South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on Thursday, 11 June 2009, was Rear Admiral Chris Bennett SAN Rtd, whose subject was the President Class frigates which served in the South African Navy in the years 1962 to 1982. These were modified Type 12 frigates of a design developed for the Royal Navy of the time and were, for their period of service, among the most modern anti submarine vessels available.

They were three in number - named President Kruger, President Steyn and President Pretorius. Admiral Bennett discussed briefly their service with the SAN during those years, including operations during Operation Savannah. The main purpose of his talk, however, was the loss of the President Kruger at sea on 17 February 1982.

On Wednesday 17 February 1982 the 10th Frigate Squadron consisting of SAS President Kruger (Capt 'Wim' de Lange - also the Senior Officer of the group) and SAS President Pretorius (Captain 'Nick' Vorster) together with SAS Tafelberg (Captain 'Nick' Smit) had been exercising for two days with the submarine SAS Emily Hobhouse some 80 miles/128 km west south west of Cape Point. The purpose of the exercise was practical training for the Submarine Officer Commanding Course - usually known by its acronym SMOC - who were all on board the submarine.

They had commenced each day at 06:00 with increasingly complex exercises as the day progressed until 23:00. The concept being that each day a different candidate would be given the opportunity to act as Captain of the submarine for the purpose of "penetrating the screen" and "attacking" the escorted vessel (Tafelberg).

As the frigates were not fully manned and to give the primary operators an opportunity to relax, from 23:00 until the exercises were due to re-commence at 06:00 the surface force carried out simplified exercises whilst following a narrow but long legged zigzag course; virtually reversing course every two hours in order to remain within the designated exercise area. This allowed the officers on the SMOC to practice tracking the surface ships and manoeuvring the submarine.

Inherently the exercises also gave the two frigates an excellent opportunity to train their ships' companies in the problems of antisubmarine warfare and the complexities of screening a main body.

Regretfully, by 1982 the President Class frigates were no longer considered to be the 'pride of the fleet' as they had been in the 1960s after they arrived in South Africa when they had always got the pick of the available manpower and were assured of full maintenance of all their systems. In those 'Golden Years' replacement of broken, aged or obsolete equipment was virtually automatic. In contrast by 1982 most of the experienced men (both officers and ratings) in the Navy were being channelled to the new strike craft and mine hunters.

An additional less well-known factor was that as the result of national and internal Defence Force politics in 1977, the President Class, against the wishes of the Navy, had been declared redundant to requirement and scheduled for disposal by the end of 1978 as soon as the first two French 'Aviso' corvettes at that time on order were operational. This decree also prohibited any further funding for the replacement of obsolete or unserviceable equipment on the three ships.

When the United Nations Arms Embargo was made compulsory in November 1977 and the corvette contract cancelled by France, although the disposal instruction was allowed to lapse, the moratorium on replacement or refurbishment of equipment remained in force. The ships were under-manned and their equipment was becoming old and fractious, often breaking down at the most inopportune moments and at best simply being less accurate.

As the middle watch (midnight to 04:00) was reaching its end the surface vessels were proceeding on a base course of 016 with the two frigates executing a sector screen ahead of the Tafelberg (TFB). In this form of antisubmarine screen the screening ships are given 'patrol boxes' or sectors delineated by two bearings plus a minimum and maximum range from the main body (See Diagram 1)

In this case President Kruger's (PK) 'box' was on TFB's port bow between a bearing of 330 and 010 and between 2 000 and 5 000 yards from the centre of the formation. President Pretorius (PP) was in a similar box on the starboard bow. The escorts were required to patrol within their 'boxes' in a random manner changing course and speed continuously in the process whilst maintaining a sonar, radar and visual search for any approaching submarine.

The next reversal of course was due at 04:00 when the surface fleet had to change course to the south by 154 to a new base course of 170, in other words 26 less than a full reversal. This also required an equivalent 'reorientation' of the screen to bring the two frigates back ahead of the TFB. A similar reorientation had already been successfully completed during the middle watch at 02:00 when the surface force had been turned to the north onto the base course of 016. The order given for this re-orientation required that the two frigates first complete their reorientation of the screen before TFB was turned onto the new base course.

