Having obtained leave I sent in my papers to the Navy and awaited my letter of appointment to the armed forces. I did not expect to be given a commission straight away, so asked to be accepted as a signalman, because during my time in the Scouts and in the General Botha training ship I had always liked the signalling and had always done well at it. I had to wait until nearly the end of the year before I received a reply
to my application. When I opened the big OHMS (On His Majesty’s Service) envelope I got a big surprise, as it contained a letter, signed by General Smuts, offering me the commission of Sub-Lieutenant in the South African Naval Force (SANF) and enclosing a form that I had to fill in and take to the nearest Naval Base, which for me was in the East London harbour, to take the oath of allegiance to our King and his heirs and successors. My letter of appointment also said that my pay would begin as soon as I reported to Head Quarters in Cape Town in 1943. I was told that the first thing I would do then would be to take a six-weeks Officer’s Course. So I wrote to Naval HQ in Cape Town and asked about this course and was told that it would start on the 6th of January, 1943.
I should mention that in all this busy-ness I had the full support of my wife Margery. When the war started she had joined the SAWAS (South African Womens’ Auxiliary Service) organisation and had been through a very extensive course of maintenance and repairs of motor vehicles, as the ladies in SAWAS had to be ready to drive motor cars as needed for members of the armed forces. She enjoyed this course very much and actually in later life her expertise in this subject was of great use to both of us and our family!
At the beginning of December 1942 my Dad and Mother and various other members of our family decided to spend the Christmas holiday in a hired cottage at Little Brak River Mouth. This was a very pleasant family gathering, but we all felt the shadow of war over us as we wondered when, and if, we would have such a family gathering again. I had many days previously booked a seat in the train going to Cape Town on the 5th January to enable me to join the Officer’s Course on the next day, so early on that day my Margery drove me and my couple of suitcases to the Little Brak station to catch the train. Our son Christopher, who had been born while we were living in Somerset West, was with her. When I said “Good bye” to them I really wondered whether we would all meet again.
After a safe but boring journey to Cape Town I reported to Naval HQ there, only to be told that the Officer’s Course had already been on the go for four weeks, so that I would be able to take only two weeks of what was for the others a six-week course. Fortunately I was able to show the official letters that had led me astray, to prove that the fault was not mine. This course was held in HMSAS Unitie, a “stone frigate” of the SANF and was, for me, very strenuous. Thus I was very pleased when in the final examinations I was placed fourth in as class of 22. Then all those of us who had passed were given out postings. Most of them were to SANF ships, of course, but several of us were refused for sea service as the naval authorities had a regulation forbidding officers in their 35th year or older to serve at sea unless they had had at least ten years of unbroken sea service behind them.
Thus four of us “oldies” were sent to the new anti-submarine base on Robben Island where we immediately began a new course in electrics, as the introduction to our anti-submarine course. Thereafter we learnt about the “loops” that had been laid in a huge semi-circle from Melkbos Strand in the North to Clifton in the West, all circling Robben Island. Each loop (there were four of them) consisted of three lengths of cable, each about five
miles long, all parallel with each other and joined at the ends. From one end of each loop there was a thinner cable to connect the loop to the instruments in our base, which was called the Naval Sub-Depot, Robben Island, so that its real function could be kept secret. For the same reason the buildings in which the instruments were set up and the other buildings which housed all the naval personnel were built among trees and bushes to hide them from the sea or the air. A thin steel lattice mast with steps on it was used by the people on look-out duty.
To begin with the erection, fitting out and staffing of the “NS-D,RI” was in the hands of RNR or RNVR officers and ratings. I was in the first class of SANF officers to do the Anti-Submarine Fixed Defences course here. The course lasted some eight weeks, if my memory is correct, and there were about a dozen or twenty in the course. Two of our number failed the final tests and were returned to ‘General Service’; four of us were kept on Robben Island and the other successful candidates sent to start new A/S F/D bases or to join existing bases in the other seaports around our coast.
