Cassette Tape From Ralph Pithart

Cassette Tape From Ralph Pithart


“I will tape the rest for you. My sister made a collection out of newspaper articles from all across the country, some were without a lot of details as it was wartime, a lot of names all listed. I’ll go ahead and tell you what I can. There was an old gentleman steward on board the Nerissa. He had made four, five trips across the Atlantic and had been torpedoed two times. He didn’t survive the Nerissa. I was picked up by the Veteran the next day. The Veteran a destroyer was later sunk. I was transferred to the Kingcup. It was later sunk too. I was taken to Londonderry Ireland Hospital. I stayed there about three days. From there across to England to Liverpool and at that time the Lumber Yard was all in flames it was quite a sight to see. I was sent to one hospital and then on to another neurological hospital. Basingstoke. They kept me there because I had anxiety neurosis. My skin had wrinkles ¾” deep from the eleven hours in the water, and my legs were affected too. I went to a rest home outside Ludlow Castle. It was for officers and Vincent Massey’s wife was in charge. My room partner was a doctor. He never talked he just sat on the bed and played cards all day. He was being sent back for taking dope. He drove me nuts. I never knew until after there was one very young boy dressed in an officers uniform a “pretty boy” he was smoking. I found out later that he was an interrogation officer for the Air Force. I could have said something about him smoking under age but he was over 20. I couldn’t pass examinations so I had to go home to Canada by way of Scotland. There were on board Italian prisoners of war about 15 or 16 years of age on board kind of a cruise ship like the Nerissa. On reaching Canada, I was sent to a hospital in Ontario. I stayed a while and then sent to a hospital in Winnipeg Deerlodge for a long time a medical discharge followed. Surprisingly in Canada the military train would stop out of town and take people off those with lost legs and injuries so that people wouldn’t see these injuries at the regular train stop. These were the critically injured.

Funny incidents when the Nerissa went down – you only go to bed with your shoes off. I had just gone to bed to lay down when they hit us with the first torpedo so I got up put my shoes on took my coat and my haversack, was blocked on the aisle that I would use – went to the other aisle was strewn with all sorts of beer bottles that were discarded just outside the passengers door. But it was amazing that there was no hysteria of any kind and it was just damn amazing. Everybody was so damn calm. I was standing there waiting for my lifeboat, so then I went unconscious. I don’t remember anything and when I woke up later found out it was the second torpedo. When I woke up I was under water under an upturned lifeboat. I still had the coat and the haversack with my mom’s pictures that I wanted to keep. I felt another soldier he was dead and I tried to get up the keel of this upturned boat. I let the haversack go put my head down and somebody pulled me up. Twenty-seven people were on top.

That night there wasn’t a storm but the waves were rolling you back and forward on the upturned boat. One fellow said I’ve got a bottle of lemon juice or was it orange juice in a bottle in my pocket. One would reply keep it for later. Some fellows would fall off and they could grab our leg we could pull them back on. They just disappeared some of them into the waves. They (the Germans) were waiting for us I know that for sure they got some message that we were coming. Towards dawn the Veteran rescued us they put me down in the hold with the dead. Someone noticed that I was moving. Look this one is alive. There were four alive from that lifeboat but they say I was holding on so hard to the keel of the boat unconsciously that they had to pry my hands off. I had sore hands for weeks. They then gave us all a shot of rum.

You don’t realize nothing you feel it’s just part of your life but it is a big shock later. What I collected all through the years letters from Mom, letters from the government, letters from the Prime Minister. There were three sons in the service.

Jim first World War, John army, Fred R.C.A.F. captain; also a sister in the forces too. Dad had been blown up and gassed in world war one. On the Nerissa there were ten American pilots, several doctors, the whole HQ staff of my unit, about thirty ambulances. I can still remember the captain reminding us we’ll be safe as we are landing tomorrow.

At the neurological hospital the doctor was asking can you hear the bombs falling on London. I could hear them but they were so far away that they didn’t mean much. My nerves and anxiety neurosis were quite serious at this time that it was required that I be hospitalized.

At the subway stop in London at nights everybody had a mark where you slept and a narrow trail up to the entrance. It was very pitiful, all the hardship they went through a lot in London.


Joseph Davidson’s Account Of The Sinking

Joseph Davidson’s Account Of The Sinking

From the Book “The Atlantic Star” by W. H. Allan


A gunner aboard a Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship (DEMS) was Joseph Davidson of the Royal Artillery who manned the Bofors and Oerlikon guns of the 5,583-ton Nerissa- The ship was well laden with war supplies outward bound from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Liverpool.

At about midnight on the last day of April Lieutenant-Commander Erich Topp in U-552 was in contact with the convoy. With the recent vanquishing of Kretschmer, Prien and Schepke, Topp was now the leading ace U-boat commander and the Nerissa, his latest victim, was hit by three torpedoes. Davidson and his gun’s crew were off duty and quite unaware of the impending attack. Davidson was actually playing the mouth organ at the time of the explosions. The ship began sinking immediately.

