South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 14 August 2008 was Mr Ulick Brown whose topic was War in the Southern Oceans - an account of the control over merchant shipping in the South Atlantic during the years 1339 to 1945, with particular reference to his own part in this very necessary activity.

He introduced his talk by explaining the importance of the Battle of the Atlantic. Victory in this battle, which lasted for the entire period of hostilities and encompassed the entire area of the Atlantic from the Arctic to the waters far south of the tip of Africa, was essential if Great Britain was to survive and win the war. The British depended on shipping to transport the food, raw materials and fuel required to feed their people and produce the weapons, ships and aircraft required for the prosecution of the war. A defeat in this battle would have meant the defeat of Britain and victory for the Germans. This battle was fought by both sides with the utmost skill, determination and vigour.

The Ministry of War Transport was set up by Britain at the start of the war. This was to be responsible for the timing of movements and the routing of all ships and convoys throughout the world, the allocation of ships and the control of cargoes shipped (to ensure that there was no wastage of scarce space on the ships), as well as repairs and maintenance of these ships. It also controlled the movement of people, both military and civilian, and it operated in close cooperation with the Royal Navy and its allies.

In the early part of the war convoys to the Middle East and Egypt were routed through the Mediterranean but this stopped when the Italians entered the war. Merchant shipping now had to be routed round the Cape of Good Hope, a very much slower and lengthier process.

In 1939 the Kriegsmarine had no more than 57 operational U-Boats in service. Construction of more boats was speeded up and eventually by the end of the war over 1 100 U-Boats were built. Allied ships were sunk without warning (the British did the same) and a good example was the liner Athenia crowded with American, Canadian and Jewish refugees, sunk on 3 September 1939.

In addition to U-Boats, the Germans also made use of their warships and surface raiders - these were initially successful but eventually all of them were hunted down and sunk or captured.

Mr Brown described the convoys which were restricted in speed to that of their slowest ships. Between May and December 1940, 621 ships were sunk and, in 1941, no less than 1 070 ships were sunk. Until late in the war, there were never enough escort vessels.

Mr Brown explained how he came to join the Ministry of War Transport (MOWT). He matriculated in 1940 at the age of 171/2 years and tried to join the Royal Navy as a career officer but was rejected. He then tried to join the SA Division of the RNVR but CDR Coppenhagen told him to come back in a year's time. He then joined Union Castle as an apprentice while also joining the Active Citizen Force (ACF) SA Coast Defence Corps.

When the Ministry of War Transport was first formed, the shipping companies were used to instruct the ships but later this was done directly. With the increase in traffic round the Cape of Good Hope in 1940, MOWT opened a branch office in Cape Town, in the old Shell House in Greenmarket Square. This was run by a Mr Charles Wurzburg sent out from London and Mr Leatham of Union Castle was appointed to run the Freight Division. Our speaker was a member of this Division and his job was to control freight movements to the Middle East war zone. The work of the Freight division was extremely onerous and time-consuming.

The work entailed deciding which ships were to be loaded with what cargo and what their destinations were to be - Europe, West or East Africa, the Middle East, India, Australia or New Zealand. The London office would advise the Cape Town office which ships would be available each month. Coal was loaded in Durban or Lourenšo Marques, Bauxite in British Guyana and so on. Sadly many of the ships they dealt with were sunk.

The South African Forces in the Middle East numbered many thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen and these had to be supplied. Cargoes from South Africa were goods manufactured or supplied from here - shells, bombs, small arms ammunition, tyres, boots, uniforms, canned fruit, sugar, beer, cigarettes, etc.

Our speaker explained that, as a safety measure, there was a limit of 3 000 bombs or shells transported per ship, stowed in only two of each ship's holds. More than this meant that the crew would not have a chance if the ship was hit.

When the tide started to turn in North Africa, Tunisia and Algeria became new war zones. Our speaker recalled receiving an urgent request for supplies of ammunition. He had breakfast with the captain of the Fort Nijmwegen and asked him whether he would be prepared to risk taking 3 000 shells in each hold. The captain agreed to this highly dangerous arrangement and Mr Brown was extremely relieved to learn later that this vital cargo had reached its destination safely.

Mr Brown explained that MOWT also ran ship repairs and recalled that the Dutch SS Mangkalimat was damaged by a mine near Cape Town in May 1942. After undergoing lengthy repairs here, she was sunk by a torpedo fired by U-195 whilst on passage from Beira to Durban on 4 August 1943. He also recalled the SS Tyndareus, one of the biggest cargo carriers which had been mined off Cape Agulhas in the First World War but had reached Simon's Town safely. This ship played an important part in WW2 as well.