The RNVR officer in charge of all this land-borne anti-submarine work, whose title was “Anti-Submarine Fixed Defences, South Atlantic” and who was thus always referred to as “ASFIDOSA”, received an order from the Admiralty in London to scrap the plan for the erection of an anti-submarine fixed-defences base in Port Elizabeth and instead to do so in Walvis Bay. The reason was that the Japanese had begun to make attacks in Madagascar and had even sent a large submarine which carried a seaplane to make a scouting trip to Durban, during which the seaplane flew over the harbour and the town, causing the first air raid alarm signal there. This alarmed the authorities in South Africa and also in London, as it was feared that that island and the south-eastern part of South Africa might be the region for the next Japanese attack on the Allies, so it was decided to scrap the idea of building a new A/S F/D base in Port Elizabeth and instead to set iut up one in Walvis Bay. I was chosen to do this, so I had to go by train from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth and to see to the embarkation of all the A/S F/D gear, which had been landed there but not yet used, into a Danish cargo ship, the MS Tureby, a 4 500-tonner which had already taken aboard much cargo destined for Britain.
The easiest part of this job was to put aboard the cartons in which the A/S detection instruments were kept. As they were very much “official secrets” it was decided to put them into the cabin destined for me, so that I could lock them into it and keep the key myself. Incidentally, they filled the cabin so completely that I could not use it myself, thus I had to sleep on a cushioned bunk in the officers’ dining saloon and use the captain’s bathroom which was next to it. The biggest and most tiring part of the operation was to deal with the undersea cable, some 50 miles of it, which weighed
over 4 tons per mile. The core of this cable was the usual copper wire for taking the current, but this had to be securely insulated from the sea water by a covering of thick rubber and, as that had to be protected from breaking, this was all covered with a thick layer of steel wires and that by a coating of canvas which had been water proofed by being soaked in tar for a long time! All this meant that the cable had a diameter of about three inches. We had to pay the cable out from its huge coil on the dockside, a coil that had to have an inside diameter of at least 20 feet, to prevent the cable’s being bent sharply enough to break it. The diameter of the coil on the outside was about 40 feet and its height over 8 feet. We had to lift the cable and uncoil every foot of it, bring it over to the top of No 3 hatch and re-coil it in the hold. We had to work night and day without stopping for 12 days, with several different groups of labourers. When all the cable had been transferred from the coil on shore to the coil in the ship’s hold there was another task to see to, the building of a timber “wall” all round the coiled cable. The outer sides of this wall being held in place by balks of timber fixed between them and the ship’s steel sides.
When all this had been done, the Tureby’s captain got his orders from SANOIC, the SA Navy’s senior officer in Port Elizabeth, to join a coastal convoy that was to pass Port Elizabeth on its voyage from Durban to Cape Town. This we did. The merchant ships in the convoy were drawn up in three rows of five ships each, with a destroyer zig-zagging in front of them, a corvette doing the same right aft and a whale catcher turned into a submarine chaser on each broadside. On the first evening out, as I was at dinner with Captain Lohse, his chief officer and the chief engineer, all very friendly Danes, we were nearly thrown off our chairs by a tremendous shaking of the ship followed by a tremendous noise. We all rushed up to the top of the superstructure and, looking aft, saw the corvette and one of the whale catchers going round in circles and dropping depth charges, with the destroyer rushing round from the front of the convoy to join in the fun. The merchant ships were ordered to keep going at full speed. We soon left our escort behind but, about half an hour later, they caught up with us, the corvette signalling to us by lamp, “Sorry, just a school of porpoises.” We were all very sorry for the poor porpoises but glad to know that there was not just then any danger from U-boats. Three days later we arrived in Cape Town, where all the ships filled up with extra cargo and with fuel for the long haul across the Atlantic.
The Tureby, I remember, was filled with pockets of oranges to take overseas. While she was lying in Cape Town docks I had two days with my wife and young son.
The whole convoy left after this brief halt and set off northwards but, on the second day, while the other ships and the escorts turned north-north-west the Tureby kept going north, bound for Walvis Bay. I still remember how naked we felt when we were left by the other ships and how exposed to the attack of prowling U-boats.
