Four Ships Week

Regular readers will know that I have slowly been adding in reminders about important dates in South African naval history. The most prominent being in February when I commemorate Three Ships Month. Sadly though, it does not all end with those 3 disasters (although technically the Mendi was not a naval vessel as it sailed with a civilian crew while doing trooping duties). 

There are however four more ships that I am adding into these reminders, and they were all lost in April of 1942.  The men killed in these sinkings were seconded to four British warships that were lost in what has become known as “The Easter Sunday Raid“. 

I am not in a position to elaborate about the disasters that befell these ships, as there are others who have done a much better job than I have. I am heavy reliant on Wikipedia for the information below.

HMS Cornwall, was  a County-class heavy cruiser of the Kent sub-class built for the Royal Navy in the mid-1920s. Cornwall was transferred to the South Atlantic in late 1939 where she escorted convoys before returning to the Indian Ocean in 1941. she was transferred to the Eastern Fleet in March 1942 and  was sunk on 5 April by dive bombers from three Japanese aircraft carriers during the Indian Ocean Raid. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Cornwall_(56)

HMS Dorsetshire, was a County class heavy cruiser  and a member of the Norfolk sub-class, of which she was one of two ships (HMS Norfolk was the other).  Launched in Portsmouth in January 1929, she was completed in September 1930.  After a long and varied career she was transferred to the Eastern Fleet to support British forces in the recently opened Pacific Theatre of the war.   On 5 April, Japanese aircraft spotted Dorsetshire and her sister Cornwall while en route to Colombo; a force of dive bombers then attacked the two ships and sank them. More than 1,100 men were rescued the next day, out of a combined crew of over 1,500. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Dorsetshire_(40))

HMS Hermes, was the world’s first ship to be designed as an aircraft carrier, her construction began during the First World War but she was not completed until after the end of the war.  She  was commissioned in 1924, and served briefly with the Atlantic Fleet before spending the bulk of her career assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet and the China Station.  When the Second World War began she was briefly assigned to the Home Fleet and conducted anti-submarine patrols in the Western Approaches  before being  sent to patrol the Indian Ocean. She was refitted in South Africa between November 1941 and February 1942 and then joined the Eastern Fleet at Ceylon.

While berthed in Trincomalee on 8 April a warning of an approaching Japanese fleet was received, and she sailed that day for the Maldives with no aircraft on board. On 9 April she was spotted by a Japanese scout plane, and she was subsequently attacked by several dozen dive bombers shortly afterwards.  Without air cover she  was quickly sunk although most of the survivors were rescued by a nearby hospital ship, but 307 men were lost in the sinking. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Hermes_(95))

HMS Hollyhock, a Flower-Class Corvette, was laid down on 27 November 1939 and launched on 19 August 1940. She was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 19 November 1940. Hollyhock was bombed and sunk by Japanese naval aircraft on 9 April 1942 east of Ceylon in the Indian Ocean, along with the aircraft carrier Hermes, the Australian destroyer Vampire and two tankers.  53 men lost their lives in the sinking.  (http://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Chrono-20Cor-Flower-Hollyhock.htm)

64 South Africans lost their lives as members of the crew of these 4 ships.  Unfortunately these losses were conveniently shunted aside in the quest to sanitise history, but slowly we are recognising that there is much more that we need to discover and commemorate.  

Further Reading:

The major inspiration for this post is The Observation Post, a  blog that was set up to keep contemporary South African Military history alive and reveal the truth – because historical “truth” in South Africa is so often skewed to some or other political agenda.

Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Dorsetshire

Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Cornwall

Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes

Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock

DRW © 2018. Created 02/04/2018.  The Observation Post is created by Peter Dickens 

Armistice Day 11/11/2016

Shortly after October ends we enter the period where we remember “The Fallen”. That encompasses mostly those who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars, as well as conflicts that may have affected your own country or yourself. In the case of South Africa it is mostly “The Border War” and to a lesser extent the Korean Conflict. But often we forget those that get caught up in these conflicts, and who suffer the results of the madness that we get caught up in.

Millions of civilians have lost their lives in the last century through bombing, occupation by the enemy, being used as hostages, deliberate extermination and all manner of other things that are too horrible to contemplate. That continues to be true even as I peck away at this keyboard. Civilians are really the pawns stuck in the middle.

And then there are those who lost siblings or parents, or friends or neighbours. Those stories of suffering never really came out, and sadly in many cases the families never really came to terms with their losses. Just as many of the combatants came home with horrific wounds or PTSD.

War does not only touch soldiers, but almost everybody around them. The only group that is seemingly unaffected by war seems to be those who send the troops off in the first place, the politicians and their governments very rarely see the front line unless it is to inspect rows of smartly turned out squaddies who were really canon fodder for the puppet masters.

