Smuts Barracks; Berlin

Not only did Jan Smuts have a Kibbutz named after him in Israel, as well as pub named after him in London, the famous ‘Smuts Barracks’ in Berlin was also named after him.  The barracks were the home to an SS Panzer Division during the Second World War and was occupied by the British after the war, the barracks is particularly well-known because it was on constant high alert during the Cold War and Berlin Wall divide.

Smuts Barracks was situated on Wilhelmstraße, a street in the Spandau district of Berlin, and the base of the British armoured contingent to Germany, it’s located next to what was the famous ‘Spandau Prison’ . Also in Wilhelmstraße, Spandau Prison was completed in 1881. It was occupied by seven Nazi war criminals, convicted in the Nuremberg Trials after World War 2, including Rudolf Hess, who remained its only prisoner there for many years until he committed suicide. After Hess’ death the prison was demolished and replaced by a shopping centre.

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Smuts Barracks (above and below), taken during 1 RTR’s tour of duty between Feb 67 and Jan 69.

The British armoured squadron based at Smuts Barracks consisted of 18 modified Chieftain tanks, painted in their renown urban camouflage, and were at a constant state of readiness. This “bombed up” state, ensured a speedy counter attack should the Soviet Union (Russia and East Germany mainly) breach the Berlin wall.

The last unit/squadron to be based here was C Squadron, The 14th/20th Royal King’s Hussars (1989-1993), a Cavalry Regiment of the Royal Armoured Corps. The squadron bar was known as the “Lion and Bear”.

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RTR at Smuts Barracks

Between 1948 and 1952, the Smuts Barracks was used by the following Regiments stationed in Germany:

Feb 1948 Sqn, 11 Hussars (armoured cars)
May 1949 ‘A’ Sqn, Royal Dragoons (armoured cars)
Mar 1950 ‘A’ Sqn, Royal Horse Guards (armoured cars)
Feb 1951 Sqn, 3rd Hussars

In Feb 1952 a permanent unit was formed, designated 1st Independent Sqn Royal Tank Regt. It was disbanded December 1957. Between December  1957 and Aug 1962, the squadron came from the APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier) regiment in BAOR:

Dec 1957 ‘B’ Sqn, l4lh/20th Hussars
Nov 1960 ‘C’ Sqn, 4th Royal Tank Regt

Another permanent unit was established in March 1963, designated Independent Sqn Royal Tank Regt; it was disbanded November 1965.

After that date, the squadron normally came from the training regiment at Catterick:

Feb 1965 Sqn, Queens Own Hussars
Feb 1967 A Sqn, 1st Royal Tank Regt
Jan 1969 Sqn, 9th/l2th Lancers
Dec 1970 Sqn, 1st Queen’s DG
Dec 1972 ‘A’ Sqn, 4th Royal Tank Regt
Dec 1974 ‘B’ Sqn, 5th Royal Inniskilling DG
Dec 1976 ‘B’ Sqn, Royal Scots DG
Apr 1979 ‘D’ Sqn, Royal Hussars
Feb 1981 ‘D’ Sqn, 4th/7th DG
Apr 1983 ‘D’ Sqn, Queens Own Hussars
May 1985 ‘B’ Sqn, 14th/20th Hussars

From 1985, the squadron came from the 14th/20th Hussars who were based at Münster:
Jan 1988 ‘C’ Sqn took over. The squadron was withdrawn in 1991.

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Jan Smuts

Also based at Smuts Barracks  were 38 (Berlin) Field Squadron RE. 38 Field Company was stationed in West Germany as part of 23 Field Engineer Regiment when in 1957 it was amalgamated with the RE Troops Berlin to become 38 (Berlin) Field Squadron Royal Engineers. The Squadron remained in Berlin providing engineer support to the Berlin Brigade until 1994 when it was disbanded as part of options for change.

Smuts Barracks was also the home of the Sapper Berlin Field Squadron (38 Fd Sqn RE).

So there you have it, another legacy of Jan Smuts and an island of South Africa’s contribution to the Second World War and the Cold War after it.  The Barracks is now closed and under private ownership.

Related work and links

Jan Smuts: A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts

Jan Smuts: “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Large reference, photos and extract from BAOR Locations – Smuts Barracks on-line.

The day the SAAF nearly killed Jan Smuts

Not a lot of people know this, but the South African Air Force (SAAF) nearly killed General Jan Smuts in a ‘Blue on Blue’ incident – military speak for when you fire on your own forces. The incident also says a lot of Jan Smuts’ character – so what happened?

Prior to the war, Oswald Pirow was the Defence Minister under the Hertzog regime, he was also a key player in the establishment of South African Airways (SAA).  As an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany and the Nazi cause himself he had a keen relationship with Nazi Germany.  He toured Germany on military inspections,  also buying German military hardware on a number of occasions.  As a result  both SAA and the SAAF at the beginning of the war found themselves equipped with German-made aircraft.

One particular aircraft was a German-made bomber made by Junkers, and it was used by both Axis forces in World War 2 and by South African forces – it was the Ju-86.  The difference between the two were slight adaptations and markings.

East African Campaign

At the onset of Word War 2, the South African Air Force’s 1 Squadron moved north in May 1940 for operations against the Italians in East Africa, 6 Hawker Fury fighter aircraft were part of the unit’s equipment.  Arriving in Mombasa, Kenya in June 1940, 6 ex-RAF Fury Is were added to their equipment that August, with 16 more arriving between October and January 1941.

On October 27, 1940, the Furies first saw combat for the first time when 4 Italian Ca.133s from 8 Gruppo, and 25 Squadriglia, attacked their airfield.

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SAAF 1 Squadron Hawker Fury

During October, 2 Squadron was formed out of 1 Squadron, with 9 Furies. On October 31, Hawker Furies from this unit came very close to shooting down two SAAF Ju-86s carrying some very important VIP’s travelling to the SAAF air-base to consult on South Africa’s conduct in the war to date.  The VIP’s included General Jan Smuts (South Africa’s Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief), Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, Major General Alan Cunningham, and Major General Galmen-Austen.  So here is what happened.

Blue and Blue

Within twelve hours of arriving at Nairobi, General Smuts, General Cunningham and the Chief of the South African General Staff were on their way by road to Gilgil, here they were given a rousing reception by 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group whose troops were inspected by General Smuts before his party lunched in the Brigade Officers’ Mess. The party then drove on to Nakuru airfield to meet Lieutenant-Colonel S.A. Melville and men of No. 1 Bomber Brigade and 40 Squadron, SAAF.

On 31 October 1940 General Smuts’ party left at sunrise, not in the Lodestar they arrived in but in a Junkers 86 bomber of the South African Air Force piloted by Captain D. B. Raubenheimer and accompanied by a second Junkers 86 carrying war correspondents, the formation also included a Dragon Rapide and an escort of two Hurricanes.

The aircrafts were making straight for Garba Tulla but changed course because General Smuts had been specially asked to fly over Archer’s Post airfield, headquarters of No. 11 Bomber Squadron, SAAF.

Later on 31 October 1940 the  South African Air Force Ju-86 bomber/transports carrying the VIP contingent did not follow specified procedures to identify themselves as ‘friendly’, as they passed over Archer’s Post. The formation did not signal the specified recognition signal, which consisted of lowering the undercarriage and waggling the wings.

