“They machine gunned us in the water”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Dorsetshire

This is an image of the HMS Dorsetshire listing and burning just prior to her sinking, it was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy using carrier borne dive bombing aircraft. A large number of South African Navy personnel were involved in the battle and were lost with this ship whilst seconded to the Royal Navy during World War 2.

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As Simonstown in South Africa was a British Naval base thousands of South Africans in WW2 served in the Royal Navy as well as in the South African Naval Forces (SANF). The loss of a heavy Cruiser the size of the HMS Dorsetshire is bound to include a South African honour roll and unfortunately this one does – a very long one at that, especially given this particular Battle Cruiser’s long association with South Africa.

The sinking of both the HMS Cornwall and the HMS Dorsetshire in the Indian Ocean by the Japanese on 5th April 1942 is linked.  Not only that they were sunk within range of one another on the same day, but also in terms of the relationship of these two ships had with South Africa and the number of South Africans on board.  This is further linked to the sinking of the HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock later in the same engagement with the Japanese, with similar relations and consequences to the South African Navy.

So, let’s focus on the HMS Dorsetshire today, a hero in the sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck and the extraordinary link between this ship and South Africa.

HMS Dorsetshire Short History

1399036_810766838985484_5239559498358212933_oThe HMS Dorsetshire  was a heavy cruiser and after commissioning in 1930 became the flagship of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron Atlantic Home Fleet.  Before the war, from 1933 until 1936, HMS Dorsetshire served on the Africa Station. Her first recorded docking in the Selborne dry dock at Simonstown, South Africa was on 5 January 1934.

When the Second World War broke out HMS Dorestshire had joined the China station and in October 1939 she was joined into the hunt for the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee along with the HMS Cornwall.  Both were withdrawn from the China station and despatched to Ceylon to form Force I.

In December 1939 the HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall arrived in South Africa where they embarked many South African volunteers, drawn mainly from Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves (RNVR – South African Division) and South African Naval Reserve Force.

The HMS Dorsetshire was called into pursuit of the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee, which having left Wilhemshaven on 21 August 1939  had reached the eastern part of the South Atlantic in early October 1939. In this region she managed to sink three British ships, Newton Beach, Ashlea and Huntsman on 5, 7 and 10 October respectively some 1,000 nautical miles north west of Cape Frio in Namibia, and then the Trevanion 630 miles north west of Walvis Bay on 22 October.

Admiral Graf Spee then continued on south and rounded the Cape passing some 400 miles south of Cape Agulhas. On 15 November she sank the small tanker Africa Shell a mere 10 miles off the coast of Mozambique before moving once again around the Cape keeping at least 300 miles off shore passing Cape Agulhas once more on 3 December 1939.

When the German Battleship ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ was discovered and pursued by the British Royal Navy, the Graf Spee was sent to the River Plate estuary in South America and because of the potential fall-out should it be sunk or captured the Captain was ordered by the German High Command to scuttle his vessel after leaving the Montevideo harbour – without encountering the Royal Navy.

In February 1940 while in the Atlantic, the German supply freighter Wakama was stopped by Dorsetshire in the area off Cabo Frio and her crew scuttled also her . On 2 March 1940 she left the Falklands with wounded from the cruiser HMS Exeter en-route to Cape Town, South Africa. On the 11th , the wounded and the prisoners from the German freighter were all put ashore.

She was then docked again at Simonstown’s Selborne dry dock, prior to sailing back to United Kingdom.  This short movie Pathé news reel captures the HMS Dorsetshire in South Africa and its well worth a quick look:

On May 25th, the cruiser arrived in Plymouth in the UK, and at the end of the month sailed for Freetown to commence operations around Dakar in pursuit of the Vichy French Battleship Richelieu.  She sailed on again to South Africa and was dry docked in Durban on the 4th September, on the 20th September she arrived back in Simonstown, where a day later she sailed for Sierra Leone.

November saw her in the Indian Ocean where she bombarded Zante in Italian Somaliland. In December Dorsetshire docked once again in the Selborne dry dock in South Africa and later that month she was ordered to search for the German pocket Battleship Admiral Scheer.

On 18 January 1941, HMS Dorsetshire captured the Vichy French freighter Mendoza and escorted the ship to Takaradi. In March 1941, Dorsetshire was once again docked in the Selborne dry dock in South Africa.  Late in May 1941, whilst in the North Atlantic on convoy covering duties, HMS Dorsetshire together with the cruiser HMS London were tasked to search for the German Battleship ‘Bismarck’.

The sinking of the Bismarck

bismarck

The Bismarck

At the time she was ordered to search for the Bismarck on 26th May 1941 the HMS Dorsetshire was some 360 nautical miles (670 km) south of  the Bismarck’s actual location. HMS Dorsetshire steamed at top speed, though heavy seas until she encountered the destroyer HMS Cossack, which had been engaging the Bismarck during the night, the German battleship’s gun flashes could be seen six miles away by early morning.

The HMS Dorsetshire then took part in the Bismarck’s final battle,  The battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V neutralised Bismarcks main battery early in the engagement,  the HMS Dorsetshire and other warships closed in to join the attack.  The HMS Dorsetshire opened fire at a range of 18,00 meters. In the course of the engagement, she fired 254 shells from her main battery.  In the final moments of the battle, she was ordered to move closer and torpedo the Bismarck and fired three torpedoes, two of which hit the crippled battleship.

Bismarck survivors

Survivors from Bismarck are pulled aboard Dorsetshire on 27 May 1941

The Germans had by this time also detonated scuttling charges, which also with the damage inflicted by the British Royal Navy, caused the Bismarck to rapidly sink just before midday on the 27th May 1941. 

The HMS Dorsetshire and the destroyer HMS Maori were tasked to pick up survivors. A reported U-boat sighting forced the two ships to break off the rescue effort, after picking up only 110 men: 85 aboard Dorsetshire and 25 aboard Maori.

African Duties and Raiders

In late August, HMS Dorsetshire left Freetown and participated in the unsuccessful search for the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, On the 4th November HMS Dorsetshire sent to investigate reports of a German surface raider in the South Atlantic with no result.

After arriving again in Cape Town on 9 December 1941, having sunk a German U Boat supply ship the ‘Python’ whilst she was refuelling a pair of German U-boats.

Beginning 1942, HMS Dorsetshire, under the command of Augustus Agar was assigned to the Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean.

The Easter Sunday Raid

With Japan’s entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became a front-line British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station and Eastern Fleet was moved to Colombo and Trincomalee.

Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed as the commander of the British Eastern Fleet, and he decided to withdraw main component the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving a small force to defend Ceylon (Sri Lanka) consisting of an aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, two heavy cruisers – the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, one Australian Destroyer the HMSAS Vampire and the flower class corvette, the HMS Hollyhock.

The Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in much the same way and with the same objectives that were used at Pearl Harbour against the American fleet planned a decisive attack of the British Eastern Fleet to end their presence in the North Indian and Pacific oceans.  Unaware that the main body of the British fleet had moved to the Maldives, they focused their plan on Colombo (the commercial capital of modern-day Sri Lanka).

The planned Japanese attack was to become collectively known as the Easter Sunday Raid and the Japanese fleet comprised five aircraft carriers plus supporting ships under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

In an almost exact copy of the raid on the American fleet at Peal Harbour (as if no learnings were made by the Allies), on 4 April 1942, the Japanese fleet was located by a Canadian PBY Calatina aircraft, the Catalina radioed the position of the Japanese Fleet to The British Eastern Fleet which alerted the British to the impending attack before it was shot down by six Japanese Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu.

A6M2_on_carrier_Akagi_1941

A Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane takes off from the deck of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, part of the Japanese Naval force in the Indian Ocean

However, despite the warning Nagumo’s air strike on Colombo the next day, Easter Sunday 5th April 1942 they did manage to achieved near-complete surprise (Pearl Harbour was also attacked on a weekend). The British Radar installations were not operating, they were shut down for routine maintenance (another parallel with the attack on Peal Harbour).

Easter Raid

Captain Mitsuo Fuchida

The first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, moving about 200 miles south of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave of 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 level bombers was led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida the same officer who led the air attack on Pearl Harbour.

The Heavy Cruisers, HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire set out in pursuit of the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, the two cruisers were sighted by a spotter plane from the Japanese cruiser Tone about 200 miles (370 km) southwest of Ceylon. A wave of  Japanese dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off from Japanese carriers to attack Cornwall and Dorsetshire, 320 km (170 nmi; 200 mi) southwest of Ceylon, to sink the two ships.

In the attack, the Japanese airman flying Japanese  D3A-1 ‘VAL’ dive bombers, a total of 53 dive bombers in the attack wave, dropped 10 bombs on the HMS Dorsetshire itself (250- and 550-pound bombs) and 8 near misses, all in the span of 8 minutes.  One of the bombs detonated an ammunition magazine and contributed to her rapid sinking.  Of the two British cruisers, the HMS Dorsetshire sank first, with her stern going first at about 13:50, the HMS Cornwall was hit eight times and sank bow first about ten minutes later.

aichi-d3a1-mod-22-val

An eye-witness account from a South African Seaman on board the HMS Dorsetshire recounts the ferocity and nature of the Japanese attack:

Seaman WJ Spickett of Cape Town South Africa who was on lookout duty on Dorsetshire saw the whole action from start to finish.