At 03:50, the PK as senior ship signalled the instruction to PP to reorientate the screen, instructing TFB to remain on the old base course until the reorientation was completed. In Diagram 1 two options are shown for the PK:

1. The first was to turn outwards, that is to port, and complete what was effectively a 200 turn. As stated in the Navy Board of Inquiry this was the simpler and safer of the two options as it meant that the ship was turning away from the other two vessels. However in tactical theory it was less effective as it left a large area of water 'unswept' by sonar and would probably in a war time scenario not even be considered.

2. The second option was to turn inwards, that is to starboard, and complete a much smaller turn of only 154. Once again as stated by the Naval Board, although this was not wrong and was tactically the correct manoeuvre, it was also the more difficult and dangerous.

Although this was in reality a low intensity exercise the Principal Warfare Officer (PWO - in charge of the Ops Room), lacking any clear instruction from his Captain, took it upon himself to decide to use option two and instructed the Officer of the Watch (OOW) to turn to starboard to take up the new station.

Unfortunately instead of using the standard tactical rudder of 15, the OOW ordered "Starboard ten".

Table 1

Turning characteristics at 15 knots. Both rudders operating.

To understand why option 2 is considered more dangerous we have to look at how a ship turns at sea. Depending on ship's speed and amount of wheel used the size of the turning circle, known as 'transfer' which is much the same as what happens when you do a U-turn in a motor vehicle taking up the whole width of the road, and the time it takes to turn. Both time to turn and transfer are calculated for each ship during builder's trials. Unfortunately the PK's Navigation Data Book went down with the ship. However the Navigation Data Book of PP has survived after her disposal and from the turning tables in it (Table I above) we can derive the turning circles (Diagram 2) of that ship at 15 knots and this can be accepted as being generally similar for all vessels of her class of ship:

This diagram shows clearly that there is a considerable difference in the 'sideways' transfer of the vessel for different degrees of wheel, in fact after turning through 180 if only 10 of rudder is used instead of 15 then this transfer increases by 387 yards (354 metres).

It also shows that the time taken to turn through 180 increases from 2 minutes 46 seconds to 3 minutes 48.5 seconds, an increase of 62.5 seconds. In 62.5 seconds the TFB would have moved about half a kilometre forward. In the situation being discussed the effect of both these factors was to increase the chances of a collision in this situation.

In Diagram 3 we can compare the expected ship's track for a 15 of wheel turn with the actual situation taken from the ship's plots after the accident.

The original intention was to follow the lighter dashed line, and although this would have meant that PK would indeed have passed very close (some would say dangerously so) down TFB port side, all things being equal it should have been possible to avoid a collision even if there was a need to increase the amount of wheel to maximum in the final stages. In similar fashion if the 10 track had been left to be completed it would also have made it possible to avoid any pending collision once again simply by stopping the turn until the TFB was safely past.

Regretfully instead of concentrating on the manoeuvre and ensuring that the ship was safe an altercation broke out between the PWO in the Ops Room and the OOW on the bridge in regard to how much wheel should be used. The fact that such an altercation even occurred can be laid fairly and squarely at the apparent lack of proper command and control on the PK exacerbated by an extraordinarily inept selection of the individuals on watch at the time.

All these factors were then further affected by the age of PK's equipment and the fact that her high definition navigation radar was unserviceable; the plot therefore had to use the much less accurate search radar to compile the picture. On the navigation radar the sea clutter would probably only have extended for a couple of 100 metres at most, whereas on the search radar this sea clutter in the conditions that night extended about 1 700 metres from PK. This meant that some two thirds of the way through the turn the Ops Room 'lost' TFB in this clutter and as a result had no concept of the disastrous situation that they were moving into.

After some final desperate but completely abortive manoeuvres shortly before the collision the PK crossed the TFB's bow and was run down by her at 03:55. The PK sank some 40 minutes later. Out of a ship's company of 199, sixteen men lost their lives that morning.

