For Posterity's Sake         

A Royal Canadian Navy Historical Project

S.S. NERISSA

 

This page is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the S.S. Nerissa, but a record of sailors of the ROYAL CANADIAN NAVY who served in her, photos they took and stories they may have shared with their families.

 

Below is a summary of the sinking of the SS Nerissa's from the book SS NERISSA - The Final Crossing - submitted by the author, William Dziadyk

 

SS NERISSA - The Final Crossing

 

By April 1941, the troopship S.S. Nerissa had made 39 wartime crossings of the North Atlantic. Her 40th crossing began on 21 April 1941 in Halifax. The Officer Commanding all embarked Canadian and Allied troops (O.C. Troops) was Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Charles Burness, M.C. and Bar, PPCLI. Nerissa arrived in St. John’s Newfoundland at about 6:00 AM local time on Wednesday 23 April. Early on the 24rd, she sailed independently from St. John’s bound for Liverpool. A total of 291 persons were embarked:


- 105 Merchant Navy crew members;
- 16 Royal Canadian Navy (4 officers and 12 Ordinary Telegraphists);
- 108 Canadian Army personnel from logistics, artillery, medical,
infantry, armoured, signals, engineers and provost (RCMP) units;
- 5 Royal Navy (Including 2 DEMS gunners for assisting the crew in manning the 4-inch Breech Loading MK VII naval gun);
- 12 Royal Air Force - A Wing Commander and staff of 11 were returning to the UK after serving as Officer Commanding Troops (O.C. Troops) in various troopships;
- 7 British Army - An officer of the 11th Hussars and 6 Royal Artillery Maritime Regiment gunners for manning the Bofors 40-mm anti-aircraft gun;
- 14 Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) American pilots;
- 4 Norwegian Army Air Service personnel who had completed training at the "Little Norway" base on Toronto Island, and were being transferred to air force headquarters in London; and
- 20 civilians.


In the early morning hours of 30 April, the Nerissa entered the U-Boat operational area Großquadrate AM. (The Kriegsmarine used a grid system rather than latitude and longitude in the short encrypted signals sent to and from U-boats. During the Battle of the Atlantic, 262 allied ships were sunk and 35 were seriously damaged by U-Boats operating in the AM quadrant.) At about 08:15 GMT, the first of four RAF Coastal Command (224 Squadron) Lockheed Hudson aircraft (call sign P5136) arrived overhead and provided escort protection starting at 56°59’N 13°48’W. The second (T9337), third (N5272) and fourth (N7376) RAF Coastal Command patrol aircraft provided overhead protection to Nerissa until 19:15 (ending at 56°16’N 11°00’W).

 

At 21:40 GMT, Erich Topp, the commander of the surfaced U-552 (a type VIIC submarine), sighted a ship approaching from the north-west. For almost 2 hours, Topp stalked the zigzagging ship and adjusted his torpedo firing solution accordingly. Finally, Topp saw a phosphorescent glow on the sea and decided that 1,000 metres was as close as he should approach his target, and he fired a fan of three torpedoes "because of unsure shooting data". The U-552 log records that one of the three torpedoes “hit astern” at 00:27 Berlin Time (GMT+2). About 6 minutes later, Topp closed in on the already stricken ship and fired a fourth torpedo as a coup de grace into Nerissa’s aft starboard side while her crew and passengers were launching lifeboats.

 

The First Radio Officer was on duty when the first torpedo hit. Both the Second and Third Radio Officers rushed to the Wireless Cabin. They continually resent the distress signal with the ship’s SOS position. All three Marconi men perished with their sinking ship. When Nerissa sank to her  ocean grave, the 4 small rafts (aka Carley floats) on the sun deck floated free. Only 6 of her 8 lifeboats escaped her grip: No. 1 capsized; No. 5 capsized; No. 6 upright but flooded; No. 7 upright and two other capsized lifeboats. These final two capsized lifeboats probably broke free as Nerissa sank beneath the surface. Two of her 4 large rafts also escaped her grip.

