The Story of SS Nicoya

(Story adapted with permission from Nathan M. Greenfield's book The Battle of the St. Lawrence.)

Survivors of SS Nicoya

SS Nicoya was a merchant ship of a Liverpool shipping line that was built to carry bananas from the Caribbean to its homeport on the River Mersey. On May 11, 1942 she was outward bound from Montreal to Liverpool with a cargo of frozen beef, steel, glass and some Hawker Hurricanes. This was not a banana run; this was a critical journey to be made across an increasingly dangerous ocean. The merchant sailors were to deliver much needed supplies to an embattled Britain.

As she was leaving the St. Lawrence, her crew had no knowledge that they were soon to become a benchmark in Canadian history. Little did they realize that the prediction of Canada’s Vice Admiral Percy Nelles, Chief of Naval Staff, that the start of the 1942-shipping season may bring U-boats into the St. Lawrence.

U-boat Kapitan Thurmann (with Iron Cross)

Just before midnight on May 11, U- 553 was just about 400 m from SS Nicoya; Kapitanleutnant Karl Thurmann was preparing to play his part in this historysetting incident. He had the SS Nicoya in his periscope sights and fired one torpedo.

Seconds later it hit the Nicoya behind the engine room igniting almost 300 kgs of high explosive and creating an impact pressure of over 750,000 lbs per sq. inch! Fortunately for the crew of Nicoya, the torpedo hit the refrigeration hold that held tons of frozen beef and this absorbed much of the pressure, thus saving the ship from breaking in two.

Captain Brice and his crew were, for the most part, lucky. The ship was going to sink but they were not too far from land. There was, however, a challenge and that was the water temperature of the St. Lawrence. If they were too long in the cold water they would die from hypothermia and exposure.

Nicoya made history because it was the first ship sunk in Canadian waters and the six crew who were killed were the first to die from enemy fire since the war of 1812. One of the dead had just joined the Nicoya; he was William John George, age 16.