Chapter 13: Quick promotion

My commission as Sub Lieutenant in the South African Naval Forces dated from 4th January 1943 and I was thus very surprised and pleased to get a notification from SANF HQ in 1944 that I had been promoted to Lieutenant with effect from 1 April 1944. The normal time in the navy to receive promotion to Lieutenant was eight years but in war time when many extra officers were needed it was shortened to four years, yet here I had received this promotion in just under 15 months! It took me a long time to believe this good news. I believe that this quick promotion is still a record in the SA Navy.

The Queen Mary off Robben Island

Soon after this the RNVR officer who held the post of A/S F/D O, SA was promoted and left SA to rejoin the RN. He was succeeded by Lieut. G.J. Perkins who thus left Robben Island to take over the office in Naval HQ, Cape Town. I was then promoted to Commanding Officer of the SANF Sub-Depot on Robben Island, still keeping all my former duties except watch keeping. There was at this time also a great build up of soldiers in the east to take part in the war against Japan, so we had many visits of ships such as the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Aquitania, Ile de France, Nieuw Amsterdam and Mauretania. In our signals with Naval HQ in Cape Town we never used the names of these ships; they were all referred to as ‘monsters’! When any of them was in Table Bay (and sometimes they came in three or four at a time!) we had to tighten our security measures although they were always tight. I well remember how once I got a great fright. The Queen Mary was in Cape Town and extra patrol vessels were brought round to prevent any U-boat from entering Table Bay. Then I received a signal that ‘the Monster’ would be leaving at 11.30 p.m. (23h30). So I told all those who were on watch in our operations room to keep an eagle eye on their instruments in case a U-boat managed to intercept the ‘Monster ‘. As the Queen Mary with her 81 000 tons of ship would possibly damage our very sensitive instruments I ordered them to be turned to lowest sensitivity at 11.15. Meanwhile I joined the Officer of the Watch and the other watch keepers in keeping a good look out on the instruments which would show the ‘signature’ of any ship that crossed one or other of the loops.

Aquitania in Cape Town Harbour

Just before 11.30 I was horrified to see a small signature on Loop No 3. I know that we had de-sensitised the loops to prevent too big a signature from being made, but I was sure that this signature was much too small to be that of the Queen Mary. So I immediately signalled Naval HQ and reported this small signature, saying that it might easily be that of a U-boat. Then came an apologetic reply: “Oh, I am sorry. I should have told you: a destroyer is leading the monster out in order to keep an asdic watch in front of her.” While this reply was very reassuring after our fright I could easily have given the Officer of the Watch at Naval HQ a ‘clip over the earhole’ for allowing us to be given such a fright!

On another occasion we got a signature on Loop No 2 during daylight when no ship could be seen in that vicinity. It was therefore reported urgently to Combined HQ in which the Officer of the Watch at that time was an Army Major. He came back with the reply that the morning scouting plane had reported seeing a number of porpoises coming into the bay and that our signature must have come from them. We tried to explain to him that signatures could only be made by iron or steel ships crossing the loops but he insisted that the porpoises were responsible for the signatures. No doubt he was thinking of the asdics whose electrically-stimulated sound waves made ‘echoes’ when hitting any underwater things, whether rocks or U-boats, whales or porpoises. Incidentally, during the war it was found that when the asdic’s sound waves were switched off and the machine was used as a hydrophone, it was practically impossible to tell the underwater noises made by submarines from those made by whales, porpoises or dolphins. Fortunately our signature proved abortive!

Talking of signatures made by vessels crossing the loops reminds me of a strange happening on our instruments one day. We got a distinct signature on Loop No 1 and I looked out to see what had caused it. To my great surprise I saw that the vessel crossing the loop was a 600-ton coaster belonging to the Thesen Line, a ship that I knew to be built of wood. There was no other ship near the loop nor had the patrol vessels picked up any submarine on their asdics. So I reported this to Combined HQ and, after some delay, got a reply that the coaster was carrying a cargo of about 500 tons of infantry rifles and boxes of ammunition for the rifles, which accounted for the signature that she had made. Just for interest I wrote a report on this strange happening and sent it to HMS Vernon in England, which is the overseer of all underwater weapons: torpedoes, mines, etc., claiming that this must be the only case of a wooden ship making a signature on a loop, but I received no reply to this. Possibly the RN officer who dealt with the letter had no sense of humour!