The Board of Inquiry

Within a very short time after the accident a Naval Board of Inquiry was appointed and the whole incident came under investigation. For some strange and unknown reason, this Board failed to follow proper legal procedures. The strange fact is that this occurred notwithstanding the fact that the President of this Board was a senior officer with previous experience of such boards and he also had legal support from a senior and very competent military lawyer. The result of this poor administration was that at the later public Inquest on the death of Donald Webb (of those who died that night the only one whose body was recovered), the legality of the Board of Inquiry was called into question. Witness testimonies were doubted on the basis that they had not been properly sworn in before giving evidence and written witness statements had not been properly sworn and certified in order to make them binding in any subsequent legal action. These statements could thus not be fully utilised in the Inquest.

Nevertheless extracts were placed at the disposal of the Tribunal for reference purposes even though "These extracts were not admitted in proof of the facts stated therein but questions on those facts were allowed and such questions and answers then became part of the inquest record."

The finding of the Board of Inquiry was that based on the final manoeuvre, there was a 'lack of seamanship' displayed by the Captain and watch officers of the President Kruger. In addition the Board also agreed that although the turn 'inwards' was not of itself an incorrect manoeuvre, in their opinion an 'outward' turn would have been a safer and thus a better manoeuvre in an exercise of this nature.

On 22 April 1982, the Minister of Defence, Gen Magnus Malan announced the findings in Parliament, stating that "the sinking was the result of an injudicious manoeuvre, the non-maintenance of standards, bad watchkeeping and a lack of good seamanship." The statement regarding the non-maintenance of standards was ironic in that in 1977 it was Malan who had appointed the Board that had recommended the disposal of these ships and Malan as CSADF who authorised the embargo on all future replacement of equipment on the President Class.

To some extent the Navy had brought negative opinion on itself as it had in fact handled the whole problem of the collision and sinking of PK very badly.

The Inquest

Out of the 16 men who lost their lives, the body of only one was ever recovered, that of Chief Petty Officer Donald Webb.

A very interesting legal/political twist now took over the story.

The Minister of Justice at the time (Kobie Coetzee) wished to hold an Inquest into the death of Donald Webb. At the time of the accident the Minister of Justice had no legal right to order an inquest into a death at sea as far off the South African coast as this had been. It was necessary to introduce an amendment to the Inquest Act of 1959 in Parliament if such Inquest was to be ordered. This became known as the Inquest Amendment Act 1983 and extended the distance out to sea over which South African Courts had jurisdiction. The amendment when it was eventually promulgated was deemed to have come into effect retrospectively on 1 February 1982, that is, before the collision had occurred, and thus making an Inquest into the death of CPO Webb legal.

The Inquest was to run for a full year, from 15 December 1982 until 14 December 1983, and, on the 7th February 1984, the Chief Magistrate of Cape Town, Mr van Zyl released the findings. The Inquest found that: "Webb's death is causally linked to the collision and whatever caused the collision is responsible for his death".

The final finding of the Tribunal was:

(a) Identity of deceased: Donald Webb
(b) Date of death: 18th February 1982
(c) Cause or likely cause of death: Drowning
(d) Whether the death was brought about by any act or omission involving or amounting to an offence on the part of any person. - The death was brought about by the negligence of Lieutenant P Smith and Captain WJ de Lange and their negligence amounts to culpable homicide.

In the speaker's opinion this was a terse and possibly incomplete finding for the following reasons:

1. It gave no consideration to the 'degree' of culpability between the two officers named as is normal in an Admiralty Court investigating an accident at sea. The bulk of the evidence laid before the Tribunal clearly demonstrates that by far the greater blame rested with the Captain, the man on whose shoulders alone the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the ship rested.

2. No reference is made to the poor command and control situation that had existed on the PK nor the consequently strange selection of watch-keepers that night, a situation that was very clearly and exhaustively discussed in the evidence put before the Tribunal. The evidence led showed either an ignorance of the meaning of the very clear instructions in the General Regulations of the SA Navy (SANGP-1), or a general disregard thereof by most if not all the officers onboard.

To take the second point first, from the evidence given there seemed to have been a fallacious belief amongst the officers - including the Captain himself - that the Captain could delegate his full command authority as well as the responsibility that goes with that authority to the PWO when he was not personally present in the Ops Room or on the bridge.