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SAAF Ju-86

Under the impression that the formation was Italian, three SAAF Hawker Furies of 2 Squadron’s ‘D’ detachment, led by Captain J. Meaker, were scrambled and intercepted the formation.

Captain Meaker brought his formation into position quickly and closed to open fire on the bombers. As he manoeuvred to engage the right hand aircraft he noticed that it had twin rudders and climbed slightly to look at its markings, which he immediately recognised. He pulled up and away to the right, but Lieutenant Doug Pannell, flying on his leader’s starboard side, took this to indicate that Captain Meaker had finished his attack.

Meaker had no radio so could not warn the other two Fury that they were SAAF aircraft and he watched in horror as Lt. Pannell went in on attack and opened fire, Pannell only realised his mistake as he broke away.

The pilot of the third Fury did not open fire, and fortunately the Junkers was not shot down.

The Ju-86 aircraft were painted green, still in their original Luftwaffe colour. All SAAF Ju-86 had a 600 series number had a solid nose cone.  They however carried the distinctive South African Orange White and Blue markings and the British and Commonwealth roundel scheme.

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SAAF Ju-86

Close Call

When they landed 8 bullet holes were found in the fuselage and wing root of the SAAF Ju-86 Smuts was flying in, one of the bullets had even passed between Jan Smut’s legs.   In Smuts’ typical stoic, calm and implacable nature he even made light of the entire incident and there were no recriminations to the SAAF pilots involved.

Smuts had been in two previous wars, the 2nd Anglo Boer War and the 1st World War, it was not the first time he had come under fire and he understood the hazardous nature of warfare, his horse had even been shot out from under him Moodernaar’s Poort during the 2nd Anglo Boer War.

Later in the Second World War the SAAF aircraft fleet was modernised somewhat and equipped with more distinctive Allied Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, Smuts was to regularly use an American made Lockheed Lodestar when visiting South African troops on the ground and air-bases.

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Field Marshal Smuts standing in front of the aircraft in which he made his flying visits. It was an ex-South African Airways Lockheed Lodestar, which retained its natural metal finish when it became No 234 of the South African Air Force. IWM Copyright

In Conclusion

There are still some Afrikaners in the South African conservative right who would wish that the SAAF had indeed killed Jan Smuts, but in truth is he was a very popular World War 2 leader.  His popularity did not only extend the Allied forces, mainly British, American and other Commonwealth countries, it also extended to South African forces involved in World War 2 and domestically, especially amongst white volunteers fighting the war, half of which were of Afrikaner extract.

Smuts’ contribution to the outcome of the Second World War is immeasurable, his membership of the Imperial War Cabinet and his position as Winston Churchill’s personal advisor went a long way to winning the war for the Allies.  An early death of Smuts would have had ramifications on how the war was fought and won.

It also remains a fact that even after the war when Smuts still maintained a high degree of popularity domestically, and when he lost the General Election to the Afrikaner Nationalists in 1948, he still commanded a majority vote from the white electorate and only lost the election on a constitutional seat basis.

Related work

Oswald Pirow; South Africa’s ‘Neuordnung’ and Oswald Pirow

Jan Smuts; “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Jan Smuts; A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens,  with thanks and contribution from Sandy Evan Hanes and Warren Williamson.  References include ‘Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness’ by Richard Steyn,  Image copyright of Smuts next to Lockheed – Imperial War Museum, Image of SAAF Ju-86 courtesy Tinus Le Roux’s SAAF Legends website.

Rommel’s aide-de-camp was a South African

It’s a little known fact, one of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s key officers, a person in his ‘Inner Circle’ and his personal advisor and aide was in fact a South African.  Very few South Africans joined the Nazi military forces during the Second World War, there are a number of South West Africans (now Namibia) who joined Nazi Germany’s armed forces whilst South West Africa was a South African Protectorate, which is understandable given South West Africa used to be a German colony prior to World War 1 and they were all of German heritage. A handful of South African Prisoners of War even joined or were coerced to join the Waffen SS during the war itself.

Nordafrika, Erwin Rommel mit Offizieren

General Rommel (centre) briefing fellow officers

However there are only three South African nationals from the Union itself (that we are aware of at least) who up-front joined the German Armed Forces proper.  Two of them were allowed to re-settle in South Africa after the war, and both of them enjoyed amnesty and prosperity under the National Party government. One remained in Germany.

One is well-known – Robey Leibbrandt, his story as a Nazi insurgent to destabilise the South African war effort by trying to ramp up Nationalist Afrikaner militarist opposition to the war and subsequent capture is well documented, so too his treason trial and subsequent release and amnesty by the National Party (who during the war supported the Nazi cause).  However little is known of this second Wehrmacht officer – Heinz Werner Schmidt.

Heinz Werner Schmidt

To be fair to Heinz Schmidt, he was born in South Africa to German parents, and at a very young age he moved around Africa with his family, classified as ‘volkdeutsche’ spending more of his formative years and completing his university education in Germany itself, becoming a dual national with a German citizenship in addition to his South African one.  Leaving South Africa at the age of 4 he regarded himself as German above all and was swept up with the rest of the country in the euphoria of Nazism.  When war broke out, he was in a unique position – he had a choice.  He could choose to fighting for either South Africa and the Allied cause or Germany (as his dual citizenship allowed), he even had the choice of sitting the war out in South Africa (service was voluntary), he chose to his convictions to support the Nazi cause and became a German Army officer.

At one point in the war he found himself in command of Wehrmacht units directly engaging South African Army units and then, more ironically, with Europe and Germany devastated he engaged his South African birthright which gave him sanctuary in South Africa itself after the war.   In fact he built two very successful South African companies and one is a well-known household brand.

So lets examine who Heinz Schmidt was and what he did. Born in South Africa, Lieutenant Heinz Schmidt served in North Africa as Erwin Rommel’s (“The Desert Fox”) personal aid and advisor – an aide-de-camp in military speak.  As he was “South African-born” he was therefore considered, in line with military logic, an expert on Africa. Already a veteran of the Polish Campaign, Schmidt joined Rommel’s staff in March 1941 from Eritrea and was subsequently present during a number of battles in Egypt and later Tunisia, and was later to write a bestseller depicting his years with Rommel, namely “With Rommel in the Desert”.

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Heinz Schmidt with General Rommel – Schmidt is third from the left.

Werner Schmidt by his own admission was surprised that General Rommel took him on as his advisor as he really did not have a depth knowledge of Africa, however been the only officer in Rommel’s inner circle of officers with a smattering of African heritage he found himself the only man for the job, and he happily took it on.

Lieutenant Heinz Werner Schmidt also had a sound combat record, just days before he was appointed as the aide-de-camp to General Erwin Rommel, he was commanding a heavy weapons company.  In fact Schmidt played a key role in overrunning the South African positions on 23rd November 1941 during the Battle of Sidi Rezegh.  He found himself in the thick of things with the German Wehrmacht’s 115 Rifle Regiment which lined up to attack the South African’s flank and over ran them.

Lieutenant Heinz Werner Schmidt described the scene as follows:

“We headed straight for the enemy tanks. I glanced back. Behind me was a fan of our vehicles—a curious assortment of all types—spread out as far as the eye could see. There were armoured troop carriers, cars of various kinds, caterpillars hauling mobile guns, heavy trucks with infantry, and motorized anti-aircraft units. Thus we roared on towards the enemy ‘barricade.’

