Nene K270

My father, Fred Cooper, served in the Merchant Navy in WW2. He worked for Cunard as a Steward on troopships. I would like to hear from anyone who knew my father and of the experiences they shared. Here is an article he wrote about one of his war-time experiences. He thought the Cuba may have been the last transport ship to be torpedoed in the European conflict. The SS Cuba (reg. no. 171463) 11,300 tons gross, was built in 1923 by Swan Hunter for the French line CGT to be used on the St Nazaire-West Indies-Vera Cruz route. She was intercepted by a British warship in 1940, and used as a transport under Cunard management. [Alan Cooper ]

The Sinking of the SS Cuba - as told by Fred Cooper - Steward aboard Cuba when sunk

Dawn on the morning of Wednesday April 6th 1945, and the waters in the approaches to the Channel were as busy as London's Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon - and just as dangerous.

Into the Atlantic end slipped a small convoy of troopships and escort returning from the French ferry service back to Southampton. I was a crew-member on one of those ships. She was a war-prize from the West Africa-Cuba run, and she was the "Cuba". I recall she was the only vessel in the war-time transport and hospital ship fleet to carry a swastika on her bow anchors. A reminder of her former owners. The history of the Cuba would have pleased James Bond, as we always felt there were more spies aboard her than ever 007 would meet in a lifetime, mostly of a Vichy type.

On that morning I had left the "glory-hole" (crew's quarters) and had just entered the Saloon Pantry. I said good morning to "Big Alf", the senior pantryman and he gave me the usual, unprintable seaman's reply. I said to him, "The Lady is wagging her tail again," which when translated told Alf that the Cuba was again slightly out of strict "line-astern" to the rest of the convoy. Alf passed a terse comment about the Cuba's navigation which again I cannot print. The time was 7.00 a.m.

I took a large pan of boiling water from Alf, intending to "top-up" the coffee urns. At that moment the torpedo struck. Most seamen know there is no sound on earth like that of the impact of a "tin fish" striking home on the ship you are on. Unmistakeable. Alf, who was a six-footer, broad and handsome to boot, was hurled the length of his pantry. I finished up on my rear-end, outside the pantry entrance. "Away Ship's Boat Crew, Fred!" Alf yelled and we both grabbed our lifejackets and went up to the boat deck.

Most seamen, RN and MN, who have had to abandon ship (and this was my third time) know it is very rarely that you can get both Port and Starboard lifeboats away. We made our way to the Starboard side where the list was developing. Most of the British crew members were already on station, plus some Martinique and other West Indian engine room ratings. If one could be "lucky" under these conditions, we were lucky inasmuch as we were not carrying 3,000 U.S. troops, which we would have had on board if we were sailing from Southampton to Le Havre instead of homeward bound. We had a few war casualties and some medical staff. War-time regulations required ship's lifeboats to be already "swung-out" and held by wire grips. Those of us who had already been "bumped-off" thanked the Lord and the Ministry of War Transport for this regulation. However, as a lot of sailors know, getting a three and a half-ton lifeboat down from 75 feet to zero, while the platform you are on is trying to tilt you "into the drink" before your boat arrives there, is no joke. The mind registers one life-boat coxwain's shout to his crew about the way they were handling the twenty-foot oars, "Fend her off, you f*****g thickheads, you're not at Henley!"

She was the only ship I ever served on where the crew regularly used to run a raffle on what time her skipper would run her aground off Cowes - such was their opinion of his seamanship. As we struggled to steer our way clear of the sinking Cuba, before the suction took us down with her, one of the lads said "No more raffles". Our coxwain shouted, "Belay oars, we're clear." I gratefully rested my arms on my oar and suddenly realised I was scalded from fingers to elbows on both arms. This, when the torpedo struck home and everything went over me in the pantry. It had failed to register at the moment of impact.

