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IMAGES OF SOUTH AFRICAN NAVAL OPERATIONS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (1939 – 1945)

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IMAGES OF SOUTH AFRICAN NAVAL OPERATIONS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (1939 – 1945)

By: Allan Sinclair – DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

 

Introduction

 

For centuries it has been the tradition throughout the world to depict war and battle scenes in art. During the 19th century, war art was recognised as a genre and war artists were appointed in their professional capacity. The theme of war art can, therefore, be found in museums and galleries all over the world. In most nations it forms part of the pictorial record of their military history.

 

At the outbreak of the First World War (1914 – 1918) almost all the belligerent nations took great pains to record the activities of their soldiers during that monumental conflict. South Africa was the exception and, as a result, no official war art collection of South Africa’s role in that war exists.

 

Fortunately, this mistake was not repeated and soon after South Africa’s entry into the Second World War (1939 – 1945) South Africa appointed its own artists to the battlefronts where its forces would be fighting. The first artists appointed in 1940 were Neville Lewis, C Meredith Bleach, Geoffrey Long and Francois Krige.

 

In 1943, following the example set by the United Kingdom in 1939, a War Art Advisory Committee was formed in South Africa to take responsibility for the war art programme. Four additional artists, Ben Burrage, Terence McCaw, Philip Bawcombe and Gordon Taylor were appointed by the committee.  The works produced by these artists also include the activities of the South African Air Force, the South African Naval Forces, the South African Medical Corps and the South African Engineer Corps.

 

A year later the Committee took a new decision to place the collection under the control of the South African War Museum which was then in the process of being established. Like the Imperial War Museum in the United Kingdom, this Museum (located in Johannesburg), officially opened in August 1947. It was established as a memorial to all South Africans who had served in the Second World War. In 1975, the Museum’s scope was extended to cover South Africa’s entire military heritage and the name was changed to the South African National Museum of Military History.  In 1999 the Museum amalgamated with other national museums in the Gauteng Province and, in 2010 the name changed gain to the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History, a component of DITSONG: Museums of South Africa.

 

This article focusses on South Africa’s Naval Forces during the Second World War (1939 – 1945) using a number of works of art in the Second World War Art as illustrations.

 

The Inter-War Period and the South African Naval Service

 

Throughout the entire history of South Africa’s naval forces, each has struggled to maintain a position of prominence within the wider South African defence family. Following the conclusion of the First World War in 1918, the South African Prime-Minister, Gen J C Smuts, agreed to expand the RNVR (SA) and raise the nucleus of a small permanent sea going service. To facilitate this a Hunt Class survey vessel and two Mersey Class minesweeping trawlers were transferred to the Union and the South African Naval Service (SANS) was officially established on 1 April 1922 with an initial compliment of 16 officers and 117 ratings.

 

A further development was the commissioning of the former British cruiser, HMS Thames, into a training ship for future seamen both in the SANS and the merchant navy. The ship, renamed SATS General Botha, was permanently moored in Simon’s Bay and began a proud tradition of schooling young recruits for a career at sea. Many of these men would go on to form the backbone of the future South African Navy both during and after the Second World War (1939 – 1945).

 

It was understood that the SANS had the capacity to expand and develop through various phases with phase two envisaged with the acquisition of two sloops. The British Admiralty believed that these ships would provide the required training for SANS personnel to eventually operate the light cruiser and escort ships previously discussed, as well as create a basis of expansion in time of war. However, in 1924 the PACT Government of Gen J B M Hertzog came to power in South Africa and such plans were rejected due to a perceived lack of necessary funding. The Great Depression, which affected most of the world financially from 1929, put paid to any further plans and the seagoing aspect SANS was fully disbanded by 1934. Hertzog’s standpoint was based on the narrow-minded view of the many inward-looking South Africans at the time who believed that the Union had the Royal Navy to rely on for the defence of its coasts and harbours. Thoughts about any future for a naval service in South Africa would remain as such for the following six years.

 

In the wake of the Munich Crises of 1938 the Union accepted that, while it would have to rely on the Royal Navy’s protection against any maritime threat, the protection of local harbours and the South African coastline lay within the Union Defence Force’s (UDF) sphere of influence. Plans for the expansion of the South African Coastal Defence Artillery system were laid down in 1939. These included the establishment of ‘fortresses’ at Cape Town, Durban and Simons Town and the installation of 2 x 9.2 inch and 2 x 6-inch guns at each location. Such planning estimated that the Coastal Garrison Artillery, with the South African Air Force in support, would mobilise to hold off any aggression from the sea long enough for the Royal Navy to respond and deploy necessary resources to South African waters.

 

Figure 1. G Long – Coastal Defence – Charcoal on Paper (SA Official Military Art Collection – Cat No 1591).

