South Africa lost four ships during WW2, all of them minesweepers. The second one to be lost was the HMSAS Parktown and it has a truly extraordinary fighting legacy.
A small whaler converted to a minesweeper, the “tiny boat” HMSAS Parktown sailed into action in April 1942 in company of another “tiny boat” – the HMSAS Langlaagte, sailing from Cape Town to the Mediterranean and joining the 167th Minesweeping Group working from Alexandria, Egypt.
Service in the Mediterranean
Parktown had arrived in the Mediterranean from South Africa during May and had sailed from Alexandria on 9 June as part of the escort for a convoy bound for Tobruk. During the passage the convoy is attacked and Parktown is involved in the gallant rescue of 28 survivors from a ship that had been sunk, many of whom are badly burnt. After their arrival in Tobruk on 12 June Parktown and her consort, a fellow South African ship the HMSAS Bever under the command of Lt P A North, are tasked to keep the approaches to Tobruk clear of mines.
Fall of Tobruk
At that time Tobruk was under siege and by 20 June it is clear that a crisis of some kind is imminent. Late that same afternoon Parktown and Bever are ordered to enter harbour to embark evacuation parties. At 20:00 that evening they watch the Axis forces entering the western end of town and then reach the harbour shortly afterwards.
These two South African minesweepers were to distinguish themselves during the Allied evacuation from Tobruk fighting their way out of the harbour. The Bever and Parktown fought side by side as they were loading up with as many Allied and South African troops and equipment as they could take, all the time whilst Rommel’s German forces closed in around them. The rapidity of the attack caused great confusion, however, the ships still manage to embark most of the men allocated to them before they sail.
On 20 June 1942 General Rommel’s “Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee” (German and Italian Tank Army) attacked the Tobruk garrison from the south and south east. By 18:00, the German and Italian forces had overrun the main defence lines and were closing on the harbour and all Allied ships were ordered to embark personnel for evacuation.
By 19:00 German tanks and armoured cars were within the town and started shelling the ships in the harbour. HMSAS Bever received a direct hit as she cast off. Next is The Parktown and her escape is also quite remarkable.
Using her machine guns she checks the advance of the enemy land forces whilst embarking a further 60 men, even though hit by shell fire. As she is casting off, more men keep arriving and several try to swim to the ship. A few are hauled on board, some assisted by one of the ship’s company, Able Seaman P J Smithers, who swims to their assistance. However in the confusion of sailing A/B Smithers is left behind to be captured and placed in an Italian POW camp.
As the last Allied ship to leave Tobruk, Parktown attracts a tremendous concentration of fire as she steams out at full speed. Although she is hit several times, no hit causes fatal damage to the ship and only one man, an army NCO, is killed.
The Fall of Tobruk
Under cover of a smoke screen laid by a motor torpedo boat, but still receiving shell-fire from the town, the two ships left the harbour for the open sea. During the night off Tobruk port the Parktown and Bever became separated and the Parktown goes to the assistance of a disabled tug, also crowded with men.
The sinking of the HMSAS Parktown
After taking it in tow Parktown is only able to make five knots (9.3 Km/h) and thus gets left behind by the rest of the fleet. At daybreak on the 21 June they are still only 50 miles from Tobruk and can see the coast 14 miles away with a heavy fog bank to seaward. At 06:45 Parktown’s crew sighted what they described as an Italian “MAS” torpedo boat (E-Boat), which had been directed to the slow moving vessel by a German reconnaissance aircraft. The Parktown then turns north towards the fog bank, only to be confronted by four more E-boats at close range. Fire is immediately opened by both sides.
The E-boats using their higher speed and longer range guns open the range and attack from different directions. Even though Parktown, having only one 20mm Oerlikon, was heavily out matched, one or two of the E-boats appear to be hit by her fire and end up temporarily out of control.
However, within 30 minutes, completely outnumbered and outgunned the Parktown suffers sufficient damage to put her completely out of action. The Captain, Lieutenant Leslie James Jagger and the coxswain are killed by a direct hit to the Bridge as well as a Royal Navy officer on passage. Within 15 minutes Parktown was stationary with a hole in the boiler, half of the crew and evacuated soldiers as casualties, out of ammunition and with the upper deck on fire. The only surviving officer, Sub-Lieutenant E R Francis, although himself severely wounded, takes charge and orders the ship to be abandoned as a fire is spreading rapidly and no guns remain in action.
