For King and Country
WW II Reminiscences of Nelson Albert Tomalin R.N.V.R..
A summer day in Cape Town. January 1940. A howling SE wind gusting in squalls to 80 miles per hour. You cannot see the wind but you can see the line of white water as the squall blows the tops off the wavelets in the harbour and the bay close outside.
Around Mouille Point the wind will be more Southerly and with a fetch of some hundreds of miles the seas will be high and steep and breaking. But the channel must be swept. 18 miles or so of it to the 100 fathom line beyond which the enemy could not, with any hope of effectiveness, lay any mines. So out go four sweepers. One, ex Fishery Survey ship "Afrikana", with the senior officer on board, followed by three coal-burning trawlers, "Disa", "Crassula" and "Nerina". Ships of the Irving-Johnson fleet, named after Cape wild flowers, and converted to use their gallows and winches and otter-boards to tow sweep wires instead of trawl nets. It will be an "A" sweep today. When all four sweepers are clear of the breakwater and steering the channel course at slow speed one of each pair will close to its partner, coming up slowly astern to pass, to port or starboard as signalled. Within heaving line distance. Once the line is across a heavier one will be made fast to it and the ship whose wire is in use will alter course away. The sweep wire will follow the heavier line and the receiving ship having secured the wire will signal that she has done so and the distance between them will widen until the full scope of the sweep wire is out, usually a cable, two hundred yards. The receiving ship must keep a steady course and speed while this is being done; the ship paying out the wire must judge distance to keep it taut and off the bottom. Then when all is ready each ship will lower its 'kite' on a traveller down the sweep wire to take it to its desired depth. 'Kite' is an apt name. In appearance just like a box kite but instead of paper and light cane and the wind to lift it as it presses upon the aerofoil surfaces, this is made of steel plates set at an angle within a steel frame. Instead of a light string, a wire pendant is secured to the kite and instead of rising into the air the sweeping kite dives into the water as this rushes over its plates. The kites go down as far as the pendant will permit and in doing so will pull the sweep wire down with them to the desired depth, usually some forty feet or so below the surface, deeper in deep water or if deep draught ships are to use the channel. With the kites down and the ships in station speed is increased and the two trawlers will work up to about five knots through the water with the sweep wire in a huge loop behind ready to cut through the mooring wires of any mines which may have been laid since the channel was last swept, usually twenty four hours previously. Depending upon weather and currents it will take three to four hours to reach the end of the channel, and the same time to return along another strip of the channel back to port.
Sweep wire and kites are a heavy drag on the ships which is why deep draughted vessels like trawlers and whale-catchers are most suitable for the work. The pull of the wire tends to drag the sterns of the towing ships towards each other and it needs an experienced hand at the wheel to keep the ship on course; trawlermen are used to steering with a trawl dragging over the side but the margin for error with a sweep wire is narrower than with a trawl. Too close and the wire will touch bottom and be broken; too far apart and it will not be possible to correct the drag and the two ships will end up pulling stern against stern in opposite directions - a situation for which the mine-sweeping fraternity have a coarse but apt description. So station-keeping is vital and the distance apart is checked frequently by means of an ingenious little box sextant, or station keeper, which measures the angle between mast top and waterline of the ship being observed. Knowing the height of the mast above water a simple trigonometrical formula will give the distance away. The ships yaw and swing; the wind catches one or the other; the helmsman's attention may wander; so the station keeper is incessantly calling for small alterations of course and speed to ensure the ships maintain parallel courses. It is usually the senior ship which keeps a steady course and speed, as steady as the weather allows and the junior which keeps station; but in its turn the senior ship has to keep its proper distance from the nearest ship of the other pair, assuming that the flotilla leader is one of this pair, and it is the latter's job to keep as straight a line on the chart as possible, signalling alterations of course from time to time as the currant sets the whole flotilla one way or the other. More of this later.
