SS Lady Drake sunk by U-106/Rasch, 256 survivors passed by Queen Mary, rescued by tug USS Owl landed Bermuda May 1942

S.S. LADY DRAKE, Attack & Survivor Narrative
By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq., September, 2014

S.S. Lady Drake in her pre-war livery. Note the many portholes for passenger cabins. Also the lifeboats appear to be three on each side for a total of six. Captain Kelly liked to have them swung in during passages to avoid their being damaged by torpedo explosions, a precaution which worked when the ship was struck by U-106.

Photo Source: Steamship Historical Society of America,
The dual cargo and passenger steam ship Lady Drake was built by Cammell Laird & Company of Birkinhead, England in 1928. The vessel weighed 7,985 gross tons and was 437 feet long, 59.1 feet wide and 28.2 feet deep. Four steam turbines also built by Cammell Laird (she was yard number 940) turned two screws, propelling the ship at 14 knots. Lady Drake was owned by the Canadian National Steamships Limited of Montreal.

For a complete history of this line and their service between eastern Canada and West Indian ports including the Bahamas and Bermuda, see the detailed study “The Lady Boats,” by Felicity Hanington and Captain Percy A. Kelly, who commanded the Lady Drake on her final, fateful voyage.

The Lady Drake began its round-trip voyage from Canada to the West Indies in mid-April, 1942. Her Master was Captain Percy Ambrose Kelly, who was to earn an M.B.E. for his part in the torpedoing of sister ship Lady Hawkins off Hatteras by U-66 under Richard Zapp on the 19th of January that year. The Lady Drake called at Boston, Demerara in British Guyana for sugar, Trinidad, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Guantanamo before sailing to Bermuda.
Whilst in St. Lucia they picked up extra crew from the Lady Nelson which had been torpedoed and sunk Castries Harbour by U-161 under Albrecht Achilles on 10 March 1942 – just the previous month. In Trinidad the ship picked up British Royal Navy ratings on their way to the UK via Canada. Then the Lady Drake sailed for Bermuda, where she picked up additional passengers for Halifax.

Captain Percy Ambrose Kelly, M.B.E., Master of the Lady Drake when sunk and First Officer of the Lady Hawkins when she was sunk earlier in 1942. He was described in news accounts as “the red-haired, stocky captain of the sunken ship – it was not his first experience of torpedoing recently – coolly directed arrangement for his men… to his seamanship and courage plus able backing by a well drilled crew is attributed the almost negligible loss of life.”

Photo Source: Hanington, Felicity, Captain Percy A. Kelly M.B.E., “The Lady Boats,” page 106

The headquarters of the Royal Canadian Navy in Ottawa provided instructions for the vessel to sail for Boston (or possibly St. John, New Brunswick) on Sunday May 3rd 1942. Though air cover was meant to be provided for the first day, it had been the ship’s experience during the voyage that air and surface cover which was promised never materialized, and so it proved to be the case in this instance.

S.S. Lady Drake from the stern, showing the 4-inch gun on the aft platform and British ensign. On the stern the words “Lady Drake” and “Halifax” are barely discernable in this image.

Photo Source: Hanington, Felicity, Captain Percy A. Kelly M.B.E., “The Lady Boats,” page 107

The ship was twenty minutes late un-berthing in Hamilton and had to lay at anchor because the markers were unlit at night. They thus set off from Bermuda early on Monday the 4th of May, fully aware that “there was vigorous submarine activity almost amounting to a blockade ninety miles north of the island (“Lady Boats,” p. 89). The conditions when the ship got underway were calm and clear – the seas were flat, the breeze gentle and the skies clear.

The actual number of people on board varies according to who is reporting it. says 268 people, with which this author agrees. The Survivors Statements by the US Navy says 172 were on board: 141 passengers, 121 crew and ten distressed seamen. USS Owl later reported 256 rescued (145 passengers and 111 crew) and 12 killed, for a total of 168. This author counted the USS Owl’s list of passengers and survivors and agrees that 168 were on board. These included 48 British Naval Ratings and ten men from the Lady Nelson. There was also said to be a Greek sailor kept prisoner in the brig, or holding cell of the ship (he survived).