“I stared at the front fascinated. Right ahead was the erect figure of the Colonel commanding the regiment. On the left close by and slightly to the rear of him was the Major’s car. Tank shells were whizzing through the air. The defenders (editors note: the South African Brigade) were firing from every muzzle of their 25-pounders and their little 2-pounder anti-tank guns. We raced on at a suicidal pace.”

Sidi Rezegh

Battle scene at Sidi Rezegh November 1941

So, here we have a very unique instance in South African military history a ‘South African’ commanding enemy troops in direct combat against his ‘countrymen’.  In an action which devastated South African forces in defeat with the loss of many South African lives.

Lieutenant Heinz Werner Schmidt went on to have a very successful stint as Rommel’s advisor for the balance of the North African campaign, and his book on Rommel is regarded as one the most insightful works on Field Marshal Rommel.

Post War

What happened to Heinz Schmidt and in what actions he took part after the North African campaign is unclear, we know that he lived with Rommel and was even present at his 50th birthday on 15 November 1941. Heinz ended his book with the end of the African campaign – it was about Rommel after all, he did not elaborate on his movements and units in which he served, what his units did or on which front he served (Eastern, Western or Italian) after the Afrika Korps was defeated, and even after Rommel death.

What is clear is that Heinz Schmidt survived the war and like many Wehrmacht officers sought sanctuary outside wore torn Germany.  Fortunately for Heinz the very Nazi sympathetic National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948, three short years after the end of World War 2.  Heinz now chose to embrace his South African citizenship and return to his birthplace, South Africa to re-start his life.

51F3EDR4KVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_He moved to a small German community in Natal called ‘New Germany’, located just inland from Durban.  ‘New Germany’ was established well before World War 2 in 1848 by a party of 183 German immigrants.  With the strong cultural ties to Germany, German social clubs and many German compatriots, this island of German heritage in South Africa proved ideal for Heinz Schmidt to start again, and he did so with great success.

He started two companies which are now household brands in South Africa, Pineware and Gedore tools, Pineware makes household appliances under its own brand, anyone who has bought a Pineware toaster, iron or electrical appliance will know it.  Gedore tools makes the Wera line of tools.  Pineware was sold to Lion Match.

By all accounts he was a friendly and charming man, he had many humorous stories of his time with Rommel and was regularly seen at Remembrance Parades in Durban. Heinz Schmidt died in Durban after a short illness, aged 90, in 2007. At the time his holding company business, H. W. Schmidt Industrials, was family owned.

In Conclusion

There you have it, another tale of a person highly sympathetic to the Nazi cause who found success in post 1948 Nationalist South Africa.  He unfortunately (rightly or wrongly) joins Robey Leibbrand, B.J. Vorster and others who enjoyed political or business success in full sanctuary under the National Party government and as a result he was never held account or even investigated as to his actions fighting against his own countrymen.

Had this happened under Smuts’ United Party he would surely have become a ‘person of interest’ to the state, especially given his actions directly led to South African deaths.  Treason is generally legally defined as citizen ‘taking up arms’ against the country of his of citizenship.  In the case of dual citizenship (as was the case with Heinz Schmidt), if the person did not renounce his citizenship of the country he went to war against (which he did not) the usual practice during and after the war was to convict the person of treason, in the other Allied nations – especially the UK, USA and Australia many people like Heinz faced the same situation after the war, especially in the cases where their dual nationals and even nationals had joined the Waffen SS and German Wehrmacht, most received very light sentences and fines, in exceptional cases those found guilty of High Treason were executed or handed life sentences.

This however did not happen in South Africa after the war and the tenets of the law on treason for a dual national were not tested.  The only case of a South African member of the German Wehrmacht which was tested was Robey Liebbrandt, it was during the war itself, and he narrowly escaped the death sentence (Jan Smuts intervened with clemency).

The North African campaign was regarded as the ‘gentlemen’s war’ by all forces fighting it, primarily because it was fought according to the conventions.  Whether Heinz would have been simply regarded defeated Wehrmacht officer at the end of the war holding a dual nationality, had no recored of war crime and had not violated his South African citizenship rights. And then subsequently allowed to get on with his life in South Africa as a simple veteran is a matter of conjecture – we will never know as it was never challenged.

The issue of treachery aside, his book is however a sentinel work on Field Marshal Erwin Rommel – the ‘Desert Fox’ and it gives a unique and valuable historic insight into someone who is arguably regarded as one of the best military commanders of the war. Heinz Schmidt lived with and went to war with Rommel, his story is both very interesting and very unique.

erwin-rommelTo give an idea of the value his book from an insight perspective, the famous Rommel quotable quote as to using captured ‘booty’ (enemy equipment) for personal use is thanks to Schmidt’s work. Rommel, whose signature British issue goggles often worn above his visor on his cap said “Booty is permissible I assume; even for a general“. A quote which now finds itself in use in military outfits the world over when reasoning the use of ‘booty’.

With that, as South Africans we find ourselves contributing again to a rich military heritage with our own very unique history highlighting of our lessor known past of ‘Nazi’ collaborators and World War 2 Wehrmacht veterans.

Related Work

Sidi RezeghSidi Rezegh – “The South African sacrifice resulted in the turning point of the battle”

Fall of Tobruk; “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

El Alamein; “General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”; The Battle of El Alamein

Robey Leibbrandt; A South African traitor & ‘Operation Weissdorn’

The South African Nazi Party; South Africa’s Nazi Party; The ‘Gryshemde’

The Ossewabrandwag; “Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag

South Africans in the Waffen SS; South African Nazi in the Waffen SS ‘British Free Corps’

Oswald Pirow; South Africa’s ‘Neuordnung’ and Oswald Pirow


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  Reference ‘With Rommel in the Desert’ by Heinz Werner Schmidt and Werner Schmidt’s published obituary.

South African sacrifice in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm

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FAA pilot standing on the wing of a Seafire (adapted Spitfire with arrest capability). Note the “beard”  and his wings on his sleeve above his rank.

The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) is a lessor known service in the bigger picture of World War 2, but no less important.  In essence the Fleet Air Arm is the Royal Navy’s own Air Force, designed solely to be launched either at sea from aircraft carriers and ships or from shore bases on maritime based operations and in defence of the Royal Navy specifically.

The Royal Air Force was an independent arm of service from the Navy, it worked in conjunction with the Navy and the Army in joint commands, however it also worked in conjunction with the Navy’s own Air Force – the Fleet Air Arm.

The Fleet Air Arm is interesting as it flew a wide variety of very unique fixed wing aircraft in World War 2, and rotary wing aircraft post war (helicopters).  The FAA aircraft in World War 2 were usually a little different to the ‘landed’ cousins as they to be specially adapted for operating at sea, they also had to be a lot more robust and made to ‘fold-up’ to store them on deck.  They were even given different names, for the same equivalent Royal Air Force and US Air Force aircraft, an example is the famous ‘Spitfire’ had its named changed to ‘Seafire’ when serving with the FAA along with its special additions (like assesting or catapult hooks).