Sweeping may be done in a different way with the sweep wire carried out at an angle of 45 degrees to the track of the sweeper by means of an 'Otterboard' suspended from an Oropesa float. The board is just that; A five inch or so thick, iron bound, wooden door about eight feet long and four feet wide with chains to each corner so adjusted for length to the central towing swivel that as the board moves through the water the resistance takes it out and away just as the surfaces of a kite take it away into the air as they resist the wind. The Oropesa float is torpedo shaped, with stabilising fins and a pennant of wire rope from its centre of buoyancy joins it to the otterboard, which otherwise of course would sink, as indeed does happen when the float pennant breaks. Getting this apparatus over the side calls for good drill and co-ordination between the deckhands and the winchman and here again fishing experience proves useful. First the float is put over and is towed by the pennant to the board. Then the latter is swung out, suspended from the gallows which overhang the ship's side, and when all is ready it is slipped into the water which immediately seizes it as it sinks below the float. As it does so the sweep wire, joined to the towing ring is let out - veered - slowly so as to maintain the proper tension of water against the board. Speed may be increased when the wire is well clear and can be veered more quickly when the full length of wire, about 250 yards, is out a kite is lowered down it, as for the "A" sweep. The wire is thus towed some fifty feet below the surface covering a strip about 125 yards wide. This is by no means as wide as with the "A" sweep but in water known to be mined it is safer and effective for only the leading ship of a group is at risk and then only if it is in the mined area. The other ships of the flotilla, which can be as many as six, will all be inside the swept area of the ship ahead if they tuck themselves astern of and just inside the float of the ship ahead. The flotilla thus proceeds in quarterline and with six sweepers a strip nearly half a mile wide can be swept.
With the sweep wire streamed and the ships steaming steadily and keeping good station it is time to consider the course, the responsibility of the senior officer who, on the morning of another day, is the Africana. The channel is one mile wide and heads away from Table Bay in a WNW direction, but the course to steer depends on wind drift and the set of any current there may be, which is not known until its influence is felt and which, over the total length of some twenty miles may change direction twice. For the first five miles the set may be to the South East at about 1,5 knots. With the strong gale somewhat East of Southerly the drift would be West of North. But suddenly, at six miles out we encounter a strong Northerly set, which with the wind drift added, can push the sweepers to the North at 2 to 3 knots and unless quickly corrected the ships may be set outside the channel, not only wasting time and effort but, who knows, missing mines which may have been laid just at that spot. It is easy to see that navigation must be precise; to achieve that precision is not easy. The mines, if there, will be anchored to the bottom and it is the course over the ground which has to be maintained. Three men are needed in Afrikana; two to take the horizontal angles between conspicuous points on shore, and the other to set these angles on the instrument called a station-pointer, adjust the position so that the legs of the pointer pass over the conspicuous points as marked on the chart. A small hole at the centre of the station-pointer enables the point of a pencil to make a dot on the chart snowing exactly where we were at the time of the fix - which time is noted on the chart. No sooner has this been done, and the position of the dot compared with the earlier dot(s), and the decision taken whether or not to alter course, than it is time to take another fix. Depending upon conditions fixes would be made at four to ten minute intervals.
While close to Table Bay the shore points would be the beacon at the summit of Blaauberg, the flagstaff on Signal hill, and the peak of one of the Twelve apostles. Further out Little Lion's head would come into view, and then Slangkop Light-house. Once the reference points had been decided it was important that the angles be read simultaneously; the observer would keep his sextant vernier moving slowly, with the two points dead in line no matter how the ship pitched or rolled, and at the call of 'fix' would read the scale and call the angle in degrees and minutes. Once the routine was established it became indeed just a routine with the utmost economy of adjustment of the station-pointer legs to give a new position on the chart. With experience the right amount of course change - often a matter of a degree or so - would correct a slight kink in the straight line we were trying to maintain over the ground. This course change would be signalled to the other ships which would conform. And so, slowly, carefully, the sweep would proceed until bearings showed that the end of the channel had been reached. If the Orepesa sweep was in use the ships would make a wide circle, hauling in wire to a manageable length and then veering as each ship took up station. If the ships were joined in an "A" sweep, one would slow until nearly stopped while the other would increase speed to circle round her. A good turn would put the pair heading on a reverse course at just the right distance from the strip covered by the outward sweep. With a channel ten cables wide and the ships a cable apart it is clear that with two strips being covered on the way out and two adjacent strips swept on the way back, two fifths of the channel would have been searched, and it was our aim always to return down the channel in the other half from that swept on the way out.