The coxwain then put the rudder hard over and we circled warily, dreading hearing the blowing of air that tells you a U-boat conning tower will appear, dwelling on the thought of a sardonic Reichmarine Officer ordering a gun crew to "swing round" on us. There was a tremendous surge of water hitting us abeam and the starboard oarsmen shouted "She's going!" as the Cuba tilted her bow three hundred feet into the air and slid below to her watery grave.

Someone shouted "Watch that Port side" and we turned, scared of what we might see. A grey shape loomed out of the mist, zig-zagging as she came in close. I think I was the first to spot the fact that she was "wearing" a Canadian flag. Everyone else was watching the guns. No pools winner could equal the joy we felt as this great little ship, the Canadian frigate Nene, came amongst us, and the scramble nets came down as the crew helped us to come aboard. The Nene did us proud. Hot tea, clothes, the lot! One of the crew later told us, "You got yours at seven - he got his at ten." This meant that what we believe to be the last U-boat destroyed in the European War had been trapped in the Channel by the Nene's colleagues and as they say in the best diplomatic circles - duly despatched! We also feel that we may have been the last Transport to be sank in the European conflict.

As we sipped our tea and put on the sweaters passed out to us by the crew of the Nene, one of the Cuba's cooks suddenly remarked,

"I left the oven gases on......"

"Don't worry," his mate remarked drily, "they will be well out now!"

[By the way, this story in Tate and Lyle's house magazine (Liverpool) was titled "I left the gases on".]

U-1195, SS Cuba, and a new, mini-sub, "Alicia" were featured in a 2004 documentary by Context TV , of Germany.

Rudi Wieser, one of only eighteen U-1195 survivors, was on hand during a dive on his old u-boat.

Note: The father of Alberto Gonzalvez steamed to the Dominican Republic aboard SS Cuba in 1940, as a refugee from the Spanish Civil War. (Newspaper articles from The Trujillo Opinion - SS Cuba Refugees - 1940)

SS Cuba Related Items: (Spanish translation- Espanol)

The French troop ship, SS Cuba, was torpedoed by U1195 as it steamed for the harbour in Portsmouth, England, on the morning of April 6, 1945. The most agreed upon number of survivors (all of whom were rescued by HMCS Nene) was 264, and one stoker was killed by the explosion.

Other ships in the convoy heeded a warning to reduce speed to "George seven", or seven knots, in order to hamper the homing instincts of the acoustic torpedo that has just been picked up on sonar. The SS Cuba, believing itself to be close enough to the harbour, made a run for the opening at seventeen knots. The torpedo found its target, killing a crewman who was greasing one of the drive shafts.

The next day, U1195 was destroyed by hedge hogs as it lay on the bottom. Eighteen men escaped through the torpedo tubes.

In 1988, Sam Forsythe (signalman aboard Nene) wrote a poem (ss_cuba_poem) about the incident.

SS Cuba

Eddy Dillon took this photo, from the deck of HMCS NENE, as SS Cuba sank.

Earl Piper (HMCS NENE veteran) answers a few questions about the sinking of the SS Cuba.

> 1. What time of day did the Cuba go down? (It seems that the survivors
> were picked up in daylight.)

My vivid memory is of the actual Cuba sinking. Yes it was daylight on a very calm English Channel day. Remember it as well as it happened just last month.

> 2. How long did the survivors stay on board NENE?

They were on board until we took them into Portsmouth (I believe). So it
would just be a matter of a few hours.

> 3. What was their stay on NENE like, from the point of view of a
> survivor and from your point of view? Did they cause problems?

No problems they were given blankets, coffee and sandwiches.

> 4. What language did they speak? Was language a problem?

I didn't converse with them as I was in the asdic hut on the bridge most
of the time.

> 5. Did anyone on NENE keep in contact with Cuba survivors, or the U1195
> survivors?

Not to my knowledge.

Shaun Dares wrote for his grandfather: I was just talking to my grandfather, John O'Connor, who tells me he has pictures of the SS Cuba actually sinking as well as (now I didn't understand this part, so someone will have to interpret this for me) people being rescued "along the membrane"?

