Three Ships Month

February has become what is known as “3 ships month”, and unfortunately the 3 ships that I remember are all disasters that are part of maritime history in South Africa. This year I am going to commemorate them in one post as opposed to 3. 

11 February 1941: HMSAS Southern Floe.

The ship was a  Southern Class whaler, one of four ships taken over by the Navy from Southern Whaling & Sealing Co. Ltd., Durban. The four ships were renamed  HMSAS Southern Maid, HMSAS Southern Sea, HMSAS Southern Isles and HMSAS Southern Floe. 

In January 1941, Southern Floe and her sister ship Southern Sea arrived at Tobruk to take over patrol duties along the mine free swept channels and to escort any ships through them. 

HMSAS Southern Maid. (SA Museum of Military History)

On 11 February 1941, HMSAS Southern Sea arrived at the rendezvous two miles east of Tobruk,  but there was no sign of Southern Floe and a passing destroyer notified the vessel that they had picked up a stoker from the vessel, clinging to some wreckage. The stoker, CJ Jones RNVR, was the sole survivor of the ship, and he explained that there had been a heavy explosion on board and he had barely escaped with his life. There had been other survivors but they had not been picked up and Stoker Jones had spent 14 hours in the water. Although never confirmed it is assumed that the vessel had struck a mine.

18 February 1982. SAS President Kruger.

One of three sister ships (President Steyn, Pretorius and Kruger),  the “PK” was a Type 12 Frigate, built in the United Kingdom and was launched on 20 October 1960 from the Yarrow Shipbuilders, Scotstoun. She was the flagship of the South African Navy, and at the time of her sinking she was also holder of the “Cock of the Fleet”.

On 18 February 1982, the vessel was conducting anti-submarine exercises with her sister ship the SAS President Pretorius, the submarine SAS Emily Hobhouse and the replenishment ship SAS Tafelberg. She was under the command of  Captain de Lange and at the time were using the opportunity to carry out anti-submarine exercises, with each ship given a patrol sector ahead of the Tafelberg. The President Kruger was stationed on the Tafelberg’s port side between 10 and 330 degrees, while the the President Pretorius had a reciprocal box on the starboard side.

By ECSequeira – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

At approximately 4 am, the whole formation had to change direction by 154 degrees which would result in an almost complete reversal in direction. To maintain station the frigates would change direction first to maintain their positions ahead of the Tafelberg on the new heading. President Kruger had two possible options: turn 200 degrees to port, or 154 degrees to starboard. The starboard turn was a much smaller one but was much more dangerous as it involved turning towards the Pretorius and Tafelberg.  The officer of the watch elected to make the starboard turn, initiating 10 a degree turn. that had a larger radius and would take longer to execute than a 15 degree turn, Critically while executing the turn, the operations room lost radar contact with the Tafelberg in the radar clutter. An argument ensued between the officer of the watch and the principal warfare officer over the degree of wheel to apply, it was however too late and the bows of the much bigger Tafelberg impacted the President Kruger on her port side.

The President Kruger sank 78 nautical miles (144 km) south west of Cape Point, with the loss of  16 lives. Because the impact was in the senior ratings mess most of the casualties were Petty Officers which impacted on the Navy due to the loss of so many senior ratings. A naval board of inquiry was appointed shortly afterwards that determined the cause of the collision was of a lack of seamanship by the captain and watch officers of the ship.  The Captain was administratively retired early and the Navy arranged a job with Armscor for him, while the PWO was sidelined to only shore appointments and had his promotion stopped.

21 February 1916. HMT Mendi.

The 4230 GRT Mendi (Official number 120875), was owned by the British & African Steam Navigation  Company Limited. which was part of Elder, Dempster and Company. She was 370 ft long with a beam of 46 ft and was built by Alexander Stephen & Sons, Glasgow. She was fitted with triple expansion steam engines that gave her a maximum speed of 13 knots.

The ship was carrying 15 officers, 17 NCO’s and 802 members of the South African Native Labour Corps as well as 1500 tons of cargo and set sail under convoy for Plymouth. The SANLC men were quartered in the number 1, 2 and 4 holds. After calling at Plymouth she set sail for Le Havre on the 20th of February at full speed, escorted by the destroyer HMS Brisk. The weather was overcast, threatening mist with light winds and a smooth sea. However, after midnight the weather became thicker and speed was reduced until the ship was sailing at slow speed. The whistle was sounded  and a number of other ships whistles were heard. At 4.45 the escort signalled the Mendi and suggested that the slow speed made it difficult to keep station. The Mendi maintained her slow speed.

In the early hours of the morning of the 21st of February  The SS Darro,  inbound for the UK, ran into the hapless Mendi, striking her at right angles, damaging the bulkhead between number 1 and 2 holds where the troops were quartered. The Darro then backed out of the hole, presumably because her engines were now responding the the full astern command given shortly before the collision. She disappeared into the fog, leaving the Mendi to founder. On board the stricken Mendi orders were given to lower the boats to the rail and the 4 whistle blast signal for boat stations was given. The boats were then ordered to be lowered to the water and to lie alongside.    

Of the 802 SANLC troops on board some 607 men of the South African contingent perished, as did 30 members of her crew. The Darro lay off not too far from where the disaster was unfolding, on board her the lifeboats were lowered to the rail and all hands were on deck. In spite of these preparations and the sound of voices in the water no attempt was made to investigate what had happened or to rescue survivors although 2 boats did reach the ship and survivors were embarked. She remained in the area until until just before 9 am. and then set sail for a Channel port (possibly Southampton or Portsmouth) where 107 survivors of which 64 were from the SANLC were landed.  