It is time for me to say how I became a part of all this. Being on the reserve of the R.N.V.R. the events of early 1939 were of interest. It was clear that the policy of appeasement followed in 1938 had merely opened the door to further demands by Hitler's Germany. A number of people were of the opinion that war against the Nazis was bound to come sooner or later, but the position in South Africa was by no means clear. There were influential forces which would prefer to be aligned with Germany rather than with the British. Others were of the opinion that if England had formed an alliance with France for the defence of Poland, then England and France could get on with it; South Africa should be neutral. Others again were of the view that the Nazi philosophy was wrong, very wrong, and that unless a halt was called to German Expansion even South Africa in the end would become a satellite state to the Nazi empire. J.C. Smuts was of the latter opinion and when Poland was invaded and the 39/45 war started South Africa declared war against Germany. I had no political opinions. I think I was too absorbed in my work, in which I was starting to make progress towards a career. Sailing and climbing were recreations, as were table tennis and fencing in the Shell club in the evenings.
I was on the reserve of the RNVR. As soon as war was declared, sooner in fact for it was seen to be coming by those whose job it was to know, the Seaward Defence Force was formed. This was the RNVR by another, politically more acceptable, name with the 'Royal' left out. I received a call up letter. On this being shown to Shell I was released and reported for duty. I cannot recall the details but, having left the RNVR as a leading signalman I found myself doing signals work with the senior officer of the minesweeping flotilla, Lt. Cdr. Dean. I remember that my duties included trying to teach signals to the trawler skippers, going to sea with them in turn, when not with the SO in Africana. I was in plain clothes; flannels and jersey. My old RNVR uniform was worn out - especially the whites which had come in very handy for sailing. So there I was. Able to handle flag hoists, read and send morse and semaphore, and trying to be an instructor. But just to be a signalman was not enough. Navigation interested me; command attracted. Was there just a desire for an officer's uniform, or was it zeal and a desire for some responsibility, which I felt was right? What ever it was that impelled, me, I applied for a commission and within what now seems to be an incredibly short time I was a sub-lieutenant in the SDF. If I had worked when a leading signalman, I slaved when a sub-lieutenant. There was an enormous amount to learn. Navigation, seamanship, ship-handling, rifles and regulations in accordance with the Military Discipline code, and the King's regulations and Admiralty instructions. Charts to keep up to date, inventories to check, ships and mess decks and liberty men to inspect. A twelve hour day was nothing; sixteen hours common. But all the time I was learning to be an efficient officer. I owe a great debt to all who helped me. Jack, the boatswain of Africana who taught me how sweepwire behaved if it were not held under strict control. Captain Dalgleish, gruff, and to our eyes as junior officers, remote and almost inhuman, but dedicated to making his force efficient and his officers competent. Lieutenant Taylor, the fishing mate of Africana when she was a Fishery survey ship, who taught me so much about seamanship and ship-handling. These just three of many who helped me on my way.
A.H. Bruce & Co. (with whom I had had previous contacts) fitted me out. Two blue uniforms four white; cap and cap covers (eight, for one had to wear a clean one every day); great coat, lovely garment, comforting on a cold July night. I acquired several suits of white overalls from the chandlers store by the harbour gates. Overalls were our working clothes; uniforms were what we wore when we went ashore or on parade. Even when in command of my own ship the rig was overalls with a monkey jacket and cap when leaving or entering harbour.
