Cruel history, Italian tankers in inferior tanks were actually very courageous!

You may have heard the joke the old South African World War 2 North African campaign veterans used to often tell about ‘Italian Bravery’ – how many gears does an Italian tank have?  Answer; one forward and four in reverse!

History is very cruel to these very brave Italian tankers fighting alongside Nazi German forces and the likes of Rommel against the South Africans, British and Allied forces.

Weighting only 14 tons, by Allied standards the Italian M13/40 tank was seen as a light tank. For the unfortunate crews who manned it, it was nothing short of a death-trap.

Its semi-automatic 47 mm Ansaldo 47/32 gun could penetrate 1.7 inches (43mm) of armour at 550 yards (503 m), making it more than adequate to deal with most allied tanks -saved for the cumbersome Matildas- and its diesel engine had a low probability of catching fire when hit, but it lacked power which made the M13/40 a slow moving target, specially off-road.

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Although it had armour deemed adequate by 1940 standards, this was made of low quality steel which lacked tensile strength, resulting in a higher probability to shatter when hit, spraying the crew inside with deadly pieces of metal from their own armour.

To these men in dark blue overalls, destined to fight on unequal terms, history has often been cruel. Nevertheless, time and again, they charged gallantly against a superior adversary, often paying the ultimate price for their courage.

Note on the main featured image: The number 3 on the turret and the rectangle with a white stripe identifies this tank as the 3rd tank of first Platoon. The rectangle background colour identified the Company, the number of stripes the Platoon.

These Italian tanks were easy prey to the British, South African and other Commonwealth and Allied forces, here a member of the crew of an Italian M13/40 tank giving himself up near Gazala. His captor might be a soldier of the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifles Brigade (part of the British and ‘Allied’ forces in North Africa).

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Original’s source of feature photograph unknown, feature image, colourising and caption by “In colour veritas”.  Insert image – Imperial War Museum copyright. 

“Tomorrow I am going to die”

This is what Captain Walter ‘Jack’ Webb told his fellow 40 Squadron pilot, Lt. Michael Welchman, on the day that Mike snapped this photograph.

“Tomorrow I am going to die”

The very next day, 4/11/1942, Jack was shot down over the Alamein front whilst doing a tactical recce sortie on enemy positions. He forced landed on friendly territory but unfortunately landed in a mine field with tragic consequence that ended his short life.

19105707_10154760075403269_1391824141783588154_nJack was a survivor of three times being shot down but returned to the squadron unscathed every time . When he did not return after this particular sortie no one in the squadron were too much worried as they were confident he will pitch up on foot soon, but it never happened.

Jack was promoted to the rank of captain just days before his death and was recommended for an immediate DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) award.

What a poignant and sad image of someone clearly philosophical of his fate, and resigned to it.

May South African heroes like Capt. Walter John Stanley Alexander Jack’ Webb forever Rest in Peace. In the full knowledge that they are not forgotten and their sacrifice is a direct reason for all our modern-day liberties and freedoms.

He is buried in Egypt at the El Alamein War Cemetery. Grave Reference: Plot XXIII. Row A. Grave 8


Image colourised and caption researched by Tinus Le Roux – with kind thanks

Photo credit to Michael Welchman (left) who is still around and lives in Hermanus, this is the original shot he took (right) of Captain Jack Webb.  Headstone image courtesy Brett Fennell.

German POW’s hitch a ride on a South African armoured car

Amazing image taken at Fort Capuzzo in Libya during WW2 – December 1941. Two German Afrika Corps soldiers – now Prisoners of War (POW) – hitch a ride into captivity on the front of a 2nd South African Division Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car.

The Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car was a series of armoured vehicles produced in South Africa and adopted by the British Army, other Commonwealth Forces (India used them) and South African army during World War II.  Highly popular as they could be adapted into all sorts of roles and configurations, some captured examples even made their way into the German army and other Axis forces during the war.

 

MarmonHerringtonMkIII

Marmon-Herrington Mk III

Featured image Copyright Australian War Memorial

 

‘Armed’ SA Native Military Corps in WW2 – this Corps screams out for a definitive work!

