“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.

shlykov
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

South African sacrifice on the 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.

hecla

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 South African Naval Force personnel.

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.

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 broke off its rescue efforts to pursue the U-boat.

More survivors of the HMS Hecla were then eventually picked up by HMS Venomous (Cdr H.W. Falcon-Steward, RN) and landed 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 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 SANF.

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.

On 9 April U-515 was 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: A HARD FOUGHT SHIP. The story of HMS Venomous.  Image copyright Imperial War Museum

 

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.

South African sacrifice on the HMS Neptune

This image of HMS Neptune with Table Mountain in the background says a lot about the South African naval personnel seconded to serve on Royal Navy vessels and their supreme sacrifice.

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 Neptune was, inevitably there is a very long honour roll of South Africans. Read on for their story.

HMS Neptune was a Leander-class light cruiser commissioned into the Royal Navy on 12 February 1934 with the pennant number “20”.

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HMS Neptune at sea in her heyday.

Force K, operating in the Mediterranean, including HMS Neptune, was sent out on 18 December 1941, to intercept an Axis forces convoy (German and Italian) bound for Tripoli,

neptune1On the night of 19 – 20 December, HMS Neptune, leading the line, struck two mines, part of a newly laid Italian minefield. The first struck the anti-mine screen, causing no damage. The second struck the bow hull. The other cruisers present, HMS Aurora and HMS Penelope, also struck mines.

While reversing out of the minefield, Neptune struck a third mine, which took off her propellers and left her dead in the water. HMS Aurora was unable to render assistance as she was already down to 10 knots (19 km/h) and needed to turn back to Malta. HMS Penelope was also unable to assist.

The destroyers HMS Kandahar and HMS Lively were sent into the minefield to attempt a tow. The former struck a mine and began drifting. Neptune then signalled for Lively to keep clear. (Kandahar was later evacuated and torpedoed by the destroyer Jaguar, to prevent her capture.)

Neptune hit a fourth mine and quickly capsized, killing 737 crew members. The other 30 initially survived the sinking but they too died. As a result, only one was still alive when their carley float was picked up five days later by the Italian torpedo boat Achille Papa.

The loss of HMS Neptune was the second most substantial loss of life suffered by the Royal Navy in the whole of the Mediterranean campaign, and ranks among the heaviest crew losses experienced in any naval theatre of World War II.

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The Royal Marine band on the jetty by the stern of HMS Neptune at Simon’s Town in July 1940

This is the honour roll of South Africans lost that day lest we forget the heroism and sacrifice of these brave South African men.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nADAMS, Thomas A, Able Seaman, 67953 (SANF), MPK
CALDER, Frank T, Ordinary Seaman, 67971 (SANF), MPK
CAMPBELL, Roy M, Able Seaman, 67318 (SANF), MPK
DIXON, Serfas, Able Seaman, 67743 (SANF), MPK
FEW, Jim, Able Seaman, 67744 (SANF), MPK
HAINES, Eric G, Able Seaman, 67697 (SANF), MPK
HOOK, Aubrey C, Able Seaman, 67862 (SANF), MPK
HOWARD, Harold D, Signalman, 67289 (SANF), MPK
HUBBARD, Wallace S, Able Seaman, 67960 (SANF), MPK
KEMACK, Brian N, Signalman, 67883 (SANF), MPK
MERRYWEATHER, John, Able Seaman, 67952 (SANF), MPK
MEYRICK, Walter, Ordinary Signalman, 68155 (SANF), MPK
MORRIS, Rodney, Ordinary Signalman, 68596 (SANF), MPK
RANKIN, Cecil R, Signalman, 67879 (SANF), MPK
THORP, Edward C, Signalman, 67852 (SANF), MPK
THORPE, Francis D, Able Seaman, 67462 (SANF), MPK
WILD, Ernest A, Able Seaman, 67929 (SANF), MPK

Other South Africans who had enlisted into the Royal Navy were also lost, these include (and by no means is this list definitive) the following:

OOSTERBERG, Leslie W, Stoker 1c, D/KX 96383, MPK
TOWNSEND, Henry C, Stoker 1c, D/KX 95146, MPK

May they Rest in Peace, these brave men whose duty is now done.

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HMS Neptune in Cape Town harbour


Researched by Peter Dickens, Sources – Wikipedia.  Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2 by Don Kindell

 

 

Dick Lord – A SAAF legend who was initially discouraged from joining the SAAF

Richard Stanley Lord (nickname “Dick”) was born on June 20 1936 in Johannesburg, and educated at Parktown Boys’ High School.  His fascination with flying took hold playing “Biggles” high up in Johannesburg’s famous jacaranda trees.

In the late 1950’s Dick Lord wanted to join the South African Air Force.  However at the time the governing National Party had targeted South Africa’s defence forces for “transformation”, effectively ridding the defence arms of all their “British” heritage and socially engineering the forces using job reservation, political appointment and nepotism to progress white Afrikaners.

In this changing political environment Dick Lord was despaired of a career in the SAAF, his Afrikaans was limited and his strong “English” heritage was against him in the now Afrikaner-dominated South African Services.