“We were steaming to keep a rendezvous and when about 400 miles off land, a seaplane which we could not identify, started shadowing us. This was about 10 o’clock in the morning. Dorsetshire and Cornwall were steaming fast, keeping about four miles apart. At 20 minutes to two we spotted a large formation of between 40 and 60 aircraft coming towards us. Within a few minutes they were overhead — so high they were mere specks. Then they came straight for us in formations of three, diving at such a steep angle that it was impossible for our guns to get at them.

I saw the first bomb, a silvery flash in the sunlight, come straight for us. It was a direct hit, blasting our aircraft platform to pieces. In that first attack, I think 10 bombs were dropped. We were steaming at high-speed but eight of those 10 were direct hits. The other two were near misses. The ship listed badly and within 10 minutes of the first bomb being dropped we got orders to abandon ship.

We got away two whalers and a skiff and several rafts. There were hundreds of us in the water and then three planes came over and added to the horror of these moments ‘. Many were killed and wounded in this attack but apparently it was just a gesture of victory for it was not repeated.”

This witness account of machine gunning the survivors in the water is verified by a number of survivors including the Engineering Officer Lieutenant E. A. Drew, who said that whilst in the water they were “subjected to machine gun fire from the large number of Japanese planes that hung around until the ship sank”.

DorsetshireCornwall

Japanese combat photograph showing the Royal Navy heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall on fire and sinking

Survival and Sacrifice 

In all the survivors of the sinking of both the Cornwall and Dorsetshire spent over 30 hours in the water clinging to debris or huddled in life rafts.  Many seriously injured and burned and during the night ‘space’ was made available on the tiny rafts and flotsam for many clinging onto them as many of their colleagues succumbed to their wounds.  Being the Indian ocean there are also tales of sharks circling the men and even taking them.  Harrowing would be an understatement.

Between the two ships, 1,122 men out of a total of 1,546 were picked up by the cruiser HMS Enterprise and the destroyers HMS Paladin and HMS Panther the next day. In this action, of the 424 members of the ships’ companies of the two cruisers who lost their lives, over 42 were South Africans.

HMS_'Dorsetshire'_survivors_after_sinking_by_Japanese_aircraft_Indian_Ocean

Survivors from the HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall in the water

Because of his ship’s long association with South Africa, a very high proportion of the losses were from the South African Naval Forces. Here is the South African Naval Forces honour roll (MPK means ‘Missing Presumed Killed’) from the sinking;

HMS Dorsetshire – South African Navy Personnel Lost, Honour Roll

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nBELL, Douglas S, Ty/Act/Leading Stoker, 67243 (SANF), MPK
BRUCE, Alexander M, Stoker 2c, 67907 (SANF), MPK
EVENPOEL, Albert, Stoker 2c, 67909 (SANF), MPK
GEFFEN, Sender, Stoker 1c, 68035 (SANF), MPK
HOWE, Horace G, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68680 (SANF), MPK
KENDRICK, George, Stoker 2c, 67910 (SANF), MPK
MCINTYRE, Norman G, Able Seaman, 67446 (SANF), MPK
MCLELLAN, Robert, Ordinary Telegraphist, 67897 (SANF), MPK
MORROW, Douglas E, Able Seaman, 67989 (SANF), MPK
ORTON, Charles P, Able Seaman, 68009 (SANF), MPK
REDMAN, Roland A, Leading Stoker, 67406 (SANF), MPK
SCOTT, William J, Able Seaman, 68007 (SANF), MPK
SEVEL, Harry, Stoker 1c, 68100 (SANF), MPK
WILLETT, Amos A S, Stoker 1c, 67240 (SANF), MPK
WILLIAMSON, Walter N, Able Seaman, 67803 (SANF), MPK

HMS Dorsetshire – South African’s lost serving in the Royal Navy, Honour Roll

CONCANON, Harold Bernard, Surgeon Lieutenant (Doctor)
MILNE, Lawrence Victor, Able Seaman
VAN ZYL, David Isak Stephanus, Stoker 1st Class
WILLETT, Amos Alfred Sidney ,Stoker 1st Class

Note: Some more South Africans may not accounted in the above list as they may have been Royal Navy personnel having volunteered to serve in the Royal Navy, there is a long list of South Africans not accounted on the Navy’s honour rolls because of the complication of citizenship, the position of the South African Union in supporting the war and the nature of Simonstown near Cape Town as ‘British territory’ and not South African.

Related work 

The Japanese Easter raid was to bring a terrible toll on not only the Royal Navy, but also on the South African Navy whose personnel were involved.  It remains the South African Navy’s darkest days, as not only were the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire full of SANF personnel.  For a full article on the HMS Cornwall, click on this link (“A terrific explosion lifted the ship out of the water”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Cornwall).

So too were the other two ships sunk later in this engagement on the 9th April 1942 by the same Japanese raiders, with similar South African naval personnel losses  – the HMS Hermes, see related article by clicking this link (“Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes) and HMS Hollyhock, see related article by clicking this link ( “She immediately blew up”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock).

In Conclusion

This history is lost to most South Africans, however good work is now been done by a handful of individuals to try and correct and up-date these honour rolls and recount the full depth of South Africa’s involvement in warfare at sea during World War 2.

That the history is lost is due to the political expediency of the National Party, who on acent to power after WW2, effectively wiped it clean of the national consciousness – branding our World War 2 veterans as ‘traitors’ instead of ‘heroes’ for serving a British cause in their estimation. It is further lost to the new generations due to the slow up-take in recognition if this history by the African National Congress (ANC) government, again for their own political expediency.

That the darkest days of the South African Navy – The Easter Raid of 1942, is not even officially acknowledged or even remembered by The South African Navy in our modern day is testament to this and the subject of a future Observation Post article.

We, as South Africans, do however have an excellent tradition at the Selborne Graving Dock, the dry docks in Simonstown, allowing visiting crews to paint their ships emblems on the docks walls, it is an excellent record of many of the proud Royal Navy fighting ships who visited our shores in World War 2 and on whom many South Africans served.  Next time you are there look out them, including the HMS Dorsetshire.

Simonstown Dry DocksTheir names have not been forgotten.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Background on HMS Dorsetshire extracted from U Boat.net.  Wikipedia.  News reel copyright British Pathé. British Broadcast Corporation account on the war (BBC)  WW2 The Peoples War. Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2 by Don Kindell. Extracts fro ‘Day to Day SA Naval History’ by Chris Bennett.  Thanks also to Graham Du Toit for his excellent research into the Honour Roll including South Africans serving in the Royal Navy.

 

“A terrific explosion lifted the ship out of the water”

Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Cornwall

This is an image of the HMS Cornwall under attack just prior to her sinking, it was taken by the Japanese attack aircraft. A number of South African Navy personnel were lost with this ship whilst seconded to the Royal Navy during World War 2.

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As Simonstown in South Africa was a British Naval base thousands of South Africans in WW2 served in the Royal Navy as well as in the South African Naval Forces (SANF). The loss of a heavy Cruiser the size of the HMS Cornwall is bound to include a South African honour roll and unfortunately this one does. Read on for their story.

HMS Cornwall Short History

hms_cornwall_F99_emb_n12997HMS Cornwall was a heavy cruiser of the Kent-subclass of the County-class. When World War 2 began in September 1939,  Cornwall was transferred from her pre-war China Seas operations to the Indian Ocean and joined Force I at Ceylon.

On 5th October 1939, she was involved in the search for the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. Between the 8th  and 14th February 1940, she was docked at the Selborne dry dock at Simonstown, South Africa.  Its was here that she would have taken onboard a large contingent of South Africans either volunteering for the Royal Navy or seconded to the Royal Navy as members of The South African Naval Forces stationed there.

In September 1940, together with HMS Delhi, she intercepted Vichy-French light cruiser Primauguet and tanker Tarn, forcing them to return to Casablanca, Morocco. By January 1941, HMS Cornwall returned to the Selborne dry dock in South Africa for refitting, at the same time taking on more South African personnel.

Sinking of the German Auxiliary Ship Pinguin

The HMS Cornwall was on patrol in the Indian Ocean of Seychelles when she engaged and sank the German ship ‘Pinguin’ on the 8th May 1941, Pinguin was known to the German Navy as Schiff 33, and designated HSK 5. The most successful commerce raider of the war, she was known to the British Royal Navy as Raider F.

Unfortunately, without the knowledge of Cornwall’s crew, Pinguin sank along with 200 Allied prisoners of war in addition to 232 Germans lost (60 German crew members and 22 Allied prisoners were rescued). She returned to Durban, South Africa to repair her stern, which was damaged during the battle against Pinguin; the repairs lasted until 10th  June 1941.

HK Pinguin

HK Pinguin

On the 25th November 1941, Cornwall intercepted the Vichy-French merchant vessel Surcouf in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Somalia. Surcouf was originally en route to Djibouti with food, but was forced to sail to Djibouti instead.

Between January and March 1942, Cornwall escorted convoys between Ceylon and the Sunda Strait in the Dutch East Indies. In March 1942, she was sent to Colombo, Ceylon in preparation for a possible Japanese attack into the Indian Ocean.

The Easter Sunday Raid

With Japan’s entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became a front-line British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station and Eastern Fleet was moved to Colombo and Trincomalee.

Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed as the commander of the British Eastern Fleet, and he decided to withdraw main component the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving a small force to defend Ceylon (Sri Lanka) consisting of an aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, two heavy cruisers – the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, one Australian Destroyer the HMSAS Vampire and the flower class corvette, the HMS Hollyhock.

The Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in much the same way and with the same objectives that were used at Pearl Harbour against the American fleet planned a decisive attack of the British Eastern Fleet to end their presence in the North Indian and Pacific oceans.  Unaware that the main body of the British fleet had moved to the Maldives, they focused their plan on Colombo (the commercial capital of modern-day Sri Lanka).

The planned Japanese attack was to become collectively known as the Easter Sunday Raid and the Japanese fleet comprised five aircraft carriers plus supporting ships under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

In an almost exact copy of the raid on the American fleet at Peal Harbour (as if no learnings were made by the Allies), on 4 April 1942, the Japanese fleet was located by a Canadian PBY Calatina aircraft, the Catalina radioed the position of the Japanese Fleet to The British Eastern Fleet which alerted the British to the impending attack before it was shot down by six Japanese Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu,

However, despite the warning Nagumo’s air strike on Colombo the next day, Easter Sunday 5th April 1942 they did manage to achieved near-complete surprise (Pearl Harbour was also attacked on a weekend). The British Radar installations were not operating, they were shut down for routine maintenance (another parallel with the attack on Peal Harbour).

Easter Raid

Captain Mitsuo Fuchida

The first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, moving about 200 miles south of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave of 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 level bombers was led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida the same officer who led the air attack on Pearl Harbour.

The Heavy Cruisers, HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire set out in pursuit of the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, the two cruisers were sighted by a spotter plane from the Japanese cruiser Tone about 200 miles (370 km) southwest of Ceylon. A wave of  Japanese dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off from Japanese carriers to attack Cornwall and Dorsetshire, 320 km (170 nmi; 200 mi) southwest of Ceylon, to sink the two ships.

In the attack, the Japanese airman flying Japanese  D3A-1 ‘VAL’ dive bombers, then dropped 9 bombs on the HMS Cornwall itself ( 250- and 550-pound bombs) and six near misses, the HMS Cornwall becoming dead in the water within minutes, the HMS Cornwall sank in about 12 minutes after the first hit (and Dorsetshire suffered the same fate).

aichi-d3a1-mod-22-val

An eye-witness account from a South African officer on board the Cornwall recounts the ferocity and speed of the attack:

Sub-Lieutenant R. Ellis Brown, son of the mayor of Durban, said he was down below in the control room of the high angle guns when the warning was flashed that aircraft were attacking.

“Almost immediately afterwards there was a terrific explosion and the ship lifted out of the water and listed to port, “ he said. “This was followed almost immediately by another hit. The lights went out and I continued on to the sick bay. I went forward from there to contact the control officer and shortly after I left, a bomb dropped on the sick bay, killing most of the men there. I could not get through on account of the flames, so went to the aft deck. Here we managed to get a whaler and also five or six floats. We got the men off and I looked up and saw a dive-bomber coming down at me. I saw the bomb released at about 700 feet and it appeared to be coming straight at me. Although I knew that if a bomb appeared to be coming straight at you it would actually fall far beyond. I must say I did not like it one bit. The men jumped into the water and finally the two other officers and myself left on this deck followed them.”

Sub-Lieutenant Ellis Brown said that the men were in the water for about 30 hours. The wounded were placed in a motor boat which had floated off when Cornwall sank. The remainder stayed in the water, hanging on to debris and floats. To the discomforts the men suffered in the water was added the horror of knowing they were in shark-infested waters.  He recalls, “We saw several fins cutting the water but as soon as they came near, the men would kick and shout and they would make off.”

 

DorsetshireCornwall

Japanese combat photograph showing the Royal Navy heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall on fire and sinking

 

HMS Cornwall was sunk in position 01º54’N, 77º45’E. All boiler and engine rooms were out of action within minutes, thereby resulting in a lack of power to the pumps and fire fighting equipment. In all the men spent 30 hours in the water, before a combined rescue of the HMS Dorsetshire men (also in the water) and HMS Cornwall’s men by the HMS Enterprise, HMS Paladin and HMS Panther. In total 192 of Cornwall’s men were lost, of a very high proportion – 23, were South African.  Here is the South African Naval Forces honour roll (MPK means ‘Missing Presumed Killed’) from the sinking;.

HMS Cornwall – South African Navy Personnel Lost, Honour Roll

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nBESWETHERICK, Hedley C, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 86671 (SANF), MPK
BOTES, John S, Stoker 2c RNVR, 68924 (SANF), MPK
COMMERFORD, Noel P, Able Seaman RNVR, 66493 (SANF), MPK
CRAWFORD, Cecil E, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c RNVR, 67922 (SANF), MPK
DU PREEZ, Charles P H, Able Seaman, 68175 (SANF), MPK
DUTTON, Charles C, Stoker 2c RNVR, 68949 (SANF), MPK
HANSLO, Raymond F, Able Seaman RNVR, 68295 (SANF), MPK
KEITH, Kenneth I B, Able Seaman RNVR, 66742 (SANF), MPK
KENYON, Graeme A B, Able Seaman RNVR, 68002 (SANF), MPK
KIRSTEN, Monty G W, Able Seaman RNVR, 68917 (SANF), MPK
LAW, Edward, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c RNVR, 66760 (SANF), MPK
MCDAVID, William K, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69138 (SANF), MPK
MITCHELL, William A, Stoker 1c RNVR, 68796 (SANF), MPK
PALMER, Walter A, Able Seaman RNVR, 68344 (SANF), (rescued, aboard HMS Enterprise), Died of Wounds
SPENCE, Noel W, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68732 (SANF), MPK
SQUIRES, John E, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68728 (SANF), MPK
STEPHEN, Eric B, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68861 (SANF), MPK
SWANN, Lawrence T, Stoker 1c RNVR, 68710 (SANF), MPK
THORPE, Maurice, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69140 (SANF), MPK
VERSFELD, Peter H S, Able Seaman RNVR, 68859 (SANF), MPK
VINK, Benjamin F, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68860 (SANF), MPK
WILLSON, Gerald F, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69006 (SANF), MPK
WRIGHT, Thomas H, Able Seaman RNVR, 68039 (SANF), MPK

In earlier incidents on HMS Cornwall two South Africans lost their lives they are also remembered here:

AINSLIE, Roy, Petty Officer, 66382 (SANF), died on 5 September 1940
HAWKINS, Reginald D, Able Seaman, 66700 (SANF), died of illness 4 March 1942

Some South Africans may not accounted in the above list as they may have been Royal Navy personnel having volunteered to serve in the Royal Navy, there is a long list of South Africans not accounted on the Navy’s honour rolls because of the complication of citizenship, the position of the South African Union in supporting the war and the nature of Simonstown as British territory.

Related work 

The Japanese Easter raid was to bring a terrible toll on not only the Royal Navy, but also on the South African Navy whose personnel were involved.  It remains the South African Navy’s darkest days, as not only were the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire full of SANF personnel, so too were the other two ships sunk later in this engagement on the 9th April 1942 by the same Japanese raiders – the HMS Hermes, see related article by clicking this link (“Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes) and HMS Hollyhock, see related article by clicking this link ( “She immediately blew up”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock).

The HMS Dorsetshire is featured in a full Observation Post article, follow by clicking this link (“They machine gunned us in the water”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Dorsetshire).

In Conclusion

This history is lost to most South Africans, however good work is now been done to try and correct and up-date these honour rolls and recount the full depth of South Africa’s involvement in warfare at sea during World War 2.  We, as South Africans, do however have an excellent tradition at the Selborne Graving Dock, the dry docks in Simonstown, allowing visiting crews to paint their ships emblems on the docks walls, it is an excellent record of many of the proud Royal Navy fighting ships who visited our shores in World War 2 and on whom many South Africans served.  Next time you are there look out them, including the HMS Cornwall.

Their names have not been forgotten.

3397451999_8e45bbe5a4_b


Written and researched by Peter Dickens, with extracts taken from Wikipedia, Force-z survivors official webpage, the British Broadcast Corporation account on the war (BBC)  WW2 The Peoples War. Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2 by Don Kindell.

The last South African Navy ship to be lost in action; HMSAS Treern

It is not known now to many modern South Africans, but the South African Navy lost four ships in total during WW2, all of them minesweepers.  Hardly recognised today all these ships carried with them tales of great bravery,

The first ship lost in the Mediterranean near Tobruk was the HMSAS Southern Floe with its remarkable tale of a single survivor (see The HMSAS Southern Floe was the SA Navy’s first ship loss & it carries with it a remarkable tale of survival.).

The second ship lost was the HMSAS Parktown, which went down fighting during the Fall of Tobruk in Libya, with the HMSAS Bever fighting at her side out the port (see The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown).

The third ship to be lost was the HMSAS Parktown’s sister ship, the HMSAS Bever which went down later in the war during the liberation of Greece when it struck a mine, and carries with its story a tale of miraculous survivors (see “Under a hail of shells”; Recounting the bravery and loss of HMSAS Bever).

The final minesweeper to be lost was the HMSAS Treern, it was tragically lost right at the end of the war, and it remains the last South African vessel to be lost in action, even to this day, yet hardly anyone is aware of her history.

So lets examine this last combat loss, and why it is that we tend to overlook all this sacrifice at sea in the South African Navy’s vessels during the Second World War.

The second minesweeping flotilla prepares for the Mediterranean 

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HMSAS Treern

On the 12 May 1941, the HMSAS Treern (under the command of Lt. H H Cook) is commissioned, she is a whaler now converted for wartime service.  Now a magnetic minesweeper she is given her number T451 and allocated the pennant number 94.