Now what is truly remarkable about this photograph?  Well it shows a bunch of armed South African soldiers during World War 2 who by all accounts never carried a firearm and by directive were not allowed to either.  These are members of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC), and it’s proof positive that there is no such thing as skin colour or ‘Segregation’ legislation when under fire.

This photograph was taken by Warren Loader’s Grandfather Noel Edgar Fuller while serving with The Royal Durban Light Infantry (DLI) B Coy in North Africa during WW2. What makes this photo remarkable is the DLI L/Cpl is standing next to three armed members of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC).

During the Second World War the South African government of the day held out that members of the NMC could only function in non-combatant roles, and where not allowed to carry firearms whereas funnily members of the Cape Corps (Cape Coloured members) where fully armed and enrolled in combatant roles.

All this political segregation and racial discrimination became quite irrelevant when serving in combat areas and in many instances serving Regiments, Units and Sections of the South African Army quite quickly issued firearms to their NMC ‘support’ members – and this photo stands evidence of such practice.

Thier lives – Black or White, depended on it, and logic prevailed.  As is often the case in combat, the man who joins you in the fight is your brother – irrespective of the colour of his skin – there is no such thing as racial segregation in a foxhole.

The caption written on this photo is “our Lance Corporal and his two native pals”. Quite a lot can be seen and said to this remarkable snapshot into the attitude of the time versus the attitude of soldiers.

It’s an often ignored fact and statistic – one which most certainly the National government after 1948 did not want widely published, lest national heroes be made of these ‘Black’ men.  Simply put the ‘Black’ contributions to World War 1 and World War 2 were quite literally erased from the narrative of the war after 1948 and dismissed by the incoming Apartheid government as ‘traitors’ (a tag also suffered by their ‘White’ counterparts) for serving the ‘British’.

Bear in mind when reviewing what this actually means to the prevailing opinions by many South Africans of the war (White and Black)  – approximately 40% of the standing South African servicemen in WW2 where persons of “colour”.  In all more than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks, and 2,500 people of mixed race served in the standing forces of the Union of South Africa at this time.  Mull that over for a minute.

The sacrifice of the men of the Native Labour Corps no less significant – if you think that as “non combatants” this corps came through unscathed by war, also think again – this is the honour role of those NMC members who laid down their lives during the war, their sacrifice is literally quite eye-opening:

In total approximately 1655 Native Military Corps members died during World War 2, read that again – One Thousand Six Hundred and Fifty Five ‘Black’ South African soldiers died during World War 2.  That’s almost three times the number who died on the SS Mendi during World War 1, and that’s only from one ‘Corps’.

Put into context, nearly as many South Africans died during the entire 23 years of fighting during the Border War in the 70’s and 80’s (approximately 2013 died) – from all arms of the military, yet the here we are talking about only one single Corps of South Africans.  Consider that the book shelves on South African history are stuffed full of books on the Border War and not one single book is dedicated to the history of the South African Native Military Corps in World War 2.  There is also almost nothing by way of definitive work on the unit history on the internet.

The history of the South African Native Military Corps needs to resurface – it’s screaming out for a proper definitive work and information access – this photograph alone calls for it.  We need to fundamentally rethink who and what has been sacrificed to military conflict by South Africans of all ethnic origins, we need to completely re-dress how we honour them and we need to take some serious perspective.

Written by Capt. Peter Dickens (Retired)

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NMC Corps Badge

Springboks and Diggers … part of the Anzac ‘mateship’ legacy

Iconic image of Commonwealth forces in North Africa during World War 2. Easily identified by their distinctive headgear, South African and Australian soldiers enjoy a game of cards in a gun pit. The South Africans where know as ‘Springboks’ and the Australians known as ‘Diggers’ – a nickname they both inherited during World War One.

The distinctive headgear as shown is quite interesting, so too the unique military bond and history of that exists between South Africa and the Anzac alliance, Australia and New Zealand.

SA PithSouth African.  The South Army (and Air Force) was issued with a “Polo” style “Pith” helmet.  Made from cork it was not intended to protect the head from flying bullets and shrapnel, that was the purpose of the British Mk 2 Brodie helmet (also issued to South Africans). The pith helmet was worn mainly as sun protection when not in combat.

slouch-hat-ww2Australia.  The Australian army wore the “slouch hat”, also intended for sun protection when not in combat, like the South Africans they where issued with the British “Brodie” Mk2 steel helmet when in combat.

