The Wrecking of the SS Graig

May 4th, 1940, Flint Ledge, Nova Scotia

On Saturday, May 4th, 1940, at 11.00 pm local time, the British freighter SS Graig ran aground in dense fog on Flint Ledge, off the coast of Little Harbour on the Eastern Shore. The crew’s harrowing tale of survival and rescue is told through personal accounts as well as newspaper reports of the incident.

On Saturday, May 4th, 1940, at 11.00 pm local time, the British freighter SS Graig ran aground in dense fog on Flint Ledge, some 60 km east of Halifax on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. The vessel had left Halifax on route to the United Kingdom with a cargo comprised of 2,000,000 ft. of lumber. 

Because German U-boats were known to lie in wait close to Halifax to intercept and torpedo arriving and departing vessels, the Graig probably stayed as close to the shore as possible. The fog that night was so thick that Third Officer Dennis Neal was blowing the whistle every two minutes. When the Graig grounded, Captain Davis at first feared they had been hit by a torpedo, but soon realized what happened. George Burns, the Graig’s wireless operator, recalled: 

I was going aft on the main deck after going off duty when she grounded. It was a good heavy bump and the ship canted over on her side so that the breakers were soon coming over the deck. I went back to the wireless room, put on my lifebelt and waited for instructions. The chief mate ran into the room and told me to send an SOS. At 11.11pm I sent the first message to the operator at Camperdown [the Radio Station near Duncan’s Cove that helped guide vessels in and out of the harbor]: “Ship aground. Position unknown. SOS.” Camperdown took a radio bearing from our signal and after we laid it down on the chart at the 73 degrees he gave, we found where we were. Then I sent another message: “SOS. Hard aground off Egg Island.” Soon the second mate sent word that all hands were going aft to get the boats off and for me to come down. Before I went I told Camperdown we were taking to the boats. The ship’s boats were already hanging in the davits swung out over the side in accordance with practice in wartime. This fact probably meant the difference between life and death. Just after we got off in the boats, she split just above the bridge. There was a heavy swell and the main deck was awash before I left the ship. The funnel fell just as we pulled off. She was canted over so we had to slide down ropes to get into the boats. When we got off the fog had lifted a little. All we could see was a light and we started to row towards it. We could not tell where we were, nor in what direction the shore lay. We got close enough to make out the rocky cliffs of the island and we made our way as near as we could dodging the rocks. We shouted to the light-keeper and he heard us and came down to the shore. He told us it was dangerous to land and to stay off until daybreak. There was nothing we could do out there but keep rowing back and forth trying to keep clear of the rocks. As soon as we saw a bit of white foam we rowed the other way. We were soaked to the skin. We finally landed at 5 am about an hour after dawn. The keeper directed us to a little gulley between the rocks. The waves carried the boats up and we watched our chance and jumped. One of the boats was smashed against a rock. 

Before the crew approached Egg Island, the lighthouse keeper, Samuel Webber knew something was amiss, since, according to one newspaper report, he saw rockets from the ship. After the crew landed on the island, the lightkeeper and his wife took the 34 men into the lighthouse, which only had four rooms, and provided them with hot drinks. The two beds in the dwelling were used in relays over the next two days while many other men slept on the floor. Some of the crew used lumber from the ship’s cargo to build a shelter and make a fire to help dry their clothes. 

The alertness of the lighthouse keeper that night was fortunate, since other searchers, ranging from local fisherman to rescue vessels dispatched from Halifax, were unable to find the crew throughout the following day, Sunday, May 5th. While some did find clothing and other items from the vessel floating in the water, it was not until early the next morning that a local fisherman rowed close to Egg Island and members of the crew were able to shout to him. Word of their situation was conveyed to Little Harbour, and a rescue mission undertaken on Monday, May 6th. Once on shore, the men were treated to lobster from a local factory. Many of the crew were then transported to Halifax in the back of an open truck, arriving there in the early evening. The officers stayed in the Halifax Hotel, and the remainder of the men were billeted at the Sailors Home. Only one sailor was injured in the wreck, and was treated for a broken leg at the Halifax Infirmary.