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Article by Edward A.W. Fuller (2000)

The Wreck of the SS Nevada
 
The Wreck of the SS Nevada

ODD HAPPENINGS ON COLL DURING MY DUTIES THERE.
THE SHIPWRECK OF THE S.S. NEVADA (APPROX. 9,000 TONS)

In mid July 1942, on a Sunday about 2.00p.m. on the north east coast of the Island of Coll, the S.S. Nevada ran on to the rocks only about 25 yards from the shore. It was probably caused by the ship's French Captain unaware that during the war the fog-horn was stopped to avoid any enemy shipping getting a fixed position of where they were. The light was automatic and continued to function - it was a small erection on one of the islands about one and a half miles North of where the Nevada was wrecked. I hasten to say there was a very heavy coastal fog - however it did appear that the Skipper was certainly unaware where his exact position was and by the evidence of where he rammed the rocks, his speed was too fast.

The crew was almost all West African except for some French Officers and the Radio Officer, who was English. They were making for the Sound of Lismore to make up a convoy to West Africa. At this period I was Senior Wireless Operator of the R.A.F. Ground Observer Radio Station. If anyone knows Oban at all, the H.Q. Radio Station was on top of the Great Western Hotel which was entirely occupied by R.A.F. Personnel.

I became aware of the ship's dilemma by the constant use of the ship's siren which was being used in an effort to get some response either from echo or any ship in the vicinity. I decided we would make our way across the rocks and rough moorland with some boggy patches to as near the sound as we could and fire rifles to warn them how close they were. However, we were too late - by the time we arrived at the coast, the vessel was firmly on the spur of ragged rocks. The Corporal and I shouted over to the crew, some of whom were on deck which was about 20 feet higher than we were from our position on the rocks. The English Radio Officer came on deck and after some discussion he said he was unable to make contact with his particular Convoy Commodore, so I said that I would go back and report the happening to see if tugs or any Admiralty ship from Tobermory could get them off the rocks. Meanwhile the ship's Company would rig up a breeches buoy and bring details ashore so that we could give a complete story to our H.Q. to inform the Navy.

However, it took Officialdom over two days to get the wheels in motion and it was too late to get the Nevada off the rocks by line or tugs. The ship had driven bow on into the rocks and torn out the holds under the stern. -Thus began for most of the male islanders as well as the small detachment of R.A.F. -Bonanza time!!! Before the crew was taken off, the Captain asked me to board the boat by bo-sun's chair - I had never had that experience before and it was certainly something I have not forgotten. One gets into this so-called chair which is a piece of wood about 10" X 18", one clasps the ropes each side which connect to a pulley above and then with the crew pulling the ropes you bounce from sea-level (one's feet nearly touching the sea) and by a series of bounces of about 8' to 10' you gradually get to the ship's side 40' - 50' high. You then clamber with agility on to the deck. At this time the boat was not listing as badly as it did later. After a conversation with the ship's Captain and Radio Officer, I was able to go down to the ship's dining-room which was still quite normal. However, the ship's engine room was being flooded and it was obvious there was not much hope for the ship.

I was told there were lots of supplies on board which were not generally available to the general person and also military supplies - radar equipment - all kinds of medical supplies - two 50' launches with twin Rolls Royce engines (most of this was on deck lashed down) and of course, tinned meats etc. and Naafi supplies etc. The ship's crew rigged up a gangway to the nearest rocks so that the crew, which were mostly very black French-speaking Africans, could move their kit-bags etc. and shelter on the shore before being accommodated for a short time in Cornaig Schoolhouse. I must add that after the shipwreck the weather was wonderful - sunny and warm. At the last meeting with the Captain and the Radio Officer, I was accompanied by the Cook from our Detachment who was keen to see it. The Captain offered me all the ship's silver including champagne buckets, ladles, cutlery etc. I replied to this offer in the negative, however, our Cook overheard this and asked if he could have it. The Captain agreed and so he quickly put all the silver into a beautiful chenille crimson table cover and was off back to our station. The silver was subsequently crated and sent home to London!

When the crew finally departed leaving the gangway still in place, it became a veritable Aladdin's Cave to the Islanders (all who could walk, that is)! When the tide was full, it was almost to the top of the 3rd Hold down, so I clambered down past the Land-Rover vehicles - around two to three hundred, I understand, to see if by chance I could find the Naafi Stores. I was standing on crates about 10' square which were floating inside the hold. I later realised that I was standing on crates of tins of cigarettes - 50 in each and all watertight. Naturally I could not see this sort of commodity going to waste so I returned to the Detachment (there were only seven of us) and revealed my find and suggested that those not on watch get going quickly and bring some of the booty back. Our first sortie brought 50,000 cigarettes all perfect and in tins - this was before the Island lads knew about it. In fact we got choosy and only took the better brands. The local Islanders were quickly on the scene once it was known the crew had left and there were no Customs or Salvage people at the shipwreck. The cargo consisted of all those items unobtainable during the war without coupons. Other than the Naafi food stores there were pick axes, shovels, spades, forks, hundreds of bales of cotton material coloured for native use, boots and shoos, (but very little alcohol), radar and radio parts, all kinds of clothing and even a large amount of toothpaste. The amount of cigarettes was in millions and all in tins. There were hundreds washed up on the shore along with all kinds of medical supplies including ethyl chloride in syringes which is a kind of spray that freezes body parts as applied, also hundreds of 50 gallon drums of methylated spirits which was in short supply on Coll.

When the customs men did finally arrive they punctured these drums and allowed the contents to drain on the sand - we could not understand the waste when it could have been put to good use. Every night if the tide was right the Island men made the six to seven mile cycle ride from Arinagour to the wreck, having to leave their bikes and walk for the last mile or so. At night the Nevada was a blaze of small torch lights each owner busily searching for booty. One night they found a 20' X 20' crate of shoes and of course every one eagerly took their share only to discover that they were all for the left foot and they never did find the ones for the right foot! There were some really hilarious episodes - everyone drying hundreds of yards of cotton goods on the rocks when word came that the Custom men had arrived at the pier. This was the signal for tremendous activity in rolling it all up and hiding it in the hills. As for the cigarettes - they were buried by the thousand in anticipation of the big search and so many caches were never found again and will be buried to this day. Some of the Salvage crew were worse and sold lots of goods to the villagers from Arinagour. The R.A.F. came over from Tiree in a high speed launch for booty and took away least 20 sacks of tins of cigarettes as well as tinned goods.

I was posted in September 1942 and so missed a great deal more of this great adventure, but a sequel to this was that during 1960 - 1965, there was a prosecution of some of the salvage crew who had found some million or so of specially printed West African currency (mostly one pound notes). It was being cashed in Switzerland where their banks are used to these transactions being conducted. I was not aware that there was currency on board the Nevada, but I did learn afterwards that some locals had found some. There have been other shipwrecks around Coll before and after this event, but I am sure the Island of Coll will never see the like of this again.

Edward A.W. Fuller
Images associated with this article:-

The SS Nevada
Coll Magazine - Article by Edward A.W. Fuller

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