The “slouch” hat also has a little South African history to it.  The word ‘slouch’ refers to the sloping brim. The brim is made from rabbit-fur felt or wool felt and is always worn with a puggaree.

History has it that the origins of the Slouch Hat began with the Victorian Mounted Rifles; a hat of similar design had been worn in South Africa by the Cape Mounted Rifles for many years before 1885. The design of the Victorian Mounted Rifle hat originated from headgear of native police in Burma where Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Price had recognised its value.

The Victorian hat was an ordinary bush felt hat turned up on the right side. The intention of turning up the right side of the hat was to ensure it would not be caught during the drill movement of “shoulder arms” from “order arms”.

sagaieIn addition to Australians, believe it or not some South African units also wore the “slouch hat”.  Most notable was the South African Native Military Corps members, who made up about 48% of the South African standing army albeit in non frontline combat roles during both WW1 and WW2.  The legacy of the “slouch” in the modern South African National Defence Force is however now on the decline and little remains now of its use, a pity as it would be a gracious nod to the very large “black” community contribution to both WW1 and WW2.

150281In an iconic Australian War Memorial photograph to demonstrate this unique association,  a Australian soldier working on the Beirut-Tripoli railway link is seen here chatting with two members of a South African Pioneer Unit (SA Native Military Corps) also working on the railway. The photo is designed to show off their similarities of dress and bearing and promote mutual purpose.

Of interest – The Gun in the pit

8493892_2Interestingly the gun in the pit is not South African standard issue.  Instead it is a British made Hotchkiss Portative MK 1, which was used by the Australians, dating back to World War 1, so it is probably their gun pit.  Of French design the MK I was a .303 caliber machine gun, used in ‘cavalry/infantry’ configuration, with removable steel buttstock and a light tripod. This gun is normally fed from either flexible “belts” or strips like you see in the featured image. Normal Hotchkiss Portative strips hold 30 rounds each.

Camaraderie 

Because of mutual historic, military, language, British Dominion and cultural ties here was certainly was plenty of camaraderie between the South Africans and the Anzac Australians and New Zealanders during the war. Lots of informal rugby and cricket matches were played at any good opportunity, games of cards (seen here), exchanging of “souvenirs” (especially badges, sun helmets and slouch hats), occasional punch ups in Cairo pubs fuelled by beer which were soon forgotten and forgiven.  Generally good old good old fashioned soldierly fun and “band of brothers” stuff.

Tobruk

Because the South Africans were responsible for the “fall of Tobruk” in World War 2, a city the Australians fought to hold with such tenacity before handing it over to the South Africans to defend, as a South African you might also come into some light hearted but pointed “sledging” from an Australian military veteran, even to this day.

ANZAC Remembrance

Modern South Africa does not extensively praise, idolise and remember her statutory armed forces and the origins of their fighting legacy anything near the Australians and New Zealanders do to their forces now.   This has manifested with the inclusion of hundreds of South African veterans residing in Australia in National Anzac Day parades held around Australia and New Zealand, and it is because of this unique bond forged by our forefathers in WW1 and WW2 that they are welcomed with open arms.

Featured image copyright IWM collection, insert image copyright Australian War Memorial photograph

Comrades legend, Springbok and war veteran – the remarkable Bill Payn

So, which Springbok rugby player and war veteran also has a top ten Comrades finish running in his rugby boots and then went on to play a game of rugby the next day?  This is one very remarkable man and he comes from a time when men were cut from a different cloth, read on for the story of the legendary Cecil “Bill” Payn.

Bill Payn was born on 9 Aug 1893 in Harding, South Africa, he was christened Cecil, the son of James Herbert Payn. He was a very well known personality, a much loved teacher, and a sportsman. He taught at Durban High School for boys for 40 years or more, only having a break during his army service in the First and Second World Wars. He was particularly well known in Natal and Rhodesia and was described as big hearted and kindly “Big Bill” and stood 6 ft 3 in in his socks. He was a battle-field hero and an ex PoW.

His life was dedicated to helping others, whether his fellow prisoners of war, team mates, school pupils or every day friends and acquaintances. He was a Springbok rugby player and at cricket bowled with distinction. He was a boxer, an athlete and shone at baseball. He was truly a great and kindly man, he died suddenly at age 66 on the 31st Oct 1959.  Ever generous he even left money for his friends to have a drink after his funeral.