The water came into the lower deck where we had our bunks: within two minutes the water was up to our knees. It was at this stage we tried the steel door leading to the after deck which was jammed tight by the explosions. There was tremendous panic, everyone frightened, no lights. We scrambled along to midships where there was a terrific hole and fire. Myself and others managed to grab hold of a large piece of thick timber…and smashed the steel door open … we escaped through this opening and made for the lifeboats to find there was no time to lower them mechanically as the ship was sinking too fast.

Showing great resourcefulness Davidson shouted through the fire and smoke for everyone to jump into the sea. He always carried a knife on his belt and with this he cut the restraining ropes and tried to push the lifeboat clear:

Eventually we were adrift of the ship [in a lifeboat], only to find that the drain-off plug was missing and therefore taking in water very fast. I was at this time swimming alongside the boat. I jumped into it, found a handkerchief or piece of rag in my pocket and wrapped it around my finger and plugged the hole. After about an hour we found the plug but I had a terrible time getting my finger out which was thick and swollen and very painful.

Davidson believes that the U-552, now surfaced, fired flares and used machine-guns against the survivors in the water. The sinking ship was also fired upon…and there were terrific explosions … white-hot metal, timber and various things from the ship … Next morning at approximately 1100 we saw a flying boat and signaled as best we could.

In due course the old destroyer Veteran rescued the survivors of Nerissa, reported by Davidson as only 87 out of approximately 300 men and women. He was taken to Londonderry:

We were there for about six weeks for medical attention and treated very kindly. We were fitted out with civilian suits then sent to Belfast. From there to Heysham Dock, and hitch-hiked to Liverpool where we reported to our pool or depot. We were asked where we had come from and a lot of ridiculous questions. We were told that as far as they were concerned we were lost at sea.

However, reality overcame bureaucracy and Davidson was soon offered another berth. Gunner Liddiard of the Royal Artillery refers to the supposed secrecy which should have shrouded the jobs of army gunners aboard seagoing ships. He was ordered to proceed to North Shields by rail:

… taking my personal kit and the Lewis gun, spares and ammo with me! When I reached Liverpool Street Station in London I left my equipment on the platform and reported to the RTO (Railway Transport Officer) who laid on a lorry to take me to King’s Cross where I boarded a train for Newcastle. There I hauled my gear from the train and loaded it on to a trolley and pushed it to the electric railway which served the coastal towns including North Shields. When I finally arrived it was late at night as there was no transport waiting for me. I asked one of the porters if he could give me the telephone number of the local artillery base, but he told me not to worry about my kit and to leave it on the platform for the night. When I suggested this might be a bit risky, he replied ‘Everyone does it. We know all about your lot – you’re all seagoing gunners!’


Victoria Men Recall Night Of Terror And Freezing On A Sinking Lifeboat After Ship Was Torpedoed

Victoria Men Recall Night Of Terror And Freezing On A Sinking Lifeboat After Ship Was Torpedoed

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.


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.


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


Torpedoes At Night Were His Initiation

Torpedoes At Night Were His Initiation

By Patrick Murphy
Times Colonist staff


Jack Cockrell’s war started drifting in a leaking lifeboat off the coast of Ireland.

He had enlisted in the army artillery and ended up as an officer in the tank corps, but his initiation to the war was at sea.

In April 1941, Cockrell left Halifax aboard the troop transport Nerissa.

About 80 kilometres off the coast of Ireland, Cockrell finished his bridge watch and went below to await arrival the next day in Britain.

“The fish hit exactly at 10:30 at night.” He said. “I know because I came off the bridge watch at 10 o’clock. I was thinking we were safe and I went and had a shower and then I said to myself, “Whatever you do, keep your clothes on.”

“I was lying on my bunk having a cigarette and the next thing I knew I woke up on deck with water running around my ass.”

The crew and troops scrambled for the lifeboats as the German submarine fired two more torpedoes into the ship.

Cockrell and others, pushed a lifeboat over the side as the last torpedo hit. The lifeboat was holed, but 21 men go aboard.

“It floated all night,” he said. “In the morning there were 11 of us left.”

Just 35 of the 94 troops survived. They were picked up by HMS Veteran and taken to Londonderry. Theirs was the only Canadian troop ship sunk.

“It was a great way to age overnight, spending 12 hours in water to our waists.”

Times Colonist Wednesday, August 8, 2001


Vessel Sank In 4 Minutes Soldier Tells

Vessel Sank In 4 Minutes Soldier Tells


Toronto Pal Among 122 Lost On Atlantic, Writes Halifax Corporal


A ship sank in four minutes in darkness on the Atlantic with a loss of 122 lives. Debris from the vessel, ripped apart by two torpedoes, endangered crew members and passengers struggling in the water.

Corpl. John W. Chisholm, Halifax who drifted around in the icy water for many hours, first clinging to a plank, then to an empty oil drum, and finally to an overturned lifeboat was one of those who survived.

When he was rescued by a destroyer which took him to the old country, he set down his experience in narrative form, while his impressions were still vivid, and sent them to his wife in two installments marked “Letter No. 1” and “Letter No. 2”-35 closely written sheets of notepaper.

When the ship was attacked, Tillbrook was on his way to talk with the gunners stationed at the stern. He was opening the door from the companionway to the deck when there was “a blinding flash of pale blue-green light, a terrific explosion which I believe would deafen one under ordinary circumstances, and a smell like that of burned matches.”