Even lessor known is the fact that the Fleet Arm has had a number of South Africans serve in it, and it all ties back to the strong Naval ties Britain – and the Royal Navy specifically – had with South Africa, especially as the Naval Base at Simonstown is near Cape Town, South Africa, and it was British sovereign territory during the war (a status that existed well in the 1960’s).

Like the South African Naval Forces personnel (SANF) finding themselves seconded to the Royal Navy or South Africans joining the Royal Navy directly as Royal Navy volunteer reserve – South African branch (RNVR), so too did many South Africans find themselves in the Royal Navy’s FAA either as SANF personnel or RNVR personnel.

It also unfortunately follows that when tragedy strikes the Royal Navy and its Air Force, there are South African losses.  So, lets look at each of the South African men specifically lost serving the Fleet Air Arm, honour them by telling a little about their story, the squadrons they belonged and the unique FAA aircraft they flew.  By looking at the sacrifice it will also give us a small insight into this very unique history of the FAA.

Fleet-Air-Arm

A unique book was written and illustrated by Derrick Dickens called ‘Stringbag to Shah’ on the history of the Fleet Air Arm, illustrated because many of the aircraft used by the FAA were not recorded in colour, or at best obscure with no record of paint schemes etc – and he wanted to bring these unique aircraft to living in vivid colour using his artwork.  We’ll be using this unique catalog with the permission of the copyright owner.

In all there were 9 men according to current records (this can change as more research has been done on the honour roll) who were South African and died serving in the Fleet Air Arm.  So lets start with the first South African man lost.

HMS Ark Royal

BOSTOCK, R S, Lieutenant, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm 800 Squadron, HMS Ark Royal died 13 June 1940

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Blackburn Skua during Norway Operations by Derrick Dickens

At the time of Lt. Robert Bostock’s death, the HMS Ark Royal (a massive aircraft carrier), operated a number of FAA squadrons from its flight deck.  In June 1940, FAA 800 Squadron was operating as part of the reaction force to the German invasion of Norway, 800 and 803 had dive-bombed the German Cruiser Königsberg on 10 April 1940 and sank it, flying the ‘Skua’.

800 squadron embarked on Ark Royal later that month, with the carrier providing air cover to the fleet and to Allied troops. 800 Squadron’s Skua’s claimed six Heinkel He 111  bombers shot down.  On 13 June 1940, Ark Royal launched a dive bomber attack against the German Battleship Scharnhorst with 800 Squadron losing four Skuas out of six, along with Lt Bostock (our South African) and the Squadron’s Commanding Officer, Captain R.T. Partridge.

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FAA Blackburn Skua B-24 by Derrick Dickens

“Too big too slow. too late, this was the Blackburn Skua and the reputation that followed it. Slow and big it certainly was by the standards of the day, It towered above the ground on a spindly under carriage, and was indeed a large piece of ironmongery to expect the under powered Perseus engine to hoist into the air. But considering the radical nature of its design by British standards at the time of its conception the Skua was competent enough, maintaining Blackburn’s name for rugged naval aircraft, and adequately fulfilling the demands of the specifications that had given it birth, but as a combat aircraft it was not very successful” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost was not a FAA pilot or navigator, he was a FAA aircraft mechanic;

HMS Hermes 

RILEY, H, Air Mechanic, Fleet Air Arm, HMS Hermes, died 9 April 1942

At the time of Air Mechanics Riley’s death the HMS Hermes (also an aircraft carrier) was searching for the Japanese Imperial Fleet off Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during the infamous Japanese ‘Easter Sunday Raid’ on Colombo – the Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’ and the South African Navy’s ‘Darkest Hour’ because of all the ships were lost with large South African Naval personnel on board – see this Observation Post link for the full story by clicking this link; The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated).

While sailing south off Batticaloa on the East Coast of Ceylon, HMS Hermes and its accompanying flotilla was by Japanese Carrier-Borne dive-bombers from the Imperial Japanese Task Force in the process of attacking the Naval Base at Trincomalee.

Approximately 70 Japanese aircraft were despatched to bomb the HMS Hermes which became an inferno and sank within ten minutes of being hit by numerous aircraft bombs.

At the time of her sinking the HMS Hermes was the home to No. 814 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm flying the famous ‘Fairey Swordfish’ torpedo bomber, and these were the aircraft that Air Mechanic Harry Riley son of Alfred and Mary Ellen Riley, of Springs, Transvaal, South Africa, would have worked on.

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FAA Fairey Swordfish ‘Stringbags’ by Derrick Dickens

“Stringbag’ so named because of all the wires and stays. Archaic in appearance even when it first flew, the venerable Swordfish was the Fleet Air Arm’s premier torpedo-bomber at the outbreak of World War II and was destined to become a naval legend.

 Having arrived at a stage of World War II when a biplane, was a very rare sight, despite appearances, this beautifully ugly aircraft was no anachronism, for the Fairey Swordfish, as it was named, had then a still vital role to play in World War II. The Swordfish had the distinction in fighting the Axis from the very first days of the war until victory for the Allies in Europe had been assured.

Swordfish first saw action in the Norwegian campaign, and went on to see service in the Mediterranean, the Western desert, Iraq, the Battle of the Atlantic, and in support of convoys bound for Russia, attacks on the French fleet at Oran in July 1940 following the D-Day evacu­ation, and attacks on the Italian fleet at Taranto, and the German battleship Bismarck. The Swordfish is credited with the destruction of a greater tonnage of enemy shipping than any other allied aircraft during World War II. In so doing, the Swordfish outlived and outfought aircraft which had been designed to replace it in service, and during this period created a record of the machine achievement in association with human courage that makes pages of the Fleet Air Arm’s history a veritable saga.” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost with FAA was lost from HMS Formidable.

HMS Formidable

CHRISTELIS, C, Sub/Lieutenant, Royal Navy Reserve FAA 803 Squadron, HMS Formidable, died 1 August 1942

FAA 803 squadron at the time of Sub/Lt. Christelis’ death was equipped with the Fairey Fulmar II and operated from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) against the Japanese (also participating in the infamous sea battles surrounding Japanese Imperial Navy’s Easter Sunday raid against the Royal Navy), joining the HMS Formidable from April 1942. Sub/Lt. Cornelius Christelis was the son of Christos and Eleni Christelis, of Germiston, Transvaal, South Africa.

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FAA Fairey Fulmar Mark II

“The first eight-gun fighter to enter service with the Fleet Air Arm, the Fulmar two-seat shipboard general-purpose fighter was designed at a time when the Admiralty held the view that navigational aids were inadequate to ensure the safe return of a single-seat fighter to its carrier in inclement weather, and that a navigator was, therefore, indispensable”.(Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost with FAA was also lost from HMS Formidable from FAA No. 888 Squadron around the same time as Sub/Lt. Christelis.

HMS Formidable

BROKENSHA, G W, Lieutenant, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm 888 Squadron, HMS Formidable, died 11 August 1942

Lt Brokensha had an extensive career with the Fleet Air Arm, he flew Skua II with FAA 803 Squadron, taking part in Operation “Duck” on 17th April 1940 in defence of HMS Suffolk returning from Norway and from HMS Glorious he took part in numerous operations over Norway were he was even Mentioned in Despatches.  From HMS Ark Royal he took part in numerous operations including attack on Scharnhorst in Trondheim Harbour on the 13 June 1940, for which he earned DSC.  By 1942 he was posted to 888 Squadron flying Martlets as Senior Pilot, joining HMS Formidable on 1st February 1942.  His death is a little mysterious, he is recorded as  missing overboard from HMS Formidable, at night on the 11th August 1942.