Top 10 Comrades finisher in his rugby boots

In summary of his Comrades achievement, Bill came 8th in the 1922 Comrades Marathon. A Springbok rugby player, he ran one of the most famous races in the history of the Comrades.  Bill Payn hosted Arthur Newton the evening before the race, and after a number of stiff drinks, was persuaded by Arthur to enter (Arthur went on to win the race).

Bill arrived on time for the start, wearing his rugby boots. At Hillcrest he stopped for the first time to take in a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Not much further a fellow runner, “Zulu” Wade, invited Payn for a chicken curry. This they consumed and then continued on to Drummond, where they celebrated reaching the halfway mark by drinking a beer at the hotel. Wade didn’t continue, but Payn did. A lady spectator en route helped him keep his energy levels up by providing him with oranges, peach-brandy, water and tea. He finished eighth. On the next day Payn took part in a club rugby match, but because his feet were blistered from the long run in rugby boots, he elected to play the match in his running shoes.

The first Comrades Marathon race was a down run from Pietermaritzburg whilst the first up run from Durban to the provincial capital took place in 1922 and consisted of a field of just over 100 athletes.  In those days the Comrades took place on mainly sand and gravel roads (which in part was more conducive to wearing studded rugby boots).

World War 1

Bill Payn played provincial rugby over a period of eighteen seasons losing four years whilst serving overseas in the First World War. He did have the opportunity then of representing South Africa in the Imperial Services Tournament held in Britain before returning home. In all, he represented Natal in fifty nine matches.

An “all rounder”

Bill had a natural affinity for all sports, a true “all-rounder,” attaining provincial colours in five sports, he represented Natal at cricket, boxing, baseball and athletics in addition to his main sport of rugby. However sport was but one of his interests, he was an outstanding English scholar and a leading South African expert in the science of Etymology.

Bill Payn also received Springbok colours and played in two tests on the flank in the 1924 series but later after his own playing days were over he was to have an important role in the development of a post World War Two Springbok rugby legend.

The 1922 Comrades Marathon in Bill’s own words

Bill Payn’s own words on the 1922 Comrades Marathon are now legendary and well worth the read, an abridged version of that day by Bill goes as follows:

`On a bleak May morning I toe’d the line at the start when some civic dignitary fired a pistol and then very sensibly buggared off back to his warm bed. When the shot rent the air, off we sped – like a crowd of Armenian refugees fleeing from the wrath of the Turkish army. Shall I ever forget that infernal run. It was not very long before I realised that I was prey to an all consuming thirst, so clamant indeed, that I could not refuse any man who offered me a drink. At Hillcrest my feet were giving me so much pain that I took off my rugby boots and found a mass of blisters had formed on the soles of both feet, some kind follower provided me with brilliantine with which I anointed my feet and then repaired to the hotel for a huge plate of bacon and eggs. This done and much refreshed I ran up Botha’s Hill where at the top I found a friend who was also taking part, but he was in a very bad state so we sat down next to the road and exchanged notes and took stock of ourselves and the situation we were in. I fear that we did not move with the freedom of young athletes but rather resembled two old ducks, suffering from some distressing gynaecological disorder.

Fortunately at that stage my friend’s supporter arrived on the scene with a wicker basket which contained a delicious curried chicken set on a huge bed of rice. This we shared equally and then set off together in happy companionship for Drummond and here we bent our steps to a pleasant oasis – the pub – where I lined a dozen beers up on the counter determined not so much to celebrate a victory but rather to drown our sorrows. Whilst we were busy at this, one of the camp followers arrived on the scene and urged us both to continue as there were only five runners in front of us. My friend could not continue so I set off alone for Pietermaritzburg.

Somewhere along Harrison Flats I noticed a frail little woman with pink cheeks standing at the side of the road. She held up in one hand a bottle and in the other a glass. I stopped, and with old world courtesy bowed low saying `Madame your servant to command’. `Tis peach brandy’, she volunteered, `and I made it myself’. I gulped down a full tumbler of this home-made brew and in a second realised that I had swallowed a near-lethal dose of the rawest liquid I had ever tasted. I am still convinced that to this charming little woman must go full credit for inventing the first liquid fuel for jet engines. Fortunately I was facing Maritzburg and I was propelled along the way. I was too far gone in my cups even to ponder on whether this assistance did not breach the prescribed laws of amateur marathon running.

