SS Cygnet sunk 4 miles of San Salvador’s Dixon Hill Light in March 1942 by Italian sub Enrico Tazzoli under Fecia di Cossato

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The Cygnet was built as the steam ship Mirach in 1917 by the Rotterdam Dry Dock Company of the Netherlands. She was launched on the third of March 1917 and completed in June. Her original owners were the NV Van Nievelt, Goudriaan & Co’s Steamship Company, also known as Nigoco. Her flag was Dutch and home port Rotterdam.

In 1939 Mirach was sold to the Goulandris Brothers of Piraeus, and London, who renamed her Cygnet. Technically the ship was owned by the Halcyon Steam Ship Company Limited. The new owners flagged the ship to Panama and registered her to Panama City. Her gross tonnage was 3,530 tons and her overall length 373.2 feet. The ship’s beam was 49’11” and beam 21’7”. Her cargo carrying capacity was 6,367 tons. Her 1,600 horse power engine propelled her at an average speed of ten knots.

On her final voyage, the crew of 30 was led by Greek Master Captain John Mamais. Twenty seven of the men on board were Greek, with one citizen from Canada, Romania and Spain. The Cygnet was carrying a cargo of bauxite from Georgetown, British Guyana to Portland, Maine. It seems the ship topped up on rubber, in addition to carrying bauxite.  According to locals on San Salvador island in the Bahamas, where the ship met her end, there were many bales of rubber which floated free.
The charterers for her final voyage were Saguenay Terminals Company of Montreal, Quebec which was part of the Aluminum Company of Canada. The Cygnet completed a partial loading of cargo in Guyana and sailed on the third of March 1942. Probably it could not load a full cargo and still get over the bar of the mouth of the Demerara River, and so had to top up, or complete loading cargo elsewhere. This it did in Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands, where Cygnet completed loading bauxite and sailed on the 8th of March.

Routing instructions were issued by the British in British Guyana and by the Americans in Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands. They called for the ship to follow the coast as close as practical. It can be assumed that the Cygnet gained the open Atlantic through the Anegada or Mona Passage rather than the Windward Passage, as that would have been an easier route to take. Whether she passed north of the Turks & Caicos or used the Crooked Island Passage is not known.

The voyage proceeded uneventfully until the late afternoon of Wednesday the 11th of March, 1942. George Lemos, 29, Radio Operator, from Greece was sitting in the radio shack. There was a lookout on the deck, and three lookouts on the bridge: Captain Mamais, aged 37, Chief Officer Antonios Falangas, 31, and a helmsman. The weather was clear, the sea slight, and visibility good. The ship was not armed and was not zig zagging. Since it was a bright afternoon, the ship was not using any lights.

At about 4:48 pm Chief Mate Falangas saw a torpedo emerge from beneath the ship on the port side, quite deep, heading towards land at a right angle to the bridge, which it appeared to have barely missed. At that point the ship was using the lighthouse at Dixon Hill, on San Salvador as a navigational reference. They were just over six miles away from the light, which was bearing 305 degrees. The Cygnet was steering almost due north – 350 degrees – and was making roughly nine knots.

Falangas called Captain Mamais over to see the torpedo’s wake. Suddenly there was an explosion forward, by the number one hatch. The Chief Engineer, Constantinos Vlachakis, aged 34, happened to be on deck at the time of the impact. He saw the torpedo approaching and when the torpedo hit he witnessed the heavy cargo hatch being blown off and “a cloud of dust and debris rise several hundred feet with the explosion.” He immediately ran aft to the engine room and stopped the engine. From the bridge the Captain and First Officer watched in horror as the donkey engine (a steam contraption for enabling men to do heavy lifting such as raising and lowering the gangways) was shattered into little bits by the explosion.

Antonio Maronari, a member of the crew on the Italian submarine Enrico Tazzoli recorded events from the attacker’s point of view:

 “We are en route the Bahamas… Land ahoy! shouts Passon [a crew member] at 20:30 hrs. Distant and blurred, there lies the island of San Salvador… Rather than proceeding immediately to the Crooked Pass (between that harmonious island and Long Island in the Bahamas group), as previously agreed, the Captain decides to stay here for a few days to make the most of this excellent area.
Botta [another crew member] has intercepted the transmission of a nearby ship, followed by another transmission, in which a coastal radio station signals to the American steamers an enemy submarine is in the Caribbean Sea.  The Tazzoli perhaps?  We are six miles ashore of San Salvador… It’s 22:00 hrs. The gunner Corneli, whilst on the lookout at starboard, has spotted a ship. We accelerate at full speed and we perform a fast manoeuvre at 23:00 hours in order to attack underwater.