FAA 888 squadron’s Marlet Mk II aircraft are an interesting addition to the Fleet Air Arms rich history, as they are essentially American Grumman Wildcats with a Royal Navy spin.

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FAA Martlet Mk II by Derrick Dickens

“The Royal Navy’s effect upon the F4F Wildcat was considerable. The Fleet Air Arm introduced it to combat a year before Pearl Harbor, and exerted influence in its armament fit which ran con­trary to opinion in US Navy squadrons. The Wildcat was the first truly modern fighter flown from British carriers, and represented an enormous leap forward in Royal Naval aviation” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost with the FAA was a very senior officer, a Lieutenant Commander on the HMS Indomitable.

HMS Indomitable

JUDD, F E C, Lieutenant Cmdr, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm 880 Squadron, HMS Indomitable, died 12 August 1942

At the time of Lt Cmdr Judd’s death, the HMS Indomitable and its fleet of 880 Sea Hurricanes was involved with Operation Pedestal which revolved around securing supplies to Malta in the central Mediterranean.  In early August the Royal Navy were engaged in heavy combat with German and Italian aircraft bombing their ships securing these vital supplies to the besieged island of Malta.  The date Lt. Cmdr Judd died was a particularly heavy day of combat when 4 waves of German and Italian aircraft attacked the British Fleet, on 12th August the HMS Indomitable’s 880 Squadron FAA Sea Hurricane fighters had been in heavy aerial combat with Axis forces, with crew losses and in the evening the HMS Indomitable’s defensive screen was breached and she was hit by two 500 kg bombs; a 500 kg bomb penetrated the un-armoured portion of the flight deck, killing 50 and wounding 59 men causing damage that required her to withdraw from the fight.

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Sea Hurricane Mk II by Derrick Dickens

“That the Hawker Hurricane occupied a vital place in Britain’s history cannot be denied. Put simply, the Hurricane saved Great Britain in 1940; it was the right aircraft, at the right time, and flown by the right pilots. No one can deny the excel­lence of the Spitfire, nor that it one of the great fighting aircraft of World War II. Yet, outdated though the Hurricane may have appeared by comparison, its simplicity of concept and opera­tion was such that it could be — and was – dispatched to any of the danger spots that spread like cancer during those first three years of the war when events threatened to engulf the Allied nations with disaster.

Overshadowed by the Spitfire, the Hurricane was slower, less manoeuvrable and half a generation older in terms of technology. What mattered was that it was available in numbers and could be adapted to a variety of roles. One of which was a carrier-based fighter version which the Navy dubbed the ‘Sea Hurricane’ (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost was from the Fleet Air Arm’s No. 762  Squadron on the HMS Heron

HMS Heron

O’BRYEN, W S, Sub/Lt Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm 762 Squadron, HMS Heron, died 26 November 1942

At the time of S/Lt O’ Bryen’s death the HMS Heron and 762 Squadron were raining units.  The HMS Heron is not a ship or carrier, it’s a shore base and one of the last of the Fleet Air Arm’s bases still in Operation now re-named Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, England. It was used primarily during World War 2 as the home of No1. Naval Air Fighter School and later the Aircraft Direction Centre. The 700-series squadrons are generally experimental or training squadrons, which produce trained aircrew for the operational 800-series squadrons.

S/Lt William Stanislaus O’Bryen, the son of John and Ivy O’Breyen of Fynnland, Natal, South Africa is buried at the Fleet Air Arm’s Church in Yeovilton which contains a small number of FAA members killed in aviation accidents whilst training at HMS Heron.

It is unclear from records what aircraft S/Lt O’Bryen was involved with, however one of the more famous aircraft flown at HMS Heron used to train young pilots by the middle of the war was the famous Seafire, a naval adaption of the iconic Spitfire.

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FAA Seafire MK 1B by Derrick Dickens

“The Seafire which in fact was little more than a “navalised” Spitfire, it was without any doubt the most effective British built naval fighter of World War 2, even though it had the reputation of not being suitable for the rigours of carrier operations. To some degree, this reputation was deserved for the Spitfire was of lightweight design, never intended for naval service, but it filled a gap till the specialist naval types in the shape of the Corsair and Hellcat arrived, in the mean time serving in major campaigns in the Far East, Africa and Europe” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost was from the Fleet Air Arm’s No. 851 Squadron on the HMS Shah, and he in fact was a member of the South African Navy, having been seconded to the FAA.

HMS Shah

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nMACWHIRTER, Cecil J, Ty/Sub Lieutenant (A), Fleet Air Arm (Royal Navy) 851 Squadron HMS Shah, air crash, SANF, MPK 14 April 1944

At the time of S/Lt Macwhirter’s death the HMS Shah had just completed an operation to the United States to collect equipment and airframes for twelve Avenger aircraft allocated to 851 Naval Air Squadron (FAA) on the 14th.  The Shah sailed for Melbourne, departing Australia on 8th February 1944 for Cochin.  On the 23rd February she disembarked her ferry load of American fighters; this included the Avenger airframes earmarked for 851 squadron.

851 squadron was to remain ashore until 6th March before rejoining the ship. The next two weeks would be spent working up her air department and flight deck parties; this was the first opportunity for flying operations to be carried out.  HMS Shah arrived in Colombo on February 19th and 851 was flown off to RNAS Colombo Racecourse. Aircraft were embarked as required when further training; it was on such training that 851 suffered its first operational loss when Avenger FN813 stalled and ditched in the sea off the West coast of Ceylon while conducting a night anti submarine exercise on April 14th killing all three crew members, including S/Lt Cecil John Macwhirter, our South African son of Samuel and Elizabeth MacWhirter.

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FAA Tarpon (Avenger) Mk 1 by Derrick Dickens

“When the Grumman Avenger first joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1943 it was very aptly named after a big ugly bird, the Tarpon. No 832 was the first Tarpon squadron to be formed and  in December 1942 they  sailed on HMS Victorious to America to commence training on the new torpedo bomber at the US Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia They were equipped with US navy aircraft as the British machines were not ready Their first embarkation was on USS Saratoga and they landed up in the Pacific theater in April 1943. A month later they re-embarked on HMS Victorious for a period of operations in the Solomons. The FAA retained the name Tarpon until January 1944, when the name was changed back to the original American Avenger and  became known as Avenger 1s” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The second last South African to be lost fighting in Fleet Air Arm was with 1772 Squadron (FAA) on the HMS Indefatigable, he was also a member of the South African Navy and seconded to the Fleet Air Arm.

HMS Indefatigable 

LA GRANGE, Antony M, Sub Lieutenant (A), SANF, Fleet Air Arm (Royal Navy)1772 Sqn HMS Indefatigable, air operations, MPK 28 July 1945

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FAA Firefly Mk 1 by Derrick Dickens

In July 1945 1772 Naval Air Squadron, flying Fireflies, boarded HMS Indefatigable and joined the British Task Force 37 which then joined the US Task Force 38 in the northern Pacific for the final assault on the Japanese Mainland. The combined Task force comprised 14 Fleet Carriers, 25 Cruisers , at least five battleships, 75 Destroyers, and many other craft…. and 1300 aircraft. This was the largest naval force ever gathered in one area in history. The American Fleet comprised at least three-quarters of that combined fleet.

