“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.

HMAS_Vampire_Allan-Green

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.

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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.

“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.

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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.

Zero_Akagi_Dec1941

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.

 

 

“She blew sky high”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Barham!

During the Second World War, South African Navy personnel – known at the time as the “South African Naval Forces” (SANF) were seconded to serve on ships in the Royal Navy. This is a story of one such ship in His Majesty’s service the HMS Barham, she was a 31,100 ton, Queen Elizabeth-class, Battleship of the Royal Navy and she was sunk during the Second World War by a German submarine off the coast of Egypt.

Prior to this HMS Barham visited Durban, South Africa, in June 1941 for extensive repairs at the Victoria Graving Dock. The repairs where due to damage sustained in the Crete bombing. She sailed from Durban on the 31st July 1941 with a number of South African naval force members seconded to the Royal Navy on board.

On the 25th November 1941, HMS Barham forms part of “Force K” hunting for Italian convoys to North Africa, she was supported by the British Mediterranean Fleet along with battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant. On the same day, German submarine U-331 was on her 3rd patrol of the Mediterranean along the coast of Egypt, north of Sidi Barrani, U-331 when she came within range of the HMS Barham.

The commander of U-331, Kptlt. Von Tiesenhausen fired a spread of 4 torpedoes towards the group, 3 of which hit HMS Barham’s port side causing it to list heavily and spread fire towards the ammunition storages. Only 2 and a half minutes passed from the torpedo impact until the ship rolled onto its side and capsized as the aft magazine exploded in an almighty explosion, instantly killing 862 out of the roughly 1260 man complement. U-331 took a terrible beating from Barham’s defending destroyers but managed to slip away and return safely on 21th of February 1942 to Salamis, Greece.

Recorded on film by one of the resue vessels, HMS Barham’s calamitous end is often used in documentaries, and nothing drives home the peril of serving on a fighting ship harder than this newsreel footage, it is simply jaw dropping.

This video is made even more poignant for us as South Africans if you consider we are witnessing the loss of the following South African naval personnel in this tragedy.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nBAKER, Dennis E W, Ordinary Seaman, 68617 (SANF)
GLENN, Paul V, Ordinary Seaman, 68906 (SANF)
HAYES, Richard T, Ordinary Seaman, 68499 (SANF)
MORRIS, Cyril D, Ordinary Seaman, 68932 (SANF)
UNSWORTH, Owen P (also known as R K Jevon), Ordinary Seaman, 69089 (SANF)
WHYMARK, Vivian G, Ordinary Seaman, 69024 (SANF)

An eye-witness account by survivor Ronald Dando vividly describes the terrifying last minutes of HMS Barham.

“We were now off Sollum, Q.E. ahead flying Admiral Cunningham’s flag, then Barham, with Valiant astern. It was about 1625 hours when a loud explosion came from somewhere aft, on the port side; then came two more, all in the space of seconds.

Men came scrambling on to the upper decks, getting from below decks as quickly as they could. It was only then that I realised Barham was going over quite quickly on her port side and that we’d been torpedoed, at least three times. We must have been at a 45 degrees angle now with water lapping over the port side. It was of course useless jumping off the port side there being the danger of being sucked back into the ship by water that must be rushing it. The only thing to do was to get up on the starboard side, the only way of doing it now being to drag oneself up on ones stomach. I managed it after a struggle and sat high up in the air together with quite a few more chaps, wondering “what now!”

Then I heard someone say “what the hell are you waiting for, get into the bloody water”, or words to that effect it was Vice-Admiral Pridham Wippell; at once we started to slide down the side of Barham into the sea.

I must have been a few hundred yards astern of Barham when there was a terrific roar and she blew sky high, men, guns, all sorts flying through the air; a great wave, it seemed like a mile high, came rushing towards us, struggling and floundering in the swell. I remember thinking to myself, this is the end; then the wave crashed down on us. I felt myself rammed down then whirled round and round like a cork.

I held my breath for what seemed an eternity then started to strike out wildly, trying to surface.

My heard seemed to be bursting and I thought, “I must breathe, I must breathe”. I opened my mouth fully expecting to swallow water, but it was air. I’d been thinking I was still under the water, it was so dark, but the reason was the thick smoke and fumes low over the water”.