 

Even though there were no ships the SANS remained a nominal service with only two officers and three ratings listed on the roll. Du Toit adds that the Union Government also issued a memorandum in March 1939 detailing further measures to be taken in the event of war. It envisaged that 51 whalers and trawlers could be taken from trade locally and converted and equipped for war service. Of these 36 were earmarked as minesweepers while fifteen would be converted for anti-submarine warfare. Plans were also laid four ocean liners such as the Carnarvon Castle to be fitted out in Union ports and equipped as armed merchant cruisers. These would be crewed as far as possible by men of the RNVR (SA) and employed in local waters for the protection of merchant shipping. A further 80 such ships would also be fitted out in Union ports with the RNVR (SA) providing gun crews on these ships.[5]

 

The Second World War and the Seaward Defence Force

 

All thoughts and plans for maritime security and coastal defence became a reality after South Africa’s declaration of war on the side of the Allies on 6 September 1939. The measures laid out were put into place and the whalers, trawlers and merchant ships identified were dutifully requisitioned and prepared for war. All work was carried out by the South African Railways and Harbours workshops in Cape Town and funded entirely by the Union Government.

 

Figure 2. G Taylor – Mounting a 4-inch Gun – Pencil on Board (SA Official Military Art Collection, Cat No 1176).

 

It was initially believed that the SANS would merely be revived and the required personnel drawn from the ranks of the RNVR (SA). However, the mobilisation of the RNVR (SA) proved problematic as the 1912 South African Defence Act (amended 1922) official bound it to the Royal Navy. Smuts, who had been appointed Prime Minister and Minister of Defence with a slim majority following South Africa’s declaration of war, was not keen to have the matter debated in Parliament at that time and a new naval service would have to rely on volunteers taking the Africa Service Oath. A second maritime force, the Seaward Defence Force (SDF), was consequently formed on 15 January 1940 as an ACF unit under the authority of the UDF. All remnants of the SANS and volunteers from the RNVR (SA) were absorbed into this new force. A retired British naval officer, R-Adm G W Halifax, who was living in South Africa after a period of service as Secretary to the Governor-General of the Union, was appointed as Director of the SDF. Halifax found himself immediately at odds with a UDF headquarters that proved to be extremely land and air centric, had very little understanding of naval matters and was in fact totally disinterested in naval defence. Notwithstanding all of this Halifax did ensure that the Union’s second attempt to establish a fully operational navy service did not fail.[6]

 

The typical South African issue of the time was the provision of separate messing facilities for the different races. Martin and Orpen mention that, despite Halifax’s protests that separate facilities were challenging on small ships with little or no available space, the Chief of the General Staff was insistent that the SDF conform to these requirements.  Where possible coloured personnel had to replace those white personnel serving in non-combatant roles.[7]

 

Figure 3. G Pilkington – Seaward Defence Force Base, Cape Town – Oil on Canvas (SA Official Military Art Collection, Cat No 1267).

 

A scale model of the South African auxiliary minesweeping whaler, HMSAS Southern Barrier, is on display at the Museum. The original ship was one of six whale catchers produced in 1936 by the Bremer Vulkan Shipyard in Vegesack, Germany for the Southern Whaling Company in South Africa. The other five ships of the class were the SA Ships Southern Breeze, Southern Floe, Southern Isles, Southern Maid and Southern Sea. Each of these vessels was designed with the characteristic high bow and low freeboard amidships of a whale catcher. The superstructure was also spread more evenly across the length of the main deck.

 

Figure 4. G Taylor – Model of the Southern Barrier and its Maker – Oil on Canvas (SA Official Military Art Collection, Cat No 1800).

 

The model was hand built by Petty Officer S H Gray of the South African Naval Forces (SANF)

Southern Barrier remained in South African waters where she was fitted out as a minesweeper and selected as the lead ship of a six vessel Mine Clearance Flotilla. This Flotilla was formed to provide a standard tactical naval unit ready to clear all minefields around the coast, except for those located near local ports, and to undertake any other special duty as required

 

The Mine Clearance Flotilla was established after a magnetic minefield, laid by the German supply ship, Doggerbank, was discovered near Cape Agulhas in May 1940. The Flotilla was ordered to clear the area and the operation was only completed in March 1941 due to the onset of inclement weather and the continued re-appearance of mines.

 

Figrure 5. G Taylor – Passing the Leading Line of the Seep – Oil on Canvas (SA Official Military Art Collection, Cat No 1200).

 

The initial deployment of the remaining minesweepers was seven at Cape Town and two each located at Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, and Simons Town. Minesweepers were tasked with sweeping a number of 3,2 km wide channels that covered the approaches to the various harbours. Once they had been swept the channels were declared clear of mines. Each vessel was also armed with a 12 Pounder gun and a couple of anti-aircraft guns.