Many raids and bombardments took place in these last days of the war and losses were considerable despite the fact that the Japanese forces were very depleted by this time. The previous engagement had been largely American again and of course the European war had ended. This was the final massive battle against the remaining island possession occupied by the Japanese, Okinawa. Noteworthy in this engagement, which cost many American lives, was the Kamikaze and the Indefatigable received one Kamiikaze strike on its deck, killing several personnel.

The HMS Indefatigable went on to join the Americans in Tokyo Bay for the Peace Treaty signing.  S/Lt. Antony Michael La Grange, the son of Mrs. I. B. La Grange, of Albertinia, Cape Province, South Africa is remembered on the Plymouth Memorial.

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FAA Firefly Mk IV by Derrick Dickens

“The Fairy was conceived in the late “thirties”, blooded on the mid “Forties” withdrawn from production in the mid “Fifties” and finally retired in the mid sixties such was the 25 year lifespan of one of the most versatile aircraft to lift off a carrier deck. Combining performance, handling, maneuverability, and firepower never before displayed by a previous ship board aircraft, it wrote its own history due to its adaptability for roles and weapon loads unforeseen at the time of the creation of this handsome fighter – reconnaissance aircraft. The Firefly saw relatively limited action during World War Two, never the less it earned for itself a place in naval aviation history, for although the longevity of the Firefly was to be superceded, and its remarkable versatility was to remain peerless.  1,702 Fireflies were built over a period of 14 years, the most of them in post world war two guise which differed greatly in role and different in appearance from the original aircraft which made its operational debut on HMS Indefatigable, taking part on the attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The final South African to be lost in World War 2 flying for the Fleet Air Arm was also a member of the South African Navy seconded to the FAA on HMS Landrail.

HMS Landrail

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nWAKE, Vivian H, Ty/Lieutenant (A), FAA Fleet Air Arm (Royal Navy) 815 Squadron HMS Landrail, air crash, SANF, MPK 28 March 1945

By the time of Ty/Lt. Wake’s death, 815 Squadron had been reformatted in November 1944 at HMS Landrail, a shore base now called RNAS Machrihanish located 5 km west of Campbeltown on the western side of the Kintyre Peninsula in Scotland.

FAA 815 Squadron by this stage was flying Barracudas on anti-submarine operations, and doing DLT (deck landing training) on HMS Campania in preparation for the final operations in the Far East against Imperial Japan.

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FAA Barracuda Mk V

“The Barracuda was a large ugly beast of an aeroplane, when its wings were folded it looked like some prehistoric bird straight out of Jurassic Park. Un-pretty, big bulky, solid and generally disliked by the aircrew, they were used to good effect in 1944 during attacks on the Tirpitz, which was lying crippled in Kaafjord, North Norway, after being damaged in an attack by midget submarines. From April 1944 Nos. 810 and 847 began operations in the pacific theatre on board HMS Illustrious. Barracudas were also heavily involved in dive bombing attacks on Japanese land and maritime targets, as well as raids against Japanese targets in Sumatra. They continued to support the Allies advance until the end of the war

Towards the end of the war a major redesign of the Barracuda was undertaken to provide an interim aircraft for use in the war against Japan, until the Fairey Spearfish became available. This development resulted in the Barracuda TR Mk V”. (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

In Conclusion

HRH Prince PhilipThe best way to summarise the Fleet Air Arm, its commitment and sacrifice is in fact found in the forward of Derrick Dickens’ Stringbag to Shar’ written by none other than the Admiral of the Fleet, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh K.G., K.T., O.M., G.B.E.

“When you look at the difficulties experienced by the pioneers of aviation Lord Cayley, the Wright brothers, Hiram Maxim and Colonel ‘Buffalo’ Bill; Cody – to get a machine to take off from mother earth and to fly through the air, it is not surprising that many people considered them to be extremely foolhardy, if not actually insane. To the far-sighted, the use of aircraft in war may have seemed obvious, it really needed the conviction of a saint to visualise the practical use of aircraft in a war at sea.

This splendid book traces the chequered history of naval aviation, and the extraordinary vision and determination of the designers, builders and pilots of naval aircraft against every sort of discouragement. It also illustrates the remarkable imagination of those who helped to develop all the ancillary equipment, such as aircraft carriers, catapults, arrestor wires, angled decks, ‘ski-jumps’, and all other gimmicks that enabled naval aviation to make a solid impact on the war at sea.

Looking through the illustrations in this book, it seems almost unbelievable that men could be found, not just to fly them, but to inflict damage on the enemy, and return to tell the tale.

The contribution of naval aviation to the war at sea during WW1 and WW2, may not have made the headlines in quite the same way as land-based aircraft, but, as the final days of the war against Japan demonstrated, the participation of naval aircraft was crucial to the ultimate allied victory”.

Related Work and Links

Related work of South Africans serving in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm

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

Dick Lord Dick Lord – the combat legend who took learnings from the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm to the SAAF

Easter Raid The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens, references from Wikipedia, The Commonwealth War Graves Commissioned, SAAF and RAF Honour Roll compiled by Graham du Toit, BBC People’s War, Fly Navy – HMS Shah, Fleet Air Arm Officers Association, CASUALTIES BY DATE and SHIP Compiled by Don Kindell sourced on the Royal Naval History Homepage.

Large extracts and paintings taken from “Stringbag to Shar 1938 to 2006” Compiled by Derrick Dickens. All the images used in this book are photographs of original paintings
by the author. These images may not be used anywhere else without the
specific permission of the copyright owner – Mr Peter Dickens. Images © Derrick Dickens 2008. (All original paintings).

The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated

1200px-Emblem_of_the_South_African_NavyHere’s a question for many,  in what action did the South African Navy (SAN) experience its greatest single loss of personnel, the largest sacrifice of South African life in a single  sea battle  – in essence when and what was the South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’?

I’ve asked this question of senior South African military personnel, including the South African Navy as well as the South African Naval fraternity, the veterans – and the bottom line is … nobody knows.

Some immediately say it was the Mendi, as the remembrance of the Mendi is now the South African Navy’s key responsibility, but the loss of the SS Mendi in World War 1 was not a loss of South African Navy personnel (the South African Navy did not exist in WW1 and the Royal Navy was in charge of this particular troop ship full of South African ‘Army personnel’) and the loss of the Mendi was an accident at sea and not a combat action.

za)nv81Most (actually the majority) of SAN officers and veterans would say it was the loss of the SAS President Kruger (16 souls) but that would also be very wrong, both in terms of scale and action, the SAS President Kruger loss was also an accident at sea and not a combat action.

A tiny handful of SAN officers and vets who have a little knowledge of World War 2 might venture to answer the question by stating the loss of any one of the four South African minesweepers sunk during the war as the ‘darkest hour’ of the war.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nThese are the HMSAS Southern Floe (24 souls) or the HMSAS Parktown (5 souls), or the HMSAS Bever (17 souls) or the HMSAS Treen (23 souls) – getting warm but that too would be wrong, as these did not happen over a defined period of the war that would warrant a ‘darkest hour’ in Churchill’s definition of the phrase (Churchill coined the term).