So instead he, joined the Royal Navy. His initial naval training was at the Royal Naval Engineering College, Manadon, and he gained his wings in the Fleet Air Arm in June 1959, flying Sea Venom and Sea Vixen fighters from the aircraft carriers HMS Centaur, HMS Victorious, HMS Hermes and HMS Ark Royal.

A very eventful FAA Legacy

In 1966 Dick Lord found himself in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm flying from Ark Royal off Beira, Mozambique, to enforce the oil blockade of Rhodesia following its Unilateral Declaration of Independence. After one mission to intercept a suspected blockade-runner, he returned to find that the carrier had been overtaken by a tropical storm and that her flight deck was pitching through 65ft: his aircraft caught the third arrester wire and damaged its undercarriage – reckoned a near perfect landing in the conditions.

An American “Top Gun”

Dick Lord was instrumental in the development of America’s Top Gun fighter pilot academy, made famous by the film of the same name. He established his unusual role in 1968, when he was the foremost British instructor sent on exchange at Miramar, California, to train American pilots then suffering significant losses at the hands of MiG-21s flown by the North Vietnamese.

While some criticised the performance of America’s multi-million dollar Phantom jet, Lord concentrated on sharpening his pupils’ Air Combat Manoeuvring (ACM) skills to improve their odds in a dogfight.

He and a handful of other Fleet Air Arm graduates of the Royal Navy’s gruelling Air Warfare Instructors (AWI) school in Lossiemouth, Scotland, introduced rigorous new methods for recording and scrutinising the performance of trainees during exercises.

Lord, for example, scribbled notes on a pad on the knee of his flight suit during mock dogfights, which he then exhaustively analysed on a blackboard at post-flight debriefs.
Such was the trust placed in Lord that he was granted access to classified American military documents comparing the performance of US aircraft against that of enemy fighters. This access allowed him to write, with others, the US Navy’s Air Combat Manoeuvring manual.

A year after Lord’s arrival, the tuition and methods introduced by British pilots, all graduates of the AWI school at Lossiemouth, made their way into the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, which was set up in 1969. Better known as Top Gun, it remains the most famous programme in the history of naval aviation. Soon after it was established a Phantom flown by one of its first students shot down a MiG-21, the first time a US Navy aircraft had succeeded in aerial combat in two years.

Lord enjoyed the film Top Gun, but mused that it was “remarkable that any history book studiously avoids mention of any British involvement” and added that the film had not “given us due justice”. He remained proud of his involvement, however, and during his time at Miramar had insisted on using the call sign “Brit 1”. This meant that his wingman, though American, was forced to use the call sign “Brit 2”.

Dick Lord’s wife June Beckett, a BOAC air-hostess said of the movie “Top Gun” that while Dick complained about it, she contended that the film’s portrayal of big-talking fighter pilots was extremely true-to-life, and she should know.

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On his return to the Royal Navy he was senior instructor with 764 Naval Air Squadron where he passed on the skills and confidence that had made such an impact in America.

Back to South Africa

Dick yearned to return to South Africa, he resigned from the Royal Navy and in 1970 returned to South Africa where he converted to commercial flying and became a civil aviation instructor pilot.

However the Royal Navy would intervene in his life again, this time after a visit to Cape Town by HMS Ark Royal where a “deep chord” was struck in Dick’s heart, rekindling his love of more adventurous military flying.

Joining the SAAF

Although Dick Lord was still unable to pass the Afrikaans language test, he was able to join the South African Air Force this time due to capability gaps in SAAF caused by all their social engineering and transformation policies, it was also now at war and in need of very skilled and experienced military pilots.  Conscription in the SADF had also been implemented by this time, and it involved both English and Afrikaans speaking white South Africans, so policies had to be softened somewhat.

During South Africa’s involvement in the South West Africa (Namibia)/Angola Border War and whilst in the SAAF Dick Lord flew Impalas, Sabres and Mirage Ills.

Dick Lord’s leadership skills were quickly apparent and he ultimately commanded No 1 Squadron SAAF from 1981 to 1983, later directing SAAF operations during the Border War from Oshakati and Windhoek as well as flying SAAF Mirage F1AZs.

He ended his career in charge of the Air Force Command Post in Pretoria, where he was given high accolade for his role in helping to organise the rescue operations that saved all 581 passengers and crew of the Greek cruise-liner Oceanos, which sank off South Africa’s eastern coast on August 4 1991.

Another highlight of his career was to organise, in 1994, the fly-past at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa. Lord then retired as a Brigadier General and began writing about his life as an aviator.

He also wrote a number of books including

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Fire, Flood and Ice (1998) about SAAF Search and Rescue missions
From Tailhooker to Mudmover (2000) – a biography
Vlamgat (2000) – a history of the Mirage fighter jet in South Africa
From Fledgling to Eagle: the South African Air Force during the Border War (2008)

Apart from flying, his passion was military music, his favourite piece being Sarie Marais, the march of the Royal Marines, which is based on an Afrikaner folk song.

Brigadier General Dick Lord died on the 26th October 2011 after a long illness.  He is still sorely missed to this day.

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References:  The Daily Telegraph, Article on Dick Lord by Rostislav Belyakov. Military History Journal Vol 15 No 4 – December 2011.  Feature photo via Dean Wingrin.