In November 1941, the Mine Clearance Flotilla played an important part in Operation Bellringer, launched to intercept, and confiscate ships of a Vichy French convoy on route from Madagascar to France. The Flotilla eventually sighted the convoy late on 1 November and shadowed the Vichy ships throughout the night while Southern Barrier made a number of unsuccessful attempts to communicate with her headquarters in Durban. Communications were only established at 05:30 the following morning and eventually the Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Devonshire, arrived on station to escort the Vichy ships into harbour. The Officer Commanding Southern Barrier, Lt Cdr R L V Shannon, also the senior officer of the Mine Clearance Flotilla, was later awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in recognition of his leadership and control of the Flotilla throughout the operation.

 

Figure 6. G Taylor – Anti-Submarine Ship, Alexandria – Oil on Canvas (SA Official Military Art Collection, Cat No 1011).

 

When Italy entered the war on the side of the Axis powers in June 1940 the naval war extended into the Mediterranean and the British Admiralty requested that South Africa provide four anti-submarine vessels for service in that theatre. The request was approved in November 1940 and all remaining Southern Class vessels except Southern Barrier were selected for this task.

 

Figure 7. G Taylor – South African Ships at Alexandria – Oil on Canvas (SA Official Military Art Collection, Cat No 1259).

 

The South African ships formed the 22nd Anti-Submarine Group, a unit of the British Mediterranean Fleet and stationed at Alexandria. The Group saw service on the famous Tobruk Run which were missions ordered to supply the beleaguered British and Australian garrison that had been besieged at the Libyan port of Tobruk. During one specific supply operation, HMSAS Southern Isles came under fire by vast numbers of German bombers. Leading Stoker Rene Sethren personally manned an anti-aircraft gun and assisted in fighting off the enemy aircraft. He was later awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his actions in defending his ship. His uniform is on display at the Museum.

 

Figure 8. F Krige – South African Sailors in Action – Watercolour on Paper (SA Official Military Art Collection, Cat No 1720).

 

The converted South African Anti-Submarine Whalers established themselves as a useful unit in the Mediterranean Theatre and the Royal Navy would later design their new classes of corvettes along the lines of these ships

 

The South African Naval Force and the Conclusion of the Second World War

 

On 1 August 1942 the SDF and RNVR (SA) eventually amalgamated to form the third maritime force of this study, the South African Naval Force (SANF). This new force continued to provide anti-submarine, mine-clearance, and other support services to the Allied naval cause and to safeguard the Cape Sea Route as best it could. A year later the South African Women’s Auxiliary Naval Service (SWANS) was established as part of the SANF.

 

Figure 9. L T Burrage – Leading SWAN Harker – Watercolour and Chalk on Paper (SA Official Military Art Collection, Cat No 1870).

 

The SANF grew from strength to strength and by 1944 it was flourishing as a service with 78 vessels on strength. The 3rd and 4th Escort Groups were operating as far as Kilindini in Tanganyika from Durban and receiving excellent reports from the Royal Navy commanders under which they served. The success of the SANF in all theatres was such that the British Admiralty eventually offered the Union a gift of three Loch Class Frigates then under construction to be placed permanently at the disposal of the SANF. Since the outbreak of the war, South African sailors who were not seconded to the Royal Navy had been compelled to serve in small converted trawlers and whalers. These men would finally be provided with the opportunity to serve in a real warship. The ships were officially named the HMSA Ships, Transvaal, Natal, and Good Hope

 

Figure 10. G Taylor – Frigate in Dry Dock – Simons Town (SA Official Military Art Collection, Cat No 1062).

 

HMSAS Natal achieved the distinction of sinking an enemy submarine during its maiden voyage. While en route to the Firth of Forth from Newcastle in the United Kingdom and after only being in commission for a fortnight, Natal sighted a lifeboat and rafts in the water. The initial search established a contact and it was later confirmed that a German U-boat had been damaged and sunk as a result of her actions. The ship’s Captain, Lt Cdr D A ‘Stoker’ Hall, was awarded a Bar to the DFC he had been awarded earlier in the war. Natal was also the only South African ship to sail to the Far East during the war where she took part in the Allied occupation of Malasya and Singapore in late August 1945.

South Africa had by that time taken the decision to maintain a permanent sea-going fleet following the envisaged end of the war. On 1 May 1946 the SANF was reconstituted as a permanent arm of the UDF under the command of Cdre J Dalgleish, the Director-General of the SANF.