Although over 800 men are lost with her, a remarkable number are saved. Just before this tragedy, Force K has sunk two more Axis supply ships west of Crete. At this stage 60 percent of Axis North African supplies (German and Italian) are being lost to attacks by British aircraft, submarines and warships.

On returning to Salamis after sinking HMS Barham, U-331’s commander, Freiherr Hans-Diedrich von Tiesenhausen, was promptly promoted to Kapitanleutnant and awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.  U-331 enjoyed successes on a number of more patrols, but on her 10th patrol in the Mediterranean, on the 17th November 1942, her luck ran out when the main hatch was damaged by an attacking RAF Hudson, which preventing it from diving.   It was then finished off by Fairy Albacore torpedo bombers and Grumman Martlets from the aircraft carrier – HMS Formidable. Of her crew 32 were killed and 17 survived, including her commander.

As South Africans it is very important we keep track of this part of South African naval history.   Much effort and time is spent by the SANDF on the SS Mendi, and rightly so given it was obscured from the national consciousness for so long, but so too has the history of South African naval sacrifice in World War 2, especially those serving in the Royal Navy – their sacrifice has also been completely obscured from history.  Ironically by the same Nationalists who obscured the SS Mendi, choosing political expediency to promote white Afrikaner nationalism ahead of what they regarded as ‘traitors’ serving the crown in World War 1 and 2.

It is time that the full scope of South African service in both The Royal Navy and The South African Navy during WW2 is known, and if this article goes a little way to opening that consciousness so much the better.

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Researched and written by Peter Dickens.  Video copyright British Pathe.  References the HMS Barham Association and Wikipedia.

A “grievous error”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Gloucester

This is the HMS Gloucester under attack by Ju-87 Stukas. May, 1941.  As Simon’s Town in South Africa was a British Naval base thousands of South Africans in WW2 served in the Royal Navy. The loss of the HMS Gloucester is one of the most tragic losses of the war for the Royal Navy, and it unfortunately, as what is arguably the worst wartime loss for the Royal Navy it also has the highest South African naval casualty roll call of the war. Read on for their story.

GLOS SINKING

German gun camera captures the HMS Gloucester under attack

HMS Gloucester was one of the second group of three ships of the Town class of light cruisers. She was launched on 19 October 1937 prior to commissioning on 31 January 1939.

hms_gloucester_D96_emb_n12985Gloucester was nicknamed The Fighting G and saw heavy service in the early years of World War II. The ship was deployed initially to the Indian Ocean and later South Africa before joining Vice Admiral Cunningham’s Mediterranean fleet in 1940. She was sunk on 22 May 1941 during the Battle of Crete with the loss of 722 men out of a crew of 807.

Gloucester formed part of a naval force acting against German military transports to Crete, with some success. Prior to moving to the Mediterranean she spent much of her time patrolling the Indian Ocean off South Africa. In December 1939, she was moved to Simonstown, South Africa where she was used, unsuccessfully, against German raiders. Hence the high number of South Africans serving on her by the time she got to the Mediterranean theatre of operations.

22254780_10155537388346480_1703967884046440289_oAfter German paratroopers landed on Crete on 20 May, the cruiser HMS Gloucester was assigned to Force C that was tasked with interdicting any efforts to reinforce the German forces on the island. On 22 May, while in the Kythria Strait about 14 miles (12 nmi; 23 km) north of Crete, she was attacked by German “Stuka”s of StG 2 shortly before 14:00, together with the light cruiser HMS Fiji and the destroyer HMS Greyhound.  The Greyhound was sunk and the two cruisers were each hit by 250-kilogramme bombs, but not seriously damaged. Two other destroyers were ordered to recover the survivors while the two cruisers covered the rescue efforts. Gloucester was attacked almost immediately and sustained three more hits and three near-misses and sank. Of the 807 men aboard at the time of her sinking, only 85 survived. Her sinking is considered to be one of Britain’s worst wartime naval disasters.

The circumstances of the sinking has also recently pointed to blunders by Royal Navy, when dispatching the HMS Gloucester for the rescue effort, she was low on fuel and anti-aircraft ammunition (less than 20% remaining), and therefore sending her into danger was a “grievous error”.

