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.