The speaker's opinion here is supported by the fact that the Public Prosecutor indicated that on the evidence led during the Inquest he would have great difficulty in proving any case against either of the two officers named and as a result he took no further action against them. Similarly the Navy seemed to believe that it was best to leave sleeping dogs alone and also took no further legal steps against any of the officers concerned. However the fact that the only action they took was to insist that the Captain took early retirement, does seem to indicate that although they would not admit it, the Navy was also of a similar opinion as to where the greater part of the culpability rested.

The evidence - Why did it happen?

This is the question that everyone asks; what the causes of this accident were - the best source of information on this question is the 388 pages of the Inquest Findings. From these pages a reader who has some training and knowledge of the General Regulations for the SA Navy as well as seagoing experience of his/her own to draw on, cannot avoid arriving at the conclusion that something was wrong with the command and control situation onboard PK at that time.

In the speaker's opinion the disaster was firstly the result of an apparent lack of normal structure in command and control onboard the PK and secondly is linked to the disastrous clash of personalities between the two Officers of the Watch on the Bridge as well as between both of them and the Principal Warfare Officer in the Ops Room. It seems incredible in retrospect that no thought at all seems to have been given to this in the selection of those who would stand watch that morning either by the Captain or by his senior watch-keepers.

Factors that point to a lack of structure in Command and Control

1. Even though the Middle Watch was a period of very low intensity exercise, it was also a period during which the Captain was trying to catch up on his sleep. Logically therefore, notwithstanding the low intensity of the exercise one would expect at the very least to have an experienced Officer of the Watch on the bridge and preferably also an experienced PWO in the Ops Room. Strangely the exact opposite was the case.

a. The Officer of the Watch (OOW) on the bridge was the most inexperienced OOW onboard, and technically, as he had no formal Watch-keeping Certificate he was not qualified to fill this position. In fact he was standing his first ever watch as OOW on the PK.

b. Similarly the Principal Warfare Officer (PWO) in the Ops Room, although fully qualified, was still the least experienced PWO on the ship.

2. Notwithstanding the lack of experience of the officers concerned, no clear and concise `Night Orders' were left by the Captain, as for example were found on both the PP and the TFB.

3. Notwithstanding the fact that the Captain of PK was the Senior Officer of the group and in Tactical Command no instruction was given to wake him or even to simply keep him informed implying that any major manoeuvre was left at the discretion of either the PWO or the OOW. This is a classic departure from the expected norm.

4. As pointed out in 1 above, although the officer appointed as OOW was standing his first watch as OOW, he had never been interviewed by the Captain as required by SANGP-1 to determine his suitability to take a watch. He had in fact found out that he was to stand a night watch on his own only because his name appeared on the OOW roster stating this.

5. Finally there was an apparent lack of understanding by most, if not all, the officers, of the clear and implicit line of command in any SA Navy vessel and specifically of the authority of the OOW as dictated by SANGP-1.

The two Officers of the Watch

There were in fact two officers appointed for duty on the Bridge:

1. An OOW, S/Lt Pickstock and a Second OOW (also un-certificated), S/Lt Meintjies.

2. However at this point the 'clash of personalities' mentioned earlier, begins, although neither of these two officers had passed the OOW Board, Meintjies was not only the senior of the two in the rank of S/Lt but also did in fact have more experience than Pickstock. He had recently returned from a six month secondment to the Chilean Navy and during that time had served on a Chilean Leander Class frigate - a modernised version of the same design of frigate as the PK. If you are going to take the really terrible risk of letting all your experienced officers sleep whilst you appoint your most inexperienced and unqualified officers as OOW for the Middle Watch, then surely logic would have dictated that the roles of Meintjies and Pickstock should have been reversed.

3. At the Inquest although the Captain used the lack of certification of both the officers on the bridge in his own defence, in my opinion the mere fact that he approved Pickstock to stand as the OOW, implicitly indicates that in his opinion Pickstock was sufficiently qualified to do the job. Regulation 02306, SANGP-1 as it was in 1982 stated: "The Captain is not to entrust the charge of the ship when under way to any officer, nor to any other person, unless he has satisfied himself that such officer or person is competent to take charge of the ship."