Furthermore, the Royal Navy failed to attempt to rescue survivors of the HMS Gloucester after it turned dark, one of the reasons why the death toll from the HMS Gloucester is so high.  This lack of action was “contrary to usual Navy practice”. A survivor commented “The tradition in the Navy is that when a ship has sunk, a vessel is sent back to pick up survivors under cover of darkness. That did not happen and we do not know why. We were picked up by Germans.

On 30 May 1941, in a letter to the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, Vice Admiral Cunningham wrote, “The sending back of Gloucester and Fiji to the Greyhound was another grave error and cost us those two ships. They were practically out of ammunition but even had they been full up I think they would have gone. The Commanding Officer of Fiji told me that the air over Gloucester was black with planes.”

Whether it was a blunder or whether it was an unavoidable course of action that led to her sinking, there is one thing for certain, a lot of good men died fighting very bravely that day.  Today, the wreck site is a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act. The honour roll of South Africans lost in action on the MHS Gloucester as follows (MPK means “Missing Presumed Killed”):

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nALLISON, Oswald H, Able Seaman RNVR, 67349 (SANF), killed
NOWLAN, Francis C, Able Seaman RNVR, 67409 (SANF), DOW

ANGEL, Walter J H, Able Seaman, 67351 (SANF), MPK
AUSTIN-SMITH, John R, Ordinary Seaman, 67336 (SANF), MPK
BAGSHAW-SMITH, Philip R, Ordinary Seaman, 67337 (SANF), MPK
BAGSHAWE-SMITH, Sydney Q, Able Seaman, 68454 (SANF), MPK
BARBER, Edgar F, Able Seaman, 67302 (SANF), MPK
BRUCE, John, Able Seaman, 67355 (SANF), MPK
CARTER, Frederick G, Able Seaman, 67345 (SANF), MPK
CHILTON, Ronald H D, Ordinary Seaman, 67335 (SANF), MPK
EDWARDS, Ronald E, Ordinary Seaman, 67384 (SANF), MPK
ELLIOT, Edward R, Leading Seaman, 66584 (SANF), MPK
GERAGHTY, Herbert C, Able Seaman, 67338 (SANF), MPK
GROGAN, Graham B, Able Seaman, 67343 (SANF), MPK
JAMES, Victor F, Ordinary Seaman, 67303 (SANF), MPK
JENSEN, Niels P, Able Seaman, 67347 (SANF), MPK
MCCARTHY, Henry F, Ordinary Seaman, 67223 (SANF), MPK
MOORE, Albert, Able Seaman, 67416 (SANF), MPK
SLATER, Bryan M, Able Seaman, 67358 (SANF), MPK
SMITH, Matthew S, Able Seaman, 67359 (SANF), MPK
SONDERUP, Arthur W, Able Seaman, 67356 (SANF), MPK
STADLANDER, Rowland C, Stoker 1c, 67400 (SANF), MPK
STOKOE, Cyril A M, Act/Leading Seaman, 67264 V (SANF), MPK
SYMONS, Maurice M, Able Seaman, 68245 (SANF), MPK
THOMPSON, Walter E H, Able Seaman, 67360 (SANF), MPK
VAN DYK, Cecil H, Able Seaman, 67404 (SANF), MPK
WEBBER, Reginald, Able Seaman, 67361 (SANF), MPK
WILLIAMS, Dastrey S, Leading Seaman, 67047 (SANF), MPK
WRIGHT, Gerald V, Act/Ordnance Artificer 4, 67375 (SANF), MPK

We will remember them

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HMS Gloucester


Researched by Peter Dickens, primary reference Wikipedia

 

South African Navy Commodore turned Soviet SPY … codename Felix

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Dieter Gerhardt

School is still out in veteran circles as to reconciliation on Dieter Gerhardt, his actions selling British and South African Naval intelligence to the Soviet Union during the Cold War – many still grappling with the enormity of what he did and the damage it caused both the United Kingdom and, more specifically, South Africa.