“At the instant of the explosion,” his narrative continues, “the door was blown inward, one piece striking me on the legs, below the knees. I squeezed through to the deck, propelled by fright and instinct. Clutching my lifebelt, I stumbled across the deck toward the stairway. I fell into a hole of some sort but managed to scramble out and made my way to the next deck.


“While I was hesitating to clear my brain somebody was calling to a chap by the name of Bill, directing him to ‘A’ deck – the lifeboat deck. I went up to ‘A’ deck like a shot. Running toward the lifeboat to which I had been assigned, I stumbled again and this time when I got up my legs were paining tremendously. I hobbled over to where the boys were lined up in front of the lifeboat and spoke to somebody in the dark asking if I could hold on to his shoulder. He said, “Yes are you scared?” I replied no, that my legs were injured and felt numb.

“We stood watching a group of seamen and soldiers trying to lower our lifeboat and they were having difficulty. The boat was at a cant of about 60 degrees and a sailor was standing on the railing of the ship hitting at something that was holding one end uppermost. While this was going on some fellows were shining their flashlights around and others were yelling angrily at them to put the lights out, that they were giving Fritz a target.


“Suddenly the efforts of the sailor were successful and the lifeboat went down toward the water at a great speed. At the same time as the boat was released there was a second flash and explosion and the ship listed from starboard to port.

“We started to the other side between the smokestacks and the skipper’s cabin. I grasped the rail along the outside of the cabin and waited thinking it was my end. From here I saw perhaps more than the average individual. First I saw the stern of the ship part from the rest and seem to sink. The ship lurched toward the stern and I was thrown violently to the other side of the small aisle between the cabin and the smokestacks. I grabbed hold of the other rail. I saw someone dive off the bridge. “Just then a rush of water, with a sound like Niagara Falls, came at me, and about now the third torpedo must have hit, because I saw several more flashes and there was a great explosion. I went sky high, and came down and hit something which seemed to be the deck; then water pounded over me dragging me down at a terrific speed. This part of the experience, to me, was the most terrifying.


“I closed my mouth, but as I was swept down the weight on my shoulders increased until I had the sensation of being gradually crushed. While in this predicament strange to say I never once thought of giving up, but fought as I have never fought before.

“I kept struggling upward, but the weight kept pushing me down. I was washed along and then came up and hit my head, then the water turned me around again. The next thing I remember was coming to the surface and grabbing hold of a plank and kicking like the mischief. While still on the deck, I had put on my lifebelt, which was fortunate.

“I had been floating about an hour with the plank for support when I saw an iron drum and transferred to that. Three other fellows were clinging to the drum and I went to it just for the sake of human companionship, although I knew it was not as safe as the plank.


“The four of us clung to the drum for what seemed to be hours, being ducked by each wave that chose to come our way. Then one chap yelled that an overturned lifeboat was floating by. I did not stop to take into consideration the fact that I could not swim, but struck out for the lifeboat, using every bit of willpower and effort I could, and believe it or not, I got there first.

“I straddled the keel and helped aboard an air force chap whose eye was seriously wounded. Then the two of us pulled up a fellow whose leg was mangled. When we finished getting everybody near us on, we were five in all. Later a sixth man was picked up and we all six survived.”

In the second letter, Tillbrook again took up the story, telling what happened before he and his fellows were finally picked up by a destroyer. He wrote:

“On top of the overturned lifeboat we had at least 10 hours of shivering cold that I have never experienced before and pray God I shall never experience again.

“It was some time before my breathing returned to near normal and as it did I began to chatter and shake . . . When my mind cleared sufficiently to enable me to survey the situation, I decided if we could last for two or three days help was certain.


“Someone started reciting The Lord is my Shepherd.” And the words were hardly distinguishable. Then I more or less commanded that we sing, and of all songs to think of I chose the worst-‘Red Sails in the Sunset.’ I called for another song and another, and found it was quite easy to make this crowd do what ever I suggested. Nobody cared who said what to do but just obeyed impulsively.

“After three or four hours, the fellow nest to me said he was going to give up. At first I did not pay much attention, but as time went on I could see he was serious. I spoke to him bringing forth all kinds of arguments, but he began to slip off the boat. I pulled hard at him and he scrambled back to sit on the keel again. Somebody remarked that the man was going off his head.

“This must have brought some latent instinct of mine into play, because before I realized it I was slapping his face-first slapping one side with my palm, then the other side with the back of my hand.

“An air force lad who was sitting on the other side was I believe the bravest of all. His left eye seemed to me to be hanging down the side of his face and was bleeding profusely, and there is no doubt in my mind that his pain was almost beyond human endurance, but every time I started a song he would join in and sing as best he could. I took a bandage from the ankle of a fellow who said he did not need it and the air force fellow bandaged his own wound.


“Around 2.30 in the morning another overturned lifeboat washed quite close to us, with 13 men on top. One of them jumped aboard us and turned out to be the ship’s carpenter and an able seaman.

