The worst maritime loss off Durban’s coast; The sinking of the SS Nova Scotia

This rare colour image of U Boat 177 is at the heart of one of the worst maritime losses off South Africa’s coast during WW2 – this is the story of the sinking of the troopship SS Nova Scotia just off Durban by U177.  An “own goal” really as the SS Nova Scotia was returning with fellow Axis Force “Prisoner of War” Italian servicemen.

crew uboat watchout guard tropical binocular2

Rare original colour image of German submariners on the coning tower of U-177 conducting a watch.

During the Second World War, Durban was the embarkation and disembarkation port, first for the East African and Abyssinian campaigns and later for those in the Middle East and Italy. A large military hospital operated at Springfield and hospital ships plied between the port and the theatres of war in the north.

One such ship was the 6 796 ton SS Nova Scotia, belonging to the Furness Withy Group which had been converted into a troop carrier, operating mainly between Durban and ports along the African east Coast all the way up to the Suez. She carried troops from Durban to the “North” and on the return passage carrier Italian Prisoners of War (POW) to South Africa.


SS Nova Scotia

SS Nova Scotia sailed from Massawa, in Italian East Africa (modern day Eritrea), on 15 November 1942 carrying 765 Italian POW’s, 134 British and South African guards and 118 crew.

Just after 06:00 on 28 November 1942 the Commander of U-boat 177, Kapitanleutnant Gysae, apparently sighted smoke from the SS Nova Scotia off the Zululand coast of Natal. Just after 09:00 U177 fired three torpedoes which struck the SS Nova Scotia who sank within 7 minutes. It appears that only 1 lifeboat was successfully launched leaving the rest of the survivors clinging to bits of the wreck.

U177 surfaced to establish the identity of the ship that they sank, but was unable to do so due to the chaotic situation. Two survivors were taken aboard for intelligence. German U-boat Command did inform the Portuguese authorities of the sinking of the SS Nova Scotia. As a result of this, the Alfonso de Albuquerque out of Lourenco Marques reached the scene of the sinking on 29 November 1942 and managed to rescue 190 survivors. Another survivor was picked up by a Destroyer three days later while a fortunate Italian POW floated ashore at Mtunzini two weeks after the incident.

Many of the casualties were washed ashore on the Natal (Kwazulu-Natal) beaches. 118 of the Italian POW’s were buried in a common grave in the Hilary Cemetery, Durban. Three crosses initially marked the grave, but in 1982, using a donation from the survivors of the SS Nova Scotia still living in Mozambique a new memorial was erected. This comprised a circular tomb topped by a broken stele rising from the waves inscribed with the words “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 Mozambique”.

Since then the 118 casualties from the “SS Nova Scotia” have been exhumed from the Hilary Cemetery and along with the remains of the 35 Italian POW’s who died in the Natal Province are now buried in the grounds of the “Master Divinae Gratiae” Church, Epworth Road, Mkondeni, Pietermaritzburg. The church was built by Italian POW’s in 1944 and is today a South African National Monument.

The only woman to survive the ordeal was Alda Ignisti (later Lady Taylor) who, along with her daughter Valcheria, was on her way to Durban having been stranded in in Italian East Africa (modern day Eritrea) following the death of her husband.

U-177 also met with a watery grave – on 6 February 1944, she was sunk in the Atlantic west of Ascension Island, in position 10°35′S 23°15′W Coordinates: 10°35′S 23°15′W, by depth charges dropped by a PB4Y aircraft from US Navy Squadron VB-107. 50 men were lost; 15 survived, they were picked up by USS Omaha.

Similar to the sinking of the SS NOVA SCOTIA, here is U 177 again – however this time the ship shown sinking in the photo is the American ship MS ALICE F. PALMER – sunk by U-177 south of Madagasgar off the east coast of Africa on the 10th of July 1943.


Information source –  Charles Ross, additional research by Peter Dickens. The colour photo of U-177 is from the personal album of Burkhard Heusinger Von Waldegg who was the first watch officer of U-177 – Lt. Robert Gysae the commander of U-177 stands on the right hand side – note the Knights Cross.

33 thoughts on “The worst maritime loss off Durban’s coast; The sinking of the SS Nova Scotia

  1. My grandfather Carmelo Dimeo was the fortunate Italian POW that floated ashore at Mtuzini two weeks after the incident referred to at the bottom of the sixth paragraph.