 

At 01:50 GMT 1 May, RAF Coastal Command (502 Squadron) Armstrong Whitworth Whitney patrol aircraft (call sign J/502 - JOHNIE-502) departed from RAF Lamavady, near Londonderry, in search of the Nerissa. The JOHNIE-502 aircraft arrived at the SOS position at 02:54 GMT and dropped flares and saw that HMS Veteran was already in the area. The aircraft commenced an anti-submarine search. It was not until three hours later, at 05:42, did the aircraft sight “six lifeboats and six rafts” which had been carried north by the Gulf Steam into its search area. The aircraft flew south to Veteran and visually signaled "Survivors of torpedoed ship 13 miles to north". (A position error in Nerissa’s repeated distress signals likely caused a delay of more than 3 hours in the rescue of the survivors and further tragic loss of life. The evidence suggests that the ship’s Dead Reckoning (DR) plot maintained in the Wireless Cabin had not been updated after the ship’s position was more accurately established by the Officer of the Watch’s celestial fix at 21:25 GMT. As a result, the SOS position included in the repeated transmitted distress message was incorrect by about 15.5 nautical miles north-west of the actual Sunk Position.)

 

At about 08:00 GMT, HMS Veteran was alongside the boats and rafts of the remaining survivors. Veteran didn't stop or put down lifeboats for fear of attack. She moved as slow as possible, put a scramble net down and urged survivors to climb aboard. However most Nerissa survivors were so cold and wasted that they had to be helped up the scramble nets. At 08:15 all remaining 84 survivors were picked up at position 56°15’N 10°20’W by Veteran. These survivors had spent ten deadly hours in or clinging to lifeboats and rafts before being rescued. HMS Hurricane provided anti-submarine support while HMS Veteran focused on rescuing the Nerissa survivors. Hurricane would have had difficulty in accommodating any of the Nerissa survivors given that she had not yet disembarked the 452 survivors from the S.S. City of Nagpur and the 3 survivors from the S.S. Henri Mory which were being cared for below decks. At about 18:30 GMT, the 84 survivors from the S.S. Nerissa were transferred to HMS Kingcup, a Flower-Class Corvette K-33, which took them to Londonderry. 


The sinking of the S.S. Nerissa resulted in the third largest loss of life (207) for a ship sunk by U-boats in the approaches to the British Isles:

- 66 British merchant navy;
- 15 Canadian merchant navy;
- 10 Royal Canadian Navy;
- 73 Canadian Army;
- 4 Royal Navy;
- 8 Royal Air Force;
- 3 Norwegian Army Air Service;
- 11 Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) American ferry pilots; and
- 17 civilian passengers (9 Canadian, 7 British and 1 Australian).

 


 

Photos and Documents

 

Loss of the Nerissa - report dated 31 May 1941

 


 

     In memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice    

     Lest We Forget     

 

CRAIG, Gordon Robert

O/Tel, 3704, RCN

MPK - 30 Apr 1941

CRAIG, Wilson Henry

O/Tel, 3706, RCN

MPK - 30 pr 1941

HARVEY, Barnett

Slt, O-31435, RCN

MPK - 30 Apr 1941

HUTTON, James

O/Tel, 3695, RCN

Killed - 01 May 1941

KITCHING, Stuart Templeton

O/Tel, 3707, RCN

MPK - 30 Apr 1941

LESTER, Harold Robert

O/Tel, 3677, RCN

Killed - 01 May 1941

McCRINDLE, Robert Reynolds

O/Tel, 3692, RCN

MPK - 30 Apr 1941

NIXON, Francis Robert W.

Paym Cdr, O-55522, RCN

MPK - 30 Apr 1941

ROBBINS, Edward Gorton

Slt, O-62553, RCN

Killed - 30 Apr 1941

STINCHCOMBE, Arthur Roland

O/Tel, 3589, RCN

Killed - 01 May 1941

 


 

     In memory of those who have crossed the bar    

They shall not be forgotten

 

(s) - survived the sinking of SS NERISSA

 

Ledsham, Harold C. (s)

Newhouse, John S. (s)

       

 


 

Former Crew Members

 

Bristow, R. C. 3689, O/Tel - Passenger. Survived the sinking of Nerissa

 

Coropka, W. 3705, O/Tel- Passenger. Survived the sinking of Nerissa

Kent, Charles Jules, 3688, O/Tel- Passenger. Survived the sinking of Nerissa

McKAY, Graham Alexander, 3693, O/Tel- Passenger. Survived the sinking of Nerissa

 


 

Photos and Documents

 

 

Nerissa - the Forgotten War Grave by Bill Dziadyk, LCdr, RCN, ret'd 

 

        

 

Source: The Naval Association of Canada Spring 2018 Starshell Magazine

 

 


 

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