“The next and most important episode was the sighting of the destroyer, well on in the morning. It was a considerable time b4efore she actually arrived at the scene and started to pick up the survivors. We were the second to last group0 to be picked up. Debris from the vessel, ripped apart by two torpedoes, endangered crew members and passengers struggling in the water..

Corpl. John W. Chisholm, Halifax resident now overseas, wrote friends that “many fellows were lost” after the ship was attacked around 10.30 p.m., and that among his shipmates who went down with the vessel were “Cal Lang, Wilkinson, Rose and McGovern.”

(He was believed to be referring to C.S.M. Calvert Lang, Halifax; Leslie Wilkinson, Toronto; Farrel McCovern, Ottawa, and Corpl. Lloyd Rose, Sydney, whose loss had been announced previously.)


Describing how he was awakened from a sound sleep by a great explosion, Chisholm said the blast threw him “out of bed and on to my feet on the deck of the cabin.”

“The water started to pour into the cabin immediately, and although I had on only a pair of pants and a shirt I did not wait to get any more clothes on. I ran into the corridor and saw a steward carrying a flashlight. I followed and got to the boat deck, where there was a lifeboat to which I was assigned.

“About 30 of us managed to get clear of the ship when the second torpedo struck.” Chisholm said in his letter. “I thought the end had come as tons of water and debris of all kinds, including rivets from the boilers, rained down on us.


Things happened very fast. We were only about 30 feet away in our boat when the ship plunged to the bottom. We drifted in the dark all night. At 11 next morning a destroyer picked us up. I was the only survivor of the local bunch as Cal Lang, Wilkinson, Rose and McGovern all were lost.

“I can’t imagine how Wilkinson didn’t come through.” Chisholm wrote. The first torpedo put all the lights out, but I heard Wilkinson and he was then moving around all right. I thought he was behind me but in the noise and confusion I could not be sure. He was assigned to my boat but did not make it.”

Chisholm said he believed Rose, sleeping directly above him, had been struck by flying debris. Those who stopped to get their clothes did not have a chance he said.


When Reginans Were Lost

When Reginans Were Lost




A Regina survivor from the ill-fated transport Nerissa, Sgt. Frank Stojak tells movingly of his experiences before and after the vessel was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland resulting in the loss at sea of 122 persons, five of them Reginans.

Adrift for 12 hours on a raft in the cold North Atlantic, the lashing salt waves, cheerfulness at its lowest, are described in a letter to Miss Dorothy Taylor, 1136 Athol Street, his fiancée. Posted May 9, the letter, carried by North Atlantic clipper air service via New York, arrived in Regina May 21.

Stojak lived at 4401 Second Avenue, North Regina, and was reported safe in England following sinking of the Nerissa.


“We were in the cabin singing hymns, songs and joking,” writes Stojak. “There were five of us in the room this night. Everything was getting along fairly well when all of a sudden, Boom! Darkness and falling debris and thick smoke.

“We had been torpedoed.

“I grabbed a life preserver, put it on and scrambled to my boat station, grabbed hold of a life boat and made sure I stuck to it. I scrambled on it and soon there were only a few of us left.

“We were in the cold, salty water for about 12 hours before we were picked up. Things happened so fast we didn’t have time to think about anything or get frightened. All we were worried about was our personal safety.

“When we were picked up we were treated by about the swellest bunch of fellows anyone could run across. They gave us dry clothing, food and their bunks. They took us into port to army barracks where we met another hearty welcome. Here we received our issue of clothing, and what not, some good wholesome food, beds and many friends.

“It was really terrible. Imagine peace and quiet, jokes and real friendship one moment, then terror, horror, panic the next with your boat gone and only a raft to stick to through the darkest hours of a long cold night with the waves increasing in height each hour, cheerfulness down to its lowest, and this for 12 hours. No fun.


Stojak said except for what he had on at the time, he lost everything. “But dearer and nearer to me,” he continued with feeling “I’ve lost all my friends from Regina. Everyone has gone. It’s terrible, unbelievable and ghastly. I’m very, very sorry for their own sakes and their parents, wives, children and friends. It’s a hard pill to swallow.

“And think how lucky I am to be able to tell you all this.”


Canadian Officer Tells of Sinking

Canadian Officer Tells of Sinking


Nov. 17, 1941

(By Canadian Press)

VANCOUVER, Nov. 17.-Lieut. Ralph Raymond Pithart of the Royal Canadian Artillery told from a sickbed here Saturday how he survived with four other soldiers the torpedoing of the passenger liner Nerissa in the North Atlantic last summer. Twenty-eight others who survived the torpedoing died while awaiting rescue.

(It was in the Nerissa sinking that nine Saskatchewan soldiers lost their lives.)

“Three torpedoes hit us in rapid succession,” he said. “The liner went down in four and a half minutes.

“I was below decks lying in my bunk when the first torpedo struck the ship and with a violent shudder it listed right over.

“I tumbled out of my bunk, picked up my grab bag, put on a haversack and scrambled on deck. As our lifeboat was being lowered into the water another torpedo struck the side of the ship.

“We were thrown pell-mell into the water and a fierce suction from the Nerissa drew me down. Then a side current threw me to the surface. I came up under an overturned lifeboat.

“I managed to swim round to the side and a group of my companions who were sitting on top of the lifeboat pulled me on top with them.