      • My grandfather was 34 years old when the Novia Scotia sank in 1942 and he died in Durban 30 years later in 1972. He has a son living in Vancouver and two daughters both living in Durban, one being my mother. Recently my local retired priest Paul Nadal informed me that as a young boy, while holidaying near Zinkwazi beach in 1942 he picked up life jacket that had washed onto the beach presume ably from a victim of the Novia Scotia.


    • My Grandfather Carmelo Di Meo was the survivor . Carmelo Dimeo was the fortunate Italian POW that floated ashore at Mtuzini two weeks after the incident referred to at the bottom of the sixth paragraph.
      Proud of our family history and still carry our Surname in Pride .
      Angelo Montemerano you forgot My Dad Egidio the oldest Son born 11.04.1934- 07.06.1997 , then i am the Di Meo left in South Africa .


      • Our Di Meo Surname
        Carmelo Di Meo ( My Grandfather )
        Egidio Di Meo ( My Dad 11.04.1934 – 07.06.1997 )
        Polo Di Meo ( 26.09.1967 )
        Antonio Di Meo ( 16.03. 1970 )

        Great grandchildren :
        Jason Kyle Di Meo 22.10.1992 ( Polo )
        Nicolas Brian Di Meo 15.12.2008 ( Polo )

        so The Di Meo Surname will carry on in history .

        Polo : I am on Linked in .


      • Hi Polo, My post on March 21, 2017, I mentioned the surviving son and daughters of Carmelo Di Meo in 2017 but not by names. Unfortunately his son our uncle Angelo Di Meo passed away in January 2019, my mother and her sister are the only surviving daughters.
        I am glad you have found this blog and share my interest about our grandfather’s experience on the Nova Scotia.


  2. My Uncle Private D.V.V. Watkins, Royal Natal Carbineers, badly injured by 21 machine gun bullets at Alamein, was a passenger on the Nova Scotia, being repatriated to Durban. Drowned at sea.


  3. Does anyone happen to know if the Wall Of Names in Durban is posted anywhere? I had a photo of the wall with my Grandfather’s name but I can no longer find it.


  4. “Many corpses were washed ashore in Natal.[13] The bodies of 120 Italian prisoners of war and internees were buried in a mass grave in the Hillary suburb of Durban, forming the nucleus of what became the Italian Military Cemetery there.[12] In 1982 a substantial monument was erected on the grave.[12] Nova Scotia’s Italian dead are commemorated also in a monument at the Italian church at Adi Quala, Eritrea.[12]”


      • Thank you… I had seen this info during my research…. I also have the Italian books about the disaster… my grandfathers name is in the back whom I’m named after.


  5. Pingback: The sinking of the ‘City of Johannesburg’ | The Observation Post

  6. Hi, early 1950’s I read a Readers Digest article featuring my cousin John Halligan’s story of surviving Nova Scotia’s torpedoing by swimming to and clinging onto center part of raft while sharks pulled Italian POW’s off the perimeter – I’ve never been able to find the Readers Digest issue again and would appreciate if someone can point me to it. All the more remarkable is that John Halligan was also torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean and again survived.
    Note: Also sailing out of Liverpool John’s brothers Thomas 32 and Benjamin just 14 years and on return leg of his first trans Atlantic voyage were killed by U-boat and a plaque in their honor can be found in London Museum.

    pete wall


    • it the readers digest printed in 1960.
      My uncle went to london to be interviewed
      about the sinking. He was a baker age just 18.
      William Patrick Smith..


  7. Such a tragedy my condolences even after all these years later, to all concerned.
    I heard this story when I was 6 years old from a SURVIVOR WILLIAM RACHMANN my paternal greatuncle. He was one of the few SOUTH AFRICAN SOLDIERS on the way home from the war in.the North. He recounted his SURVIVOR STORY to us one evening in 1971. I have never forgotten it as it made such an impact on my life back then already, that I wrote about it in my creative writing the next day at school. When I requested my husband and my Grandfathers WW1and 2 files from SADF in 2010 i requested my Great Uncle Willys too. The Ex-Colonel specially phoned me to talk about my Great Uncle Willy survivor of the Nova Scotia.
    The trauma and horror he, as well as the others lived through, affected him and changed him for the rest of his life. A quiet, unassuming man we always remember him as. Very grateful he came back to his elderly Irish mother, young wife and two small sons and the extended family. I would like to upload the official photo that was taken of him and his family when he returned to Pretoria but no icon. In Memory of WILLIAM RACHMANN.