Conflict with SANGP-1

SANGP-1 was at that time, and hopefully still is today, very clear on the line of command and therefore responsibility on any naval vessel The duties of this officer were very clearly laid down in Regulation 12513(2) of SANGP-1 - General Regulations for the SA Navy [The following extracts from SANGP-1 are all taken from the Inquest Finding, however the underlining for emphasis in these quotes and other extracts from the Finding are mine]:

2(a) The Officer of the Watch at sea and in harbour is responsible for the safety of the ship in all its aspects, particularly her safety from collision or grounding, subject to any orders he may receive from the Captain.

(b) In whatever way the Captain may distribute the responsibilities for directing the weapons and Action Information Organisation among officers on watch at any time, only one officer is to have the responsibility for the safety of the ship and he is to be known as the Officer of the Watch.

Regulation 02204 in SANGP-1 was also very clear about the 'status' of the OOW:

Every other officer and other person, not being either the Executive Officer or the Officer Commanding for the time being is to be subordinate to the Officer of the Watch whatever his rank, in regard to the performance of the duties with which the Officer of the Watch is charged.

The PWO on watch in the Ops Room is one of the appointments referred to in SANGP-l, Regulation 02513(2) quoted above, that is, he, or she, is the officer to whom "the responsibilities for directing the weapons and Action Information Organisation" is delegated by the Captain and is thus the officer responsible, in the absence of the Captain, for 'fighting' the ship until such time as the Captain arrives and takes over. However he is not and never can be "the Captain for the time being" that is referred to in this regulation - excepting of course in a case where the Captain and the XO are both killed or otherwise totally incapacitated during an action at sea, in which case the senior surviving PWO would take over command.

A misunderstanding in this regard seems to have been the norm amongst most, if not all of the officers who stood watch as OOW and Second OOW on the President Kruger. They all seemed to believe that the PWO stood between them and the Captain and was the 'de facto captain' when the Captain was neither on the Bridge nor in the Ops Room.

This wrong and extremely dangerous perception on their part is brought out in the evidence given by a number of these officers under oath at the Inquest. For example Pickstock states "Lieutenant Smith was PWO. Besides being PWO he was also OCS - Officer Commanding [sic] Serials and OTC Officer in Tactical Command." [OCS is incorrectly explained here, it should read Officer Conducting the Serial] This cannot be so, only the Captain of a ship or a senior officer appointed in command of a group of ships at sea can be either the OCS or the OTC, and as in any other Command appointment, he can not under any circumstances delegate these appointments to anyone on his staff. The PWO can only act under his instructions or orders.

Meintjies in his evidence supports this very dangerous misunderstanding when he states (my free translation from the Afrikaans and my underlining): "As I remember it, Sub-Lieutenant Pickstock made a suggestion to the Ops Room, or asked permission from the Ops Room to turn to port." SANGP-1 is very clear on this, if the OOW believes that his ship is standing into any form of danger then he makes the decision, acts on it and then merely informs the Ops Room, he does not under any such circumstance ask permission from the PWO.

Equipment failure

Due in no small part to the 'embargo' on spending money on upgrading or replacing old equipment on the President Class frigates by General Malan in 1977, by 1982 the Navy was struggling to maintain operational effectiveness in these ships. One of the 'spin offs' of this was that the high definition navigation radar on PK which gave a clear picture on the plotting table and had considerably less 'sea clutter' than the search radar, was not working. The search radar thus had to be used for the plotting table from which the PWO was working giving a less clear picture and no picture at all within about 1 800 metres. This proved fatal when the TFB moved into the clutter and became obscured to the Ops Room at 1 800 yards (about 1 650 metres) so that in the final minutes before the collision the PWO was 'blind'.

The 'conflict' between Bridge and Ops Room

Personalities also contributed considerably to the problem. Smith in the Ops Room was the senior officer of the three; he was also the training officer and 'mentor' of the two officers on the bridge. Smith had a strong personality and was self confident; in contrast the two officers on the bridge were young, very inexperienced and lacked self confidence at that time. It was thus natural for them to bow down to any pressure placed on them by the PWO. Finally as explained in the section 'Conflict with SANGP-1' above, like most of the officers on the PK the two on the bridge had apparently not grasped the full implications of SANGP-1 instructions in regard to either the authority or the responsibilities of the OOW.

