Books on the Nova Scotia
The Settler from the U-Boat
Pieter Snyman - Survivor

Nova Scotia

by Allan Jackson

As far back as 2004, I had intended to collect the material on the Nova Scotia sinking from here and there on the site together on this page. I didn't get around to that until 17 June 2008 which is why the picture and facts below were 'added before the main story.

This is more or less what appeared in the 3rd edition of Fats About Durban:

Nova Scotia

By Allan Jackson

South Africa's worst sea disaster was the sinking of the Nova Scotia, about 48km off Cape St Lucia by a U-Boat, on 28 November 1942. She was a small liner [of 6796 tons] belonging to the Furness Withy Group and had been converted into a troop carrier. She was a frequent visitor to Durban, being employed mainly in ferrying troops from Durban up the East Coast of Africa to Suez, and bringing Italian prisoners of war back to South Africa.

She had sailed on 15 November from Massawa, in Italian East Africa, and had 765 Italian POWs, 134 British and South African guards, and 118 crew aboard when torpedoed by U-Boat 177. The U-Boat's commander was Kapitanleutnant Robert Gysae, who apparently spotted smoke from the Nova Scotia at 6:12am on 28 November.

The U-Boat submerged at 8:31am and, at 9:15am, fired three torpedoes at a distance of 380 metres, sinking the Nova Scotia within seven minutes. One lifeboat was launched successfully, leaving the rest of the survivors clinging to rafts or bits of wreckage in the oily and shark-infested water.

The U-Boat surfaced to find out which ship she had sunk, but the commander noted that he couldn't get an answer because the survivors were all screaming and shouting at once. The crew were apparently appalled at the scenes they saw in the water [see U-Boats & a Settler, below], but they took only two survivors aboard for intelligence purposes, having been ordered not to assist the rest.

The order dated from the Laconia incident the month before [see HMS Cornwall, above], but German U-Boat Command did notify the Portuguese authorities of the sinking of the Nova Scotia. The ship Alfonso de Albuquerque reached the scene from Lourenco Marques the next day, and managed to rescue 190 survivors. One more was picked up by a destroyer on the third day and another fortunate Italian floated ashore on a raft at Mtunzini, on the Zululand coast, a fortnight after the sinking.

The only woman survivor was Alda Ignisti[later Lady Taylor], who was on her way to Durban with her daughter Valcheria, after having been stranded in Eritrea by the death of her husband Gastone Ignisti. A British army officer by the name of Robert Taylor arranged passage for her on the Nova Scotia to Durban because he feared for their safety. She later recalled the utter confusion aboard the Nova Scotia after the torpedoes struck, and said a British Officer had taken Valcheria and jumped into the sea with her, just before she herself jumped. After swimming for a long time to escape the suction caused by the sinking ship, she was able to look around and saw in the distance Valcheria in her red jersey sitting on a lifeboat which drifted out of sight, never to be seen again.

A number of victims of the sinking were washed ashore on KZN's beaches and the remains of 120, who were Italian POWs, were laid to rest in a common grave in what later became the Italian Military Cemetery at Hillary, outside Durban. Three crosses originally marked the grave, but in 1982, using a donation from Nova Scotia survivors then still living in Mocambique, a circular tomb topped by a broken stele rising from the waves was erected. On it is inscribed: "To the memory of the Sons of Italy who were overcome by the ocean in the sinking of the S/S 'Nova Scotia' XXVIII-XI-MCMXLII The survivors sheltered in Mocambique".

Added 14 July 2004

The Nova Scotia. Picture courtesy Matt Powell.

Wolfpacks at War [see sources page] quotes some extracts from the log of the Alfonso de Albuquerque, which picked up the survivors of the Nova Scotia. The ship was sent to the rescue by the authorities in Lourenco Marques who had been notified of the sinking by U-Boat Command.

  • On the day Nova Scotia was sunk, 28 November 1942, the log records that, at 22h45, the Alfonso de Albuquerque sighted a British warship and gave them the position where the tradgedy had occurred. The warship showed no interest and went on its way.
  • On 29 November, survivors were picked up including a number after nightfall. Five people were rescued when they managed to fire off a red distress flare which was seen from the Alfonso de Albuquerque.
  • On 30 November, at 05h45, the log records that the vessel was steaming through hundreds of dead bodies floating on the sea. It also notes that men had been found fighting for space on liferafts and that the hatred between survivors of different nationalities was strong and that only one raft was found which had people of differing nationalities aboard it. The log says that it was even necessary to separate the different nationalities once they were aboard the Alfonso de Albuquerque. The writer estimated that a quarter of those who survived the initial sinking of the Nova Scotia were killed by sharks.