On the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg I was hailed by my wife’s family who were taking tea on the veranda. I went off the road and joined them in their tea and cakes. While we were thus happily engaged, two of my ‘hated’ rivals went past and so it was that I ended the course number eight. In the changing rooms I discovered that the soles of my feet were now two huge pads of blood blisters. My brother-in-law then arrived and he had the uncanny insight to my most immediate needs, for he gave me a bottle of champagne, for which I was most grateful. Shortly thereafter a rugby friend arrived and chided me as to whether I had forgotten that I was due to play a first league rugby match the next day and that our team needed me. Cadging a lift on the back of his motorbike we went back down to Durban and on the following day I played full back in a pair of old `tackies’.

This account by Bill Payn does not appear possible but it has been vouched for in every detail by Arthur Newton, the friend who persuaded Bill to enter the race in the first place and who was himself destined to become a legend in the world of marathon running.

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Arthur F. H. Newton, winner of the first “up” version of the Comrades in 1922 in a time of 8:40:00.

Bill Payn’s description of the race is filled with humour which so characterised his outlook on life. To illustrate this aspect there is a classic story told of Bill when he was captaining his club’s first cricket side in the premier league and they were not having a very good season with the bat. He placed an advertisement in the local Natal newspaper which read,

“Join Stanford Hill and bat twice on a Saturday afternoon”

His Passion for Rugby

Of all his sporting interests, rugby was his greatest love and he devoted many years of his life to the administration of the sport and coaching young players in the enjoyment of the game. He was the founder of Natal schools rugby and became a father figure to organisation serving on its executive from 1933 – with a gap for the war years – right through until he passed away in 1959. It is interesting to note his thoughts on the game of rugby and why people are keen to play the game.

Quoting him again `Why do men love to play rugby, is I feel sure, that it is the simulacrum – in simple terms it means an image of – of war as waged in the medieval days when battles were marked by the two cardinal virtues of courtesy and courage’.

His very close friend and fellow schoolmaster, Isak Van Heerden, who was to become the Springbok coach in the 1960’s, when commenting on Bills outlook on the game said

“He looked upon the game as a friendly and controlled war, feeling that man still has his primitive instincts and one of the strongest is the love of a good fight, which no amount of civilisation has been able to eradicate. Bill saw the game merely as a natural desire of a healthy man to pit his strength and skill against that of another and that rugby was the best possible outlet. He worshipped the game for the companionship amongst friends and for the opportunities that it allowed for comaradieship with opponents after the match was over”.

Cecil “Bill” Payn’s Test summary: Tests: 2 Tries: 0
First Test: 16 Aug 1924 Age:31 Flank against Britain at Kingsmead, Durban
Last Test: 23 Aug 1924 Age:31 Flank against Britain at Wanderers, Johannesburg

World War 2

Bill Payn was very much a man of Natal being educated at Maritzburg College and after qualifying as a teacher spent much of his working career teaching at Durban High School for Boys, but in 1939 ,at the age of forty six he once again set off for war serving as a gunner in North Africa.

Whilst in action in the Western Desert he was awarded the Military Medal, receiving a personally signed letter of commendation from the Commander-in- Chief of the Allied Forces, General Alexander.

General Harold Alexander (right), pictured here in 1942 as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, surveys the battlefront from an open car and the Military Medal warded Payne (left).

Taken as a Prisoner of War (POW)

Later in the campaign the Allied troops were forced to retreat from Gazala back towards El Alamein. With the German Army closing in around them Bill made two desperate efforts to escape but was captured on each occasion, imprisoned first at Benghazi in Libya, he was struck down with acute dysentery and lost substantial weight, he eventually recovered and was transferred to a POW camp near Rome.

Bill’s strength of character was such that he looked on prison life as a challenge refusing to be restricted and to quote him again

“Life is always life if one can laugh and that captivity is what your heart makes of it.”

He accepted the conditions of imprisonment refusing to acknowledge their limitations, preferring to see in them an opportunity for fulfilment, the enrichment of character and to be of service to his fellow prisoners.

