HMSAS Parktown was originally built for The Southern Whaling and Sealing Company of London by Smiths Dock Company of Middlesbrough. She was laid down and launched in 1929 under the name Southern Sky. In 1936, she was bought by the Union Whaling Company and registered in Durban as Sidney Smith for service in the whaling industry until 1940. When war broke out she was requisitioned for service in the South African Navy as a minesweeper on 8 August 1940 under the name HMSAS Parktown.
On 10 June 1942, HMSAS Parktown arrived in Tobruk Harbour for magnetic minesweeping duties and for ten days she continued operations off the harbour while the 8th Army were being driven back by advancing German and Italian forces. On 20 June 1942 the Tobruk garrison was attacked from the south and south east and By 18H00, the Allies had been overrun and Allied ships were ordered to embark personnel for evacuation. At 06:45 on 21 June, the lookouts of HMSAS Parktown sighted what they believed was an Italian “MAS” torpedo boat, but according to German reports, the ship was engaged by a flotilla of German E-boats based at Derna. The Parktown attempted to fight off the attacks but she was out-numbered and out-gunned by the axis vessels. Within 15 minutes Parktown was stationary with a hole in the boiler. Half of her crew, including her captain (Lieutenant (SAN) Leslie James Jagger) as well as evacuated soldiers were dead and the ship could no longer move and was on fire.
The ship was abandoned and the survivors took to the sea. Some were saved by an Allied MTB as well as a tug that had been under tow by Parktown. The wreck was then sunk by depth charges.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.