What is still a little unclear to many is the motive, was it pure money, or as he claimed in his defence, was it his father’s strong pro Nazi standpoint and membership of the Ossewabrandwag during WW2 along with a fierce socialisation and upbringing in highly conservative Afrikaner Nationalist values that drove him at a young age to embrace Communism and the Anti-Apartheid struggle?

For those not familiar with South Africa’s biggest and most damaging military leak, Dieter Gerhardt reads like a John Le Carre novel – you just can’t make this stuff up.

Dieter Gerhardt is a former Commodore in the South African Navy and commander of the strategic Simon’s Town naval dockyard. He was arrested by the FBI in New York City in 1983 following information obtained from a Soviet defector. He was convicted of high treason as a Soviet spy in South Africa together with his second wife, Ruth, who had acted as his courier. Both were released prior to the change of government following the 1994 general election.

Born November 1, 1935, Gerhardt joined the South African Navy after his father successfully persuaded naval chief Hugo Biermann to take the troubled teenager under his wing to try to instill discipline in him, he graduated from the Naval Academy in Saldanha Bay in 1956, winning the Sword of Honour.

In 1962 he attended a Royal Navy mine school in Portsmouth and completed the parachute training course at RAF Abingdon. After his training in Britain, he was seconded to the Royal Navy.

He started his spying career in his late twenties, while still a junior naval officer, by offering his services to the South African Communist Party. Bram Fischer referred him to the Soviet embassy in London, where the “walk-in” was recruited into the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence branch, and instructed to continue his career in the South African military.

As part of his service in the Royal Navy, he trained at HMS Collingwood and served on HMS Tenby (F65), and passed classified information about the weapon systems there to the Soviets. Among the systems he compromised through these activities were the SeaCat and Sea Sparrow missiles. He was also responsible for passing the first intelligence information about the French Exocet missile to the Soviets.

British journalist and security services specialist Chapman Pincher maintained that, while in London in the late 1960s, he was able to interview Royal Navy Polaris submarine crews for potential candidates that the Soviets could approach. It was also during this time that he met his first wife, British-born Janet Coggin whom he married in 1958.

Coggin says she became aware of her husband’s Cold War spying activities eight years later in 1966 but chose not to turn him in, fearing that he would be executed, leaving her children fatherless. She says Gerhardt eventually gave her an ultimatum to become a spy too, which she declined, forcing the couple’s separation. She divorced him in 1966 and moved to Ireland with her children, claiming that she lived in constant fear of the Soviet security services. She subsequently published a book in 1999 about her experiences called ‘The Spy’s Wife’.

In 1973 Gerhardt married his second wife, Ruth Johr, a Swiss citizen who author Chapman Pincher claims was already a spy for the German Democratic Republic. According to Gerhardt, he recruited her shortly after they were married. She travelled to Moscow to undergo training.

Gerhardt rose through the ranks of the naval establishment as his career progressed. Upon his return from training in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s, he served as the naval liaison officer with the defence company that subsequently become Armscor.

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SAS Simon van der Stel and HMS Rhyl – Simonstown 1972

From 1972 to 1978, he was appointed as a senior Naval staff officer to the Chief of the SADF in Pretoria. In this position he was able to access South African Army and Air Force’s secrets and plans regarding the South African Border War. He claims direct involvement in aspects of Israeli and South Africa’s military cooperation, using this position in 1975 to pass Israeli secrets to the Soviets, including details of the purchase of Jericho missiles from Israel.

Gerhardt worked at Chief of Defence Staff, Director of Projects, in Pretoria in the Armaments Board building in 1973-75. During this time as the Director of Projects was heavily involved with the development of the Ratel IFV, the Cactus Missile System and also the deal with France for the Mirage F1 fighter planes and associated weapons systems which was at a critical stage of development.

Later, he was appointed commander of the strategically important Simonstown naval dockyard. In this position, he had access to all the South African Naval intelligence reports from the Silvermine listening post near Cape Town, as well as technical details of weapons systems. He reportedly revealed to the Soviets most of the Western naval surveillance techniques for the South Atlantic.

During the 1982 Falklands War, Gerhardt was allegedly able to use his position to supply the Soviets with detailed information about the locations of Royal Navy ships in the south Atlantic that the South African Navy intercepted at Silvermine.