In order to try to hasten the passage a fuel oil which had been taken on in Trinidad was used, however it was found to produce a thick black smoke visible for 25 miles around when extra speed was asked for. So Captain Percy was faced with going slower and imperiling the 268 people on board, or going faster and giving the ship’s position away to prowling submarines.

That afternoon the Radio Operator were able to detect chatter between U-boats in the vicinity right before the attack. US Naval intelligence reported that “Prior to torpedoing radio operator reported a suspicious radio message consisting of the call letters DB 7V followed by 8 dashes, very close on the 704 meter wave length.” It was surmised these were U-boats communicating with each other. Indeed on the 5thof May 1942 there were seven U-boats within 300 to 400 nautical miles of Bermuda: U-106, U-69, U-103, U-201, U-558, U-751 and U-594. Any of these submarines may have been utilizing their radios to communicate with each other, a U-tanker, or home base in France.

Kelly was correct inasmuch as the Lady Drake was easy prey. Not 24 hours into its passage, when just 186 miles north of the island and 430 nautical miles southeast of Nantucket U-106 under Kapitänleutnant Hermann Rasch struck with two torpedoes. In order to avoid submarine attack Captain Percy had deviated 45 degrees off course the swung back hours later, and was zig zagging, so that the first torpedo was seen by the Naval Gunners to pass 50 feet from the stern. There were ten lookouts posted: one on the monkey island above the bridge, two on the lower bridge, one on the forecastle head and two on the games deck aft and four gunners on duty.

The second topedo, however was deadly to a dozen of the people on the ship: it struck between the cargo bulkhead and engine room, shutting out all power and lights on the ship before the lookouts could convey their intelligence to the bridge. Since the main radio was out of commission the Radio Operators tried to send out on the emergency set, however there is no indication that they succeeded, and it appears that due to a high level of static the messages never got out. (NOB Bermuda’s Commandant noted on 7th May that “It seems strange that neither the LADY HAWKINS nor the LADY DRAKE made a distress call.”)

Kapitänleutnant Hermann Rasch, Commander of U-106, which sank Lady Drake.

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In the ten minutes from 9:00 to 9:10 pm the Lady Drake was evacuated of 256 survivors – the six passengers and six crew who perished being unaccounted for. Among the dead were Ship’s Boy Emanuel Cozier, aged 24, Second Steward Harold Stanley, aged 39, two Firemen in their twenties: Anthony Yearwood and Hewley Edward White, and General Servant Graham Carter. Amongst the passengers lost were Oscar Greenidge, after 23, Eric Seymour Hamblin, aged 26, Cuthbert Alleyne Reid, aged 29 and Thomas W. Reid, aged 21, though it is not known if they were brothers, and Andrew R. Bradshaw.

Whilst being lowered Number 4 lifeboat was smashed against the side of the vessel, however it is not known whether this is the only one out of the six boats which was not successfully manned. The only female known to be on the ship was a tall charismatic former showgirl of 57 years’ age named Miss Gwen Canfield. Originally from Long Beach California, she was residing in Simcoe, Ontario, to which place she was presumably returning. She told Bermuda’s “Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily,” in a story which was carried by the Joplin, Missouri “Globe” that the boat she was in was nearly crushed by another one above it coming down.

“One boat containing a Canadian lady, a youth and five others shipped a large quantity of water as it struck the sea and started sinking. Another lifeboat was noticed being lowered directly overhead. When it was only a few feet above, the youth grabbed the lady passenger and flung her from the sinking lifeboat into No. 6 boat before the latter reached the water. He then plunged into the overhanging lifeboat less than half a minute before it crashed on top of the boat in the water, smashing the boat to pieces.” It would appear from this that both boats No. 4 and No. 6 were operable. The destroyed boat is not named. Miss Canfield adds that “We picked up other survivors who were on two or three life-rafts.”