The disaster shook the nation, but was gradually forgotten as the years passed. The Nationalist government conveniently erased it from history but it has become more prominent once again as veterans groups get together to remember those volunteers from the SANLC who died in a war that they knew nothing about. 

DRW © 2020. Created 08/02/2020. Image of the President Kruger is by ECSequeira – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28102570  Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAS_President_Kruger. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image has been cropped and resized. 

Remember the Mendi

HMT Mendi (21/02/1917)

On 21 February 1917, South Africa lost some 607 African volunteers en route to the battlefields of France when their troopship; HMT Mendi, was in a collision with the SS Darro off St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight. The resulting death toll was high; of the 802 SANLC troops on board, some 607 men of the South African contingent perished, as did 30 members of her crew.  The 4230 GRT Mendi (Official number 120875), was owned by the British & African Steam Navigation Company Limited. which was part of Elder, Dempster and Company. She was 370 ft long with a beam of 46 ft and was built by Alexander Stephen & Sons, Glasgow. She was fitted with triple expansion steam engines that gave her a maximum speed of 13 knots.

Model of the SS Mendi by Buddy Bacon, in Simonstown Naval Museum. Used with permission
On 10 April 2013, while I was in Southampton I decided to visit Hollybrook Cemetery and the Hollybrook Memorial to the missing. 
 

 
This particular memorial at Hollybrook commemorates by name almost 1900 servicemen and women of the Commonwealth land and air forces whose graves are not known, many of whom were lost in transports, torpedoed or mined in home waters. The memorial also bears the names of those who were lost or buried at sea or who died at home but whose bodies could not be recovered for burial.  
 
Sadly, all that is left of their lives is their names on a plaque. And I think that in this case, there is a small piece of England that is uniquely South African. They were men that came from the tip of Africa, to participate as non combatants in a war that they knew nothing about, and they died far from their homes, never reaching their destination, but remaining here, far from the sunshine that was now fading as I took my last few photographs. But if I do think about it, these men were never really forgotten, their families remembered them, and their comrades, but they too have passed on, and  that duty has been passed on to us, a generation of ex-servicemen who also served their country. 
 
However, in a shocking newspaper article on the 17th of February, it was revealed that “The department of military veterans has withdrawn support for an “imperial” commemoration of a World War 1 shipping disaster in which 646 mainly black South Africans died” 
A retired senior military officer this week described the department’s decision as “abominable and a disgrace”. He said: “This means no military band or guards in fact no formal military presence at a memorial for South Africans who died on service in war.”
(Article in the Sunday Times 17 February 2019 Front page.) 
 
The stance has drawn severe criticism from veterans and organisations, and sadly the Mendi is once again just a porn in a game called political correctness and white washing of history. 
 

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning

We Will Remember Them.


DRW © 2019 – 2020. Created 18/02/2019. 

Remembering SAS President Kruger

One of three sister ships (President Steyn, Pretorius and Kruger),  was a Type 12 Frigate, acquired by the South African Navy in the 1960’s. Built in the United Kingdom, she was launched on 20 October 1960 from the Yarrow Shipbuilders, Scotstoun.

SAS President Kruger (F150)

On 18 February 1982, the vessel was conducting anti-submarine exercises with her sister ship the SAS President Pretorius, the submarine SAS Emily Hobhouse and the replenishment ship SAS Tafelberg.

SAS Tafelberg replenishing a frigate (source unknown)

The President Kruger was stationed on the Tafelberg’s port side between 10 and 330 degrees, while the the President Pretorius had a reciprocal box on the starboard side. At approximately 4 am, the whole formation had to change direction by 154 degrees which would result in an almost complete reversal in direction. To maintain station the frigates would change direction first to maintain their positions ahead of the  Tafelberg on the new heading. President Kruger had two possible options: turn 200 degrees to port, or 154 degrees to starboard. The starboard turn was a much smaller one but was much more dangerous as it involved  turning towards the Pretorius and Tafelberg.  

The officer of the watch elected to make the starboard turn, initiating 10 a degree turn. that had a larger radius and would take longer to execute than a 15 degree turn, Critically while executing the turn, the operations room lost radar contact with the Tafelberg in the radar clutter. An argument ensued between the officer of the watch and the principal warfare officer over the degree of wheel to apply, it was however too late and the bows of the much bigger Tafelberg impacted the President Kruger on her port side.

The President Kruger sank 78 nautical miles (144 km) south west of Cape Point, with the loss of  16 lives. Because the impact was in the senior ratings mess most of the casualties were Petty Officers which impacted on the Navy due to the loss of so many senior ratings.

Roll of Honour:
AB. G.T. Benjamin
CPO J.P. Booysen
 PO. S.P. Bothma
 PO. G.A.F. Brind
 PO R.C. Bulterman
 PO. G.W. De Villiers
 PO. E. Koen
 PO. H. Lotter
 PO. R.A. Mc Master
 PO. R.F. Skeates
 CPO. H.W. Smit
PO. W.R. Smith
 CPO. W.M.G. Van Tonder
 CPO. D. Webb
 PO. M.B.R. Whiteley
 PO. C.J. Wium
 
1982 Naval Casualties at the SADF Wall of Remembrance
At the naval board of inquiry it was found that there was a  lack of seamanship by the captain and officers of the ship. The inquest apportioned blame on the captain and PWO. However none of the officers was court-martialled.
 
There is a comprehensive look at South African naval casualties on the Observation Post blog
 
DRW © 2019. Created 18/02/2019. The ship two images I cannot source. They come from my collection, but I have no idea where the originals came from. If you are the copyright holder please contact me so that I may acknowledge your historic images.