SA’s worst maritime disaster remembered
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the worst South African maritime loss and mass shark attack, which took place off St Lucia, writes Dr JC van der Walt
‘I AM SORRY… I am terribly sorry… I will radio Berlin… Help will come… Be brave!”
This is what German submarine captain Robert Gysea (31) of U-177 repeatedly shouted in English after he realised that he had mistakenly sunk the zigzagging British troopship, Nova Scotia, with three torpedoes. She sank within 10 minutes. There were 773 Italian prisoners of war (POWs) on board. They were the Allies of the Germans.
Only 124 Italians were later rescued by a Portuguese frigate. German headquarters radioed the “Laconia Order” to Gysea: “Continue operating. Waging war comes first. No rescue attempt.”
Eyewitness, Italian Carlo Dominione recounts: “We thought that we would be rescued when the submarine surfaced after the ship went down, but she fired her machine guns to warn us off as we tried to swim towards it.”
Germany’s Grand Admiral Karel Dönitz initially allowed the captains of U-boats to rescue the victims of Allied ships torpedoed by German submarines. However, after the “Laconia Incident”, he forbade any such attempts using the “Laconia Order”.
On September 12, 1942, a British passenger ship, HMS Laconia, carrying 2 732 passengers including 1703 Italian POWs, was mistakenly sunk by Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein of U-156, some 1 100 km from land.
There were also women and children on board. Werner Hartenstein was a German officer with a heart.
He immediately commenced rescue operations. He broadcast their humane intentions to the Allies. After surfacing he picked up 193 survivors.
They were accommodated on the fore deck of U-156 where they were given dry clothes, tea, bread and medicine.
Sadly, after four days on the surface, and flying Red Cross banners, an American B-24 Liberator bombed U-156 while she was towing lifeboats with hundreds of survivors. The U-156 then submerged slowly and most of the survivors drowned.
A total of 1619 passengers died, 1 420 of them were Italian POWs!
On September 17, 1942, Dönitz sent a message, the “Laconia Order”, to all U-boat captains forbidding any attempts to help survivors of sunken Allied ships.
Another tragedy involving Italian POWs soon followed east of St Lucia in Zululand. On Saturday November 28, 1942, Korvettenkapitän Gysea left 1052 passengers of the Nova Scotia to their fate in shark-infested waters 48km east of St Lucia in Zululand.
Exactly 858 died – 654 Italian POWs and one Italian child, Valcheria Ignisti, 8, plus 96 crew members and 93 British – and South African soldiers.
One hundred and twenty corpses were washed up on Durban’s beaches. A destroyer picked up a survivor after three days on a raft. Italian, Carmelo Dimeo, 32, clung to his small raft for almost 14 days before he was washed up alive on the beach near Mtunzini. Only 196 people out of 1 052 survived. This was the worst South African maritime loss and there were mass shark attacks.
This terrible human tragedy haunted Admiral Gysea for the rest of his life. The Italian POWs were destined for Zonderwater prison near Cullinan, where a total of 96000 Italians were imprisoned from 1941 to 1947.
Nova Scotia was hit by three torpedoes, she blew up, caught fire, rolled to port and sank. They were not able to send a distress signal. The log of U-177 read: “In the water there are hundreds of survivors drifting in their lifebelts, or on rafts or rubber boats. Insufficient lifesaving equipment.
“I see Italians floating in the water. Two survivors reached the boat and I take them on board, ”eyewitness Gunner Thomas Goodyear later wrote. “The ship gave a monstrous convulsion. The port side lifeboats were blown completely out of their lashings. A great sheet of flame and smoke came out of the main entrance of the boat deck.”
The crew of U-177 took photographs of the sinking Nova Scotia. “It was not long before I saw the first shark take a man. The man just disappeared with a wave of his left arm. Only two out of six lifeboats could be launched. The rest of the survivors had to cling to life rafts and to pieces of wreckage,” Goodyear recalled.
Italian Alda Ignisti (Lorenzino) of Durban, described the confusion and chaos on board after the torpedoes struck. She allowed a British officer to jump into the sea with her daughter Valcheria and place her in a lifeboat before she abandoned the burning ship: “I swam for what seemed like hours. 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 for ever. Alda survived, later marrying Captain Robert Taylor and became Lady Taylor when her husband was knighted in 1962.
Survivor George Kennaugh of Johannesburg described his experience: “There were hundreds of men around me in the water, swimming and clinging to bits of wreckage and rafts. Two of us drifted until the next morning. My companion screamed and the upper part of his body rose out of the water. He fell back, and I saw his foot had been bitten off. “The sea was red with blood.” Italian Sergeant Lorenzo Bucci, 36, would write: “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.” Les de Lease recalled: “Private Sammy Levine had a pal, a monkey acquired in Kenya. Wherever Sammy went, the monkey went on his shoulder.
“He was a survivor and was swimming with the monkey on his shoulder when he was taken by a huge shark!” Pieter Snyman, a soldier and survivor of the campaigns in Abyssinia, Egypt and Libya remembers: “Around us were scattered pieces of wood doors and rafts. Fearful faces were bobbing in the waves, watching for something to hold on.
“One by one they disappeared from sight. A lonely swimmer suddenly yelled wildly as he was pulled down. Bloody bubbles surfaced, SHARKS!” As promised by Gysea, help arrived. The Portuguese frigate, Afonso de Albequerque, arrived from Maputo 30 hours later and rescued 192 survivors including the only female, Alda Ignisti.
Frigate captain Jose Guerreiro de Brito described how his crew used boat hooks to beat off sharks in a feeding frenzy. He also took photographs of the survivors. The frigate reached Maputo on November 30 1942. The 123 Italian POWs were free at last. The 118 Italian corpses that washed up on Durban beaches were placed in Durban municipal abattoirs before being buried in a mass grave at Hillary Italian cemetery.
In 1982 using a donation from Italians still living in Maputo, a memorial was erected.
Since then the 118 casualties from Nova Scotia have been exhumed and, along with the remains of 35 Italians who died in Natal, were buried in the grounds of the Matri Divinae Gratia Captivi Italici Church in Pietermaritzburg.