Given the complete darkness of night coupled with absence of lighting from the disabled ship, it is remarkable that so many survived, and a tribute to the calm leadership and drilling of Captain Kelly and his officers. Some reports state that “nobody even got feet wet,” however reading Miss Canfield’s report it is clear that the disembarkation was at least a bit chaotic and some had to swim for rafts or be transferred from damaged to better lifeboats. Soon however the survivors all managed to be allocated into five boats which she said were “well navigated and there was enough food.”

The S.S. Lady Drake sank by 9:25, between 20 and 25 minutes after it was struck. “We looked back,” said Miss Canfield, “and saw the good old ship roll over on her side and sink.” At no time did they see or hear the German submarine. Thus 256 souls found themselves alone on an unruffled sea, undulated by a gentle swell with nothing but the canopy of stars overhead. Presumably the proximity to warm Gulf Steam waters kept temperatures reasonably warm.

On the morning of Tuesday the 5thof May the survivors searched the area of the sinking for any sign of survivors. Finding none, they agreed to keep together – and did so. Then they set sail southwards for Bermuda. Captain Kelly later ruminated that “The immensity of the empty ocean seemed to be more real when seen from a small lifeboat, and the blue vaulted dome of sky curiously peaceful, as they made their way back to Bermuda under sail…” (“Lady Boats,” page 90).

The following day, Wednesday 6thof May, at 7:00 am local time the survivors were excited when a familiar, elegant profile approached them at high speed: it was the Cunard Line’s flagship, Queen Mary, acting as a troop transport and bound from the UK to New York. It was a policy for troop ships not to stop and aid anyone, their superior speed being their greatest asset in avoiding U-boats. The survivors in the boats realized this and took comfort in the Aldis lamp message which read “I will report… I will report.”
Indeed on Thursday the 7thof May (the next day) the British Routing Office in New York received a message from the British Admiralty Delegation which read:

“The R.M.S. ‘Queen Mary’ arrived in New York at 0830 EWT today and Captain Bissett immediately sent a message ashore to me that at 1000 A. on the 6th of May, he had sighted in position 35.27N, 64.22W five boats loaded of survivors under sail, and had further passed an overturned lifeboat in the same vicinity. The boats when last seen were steering to the southward.” (“Lady Boats,” page 90). The overturned lifeboat may have come from the Lady Drake, or it might have been some of the wreckage which Captain Kelly sighted on the ship’s first day out of Bermuda.

Captain Kelly saw either the wreckage of the Harpagon, sunk 164 miles north-northwest of Bermuda on the 20thof April 1942, or the Modesta, also British, sunk on 25th April 1942 only 21 nautical miles north-northeast of Bermuda. There were dozens of ships sunk in the theater that dreadful spring, and lifeboats making for Bermuda were scattered across the sea – many of them setting sail for the island and the men never making it, their boats foundering en route from myriad dots in the ocean where their ships had been attacked.

Back on the boats, Miss Canfield that “during the ordeal… one man became crazed and jumped into the water. He was pulled out – too late.” However in no other account does it state that any but the dozen victims killed on the ship perished, or that there was a fatality on board the boats. There were up three passengers and five crew members who suffered from “…bone fractures of various kinds – injuries suffered when a lifeboat crashed down on top of a loaded boat being lowered away from the sinking ship.” (“Gazette and Colonist,” Saturday May 9th, 1942).

Word appears to have reached the US Naval authorities in Bermuda before even the British delegation in Bermuda. Captain Bissett of the Queen Mary must have, at peril to his vessel, relayed word to the naval authorities before his arrival in New York on May 7thbecause on Wednesday May 6th at 6:19 pm local time Lieutenant Frederick George Coffin, US Naval Reserve, in command of USS Owl (AM 2) logged that his vessel was “Underway [from Bermuda] in accordance with N.O.B. dispatch #061735 of May to pick up survivors of torpedoed ship said to be heading South in Five Life boats from 35-27 N 64-22 W.” He worked his ship up to 11 knots, 115 rpm and manned the machine guns and darkened ship. Coffin had taken over command of his charge less than two weeks earlier, on the 24th of April 1942.  