 

Conclusion

 

Throughout its early existence, the South African Naval Forces were dogged by a lack of understanding of the country’s position as a littoral state, by the somewhat disapproving view by other arms of the Defence Force, by the narrow-minded view of many South Africans who have no association with the sea, and by budgetary constraints.

The SANS of the inter-war period had a fleeting existence and stood very little chance against the backdrop of the Great Depression. The SDF, despite having to contend with a UDF that was dominated by Army and Air Force bias, grew into a force capable of playing a limited but useful role in the Second World War. The SANF that took its place faced the same bias but was able to grow from strength to strength to become a permanent arm of the UDF at the conclusion of the war.

The works of art in the Second World War Art Collection of the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History are an important record of the role of the South African Armed Forces during this conflict. The paintings used to illustrate this article provide the reader with a small but unique pictorial record of some of the activities of the country’s naval forces. The Museum trusts that these images do play their part in depicting and preserving this history for future generations to come.

 

 

Bibliography
  1. Publications
Du Toit, Allan, South Africa’s Fighting Ships: Past and Present (Johannesburg: Ashanti, 1992)
Harris, C J, War at Sea: South African Maritime Operations in WW2 (Johannesburg: Ashanti, 1991)
Martin, H J & Orpen, Neil, South Africa at War (Cape Town: Purnell, 1979)
Turner, L C F; Gordon-Cumming, H R; Betzler, J E, War in the Southern Oceans (Cape Town: Oxford University Press: 1961)
  1. Journal Articles
Du Toit, Allan. 2022. “A Navy for the Nation: The Fledging South African Naval Services 1922 – 1940” in Naval Digest, Journal of the Naval Heritage Society of South Africa, Vol 33, April 2022: 1 – 147.
Wessels, Andre. 2009. “The South African Navy and its Predecessors 1910 – 2009” in The Commonwealth Navies: 100 Years of Co-operation, 2012: 79 – 110.
  1. Doctoral Thesis
Kleynhans, Evert, The Axis and Allied Maritime Operations around Southern Africa, 1939 – 1945 (Doctoral Thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 2018)
  1. Archival Sources
Library File 359 (68): DITSONG: National Museum of Military History.
Library File 623 8201 (68):  DITSONG: National Museum of Military History.
[1] A Du Toit, “A Navy for the Nation: The Fledgling South African Naval Services 1922 – 1940” Naval Digest, Journal of the Naval Heritage Society of South Africa Vol 33 (April 2022), 22 – 24; A Wessels, “The South African Navy and its Predecessors 1910 – 2009” The Commonwealth Navies: One Hundred Years of Co-Operation (2012), 79, 80.
[2] A Du Toit, South Africa’s Fighting Ships: Past and Present (Johannesburg: Ashanti, 1992), 4.
[3] A Du Toit, “A Navy for the Nation: The Fledgling South African Naval Services 1922 – 1940” Naval Digest, Journal of the Naval Heritage Society of South Africa Vol 33 (April 2022), 66 – 93.
[4] Kleynhans, Evert, The Axis and Allied Maritime Operations around Southern Africa, 1939 – 1945 (Doctoral Thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 2018).
[5] A Du Toit, “A Navy for the Nation: The Fledgling South African Naval Services 1922 – 1940” Naval Digest, Journal of the Naval Heritage Society of South Africa Vol 33 (April 2022), 104 – 108.
[6] Kleynhans, Evert, The Axis and Allied Maritime Operations around Southern Africa, 1939 – 1945 (Doctoral Thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 2018).
[7] H J Marting & N Orpen, South Africa at War (Cape Town: Purnell, 1979), 79.
[8] Correspondence located in Library File 623 8201 (68): Archives, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History.
[9] A V Weinerlein, unpublished article, South Africa’s C Class Warships in Library File 359 (68), Ditsong National Museum of Military History.
[10] Evert Kleynhans, The Axis and Allied Maritime Operations around Southern Africa, 1939 – 1945 (Doctoral Thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 2018).
[11] Evert Kleynhans, The Axis and Allied Maritime Operations around Southern Africa, 1939 – 1945 (Doctoral Thesis, University of Stellenbosch, 2018).
[12] L F C Turner (et al), The War in the Southern Oceans (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1961), 92 – 95; C J Harris, War at Sea: South African Maritime Operations in WW2 (Johannesburg: Ashanti, 1991), 27 – 29.
[13] A Du Toit, South Africa’s Fighting Ships: Past and Present (Johannesburg: Ashanti, 1992), 97.
[14] H J Martin & N Orpen, South at War (Cape Town: Purnell, 1979), 79.
[15] H J Martin & N Orpen, South at War (Cape Town: Purnell, 1979), 314 – 317.
[16] C J Harris, War at Sea: South African Maritime Operations in WW2 (Johannesburg: Ashanti, No Date), 219 – 221.
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