Nope, the largest loss of South Africans in a single sea battle, its ‘Darkest Hour’ took place fighting against Imperial Japan from the 5th to the 9th April 1942 … yup, the Japanese – believe it, and by the end of this particular naval engagement at sea a grand total of 65 South African souls were lost.  Now how many people know that!

The reason to ‘forget’!

So why does nobody know about this, why is this incident not ‘recognised,’ why is nobody ‘commemorating’ it and what exactly happened?

Simply put, it’s because they all died fighting whilst seconded to four British war ships in an action in the Pacific called ‘The Easter Sunday Raid’ – and it involved the sinking of the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire in a single day – and later the sinking of HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock a few days later by the Japanese Imperial Navy.  But why should that be an issue and a reason to ‘forget’?

Imperial Japanese ensign

Japanese Imperial Fleet Ensign from World War 2

Again the simple answer is because just three short years after World War 2 the National Party in a stunning and unexpected election win over Jan Smuts’ United Party, came into power with their proposal of ‘Apartheid’ and making South Africa a ‘Republic’ independent of Britain – and they hated the British or anything to do with Britain.  The Nationalists had grounded an entire Afrikaner identity and a country’s ‘nationalism’ on two events – The Great Trek and The 2nd Anglo-Boer war, both of which carried a history of either British betrayal or British atrocity.

During the Second World war these nationalists either openly sided with Nazi Germany and in many cases (by their tens of thousands in fact) even joined Neo-nazi South African parties and/or adopted national socialist movement (Nazism) ideology publicly, some (including a future Nationalist South African President) embarked on sedition and terrorism to undermine the war effort (see “Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag).

Bottom line, to the Nationalists thinking anyone who took part in Smuts’ campaign for South Africa to fight in the Second World War was a traitor to their ‘Volk’ (peoples).  In their minds they went to fight ‘Britain’s war’ alongside the hated British – traitors all (even though an unprecedented 1 in 4 white South African males volunteered to fight in WW2 – half of them Afrikaners).

For the Nationalists commemorating the sinking of South African ships fighting alongside British ones in World War 2 was bad enough.  However, commemorating and remembering the South African loss whilst fighting on His Majesty’s British ships themselves would be, for the nationalist government at least, an unforgivable betrayal.

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Members of the South African Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve serving on board HMS Nelson. The group is sat on one of the 16 inch gun barrels.

For this reason, the sinking of South African ships lost in World War 2 was not really extensively commemorated by the ‘old’ South African Defence Force  (SADF).  The SADF came into existence once the Nationalists declared South Africa a ‘Republic’ and replaced Smuts’ old ‘South African Union Defence Force (UDF) with a reformed military entity.  The sinking of HMSAS ships are only ‘remembered’ in small pockets of veteran South African Legion branches and MOTH shell-holes.

It is also for this reason that the SADF and the South African Navy did not ever commemorate the South African losses on British Ships, it is the reason why this particular ‘darkest hour’ in the South African Navy’s history is not recognised or remembered at all, which is utterly unforgivable as this is the very institution who supplied the men to The Royal Navy in the first place.

It is made worse in the modern epoch, by the newly reformatted South African National Defence Force’s Navy after 1994, which has not only lost the link thanks to the Nationalists, but also does not attempt to re-kindle it, party because of lack of knowledge, but also because it suits the African National Congress’ political agenda not to remember this association (commemorating or remembering a time when South Africans went to war for the ‘Colonials’ does not suit their current narrative).

So, let’s start addressing this betrayal of our armed forces personnel and understand what happened to qualify this as the South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’, who is on this honour roll and what’s been done about in now?

What happened? 

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Simonstown Dry Docks, when next there look out for the ships emblems of the Dorsetshire, Cornwall, Hermes and Hollyhock

As Simon’s Town was a Royal Navy base during World War 2 (British soil in the middle of South Africa), men volunteering for the “South African Naval Forces” (SANF) to fight in World War 2 where either allocated to Royal Navy ships (titled HMS – His Majesty’s Ship) or on South African Navy ships (tilted HMSAS – His Majesty’s South African Ship), therefore whenever a large Royal Navy ship was lost during the war it is almost guaranteed that a number of South African Naval Personnel (SANF) were lost with it.

When large HMS ships are lost in an action on the same action the number of South African naval personnel lost just rockets – and this is the case with the sinking of the HMS Cornwall, HMS Dorsetshire, HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock.

The Japanese Easter Raid of 1942

Zero

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

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 (now Shri 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 HMS Hollyhock.

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in much the same way and with the same objectives that were used at Pearl Harbour 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.

aichi-d3a1-mod-22-val

The Japanese high command had planned the bombing of Colombo very much like the Pearl Harbor operation (many of the same planes and pilots participated in both strikes); but most of the British Eastern Fleet was at Addu Atholl in the Maldives, so when the Japanese attacked at Colombo there were only three ships there.

The sinking of the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire.

The day before, 4 April, when the Japanese carrier fleet was spotted, the two heavy cruisers the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire set out for Addu Atoll 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.

As part of the engagement known as the Easter Sunday Raid, a wave of 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.  Both the Dorsetshire and the Cornwall had long associations with South Africa and had large contingent of South African Naval Personnel on board.

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

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

For a full story on the HMS Dorsetshire and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link: “They machine gunned us in the water”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Dorsetshire

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For a full story on the HMS Cornwall and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link: “A terrific explosion lifted the ship out of the water”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Cornwall

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British and Allied losses were 424 men killed; 1,122 survivors spent thirty hours in the water before being rescued by HMS Enterprise and two British destroyers.

The sinking of the HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock

If the above losses qualify a dark day for the South African Navy it then becomes the SAN’s ‘darkest hour’, when in the same Japanese Operation, only a couple of short days later, on 9 April 1942, 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.

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.

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HMS Hermes ablaze and sinking

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.

Once again, the HMS Hermes also had a very large South African Naval Forces contingent seconded to it on board, and the same applied to the HMS Hollyhock, and therefore once again there is a large of loss of South African life in this action against the Imperial Japanese fleet.

For a full story on the HMS Hermes and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link “Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes

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For a full story on the HMS Hollyhock and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link “She immediately blew up”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock

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HMS Hollyhock

The Honour Roll

Total South African Naval Force (SANF) losses on the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire in the single day of action were as follows (MPK means “missing presumed killed”):

HMS Cornwall

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

HMS Dorsetshire

BELL, Douglas S, Ty/Act/Leading Stoker, 67243 (SANF), MPK
BRUCE, Alexander M, Stoker 2c, 67907 (SANF), MPK
CONCANON, Harold Bernard, Surgeon Lieutenant (Doctor)
EVENPOEL, Albert, Stoker 2c, 67909 (SANF), MPK
GEFFEN, Sender, Stoker 1c, 68035 (SANF), MPK
HOWE, Horace G, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68680 (SANF), MPK
KENDRICK, George, Stoker 2c, 67910 (SANF), MPK
MCINTYRE, Norman G, Able Seaman, 67446 (SANF), MPK
MCLELLAN, Robert, Ordinary Telegraphist, 67897 (SANF), MPK
MILNE, Lawrence Victor, Able Seaman
MORROW, Douglas E, Able Seaman, 67989 (SANF), MPK
ORTON, Charles P, Able Seaman, 68009 (SANF), MPK
REDMAN, Roland A, Leading Stoker, 67406 (SANF), MPK
SCOTT, William J, Able Seaman, 68007 (SANF), MPK
SEVEL, Harry, Stoker 1c, 68100 (SANF), MPK
VAN ZYL, David Isak Stephanus, Stoker 1st Class
WILLETT, Amos A S, Stoker 1c, 67240 (SANF), MPK
WILLIAMSON, Walter N, Able Seaman, 67803 (SANF), MPK

But, unfortunately there is more.  As in the same Japanese Operation, just a couple of days later saw the loss of the HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock (also lost in a single day), the honour roll of South Africans on board these two fighting ships who were lost is as  follows:

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

Included in this Honour Roll is also a South African serving with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm on the HMS Hermes.

