A woman torn between two nations, the heartrending death of an innocent young girl, a submarine captain who killed hundreds of his allies, the biggest shark feeding frenzy in history, a young boy who got the worst news of his life when he was expecting the best, and a mysterious suicide. The sinking of the Nova Scotia illustrated the awful futility of war, writes Gavin Foster
When Kapitanleutnant Robert Gysae of U-177 first saw the Nova Scotia on the horizon about 48km off St Lucia on November 28, 1942 he had no idea the steamship was transporting 765 Italian prisoners of war from North Africa to Durban.
When he sent three torpedoes into the British ship it took less than 10 minutes to go down, leaving hundreds of survivors clinging to bits of wreckage or the sides of the few already overloaded lifeboats and rafts. Apart from the Italian POWs, there were 134 British and South African servicemen, 118 crew and a handful of women and children who’d been heading for the relative safety of South Africa.
After the Nova Scotia went down Gysae brought U-177 to the surface so he could ask the survivors the name of their ship, and was horrified when he heard them calling out in Italian, the language of Germany’s staunchest ally in the war. The log of U-177 records: “In the water there are hundreds of survivors drifting in their lifebelts, or on rafts or rubber boats. Insufficient lifesaving equipment. Try to find out the name of the ship by asking survivors. No success as they all shout and yell at the same time. But I see that Italians are floating in the water. Strong indications of panic. To clarify the situation I make for a raft to take on one survivor, but from all sides they come swimming to the boat. As two of them reach the boat at the same time I take them on board.” Dozens of other Italians tried to climb on to the submarine but were pushed back into the ocean. Gysae shouted repeatedly in English, “I am sorry… I am terribly sorry…. I will radio Berlin… Help will come…. Be brave.”
Gysae did indeed radio Germany and received the reply: “Continue operating. Waging war comes first. No rescue attempts.”
This was not as heartless as it sounds – just two months earlier U-156 sank RMS Laconia, also full of Italian prisoners, off the west coast of Africa. The captain of that submarine took four lifeboats in tow and dozens of survivors on his submarine’s deck, after calling for a temporary cessation of hostilities while the rescue went on, only to be bombed by an American aircraft as he headed for a rendezvous with rescue ships two days later. The submarine was forced to crash dive, and hundreds died.
For the survivors of the Nova Scotia the worst was yet to come. Packs of sharks moved in for the kill, and those who were on rafts saw their less fortunate comrades being eaten alive in the water. Sergeant Lorenzo Bucci remembered afterwards: “A lone swimmer would appear, then suddenly throw his arms in the air, scream and disappear. Soon after, a reddish blob would colour the water.”
Fewer than 200 people survived the sinking and the subsequent shark attacks, and 120 corpses later washed up on Durban’s beaches. The Italian dead were buried in Hillary cemetery, and then re-interred in the Italian POW church in Pietermaritzburg in 2008.
South African born Alda Lorenzino came from an Italian family and married an Italian, Gastone Ignisti, at 18. They moved to East Africa, where Gastone died just days before the war broke out. Trapped in Eritrea, 28-year-old Alda worked for the British forces as an interpreter, and fell in love with British officer Robert Taylor, who in late 1942 arranged for her and her daughter Valcheria to be shipped back to the safety of Durban on the Nova Scotia.
Alda – the only woman to survive the sinking – allowed a British officer to jump into the sea with her daughter and place her in a lifeboat before she herself abandoned the burning ship. “I swam for what seemed like hours,” she later told an interviewer. “In the distance I could see a lifeboat with a little red blob on it. Valcheria was wearing a red jersey and was plain to see.” Despite her best efforts Alda failed to reach the lifeboat that eventually disappeared from sight forever. Alda survived, later marrying Captain Taylor, and became Lady Taylor when her husband was knighted in 1962.
William and Bob Richards
While researching the sinking of the Nova Scotia I found this sad story of my great uncle, Corporal William Richards, who died in the sinking. His son, Bob, recently wrote an article for Port Elizabeth’s Weekend Post describing how as a nine-year-old he had been excitedly awaiting the arrival of his father from North Africa in November 1942. “Mom had bought a soldier’s uniform for me to wear when we met dad at the railway station,” he remembered.
When Bob’s mother went shopping one day she told him she was expecting a telegram announcing when his dad would be home. “I was so excited when it arrived. My dad was coming home soon and I could wear my uniform to the station. And contrary to mom’s instructions, I opened the telegram.”
The first message, reading “Cpl William Charles Richards missing at sea,” was followed a few days later by another announcing: “Corporal William Charles Richards believed drowned.” William’s body was never found.
The Mystery of Hermann Kolditz
Hermann Kolditz settled in Durban after the war, and told workmates he was a crewmember of U-177 when she sank the Nova Scotia. He described how the sight of survivors trying to scramble on to the submarine to escape the sharks had appalled him and his crewmates. In 1967 Kolditz committed suicide, and is buried in the German cemetery in New Germany. According to crew lists on ubootwaffe.net, however, Kolditz was a crewman on U-372 that was sunk earlier in 1942, and was a prisoner of war in the USA when the Nova Scotia went down. Can any of our readers shed any light on this?
* Thanks to Facts About Durban / Allan Jackson and Paul Kirk for help with research.