By the beginning of November 1941, there is a small flotilla of South African minesweepers ready for deployment in the Mediterranean in support of Allied combat operations there.  The HMSA Ships, Bever, Gribb, Seksern, Imhoff, Treern, Parktown and Langlaagte, all are former whale catchers of about 260 tons and built between 1926 and 1930, and all are ready to go as part of the 166th Minesweeping Group in the Mediterranean.   Each minesweeper is fitted with one 3 inch gun plus smaller QF guns, depth charges and LL sweeps.  They are the second group of South African minesweepers to sail from Durban for the Mediterranean.

The liberation of Greece 

The Treern has a long record of service conducting duties alongside Allied shipping, she spends almost the entire war in the combat zone, towards the end of the war she finds herself under the command of Lt. P Byrne assisting in the liberation of Greece sailing in the Aegean Sea – the end of the war in Europe and surrender of Germany is a tantalising four months away.

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HMSAS Treern

By January 1945 the situation in the Greek Islands was somewhat confused. Initially the task of the Allies appeared to be a straightforward one; simply the supply and distribution of food and other essentials and the opening up of communications which, from the nature of the country, was largely by sea. However, internal dissension (which the retreating German forces had done their best to promote) considerably complicated and delayed the Allied take over.

ELAS

The Greek People’s Liberation Army or ELAS was the military arm of the left-wing National Liberation Front (EAM) during the period of the Greek Resistance until February 1945, then during the Greek Civil War.

HMSAS Treern, with orders to relieve HMSAS Seksern at Volo, arrived there at noon on 27 December 1944 only to find the harbour deserted and therefore anchored in the bay whilst radioing for instructions. Soon afterwards an emissary from ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army) arrived, ELAS was one of the factions in the internal dissension in Greece caused by the vacuum created by the German occupiers retreating from Greece.

The ELAS emissary informed the HMSAS Treern that Volo was under ELAS control and then asked the Captain what his intentions were.

The ELAS emissary eventually agreed to let the ship remain there for the night. Next morning Treern left for Skiathos where she met up with the British destroyer, HMS Musketeer, considerably to the relief of both captains, and came under the orders of the Musketeer.

In the town of Volo a somewhat lukewarm ELAS control prevailed – political fervour being influenced by the presence of the destroyer and her 4.7-inch guns, under cover of which all local craft, arriving and leaving, were interrogated and searched for arms.

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Treern assisted in this duty for the next few days before being attached to a small naval force then operating against the ELAS in the Gulf of Volo and along the north-east coast of Euboea.

The loss of the HMSAS Treern

On the morning of 12 January whilst off the northern shore of the Trikiri Channel and towing a caique laden with fuel for motor launches then lying off Volo. At about 08:30 there is a huge explosion, presumably caused by a mine, which destroys Treern almost immediately with a very heavy loss of life.

Only one man survives 

The only survivor, Stoker J.J. Bosch, later states that he was in the port waist, while most of the other men off duty were watching a pig being slaughtered on the boat-deck above him. Suddenly he felt a tremendous concussion and found himself somersaulting through the air into the water. On coming to the surface he found a life buoy floating near him and saw the last few feet of the ship’s bows disappear below the surface.

At the same time another mine exploded about 100 yards away, presumably a sympathetic detonation caused by the first explosion. One of his legs had been injured, but the caique picked him up and about an hour later transferred him to HMS Musketeer.

Honour Roll

MPK means ‘Missing Presumed Killed’.  SANF stands for ‘South African Naval Forces’.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nANDERSON, Robert D, Engine Room Artificer 2c, 71067 V (SANF), MPK
BARKER, Ronald E, Sub Lieutenant, SANF, MPK
BLAKE, Robert E, Petty Officer, P 6572 (SANF), MPK
BROWN, Ian H, Able Seaman, 71719 V (SANF), MPK
BYRNE, Patrick, Lieutenant, SANF, MPK
DAVIE, William, Stoker 1c, 70681 V (SANF), MPK
ENGELBEEN, Leslie C, Able Seaman, 562235 V (SANF), MPK
JACOBZ, Frank H, Stoker 1c, 70374 V (SANF), MPK
MATTHEWS, George A, Stoker 1c, 70728 V (SANF), MPK
MCINTYRE, William G, Cook (S), 585360 (SANF), MPK
MCLARTY, William D, Leading Stoker, 562246 V (SANF), MPK
MCLEAN, Godfrey, Able Seaman, 562455 V (SANF), MPK
NILAND, St John E, Able Seaman, 209905 (SANF), MPK
PERRY, Desmond A, Petty Officer, 71211 (SANF), MPK
REID, Kenneth H, Signalman, 562143 V (SANF), MPK
SALCOMBE, Francis R, Stoker 1c, 58589 V (SANF), MPK
STAPELBERG, Willem J, Steward, 562221 V (SANF), MPK
SUTTON, Donald A, Able Seaman, 70426 (SANF), MPK
SUTTON, George A M, Leading Seaman, 586403 V (SANF), MPK
TRAFFORD, William O, Able Seaman, 71222 V (SANF), MPK
VILJOEN, Dennis A, Telegraphist, 70984 V (SANF), MPK
WHITE, Charles W, Petty Officer, 562200 V (SANF), MPK
WULFF, Emil F, Leading Seaman, 562466 V (SANF), MPK

In Conclusion

Successive generations of South Africans have not been exposed to the gallantry of South African servicemen at sea, many remain blissfully unaware of all the heroic actions of South African fighting ships during World War 2.

Little remains of this history, and it now has to ‘dug up’ from recent research conducted by Chris Bennet and Allan du Toit, very little to nothing is available in public on-line records such as Wikipedia, such is the degree to which it has been wiped from the South African national consciousness.

The reason for this is political, the incoming Nationalist government after the war in 1948 regarded all of South Africa’s and Smuts’ exploits during World War 2 as one of treachery (siding with the ‘hated’ British), so no large-scale Naval commemorations or recognition ceremonies were ever undertaken by the South African Navy to maintain this memory.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Reference: Large extracts taken from Day by Day SA Naval History by Chris Bennett. Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2 by Don Kindell. Images of South African vessels courtesy Allan du Toit and reference from his book ‘South African Fighting Ships’.

“Gold may shine; but it has no true light” South African sacrifice on the HMS Edinburgh

British20Navy20HMS20Edinburgh“Gold may shine, but it has no true light” is a quote by Kristian Goldmund Aumann to mean that glittering gold is false when compared to the importance of spiritual light, and nothing is more true in this statement when reviewing the sacrifice and loss on the HMS Edinburgh – it is the subject of a multi-million dollar treasure hunt for gold and the subject of supreme wartime sacrifice, including South African life.

As Simonstown was a British naval base during the Second World War thousands of naval ratings and officers who volunteered to serve in the South African Navy (known as the South African Navy Forces) landed up serving on British vessels. So when one was sunk, as HMS Edinburgh was, inevitably there is an honour roll of South Africans. The sinking of the HMS Edinburgh also carries with it an intriguing story of gold … read on for their story.

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Aerial view of HMS EDINBURGH, ‘Southampton’ class (third group) cruiser in Scapa Flow, October 1941. Imperial War Museum copyright

Operations 

The HMS Edinburgh was a very heavily armed and armoured Town Class light cruiser of the Royal Navy, she saw extensive wartime service during World War 2, including the hunt for the German Battleship Bismarck, however our story picks up from August 1941 when she  escorted convoy WS10 to Simonstown in South Africa.

After some maintenance work in South Africa and taking on some South African Naval personnel the HMS Edinburgh sailed to Malta as part of Operation Halberd. She returned to Gibraltar shortly afterwards, departing from there on 1 October 1941, with supplies and prisoners of war aboard, and bound for the Clyde in Scotland.

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The cruisers HMS EDINBURGH, HMS HERMIONE, and HMS EURYALUS, steaming in line abreast whilst they escort a convoy (Operation HALBERD – convoy not visible).

After repairs at Faslane she joined the Home Fleet on Iceland Forces Patrol duties and from November 1941 to April 1942 provided cover to Arctic convoys bringing aid to the Soviet Union (Russia).

On 6 April, she left Scapa Flow to escort convoy PQ14 to Murmansk. Of the 24 ships in PQ14, 16 were forced by unseasonal ice and bad weather to return to Iceland, and another was sunk by a U-boat. HMS Edinburgh and the remaining seven vessels arrived in Murmansk on 19 April.

Here she took on gold bullion to take back to the United Kingdom, a lot of it, 4.5-long-ton (4,570 kg). The consignment, which had a value of about £1.5 million sterling in 1942 (adjusted for inflation to 2017 pounds, £63,047,983), was a partial payment by the Soviet Union  for the supplies of war material and military equipment from the Western Allies. In total the ship had 465 gold ingots in 93 wooden boxes stored in the bomb-room.

Sinking

On the return leg from Murmansk, HMS Edinburgh was the flagship of Rear-Admiral Stuart Bonham Carter who was commanding the escort of returning Convoy QP 11 involving 17 ships.

On 30 April 1942, a German Submarine U-456 (under the command of Kapitanleutnant  Max-Martin Teichert) on her 5th patrol spotted the HMS Edinburgh and engaged her by firing a torpedo into her starboard side, hitting her just fore of the bomb room, which stored all the gold.

The ship began to list heavily, but the crew reacted quickly and competently by closing watertight bulkheads, which prevented the ship from sinking immediately. Soon after, U-456 put a second torpedo into HMS Edinburghs stern, wrecking her steering equipment and crippling her.

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A photograph clearly showing the severe damage to the stern of HMS EDINBURGH caused by the German torpedo and her listing to port.

