The navy has yet to fully heal from the self-inflicted sinking of the SAS President Kruger in February 1982, new research on the topic suggests.
Research conducted by retired Rear Admiral Chris Bennett and published elsewhere on this site, argues the Navy`s handling of the affair and its aftermath created a “wound in the Navy`s psyche [that] has yet to fully heal.”
At the time of the collision – 3.55am on Thursday morning, February 18, 1982, the 10th
Frigate Squadron consisting of SAS President Kruger and SAS President Pretorius together with SAS Tafelberg had been exercising for three days with the submarine SAS Emily Hobhouse some 80 miles west south west of Cape Point.
“The purpose of the exercise was practical training for the Submarine Officer Commanding Course – usually known by its acronym SMOC – who were all on board the submarine,” Adm Bennett writes.
“They had commenced each day at 6am with increasingly complex exercises as the day progressed until 11pm. The concept being that each day a different candidate would be given the opportunity to act as Captain of the submarine for the purpose of ‘penetrating the screen` and ‘attacking” the escorted vessel (Tafelberg)`.”
After a series of manoeuvres and mishaps the Kruger crossed the Tafelberg`s bow and the latter smashed into the former. The Kruger sank some 40 minutes later. “Out of a ship`s company of 199, sixteen men lost their lives that morning.”
Bennett adds that by 1982 the President Class frigates were no longer considered to be the ‘pride of the fleet` as they had been in the 1960s.
“In those ‘Golden Years` replacement of broken, aged or obsolete equipment was virtually automatic. In contrast by 1982 most of the experienced men (both officers and ratings) in the Navy were being channelled to the new strike craft and mine hunters.
“An additional less well known factor was that as the result of national and internal Defence Force politics in 1977, the President Class against the wishes of the Navy, had been declared redundant to requirement and scheduled for disposal… This decree also prohibited any further funding for the replacement of obsolete or unserviceable equipment on the three ships.
“To cut a long story short [by February 1982] the ships were under manned and their equipment was becoming old and fractious, often prone to at worst breaking down at the most inopportune moments and at best simply being less accurate.
Bennett says this exacerbated a command-and-control failure on the Kruger, which included a flawed understanding of the General Regulations for the SA Navy (known as SANGP-1).
“In my opinion the disaster was firstly the result of an apparent lack of normal structure in command-and-control onboard the PK and secondly is linked to the disastrous clash of personalities between the two Officers of the Watch on the Bridge as well as between both of them and the Principle Warfare Officer in the Ops Room.
“It seems incredible in retrospect that no thought at all seems to have been given to this in the selection of those who would stand watch that morning either by the Captain or by his senior watch-keepers.
“Even though the Middle Watch was a period of very low intensity exercise, it was also
a period during which the Captain was trying to catch up on his sleep. Logically therefore, notwithstanding the low intensity of the exercise one would expect at the very least to have an experienced Officer of the Watch on the bridge and preferably also an experienced PWO in the Ops Room. Strangely the exact opposite was the case,” Bennett adds.
“The Officer of the Watch (OOW) on the bridge was the most inexperienced OOW onboard, and technically, as he had no formal Watch-keeping Certificate he was not qualified to fill this position. In fact he was standing his first ever watch as OOW…”