Using his ability in developing mental pursuits he kept many of his fellow inmates highly amused and was in great demand as a speaker with a range of subjects stretching from discussing the complete works of Shakespeare, a set of which he had with him in camp, to his talk on whales and their habits which was also a great favourite. He continued to teach, and was again in demand, conducting classes for those Prisoner’s of War who were taking correspondence courses.

A fellow prisoner wrote of him that his most outstanding characteristic was his unquestionable spirit which knew no bounds. Although he was no longer a young man, when the Italian war effort collapsed, Bill and two companions managed to escape into the mountains of Italy and were on the run for over two weeks, diverting enemy troops from the front, to search for them. Eventually they were recaptured by German troops and sent to prison camps first in Austria, then Poland and eventually to Germany itself.

Whilst he was busy keeping the spirits of his fellow prisoners up intellectually, his love of sport also played an important role in their well being with Bill forever arranging rugby and cricket matches, even teaching the prisoners from the other Allied nations the art of jukskei!.

Informal “Tests” between “Springbok” and “All Blacks” POW

It was while they were in Stalag XX-A near Thorn (Toruń) in occupied Poland which contained an equal number of young New Zealanders and South Africans crazy about their rugby that Bill Payn’s organisational ability was shown off at its very best.

A rugby ball was received through the Red Cross and Bill proposed a series of `test’ matches between the rugby worlds greatest rugby rivals. He roped in two able assistants, Peter Pienaar, the son of the 1921 Springbok captain to New Zealand and Billy Millar Jnr, whose father led the 1912/13 Springboks to the United Kingdom.

With Bill Payn as the driving force, they arranged practices and made up the jerseys, and served on the `Springbok’ selection panel. The making Springbok jerseys is a story in itself, with Red Cross vests being boiled together with the olive green Russian battle dress which were freely available, to obtain the green. The gold was more problematical but an ingenious solution was found, the S.A. Medical staff boiled up a solution of anti-malaria tablets to achieve the right result. It was important to look the part. The rugby field was marked off with yellow clay lines on the vast sandy parade ground and with army boots considered too lethal, the players played with bare feet in the middle of the Polish winter.

Aaron “Okey” Geffin

It was during this period that Bill came across another young South African who had been playing for the Pirates Rugby Football Club in Johannesburg before the war, and he had been captured at Tobruk. He was a strong, talented prop forward who also had a useful boot on him.

Bill encouraged him to work hard at this aspect of his game whilst stuck in the POW camp and to concentrate on his accuracy with his place kicking. The young soldier was none other than `Okey Geffin’ who five years later was to become a legend in the annals of South African rugby as well as an immense thorn in the flesh of the 1949 All Black side under Fred Allen.

Ockey Geffin 49

Aaron “Okey” Geffin (28 May 1921 – 16 October 2004), considered the greatest Jewish rugby player of all time,nd he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

While in Stalag XX-A Okey Greffin said of Bill Payn,

“We used to scrum for hours on end, and he coached me. Payn arranged rugby games in camp: South Africa against the New Zealanders. Our gear was dyed underpants and vests, but no boots. We played barefoot. Payn encouraged my development and told me I would be a Springbok if I continued to play after the war.”

He spent three years in POW camps in Italy and Germany, as well as Poland, where he practised his kicking barefoot near a mass grave of Polish victims of the Nazis.

Geffin was one of the few prop forwards in the game to kick for goal. The Springboks won ten matches in a row, including a 4–0 whitewash of New Zealand on their 1949 tour to South Africa. Prop Okey Geffin helped kick the Springboks to victory—they won all four Tests despite the All Blacks scoring more tries in three of them.

Back to Bill Payn’s story, and his personal account of the Comrades Marathon which reflected both his humour and his tenacity. It was his friend, Izak van Heerden who perhaps summed Bill up best of all when he said, `

He was always seeing a humorous situation and playing upon it. He was a merry companion, a real friend and a great champion of the game of rugby‘.

References:  Maritzburg College Old Boys Association, wikipedia.  Main reference article – author unknown.

The small South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown

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.

The escape 

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.

Debacle-in-the-Desert_The-Siege-of-Tobruk3

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.

MAScamo

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.

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