“The sea was rough and most of the men, too exhausted to hold on, were washed into the sea.”

The four who managed to cling to the raft were picked up by a destroyer 11 hours later. Lieut. Pithart was in hospital in England for four months before being sent home and is still suffering from the effects of his exposure. He hoped to stay on in the army as an instructor.

Two brothers are on active service, one of them, LAC. John Charles Pithart, being stationed at Patricia Bay near Victoria.


David Yeager Letter

David Yeager Letter


May 10th 1941 Camp Bordon, England

Mrs. Rachel Yeager
5348 St. Urbain St.
Montreal, Que., Canada

Dear Ma:

I wrote you last week from Londonderry, Northern Ireland, & I hope that that letter reached you safely. I’m in England now, that’s where I’m writing you from. I arrived in this country Sunday morning from Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I might as well tell you the truth about how I came over. Our ship was torpedoed and sunk somewhere around 200 miles west of Ireland on Wednesday the 30th of April about 10:30 at night. Don’t be frightened now, & because I’m still alive to write this letter, so realize that. I was in someone else’s cabin at that time, when I heard an explosion and all the lights went out. I had no boots on at the time, only socks, and a sweater was covering me. I ran to my cabin to get my lifebelt, but it was so dark, and in the excitement I grabbed a pillow. The floor was covered with water, and already a crowd was going up the stairs towards the lifeboats. I knew where our lifeboat was because only the second day of the voyage we had boat drill. I got into the lifeboat, which had some people already in it and then the ropes were cut, and the boat fell into the water. Water started to come into the boat right away, and we had to pour it out with our hands. Most of the lifeboats, perhaps all of them were lowered. That ship had three torpedoes in her, and as a result she sank in four minutes, before everyone had time to get off. That submarine commander wanted few people to survive. Before she sank, I remember seeing a big flame, then the ship broke in two pieces and sank. Meantime, our lifeboat drifted on, water coming in all the time, and we kept on bailing it out. That action kept us warm. Our lifeboat kept filling up with water, so it was steady work for us to keep it out. David Fitch was in the same lifeboat as I was, and I was glad to see him still alive. Sgt. Saull also survived, although the boat in which he was overturned before it was let down, and he fell out and was forced to swim around before he got on a raft, and then onto a lifeboat. You must understand that every article of equipment, or supplies I had has gone down with the ship. I had only the clothes on my back and my money in my money belt. Everything else has gone. We drifted about all night in that boat, and five people had already given up hope and died. However, before the ship went down the wireless operator sent out an SOS and a British destroyer was already looking for survivors.

The ocean was rough at times, and I swallowed some water. That water is terribly salty, and I had the good sense not to drink any. My feet were numb, and so was one hand. But I would not lie back, as the others had done. David Fitch was in the same boat, and he did not get discouraged neither. We saw two flares in the dark and thought it was a rescue ship, but later we found out it was two submarines signalling to each other. When daylight arrived we were more hopeful. We tried to find a plug to stop the leak, but could not. An American plane saw us and we waved to it, and it signalled back that it had seen us. 10:30 that morning a British destroyer found us, and lowered ropes, and we were rescued. I was soaked in sea water from the waist down, because the leak in that boat was so large a civilian passenger had only his light underwear at the time, and he died of the cold. Five people died in that lifeboat. So soon as I was taken on the destroyer, a sailor gave me some hot tea, took my clothes off, dried me, and hung everything to dry. Then they put me to bed, and I had a good meal, some roast and boiled potatoes and lamb. I fell asleep soon. When I woke up my name was taken as one of the survivors. I put on my clothes, which were dry, and all of us boarded a small destroyer, which took us to Londonderry. From there we took a bus to the local barracks. The military police told us not to mention the torpedoing, because we were near to Eire. We were taken into the barracks, where we had a big plate of Irish stew and the biggest cup I’ve ever seen of tea. I was still dazed by what happened. I tried to sleep but could not. Almost everyone was coughing. Those British Army men were very kind to us, and next morning we had our breakfast in the barrack beds. I had a bath after that which I needed badly. Then I was given a new uniform, two pairs of socks, a pair of boots, a comb and a toothbrush and another set of underwear. Thus a small fraction of my kit had been restored. We had lots to eat in Londonderry. We stayed there until Saturday afternoon, when we were given 8/ spending money. We were taken to Belfast by train, and from there we took the ship to England, across the Irish Sea. We had supper on the ship. Sunday morning I got off the ship. It landed at Heysham, a dreary looking town. Then I set foot on English soil. From there we took the train to Liverpool; we arrived first at Waterloo, a small suburb of Liverpool, and then the army trucks took us to Liverpool proper, which everyone knows, has been bombed quite frequently. We saw some damage. There were still some fires burning, and they were still trying to put them out. We saw rows of houses, whose window panes had been shattered, and then some buildings were just heaps of bricks and lumber. You could see glass scattered all over the street and smoke filled the air. Some of the business section had been hit also. We went to the barracks in Liverpool, where we had tinned herring, chocolate cake (I wondered how they managed to make it) some white bread, marmalade (there’s lots of it here) and tea, which had hardly any sugar, but no one minded. All gas, electricity, and light services had broken down because of the air raids but the food was good. Then we were given 50 cigarettes each, but I gave mine away. We rested in the barracks for two hours, and at 5 o’clock we took the train to London. England seems to be a nice country, but parts of it are somewhat old in appearance. I guess some buildings could be torn down with no harm being done. We had dinner on the train. Those English trains are small, and are they crowded! The train stopped every quarter of a mile it seemed to us. We arrived in London at 11:30 P.M. at Euston Station. We were met there by a Canadian officer, and then we boarded a bus for Camp Bordon which is 45 miles away. The city was blacked out, but the traffic lights were on, but they were dim, and covered up. We did not see much of London, because it was dark and I could not see any damage. I guess we were in the West End. They tell us most of the damage is in the East End. I don’t think I’ll have much of a chance to see London now, because Canadian troops are forbidden to go there. Some soldiers were killed a few days before. I hear that we will get 5 days landing leave, and I’m thinking of going to Edinburgh, Scotland. Train fare is free to the troops. I would have gone with Sgt. Aubin, but he’s disappeared, and so has that poor, shy fellow, Ashworth, whose mother spoke to you on the train at Bonaventure Station. I last saw him, he was shaving. One of our sergeants, Turner, his name is, was killed by a torpedo, which split his head open. Sgt. Saull borrowed $5.00 from me, because all his money was with Sgt. Turner. All our documents have been lost. Sgt. Aubin was taking care of them. I think he was married, and had two children. You spoke to him that night I left. Ashworth was an only child. We arrived at Camp Bordon about one o’clock where we were given a meal and then put into barracks. They told me London gets bombed every night. Next day, I got an extra uniform, some brushes and a great coat. Barrack life is not very comfortable. We had to make our own beds, and line up for our meals at the mess halls. The food isn’t bad. Most of it is greasy. There’s lots of it, but not much variety. The only sugar we get is in marmalade. The sugar in our cocoa or tea is almost tasteless but it can’t be helped. There are lots of potatoes, and spinach, but we don’t see any fruit as apples or oranges. Chocolate costs 2d or 2 ½d a bar, but it can’t be obtained at all times. There are different refreshment stands & recreation stands halls around the camp, and there are free movies twice a week. L They seem to have lots of cocoa here. It costs only 1 1/2d a cup. Chips cost 3d a plate. You can see that there’s not much variety, but what food there is does not cost much.