Meanwhile the build-up of an Eastern Fleet to take the war to Japan was continuing. We received a circular on Robben Island from Naval HQ asking for officers who wished to volunteer for this fleet to fill in certain forms and send them to SO (Personnel) at Naval HQ. As I wanted very much to have service afloat before the war ended I filled in a form and sent it off. A few days later I received a signal to report to Naval HQ (they were then in the Hiddingh Hall at the top of the Avenue). So I put on my No. 1 blue uniform with brass buttons and went ashore to Naval HQ. I had to wait for some time before the SO (Personnel) was able to see me. He was a very friendly Irishman and had obviously kissed the Blarney Stone! He told me he had received my application to join the Eastern Fleet but itwas to be refused because, as he said, “We have a number of lieutenants and sub-lieutenants for the Eastern Fleet, but you are the only A/S F/D officer who is a trained teacher and thus the best man to train the SWANS who are to be chosen for A/S F/D work, a most important thing. Once all the SWANS have been trained you will be free to go to sea!” When I asked him how many classes of SWANS would have to be trained he ‘hummed and hawed’ and refused to be pinned down to a particular number. In the even, I kept on training SWANS almost until the end of the war, so never joined the Eastern Fleet.

First page of the Instrument of Surrender

Shortly after the surrender of Germany the Admiralty signalled to all the Commonwealth Navies that the A/S F/D stations were to cease operating. This was repeated to us by the Ministry of Defence, who also sent to all Defence Force units a programme for a special thanksgiving service to be held, in English and Afrikaans, as soon as all military operations were to cease. This service had been drawn up by General Smuts, who suggested that all units in each district should have a combined service. Thus on Robben Island we had a big service, with the SANF being the biggest unit there, but there were also the army gunners, signallers, etc. I was asked to take the service, which I considered a very big compliment, but it was only because as it was known that I was a missionary.

Second page of the Instrument of Surrender

Before the service we had a ceremony at the sub-depot, when with ‘all hands’ fallen in and to attention I switched off the diesel motors which had been going non-stop since 1942! The sudden stopping of this familiar noise had a great effect on all of us and some of the SWANS had tears in their eyes. I know that I had difficulty in dismissing the parade and ordering all hands to go to the Robben Island church (the second oldest Anglican church in South Africa, but of course used by all denominations during the war). The service was wonderful, with each part of it in a different language, Bible readings, prayers and hymns alternately in English and Afrikaans. We all felt how much we owed to our loving Heavenly Father for giving us the victory in the terrible and long-fought six years of war.

The next day we ‘packed up’ in the sub-depot on Robben Island, everybody except a small ‘care and maintenance’ party (one officer, one Petty Officer and, I think, two seamen) to look after the buildings, machinery, etc. Meanwhile SANOIC had instructed me to take charge of all the SWANS and take them to a special camp which had been set up on Green Point common and which had a very formidable barbed wire fence all round it, and a gate guarded day and night by army sentries.

Meanwhile Lieut Perkins had ceased being A/S F/D O SA as he had to go to England to be demobilised and I was promoted to take his place. My chief task was to undo most of what we had done during the war. Table Bay was full of our loop cables, nearly 60 miles of them. There were also four huge underwater tripods with Harbour Defence Asdics on them, and several more miles of cable. Then there was a fairly short length of cable across the entrances to the Table Bay Docks and the small Harbour Defence Asdics. All this had to be dealt with as soon as possible. The ship to do all this was HMSAS Spindrift, a trawler-type ship built in Germany as an ‘Outpost Ship’. She had been captured in the Heligoland Bight and brought to England during the war, where she was fitted out as a ‘controlled minelayer’ and had planted the mines at Saldanha Bay, mines that were to be exploded from the shore when the loop indicators showed the presence of an unknown ship. She was now fitted with a large windlass with which to pick up the cable from the sea and coil it down in the hold behind the foc’s’le. Fortunately she was commanded by Lieut ‘Mac’ Joubert, who had been with me in the SATS General Botha in 1924-25. We had to pick up from the sea-bed all the A/S loops and Harbour Defence Asdics and take them to Saldanha Bay where they were to be put ashore. So once again I had to deal with the A/S F/D cable!

