The Cygnet sunk by an Italian sub


The steamer Cygnet was sunk by the Italian submarine Enrico Tazzoli in sight of San Sal- vador early in World War II, when Bahamians were not expecting attacks. The ship was Greek-owned, Panamanian-flagged, 3,628- tons, and her 30 crew were mostly Greek. The ship was carrying ore from South America to Canada through The Bahamas. On March 11, 1942, Captain Mamais, age 37, Chief Officer Falangas, radio man George Lemos and a helmsman were on lookout. At 4:48pm, Falangas saw a torpedo emerge from beneath the ship and go towards the lighthouse at Dixon Hill, on San Salvador, six miles away.

Suddenly there was an explosion at the forward hatch, and “a cloud of dust and debris rose several hundred feet”, so they stopped the engine. The donkey motor was shattered into little bits and “large pieces of debris covered the deck, and the ship started listing immediately at the bow”.

The Italian submarine crew recorded “there lies San Salvador...!” Only half an hour later their first target loomed over the horizon.” They overheard Lemos on the Cygnet’s radio; at 3pm the gunner spotted a ship. At 4:45pm the Italians fired. Two stern torpedoes were first, the first missed, the other struck after 30 seconds.

Lemos ran from the radio shack to the bridge to jot the position down, but the officers beckoned him to join them in the lifeboats. The attack was witnessed ashore by residents drawn by the sound of shells exploding. Mamais said “a submarine appeared, and fired a blank shell to warn the life boats way from the ship”. Sofos observed “the submarine surfacing ... two members of the crew on the tower were waving their hands in salutation.

While we were saluting back. They started firing at our ship, which seemed like a fearless giant refusing to yield to the enemy’s gunshots. ...the ship’s steam boiler’s safety valves began to whistle, as if the ship was sending us its farewell, which lasted until the ship sank, after the 7th and last missile.”

The Tazzoli men “returned the salute in disbelief then shelled the starboard side, and rounded the stern to puncture the port side, filming all of it. ....the Greeks were commenting on the accuracy and the effects of our fire. ...at the survivors they shouted ‘Good luck!’

Commander di Cossato waved the Italian Tricolore flag in the air and shouted in English: ‘Tell the Americans ‘It is true: the Italian submarines have come here to sink their ships!’

The castaways waved and shouted cheerfully.” Vlachakis said the Tazzoli looked old and rusty when it motored off toward Eleuthera. Captain Mamais wrote that “the life boats... pulled for San Salvador. Three or four crew suffered minor injuries during the explosion.” The Cygnet was sank at 6:20pm. Maronari wrote “Flaming clouds to the west swallow to last tendrils of gold. ...light sparkles on the trees and the tall lighthouse tower, Cygnet suddenly glows red, followed by a piercing roar, as water shocked the boil- ers and the greedy ocean swallows those old tons”

Islanders were waiting for them past 5am; “Mr AB Nairne, a one-legged American came out in a dory with two natives to lead the boats through the reef”. Emile and Elmore Nairne lived on San Salvador, described as “light-skinned” Bahamians, but had all their limbs. Thomas (Tom) Williams, whose family had lived on Sal Salvador since the 1780s, had lost a foot in a boating accident; he must have been the man described.

Sofos said “at 8pm we entered a cove, but our lifeboat hit a reef and water started gushing in. We anchored, and used five buckets to bail out the water. The second lifeboat continued towards the shore to offload the men and pick us up. However, the cove was packed with reefs, which forced it to lay at anchor as well. Then a small boat appeared with two black men and a one- legged white man ...we begged them to guide us, and our two life boats, following the small boat as a pilot, reached the shore around 5am.” That was East Beach, which is rarely calm.

A boy of 10 years “remembers hearing an explosion and the sailors being transported to town - an uncle or cousin had one of the few vehicles. The ship was carrying rubber, as large bales of rubber washed ashore. People would collect and sell these to Nassau.” The Greek men “were led to the house of a native, just a few meters away, where we were treated to a cup of coffee. A small truck, picking up ten at a time, made three trips to the other side of the island. Cockburn Town consisted of a few wooden houses, the population of the island being about 300 inhabitants.” Nothing was spared for their comfort. “Our lodging was arranged in the church, and the island administrator, an educated black man, extended a fine hospitality. He promptly telegraphed a list of our names to our New York office and Nassau. He witnessed the whole drama of the attack and sinking and started sending SOS hoping that an airplane would come and sink the submarine.” The SOS was merely a whistle in the wind.

The Cygnet crew boarded the Monarch of Nassau and arrived at Nassau the next day. The Nassau Guardian wrote they “are all safe, being taken care of by the Greek Consul and the Red Cross.” Ena K, took them to Miami; they missed sailing with Sydney Poitier by weeks. Overall, the men travelled by lifeboat, lorry, passenger ship, a motor sailor and train over two weeks to reach New York, albeit in exile. Some of them stayed in the US. Within a year, the Enrico Tazzoli lay on the floor of the Bay of Biscay, her commander di Cossato dead by his own hand. The Italian Navy named a submarine after him.


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