carry their life belts with them. The attack occurred soon after 2230 hrs on 30 Apr 41.
  6. The ship was struck by three torpedoes. The time of the first explosion is fixed by Lt.-Col. Smith at about 2232 hrs, while the Chief Officer, it will be noted, places it at 2234 hrs.
  7. At this time Lt.-Col. Smith was playing bridge in the lounge. When the explosion took place all the ship’s lights immediately went out, but the crew soon had a certain number of dim auxiliary lights in operation. Lt.-Col. Smith made his way to his cabin, woke his cabin-mate (who had slept through the explosion, and who was subsequently lost) and then went on deck, carrying with him a baby belonging to an English civilian family. Once on deck, the child’s father took it from him. This whole family was lost.
  8. On the boat-deck Lt.-Col. Smith found the ship’s commander (whose name was WATSON) superintending the launching of the boats. There was “no yelling” and no serious confusion, and all personnel were doing their duty coolly. The explosion of the torpedo had smashed Nos. 5 and 6 boats. The captain got No. 1 down into the water and told Lt.-Col. Smith to get No. 3 away. Lt.-Col. Smith got this boat ready for lowering, and Captain Watson then came over to it and gave the order to “lower away”.
  9. Immediately after this the second torpedo struck with a tremendous explosion. A soldier who was holding the lines at one end of the boat was shocked into letting go; the boat was up-ended and its passengers thrown into the sea, or into No.1 boat.
  10. The ship, which up to this time had been settling gradually, now began to sink very rapidly, and although there was still no panic, people began to rush to save themselves. There was a rope-ladder nearby and the captain told Lt.-Col. Smith to climb down it. He did so, and in this way entered No.1 boat. He did not see the captain again; presumably he went down with the vessel.
  11. Just after Lt.-Col. Smith got into the boat, the third torpedo struck the “Nerissa”. This, he believes was about half a minute after the second explosion. The shock caused the ship to make “a tremendous lurch” which caused a great wave. This wave upset No. 1 boat. The boat was perhaps somewhat overcrowded, but Lt.-Col. Smith has no doubt that it was the wave that caused this particular disaster. The report of the Chief Officer states that the cause was the manner in which passengers and crew on the starboard side (or in No. 3 boat?) were flung into No.1 boat when the second torpedo struck; but Lt.-Col. Smith tells me that the Chief Officer was stunned when people were thrown into No.1 boat on top of him, and therefore is not a reliable witness concerning immediately subsequent events.
  12. Lt.-Col. Smith (who was wearing a life belt) came to the surface under the overturned boat. He extricated himself and then found himself on the side of the boat away from the ship, which was just about to sink.
  13. The “Nerissa” sank in about four minutes from the time of the first explosion. Lt.-Col. Smith was told by someone who claimed to have noted the times that the exact period was 3 minutes 58 seconds; but in any event he feels certain that the time was not more than five minutes. He consulted his watch in the lounge a couple of minutes before the first torpedo struck, and the time was then 2230 hrs. His watch stopped at 2236 hrs. which was presumably the moment at which he was thrown into the water.
  14. His impression is that the ship went down “absolutely straight”, i.e., without taking a list. The Chief Officer, on the contrary, reports that she listed heavily to starboard before sinking stern first. Lt.-Col. Smith states that, contrary to a story which he has heard circulating, the ship’s oil fuel did not catch fire. There was no light whatever. Lt.-Col. Smith saw no submarine, and though some of the survivors thought they saw one he is inclined to put this down to imagination.
  15. Lt.-Col. Smith now spent some time swimming about in the vicinity of the capsized boat, assisting some survivors to reach it and searching for more. He heard Major Stuart FRENCH calling to his wife, who had been in the boat with him, and searched for her for some time, but without success.
  16. A raft now came in sight, and seeing that it was less crowded than the boat, to the bottom of which many people were clinging, Lt.-Col. Smith swam towards it. While doing so he came across an American “ferry pilot” floundering in the water. This man was “raving mad” and Lt.-Col. Smith believes that he had been wounded, though in the darkness it was difficult to be certain. Although he was very large and heavy, Lt.-Col. Smith got him to the raft and another American pilot pulled them both aboard. The injured man died about a quarter of an hour later. As the raft was now itself over crowded, those upon it, after making quite sure that the man was dead, and taking his papers, put the body into the sea.
  17. There were now 19 persons on the raft, including the ship’s Chief Officer, who was in command and whose conduct was highly praiseworthy. The sea was relatively smooth and the water, fortunately, not very cold. The party knew that an S.O.S. had been successfully dispatched and that therefore there was good hope of rescue.
  18. Two of the “Nerissa’s” six serviceable boats were still right side up, and three were floating upside down. Lt.-Col. Smith is not certain what became of the sixth, but he thinks that No. 3 boat may not have got away from the ship. There were also two rafts, including the one already mentioned.
  19. At first light – about 0430 hrs – a Coastal Command plane appeared, dived down towards the survivors, signalled to them and then flew off. About an hour later a destroyer was sighted a long distance away. This was H.M.S. “Veteran”. It was feared that she would not see them; but the plane now re-appeared and directed the destroyer to the area where the boats and rafts were floating. The “Veteran” was shortly joined by another destroyer, H.M.S. “Hunter”. The latter, however, did not pick up any of the survivors. This was done by the “Veteran”; she did not lower boats, but pulled the rescued men directly on board. Lt.-Col. Smith was picked up at about 0715 hrs. It will be noticed that the times which he gives for this phase differ materially from those given by the Chief Officer.
  20. At the time when the destroyers heard the “Nerissa’s” S.O.S. they were in harbour preparing to sail on convoy duty. Being unable to proceed to the rescue without orders they sailed at 0100 hrs in accordance with their previous instructions; but at 1200 hrs they received orders to pick up the survivors. By that time they were already well on their way towards the spot. (These times Lt.-Col. Smith believes to be English Summer Time, one hour in advance of Greenwich Mean Time; times previously given are ship’s time, which the Chief Officer’s report indicates as being G.M.T.)
  21. H.M.S. “Veteran” provided the rescued men with blankets and an issue of rum and dried their clothes, and carried the party back to LOUGH FOYLE, where they were transferred to H.M.S. “Kingcup” which took them on to LONDONDERRY. After some initial delay (due to no notice having been given that there were soldiers among the survivors) the Military personnel were taken to EBRINGTON BARRACKS, where they were treated with the greatest kindness and given a hot meal at 2230 hrs (1 May). The next day an emergency issue of clothing was made to them; and late in the afternoon of 3 May those who could travel left for England. Nine Canadian Army personnel were left in hospital at LONDONDERRY. The rest of the party (two Canadian officers, one Norwegian officer, and 23 Canadian other ranks) proceeded by train to BELFAST, where they were rejoined by Lt.-Col. Smith who had preceded them that morning; and that night (3-4 May) the party crossed by steamer to HEYSHAM. The next day (a Sunday) they moved on by train towards LIVERPOOL.
  22. Their troubles, however, were not all over, for MERSEYSIDE had just suffered a series of heavy and persistent air raids (see my Report No. 27). All transport and communication facilities had been temporarily disrupted, and for some time Lt.-Col. Smith could not make contact with the officers from C.M.H.Q. who had gone north to meet his party. However, with the air of officers of the CANADIAN BASE DEPOT (LORNE SCOTS), the party finally reached its destination in LIVERPOOL and caught the afternoon train for LONDON, arriving here at 2230 hrs that night (4 May 41). The other ranks of the party were sent on to BORDON.
  23. Lt.-Col. Smith mentioned that the military personnel on the “Nerissa” included three stowaways who had deserted from their units in the hope of seeing active service in the United Kingdom. One of these men was lost; he was Sergeant F.J. McGOVERN, C.M.S.C., who had been personal clerk to Brigadier EARNSHAW, O.C. Troops in Newfoundland, and came aboard when the ship touched at ST. JOHN’S.
  24. A copy of the report of Joseph GAFFNEY, the “Nerissa’s” Chief Officer, is on file at C.M.H.Q. A copy of this carbon copy is attached hereto as “Appendix “A”.