 The Commander has taken position at the attack periscope… besides him, the Chief Reporter is ready to press the 5th and 6th switch off the launch device…
5 out!  6 out! It’s 23:45 hours [European time].
…It has barely been a minute.

 Hit! Surface…!” shouts the “Pirate of the Atlantic” as a tremendous roar rumbles into the abyss.”
The torpedo had struck forward, about eight feet below the water line. So large was the hole that according to the Chief Engineer water was up to the well decks before the lifeboats could even be lowered. Immediately the ship took on an angle of sinking by the bow, or head. She also drifted to starboard but did not list heavily to that side. Fortunately none of the crew was badly injured, and all of them proceeded in an orderly fashion to launch the lifeboats. The exact number of boats launched is not known, but photos of the ship show large boats on either side, plus at least one jolly boat, or harbor launch, on the bridge deck on the port side.  From this evidence, one may conclude that at least three and possibly four boats were launched.

 George Lemos, the Wireless Radio Operator, was able to get an SSS signal off by radio, but he was unaware of the exact position of the ship, so he ran to the bridge to jot down the position (it was 24.02.50N by 74.21.00W). However, the officers were already abandoning ship. He saw the men in the boats beckoning him to join and he did so.

 Although Lemos was thus unable to give shore stations a position. As the Chief Engineer wryly noted, “Sent SOS but did not send position – no time. Position sent from San Salvador Island (they saw it).” And indeed he was right, as the attack was being witnessed with great excitement by residents on the nearby island, who also heard the explosions of shells.

 Meanwhile the Enrico Tazzoli surfaced about one mile off the starboard quarter. They fired a warning shell to be sure that the boats stayed clear of the ship, which they fully intended to destroy. The boats pulled clear to a quarter to a half mile astern. The diarist Maronari wrote:

“We head towards the slightly heeled ship, the boats of the castaways already floating around it. In seconds, we are laying the guns. After a few minutes the boats are already far: we can open fire without fear of hitting them. A few castaways greet us waving their arms. We return the salute in disbelief. Then, without worrying about the proximity of the land, from which they can easily feel, see and follow all the action, we open up [fire] on the ship that is down by bow.

 Seven 120 [calibre] rounds pierce the hull at the waterline. Amid the smoke, we distinguish the name of our fourth victim on the taffrail: Cygnet – Panama.”

 “The deck is upside down and the high smokestack steams vents: one of the rounds has landed on the bridge, operating the siren which is now emitting a whining sound. From afar, the castaways are motionlessly watching on… …it may even seem that they are commenting on the accuracy and the effects of our fire.”

 “At this time the Commander recalls an American radio program a few days back, in which the speaker said that: “Never have the Italian submarines reached the shores of the United States.” The ship slowly sinks. We run at full speed towards the survivors on the boats and, as we approach, the Lieutenant and the crew spontaneously shout “good luck.” Commander Cossato waves the “Tricolore” flag in the air and shouts in English:

 Tell the Americans “it isn’t true. The Italian submarines have come here to sink their ships!” The castaways respond by frantically waving on and shouting cheerfully. These exchanges are extraordinarily friendly, especially since in a similar circumstance in which we would rather expect a series of accidents.”

The men in the lifeboats watched as the men on the submarine inspected the stern of their ship for a name. They then approached to within a hundred yards to shell the ship into submission. First the submariners sent shells hurling into the starboard side, then they rounded the bow and shelled the port side. The Greeks underestimated the number of shots fired according to the Italians. The Chief Engineer described their firing as “leisurely.” Others said they fired a shell about every minute. Asked whether the Italians communicated with their Greek victims, the Engineer said that the “enemy merely waved.” He said the sub looked old, and rusty.