  8. How incredible to find you. I am married to Kenneth Leonard Rachman DOB 10/09/1937 who is the second son of William. We were discussing the sinking of the
    Nova Scotia & his fathers survival & rescue. Ken has lost contact with all of his family except for his older brother Ronald who lives in Kwa Zulu Natal. Margaret his sister was born 1946, she sadly passed away 2019. Ken has so many stories & memories of the return of his father from Mozambique to Pretoria. Before it is too late to corroborate the Rachman history which I have traced back to the family emigrating from Germany on a sailing ship to SA & settling in Westville as indentured farmers to owning Malane farm, where the family grew tomatoes, etc., now part of Kruger National Park. The family names Ken remembers being part of William’s relatives are…. brother Leonard, his sisters, Lily, Queenie, Violet, Florrie & Dora. Ken really has too much history for me to relate here. Lily (second marriage) married Sidney Holmes, their children were Cynthia, Mary, Eva, Muriel, Leonard & Winston. I could go on & on. We have a few photos & of course the family tree. Someone out there, who is related to William & will treasure & preserve the Rachman history please contact us ASAP


    • Hi Marion,

      I am so happy to meet you. I have met your husband Kenneth in the 70’s as a child. I am Leonard’s daughter Lilian named after his mother Lillian {Lilly). Your father in law told us his survival story in the early 70s when they visited us in JHB. I have never forgotten his story. As I have been researching the familytree for the past 14 years now and trying to preserve all this history for those hoping to know oneday and finding any of what I’ve posted online too – old photos of all the Rachmann family from Harriet and William and their children over the years as well as the history of our Rachmann Forefather immigrating to Westville, KZN with his mother and Stepfather and halfsiblings from Germany in 1848. I have phoned Uncle Ronny and Aunty Jennifer a few years ago and caughtup with them and exchanged photos and some info. They told me you and Uncle Kenny were in England now. My daughter and her family as well as my younger sister and her family have immigrated there too and I make the trip to visit them once a year. If you can please contact me on so we can exchange old photos and info too. It will be most appreciated.

      Lilian M


    • Hi Marion,
      I hope you received my earlier reply.
      My email is
      We have also researched the Rachmann Familytree and been to the Bergtheil Museum in Westville, Durban on numerous occasions where so much info has been logged. Photos as well.

      Looking forward to discussing all info researched and sharing of family photos.

      Lilian M (nee Holmes)


  9. My grandfather, James Warren, was Chief Officer on the SS Nova Scotia when she sank. I would like to obtain any medals that would have been awarded to my grandfather but I don’t know where to begin.
    His only child, my father, passed away November 22, 2021, so I am the only living direct descendant.


    • Hi Claire , Your Grandfather would have known my 2nd g uncle Alfred Hender who was the Ships Captain on SS Nova Scotia . Unfortunately Alfred went down with his ship which is so sad .


      • Hi Wendy,
        Your Great Grand Uncle, Captain Alfred Hender was my Father’s Godfather.
        Grampy Warren went down with the ship, as well. Very sad.


      • Hello Claire , Great to hear from you. I was surprised that your Father was Alfred’s Godson ! It’s a small world . Alfred was born in Fowey , i never met him but have researched his Family tree online . He Married a Jane Ann .

        I believe Alfred had been a Merchant Seaman for some time and moved up North at some point. I always wondered what sort of person he was .

        May i ask where you live in the World? and we could exchange email addresses to share more info if possible?. You may know things about Alfred that i have yet to discover?. Thanks again for replying and best wishes .


      • Hi Wendy,
        I live in Nova Scotia, Canada. Fitting, right?
        My email address is cgoucher1025 at
        Unfortunately, I don’t know any more about Alfred. My dad was 2 the last time he saw his father. Grammy Warren is the one who told Dad that Alfred had been his Godfather.


      • Hello Claire . Unfortunately i could not send an email to you with the address you gave me . I would still like to contact you reg Alfred Hender my relative . I have an article and photo of him from a newspaper in 1942 . This would be good to share with you .


  10. My uncle WILLIAM PATRICK SMITH has now passed away..he was a Baker and went aboard with his baker friend from Durban.they had opposite shifts and sadly his friend died on the torpedo uncle Bill was like a dad to me and I loved him dearly and miss him a lot.He survived by floating on an oil drum and was rescued days later by a hospital ship.He went to London to give his story to the Readers Digest..x


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