Thus when the PWO (Smith) realised that instead of using 15 of rudder as was the standard in changing station, the OOW (Pickstock) had ordered 10, the two instead of concentrating on what the ship was doing got into a dispute over the command intercom as to how much wheel should be used. By this time the TFB had moved into the wave clutter on the plotting table in PK's Ops Room and Smith could no longer see what was happening. The two officers on the bridge distracted by the dispute were no longer following the visual situation and realised too late that they were on a collision course.

The Navy Fails its People

The Navy now fell into the trap of trying to avoid any further bad publicity by only taking internal administrative action. This they believed would allow them to fully control those actions without any public participation. As far as can ascertained the actions taken were:

1. The Captain was administratively retired early and the Navy arranged a job with Armscor for him.
2. The PWO was sidelined to only shore appointments and had his promotion stopped.

The very negative result of this action was that the wound continued to fester within the Navy; everyone either already had, or very soon developed, their own opinion on who was culpable. This placed enormous psychological pressure on those involved who initially stayed in the Navy; regretfully the two young Officers of the Watch soon found themselves unable to take the strain of this pressure and ended what had been promising careers in the Navy by resigning. The PWO stuck it out and has eventually managed against huge odds to make a reasonable career for himself in the Navy.

Even today, some 23 years later, the speaker is of the opinion that this wound in the Navy's psyche has yet to fully heal.

Normal naval practice, dictated that the Navy should have instituted properly constituted Court Martial proceedings against the two officers named in the Inquest finding as well as any other officers who might have been considered culpable in the light of the evidence given during that Inquest. This would have had a number of positive outcomes no matter what negative or financial implications arose:

1. The finding of this court would have brought closure and ended speculation on who was really responsible.
2. Such a court would hopefully have clearly indicated the degree of culpability in any accused found guilty.
3. All those so charged would have had a chance of equitable treatment by the Navy.
4. Valuable lessons in command and control at sea would have been passed on to future Officers Commanding.

Cmdr Mac Bisset thanked the speaker for a well-prepared and -presented talk, and handed him the customary gift from the Society.



We welcome new member Mr P R Hurly, who joined us recently.

We are pleased to announce that fellow-member Geoff Mangin, is recovering slowly after his recent setback and operation and is able to walk again. He is also back at Rosedale. We trust he will recover completely and that we will very soon again have the pleasure of his presence at our monthly talks! On behalf of the members our best wishes!

Just on 70% of members have paid their subscriptions. We thank them and ask that those who still owe their subscriptions to please let us have your remittances as soon as possible. We are always looking for more members so, if you know of anyone who might have an interest in Military History, bring him or her along to the next meeting or otherwise persuade them to join.


New Publications

Ms Mary Wadley von Hirschberg, author of "Trevor Lloyd Wadley - Genius of the Tellurometer" presented the latest book on Trevor Wadley, to co-incide with the 50th anniversary of the launching of what she termed as "South Africa's most famous invention" - the Tellurometer. The Tellurometer is an instrument that electronically measures land when surveying and is in use worldwide. The book not only deals with Wadley's important invention, but also tells the life story of the inventor during WWII, which preceded the invention. She has provided a number of copies that will be on sale on her behalf at the next meeting for R140,00 a copy.



Thursday 9 July 2009 - The Chavonnes Battery, Cape Town Waterfront
Our speaker will be Maj Willem Steenkamp, well-known local military heritage/history author. He will speak to us about the history and context of the Chavonnes battery as part of the maritime defences of the Cape, as well as elaborating on the restoration of the battery as a museum, under the guardian- and sponsorship of the BOE Bank Group. Willem's classic on the SA Border War, called Borderstrike! is doing very well after having been updated and re-issued - it is already into its third printing. He recently also published a 74-pager called Aphorisms and Observations for the Fighting Soldier. The book contains all the pearls of wisdom regarding military life which he has collected during his long and colourful military career spanning some four decades!

Thursday, 13 August 2009 - The Rise & Fall of the Zulu Empire and its Relevance to the Politics of Today
Our speaker will be fellow-member, Alan Mountain. Alan is a historian and author of note, whose books cover, inter alia, early South African History, such as The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Empire (1999) and The First People of the Cape (2004). In total Alan has authored 11 books so far, covering such diverse subject fields as cultural & natural history, heritage, travel/tourism and diving.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279 or 021-531-6781

South African Military History Society /