Our method was fairly simple: we had charts of where each cable and each HDA had been laid, so we steamed the Spindrift more-or-less at right angles to the cables, dragging behind us a thinner cable to which was attached a bid six-tooth grapnel. We steamed very slowly so as to be able to stop immediately when the grapnel caught up on something. It was my tasks to stand with one foot on the cable so as to feel its reverberations, as these would be different when the grapnel caught up on a rock or on a cable. As soon as we had struck a cable I had to shout “Stop her!” and this was quickly done. Then we started the windlass and tried to pull the undersea cable up to just above water-level. It was then for me to say whether the cable was as A/S F/D one or one of the many other cable with which the seabed of Table Bay is littered. When I had recognised the cable as ‘one of ours’ we had to get it above water so that it could be cut, one end of the cut cable to be brought up to the windlass which was set going to pull the cable up from the sea and into the ship’s hold, the other end of the cable having a buoy fitted to it so that we could pick it up as soon as the first section had been safely put into the hold. This all sound very easy but it was really hard work, especially if there was a ‘bit of a lop’ on the seam. I should have mentioned that the thin cable to which the grapnel was attached was pulled by another, less powerful windlass on the deck of the Spindrift. Once we had the ship filled with cable we made for Saldanha Bay where we spent the night, hauled the cable out of the hold and coiled it down on the land. This usually took all day, then we joined the officers in the Saldanha Naval Base and early next morning sailed for Cape Town to pick up more cable.

One of these trips is still very fresh in my memory. We had collected out daily ‘catch’ of cable and had got it ashore at Saldanha Bay. Then we were entertained in the Naval Officers’ Mess. While we were having supper we noticed that the wind was freshening. When at about 10.00 p.m. (22h00) we made our way back to our ship we had to push ourselves against the wind although we were going downhill. All the way to the ship we felt the sea sand ‘whipping’ us, so much that when at last I got down to my cabin and got undressed I found that my black tie was grey in colour; sand had been blown into it so fiercely that I could not get it out. I never could wear that tie again!

We sailed next morning as arranged at 06h00 and, as soon as we came out of the harbour into the open sea, met the full force of the wind, a real ‘black south easter.’ Our ship could do 12 knots in normal conditions but on that day seemed to be unable to make any headway. She ploughed into each wave as it came, so tht we were soon deluged with sea water. Mac Joubert and I and the officer on watch were soon wet through, although we had oilskins and sou’-westers on over our uniforms. We never moved from the bridge to go down to the wardroom aas it was too dangerous to walk on the upper deck which seemed almost all the time to be under water.

To my mind the hero of the day was the wardroom steward. At 10h00 and again at 13h00 and at 16h00 he appeared on the bridge, holding on with one hand and with a bucket in the other and in the bucket several thermos flasks with tea or coffee and several packets of sandwiches, either cheese or ‘bully beef’, the bread being cut to a ‘thinness’ of about half and inch and the butter applied liberally. How we blessed our steward for his ingenuity and bravery!

After several hours steaming into the teeth of the storm we came up to Dassen Island. This has a very rocky shore and the waves were dashing against the rocks, sending sea water and spray high into the air. The island is only about five miles long, but it took us two hours to pass it! I remember looking at it and wondering what our chances would be like if we lost our sole propeller or the rudder, or if we had sudden engine trouble. We would have been washed onto those wicked-looking rocks within minutes. We all gave a sigh of relief when Dassen Island was left safely behind.

Some hours later we ‘turned the corner’ and entered Table Bay with Cape Town spread out before us. When we came nearer we gasped – houses had been de-roofed, overhead electric wires broken and drooping all over the place, a dirty pall of dust over everything. It looked like the pictures of towns that had been bombed from the air. But what impressed me most was the sight of a line of trees from each of which the top been broken off, as if a giant had done it!

The next thing we noticed was that there was not another ship or boat in the bay: they were all tied up alongside and even there feeling the effects of the storm. When at last we tied up alongside and could ‘come off the watch’ we cleaned ourselves and brushed our uniforms and I went ashore to go to mu family, at that time living with a friend in Green Point. As I walked along the quayside I noticed that the funnel of the Spindrift slooked as if its foreside had been painted white while the rest of it was still it its ‘battleship grey’. For a moment I could not understand it, but then realised that it was caused by the spray and sea water thrown against the fore side of a very hot funnel which evaporated the water but left the salt behind. The dockyard clock showed the time to be just after 19h00, so our 60-mile trip, usually done in five hours, must have taken close on 12 hours. This also shows the force of the wind. When I at last joined my family in Green Point they looked at me and then burst out laughing. I did not understand why they should have until my wife suggested I should look into a mirror. I did so, to see that my black eye-brows had also become white and, as I brushed them off with my hand, they crackled! Later on we praised the Lord who had brought me safely home through one of the most vicious ‘black south easters’ in Cape Town’s history. Next morning I was again aboard the Spindrift to seek more of our A/S cable.