Gerhardt visited the USSR five times during his career, while his wife travelled with him twice in 1972 and 1976. He was reportedly paid 800,000 Swiss Francs by the GRU for his spying activities; his contact in the GRU said that money was not the motive for Gerhardt.

Gerhardt’s cover was finally blown by Soviet double agent Vladimir Vetrov (given the codename “Farewell” by France’s DST intelligence service. He was arrested at his hotel in New York in January 1983 in a sting operation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) while he was taking a degree in mathematics at Syracuse University.

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Vitaly Shlykov Soviet Skymaster

The CIA interrogated him for 11 days, during which time he gave up one of his Soviet handlers, Vitaly Shlykov (codename “Bob”). Shlykov, who did not know that the Gerhardts had been arrested, was also arrested on 25 January when he travelled to Zurich under the alias “Mikhail Nikolayev” for a pre-arranged meeting with Ruth Gerhardt. He had in his possession $100,000 in cash that he intended to pay her, he did not disclose his real identity to Swiss authorities, and was sentenced to three years imprisonment for spying.

P.W. Botha announced Gerhardt’s arrest to the world in a special press conference on 26 January 1983. Following his deportation to South Africa, Gerhardt and his wife were tried in camera in the Cape Town Supreme Court, with the prospect of a death sentence being handed down for high treason.

In his trial, Gerhardt stated that the repulsion he felt towards his father’s right-wing political beliefs drove him to fight apartheid in serving the USSR. According to Gerhardt, he deliberately attempted to sow confusion in the trial by stating in his defence that he had spied for an unnamed third country that was not hostile to South Africa.

His first wife described him as a “traditional apartheid-accepting South African”; he had told her that he wanted revenge against the South African government for interning his father, a Nazi sympathizer, during World War II.

Ruth Gerhardt claimed in her defence that she thought he was a double agent working for South Africa. Judge George Munnik sentenced him to life imprisonment in December 1983, while his wife Ruth received a 10-year sentence for acting as a courier. The judge said that he would have passed the death sentence on Gerhardt that the prosecution sought if the information he had passed to the Soviet Union had led to the death of a South African soldier.

Ruth Gerhardt served her sentence together with Barbara Hogan and other anti-apartheid dissidents. In 1988, she attempted to gain her freedom by renouncing violence, and thereby take advantage of an offer made by PW Botha to political prisoners like Nelson Mandela, however the request was turned down by Justice Goldstone.

Dieter Gerhardt was one of the imprisoned spies who was mooted for inclusion in a 1989 East-West prisoner exchange amongst a number of countries that did not materialise. In 1990 when FW de Klerk unbanned organisations such as the ANC and released political prisoners like Nelson Mandela, Gerhardt was not one of those who was freed. He was visited in prison on 22 January 1992 by a delegation from the ANC, who were seeking information regarding the SADF that might have assisted them in CODESA negotiations with the National Party government.

Gerhardt was released in August 1992 following his application for release, political pressure in South Africa and an appeal by Russian premier Boris Yeltsin to South African President FW de Klerk when the latter visited Moscow after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Former Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan said that the former spy’s release was a precondition to the restoration of diplomatic ties and the signing of a trade agreement between South Africa and the Russian Federation.

Gerhardt moved to Basel, Switzerland, following in the footsteps of his Swiss wife Ruth Gerhardt, who was released in 1990 following a request from the Swiss government.

He stated upon his release that:

“I did not feel like a traitor or someone who was betraying his colleagues. I was a political activist fighting the evil regime of apartheid. It was nothing personal.”

Gerhardt was subsequently granted amnesty in 1999 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and his rank of Rear Admiral restored.


Researched by Peter Dickens, primary reference Wikipedia and the Imperial War Museum

“Every man for himself” … South African sacrifice and the sinking of HMS Hecla

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 on British vessels. So when one was sunk, as HMS Hecla was, inevitably there is a very long honour roll of South Africans. Read on for their story.

HMS Hecla was built on the Clyde as a destroyer depot ship and after being commissioned on the 6 January 1941 was based at Havelfjord in Iceland as the mother ship for the destroyers escorting the Atlantic convoys which kept Britain from starving.