USS Owl, AT-137, known at the time as USS Owl AM 2, photographed during World War II. To grasp its size note the men on the stern and rails.

Photo Source:

USS Owl’s keep was laid in Todd Shipbuilding Company of Brooklyn New York on the 25th of October 1917. It was a Bird class minesweeper delivered to the US Navy on the 11thof July 1918. Its first assignment was coastal towing out of Norfolk Virginia.  Originally known as Minesweeper No. 2, on 17 July 1920 it became simply AM 2 (it would go on to be re-classified an ocean tug, and renamed AT 137 on 1st June 1942). The tug weighed 1,350 tons, displaced 950 tons, and was 187.9 feet long, 35.5 feet wide and 10.25 feet deep. Her speed was originally 14 knots and 11.2 knots by 1944.

USS Owl’s original complement was 62 men, and by 1944 this was increased to 78 – in any event it would be difficult for a tug even 187 feet long to fit over 250 additional personnel, even if they were (mostly) mariners. The Owl’s armament was two 3-inch guns and at least two machine guns. Already this war horse had done escort duty for ships like SS Freden, SS Agra and SS Anna, Swedish vessels which like the SS City of Birmingham kept a lifeline of supplies and people trickling into beleaguered Bermuda.

The Owl also helped salvage the abandoned Argentine freighter Victoria, damaged by U-201 under Adalbert Shnee on 18th April 1942, when under the command of Lieutenant Commander Charles Guequierre Rucker. The Owl took up its duties with NOB Bermuda in May of 1941 and remained there until June 1943, when, after a refit in Norfolk, it crossed the Atlantic to support D-Day in 1944.

The 256 survivors in the Lady Drake boats greeted Thursday the 7th of April with elation when the familiar drone of an airplane engine materialized into the sight of an aircraft bearing down on them from the direction of Bermuda in the South. It was 6:30 am and to their considerable relief the plane dipped its wings, encouraging them to think that a ship would be sent to rescue them. As the Owl was shortly behind the aircraft and just over the horizon, they were not disappointed.

At 9:10 am local time Lieutenant Coffin logged that his men “Sighted boat under sail bearing 355 degrees true, distance 8 miles – Between 0942 and 1116 sighted and picked up survivors from 5 life boats of the “LADY DRAKE” Canadian merchant ship.” The position where the lifeboats were picked up was, according to the Admiralty, 34.28N, 64.25W, or 70 nautical miles south of where the Lady Drake had been sunk, and 115 miles north of Bermuda.

Ten minutes after the last survivors were aboard, while “the ships company were at General Quarters and a plane covered the operations from the air,” USS Owl got underway again with the five life boats under tow, in an effort to salvage the equipment – something probably ingrained in any tug operator. The operation was not a success, as Coffin noted that “During the late afternoon and evening all 5 life boats made water and swamped and had to be cut adrift.”

Like Captain Kelly, Coffin “sheared off to the right 45 degrees for one half hour and then zig-zagged through the night in accordance with zig-zag Plan #12” – he was taking no chances with his precious cargo of people, and the guns were manned at all times. At 6:50 am on Friday May 8th the men on the Owl sighted Bermuda. By 8:15 am the sea buoy was abeam and they began transiting the Narrows.

There was a grand reception for the Owl and her survivors when they arrived at Shed #6 in Hamilton at around 10:30 am that morning. The Mayor of Hamilton, S. P. Eve was on hand, along with the Governor of the colony and the Commandant of the US Naval Operating Base. According to the “Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily,” “On the dock as the rescue ship warped in were officers of the various British and American Services in Bermuda. Along Front Street were lined ambulances from the U.S. Mobile Base Hospital. The Director of Health, Dr. Henry Wilkinson, and civilian, army and navy doctors were there.”