 Clearly convinced that the ship was doomed, the Tazzoli motored off in a northerly direction at about 5:45 pm. They had been on the surface for roughly 50 minutes. According to some of the crew, the submarine submerged as it headed north. But, since Maronari wrote about seeing the boilers explode and the glow of the burning ship in the dusk, it would seem that di Cosato was rather unconcerned about a counter-attack, and he remained on the surface for a while. In either event, the Cygnet was observed to sink by her crew at 6:20 pm on the 11th of March, about one hour and thirty minutes after the initial attack.

 Maronari related the final moments of the Cygnet, as seen from the deck of its attacker that night. “To the east, the shadows of the sunset already stretch to the ocean. Flaming clouds to the west swallow to last tendrils of gold. They move slowly driven by night breezes. In this wonderful play of lights sparkle in the trees and the long lighthouse tower, Cygnet, the condemned vessel, still shows, emerging on the lazy waves.”

 “Suddenly the sky darkens. A red glow, followed by a piercing roar, breaks the flow of our thoughts. Cygnet has jumped in the air, water has invaded the boilers, causing the explosion and then the greedy ocean swallows these other 4,784 tons.”

Though the distance to San Salvador may seem negligible at six miles, it took the men some ten hours to cover the distance, by rowing, with little or no breeze to propel their sail. This was an average of about half a mile an hour. The locals were waiting, even though they did not arrive at the dangerous reef line until four in the morning. According to Third Officer Dods, “Mr. A. B. Nairne, a one-legged American who came out in a dory with two natives to lead the boats through the reef, had seen the sinking from the shore. The account of the attack was radioed at once.”

One can only imagine the surprise and joy of the crew at having a boat full of men risk their own safety to come out through an opening in the reef to guide them ashore. One of the local San Salvador boys was about ten years old at the time. According to an interviewer, “he remembers hearing an explosion and waiting for word to reach about what had happened. He also remembers the sailors being transported to town – an uncle or cousin had one of the few vehicles on the island at the time. He thought they came ashore at East Beach in two row boats. They were then shipped over to Nassau on the regular mail boat. …he thought the boat was a Dutch ship. He remembers that the ship was carrying rubber, and that for a little while after the incident that large bails of rubber would wash ashore. People would collect these and send them off to Nassau to sell.”

Whether by the luck of good timing or because of the message was quickly sent from San Salvador to Nassau, the Cygnet crew were able to board the inter-island steamer Monarch of Nassau the very next day. On Thursday the 12th of March the entire crew embarked for Nassau. They arrived there the following day, Friday, the 13th of March – the same day that the Daytonian met a fiery end at the hands of the Enrico Tazzoli off the Northeast Providence Channel, east of Abaco.

 Monarch of Nassau as the Sir Charles Orr being fitted out in the UK, 1930

Photo source: Ship Modeler Magazine, Issue 90, December 1994

 The Cygnet’s crew were only the second batch of survivors of the war to arrive in Nassau, after the O. A. Knudsen less than a week before, and not counting the Anglo Saxon duo in 1941. The news was announced in the local papers thus: “Thirty officers and men from a freighter which was torpedoed in Bahamas waters Wednesday night are all safe and were landed in Nassau today. They are being taken care of by the Greek Consul and the Red Cross.”

 In Nassau the officers and crew were well looked after by the local Greek community, which was led in part by Consul Christopher Esfakis, Acting Greek Vice-Consul, F. Scarlatos and the Greek Orthodox Church, led by Father Spirtos. On the 18th of March, Captain Mamais filed a Letter of Protest, on the instructions of the owner, in which he “hereby gives notice of his intention of protesting” the sinking of his ship by enemy combatants. The Notary Public was none other than Stafford Lofthouse Sands, who later became a prominent politician and the Minister of Finance for the colony.

 The Halcyon Shipping Company appointed R. H. Curry and Company Limited of Nassau to be agents in the Bahamas. To handle the crew’s needs and get them from Miami to New York, they used sub-agents Messrs. Albury and Company of Nassau and Miami. The general manager in Nassau suggested that the ship owners pay the Florida agents directly, “to avoid dollar exchange as there is considerable red tape in this connection.” He also observed that the charity, which the survivors were receiving, was saving the owners money: “With regards to clothing for the men, the Red Cross and the Greek Community in the Bahamas have very generously assisted, and we do not think the men will need any more clothing.”