HMS Edinburgh was then taken in tow by escorting British ships, and tried to return to Murmansk along with the destroyers HMS Foresight and HMS Forester and four minesweepers. Along the way she was hounded constantly by German torpedo bombers. On 2 May, as she progressed at a snail’s pace under tow and her own power, she was attacked off Bear Island by three large German destroyers – Z7, Z24 and Z25. HMS Edinburgh was cast off the tow, so that she started to sail in circles, fighting off the assault in a fierce sea battle , the Edinburgh even managed to cause such damage to one of the German Destroyers – Z7 Hermann Schoemann that it had to scuttled by her crew and sank.

HMS Edinburgh’s escorts eventually drove off Z24 and Z25, but she was struck by a torpedo amidships, exactly opposite the first torpedo hit from U-456. She was now held together only by the deck plating and keel, which was likely to fail at any time, so the crew abandoned ship. HMS Gossamer took off 440 men and HMS Harrier about 400. Two officers and 56 other ranks on HMS Edinburgh were killed in the attacks.

HMS Edinburgh was doomed at this stage and a last resort the British used HMS Harrier tried to scuttle HMS Edinburgh with 4 inch gunfire, but 20 shots did not sink her. Depth charges dropped alongside also failed. Finally, in a sad farewell to a very strong fighting ship HMS Foresight sank HMS Edinburgh with her last torpedo (the others having been expended against the German destroyers).

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HMS Foresight (FL 4063) Underway.

In an ironic twist of history, HMS Foresight met a similar fate as HMS Edinburgh when she was torpedoed by Italian aircraft whilst on escort duty and had to be sunk by HMS Tartar after breaking her tow.

The fate of U-456, Z24 and Z25

The fate of the German submarine and warships involved in the sinking of HMS Edinburgh, U-456 was eventually sunk on the 12th May 1943 whilst hunting convoys off Ireland she was spotted by a RAF Liberator, she dived but was hit by a ‘new’ American Fido acoustic homing torpedo dropped by the Liberator. U-456 was badly damaged and forced to re-surface. On the following day she was depth charged and sunk on 12 May 1943 by HMS Opportune.

Z24 was a Type 1936 German destroyer and was attacked and completely destroyed and sunk by the Royal Air Force on the 25th August 1944 off Le Verdon.  Z25, also a Type 1936 survived the war and was taken over by the British on the 6th January 1946.

Salvaging the Gold

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Keith Jessop with a gold bar from the HMS Edinburgh

After the war, the wreck of the HMS Edinburgh was classified as a war grave, making salvage operations for the gold which sunk with her difficult.  However ever anxious the British government pressed to recover the gold.  Ostensibly not just because of the value but also because of unscrupulous salvaging operations and because of tensions with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and fear they might salvage it all.

In the early 1980s, Jessop Marine, with the support of Wharton Williams Ltd (a leading global diving company) and OSA (a specialist shipping company) won a contract from the British government to attempt a recovery.  The recovered gold would be divided up between the salvage consortium, the British Government and the Soviet Government.

Cutting into the wreck by divers to get to the bomb room was deemed more appropriate for a war grave than the traditional ‘smash and grab’ explosives-oriented methods. The consortium of specialist companies for the project was then formed on the proviso the recovery be done with dignity.

In April 1981, the wreck was discovered the wreck at about 400 kilometres NNE of the Soviet coast at the Kola Inlet at a very deep 245 metres (800 ft).  The wreck was mapped and on the 30th August 1981 the diving operation began in earnest, by mid September, 431 of 465 ingots had been recovered.

At the time, the 80’s, the haul was worth in excess of £40,000,000 sterling  (£63,000,000 by today’s standard). This bullion recovery project created a World Record in deep diving which stands to this day. A further 29 bars were brought up in 1986 by the Consortium, bringing the total to 460, leaving five unaccounted for.  They also recovered the all important ship’s bell. It was billed as the ‘Salvage of the Century’ and made a rich man the famous treasure hunter Keith Jessop and others, including some Southern African divers on the project.

However, some full credit to these divers, when reaching the wreck for the first time the lead diver on his own accord conducted two minutes of silence underwater in recognition of the war dead, despite the extreme dangers of saturation ‘deep bell’ diving.  They also preformed a wreath laying service at sea on completing the salvage.

The BBC captured this story in a documentary called ‘Gold from the Deep – The Salvage of the Century,’ its well worth a view and contains some outstanding eye-witness accounts of the HMS Edinburgh’s crew.

See YouTube link Gold from the deep – the salvage of the century

“Gold may shine, but it has no true light”

Now, we come back to the quote, “Gold may shine, but has no true light”.  The true light, the true treasure lost were the lives of the 58 Allied personnel lost on HMS Edinburgh in her desperate fight to bring convoys of equipment, food and aid to the Soviet Union in a very desperate time as the Russians soaked up the biggest cost in blood of the war fighting Nazi Germany,  the later Cold War of the 1980’s and gold booty aside, we remember these South African’s whose true light was extinguished in this fight:

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nSouth African Honour Roll – HMS Edinburgh 

DRUMMOND, Valentine W, Able Seaman, 68043 (South African Naval Forces), Missing Presumed Killed
VAN DORDRECHT, William H, Able Seaman, 67851 (South African Naval Forces), Missing Presumed Killed


Written by Peter Dickens, primary source and extracts from Wikipedia, photo copyrights to the Imperial War Museum

“She immediately blew up”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock

As Simonstown was a British naval base during the Second World War thousands of naval ratings and officers who volunteered to serve in the South African Navy – known as the South African Navy Forces – landed up serving on British vessels in addition to South African ones. So when a British ship was sunk, as HMS Hollyhock was, inevitably there is a honour roll of South Africans lost with her. Read on for their story.

HMS Hollyhock short history

HMS Hollyhock was commissioned on 19th August, 1940 and finished on November 19 1940. The Hollyhock was a Flower Class Corvette.  She originally served as escort protection in the Atlantic as part of EG3 (3rd Escort Group) Western Approaches Command Fleet.

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HMS Hollyhock in Cape Town, South Africa

Between 11th & 16th November 1941, HMS Hollyhock escorted convoy ST8 to Takoradi, she then returned to Freetown between 17th & 22nd November. On the 27th, she left Freetown escorting a large troop convoy to Simonstown along with HMS Royal Sovereign. While she was in Simonstown, she had some defects rectified, and had a boiler clean.

It was at this time (7th December 1941) that Japan entered the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbour in the US State of Hawaii. This caused many problems and changes, one of which was the transfer of HMS Hollyhock to the Eastern Fleet (East Indies Fleet) to bolster the fleet against Japanese aggression and expansion.

She took on South African Navy volunteers as additional crew and sailed out of Simonstown on February 4th bound for Durban 3 days later. Later that evening (8th Feb) she set sail to escort convoy SU1, refuelling at Mauritius and finally reached Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on 28th Feb 1942.

The Easter Sunday Raid

With Japan’s entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became a front-line British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station and Eastern Fleet was moved to Colombo and Trincomalee.

Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed as the commander of the British Eastern Fleet, and he decided to withdraw main component the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving a small force to defend Ceylon (Sri Lanka) consisting of an aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, two heavy cruisers – the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, one Australian Destroyer the HMSAS Vampire and the flower class corvette, our feature today, the HMS Hollyhock.

The Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in much the same way and with the same objectives that were used at Pearl Harbour against the American fleet planned a decisive attack of the British Eastern Fleet to end their presence in the North Indian and Pacific oceans.  Unaware that the main body of the British fleet had moved to the Maldives, they focused their plan on Colombo (the commercial capital of modern-day Sri Lanka).

The planned Japanese attack was to become collectively known as the Easter Sunday Raid and the Japanese fleet comprised five aircraft carriers plus supporting ships under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

In an almost exact copy of the raid on the American fleet at Peal Harbour (as if no learnings were made by the Allies), on 4 April 1942, the Japanese fleet was located by a Canadian PBY Calatina aircraft, the Catalina radioed the position of the Japanese Fleet to The British Eastern Fleet which alerted the British to the impending attack before it was shot down by six Japanese Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu,

However, despite the warning Nagumo’s air strike on Colombo the next day, Easter Sunday 5th April 1942 they did manage to achieved near-complete surprise (Pearl Harbour was also attacked on a weekend). The British Radar installations were not operating, they were shut down for routine maintenance (another parallel with the attack on Peal Harbour).

Easter Raid

Captain Mitsuo Fuchida

The first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, moving about 200 miles south of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave of 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 level bombers was led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida the same officer who led the air attack on Pearl Harbour.

The Heavy Cruisers, HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire set out in pursuit of the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, the two cruisers were sighted by a spotter plane from the Japanese cruiser Tone about 200 miles (370 km) southwest of Ceylon. A wave of  Japanese dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off from Japanese carriers to attack Cornwall and Dorsetshire, 320 km (170 nmi; 200 mi) southwest of Ceylon, and sank the two ships.

DorsetshireCornwall

Japanese combat photograph showing the Royal Navy heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall on fire and sinking

On 9 April, the Japanese focussed their attack on the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. The HMS Hermes left the Royal Naval Base of Trincomalee, Ceylon escorted by the Australian Destroyer HMAS Vampire (on loan to the Royal Navy), and along with the HMS Hollyhock they were tasked with protecting merchant fleet tankers.

While sailing south off Batticaloa on the East Coast of Ceylon, this British flotilla was also attacked by the Japanese Carrier-Borne dive-bombers from the Imperial Japanese Task Force now in the process of attacking the Naval Base at Trincomalee.