  1. As indicated in para. 23, above, the total number of Canadian Army personnel who survived the “Nerissa” disaster was 35: 3 officers and 32 other ranks, including the two surviving stowaways (Gunners J.S. HOLT, P4641, and C. GALLAGHER, P4448, both now on the strength of No. 2 Cdn. Artillery Holding Unit in this country). The two officers who survived in addition to Lt.-Col. Smith were Lieuts. R.G. PAUL, R.C.A.P.C., and R.R. PITHART, R.C.A.
  2. The total number of Canadian Army personnel lost was 73: 13 officers and 60 other ranks. The list of those “unreported” was published in Canadian newspapers on 6 May 41, and I have before me the list as printed on that date in the Vancouver Daily Province. I have checked this against sources available at C.M.H.Q. without finding any important errors. The above total given as lost does not include one Auxiliary Services supervisor, Mr. J.N. MacNEIL, who is also missing. The corps suffering most heavily was the CORPS OF MILITARY STAFF CLERKS, which lost 33 other ranks; next comes the ROYAL CANADIAN ARMY MEDICAL CORPS, which lost 3 officers and 5 other ranks.
  3. The officers lost were as follows (names from Court of Inquiry’s nominal roll):
    R.C.A. Captain G.D. MORROW
    R.C.A. Captain J.R. TOWNSHEND ( spelt “TOWSHEND” in above nominal role; but Newspaper Lists and Defence Forces List (Nov. 1939, p.224) indicate name as here given.
    P.P.C.L.I. Lt.-Col. K.C. BURNESS
    Lieut. T.E. MITCHELL
    R.C.A.M.C. Captain W.H. EMBREE
    R.C.A.M.C. Captain J.W. KIPPEN
    R.C.A.M.C. Lieut. S. PARK
    R.C.A.P.C. Captain G.T. CHATWIN
    R.C.A.P.C. Lieut. J.M. BOULANGER
    R.C.A.P.C. Lieut. M.R.A. AMOS
  4. The loss of Lt.-Col. BURNESS in particular will be a serious one. Officers who crossed with me on the “Capetown Castle”, and who had lately been associated with him at R.M.C., KINGSTON, where he was Chief Instructor, spoke of him as being in their opinion one of the most brilliant soldiers in the Canadian service.