During the nine days that the Cygnet crew laid over in Nassau they were joined by hundreds of other shipwrecked mariners – from the O. A. Knudsen sunk 5th March, the Daytonian whose survivors arrived the 15th of March, and the Athelqueen, also sunk on the 15th of March. The I.O.D.E. (Imperial Order of the Daughters of Empire) and the Red Cross scrambled to drum up funds, clothes, cigarettes and basic amenities for the men.

 The local papers were filled with drives for supplies such as a refrigerator, for the men, as well as listings of social events like movie screenings, dinners, dances, etc. to entertain them. Some of the men were taken into private homes, others were put up gratis at the Lucerne and Rozelda hotels, and of course some of them had to stay in the hospital. Captain Mamais submitted that at least four of his men had minor injuries.

Mrs. Alexiou, matriarch of the Greek community in Nassau Bahamas was interviewed in May 2011 and recalled, “…some were in bad shape, tired sun-burned, bruises and minor wounds, talked about trouble with sharks. They were taken to the hospital for a couple days, looked much better and rested after that. They were put up in an apartment which the Greek Orthodox Church owned on Frederick Street near their house – near what is now the Central Bank.”

She was newly-wed and went with her husband and Father Spirtos to see them in the hospital. Her husband used to bring them to their restaurant – Gleneagles – to eat. They were in town for a couple of weeks then permission came for them to travel to USA. Never seen or heard of [them] since. The Consul was Christopher Esfakis. The other Greek families – Damianos, Maillis, Esfakis, Psilinakis, Mosko – all helped.”

An open letter of thanks from Captain Mamais was published in the local paper the following day. It read: “The Captain, officers and crew from the torpedoed Greek freighter who arrived in Nassau yesterday have asked us to express their deep appreciation for the kindness and hospitality extended to them by the Bahamas Red Cross, the Acting Greek Consul, the Greek community and everyone else who helped. In asking us to express their thanks, they said ‘Please make it very nice because everyone has been so kind and we cannot say how much we appreciate their goodness.’”

As is usual when sailors or travelers loose their documents (they had to abandon their home in a matter of minutes, and most of them had only the shirt on their back), the sailors had to be issued new visas and passports. The American Consul, John Dye, worked closely with the agents and the owners to arrange these. Money was sent from New York for the Captain to advance some funds to the crew. After roughly one week, on the 21st of March, they secured passage on the inter-island motor vessel Ena K, which provided a regular sea link from Nassau  to Miami.

 On arrival in Miami they were taken to the United States Naval Reserve Armory at Northwest South River Drive. The survivors were interviewed– George Morrison by Ensign A. T. Carter at 4:30 pm the same day (the 21st). Radio Operator Lemos and Third Officer Dods by Ensign E. L. Valier, USNR. Chief Engineer Vlahaky was debriefed by Ensign Millard H. Shirley. Chief Officer Falangas was interviewed by Ensign George V. Salzer, Jr. on the 31st of March. This would suggest that the men stayed at least ten days in Miami before they took a train to New York, to meet with the owners and obtain their next assignment.

 Meanwhile the Tazzoli continued it deadly patrol. The next day Maronari observed “It is 1 am. The sun sets behind the island of San Salvador by drawing an outline of fire with the profiles of the hills and coastline, sunk in the great light path, a long fiery black shape. ..the night has swallowed all the latest tendrils of gold. The air cools and suddenly a light breeze ruffles the surface of the sea, which has become gray. A pulsating light shines on the north coast of the island. The lighthouse of San Salvador works even in time of war? Is this an American’s joke?”

 “The night brings with it thoughts and reflections on the events. A quick review of that day allows us to rather lazily examine things and events, now routine for us. In the control room, in the quiet shadows of blue lights, the engineer, Firrao gossips with the lieutenant, who is grumbles: ‘Don’t hit my head when you pass!’”

 “If we have been seen from the shore, the better. That fills me with an intimate and profound joy…. The wet berths welcome us and the lazy waves of the Atlantic gently lull the Corsair crew of the boat to sleep. The night passes, with every four hours the tranquil echo of the heavy tread on the guard plates above us….”