South Africa entered World War Two with no navy. Some naval trained personnel, yes; but ships, no. From three officers and three ratings in September 1939, the South African Naval Service, then the Seaward Defence Force (SDF) and finally the South African Naval Forces expanded rapidly, and by late 1945, when demobilisation began, some 9455 men had served South Africa at sea on some 78 ships, mostly trawlers and whalers taken up from trade but including three newly-built Loch-class frigates.
Indeed, of of these, the HMSAS Natal sank a U-boat (U-714)off Scotland six hours after leaving the builders’ yard on March 14, 1945; a still-unparalleled feat. “It was the more remarkable in that the A/S [anti-submarine] personnel, as a team, had received only a few days’ shore training and, apart from that, the ship’s asdic [sonar] installation (Type 144) was new to all of them,” the official historian, Commander H. R. Gordon-Cumming records. South African personnel by then had also crewed two British River-class frigates and a salvage ship.
One dares say this was even greater a feat considering the lack of seriousness the Union government showed in making any preparation for war; meaning that when war was declared on September 5, 1939, there followed period of “muddle, misunderstanding and makeshift arrangements … just at a time when Defence Headquarters and the RN [Royal Navy] Authorities were, or should have been fully occupied in ‘getting on with the war’.”
The saving graces was probably South Africa’s distance from Europe, then the cockpit of the war, as well as Britain’s Gibraltar-like sovereign base at Simon’s Town, and two heavy cruisers were normally based there. Even so, the German “pocket battleship” Admiral Graf Spee passed from the Atlantic to the Indian ocean and back again just the next month. “During this period there were one or two British cruisers in Cape waters but a concentration of these would have been necessary before giving battle with any prospect of victory;a handful of Junker aircraft (Ju86), converted for bombing/reconnaissance duties but flown by their commercial pilots, represented the coastal air-strength; and the only land guns then mounted in Southern Africa approaching those of the raider in range and calibre were two long-range 9.2-inch guns at Simon’s Town. But the raider does not appear to have even contemplated a brief, bold attack on massed shipping or oil tanks at one of the almost unprotected commercial ports, which would have stood an excellent chance of success and would certainly have had a profound moral effect.”
Next came the raider “Atlantis” and a minefield off Cape Agulhas in May 1940, the “Pinguin” in June and the Graf Spee’s sister, the Admiral Scheer, which rounded the Cape at the end of January 1941. The Pinguin would indeed stalk the south Atlantic and Indian oceans until May the next year when she was sunk by HMS Cornwall. By then the raider “Doggerbank” had also visited Cape waters, laying mines off Cape Town in March 1942 and reseeding the Agulhas bank. In addition, two Japanese raiders briefly visited South African waters in June 1942, sinking a freighter 350 miles ENE of Durban.
The first German submarines arrived off Namibia in October 1941 and off South Africa in October the next year. The last departed in February 1945. “So ended the submarine offensive, or series of offensive, in waters within 1000 miles of this country. One Allied warship – the Dutch submarine depot ship Colombia – had been lost; only one, HMS Hecla, had been damaged… Including the two ships sunk west of Walvis Bay in 1941, merchant ship losses from submarines totalled 132 with a gross tonage of 743 544 tons, or an average of about 5600 tons each. In addition, six ships were severely damaged but reached port. … Of the total, 38 sinkings took place more than 500 miles from any part of the coast of South Africa – most of them in the Mozambique Channel.” This included some 32 ships sunk by Japanese boats in June and July 19442. A further success was damaging the battleship HMS Ramillies in Diego Suarez harbour (Madagascar). But Gordon-Cumming says there successes were a “poor return if one takes into account the additional time on passage to and from the area and the risk to both submarines and supply-ships when breaking through the steadily tightening cordon of Allied sea and air patrols in the Bay of Biscay.”
Within the 1000 mile perimeter, 18 ships were lost to the raiders and two to mines. The latter weapon damaged two more ships. Meagre returns within the greater scheme of things, perhaps, but still food for thought for a nation that depends on the sea for well over 95% of its trade….
South African naval forces also rendered sterling service in the Mediterranean, with four antisubmarine whalers deployed there in early 1941, taking with them the only four sonars then available. Sadly the HMSAS Southern Floe was lost, presumably to a mine, a month later, the ship being blown from the water near Tobruk on the night of February 10/11. There was just one survivor. “The loss of the ship, although but a trivial incident in a world war, came as a sudden and grievous blow to the flotilla and to the force from which it came. The ships had spent a bare month on the station and in this country few were aware they had arrived and had been in action. The casualties were the first the SDF had suffered. The sense of loss was profound.” South Africa would later lose the HMSAS Parktown off Tobruk to gunboats (November 1942, she had been the last ship to leave the beleaguered port and 2 SA Division and came under fire from a German tank while doing so) and HMSAS Bever off Athens on November 30, 1944.
Gordon-Cumming records the latter thus: “So many mines now exploded in the sweeps that progress was soon slowed down and finally halted at about 14:00 while four of the ships hove to and repaired their gear. Bever, stationed astern of the trawlers to deal with unexploded mines, stopped also. At 14:30, while manoeuvring her engines so as to keep in position, she struck a mine with the inevitable result for so small as ship: the bridge collapsed while the after-part disintegrated, its fragments mingling with a huge discoloured geyser which shot up many times higher thanthe ship’s masthead; and by the time the spray and steam had blown clear, nothing remained but the fore-part which turned over and sank a few seconds later. The normal practice of ordering all hands not on duty below to remain on deck had been followed; even then, considering the rapidity of Bever’s destruction, it is remarkable that eight men should have been picked up alive out of a company of 23.”
Breathtaking stuff! Yet this history, an official government document, was only be published as late as 2008 – some 65 years after the end of that war. The editors, who include retired Rear Admiral Chris Bennett, ascribe this “in some degree to a lack of enthusiasm for anything to do with the war by the government which took power in 1948. Many Afrikaners had initially been strongly opposed to South Africa’s participation in World War 2 and the question had caused sharp divisions and
bitterness in Afrikaner political ranks.”
They note the official histories was something of a post-war pet project of Prime Minister Jan Smuts – he started the South African National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg around the same time. For this reason, the War Histories Section was formed as part of the Office of the
Prime Minister. “When the new [National Party] government took over, its lack of enthusiasm was
soon reflected in the fact that the War Histories Section was moved out of the Union Buildings to a much less salubrious environment. Funding also became a problem.
Despite these obstacles, the section succeeded in producing three well-received volumes:
Crisis in the Desert (May to July 1942) – published in 1952;
The Sidi Rezeg Battles (1941) – published in 1957;
and War in the Southern Oceans – published in 1961.
The last of these was co-authored by Gordon-Cumming, became known as the “short history”, and drew on material only now published in full as the “long history”.
Commander H. R. Gordon-Cumming
Official History of the South African Naval Forces during the Second World War (1939 – 1945)
Naval Heritage Trust South Africa
352 pages. Illustrated, maps, index. Soft cover.
Available from the South African Naval Museum in Simon’s Town or from the Naval Heritage Trust.