“Out of the Storm came Courage” … the tragedy of the PK

February is usually remembered in South Africa as the “Three Ships” month as it marks three of South Africa’s maritime military losses in three separate wartime epochs, the SS Mendi (WW1), the HMSAS Southern Floe (WW2) and the SAS President Kruger (Border War).

Today we remember the sinking of the SAS President Kruger, and we remember this South African Navy Frigate as she was in her heyday in this painting by Derrick Dickens,  we also reflect on how true the SAS President Kruger’s motto is “Out of the Storm came Courage” came to be.

The “PK” as she was affectionately known was a flagship and the pride of The South African Navy, her loss on the 18th February 1982 made such a profound impact that the ramifications to the South African Naval fraternity are still be felt to this day.

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In the early morning of the 18th February 1982. The SAS President Kruger was involved in a collision with the fleet replenishment ship, the SAS Tafelberg during exercises in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The complex exercises were been conducted with her sister ship the SAS President Pretorius, the submarine SAS Emily Hobhouse and the replenishment ship SAS Tafelberg. The exercises progressed over several days, with different candidate submarine captains being given an opportunity of executing a mock attack against the Tafelberg.

At approximately 4 am, the whole formation had to change direction by 154 degrees, a near complete reversal in direction. The frigates, sailing in front of the Tafelberg, had to change direction first to maintain their protective positions ahead of Tafelberg on the new heading.

The President Kruger was in front and to the port (left) side of the Tafelberg, the appointed officer of the watch (OOW) on the President Kruger was unqualified for the role and took an instruction from the Principle Warfare Officer in the Ops room to turn to starboard (right) “inwards” towards the Tafelberg, however the OOW elected to initiate a 10 degree of rudder turn, whereas operational procedure called for a tighter 15 degree of rudder turn. The 10 degree turn had a larger radius and would take longer to execute than the 15 degree of rudder turn, thereby allowing Tafelberg more time to close on the ship turning in front of her.

Partway through the turn, the operations room lost radar contact with the Tafelberg in the ocean clutter and high seas. At that point, an argument ensued between the OOW and the Principal Warfare Officer over the degree of wheel to apply. The OOW was unable to recover the situation, and the bows of the much heavier Tafelberg impacted the President Kruger on her port side.

The force of the collision buckled the plates and crushed Mess 12 on the President Kruger where the Petty Officers sleeping quarters were located, killing or trapping all those inside. The ship began to take on water and list and an order to abandon ship was given. The President Kruger then sank in 45 minutes 78 nautical miles (144 km) south west of Cape Point.

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The honour roll of the South Africans lost that tragic day is as follows:

05507629 PE Chief Petty Officer Johannes Petrus Booysen
77060150PE Chief Petty Officer Hartmut Wilfried Smit
69443794PE Chief Petty Officer Willem Marthinus Gerhardus Van Tonder
07467392PE Chief Petty Officer Donald Webb
05208145PE Petty Officer Stephanus Petrus Bothma
70351226PE Petty Officer Graham Alexander Frank Brind
65718058PE Petty Officer Robin Centlivre Bulterman
73317695PE Petty Officer Granville Williams De Villiers
66510579PE Petty Officer Evert Koen
08302440PE Petty Officer Hjalmar Lotter
70343553PE Petty Officer Roy Anthony McMaster
72362379PE Petty Officer Roy Frederick Skeates
72265465PE Petty Officer William Russel Smith
75060863PN Petty Officer Michael Richard Bruce Whiteley
72249998PE Petty Officer Coenraad Johannes Wium
80100167PE Able Seaman Gilbert Timothy Benjamin

Chief Petty Officer Donald Webb and Able Seaman Gilbert Timothy Benjamin were not trapped inside the sinking ship and were both seen to abandon ship by jumping overboard into the sea. The following morning, the body of CPO Webb was sighted and recovered from the sea by SAS Protea. He now rests in the Simonstown (Dido Valley) War Cemetery. Able Seaman Gilbert Timothy Benjamin remains unaccounted for.

Considering the exceptionally high seas on that day and the speed at which the President Kruger sank it remains a small miracle that the vast majority of the crew were recovered from the water safely (177 in total), and that stands as testament to the caliber of the South African Navy. However such an unnecessary loss has dreadful ramifications which are still felt in South Africa’s Naval Fraternity to this day, and it remains a truly tragic event.

In the aftermath, a naval board of inquiry was commissioned, leading to a finding of a lack of seamanship by the captain and officers of the ship. The Minister of Justice introduced a retrospective change in law to allow him to hold an inquest into the death of one of the seamen. The inquest apportioned blame on the captain and PWO. However none of the officers was court-martialled.

As a result of an international arms embargo against South Africa at the time, the ship could not be replaced, and was therefore a great loss to the capability and morale of the navy for many years afterwards.

The Navy’s prestigious ‘Cock of the Fleet’ trophy, which had been won by her ship’s crew in the annual rowing regatta, was also lost with the ship and lies on the bottom of the ocean now.

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The story of the sinking and rescue of the personnel of the SAS President Kruger, as well as the impact to families of both the survivors and the men lost, truly comes back to the PK’s motto “Out of the Storm came Courage”.

Painting of the SAS President Kruger “The PK”, acrylic on canvass by Derrick Dickens copyright Peter Dickens

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