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THREE SHIPS SUNDAY SERVICE

19TH FEBRUARY 2012

 

 

The SA Legion Annual Three Ships Service to commemorate the SS Mendi, HMSAS Southern Flow and SAS President Kruger (affectionately known as “PK”)   – all lost during the month of February, was held on 24th February 2013 at St Paul’s Church.


The Service was well attended, with some standing at the rear of the church. The Sea Cadets took centre stage, and as usual, were impeccably turned out.


A candle was lit for each ship in a sad and nostalgic moment, especially for the survivors of the “PK”. Treasurer Bartie gave the address:


Address

Good morning Friends of the South African Legion.  Welcome to this most important service and thank you for making time to share with us as we honour South Africa’s lost Sons.


Firstly a thank you to our chaplain, Reverend Ruthell Johnson, for once again allowing and encouraging us to use the Church for this service, and to the ladies behind the scenes who put the service sheets together and assisted with the technical set-up in the presentation, as well as those who will supply sustenance to us after the service in the Hall.


Indeed February is a sad month in the annuals of the South African maritime history. It is at this time that we gather to pay homage to those Son’s of South Africa who paid the supreme sacrifice at sea during the month of February. The Port Elizabeth Branch has elected to pay homage each year to those who died at sea – while most of the other Branches have chosen to commemorate a land battle.


Over the years we have dealt at length with the sinking of the SS Mendi, which sank after being rammed by a vessel twice her size, in the English Channel in the early hours of the 21st February 1917, whilst enroute to France with the last contingent of troops from the Native Labour Corps. As you will remember the vessel sank in 20 minutes taking over 600 troops to their deaths in the icy waters of the Channel.


Just before the service last year, a letter appeared in the EP Herald concerning a grave which had been found. The writer was Mr Nick Ward of Littlehampton, he is a World War 1 Battlefield Tour Guide and a Researcher. I was able to contact Mr Ward but the story he had to tell arrived too late for that service.


In the course of some research he was doing, he came across a headstone in the Littlehampton Cemetery. This headstone recorded the burial place of three African men who were victims of the Mendi sinking. This headstone had been raised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but unfortunately they only recorded the full name of one victim, Smith Segule and the other two as Pte Jim and Pte Simon. The full names of the three men are Simon Lingansio, Jim Mbombiya and Smith Segule all identified by the ID tags during the coroners investigation before the burial.


Mr Ward has negotiated with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to have a new Headstone erected recoding the full names of the three men who were interred in the grave. This will take about 18 months. It is hoped that when the official blessing of the new Headstone takes place it will be in the presence of the South African High Commissioner. Mr Ward will lay three poppies at the grave today in memory of these three men. Mr Ward told me a couple of days ago that national press interest in the UK has been stirred up about this grave head-stone and could receive a national press airing this week.


We also remember the brave little HMSAS Southern Floe, a converted whaler which was serving as a minesweeper in the Mediterranean Sea during World War 2. She sailed from Tobruck on the evening of the 10th February 1941 to carry out an anti- submarine patrol off the swept channel. It is surmised that sometime in the early hours of the morning of the 11th February she hit a mine and sank almost immediately with the loss of all but one of her crew, Stoker C J Jones – he was not even one of her permanent crew but had been drafted in the place of a stoker who was ill. He clung to some flotsam for 12 hours before being rescued by an inbound warship.


But our main theme today relates to the sinking of the SAS President Kruger, and we are privileged to have a number of survivors with us today.



In 1955 the South African Government decided to modernise the South African Navy with the purchase of a large number of new warships, including 3 Type 12 Frigates.


But even at the beginning of its life, the President Kruger suffered a twist!


The 1st keel was laid down at the Alexander Stephen and Sons Shipyard in Glasgow in 1958, whilst the second keel was laid 11 months later at the Yarrow & Co Shipyard in Glasgow. The South African Government decreed that the first hull to be launched, at Stephen and Sons, would be named the SAS President Kruger and that the second hull to be launched from Yarrow & Co would be named the SAS President Steyn. The third hull would be named the SAS President Pretorius.


As time for the launch drew near, the labour union declared a strike at Alexander Stephen and Sons thus delaying the building of the President Kruger hull, and it became obvious that the first hull to be launched would in fact be the one at Yarrow & Co – the President Steyn. But the Government was adamant – the first hull to be launched would be called the President Kruger and thus at somewhat short notice the hull at Yarrow & Co was renamed the President Kruger – the hull at Stephen and Sons became the President Steyn.


Upon the completion of her acceptance trials and working up procedures, the President Kruger set sail for South Africa.  The President Kruger arrived in Simon’s Town harbour to a tumultuous welcome on the 28th March 1963.  And so began a new era in the history of the South African Navy.


On the 15th February 1982, the President Kruger and President Pretorius in company with SAS Tafelberg, the Navy replenishmentvessel, sailed for a 5 day exercise with the submarine SAS Emily Hobhouse.


Part of the exercise was for the two frigates to “screen” the Tafelberg from the Emily Hobhouse. But because the speed of the frigates was such that they out-ran the Tafelberg, they carrier out a manoeuvre which reversed their course. They had a choice of turning inwards or tuning outwards. The inward turn was much more delicate than the out-ward turn. The President Kruger chose to turn inwards.


The inward turn manoeuvre was not well executed. The situation was also complicated by the “loss” of the image of the Tafelberg on the radar due to the heavy sea clutter. When the error was detected, corrective action was taken but too late, and at 03.56 on the morning of the 18th February 1982, the ice reinforced bows of the Tafelberg cut deeply into the President Kruger, mortally injuring her. The collision took place directly above mess 12, where most of those who lost their lives were sleeping. At 04.40 the Captain took the decision to abandon ship. At 05.29 the President Kruger plunged beneath the waves to the bottom of the South Atlantic nearly 4000 metres below.

Yesterday 30 years ago this terrible tragedy took place!


The Roll of Honour of those who perished on that dark and tempestuous sea reads as follows:

Chief Petty Officer J Booysen

Chief Petty Officer H W Smith

Chief Petty Officer W M G van Tonder

Chief Petty Officer D Webb

Petty Officer S P Bothma

Petty Officer G A F Brind

Petty Officer R C Bulterman

Petty Officer G W de Villiers

Petty Officer E Koen

Petty Officer H Lotter

Petty Officer R A Mc Master

Petty Officer R F Skeates

Petty Officer W R Smith

Petty Officer M B R Whiteley

Petty Officer C J Wium

Able Seaman G T Benjamin


In all of these tragedies, there is a strong indication of the frailty of mankind. Frailty includes the way we as humans make decisions. In all these tragedies the decisions seemed to have been inappropriate; a decision was made on the SS Darro to travel and high speed in fog conditions; perhaps the navigator on the HMSAS Southern Floe took an inappropriate decision as to where the swept channel was; the decision taken on the SAS President Kruger on the execution of the inward turn was inappropriate. Yet through this frailty, human will to survive was also manifest in those who simply refused to die but fought for survival and did not lose faith in God. This will to survive, this faith in God can be paraphrased in the reading today that neither death nor life shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Whom we trust.


This service, friends, is our commemoration of those who perished and our celebration of those who survived the tragedies of the SS Mendi, HMSAS Southern Floe and SAS President Kruger, irrespective of their ethnicity, colour or religious beliefs, those men of courage, those men of valour, all sons of South Africa


“At the Going Down of the Sun and in the Morning,

We Will Remember them”.


 W M Bartie

19th February 2012