This was intensified when at about 10 p.m. (22h00) while I was on the captain’s bridge helping the chief officer to keep his watch we suddenly heard shouts from the water and, rushing to the starboard bridge wing, could just make out the shape of a boat with some men aboard in the sea below us. We must have avoided ramming her by a few yards. The captain was called to the bridge and decided that, as his orders were to make all speed to Walvis Bay and not to be diverted therefrom by anything except breakdown in his own ship he could not stop. We all thought that the men in the boat would be survivors from a U-boat’s prey and were thus keeping as good a lookout as was possible. In the end, however, Captain Lohse decided to signal by using his weakest radio set to the SANOIC in Saldanha Bay and suggesting that a trawler be sent out to pick up survivors.
On the next day Captain Lohse told me that news had just come through by radio that Italy had surrendered. He was therefore organising a celebratory supper to which, of course, I was invited. He was, however, very disappointed in me, as I refused both the caviar and the champagne that he had got out from the ship’s special stores. It was the first time I’d ever seen caviar and to me it looked just like a lot of pawpaw seeds and smelt decidedly “fishy”, while being a life-long teetotaller I could not drink the champagne. I did however, have a tall glass of what my fellow-officers on Robben Island called the “Transkei Special” – a drink I had invented consisting of two fingers of lime juice at the bottom of a glass which was then filled up with ginger ale, a most tasty and refreshing drink. Later, when I returned to the SANF Sub-Depot on Robben Island as its Commanding Officer, the name was changed to “CO’s Special”.
Three days after this incident our ship reached Walvis Bay. We had to anchor in the Bay as there were already three cargo ships tied up next to the quay. Meanwhile the RN and SANF officers in charge came out to our ship to welcome us and “put us in the picture” of our loading and unloading. While they were talking to Captain Lohse one of them said, “By the way, Captain, those fellows in the boat that you signalled about were picked up all right,” to which Captain Lohse replied, “Oh, I’m very glad Saldanha Bay picked up our message.” The officer laughed and replied, “Saldanha did not pick up your signal, nor did any other in South Africa.” Yet it was picked up in Trincomalee by an RN signaller! When he heard no reply to the signal he repeated it by undersea cable to Durban, who repeated it to Saldanha Bay by secret telephone and so a trawler was sent out and the men in the boat were saved. They were, however, not survivors from a sunken ship, but fishermen from Saldanha who had gone fishing in their boat which had an outboard motor fitted to it. They had food and water for about a week and would then have had to return home. But, while they were out their outboard motor had failed them. They had no radio to call for help and so drifted about in very rough weather. They were just about at the end of their tether when they saw the Tureby bearing down on them and were just able to pull out of her way when she arrived. One can imagine how down-hearted they would have become when she seemed to ignore their calls for help, but how grateful they must have been when, some ten hours later, they were picked up and taken to safety. I have always wondered at a radio call so weak that it could not be heard anywhere in South Africa but be heard in Trincomalee, some 4 000 miles away!
When we did come alongside the quay at last we had to get all the cartons of A/S equipment out of the ship and placed in a lock up room and then get all the cable out of the hold and coiled down on the quay. This proved to be a much more difficult task than putting it aboard the ship. The cranes for lifting the cable and the motor engines for pulling it out of the hold were much less powerful than those we had used in Port Elizabeth, so we had to engage gangs of men to help the machinery by hauling the cable by hand. To me it seemed that these South West African natives were not nearly as strong, physically, as our coloured and black labourers in the Cape were. Thus it took about four days more to do the job. While all this was going on I noticed a grey-haired man in mufti who seemed to be very interested in what we were doing. He kept on suggesting that we do this or don’t do that until I got rather peeved with him. His piece de resistance when he stopped to ask why we didn’t just put a few ropes around the coiled cable and lift it all in one day with the coil tied to a hook of a crane! I pointed out to him that the cable was 50 miles long and weighed 4 tons per mile, also that the two biggest cranes in Walvis Bay could lift no more than 10 tons each, but even this did not stop his shadowing me and making ridiculous suggestions.
We had just about finished unloading the cable from the ship when I received an urgent telegram from my mother in Cape Town to say that my father was desperately ill and that she had gone to Naval HQ in Cape Town and had succeeded in getting from them compassionate leave for me. I therefore went to SANOIC in Walvis Bay and found that he had had instructions from Naval HQ to grant me 10 day’s compassionate leave.