The article continues; “The grim event was not without its light touch. Among the survivors was a Greek prisoner who was in the brig of the torpedoed ship. He is now comfortable in Hamilton Gaol.” The reporter also picked up on the exchange between Miss Canfield and her rescuers: “As she came ashore, her lifebelt still in her hands, Miss Canfield turned towards the rescue ship where crewmen of the torpedoed vessel were lined up on deck. “Keep your chins up boys,” she called out. “Are you alright?” “You bet,” came the response from the grinning seamen, “You’ve got what it takes, lady!” Since Miss Canfield had been a guest of Police Constable and Mrs. Gooch of Pembroke Parish, it is presumed that she returned to stay with them.

By 10:45 all the survivors were disembarked, and at 11:30 Admiral Jules James, the Commandant of NOB Bermuda was aboard, followed three minutes later by His Excellency Viscount Knollys, Governor of Bermuda, who “came aboard and thanked the ship for the assistance rendered. A “Well Done” was received from the Admiral.”

Admiral Jules James, Commandant of NOB Bermuda, who came aboard USS Owl on arrival in Hamilton with survivors of the Lady Drake on May 8th 1942.

This shows Governor Knollys on the right escorting Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill onto Bermudian soil during Churchill’s whirlwind visit to Bermuda on January 15th, 1942. Governor and Lady Knollys were on hand to greet survivors of the Lady Drake disembark from USS Owl on May 8th, 1942 in Hamilton.

Photo Source:

So ended the USS Owl’s log entry for the Lady Drake rescue. The reported commented that “Though the rescue vessel was overtaxed, everything was done to make the survivors comfortable.” For the survivors their recuperation and repatriation was just beginning, and for an island already bulging at the seams with shipwreck survivors, there was the issue of where to put – and how to support – so many men. The British Admiralty noted with relief that day that “All Naval personnel including F.A.A. from Trinidad safe.” – this communication referred to the 48 Royal Navy Ratings boarded in Trinidad earlier in April, for whose safety the Admiralty had a vested interest.

While it is possible to list most of the several places the men were put up in Bermuda, it is only partially possible to list the many individuals who helped them. Fortunately for the eight hospital cases, “None of these is believed to be seriously injured. There were also a few exposure and shock cases of a minor nature.” There was a single US citizen aboard and he was met by Mr. Alonzo B. Cornell, Field Director of the US Red Cross, which used the United Services Organization’s Club in The Flatts.

Others of the men were accommodated at the United Services Club at the Hamilton Hotel. L. N. “Dickie” Tucker made what room he could at the Bermuda Sailor’s Home, “cramming his premises with survivors.” The Naval Recreation Rooms were made available as were local hotels. Other hostelries made available were the A.M.E. Lyceum on Court Street, at the A.M.E. Church (Rev. D. M. Owens, D.D. providing the welcome). There the men were provided with sandwiches, soup and coffee, clothing and cigarettes.

St. Paul’s A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Church at 59 Court and Victoria Street, Hamilton, Bermuda, where members of the Lady Drake’s crew were tended to and housed in May of 1942.

Lady Knollys, wife of the Governor visited the men at the Lyceum to provide “ditty bags” and chat with the survivors. This was a distribution point for gifts from citizens and merchants. Gift boxes included soap, handkerchiefs, shaving kits, and cigarettes. A subscription was begun to raise funds for the survivors and by the first afternoon it had reached 30 British Pounds. Survivors also went to the Canadian Hotel and the Church of God on Angle Street, Hamilton. The proprietor of the Canadian Hotel, James Richards, “spent a considerable sum for clothing for the survivors.”

For the officers Mrs. A. B. Smith provided the use of her home, “Inverness” in Warwick Parish. The officers who stayed there are reported on 20th of May 1942 to “have expressed their keen joy of the place. It is like home to them. The cottage has been supplied with a cook and inhabitants of the district are doing all they can to make the stay of the survivors a pleasant one. Each day vegetables are brought to the cottage by neighbours and the environment for the officers is a particularly satisfactory one. Moreover, the cottage is conveniently located near the ferry.”