Approximately 70 Japanese aircraft were despatched to bomb the HMS Hermes on the 9 April 1942, and the HMS Hermes sank within ten minutes of being hit by numerous aircraft bombs and became a blazing inferno.  To read more detail about the account and South African sacrifice on the Hermes – follow this Observation Post link: “Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes

After the Japanese aircraft broke off the attack on the HMS Hermes, those aboard the Hermes’ escort, the Australian ship HMSAS Vampire, thought they had been spared. However, the aircraft had returned to the carriers to rearm, and on their return bombed the destroyer heavily. HMAS Vampire shot down at least one aircraft before breaking in half and sinking. Despite the ferocity of the attack, Vampires commanding officer and eight sailors were the only fatalities.

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HMAS Vampire

The Sinking of HMS Hollyhock

The HMS Hollyhock was about 7 nautical miles from the HMS Hermes escorting a tanker, the RFA Athelstane when the Hermes came under attack by a formation of about Twenty Japanese  D3A-1 ‘VAL’ dive bombers. The Hollyhock came under attack by the same group of Japanese aircraft.

aichi-d3a1-mod-22-val

Just past midday, the tanker the Hollyhock was escorting, the RFA Athelstane was dive bombed by 5 Japanese aircraft, each dropping one bomb. The tanker ship was hit several times and disabled and the crew abandoned ship.

At the same time an attack by Japanese dive bombers commenced on HMS Hollyhock, the first bomb exploded on the starboard side about 25 feet from the Hollyhock bursting  side fuel tanks and putting the number 2 Boiler out of action.

The second bomb exploded 30-40 yards from starboard side of ship between the bridge and the Hollyhock’s 2 pounder gun.  The HMS Hollyhock then started to close on RFA Athelstane to come to its assistance.

15 minutes later, a Japanese dive bomber dropped a third bomb on the Hollyhock which exploded on Engine room casing, disabling the Pom-pom gun, engines and steering gear.

Barely a minute later a fourth bomb dropped on the Hollyhock then burst amidships, and his sealed the fate of the ship as it hit her Magazine and boilers causing a massive explosion. The whole ship blew apart and disintegrated, sinking within just 30-40 seconds.

This attack and sudden massive explosion which sank the Hollyhock is best described by Captain Moore of the RFA Athelstane, who had survived the attack on his own ship and witnessed the attack on the Hollyhock, he simply remarked that attack on both their ships had lasted about 5 minutes and the final bomb to hit the Hollyhock probably hit her magazine and she “immediately blew up, disintegrating, and sank”.

Given the ferocity of the final moments of the Hollyhock it is a sheer miracle that there were any survivors at all, however of the ships compliment a lucky few, 14 men in all survived.  The rest of the ships personnel, 49 souls in total were lost, including 5 South African Naval Force volunteers.

Controversy
 on the sinking of HMS Hollyhock

Noted in the accounts is lack of adequate Anti Aircraft firepower on the HMS Hollyhock to defend herself from an air attack.  In fact the ships main complement of Anti-Aircraft  guns were removed from Hollyhock and transferred to the Aster prior to her leaving Colombo’s port.  This was noted in the Eastern Fleet War Diary, simply put the HMS Hollyhock was at sea without her full armament, and stood virtually no chance at all from a concentrated air attack – which unfortunately proved to be the case.

HMS Hollyhock – South African Navy Personnel Lost, Honour Roll


22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nANDERSON, Henry G, Able Seaman, 67501 (SANF), MPK (Missing Presumed Killed)
  • The son of Wallace H. and Susan C. Anderson, of Port Elizabeth, Cape Province, South Africa; husband of Edith Anderson. Remembered with honour PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Devon, United Kingdom.

BASTON, Douglas T, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 68600 (SANF), MP (Missing Presumed Killed)

  • The son of William A. and Elizabeth Baston. Remembered with honour PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Devon, United Kingdom.

BUITENDACH, James M, Stoker 2c, 69223 (SANF), MPK (Missing Presumed Killed)

  • The son of Jacob E. and Dorothea M. Buitendach, Durban, Natal. South Africa. Remembered with honour PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Devon, United Kingdom.

JUBY, Kenneth J, Ordinary Seaman, 69211 (SANF), MPK (Missing Presumed Killed)

  • The son of Mr. and Mrs. H. W. B. Juby, of Germiston, Transvaal, South Africa. Remembered with honour PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Devon, United Kingdom.

LEACH, Peter A D H, Stoker 2c, 69225 (SANF), MPK (Missing Presumed Killed)

  • The son of Harold and Louisa M. A. D. H. Leach. Remembered with honour PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, Devon, United Kingdom.

leach

May their sacrifice never be forgotten.

Take the time to watch this short video on the history and discovery of what is believed to be the wreck of the HMS Hollyhock compiled by ‘Dive Sri Lanka’ at a site 42 meters deep.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Primary Reference: On line website, video and images to commemorate Alfred John Wickett, 24, who died on 9th April, 1942, when the Flower Class Corvette HMS Hollyhock was attacked and sunk by Japanese dive bombers when on active service in the Indian Ocean.

A great thanks to Jonathan Wickett, whose twenty year research into the sinking of the Hollyhock has resulted in the website http://www.hmshollyhock.com from which information and images were sourced for this article.

“Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes

This is the 10,850 ton Aircraft Carrier HMS Hermes under fire, ablaze and sinking during World War 2. As Simonstown in South Africa was a British Naval base thousands of South Africans in WW2 served in the Royal Navy as well as in the South African Naval Forces (SANF). The loss of an aircraft carrier the size of the HMS Hermes is bound to include a South African honour roll and unfortunately this one does. Read on for their story.

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HMS Hermes’ short history

The HMS Hermes was the first purpose-built aircraft carrier in the world. The design was based on that of a cruiser and the ship was intended for a similar scouting role. She was built by Armstrong Whitworth and launched 11 September 1919.

After a distinguished wartime career she was lost 9 April 1942. HMS Hermes had a small aircraft complement, light protection and anti-aircraft armament. She had a limited high-speed endurance and stability problems caused by the large starboard island, with fuel having to be carefully distributed to balance the ship.

HMS Hermes was deemed unsuitable for operations in European waters, and was consequently employed in trade protection in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans until March 1942.

HMS Hermes in South Africa

In June 1941, the HMS Hermes took passage to South Africa, where she undertook repairs from July to October in HM Dockyard Simonstown.  By November she was ready to re-rejoin the action as part of convoy defence in Indian Ocean.  She took on a large contingent of South African Naval Forces personnel seconded to The Royal Navy’s requirements as part of her crew.  The HMS Hermes then sailed from Cape Town accompanied by the Battleship HMS Prince of Wales on passage up the Indian Ocean.

CVHermes1936

In December 1941 she undergoes more refitting, again in South Africa, this time in Durban.   By February 1942, she leaves Durban (with more South African personnel) and resumes convoy defence duties in the Indian Ocean.

By March she joins the Eastern Fleet searching for Japanese warships in Indian Ocean to engage.

Japanese attack on Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

With Japan’s entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became a front-line British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station and Eastern Fleet was moved to Colombo and Trincomalee.

HMS_Hermes_June_1940

HMS Hermes on patrol with HMS Dorsetshire – 1942

Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed as the commander of the British Eastern Fleet, and he decided to withdraw main component the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving a small force to defend Ceylon (Sri Lanka) consisting of an aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, two heavy cruisers – the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, one Australian Destroyer the HMSAS Vampire and the flower class corvette HMS Hollyhock.

The Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in much the same way and with the same objectives that were used at Pearl Harbour against the American fleet planned a decisive attack of the British Eastern Fleet to end their presence in the North Indian and Pacific oceans.  Unaware that the main body of the British fleet had moved to the Maldives, they focused their plan on Colombo.

The planned Japanese attack was to become collectively known as the Easter Sunday Raid and the Japanese fleet comprised five aircraft carriers plus supporting ships under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

In an almost exact copy of the raid on the American fleet at Peal Harbour (as if no learnings were made by the Allies), on 4 April 1942, the Japanese fleet was located by a Canadian PBY Calatina aircraft, the Catalina radioed the position of the Japanese Fleet to The British Eastern Fleet which alerted the British to the impending attack before it was shot down by six Japanese Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu,  However, despite the warning Nagumo’s air strike on Colombo the next day, Easter Sunday 5th April achieved near-complete surprise (Pearl Harbour was also attacked on a weekend). The British Radar installations were not operating, they were shut down for routine maintenance.

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Japanese Carrier Hiryu

The first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, moving about 200 miles south of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave of 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 level bombers was led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida the same officer who led the air attack on Pearl Harbour.

The Heavy Cruisers, HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire set out in pursuit of the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, the two cruisers were sighted by a spotter plane from the Japanese cruiser Tone about 200 miles (370 km) southwest of Ceylon. A wave of  Japanese dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off from Japanese carriers to attack Cornwall and Dorsetshire, 320 km (170 nmi; 200 mi) southwest of Ceylon, and sank the two ships.

On 9 April, the Japanese focussed their attack on the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. The HMS Hermes left the Royal Naval Base of Trincomalee, Ceylon escorted by the Australian Destroyer HMAS Vampire and HMS Hollyhock looking to engage the Imperial Japanese fleet which had attacked Colombo.

While sailing south off Batticaloa on the East Coast of Ceylon, this British flotilla was also attacked by the Japanese Carrier-Borne dive-bombers from the Imperial Japanese Task Force now in the process of attacking the Naval Base at Trincomalee.