  1. A Court of Inquiry to inquire into the sinking of the “Nerissa” assembled at BORDON on 7 May 41, presided over by Col. A.W. BEAMENT, Commandant, “B” Group Holding Units, C.A. The Court met during 7 and 8 May, reconvened on 15 May, and dated its findings 17 May. These findings, and a transcript of the testimony, will be found in C.M.H.Q. file 15/Pers. Cas/1 (“Casualties – Personnel Canada to U.K.”), along with other documents relating to the disaster. They will be an important source of information for the Official Historian.
  2. The Court, in a separate supplementary opinion (see same file) suggested that the whole question of life saving equipment and precautions on the “Nerissa” should be investigated by competent authority. The Court expressed the view that such an investigation might reveal the desirability in future of the following measures being taken on vessels carrying troops:
    1. Periodical lowering of boats to the water to ensure that the falls are in free running order. (The “Nerissa’s” boats had not been so lowered for a long period, and there were some difficulties with the gear.)
    2. Provision of some method of holding drainage plugs securely in place in lifeboats, or of an improved valve-type plug. (Evidence indicated that the plugs were out of some boats when they struck the water, or were driven out by the impact as a result of coming down with a run.)
    3. Training of all Service personnel aboard ships in method of releasing and lowering lifeboats. (Owing probably to casualties caused by the first explosion, many of the crew members told off for this duty did not appear at their stations, and military personnel had to carry on; cf. para. 11, above.)
  3. The evidence taken by the Court indicates the extreme difficulty of discovering exactly what happened in an episode of this sort, for there are many disagreements and discrepancies. Not all the witnesses examined remembered hearing three explosions. Some believed that there were only two torpedoes; some reported that the second and third explosions were almost simultaneous.
  4. On reading the evidence, I noticed a discrepancy between Lt.-Col. SMITH’S evidence and his story as related to me. I quote this passage from the Court record:I went down the rope ladder into No. 1 boat. It was not over-crowded. Just as I got into the boat the “Nerissa” seemed to settle and a terrific wave came from the ship and upset our lifeboat. I was thrown into the water along with the others. I then swam around a little, after having gone down some distance. Just as I came up to the surface the third explosion took place and the ship leaped into the air and disappeared completely.

    I called the discrepancy between this and the version in para. 13 (above) to Lt.-Col. Smith’s attention, and he tells me the extract just quoted gives the facts as he actually remembers them; that is, the “terrific wave” was caused not by the third torpedo explosion, but by the ship settling. He is definite on the point that he was in the water when the third explosion took place. He has no doubt that there were three torpedoes.

  5. With reference to para. 4 (above) I notice that in his evidence before the Court the Chief Officer stated the size of the “Nerissa” as “about 5,500 tons”).
  6. While the present report obviously does not exhaust the possibilities of this incident, it is believed that it contains the most essential facts. It will provide the Official Historian with a contemporary summary of the matter and will indicate the whereabouts of more complete sources. It may also provide him with a few facts not otherwise available.

(C.P. Stacey) Major,
Historical Officer, C.M.H.Q.

POSTSCRIPT. / On searching for the Chief Officer’s Report (Appendix “A”) to make a final check of the accuracy of the copy hereto appended, I am unable to discover the present whereabouts of C.M.H.Q.’s carbon copy, which was returned by me to A.A.G. (Pers.) but is not on the file referred to in para. 31 (above).

C.P.S. Ref: National Defence Headquarters, Ottawa.