RILEY, H, Air Mechanic, Fleet Air Arm, HMS Hermes, died 9 April 1942

HMS Hollyhock

ANDERSON, Henry G, Able Seaman, 67501 (SANF), MPK
BASTON, Douglas T, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 68600 (SANF), MPK
BUITENDACH, James M, Stoker 2c, 69223 (SANF), MPK
JUBY, Kenneth J, Ordinary Seaman, 69211 (SANF), MPK
LEACH, Peter A D H, Stoker 2c, 69225 (SANF), MPK

 Lest we forget the tremendous sacrifice of our countrymen in this world war for the liberation of human kind.

Why is it important we get this history right?

Logo_of_the_Royal_NavySo there we have it, the South African Navy’s biggest single loss in a single day – 41 souls, a ‘black day’ and added together with the HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock , we see a complete total of 65 South African souls lost in one single engagement at sea – qualifying a very ‘black week’ – The Easter Sunday Raid and this then marks the Easter period as the South African Navy’s ‘Darkest Hour’.

But is this correct – is this the full complement of South Africans lost in the incident?  The answer unfortunately is – probably not.

Whilst the honour rolls distinguish the South African Naval Forces personnel seconded to British ships, they do not distinguish the South Africans who joined the Royal Navy directly in either Simonstown or in the United Kingdom – of which there were thousands and those who lost their lives are now listed under the Royal Navy’s honour roll.

The ‘old’ South African Defence Force (SADF) did not maintain these records, nor was a honour roll tracked by the South African Navy and simply put, when the Nationalists broke the formal ties with the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and after the resultant four decades in the ‘wilderness’ during the Apartheid epoch – many of these names are now ‘lost’.to all of us as South Africans.

To find out which of these are South Africans requires research into each and every case on the Royal Navy’s record – a momentous task which some dedicated people looking into this are only now beginning to get their heads around.  Here we must thank the likes of Glenn Knox, David Bennet, Allan du Toit, Cameron Kinnear and Graham Du Toit and a handful of others for sterling work recovering this history.

So, in all likelihood more than just ’64’ South Africans died in this action, and why is this important for us to know who they were? Read this letter I received when I published this honour roll and action in a previous article on the HMS Dorsetshire it says everything as to the importance of this work:

Letter from Chris Crossley

Hi Peter,
Just another story for you! This post you put up on the Legions page has some amazing history which you wouldn’t know about but I am happy to share with you to show my gratitude for these “nuggets” of info you share with us.

My wife, Tracy, was an adopted child who after 35 years found her birth parents. Wonderful people they turned out to be and we are building a relationship with them that is priceless. As things go, curiosity led us to find out about family history and Tracy’s birth Dad told us about an uncle of his that was lost during the war. He was in the SAN and went down with “some” ship somewhere. He was married at the time and his wife, on hearing the news that her husband was lost at sea (MIA) never gave up on the hope of his return to Durban because he was never seen and not confirmed deceased. Because of this, she never remarried and passed away many years later, remaining faithful to her husband. Her husband was Roland Redman who served with the SA Navy volunteers on the HMS Dorsetshire that your story includes. His name is included in the Role of Honour for the Dorsetshire.

None of the wider family have ever known what happened to him and the facts and details of his service were not known by the surviving family members either. This last Saturday evening, I was talking to my wife’s birth Dad when he recounted the scant details he had of his uncle. I went on line and found your article and shared it with him on fb. Well he was overcome by this information as well as other members of his family and now for the first time in seventy odd years the facts of Uncle Roland, his service and his sacrifice are now known and cherished by his family left behind.

As an historian, I am sure this story will be something that you can cherish as your post has made a huge difference to some wonderful people! Thank you.

Chris Crossley

See When “nuggets” of history make a BIG difference

In Conclusion 

Now, with this letter in mind, I cannot think of a better reason to get this history right and establish the correct commemorations and full honour roll.  We owe it to our countrymen whose sacrifice brought us international freedom and liberty – it is our duty to carry this flame of remembrance and rid ourselves of the divisive and petty politics of one-upmanship played out by politicians with agendas (nationalists and the ANC) – this politicisation shrouds our most honourable history and only serves to dishonour the sacrifice of our South African servicemen and women – which is by its very nature is as ‘unforgivable’ as it is ‘dishonourable’.

Related work and Links:

For related work in the Observation Post on the above story, click on the following links:

SS Mendi: Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard 

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

HMSAS Parktown: The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown)

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

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

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

South Africans lost on other Royal Navy ships:

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

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

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

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

HMS Neptune: South African sacrifice on the HMS Neptune


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  References Wikipedia. CASUALTIES BY DATE and SHIP Compiled by Don Kindell sourced on the Royal Naval History Homepage.  Image copyright of Royal Navy, SA Naval Reserve, Imperial War Museum.  Japanese Imperial Ensign object, Imperial War Museum copyright.

 

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

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

rotate

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

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

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

HMS Dorsetshire Short History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sinking of the Bismarck

bismarck

The Bismarck

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

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

Bismarck survivors

Survivors from Bismarck are pulled aboard Dorsetshire on 27 May 1941

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

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

African Duties and Raiders

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

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

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

The Easter Sunday Raid

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

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

The Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’

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

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

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

A6M2_on_carrier_Akagi_1941

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

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

Easter Raid

Captain Mitsuo Fuchida

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

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

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

aichi-d3a1-mod-22-val

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

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

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

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

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

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

DorsetshireCornwall

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

Survival and Sacrifice 

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

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

HMS_'Dorsetshire'_survivors_after_sinking_by_Japanese_aircraft_Indian_Ocean

Survivors from the HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall in the water

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

HMS Dorsetshire – South African Navy Personnel Lost, Honour Roll

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

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

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

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

Related work 

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Simonstown Dry DocksTheir names have not been forgotten.


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

 

“A terrific explosion lifted the ship out of the water”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Cornwall

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

11227764_471697846333286_6697642980063770182_n

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

HMS Cornwall Short History

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

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

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

Sinking of the German Auxiliary Ship Pinguin

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

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

HK Pinguin

HK Pinguin

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

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

The Easter Sunday Raid

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

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

The Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’

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

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

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

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

Easter Raid

Captain Mitsuo Fuchida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

HMS Cornwall – South African Navy Personnel Lost, Honour Roll

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

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

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

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

Related work 

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

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

In Conclusion

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

Their names have not been forgotten.

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