On Wednesday 13th of May the “Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily” ran a column entitled “U.S.O. club News” in which they attempt to thank some of the families and individuals  “who contributed so much to the comfort of the survivors.” The list reads like a “who’s who” of Bermudian society: Outerbridge, Gibbons, Rutherford, Pearman, Penniston, Gardner, Haskell, MacDougall, Tucker, Zuill, Conyers, Hollis, Rubick, West, Fleming are all cited. Some thanks are specific, like to Mrs. Power Crichton for “6 dozen sheets and pillow cases,” and the B.W.A.F. “who gave pyjamas and slippers for all the men.”

There is even a letter cited from survivors “on the point of departure” that may (or may not) have been from survivors of Lady Drake. It reads: “It was not only what you did for us, the innumerable kindnesses which we shall all remember, but the spirit of friendly anticipation of our wants which made our visit to Bermuda so delightful. ….If this is an example of Allied co-operation such a team is bound to win.”

While Miss Canfield flew back to the New York on a Clipper aircraft, not wanting to risk another sea passage, the majority of the torpedoed crews of the Lady Drake and the Lady Nelson were fortunate to find passage on another vessel from the same Canadian fleet, the Lady Rodney. The Canadian authorities who had ordered the Lady Drake to sail unescorted, had a change of heart when it came to the Lady Rodney’s imminent departure from Bermuda and decided to send a corvette down from Halifax to escort the passenger ship. “It had taken the loss of a fine ship to win protection for another.” (“Lady Boats,” page 91). The Lady Rodney sailed on or about Sunday the 24th of May 1942 for Canada.

Officers and crew from the Lady Drake were given one month’s leave and two month’s pay from the date of the ship’s loss. The cost for the Britannia Steamship Insurance Association Limited to reimburse passengers and crew came to $36,009.31. (“Lady Drake,” page 91). The West Indians amongst the crew were repatriated not to Canada but back to the Caribbean. Alcoa Steamship’s vessel the SS City of Birmingham was chosen to take them. However the Lady Drake’s Assistant Purser J. M. Arsenault had a difficult time finding all but 31 of the men when it came time for sailing. With the help of local constables combing through various watering holes and “haunts” they finally succeeded in corralling these men aboard the ship taking them to their homes.

Captain Kelly was awarded the Order of Merit of the British Empire (M.B.E.) on 22 December 1942 for his exertions towards the saving of lives as Chief Officer of the Lady Hawkins before the Lady Drake sank. One of his recommendations to naval staff was that ships in danger of being torpedoed keep their life boats swung in, in other words not pre-deployed for emergency launch. He felt that there was less opportunity for the boats to be damaged by torpedo explosions that way, and the experience of the Lady Drake survivors bore it out, so long as they could still be easily lowered, which for the most part (five out of six instances) they were.

SS City of Birmingham was subsequently sunk by U-202 under Hans-Heinz Linder on the 1st of July 1942 en route to Bermuda. NOB Commandant Admiral Jules James was on hand to welcome the survivors ashore in Bermuda from USS Stansbury. (More on that casualty at 

SOURCES: – for the war diaries and deck logs of the USS Owl as well as NOB Bermuda notes on landing and rescue of Lady Drake survivors

Hanington, Felicity, assisted by Captain Percy A. Kelly M.B.E., “The Lady Boats: The Life and Times of Canada’s West Indies Merchant Fleet,” 1980 Canadian Marine Transportation Centre, Dalhousie University, Halifax NS Canada

Joplin, Missouri “Globe,” May 17th, 1942, “250 Reach Safety After Sub Attack,”

Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999

Mason, Jerry,
Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Port, 1939 – 1945,” for excellent coverage of US Navy vessels like USS Owl,

 “Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily,” Bermuda, Saturday May 9th, 1942, pages 1 and 8

 “Survivors Statements,” from NARA, in Washington DC, as found by Michael Constandy, Formal citation: Survivor’s Statements (1941-1942) Series : Papers of Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, compiled 1941 – 1974Record Group 38: Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1875 – 2006  Entry P-13.  National Archives at College Park – Textual Reference (Military) 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740 for much of the information, including photos of U-boat Commander and its victim, for specifications and history of Lady Drake:

Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997