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

The Mercury - - FRONT PAGE - Van der Walt is the au­thor of Rebels of Slagter­snek 1815, Zu­l­u­land true Sto­ries 1780-1978 and Child Slav­ery in South Africa 1837-1877

‘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.

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The Ger­man sub­ma­rine U-177, 1&2, sank Nova Sco­tia with three tor­pe­does, then sur­faced and ma­chine-gunned the stricken sur­vivors. 1). Korvet­tenkapitän Robert Gy­sea, 3, skip­pered the Ger­man boat. His ac­tions would haunt him for life. 4). Alda Ig­nisti (In...

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