S.S. Cuba survivors

SS Cuba survivors on HMCS Nene April 6, 1945

Earl Piper answered the "membrane" question: Further to your last email re "along the membrane", as far as I know it was what we called a scrambling net which was thrown over the side of the ship for survivors to scramble up. We also used jacobs ladders (check on Goggle to possibly to find other info).
Which reminds me of the time we went to Murmansk on convoy duty some Junkers 88 strafed us. One was shot down and we were browned off to pick up the crew of that Junkers --- they didn't like the idea of scrambling up the net and asked for ladders. They were told if they wanted to get aboard the ship they could scramble up the net. Our captain said get up the net and make it snappy. They very quickly did. We had a crew member who spoke German, Bruno Sonntag, he died in Vancouver in January 2001 of a kidney ailment.

(an account of the sinking of S.S. Cuba and U-1195 from pages 244 and 245 of "The U-Boat Hunters" - The Royal Canadian Navy and the Offensive against Germany's Submarines, by Mark Milner, University of Toronto Press)
U.K. waters were not entirely abandoned during the last weeks of the war, and the RCN might well have increased its score of U-boat kills in April but for a bit of bad luck. The first incident occurred on 6 April, when the rump of EG 9 - Loch Alvie, Monnow and Nene - along with the British destroyer Watchman and Free French destroyer L'Escarmouche - were escorting a convoy of empty troop-ships (VWP 17) between Le Havre and Southampton. In the middle of the channel U1195 torpedoed and sank the 12,000-ton steamer Cuba, which `went to the bottom like a stone,' settled on an even keel leaving five feet of her cargo mast above water with a cat stranded on the top. The scene was already a litter of wrecks, all now marked with buoys. According to Lt Sanderson of Monnow, EG 9 attacked a number of contacts before Watchman's captain announced he was taking over the hunt. Many years later Sander-son remained bitter about Watchman's intrusion and about the fact that the British destroyer `was never seen from Monnow' but was none the less later credited with destroying U1195. It was not the first time, Sanderson recalled, that Watchman had horned in on a search. Her captain was regarded as pushy and ambitious and apparently was resented by the Canadians because of these qualities. That may be so, but Layard's report at the time makes it clear that Watchman got the kill.

Walter McGaw (brother-in-law to Eddy Dillon): Eddy Dillon kept a diary during his time on the Nene. He has a short description of the sinking of the Cuba and picking up survivors. (see below)

Above: Distress light from lifesaving jacket of a Cuba survivor (made of plastic, powered by one D-cell battery) - Don Delong

S.S. CUBA - R.I.P. - April 6, 1945

Ernst Cordes had an illustrious career
Celebrated by many pints of German beer;
Decorated commander of many a submarine
In '45, the U1195, one of the finest seen.

Admiral Doenitz gave Cordes orders to sink
Troop and supply ships in the Channel drink;
Cordes succeeded in "fishing" the Cuba ship,
Eleven thousand ton transport taking the dip.

East of St. Catherine's Point she did bite,
U1195 got her in front of the Isle of Wight;
Nene, HMS Watchman and Hoste saw the douche
Along with the French corvette "L'Escarmouche".

Nene, bravely stopping, picked up Cuba's crew
Saved two hundred sixty-five, quite a few;
While HMS Watchman fired her hedgehogs,
Knocking Cordes' submarine outta those bogs.

U1195 lights went out, took water badly,
Her instruments crashed and shattered fully,
The forward compartment water-heavy we recall,
Couldn't be moved on the Channel floor at all.

Not expecting to be hit, her young brave men,
Weren't prepared to surface, least not then,
Few were wearing escape vests as she lay,
Only eighteen submariners saw light of day.

Just a month before we signed the truce
Those torpedoes and hedgehogs went loose;
If only there could be some more humane way;
If only we could erase memories of that day!


Other peoms by Sam: Sam Forsythe Nene Poetry Collection

Webmaster: Dan Delong - Updated: December 12, 2002