In the aftermath it is noticed that the E-boats appear to be firing at the men in the water, however a plane, which was thought to be German, appears and heads towards the E-boats where it then circles over them and opens fire on them, after which they make off at high speed.
The remaining crew and soldiers abandoned ship and clung to carley floats. At this time, an aircraft drove off the hostile ships. The tug which had been in tow had not been engaged by the E-boats and managed to rescue some of the survivors and some of the remaining survivors were rescued by an Allied Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) which found them close to the burning minesweeper. The Allied MTB then sank the burning wreck of the Parktown with depth charges before returning to Mersa Matruh that evening.
Accounts on the final hour of the Parktown differ:
Orpen states that the Italian ships were driven off by a South African aircraft. He also records there being four Italian torpedo boats involved in the action.
Du Toit states that there were six Italian torpedo boats involved and that the aircraft was in fact a German aircraft which erroneously attacked the Italian ships.
Harris supports the fact that there were four torpedo boats and states that the German aircraft deliberately attacked the Italian vessels as they were firing on survivors in the water.
Camouflaged Italian World War II MAS that sunk the HMSAS Parktown (Motoscafo Armato Silurante – Italian: “Torpedo Armed Motorboat”)
Out of her complement of 21, Parktown suffered 13 casualties; five killed and eight seriously wounded.
Decorations and awards won
In this action alone the HMSAS Parktown’s crew would amass the following decorations and awards (we will leave the account of the HMSAS Bever to another post on her and her loss in November 1944 specifically):
Distinguished Service Order, D.S.O
Sub-Lieutenant Ernest Rowland Frances (H.M.S.A.S. Parktown).
Comes from Krugersdorp. Age 34. Was in Training Ship General
Botha, 1923-23. Badly wounded during Tobruk withdrawal.
Distinguished Service Medal, D.S.M.
No 66921. Leading-Stoker John Charles Rohlandt (H.M.S.A.S. Parktown).
Home. address, 12, Hillyard-street. Woodstock.
No 71431. Leading-Stoker Leslie Ronald Mitchell (H.M.S.A.S. Parktown).
Home address. 16, Wesley-street. Observatory. Before war was
employed by Customs Department, Cape Town
No. 71048. Able-Seaman George Kirkwood (H.M.SA.S. Parktown).
Comes from Maraisburg. Transvaal. Was a miner in peace time.
Mentioned in Dispatches (Posthumous)
Lieutenant Leslie James Jagger (H.M.S.A.S. Parktown) Came from Johannesburg, was killed during this operation.
No. 71464. Stoker Andrew Henry Jooste (H.M.S.A.S. Parktown). Comes from Vrededorp Johannesburg. Age 21. A gold miner before joining Seaward Defence.
The honour roll – HMSAS Parktown (SANF),
The following South African men were lost with the sinking of the Parktown (MPK means “missing presumed killed”)
BROCKLEHURST, Peter S, Able Seaman, 70457 (SANF), MPK
COOK, John A, Stoker 1c, 70256 (SANF), MPK
JAGGER, Leslie J, Lieutenant SANF, 70016 (SANF), MPK
MCEWAN, William A, Steward, 69686 (SANF), MPK
TREAMER, Arthur P, Petty Officer, 71109 (SANF), MPK
May these brave South Africans Rest in Peace, their duty done.
For more Observation Post stories on South African minesweepers lost in World War 2, please visit the following links:
The HMSAS Treern: The last South African Navy ship to be lost in action; HMSAS Treern
Researched by Peter Dickens. References: Article essence copied from Wikipedia, Military History Journal Vol 9 No 1 – June 1992. THE STORY OF A WARSHIP’S CREST by F V Demartinis and Day-to-Day in the SA Navy by Chris Bennett (social media). SOUTH AFRICAN NAVAL FORCE
Ship Histories, Convoy Escort Movements, Casualty Lists 1939-1947