The ‘PK’ as it should be remembered

SAS President Kruger Remembrance Parade – Hermanus 18 Feb 2023

Finally, in 2022 post Covid, some ‘official’ parades to remember the SAS President Kruger stated to re-appear in South Africa, and in my hometown the TS Birkenhead Sea Cadets based in Hawston along with their SA Navy oversight took the initiative, and again in 2023 with the Covid restrictions dropped they stepped up a gear.

Their annual parade in Hermanus is cleared with the municipality and the site (the Cenotaph at the Old Harbour) prepared and made ready – an appropriate location with its two naval defensive guns facing landward as a symbol of peace. The TS Birkenhead Sea Cadets also working in conjunction with the South African Navy Veterans Association, and with the assistance of the South African Legion and the Memorable Order of Tin Hats – Seagull Shellhole, Hermanus.

The Parade was run by Lt Noel Dreyer with Cmdr Glenn Von Zeil in attendance. Lt Dreyer was himself a survivor of the sinking of the PK and two other survivors of the sinking were also in attendance.

The religious services were handled by MOTH Seagull Shellhole’s Padre – MOTH Craig Hounsom. After the PK wreath, and naval association wreaths were laid, I laid the wreath on behalf of the SA Legion and MOTH Stephan Loubser – Seagull Adjutant – laid the MOTH wreath on behalf of our shell-hole in Hermanus.

I was asked to speak, and here’s my speech for those interested:

Three Ships – By Peter Dickens

Thank you for the honour of allowing me to speak today. 

The month of February is particularly significant one for The South African Navy, in some circles it’s known as ‘the three ships’ months. Reason being is that three significant ships were lost in South Africa’s military history, in three wars – one in the 1st World War, the SS Mendi, one in the 2nd World War, the HMSAS Southern Floe and one in the Cold War, the SAS President Kruger.

So, allow me to talk a little about all three.

On the 21st February 1917, the SS Mendi, carrying 811, 5th Battalion South African Labour Corps personnel – men and officers to the Western Front sank in the English Channel when it was struck mid-ships by a larger freight ship – the SS Darro – in poor sea conditions ignoring the fog condition regulations and travelling at speed. It sank in 20 minutes. Whilst sinking the South African troops assembled on the deck knowing that there not enough life-boats for them all and the water was at freezing point (it was after all mid-winter) – they bravely faced their fate by performing a ‘death dance’ in their traditional way.  The sinking took the lives of 616 South African soldiers and 30 British along with it, black and white but mainly black.

Why the colour differentiation, because the Hertzog Nationalist government refused to write it into their remembrance history as they were ‘black’, and it was only in 1994 that this ship and the men who perished with her were officially and appropriately recognised again – the date now marks our National Forces Day.

The Second ship, the HMSAS Southern Floe was a South African whaler converted into a mine-sweeper and was undergoing mine-sweeping operations in the Mediterranean, as part of the North African theatre of operations near Alexander in Egypt during World War 2. Late at night on the 10th/11th February 1941 – it inadvertently struck a sea-mine. The ship sank and all lives were lost, except for one person Leading Stoker C J Jones who was found in the middle of the sea clutching onto debris, the ships emblem floated ashore later as its only token of existence – the ship’s emblem is now in the national war museum. In all 25 South Africans lost their lives in the sinking.

The fate and remembrance of this ship too was lost to politics, the Nationalist government under Malan and others refused to recognise it, as they regarded the Second World War as ‘Jan Smuts’ war and a ‘British war’ and those participating in it as ‘traitors’ to the Afrikaner Nationalist cause.

The third ship lost, was the SAS President Kruger during what is now regarded as the Cold War. It was lost on the 18th February 1982 during a submarine defence exercise when it was inadvertently struck by its supply vessel, the SAS Tafelberg – mess 12, the Petty Officers mess took the hit and the PK also sank quickly into freezing cold seas in poor conditions with the loss of 16 souls – mostly Petty Officers. Had it not been for discipline and quick reactions of support vessels to pull the survivors out the freezing water and high seas so quickly the toll may well have been higher – a startling testament to the South African Navy.

But it was also to suffer the same political fates as the SS Mendi and the HMSAS Southern Floe, the Nationalist government was extremely embarrassed by the loss of the PK, this was the first and only time in history a Navy had sunk its own flagship, as the President Kruger was – it’s Force 3 Frigates now reduced to only 2. As a result, the SA navy under the Nationalists never really commemorated the loss officially. 

More political fate was to befall the SAS President Kruger – and even the HMSAS Southern Floe again – as the new African Nationalists only wanted to recognise the loss of ‘Black’ service personnel and the SS Mendi – the other sinkings not recognised – with literally no regard given to the men who actively served their country – South Africa, who had no regard for politics whatsoever – so what about them?

Image: SAS President Kruger by Derrick Dickens (copyright)

Thankfully the task of remembrance is with the veterans and very thankfully it’s not the responsibility of politicians. Politicians as we have seen, can and will readily politicise the war dead for their own aims and rhetoric – and completely miss the point and dishonour the fallen.

I am proud to stand with men, who in their service to their country recognise and remember all who were lost serving for their country, regardless of colour, culture or politics. I know of three PK survivors personally – Cameron Kinnear, a fellow Legionnaire and Lt Noel Dreyer standing here and Chris Lochner also standing here today, and is with them that the memory of not only their colleagues lost trapped in the ship, but they also carry the trauma of that night with them – it is within them as military veterans that the flame of remembrance is carried, and it with us as their comrades in arms with whom the solum act of remembrance lies.