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HMS HECLA

In the summer of 1941 Hecla was joined by the repair ship USS Vulcan and that Autumn returned to the Clyde for a short refit after which it headed south to an unanounced destination in the southern hemisphere. It was to have joined the fleet being assembled to defend Singapore against the Japanese but detonated a mine off the coast of South Africa and limped into the naval port of Simonstown where it spent several months under repair. These months were a happy interlude for its crew and it took on a number of South African Naval Force personnel as crew.

On the 20 October with Capt G.V.B. Faulkner RN in command Hecla left Cape Town with Convoy CF.7 for Freetown escorted by HMS Shropshire. On arrival at Freetown on the 2 November they joined the destroyer depot ship HMS Vindictive as part of Convoy CF.7A whch left with a strong escort on the 4 November for Liverpool. A young RNVR rating, Tom Davis, on the destroyer escort HMS Active took this last photograph before it was torpedoed less than a week later.

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The two destroyer depot ships, HMS Hecla and Vindictive, were joined by the destroyer escorts, HMS Venomous and HMS Marne, near the Canaries on the 8 November and detached for Gibraltar to support the ships taking the troops to the invasion of north Africa, Operation Torch.

HMS Hecla was torpedoed by U-515 commanded by German U-boat ace, Werner Henke. At 00.15 hours on 12 Nov 1942,  U-515 fired a spread of four torpedoes at HMS Hecla commanded by A/Capt G.V.B. Faulkner, Royal Navy.  The HMS Hecla was misidentified as a Birmingham-class cruiser and hit her in the engine room. Two torpedoes were surface-runners and the last also malfunctioned and was a circle-runner. The U-boat then hit the ship with three coups de grâce at 01.28, 01.49 and 02.06 hours, sinking the vessel west of Gibraltar.

Every man for himself

An eyewitness report from Lt. Cmdr Henry Alexander (RN), the Navigation officer on the bridge of Helca describes the torpedoing of his ship

“… (a) torpedo blew up abreast our mainmast on our port quarter and was probably responsible for killing our entire cypher staff including my splendid Gyro Compass Artificer … the last torpedo must have struck near where he was working. After a very few minutes a third torpedo was audible and the bubble track seen coming straight towards our bridge. The explosion sent up a column of water like a giant fire hose and gave us all a sound blessing a second time, coming down. The situation then looked hopeless and orders were given for “Abandon ship stations” and finally, “Every man for himself”. 

Werner Henke und Piloten an Bord eines U-Bootes

At 02.11 hours,  U-515 fired two torpedoes and badly damaged the HMS Marne (G 35) (LtCdr H.N.A. Richardson, DSO, DSC, RN) whilst she attempted to rescue the survivors of HMS Hecla. Fifty four ratings and ten officers were rescued by HMS Marne before she was hit in the stern by a torpedo intended for Hecla killing 14 of her crew.

HMS Venomous (under the command of Cdr H.W. Falcon-Steward, RN)  broke off its rescue efforts to pursue the U-boat, having chased the submarine off, the HMS Venomous returned to pick up more survivors from the HMS Hecla and eventually landed them at Casablanca.

The performance of Cdr Falcon-Steward and his officers and crew in fighting the U-boat while rescuing survivors was praised by Admiral Cunningham in his report. Every member of the crew played their part in the rescue of survivors, some risking their own lives by diving in to help the men in the oil covered water.

The Anti Submarine Bosun on HMS Venomous, Warrant Officer H.J.B. Button RN was an unsung hero. Herbert “Jimmie” Button, was a strong swimmer. He gave his own life to save the lives of others, diving in repeatedly to rescue the men struggling for their lives in the oil covered water, only to die a few days later from his exertions.

One survivor was Lt. Herbert Hastings McWilliams of the South African Navy. This recently commissioned 35 year old officer in the South African Navy, an architect in his father’s practice in Port Elizabeth before the war, had enlisted as an ordinary seaman in 1941 and joined HMS Hecla at Simonstown on the 4 September 1942.  He was an exceptionally gifted artist and his wonderfully realistic paintings of Hecla sinking on the back of old charts (based on sketches done with a throat brush and a mixture of iodine and rum  from the sick bay of Venomous).  His paintings are in the Imperial War Museum, London.