A few days later we had a very entertaining effort: we had hooked one of the loops and brought it to the surface and the ship’s bosun was busy trying to cut the cable. He was on a bosun’s chair lowered from the foc’s’le and was working with his feet in the water. The Spindrift was, of course, stationary at the time. Suddenly a school of ‘basking sharks’ came past the ship, the largest type of fish, each one 20 to 30 feet long and broad in proportion. These creatures are completely harmless but look very formidable. So when someone from the foc’s’le called out, “Hey, Bose, look below you” the bosun gave one look and within a couple of seconds was on the foc’s’le! I’ve never seen a man move such a height so quickly! Our skipper said to him, “You know, bosun, you needn’t have moved. Those creatures are harmless,” to which Bosun replied: “You know that, sir, and now I know it also, but do those things also know it?” Which, of course, led to a huge burst of laughter from all of us on the upper deck.

While I was attached to the Spindrift we had a good laugh over a warning received from the Admiralty in London to all ships and stations of the Navy, to the effect that a Japanese Armed Merchant Cruiser (I forget her name) of about 16 000 tons and capable of 20 knots, armed with 8 X 6 inch guns, various anti-aircraft guns and four torpedo tubes, had not joined the ships that had surrendered, and ordering that any of HM ships coming across her was immediately to take steps to capture her and return her to Japan for internment. The Spindrift was a trawler of about 300 tons with a top speed of 12 knots and armed with one Lee-Enfield rifle complete with bayonet but no ammunition and two 0.45 Webley and Scott revolvers for officers! Fortunately we never came across the Japanese AMC.

Not long afterwards this task of dealing with our undersea cables was completed and then I had to deal with the demobilising of all the SWANS. For this I moved to A/S F/D O SA’s office in Hiddingh Hall. I had one SWAN (not from the technical side) to do my typing, etc., and to attend to my correspondence. She was very efficient and thus a great help. Very near Hiddingh Hall was the palace built for Count Labia, who had been Italian consul in Cape Town for many years. When Italy joined the Axis nations in fighting the Allies he and his family were interned and later returned to Italy and his palace taken over by the SA Defence Force.

All of us officers who worked in Hiddingh Hall were honourary members of the Officers’ Mess in Labia House, so we all went across there for lunch. Before one reached the huge dining room there was a drinks counter for us to whet our appetites before going in to lunch. It became the custom that the senior officers (Navy Lieutenant Commanders, Army Majors and above) used the left end of this counter and we junior officers the right end. One day Admiral Dalgleish brought in an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who had a string of medal ribbons and ushered him into the left end of the counter. As he entered this visitor saw me and came almost running to greet me, saying: “How are you, sir? It’s lovely to see you again!” Dalgleish and the other brass hats looked askance at me and this Air Force officer shaking me warmly by the hand. I recognised him at once – he was one of the boys I had taught at Hottentots Holland High School some 12 years before. I had read of many of his exploits when in the SAAF against the Italians in North Africa and later in Italy itself, and knew that he had been much decorated. We had a good natter before the Admiral could get him away from me and on to the serious matter of a pre-lunch drink.

Ship's Company Robben Island c1945

Ship's Company Robben Island c1945

My stay in Hiddingh Hall as A/S F/D O SA was longer than I had anticipated as there was so much correspondence to attend to before all the SWANS could be released from service. Meanwhile they were kept in the Green Point Common camp. I had to visit them fairly often and was several times asked to dinner with them, which I always did with my Margery accompanying me. Also I frequently went to the docks to see the SWANS that were returning to Europe and be sure they were properly looked after. Thus it was not until the end of 1945 that I myself could be paid off.

This meant a lengthy stay at Wynberg Camp filling in one form after another, going from pillar to post to get signatures and these rubber-stamped until I was sick of it. At last I found that I could receive a suit of civilian clothes or a money order lieu, the latter being my choice and then I was out of the Navy. I was told that I could wear my uniform for a fortnight afterwards and was given a rail warrant to get me a first class single ticket to Butterworth, the station nearest to Blythswood and also coupons for nine meals on the train.