They told us that the civilian population are placed on stricter rations than the military personnel are. Tuesday afternoon we were medically re-examined, and they found out that I have albumen in the urine, which showed that the kidneys are not functioning properly. A few more tests showed that I had to be taken to a military hospital for observation and a long rest. I suspect that I may be sent home, but that is not probable. On Friday afternoon I entered the hospital here, which is very cheerful. I don’t know how long I’ll be here. Its now about 7:00 PM, Saturday, 10th May, and I hope that this letter reaches you in two weeks on 24th May. I’ve got enough money about 6.5s, and besides Sgt. Saull owes me $5.00, at 4/4 to $1.00 comes out to l.l.8. So I’m financially O.K. I don’t know if I’ll be discharged or sent back, but when I’ll know, I’ll send you a list of stuff I need such as handkerchiefs, shaving soap, blades, etc., but don’t send anything until I’ll write you, which will be in about 4 or 5 days. I hope that the Woodhouse and Pay Assignment cheques and War Savings Stamps are arriving O.K. Meantime, I’m here in this Military Hospital having a rest, and perhaps I’ll have my 5 day holiday when I leave this hospital. I hope that you got my cable quickly. I sent it on 2nd May from Londonderry. How is the family? I hope that nothing serious has happened. How is your mother? Has she had another attack of diabetes? Has Polly been put on her feet yet, or is she in another mess? Is the cat still at home? I wonder if she’s had any kittens. There were some cute kittens on the ship, but they were drowned. I’ve nothing more to write now, so I’ll close. Don’t worry. I’m in good hands, and I’ll soon start work. If I’m to be sent home I’ll send you a cable. But now that you have the address, (on the back of this sheet) you can write me now. I’ll write again in a few days. Good-bye, until I hear from you, or until you hear from me.

Your affectionate son,


P.S. Be sure to prepay full postage on your letter.

Reference: Letter from Len Saull
Written on Salvation Army stationery
Overseas War Services Department
17 Cockspur Street,
Trafalgar Square
London, S.W. l
On Active Service with the Canadian Forces


Corporal Describes Sinking Of Ship in Which Friends Died

Corporal Describes Sinking Of Ship in Which Friends Died


Two Torpedoes Sent Vessel To Bottom Within Four Minutes

HALIFAX, June 20-(C. P.)-Sinking of a ship including Canadian Military personnel among its complement is described in a letter received here from Cpl. John V. Chisholm, Halifax man now in England with the Corps of Military Staff Clerks.

Two torpedoes sent the ship to the bottom less than four minutes after the first one struck, Chisholm wrote, and he said “many fellows” were lost. Among those who went down with the vessel he named “Cal Leng, Wilkinson, Rose and McGovern.”