Books on the Nova Scotia

There is very little in print about the Nova Scotia. The best source I found was a chapter in Ian Uys's book Survivors of Africa's Oceans. Some years ago, I sent Tullio Mascellari what information I had on the tragedy and in May 2008, I received word from him that he had published a book on the subject; so far only available in Italian. More details on his website

Tullio writes about his book:

"I am the writer of the book concerning the Nova Scotia disaster, which happened on November 28th, 1942 in the Indian Ocean. I am an Italian citizen born in Eritrea during the italian colonization. I returned to Italy in 1949.

"In October 2004, I visited Eritrea, as a tourist, after a long time. In a small church at Adi Quala I saw a gravestone containing the names of 652 italian prisoners of war who died during the sinking of the Nova Scotia. This sight affected me so deeply that I decided to make an investigation on this happening, in order to write a book.

"Most of italian people, particularly young people, ignore this fact or have forgotten it. My aim is to recall it. The Nova Scotia was a British ship, the Captain and the crew were British as well, but on board there were a certain number of South African soldiers returning home from North Africa for Christmas leave, and about 780 italian POWs and civilian internees who were carried to Durban. Many of them died in the sinking of the ship. A Portuguese vessel was sent from Lourenço Marques for the rescue. She picked up 192 survivors, Italians, British and South Africans, who were carried to Moçambique."

NEW BOOK: L'Onda Gridava Forte by Valeria Isacchini - 2008

The book is published by Mursia and can be ordered from any of the following online sources:

I've dropped strong hints that an English version of the book is needed urgently. We'll have to see.

The settler from the U-Boat

As mentioned in various places on the site, I refer to Hermann Kolditz who was apparently a crewman on the U-Boat which sank the Nova Scotia. In the 3rd printed edition of Facts About Durban, I wrote:

A German U-Boat officer, who claimed to have caught his first sight of Durban through the periscope of his U-Boat during World War II**, ended up settling here. My informant, Doug Thomas, worked with Hermann Kolditz at Unilever in Durban, where the former U-Boat officer was in charge of dried soup production. Doug told me Hermann had been a member of the crew of U-177, which had been responsible for sinking a number of vessels, including the Nova Scotia just 120 miles off Durban.

Hermann was extremely lucky to survive the war, given the heavy losses suffered by the U-Boats in its latter stages. He settled in Durban, but took his own life on 19 January 1967, after attending a retirement party at which Doug Thomas was also present. Doug told me there had been no warning signs and I can only speculate that the traumatic experiences of the war might have played a role.

  • From Diary page # 5
    Doug Thomas said Hermann Kolditz had told him that the U-Boat had surfaced among the survivors to find out which ship they had sunk. Kolditz recalled that the German crew had been appalled by scenes in the water as the survivors tried to scramble aboard the U-Boat to escape sharks in the water. He said that the U-Boat had been unable to stop to offer assistance and I initially surmised that this must have been because of the fear of discovery by allied forces and particularly, by the flying boats operating from nearby Lake St Lucia. I later found that the Laconia incident, above, had played its part.

The last resting place of Hermann Kolditz is in the German Cemetery in New Germany, just outside Durban, and is marked by a stark black stone carrying his name and the dates of his birth and death; Hermann Kolditz, 19.7.1919 - 19.1.1967. The stone carries no epitaph and it was left to Doug, who accompanied me to the grave, to supply one: "Hermann the German was a real gentleman," said Doug.

** There is apparently no official record of a U-Boat ever having come close enough to Durban to view it through a periscope but I have heard of another source who, while visiting a German university after WWII, met an ex U-boat crewman who showed him photographs of Durban he claimed had been taken through a U-boat periscope.

Pieter Snyman, Springbok-soldier 1940-43

Download a copy of a short PDF of Pieter Snyman who served in the SADF during WWII and was a survivor of the Nova Scotia. There is much of interest apart from the Nova Scotia episode.

Harry S. Metcalfe, RIP

Reader Derek recently visited Christ Church (an Anglican church) in Mayfair, Johannesburg, and found a plaque commemorating Harry Metcalfe who died after the torpedoing of the Nova Scotia. The plaque records the fact that Harry had been third engineer on the vessel and that his parents had placed a tabernacle and sanctuary lamp in the church in his memory. [Added: 25 Jan 2011]

Picture courtesy Derek (DRW)
Click to view enlargement


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