Margery and her dogs Paul and Vulcan on the rocks below Chapman's Peak Drive

Margery and I decided to accept the invitation of our friends Queenie and Cherry to stay with them until the New Year. Then we returned to Ngqamakwe and Blythswood where I caused quite a sensation as I was in my smartest all white uniform with two medal ribbons above my left pocket.

For Margery it was a great relief to get back to our very good house in Blythswood, actually the best house we had in our married life and to all our friends and all our pre-war occupations. But for me the matter was not yet ended. I still had to send in a claim for damage to any equipment that I used in my daily work, things stolen, etc. I found when we unpacked all the furniture, clothes, etc., which had been stored away while we were living in Cape Town and had to have my signature for these things vouched for by as Commissioner of Oaths. Also I was reminded from the Department of Defence that all officers in the Armed Forces during the war were automatically put onto the list of Reserve Officers until the age of 70 and thus were liable to be called out for any emergency. Fortunately I reached that age without ever being called up again.

When I had returned to Blythswood in January 1946 it took some time before I got back into peacetime work again. Mr Arnott was still the Missionary-in-Charge of the Institution and we returned to our former house, but it was strange to be out of uniform and to be without my wartime shipmates. There were several changes of staff, especially among the black members; it was strange to be returning to wood and coal stoves, lamps and candles, heating water for baths on the stove and so on, after having nearly four years in a world of electrically-operated machinery. Nevertheless we all felt that there had been a gigantic job well done and that now, through God’s wonderful aid, there would be a new and happier world. During the war our country had at various times been host to soldiers, sailors and airmen who in their thousands had enjoyed our typical South African hospitality and it soon became obvious that our country had become one of the most popular in the world. Many of these man and women were still in this country when the war ended and I knew many of them who wanted to stay in this country for good. But of course they had to be returned to their homelands for demobilisation.

Our Prime Minister, General Smuts, seizing this opportunity of increasing our white population and made an arrangement with the Union Castle Line that several of their mailships which had been fitted out as troopships during the war should, when the repatriation of commonwealth soldiers to their homes after the war was ended, be modified to bring settlers from Britain to this country. The company would charge very little for their passage to South Africa and the government would add an amount for each passenger to make up the fare to its full amount. Moreover, the ship builders Harland & Wolff of Belfast, who had built most of the Union-Castle fleet, quickly built a new vessel for the company to add to their “settler” fleet. They could build her very quickly because they had ‘in reserve’ four Harland and Wolff-Burmeister and Wain diesel engines, kept ready to replace engines which might be damaged in any of the motor ships of the Union-Castle Line. These engines were placed into the hull of the new ship, which came out as the Bloemfontein Castle, the first “one-class” ship to be built for the Line.

All this pointed to a new, prosperous, peaceful and popular era in our country but, unfortunately, it did not last long. There were South African troops in various parts of the world, Britain, France, Egypt, Somalia, Madagascar, etc., and these all wanted to be repatriated without delay. They saw how British, US, Australian etc., troops were being fetched home, but not our men. What they did not realise was that South Africa did not possess any passenger liners, all their movements during the war having been made in British, French, US, Dutch and Australian, etc., ships, but these were now busy looking after their own men. Thus many of our service men were kept waiting abroad, getting more and more angry and frustrated.

Meanwhile another blow to the chances of the Smuts government to win the next election, which had to be held in the middle of 1948, was the unfortunate and terrible decision of the DRC at its Synod in 1947 that “apartheid is in accordance with the Bible.” As I was then on a mission station where we taught our pupils that all Christians are one in Christ I felt that I had to resign from the Dutch Church, which I did. My minister was very sad when I wrote to him about my resignation and so was I as my father, both my grandfathers and a large number of uncles and cousins were or had been ministers in that church. Anyway, this heretical decision caused the Nationalist Party to get the ‘apartheid’ policy approved by the church as its chief weapon in the 1948 election which was held on 26 May. The leader of the Nationalist Party was Dr D F Malan, a former minister in the DRC. His party won the election chiefly on this ‘apartheid’ policy and also because so many thousands of soldiers had returned home years after the end of the war and had become embittered. Naturally I was very upset about the election result, made doubly unpleasant because the election was held on my birthday!

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