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The Sinking of HMS Hecla with the Destroyer HMS Marne by Lt Herbert Hastings McWilliams: HMS Hecla pitches sharply to one side. Many figures can be seen on deck struggling in the water and climbing over board. There are several life boats in the foreground and a large explosion in the background as HMS Marne is targeted. Copyright: © IWM.

The below image shows HMS Venomous arriving at Casablanca with her decks crowded with survivors from HMS Hecla

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South African Honour Roll – HMS Hecla, ship loss

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nBENNETT, John F, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 330351 (SANF), MPK
LLOYD, George H, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 330353 (SANF), MPK
PEERS, Charles V, Able Seaman, 562653 (SANF), MPK
SMITH, Ian R, Electrical Artificer 4c, 68478 (SANF), MPK

U-515 sinking on her Sixth and Final Patrol

On 8 April 1944, U-515 spotted a carrier-based aircraft and submerged; an hour later she surfaced and was attacked by another aircraft. U-515 engaged the machine with her 3.7-cm anti-aircraft gun. The plane’s bombs missed the U-boat and U-515 failed to shoot down the aircraft.  The next day, 9 April 1944 U-515 was again attacked north of Madeira by the destroyers USS Pope, USS Pillbury, USS Chatelain and USS Flaherty.  Flooding and loss of depth control forced the U-Boat to the surface, where she was sunk by rockets fired from Grumman Avenger and Grumman Wildcat aircraft and gunfire from the destroyers.

Sixteen of U-515s crew were killed, but 44 survived the attack. The survivors were picked up by the destroyers and later transferred to the aircraft carrier USS Guadalcanal.

 

Survivors of U-515 climb aboard USS Chatelain and USS Pope after their boat was sunk


Researched by Peter Dickens. Reference and extracts taken from: A HARD FOUGHT SHIP. The story of HMS Venomous.  Image copyright Imperial War Museum.  Extracts from Wikipedia. Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2 by Don Kindell.

 

The Leonardo da Vinci wreaks havoc off South Africa’s coastline

There is good reason why South Africa’s coastline was so heavily defended by the Royal Navy and South African Navy during World War 2, especially protecting shipping rounding the Cape, and none more so than protection from the submarine menace. One such submarine was the RM Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian submarine fighting alongside Nazi Germany as part of the Axis Pact.

The RM Leonardo da Vinci carried out 11 war patrols, sinking 17 ships, a total of 120,243 Gross Register Tonnage, which included the 21,500-ton Ocean Liner RMS Empress of Canada.  The da Vinci was Italy’s most successful submarine in World War II, and her captain, Lt. Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia, Italy’s leading submarine ace.

The Leonardo da Vinci was one of six Marconi-class submarines built at Monfalcone in 1938 and 1939. The Marconi-class were fairly large boats, 251ft long with 1,510 tons submerged displacement and a crew of 57 men. Armed with four bow and four stern torpedo tubes, one 3.9in deck gun and four 13.2mm machine guns (mainly for anti-aircraft defense) they had a range of nearly 3,000 miles, a top surface speed of just over 17 knots and so were formidable weapons capable of operating far from home.

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The Last Patrol

In February 1943, the submarine began a long mission to hunt in South Africa’s waters – the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, it is the final patrol for the Leonardo da Vinci.

This patrol was conducted in collaboration with another Italian submarine, RM Finzi. On March 14th 1943, the da Vinci sunk her most notable target, the troopship SS Empress of Canada.

Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 12.18.39The 21,516-ton RMS Empress of Canada, was a liner of the Canadian Pacific Steam Ship Company, which had been converted to a troop transport. To the German U-boat captains she managed to elude for three and a half years, she was known as “The Phantom”.

She was sailing from Durban, South Africa to the United Kingdom via Takoradi on the Gold Coast, West Africa. On board were 1,346 persons including 499 Italian prisoners of war and Greek and Polish refugees.

Just after midnight the first torpedo struck. The commander of the Leonardo Da Vinci then gave Captain Goold, the commander of the Empress of Canada half an hour to abandon ship.  She sank in about 20 minutes after a second torpedo was launched.