(He was believed to be referring to CSM. Calvert Leng of Halifax, Sgt. Farrel McGovern, Ottawa; Cpl. Leslie Wilkinson, Toronto, and Cpl. Lloyd Rose, Sydney, N.S., all members of the C.M.S.C., whose loss has been announced.)

(Cpl. Chisholm was named in a list of 35 survivors of a shipping loss made public at the same time.)


“It was certainly a terrible experience and one I would not care to repeat,” Chisholm wrote. “It happened about 10.30 at night. I had just gone to bed, as I was on No. 1 morning submarine watch, due at four o’clock.

“Wilkinson and Rose were my cabin mates and were also in bed. When the first torpedo struck, the force of the explosion threw me out of bed and onto my feet.

“The water was then pouring into our cabin. It was on “C” deck, just above the ship’s water line and nearly amidships.

“I had on only a pair of pants and shirt and I didn’t wait to get any more clothes on. I ran out to the corridor and saw a steward hurrying with a flashlight. So I followed along and got to the boat deck, where the lifeboat was to which I had been assigned.

“Thirty of us had managed to get clear when the next torpedo struck, and I thought the end had come as tons of water and debris of all kinds, including rivets out of the boilers, rained down upon us as she went down.

“We were about 30 feet away when the ship plunged. However, we managed to stay afloat until next morning. At about 11 o’clock a destroyer came in sight and picked us up. I was the only survivor of the local bunch-Cal Leng, Wilkinson, Rose and McGovern all were lost.

(Apparently the four had been stationed here before leaving Canada.)

“I can’t imagine how Wilkinson didn’t come through. The first torpedo put all the lights out, but I heard Wilkinson. He cried out, ‘We’ve been hit,’ or something like that, and he was then moving around all right.

“I called to him to follow, and thought he was behind me. Of course, with the noise and confusion, I couldn’t be sure. His boat was the one I was assigned to, and he didn’t make it.

“Rose, who was sleeping directly above me, may have been hit with something-some of the debris flying about. I was hit myself and somewhat dazed for a few minutes.

“I think a lot of the boys waited to get into some clothes. This proved fatal, as the ship went down in less than four minutes.”

“It seems tough so many fellows had to get it that way. However, I suppose it’s the fortune of war. It all seems more or less of a dream now, but what a dream!”


Experience of Constable Mara

Experience of Constable Mara


We were rushed off from Camp Borden in quite a hurry. We had a miserable train journey, sitting up two nights in filthy coaches. We had a morning in Montreal, and I managed to get a few final things which I now regret buying, as it was just a waste of money.

We reached the eastern Canadian port on Saturday night and when we awoke the following Monday, the ship was out at sea. It was only a small ship of about 5,000 tons and we traveled alone. We reached Newfoundland in a couple of days and spent one day there. As it was St. George’s Day and Newfoundland, being a Crown Colony, had a holiday, there was not much doing….. In this city we had our first encounter with cars driven on the left-hand side of the road. It seemed very silly, too, since most of the cars were American-made.

At this point we got rid of a stowaway-a wire-haired terrier that had come aboard the last trip and had been over to England and back. He was a very affectionate little pooch and when our whistle blew he came running down to the dock and tried to get aboard. Two stowaways did manage to get on, both soldiers, and stayed for the rest of the trip.

I was a little seasick the first day out but I think it was probably the tail end of the flu. Our quarters were good as it was a troopship, we were travelling as passengers. The crew was all English and I’d like to bet the cook had never tasted a decent cup of coffee, let alone made one.

We had the days free and had to amuse ourselves as best we could. There was a canteen aboard at which you could buy beer, soft drinks and cigarettes, and which was open at various hours during the day. Cigarettes were 15 cents for twenty-five or 15 cents for twenty if they were American. I had several hundred stowed away and I sure wish I had them now. The beer was rotten and I didn’t touch it; ginger ale was my favourite beverage until it ran out and then a weak, orange-coloured liquid had to do.

The food was good but nothing like the food on ships during peacetime. We had two sittings for meals, troops eating first. Walking the deck, sleeping, eating, playing cards and reading was all there was to do until we reached the danger zone when we had various watches to do. This usually amounted to about six hours a day, and we were glad of it as it helped pass the time away.

The weather was fairly good all the time and the sea was always calm but the ship must have been rather flat-bottomed as she pitched and rolled continually. There were four in our cabin, the last in the stern of the ship; consequently it was very noisy as the propeller could be heard plainly. Compared to the beds on the train and at Camp Borden, our bunks were quite comfortable, and I slept like a log most of the way. The last two days we slept with our clothes on and had to carry our life-belts with us or wear them all the time. We sighted one or two ships going the other way.

On the morning of Apr. 30, we were told that we were about two days out. A British plane picked us up; all that day we had a plane flying about the ship. About 11:30 (British time) that night, we had just finished playing cards. I had just put my life-jacket in my cabin and gone into the wash-room about four yards away.