The recent election in the United States is going to have interesting consequences for the world as it totters once again on the edge of a potential World War Three. Will we step back from the brink? will the troops be sent home leaving the battlefield that is Syria and the Middle East simmering and imploding after so much meddling by “superpowers”? I cannot answer that. 

If/when peace breaks out will the people of Syria remember their dead? will anybody mourn their innocents? Mothers probably will, but the powers that be? probably not. 

Cross of Sacrifice: Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol.

This year I will wear my poppy with pride and remember those who I can relate to. My Grandfather, my Father, my Uncle, the boys from Bravo Company, the boy from Echo Company, the crews of merchant ships, the men of the navy, the soldiers and airmen, the nurses and VAD’s, the civilians, the animals, the children, 6 million Jews, the Men of the Mendi, the conscience objector, the policemen, the mothers, daughter and sisters, and so many more that I could be here till next year and never cover them all. However, we must always be mindful to remember: 

‘When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.’

 

I do not however remember the politicians and dictators who create this horror, they are not worth remembering. 

©  DRW 2016-2018. Created 11/11/2016

Merchant Navy Day 3 September 2016

When I was young I wanted to go to sea in the Merchant Navy, however. South Africa did not have much of a merchant navy or otherwise to go to sea with so I never did. I regret that even so many years down the line. However, given my poor eyesight and lousy maths the odds are I would not have been able to join up anyway, albeit it in the deck department. As a result the I have always considered the Merchant Navy to be a very special breed of people: “They that go down to the sea in ships….” 

Because of the peculiarity of living in South Africa I really relate more to the British Merchant Navy than the South African one, and as a result this is partly why I am posting this today on Merchant Navy Day, and flying “the Red Duster” 

The Merchant Navy suffered appalling losses during both World Wars, often going to sea in coffin ships which could only plod along at the slowest speed conceivable; floating targets for an enemy strike and crewed by men who returned back to their ships time and time again, in a service that was largely forgotten by the civilian population and that was vitally important to the survival of Britain and her allies.

The thousands of casualties are commemorated at Tower Hill Merchant Navy Memorial in London, and the statistics for the casualties are frightening. By the end of World War One, 3,305 merchant ships had been lost with a total of 17,000 lives. In the Second World War, reached a peak in 1942. In all, 4,786 merchant ships were lost during the war with a total of 32,000 lives. More than one quarter of this total were lost in home waters.   

Seafaring today is nothing like that of the past, crews are smaller, ships are larger and more efficient (although do not look as good),  the coffin ship owners and their accountants still exist though, squeezing every drop of sweat from those manning ships that often fly flags of convenience and with a mixed crew that often has no common language. The one thing about a ship is that once it is out of sight of land it is really a world of it’s own, and like those who sailed on voyages during wartime there is one common enemy that all seafarers face, that can snuff out their small ship with impunity and leave no trace behind. The sea is a fickle medium, it can kill and be kind, but is always to be respected. 

Merchant Navy
A war, a convoy, a letter through the door,
A wife that is a wife no more
Her children are called away from school
To be broken the news so terribly cruel
“Your father has sailed to a distant land
And can not be reached by human hand
No more shall we meet him upon the quay
He can not come back to you or to me”
Some days later, when tears have passed
Her children asleep and quiet at last
She sits down to wish of one more goodbye
And to ponder and puzzle and ask merely why?
The warships guard the convoys tight,
Prepared to stand, prepared to fight.
But they are not who the foe will attack.
They hunt the ones that cannot fight back.
“My husband has sailed to a distant land,
Following orders of higher command,
He sails his ship on a distant sea
Never again to dock on an Australian quay”
Who will remember the warships and crew?
The soldiers in trenches, the men who flew?
All will remember the forces of men,
Who left, never to return again.
But who will remember the brave men of sea
Whose ships were unarmed and could only flee?
Who shouldered the burden of feeding their land,
In ships with conditions fit for the damned
I will remember, with poppy and voice
To tell of the merchant ships and of their choice.
The tankers, the trawlers, the fishing boats too
I remember their sacrifice and say Thank You
Kerry Dainty (aged 17)

We have a large debt to pay to the Merchant Navy of the two world wars, and this day is theirs alone.

© DRW 2016-2018. Created 03/09/2016. The poem “Merchant Navy” was found on the Forces Poetry and Stories Forum. I am currently attempting to contact the poet to obtain her permission to publish this work.  It is also worth going to http://www.merchant-navy.net/forum/poetry-and-ballads/4449-merchant-navy.html