A total of 392 people were lost due to exposure, drowning and sharks, including, 90 women and 44 crew.  In the “fog of war”, the sinking of the Empress of Canada can be ironically seen as a “own goal” as nearly half of the fatalities reported were the Italian Prisoners of War.

The survivors were picked up by the destroyers and corvettes HMS Boreas, HMS Petunia and HMS Crocus and the Ellerman Line vessel Corinthian.

Following this on the 19th March 1943 – The British merchant vessel SS Lulworth Hill – 7,628 tons – was da Vinci’s next victim northwest of South West Africa (now Namibia, but then a South African protectorate). 14 survivors made it onto a life raft. The Leonardo da Vinci captured and took on board one survivor of the sinking, James Leslie Hull.

LulworthHillSurvivorsAfter 29 days the UK authorities assumed that the Lulworth Hill had been lost with all hands and duly informed their families.On 7 May the HMS Rapid picked up the Lulworth Hill’s liferafts. Of the 14 men that had survived the sinking, after 50 days adrift only two, Seaman Shipwright (i.e. carpenter) Kenneth Cooke and Able Seaman Colin Armitage, remained alive.

By mid April 1943, the Leonardo da Vinci had rounded the Cape and was in the Indian Ocean, just off Durban, South Africa and here the tally of destruction was to escalate:

17 April 1943 – The Dutch merchant vessel SS Sembilan – 6,566 tons – is torpedoed and sunk by the Italian submarine Leonardo da Vinci east of Durban.  The attack also totally destroys two American Landing Crafts, LCP-780  and LCP-782 which were being carried aboard as freight.

The next day, 18 April 1943 – The British merchant vessel Manaar – 8,007 tons – the second victim of the Italian submarine Leonardo da Vinci within two days, is sunk east of Port Elizabeth.

21 April 1943 – The American vessel (Liberty Ship) John Drayton – 7,177 tons – is sunk by the da Vinci east of Durban, after being Torpedoed twice and shelled while en route to Cape Town. 4 died when Lifeboat #1 capsized during launching. The men in Lifeboat #4 were rescued on 23 April by the Swedish vessel MV Oscar Gorthon; a raft was picked up on 27 April by HMS Relentless.  The men in Lifeboat #2 picked up by the Greek freighter SS Mount Rhodope a month after the sinking on the 21st May. By that time only 8 of the original 24 men were still alive and of them, a further 3 died in hospital in Durban. In all, 21 of the 41 merchant crew members and 5 of the 15 Naval Armed Guards aboard John Drayton lost their lives.

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Painting by Ivan Berryman depicting the final hours of the John Drayton

The last vessel to be sunk by da Vinci was on 25 April 1943, British vessel operated by Shell as a petroleum tanker called the Doryssa – 8,078 tons – is was sunk south of Port Elizabeth.

As a result of all the successes the Commander of the da  Vinci, T.V. Gazzana-Priaroggia was promoted Capitano di Corvetta with immediate effect from 6th May 1943.

A Fatal Decision

With a string of victories and promotions after its very successful patrol to South Africa’s waters, on 22 May 1943 Leonardo da Vinci unwisely signalled its intention to head home for Bordeaux, France.

The decision to radio home its intentions proved fatal.  Its position having been fixed by Allied direction-finding equipment, on 23 May the destroyer HMS Active  and the frigate HMS Ness subjected the submarine to an intense depth charge attack and sank it 300 miles (480 km) west of Vigo (off the West African coastline).  There were no survivors.

HMS Ness (Left) and HMS Active (Right)

Today

Gazzana_2Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia was a massive loss to the Italian war effort and the Italian Navy, he was posthumously awarded the Knight’s Iron Cross from Germany and the Gold Medal for Military Valor by King Vittorio Emanuele III.  Rather unusually given the outcome of the war, as testament of this legacy, two modern Italian Sauro-class submarines are named:

  • S520 Leonardo da Vinci, completed in 1981 and named after the original RM Leonardo da Vinci
  • S525 the Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia completed in 1993 (the last of its class) and named in honour of Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia

Source: Wikipedia, the Italian Monachist – Saga of the Submarine Leonardo da Vinci.  Merchant ships – attacks by Italian submarines.