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Admiral Nagumo’s fleet unleashed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters and bombers on the attack on Colombo on 5 April 1942.

Approximately 70 Japanese aircraft were despatched to bomb the HMS Hermes which sank within ten minutes of being hit by numerous aircraft bombs. HMAS Vampire was also sunk by bombs a short while later.

The HMS Hollyhock was about 7 nautical miles from the HMS Hermes escorting a tanker, the RFA Athelstane when the Hermes came under attack.  The Hollyhock came under attack by the same Japanese aircraft and it too was bombed and sunk.  For an in-depth appraisal on the South Africans lost on the Hollyhock follow this Observation Post link: “She immediately blew up”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock

“Dante’s Inferno”

An eyewitness account of the sinking by Stan Curtiss says everything about the trauma and personal drama experienced by the sailors and officers:

“The AA guns crews did a magnificent job and to assist them because the planes at the end of their dive flew along the flight deck to drop their bombs and because the guns could not be fired at that low angle, all the 5.5.`s, mine included had orders to elevate to the maximum so that as the ship slewed from side to side to fire at will hoping that the shrapnel from the shells would cause some damage to the never ending stream of bombers that were hurtling down out of the sun to tear the guts out of my ship that had been my home for the past 3 years.

hermes 4Suddenly there was an almighty explosion that seemed to lift us out of the water, the after magazine had gone up, then another, this time above us on the starboard side, from that moment onwards we had no further communication with the bridge which had received a direct hit, as a result of that our Captain and all bridge personnel were killed.

Only about fifteen minutes had passed since the start of the action and the ship was already listing to port, fires were raging in the hanger, she was on fire from stem to stern, just aft of my gun position was the galley, that received a direct hit also, minutes later we had a near miss alongside our gun, talk about a tidal wave coming aboard, our crew were flung yards, tossed like corks on a pond. Picking myself up and finding no bones broken, I called out to each number of our crew and got an answer from all of them (no-one washed overboard), we were lucky; our gun was the only one that did not get hit.

At this stage Hermes had a very heavy list to port and it was obvious that she was about to sink. As the sea was now only feet below our gun deck I gave the order “over the side lads, every man for himself, good luck to you all”.

Abandon ship had previously been given by word of mouth, the lads went over the side and I followed, hitting the water at 11.00 hours, this is the time my wristwatch stopped (I didn’t have a waterproof one).

As she was sinking the Japs were still dropping bombs on her and machine gunning the lads in the water. In the water I swam away from the ship as fast as I could, the ship still had way on and I wanted to get clear of the screws and also because bombs were still exploding close to the ship, the force of the explosions would rupture your stomach, quite a few of the lads were lost in this way after surviving Dante’s Inferno aboard, so it was head down and away”.

The aftermath 

In all, 19 officers and 283 ratings (including 1 South African Officer and 17 South African Ratings) were Reported Missing in Action when HMS Hermes went down. 9 Ratings on HMAS Vampire were lost.  53 of the ship’s company of HMS Hollyhock were lost, of which 5 were members of the South African Naval Forces.

The hospital ship Vita rescued approximately 600 survivors and transferred them back to Colombo and later to Kandy for recuperation.

The air attack on the Royal Naval Base at Trincomalee killed 85 civilians in addition to the military losses while 36 Japanese aircraft were shot down during the attack.

The wreck of the HMS Hermes was re-discovered in 2006 approximately five nautical miles from shore, lying at a depth of fifty-seven meters. Divers attached the White Ensign to the rusting hull.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nSouth African casualties aboard HMS Hermes

BRIGGS, Anthony Herbert Lindsay Sub-Lieutenant (Engineer) Royal Navy (South African national), MPK
BRYSON, Neil W, Ordinary Telegraphist, 69147 (SANF), MPK
BURNIE, Ian A, Able Seaman, 67786 (SANF), MPK
CLAYTON, Frederick H, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 68102 (SANF), MPK
DE CASTRO, Alfred T, Stoker 1c, 67914 (SANF), MPK
KEENEY, Frederick W, Able Seaman, 67748 (SANF), MPK
KEYTEL, Roy, Able Seaman, 67296 (SANF), MPK
KIMBLE, Dennis C, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 67600 (SANF), MPK
KRAUSE, Frederick E, Able Seaman, 68321 (SANF), MPK
RAPHAEL, Philip R, Able Seaman, 67841 (SANF), MPK
RICHARDSON, Ronald P, Able Seaman, 67494 (SANF), MPK
RILEY. Harry Air Mechanic 2nd Class, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Navy (South African national), MPK
TOMS, Ivanhoe S, Able Seaman, 67709 (SANF), MPK
VICKERS, Colin P, Able Seaman, 68296 (SANF), MPK
VORSTER, Jack P, Able Seaman, 67755 (SANF), MPK
WHITE, Edward G, Stoker, 68026 (SANF), MPK
WIBLIN, Eric R, Able Seaman, 67717 (SANF), MPK
YATES, Philip R, Supply Assistant, 67570 (SANF), MPK

Their names have not been forgotten.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. Reference thanks to Graham Du Toit, other references and extracts taken from Wikipedia, Service Histories of Royal Navy Ships in World War 2 by Cdr Geoffrey B Mason RN (Retired). Image copyright Imperial War Museum and the Australian War Memorial.

 

 

“Under a hail of shells”; Recounting the bravery and loss of HMSAS Bever

The third South African ship to be lost in the Mediterranean during the Second World War was the HMSAS Bever.  She was the brave little minesweeper who had earlier fought her way out of Tobruk with her sister ship – the  HMSAS Parktown.  She had a very proud legacy from her actions in Tobruk and her loss later in the war was deeply felt, so let’s have a look at another brave South African whaler, converted to a fighting ship, punching way above her weight.

On the 10 October 1941, the little whaler ‘Hektor 10’ was commissioned in South Africa as His Majesty’s South African Ship (HMSAS) Bever for wartime service as a minesweeper.

Barely a month later, on the 1 November 1941, she joined the small flotilla of South African minesweepers sailing from Durban for the war in North Africa.  This flotilla was made up of the HMSAS Bever, HMSAS Gribb, HMSAS Seksern, HMSAS Imhoff, HMSAS Treern, HMSAS Parktown and HMSAS Langlaagte.

All were former whale catchers of about 260 tons built between 1926 and 1930 and each was fitted with one 3 inch gun plus smaller QF guns, depth charges and LL sweeps.  They are the second group of South African minesweepers to sail from Durban for the Mediterranean.

Little would they know that all of them would make a significant difference to the war effort – and sadly, three of the four ships South Africa would lose during the war would come from this flotilla – the HMSAS Parktown, the HMSAS Bever and the HMSAS Treern.  The first South African minesweeper had already been lost in the combat zone by this stage – the HMSAS Southern Floe (see The Southern Floe was the SA Navy’s first ship loss, but it also carries a remarkable tale of survival.)

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HMSAS Southern Floe

The fall of Tobruk

The HMSAS Bever and HMSAS Parktown sailed from Alexandria, Egypt on the 9 June 1942 as part of a escort for a convoy bound for Tobruk. During the passage they see combat for the first time when the convoy is attacked and the HMSAS 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 1942, the HMSAS Parktown and her consort, HMSAS Bever (at this stage under the command of Lt P A North), are tasked with keeping the approaches to Tobruk clear of mines.

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HMSAS Parktown

In 1941 the Australians had held Tobruk for 9 months, until Rommel’s withdrawal of his Axis forces to the west.  Tobruk secured, by 1942 the Allied Middle East Command decided to leave a smaller ‘temporary’ force to hold Tobruk while a new strike force was built up near the frontier.  The task of defending Tobruk was left to the South Africans. The new  garrison was to be formed by the 2nd South African Infantry Division with General Klopper, a major general of 1 month’s standing, given command of Tobruk.  In addition, units of British and Indian detachments fell under South Arican command defending Tobruk.

It is generally understood that by this stage Tobruk’s defences were in a poor shape with much of the armour and artillery taken away to the new frontier, the Western and Southern sides of the port were well defended by the South Africans, but the East side was weak, and it proved to be fatal.

As usual, Rommel had devised a ruse for capturing Tobruk. Only his infantry approached the western perimeter, while his mobile forces swept on past, to give the impression that the German and Italian armour was heading straight for the Egyptian border (sending radio messages to that effect to complete the ruse).  He then swung his mobile armoured forces around and attacked Tobruk from its weak point – the eastern perimeter.

Rommel’s zero hour was 05h20 on 20 June 1942. As dawn broke long black lines of tanks, trucks and infantry slowly started to move forward. As it grew louder and closer to Tobruk waves of German Stukas and Ju 88’s aircraft appeared overhead (Rommel pressed every single Axis airplane in service in North Africa into taking Tobruk).

As the heavy artillery began to fire, the planes released their bombs and quickly got out of the way for the next wave, operating a shuttle service between the defence perimeter and El Adem airfield, 10 miles away. They pounded a gap open 600 yards wide. Behind them, under cover of artillery barrage and half-hidden by smoke and dust, German and Italian sappers raced forward to lift mines and bridge the tank traps with tanks and infantry racing through the gaps. As they move forward, they lit green, red and purple flares and the Stukas dropped their bombs just ahead of the advancing, multi-coloured smoke screen while the other planes and artillery blasted the South African rear (the seaward side of the port) with shells and bombs.