I thank Lt Noel Dreyer for allowing me the privilege of reading the Honour Roll.

The 16 souls we remember today who were lost on the SAS President Kruger as follows:

Chief Petty Officer Johannes Petrus Booysen
Chief Petty Officer Hartmut Wilfried Smit
Chief Petty Officer Willem Marthinus Gerhardus Van Tonder
Chief Petty Officer Donald Webb
Petty Officer Stephanus Petrus Bothma
Petty Officer Graham Alexander Frank Brind
Petty Officer Robin Centlivre Bulterman
Petty Officer Granville Williams De Villiers
Petty Officer Evert Koen
Petty Officer Hjalmar Lotter
Petty Officer Roy Anthony McMaster
Petty Officer Roy Frederick Skeates
Petty Officer William Russel Smith
Petty Officer Michael Richard Bruce Whiteley
Petty Officer Coenraad Johannes Wium
Able Seaman Gilbert Timothy Benjamin

To the TS Birkenhead Sea Cadets under your South African Navy oversight on officially commemorating the SAS President Kruger – as an army officer I can only give you the highest naval praise, and it’s a signal used to tell other ships the fleet that a particular ship has performed a noble, exceptional or brave deed …  the signal is Bravo Zulu … BZ. 

I thank you young men and women and boys and girls for an excellent parade and commemoration on behalf of The South African Legion and the Memorable Order of Tin Hats.

Captain Peter Dickens (Retired)

For more reading on ‘the three ships’ follow these links

SS Mendi – World War 1: Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard

HMSAS Southern Floe – World War 2: ‘A sole survivor and a ship’s crest’; the South African Navy’s first loss – HMSAS Southern Floe

SAS President Kruger – Cold War: “Out of the Storm came Courage” … the tragedy of the PK


A documentary on the loss of the SAS President Kruger and 16 souls

This is a must see video on the sinking of the SAS President Kruger by Marc Bow, it outlines everything about the tragedy, and the impact the sinking of this vessel still has on the South African Naval Community – even to this day.

For the full story on The Observation Post, feel free to follow this link:

“Out of the Storm came Courage” … the tragedy of the PK

The honour roll of the South Africans lost that tragic day is as follows:

05507629 PE Chief Petty Officer Johannes Petrus Booysen
77060150PE Chief Petty Officer Hartmut Wilfried Smit
69443794PE Chief Petty Officer Willem Marthinus Gerhardus Van Tonder
07467392PE Chief Petty Officer Donald Webb
05208145PE Petty Officer Stephanus Petrus Bothma
70351226PE Petty Officer Graham Alexander Frank Brind
65718058PE Petty Officer Robin Centlivre Bulterman
73317695PE Petty Officer Granville Williams De Villiers
66510579PE Petty Officer Evert Koen
08302440PE Petty Officer Hjalmar Lotter
70343553PE Petty Officer Roy Anthony McMaster
72362379PE Petty Officer Roy Frederick Skeates
72265465PE Petty Officer William Russel Smith
75060863PN Petty Officer Michael Richard Bruce Whiteley
72249998PE Petty Officer Coenraad Johannes Wium
80100167PE Able Seaman Gilbert Timothy Benjamin

May they rest in peace, never forgotten.


Video Footage:  Marc Bow

 

The first South African warship to visit the USA

The Statue of Liberty as seen from the “grey ambassador” SAS President Kruger on a “flag showing” exercise.  In this historic cruise the SAS President Kruger also became the first South African Navy ship to visit the United States of America.

The SAS President Kruger was invited to participate in the 200th anniversary of the independence of the USA in 1976.  The trip was not without controversy.  Due to policies of Apartheid diplomatic relations between the Republic of South Africa and the United States of America were very strained by mid 1976.  However militarily speaking South Africa was supporting USA policies in Angola, and assisting CIA covert missions in the region just six months previously.

This meant meant that South Africa only received a last-minute invitation to send a warship to the USA.  One of South Africa’s Flagships the President Kruger, known affectionately as the “PK” left Simon’s Town on 3 June 1976, and sailed for the USA via Walvis Bay, Abidjan and Las Palmas to Norfolk, Virginia, and sailed from there, as part of a fleet of 53 warships (representing 22 countries) to New York where a naval revue took place on 4 July.

Members of the ship’s crew participated on 6 July in a parade through the streets of New York, after which the frigate sailed to Charleston, South Carolina. From there, the ship sailed via Las Palmas to Simon’s Town (return date 6 August).

‘Grey ambassadors’ (as these warships are called on diplomatic exercises) on “flag showing” cruises are very important for international relations between countries. During this cruise to the USA the Soweto Riots began in South Africa and such was the political strain that exactly twenty years would pass before a South African grey diplomat would again visit the USA.

Unfortunately in the intervening years the SAS President Kruger lost in a tragic accident at sea on 18 February 1982, and in 1996 the Navy’s most respected grey diplomat, SAS Drakensberg would return to the USA,

The Drakensberg left Simon’s Town on 14 June 1996 and participated with approximately 25 other warships from seventeen countries in naval manoeuvres, referred to as “Operation Unitas”, the ship visited the large US naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, as well as New York and Newport.  Here she is seen alongside Staten Island in 1996.

i041020_sas_drakensberg01

Reference – South African Navy website and Wikipedia