I well remember that day. It was a Friday, the day on which the weekly plane from Walvis Bay to Cape Town took off. Unfortunately it had taken off several hours before I got the signal, so I had to go by train. This I went to the railway station to book a berth on the evening train to Cape Town. The booking clerk at the station was, like so many other public servants at that time, anti-government because they hated the United Party and its decision to bring South Africa into the war against Germany. So he told me that the first class accommodation to which I was entitled, being an officer, was fully booked, and grumbled when I said I didn’t mind going second class or even dog box so long as I could get to Cape Town as soon as possible. Thus, after supper on the Tureby, I said “good bye” to Captain Lohse and my other friends and carried my luggage (one fairly big and one small suitcase) to the station, where the train for Cape Town was already lying and waiting for its locomotive. I was surprised to see only one other traveller, an army staff-sergeant. He was most surprised to see me in coming into the second class coach and reminded me that officers travelled first class. He was very shocked when I told him that the booking clerk had told me that the first class accommodation was fully booked, pointing to the two first class carriages standing there completely empty. The train was scheduled to leave at 8.00 p.m. (20h00) but I was aboard at about 7.40. A few minutes later I was very touched to see Captain Lohse, to whom I’d said farewell before leaving the Tureby, coming into the station to see me off! It was very thoughtful of him.
The train left Walvis Bay that Friday night at 8.00 p.m. but did not reach Cape Town until 11.00 am on Tuesday, the longest train journey I ever had. I was delighted to see Margery, my wife, waiting on the platform for me. After our happy reunion she told me that my father had died just a few hours earlier. This was a great shock to me as I’d been hoping that I would be able to be with him before his death. Meanwhile I had still a few days of my leave so I was able to be with my mother and help her over the trauma of Dad’s burial service. This was really a service of thanksgiving for the wonderful life that Dad had lived and all that he had done over 43 years in peace and three wars. This service was taken by my uncle Gerrit du Plessis, who had married Dad’s sister Mina and had become a minister in the DRC on my Dad’s advice.
When my leave was up I reported to the Personnel Officer at Naval HQ for my next posting but was amazed when he looked at me with an angry frown on his face as he said, “I’ve had a serious complaint about you, young man.” Taken completely aback, I said, “I’m sorry about that, Sir, but what is it?” He then shuffled among his papers and pulled out a lengthy report typed on foolscap. As he read it I could not help laughing, in which he joined too. It turned out that the man in civilian clothes in Walvis Bay was a retired army officer who had been appointed to speed up the loading and unloading of cargo in the harbour there and who had suggested to me all kinds of stupid and impracticable ideas. He had obviously been most upset at the cavalier treatment he had got from me and had put in this report. I explained to the Staff Officer (P) that this man had shown me nothing to identify him as someone who had anything to do with the stowage or unloading of cargoes and that his suggestions were too preposterous to follow. So SO (P) laughed and told me that he was very glad that I had been able to give him evidence to squash the old “dug out” who obviously knew nothing about cargo stowage and was always sending in statements like that to enlarge his own ego.
Meanwhile I had received orders to return to the Sub-Depot, Robben Island as First Lieutenant, with Lieutenant G.J. Perkins RNVR as commanding officer.
As I had done well in the A/S courses that we had received and it was known at HQ that I was by profession a teacher I was told that I was to be an instructor-officer to various groups that were sent o Robben Island, our Sub-Depot being an instructional as well as an operational base. My first effort in this duty was to take a group of about a dozen SANF lieutenants and sub-lieutenants in the eight week’s A/S F/D course. Then I had a six-week’s course for Leading Seamen, a shortened, more practical course and later about three more officers’ courses. During this time most of the RNVR officers had been returned to the RN and then Lieut. Perkins left Robben Island to become A/S F/D OSA in charge of all the A/S F/D stations round our coast. His promotion led to mine as, in addition to being the chief Instruction Officer on the Island I had to take over as Commanding Officer, S/D R/I.
NOTE: for more on the Indicator Loops see Dr Richard Walding’s site: http://indicatorloops.com/southafrica.htm