The importance of loading ships properly was well illustrated by the tragic explosion in the Bombay Docks on 14 April 1944, which was caused by stowing bales of cotton above and below explosives and ammunition on board the SS Fort Stikine. Three hundred acres of Bombay Docks were devastated and twelve ships reduced to scrap iron. One million pounds worth of gold was lost.

Mr Brown was entrusted at a very young age with a very responsible job and Capt Webster of the Blue Funnel cargo liner Telemachus was so incensed at receiving instructions from him that he exclaimed "in the Liverpool Head Office of the Clan Line a boy like you would not even speak to me"! Capt Webster initially threatened to complain to Mr Wurzburg but later relented.

Our speaker explained that the passenger liners converted to armed merchant cruisers were unsuitable for this role and were converted into troopships. They carried five times more troops than their pre-war complement of passengers! There was no commercial air travel and military personnel travelled to the war zones by sea. Mr Brown recalled some of the famous passenger liners which visited South Africa during the Second World War and the chaotic visit of the Anzacs to Cape Town for a week in 1940. Some of them even disrupted a Malay funeral by walking with the mourners, singing "It's a long way to Tipperary"! When a young lady waiting in her Baby Austin car for her mother to come out of the Post Office told the Aussies that she could not give them a lift, they carried her and her car into the Post Office and left it there.

Another victim of their high spirits was a horse-drawn wagon carrying crates of beer. The Australians unharnessed the four horses and had a bareback race up Adderley Street while their pals helped themselves to the beer and supplied some to the onlookers as well!

The largest passenger ship to visit Cape Town was the 81 225 ton Queen Mary. Mr Brown recalled the wonderful hospitality extended to visiting servicemen and women by South Africans during those years. A home-cooked meal, a drive round the peninsula and the lights of Cape Town by night (due to the remoteness of the major war zones, there was no enforced blackout) did much to boost the morale of those who would soon be facing the enemy in a war zone.

He recalled the 2-minute pause when the noon gun fired on Signal Hill and the people silently remembered those who had given their lives in the war and those who were serving at the front. He recalled the ordeal suffered by the Malta convoys and remembered seeing two of the surviving merchantmen in Table Bay - the Rochester Castle and the Brisbane Star.

One of the most successful wartime ventures was the shipping of many tons of mangoes to the UK from South Africa by the SA Fruit Board. They were not refrigerated but were kept cool by powerful fans.

Mr Brown was responsible for the Middle Eastern war zone cargoes and he recalled the arrival of the Sontay in Alexandria. Her cargo was listed as "one natural history specimen", which, in fact, was the body of the deceased Shah of Persia (Iran) who had died in exile in Johannesburg! The ship was accorded a 21-gun salute by the Egyptian Royal yacht.

Our speaker referred to the Finnish four-masted barque Lawhill which had been interned at East London and had then been utilised by the SA Railways & Harbours (SAR & H) to ship cocoa, wheat and railway sleepers. When Lever Brothers expressed concern about the safety of their cargo, Mr Brown used his powers to resolve the matter. Miraculously the Lawhill survived the war, but ended her days as a coal hulk in Lourenšo Marques.

One of Mr Brown's most unusual and complicated cargoes was 6 600 drums of toxic poison gas which he was ordered to ship to Italy as a contingency measure in case the conflict in the closing stages of the war might escalate beyond conventional warfare. The ship selected for this task was the Silver Ash.

Early in 1944, Mr Brown was instructed to visit the MOWT offices in Port Elizabeth and Durban and requested permission to go by ship. The Silver Laurel and the Dahomian each had a spare cabin. Fortunately our speaker chose the former. The Dahomian was sunk on 1 April 1944, 10 miles WSW of Cape Point, with three crew members losing their lives. Needless to say, he returned to Cape Town by train!

Maj Gordon thanked the speaker for his fascinating talk and presented him with the customary gift. This was the first talk of its kind and was the best-attended lecture of the year so far.



We welcome Messrs R Whiting and S Schroeder who joined our branch in the last month. We wish them a long and happy association with us in the years to come.

We are always interested in new members. If you know of anyone who might be interested in military history or who is interested in joining the Society, bring them along and suggest to them to join. This is the most effective way of attracting new members, if combined with good speakers! We seem to have had some success in this!

If you have not paid your subscriptions, please do so. If you are a full member and have not paid, you will not receive your copies of the Military History Journal.

If any member has a speaker or subject that he or she thinks would be of interest to members, please speak to a committee member and let us know.



The African Aviation and Defence Exhibition will take place at Ysterplaat AFB between 17 and 21 September 2008. Public days are 20 and 21 September.

Fellow-member Brig-Gen Dick Lord's latest book, From Fledgling to Eagle, will be published in October. Due to advance interest shown, this will prove to be another Dick Lord bestseller!