The tragedy of the MS Oceanos can be regarded as the finest hour for the SADF and more specifically one where both the South African Navy and South African Air Force proved their mantra as the best in Africa and more. It is also regarded as one of the greatest and most successful maritime rescues ever undertaken – anywhere in the world.
Not only was every soul saved, the SAN and SAAF personnel conducted themselves in great regard with a number of medals awarded for bravery, and even a Honoris Crux Gold awarded to Able Seaman Paul Burger Whiley (one of only six ever awarded).
On 3 August 1991, the Oceanos set out from East London heading to Durban. Unwittingly she headed into highly dangerous sea conditions with 40-knot winds and 9 m swells.
At approximately 21:30 while off the Wild Coast, a muffled explosion was heard and the Oceanos lost her power following a leak in the engine room’s sea chest , the ship was left adrift and then started to sink. The crew at this stage did not conduct themselves with great decorum and reports indicated that they were quite prepared to save themselves and abandon the passengers.
Nearby vessels responded to the ship’s SOS and were the first to provide assistance. The South African Navy along with the South African Air Force launched a seven-hour mission in which 16 helicopters were used to airlift the passengers and crew to a site south of Coffee Bay. Of the 16 rescue helicopters, 13 were South African Air Force Pumas, nine of which hoisted 225 passengers off the deck of the sinking ship. All 571 people on board were saved.
To see just how dramatic this sinking was, here’s the original footage – think, if the South African Navy and Air Force hadn’t acted as they did what the cost in lives would have been:
Of the many awards and citations of bravery, one stands out. Able Seaman (AB) Paul Wiley from the SAS Scorpion was presented with the Honoris Crux Gold Decoration by the then Minister of Defence, Mr R.P. Meyer on the 6 March 1992.
He was cited as the first diver to be lowered aboard the MV Oceanos, and although he was severely beaten against the ship’s superstructure, he reached the deck.
Under extremely trying conditions he then succeeded in creating order and stability among the passengers. He then started hoisting passengers, on the first lift he accompanied a survivor up to the helicopter, after which it took a further 10 minutes of nerve-racking hovering to get him back on the deck.
During this maneuver, after being severely battered against the railing of the ship he was flung out of the hoisting strap and fell to a deck lower than intended. Thereupon a male survivor also fell out of a hoisting strap and fell 40 meters into the mountainous swells. AB Whiley, disregarding his own life, dived into the treacherous seas and on reaching the semi-conscious passenger, revived him and assisted him into a rescue craft.
Not quite finished Paul Whiley then swam back to the sinking ship and was confronted with the further difficulty of climbing back on board. Whilst scaling a ladder draped over the ship’s side, he was repeatedly beaten against the ship’s hull. However, his perseverance paid off and he managed to return to the deck to continue his vital task. After six hours aboard the Oceanos Able Seaman Whiley was one of the last persons to be hoisted from the stricken vessel.
This rescue proves beyond any shadow of doubt the exemplary level South Africa’s statutory forces had become by the early 1990’s. This rescue cannot be politicised – there are no “struggle heroes” in it, it has nothing to do with any political mantra or policy – it stands as a pure example of the heroism, skill and professionalism of the statute forces of the time. It truly is the SADF’s finest hour.
Consider this, the Honoris Crux is the highest SADF award for bravery and three levels of this award were issued, for accounts of bravery in the extreme, just on the MS Oceanos alone on the 4 August 1991, were the following:
Honoris Crux (Gold): AB. Paul Burger Whiley (as per the account above)
Honoris Crux (Silver): AB. Gary Ian Scoular.
Honoris Crux: Lt.-Cmdr. André Geldenhuys; PO. Frans Hugo Mostert; LS. Darren Malcolm Brown; LS. Luke James Dicks. All from the South African Navy, all from the Divers School.
In addition to Honoris Crux, consider the following decorations for bravery and actions above the call of duty which were also won on that day by South African Air Force personnel:
The Air Force Cross decoration recipients: Kmdt. Eric Brennan Elphick; Kmdt. Anthony Charles Hunter; Maj. Phillip Fenwick; Maj. Anthony Wright Johnson; Maj. Martin Johannes Hugo Louw; Maj. Hermanus Frederik Steyn; Maj. André Stroebel; Capt Anton Botha, Capt. René Martin Coulon; Capt. Peter Evans Hanes; Capt. Charles Glen Goatly; Capt. Hendrik; Capt Jacques Hugo; Capt. Tarri Jooste; Capt. Johannes Meintjies; Capt.. Slade Christoper Thomas; Capt. Francois Johann Weyers; Lt. Mark Graig Fairley; WO2 William James Riley; F/Sgt Norman Herbert Askew-Hull; Capt. Len Pienaar; F/Sgt Frans Campher; F/Sgt Daniël Francois Bezuidenhout; F/Sgt. Daniël Roedolf Jacobs; F/Sgt Christoffel Jacobus Pedlar; F/Sgt. Philip Davey Joseph Scott; F/Sgt. Frans Schutte; F/Sgt. Willem Hendrik Steyn.
Mentioned in Dispatches.
South African Air Force: Brig. T.J.M. de Munnink, SD; Brig. R.S. Lord, SD; Col. G.A. Hallowes; Col. B.J. Kriegler; Col. L.E. Weyer; kmdt. D.B. Janse van Rensburg; Maj. W.H.W. van Wyk. South African navy: Capt. (Naval). P.C. Potgieter; Capt. (Naval). R.D. Stephen; Cdr. A.G. Absolom; WO1 P. Hutchinson.
Quickly forgotten now as these fine men and woman are now painted as “Apartheid Forces” and great deeds such as this rescue are confined to a history nobody references or even considers anymore.
However this rescue is still regarded as the greatest and most successful sea rescue of its kind – to have ever been undertaken in modern maritime history. Under current cut-backs and capability restraints it is unlikely that the South African National Defence Force can ever replicate such a rescue if presented with it again.
It stands directly in the way of the current ANC’s political narrative and therefore it is another ‘inconvenient truth’ to be ‘passed over’ when referring the Permanent Force and National Service Conscript heroes of South Africa.
Written and researched by Peter Dickens