Tobruk, beschädigte Häuser, Soldaten

Surrounded South African troops going into captivity as Tobruk falls

Inside Tobruk the situation was chaotic. General Klopper – his HQ’s bombed out, his radio and telephone wrecked and his code booked destroyed, lost the last vestige of control.  It became clear that a crisis was imminent. Late that same afternoon HMSAS Parktown and HMSAS Bever were ordered to enter harbour to embark evacuation parties and get as many Allied troops out as they can.

By 20:00 that evening the two minesweepers watch the Axis forces entering the town and then reach the harbour shortly afterwards. The rapidity of the attack causes great confusion, however, the two brave little South African minesweepers still manage to embark most of the men allocated to them before they sail under a hail of artillery and gunfire.

“It was like hell”

The account is best described by an ordinary South African, Stoker Petty Officer (SPO) Turner who was on the HMSAS Bever (‘Jerry’ means the Germans).

“At the end of the fifth week we had been there, Jerry started a terrific push which carried him through almost to Tobruk. We had some very nasty air raids, but the warning came one night when a shell whistled over us and landed behind the town. We knew then that they had brought up big guns and were going to shell us out of the place.

Our ship (HMSAS Bever) and our partner ship (the HMSAS Parktown) continued their work through a week of this shelling and I can assure you it was very uncomfortable.

Then we were informed that Tobruk was besieged, as Jerry had completely surrounded us. On Saturday, June 2O, it happened, and that date will be impressed on my memory as long as I live. It was early morning and we were just pulling away to start our daily job, when the shells started coming over with a vengeance.

They had found their range and planted their shots just where they wanted them, in the town, on the quay, round the wrecks, at the oil berth – and we were sailing along with this lot falling around us:

Then bombers appeared on the scene. We went out, did our job, and returned to our anchorage. This went on until about three clock in the afternoon. The target area was mostly the quay and wharfs.

Then Stukas appeared over the hill and started giving our troops the works. It was like hell. Shells, level bombing and dive-bombing – and there we were at anchor in the centre of it all, expecting any moment to stop something and be blown sky high.

At about four o’cock Jerry broke through our lines and our lads had to retire. This was all done in an orderly manner, and they burned everything they had to abandon. Then we received orders to go to the quay, which all the available ships did and picked up what men we could under a hail of shells. As we pulled away, a shell got us in the funnel. The quay was blown up and Jerry tanks entered the town.

Sandy and I, down in the engine room, gave her all she had and she never travelled faster in her life. Meanwhile a motor launch laid smoke screen for us. Jerry tanks opened up on us from the shore and in all we received four hits by explosive shells.

It was a miracle that we were not blown to bits, because the tanks along the shore were following us with their fire. At the harbour entrance the fire was even more concentrated and only God Himself took us past that. We lost the steward in our dash. As he tried to help a man out of the water into the boat, an exploding shell killed him.

The last I saw of Tobruk” concludes Stoker Petty-Officer Turner “was flashes and flames and a great pall of smoke on the horizon, as the troops continued giving Jerry everything they had till the end.”

Tobruk, Rommel und Bayerlein, Hafen

Erwin Rommel surveys Tobruk after capturing it

Fighting their way out

Fighting bravely next to the HMSAS Bever was the HMSAS Parktown, both these South African vessels received order to embark as many men as possible from shore and to await sailing orders. Late that afternoon Bever was instructed to sail.  Parktown would follow later.

Heavily laden with men clinging to all parts of ship, HMSAS Bever put to sea. By that stage at least six German tanks had taken up a position on shore with their guns covering the harbour. The minute HMSAS Bever began to move out of the harbour she was heavily engaged by the tanks and received several direct hits.

The Bever’s commander, Lt Peter Allan North was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry as he decided to take the ship out himself and ordered all men below decks. One man disobeyed the order, a steward who came up on deck to help a soldier who was trying to climb aboard, the two of them were killed instantly by an incoming tank shell.

The Bever cleared the harbour but the attack did not stop there as German bombers swooped in on her, with all her guns blazing the Bever beat off the air assault.

The HMSAS Parktown was the next to leave Tobruk with hundreds of the men from the garrison aboard.  Her fight out the harbour however met with tragedy.  During the night just off Tobruk port the Parktown and Bever became separated as the Parktown goes to the assistance of a disabled tug, also crowded with men.

After taking the tug in tow the HMSAS Parktown’s speed is slowed.  At daybreak on the 21 June the Parktown came under attack by Italian “MAS” torpedo boats (E-Boats), directed to the slow-moving vessel by a German reconnaissance aircraft.  Fighting all the way with all guns blazing the Parktown was eventually overwhelmed by the faster E-Boats and sunk with the loss of many lives.

For a full account of this brave action by the HMSAS Parktown please feel free to read the Observation Post  The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown)

The HMSAS Bever eventually safely reached Mersa Matruh with holes through her funnels, with mast rigging shot away and riddled with splinter holes.

Awards and Citations for the crew of HMSAS Bever

The following awards and decorations to officers and men of HMSAS Bever were bestowed by King George VI.

Distinguished Service Cross. Lieutenant Peter Allan North (H.M.S.A.S. Bever). Comes from Amanzimtoti. Natal. Age 28. Before the war employed in Geduld Mine. Rand. Served in Training Ship General Botha.

Distinguished Service Medal. No. 69628. Petty Officer Alan Sidney Hargreaves (H.M.S.A.S. Bever). Home address, 8. Worcester-road. Sea Point. Age 26. Served in Training Ship General Botha.

Mentioned in Dispatches. No. 132522. Engine-room Artificer Alexander James McCall (H.M.S.A.S. Bever) Home address, 7, Antrim-road Three Anchor Bay. Engineer in private life.

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HMSAS Bever

After Tobruk

By November 1944 HMSAS Bever had been in the Mediterranean for nearly two years, by now the war in the Mediterranean had over to the European mainland and the liberation of Greece and conquest of Italy were underway.

Accompanied by another South African minesweeper HMSAS Seksern and a flotilla of other converted trawlers, the Bever arrives in the Gulf of Nauplia (south of the Gulf of Athens) late on 29 November 1944 from Herakleon in Crete, about 160 miles to the south-east.  On that first evening, two motor launches carrying out a skimming sweep destroy several mines and clear a narrow channel enabling the flotilla to anchor for the night.

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Ships company HMSAS Seksern Benghazi 1943

The loss of the HMSAS Bever

Next morning (30 November) the clearance continued, with HMSAS Seksern being used as a mark-ship owing to the low visibility (mist and rain-squalls). So many mines now explode in the sweeps that progress soon slowed down and finally halted at about 14:00 whilst four of the ships hove to in order to repair their gear. HMSAS Bever, stationed astern of the trawlers to deal with unexploded mines, also stopped.

At 14:30, while manoeuvring her engines to keep in position, the HMSAS Bever struck a mine with the inevitable result for so small a ship: the bridge collapsed while the after-part disintegrated, its fragments mingling with a huge discoloured geyser which shot up many times higher than the ship’s masthead; and by the time the spray and steam had blown clear, nothing remained but the fore-part which turned over and sank a few seconds later.

Although the normal practice had been followed of making all hands not actually on duty below, remain on deck, considering the rapidity of Bever’s destruction, it is remarkable that eight men were to survive and be picked up alive. The captain and second-in-command were literally blown off the bridge, ending up in the water some distance away. The other survivors appear to have left the ship in much the same manner. One man died of his injuries soon after but the remainder, after receiving first-aid treatment, all recovered satisfactorily.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nThe brave men of the HMSAS Bever sacrificed that day are outlined on the honour roll below (MPK means “Missing Presumed Killed”):

ARMERANTIS, Sideris, Stoker 1c, 282953 V (SANF), MPK
DE PACE, Luigi S, Petty Officer, 66539 V (SANF), MPK
DE REUCK, Leslie B, Telegraphist, 75320 V (SANF), MPK
DREYER, Peter, Leading Cook (S), 585236 V (SANF), MPK
HIGGS, George E, Stoker 1c, 562712 V (SANF), MPK
HUSBAND, Charles A, Stoker 1c, 280098 V (SANF), MPK
KETTLES, John D, Engine Room Artificer 3c, 562458 (SANF), MPK
LAWLOR, Robert J, Act/Chief Motor Mechanic 4c, P/KX 127225, MPK
LINDE, Carl M, Able Seaman, 71194 V (SANF), MPK
LYALL, John D R, Stoker 1c, 562179 V (SANF), MPK
MATTHEWS, William R, Leading Wireman, 562794 V (SANF), killed
PHILLIPSON, Joseph H, Signalman, 181160 V (SANF), MPK
RODDA, Harold J, Stoker 1c, 70451 V (SANF), (served as Harold J Andresen), MPK
SCRIMGEOUR, Quintin, Petty Officer, 69691 (SANF), MPK
TRUSCOTT, E (initial only) W, Able Seaman, 585184 V (SANF), MPK
WHITE, Claude, Leading Seaman, 586420 V (SANF), MPK
WILLIAMS, Desmond, Able Seaman, 70433 V (SANF), killed

The end of a very gallant South African fighting ship. May they all Rest In Peace.

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Researched by Peter Dickens, extracts taken from the Military History Journal, Volume 9, Number 1 – June 1992  THE STORY OF A WARSHIP’S CREST by F V Demartinis. Extracts also taken from Day by Day SA Naval History by Chris Bennett. Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2 by Don Kindell. Images of South African vessels courtesy Allan du Toit and reference from his book ‘South African Fighting Ships’.