Suddenly there was a terrific explosion on the starboard side. We guessed it was a torpedo, and we were right. All the lights went out; I was thrown against the steel partition of the washroom and dazed a bit. I had to strike a match to find my way out. Already there was water in the corridor; men were rushing past my cabin so I couldn’t get in to get my lifebelt. There was absolutely no panic and we got to our boat stations all right, mine being on the port side. Luckily the list of the ship was not great; it did not prevent launching the boat. But all did not go well and down went the stern first with me in it. I got my first sea bath right then and there. As luck would have it, I was holding tight as I had a hunch something would happen. Eventually the bow came down but the boat was swamped. Some of the boys got out and swam for it; two of them were R.C.M.P. lads and they got hold of a raft. The remainder of us, nineteen in all, stayed put because the airtight drums in the bow and stern kept us afloat. With any more in the boat though, they wouldn’t have.

The sub came around to our side of the ship and passed within fifty feet of us. They leg to another torpedo and it passed under our boat blasting into the stern of the ship, just opposite our cabin. The third charge struck just before the boilers blew up. The whole middle portion of the ship exploded leaving the stern and the bow afloat for a few seconds. It was just luck that we weren’t hit by bits of the ship flying about; we picked up pieces of it in the boat next morning.

There was absolutely no suction when the ship went down, as I came across a Negro the next day who had been swimming when the bow went down, narrowly missing him.

The sub came to the surface about half a mile away, showing all its lights; I’m glad to say we didn’t drift near it. It came to the surface again about three hours later and signaled to other subs with flares. Not knowing at first what it was, we tried to signal to it with our flashlight.

We had only two of the ship’s crew with us-one a steward who went mad and died within an hour, the other the ship’s doctor, who didn’t speak all night; apparently he didn’t know much, if anything about lifeboats. They are fitted to carry a lot of equipment but we didn’t know where anything was and because the boat was awash, the floor boards were loose and made it difficult to find things. The plug was out of the bottom so we had to stand in water up to our waists the whole night until we were picked up-eight and a-half-hours later. All the time we bailed water out with our hands and thus managed to keep about two inches of the gunwale in view most of the time. It didn’t do much good but the exercise helped to keep us warm and the big weaves only came up to our chests instead of going clean over us. Most of the night it rained, but there was little wind.

After a few hours some of the men started to go, and by the time we were rescued we had lost seven of the nineteen. Our feet were so stiff we could hardly move. We managed to get only two bodies overboard, the rest were floating about in the boat. It wasn’t a pleasant sight. There were three of us R.C.M.P. chaps in the boat, all standing side by side. We kept in touch with the other boats and rafts by flashlight, and it was certainly comforting to know that someone else was about, even though we were nowhere near enough to them if anything happened. The signaling sub was an encouraging sight too as all we could see was the flares, and we thought possibly it might be a rescue ship. We started to sing for a while but decided it was a waste of energy, and we needed all of that we had.

I hardly stopped bailing at all from 11:30 p.m. until 7:30 a.m., when the rescuing destroyer was first sighted. About 6:00 a.m. our would be escort plane spotted us and gave our exact position to the destroyer; we learned later that it had been sent the night before, after our ship’s SOS had been picked up. At dawn we could see the other lifeboats and rafts; we were all bunched together pretty well, within about a half mile radius.

We were the first bunch the destroyer came upon, about 8:00 a.m. but they passed by us, much to our disgust, and came back later; most of us had to be hauled aboard with ropes. Never have I seen such a welcome sight as that destroyer! And the treatment they gave us when we got aboard-it was wonderful; something I will never forget. My fingers were so numb from being in the water, I had to be undressed. After a good rubdown, they put dry clothes on us, gave us breakfast, hot tea and a good shot of rum-and so to bed. All our clothes were taken away, dried, and given back in the afternoon.

We lost Charlie Johnstone. He was with us up on the boat deck where the lifeboats were, but no one saw him after that. Only a very small number of all the people aboard the ship (including the crew) survived.

I sprained my ankle sometime during the night; but it was not till the following afternoon, when I started to get some feeling in my legs and feet, that I noticed it. We reached port late in the afternoon and transferred to a corvette, which brought us here. We were admitted about 10:00 p.m. I didn’t feel too bad as I had a good sleep in a hammock on the destroyer. I think it was one of the most comfortable things I’ve ever slept in.

There are four of us R.C.M.P. men in hospital, two with colds and the other with badly cut up legs and feet. I was wearing my battle dress and canvas shoes at the time, but the shoes came off somehow. All my personal kit went down. It was quite an experience but not as bad as it sounds as we knew we’d be picked up next day when the escort plane came out to meet the ship.

The food here in hospital is ten times as good as it was at Camp Borden. Apparently it is not so scarce here as we thought; or perhaps in hospital, one gets better rations. I’ve had afternoon tea twice in Londonderry and had all I could eat with lots of sugar and butter. Cigarettes are hard to get though and all the shops have signs up to that effect.

The Force will be very sorry to hear about Charlie Johnstone. He is the first casualty of our unit. However, we had the highest percentage saved of any unit by a long way and we are all extremely lucky to be alive. We were told that the next night they got the sub that did us in. It deserved the worst fate possible, for if there had been only one torpedo, which was sufficient to sink the ship, I think most of the people would have been saved. But using three made the ship go down in about five minutes.

Reference: R.C.M.P. Quarterly, Vol. 9 No. 1, July 1941