Duties consisted of going to sea with the SO flotilla; helping with the fixes and flotilla orders; teaching signals, still going to sea in various sweepers for that purpose, correcting charts as Admiralty corrections arrived, correcting signal books as these were altered and expanded, coding and de-coding signals. Also guard commander when a naval guard was required and dealing with minor disciplinary matters, defaulters and requestmen. Inspecting guns and stores of all kinds ensuring that inventories were kept at full capacity, or as full as the base could supply.
Two occasions come to mind relating to this period. The first when, as duty officer for the night I found myself in command of a specially enlarged guard and virtually in control of the entire dock area of Cape Town. My orders were to keep everybody away from the docks except those who had been issued with special passes. This was when a very special ship was due to arrive, and arrive she did, at sunset, to be seen in silhouette against the skyline as darkness fell. After dark she entered harbour and docked in the Victoria basin to refuel and replenish stores. She was actually quite small but fitted up to look like a King George V class battleship, 35,000 tons and ten 14 inch guns. Her turrets and guns were wooden but everything was to scale and her Captain, a Lt. Cdr RN was instructed to show the ship as she arrived in the hope that she would be mistaken for a battleship on the way to deal with one or other of the German raiders then active in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. She took in diesel oil, she was a motor ship, and food, and was gone before dawn and out of sight from the shore by daylight. And I trust that my special guard at the dock gates and around the perimeter of the dock area prevented any ill-disposed person from assessing her for what she was - a bluff.
The other occasion was a sad one; the funeral of Rear Admiral Guy Halifax who had been killed in an air crash with other senior officers in the South African forces. He had been the commander-in chief of the SDF. It was summer, the end of 1939 or beginning of 1940 and the funeral was at Plumstead Cemetery and I was placed in charge of the Naval guard of honour. Clad in immaculate whites, with a guard of white clad sailors with spotless rifles and equipment we slow marched from the gate where the transport had put us down, behind the funeral cortege. I cannot remember the details of the drill, which had been 'drilled' into me and the men by the RN chief petty officer, the gunner's mate, from Simonstown. It involved my saluting with the sword while the sailors, in line behind me, their rifles loaded with blank cartridge, prepared to fire their volley. I think that as I drew and raised the sword, the rifles, which had been at the slope were moved to a forty-five degree angle against the shoulders and into the air. From the salute position, with the hilt in front of the face, the sword would be swept down so that its point almost touched the ground; as this happened the petty officer ordered 'fire'. All this as the coffin was lowered. I think that this must have been the most nerve-wracking hour I ever endured during the whole war. I was fearful lest I should make a mistake in an order, or that my voice would squeak, or the men do something wrong; or that something somewhere would go amiss and mar the occasion. But in the event it all passed off well; we marched away and soon were on our way back to our respective ships.
Routine sweeps and special occasions were put into the background in May 1940 when the mine-sweepers were called upon to do the real job - to sweep mines. Mines had been laid on the Agulhas bank by, it was later found, the raider Atlantis earlier in the month. She had passed from the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and on the way, secretly by night and with no notice as required by international law, laid her mines. The lighthouse keeper at the Agulhas light reported an explosion at sea. The South Atlantic command considered that this might have been a mine, detonated in some way or other, (a passing whale?). Six SDF sweepers, with Lt. Cdr Dean as SO and myself as his assistant, sailed to carry out a search sweep in the suspected area. We used the Orepesa sweep, with five ships tucked in quarterline behind our sweep wire, and steamed back and forth over the banks. The plot was kept by using the Agulhas light, Quoin point and Danger Point as reference marks. The weather was reasonable and slowly the searched area grew as we passed back and forth. On the second day one of the sweepers cut a mine mooring. The mine came to the surface and was sunk by rifle and Lewis-gun fire. So there were mines about. We paid even more attention to courses and the plot. It was not easy for the Agulhas current sweeps over the banks and the sweepers were continually set to the South West. The current though constant in direction is variable in strength and maintaining a steady course over the ground needed constant attention to bearings. We searched for some days after the first mine was found but discovered no more. The flotilla had to return to Cape Town to refuel and restore. Lt. Cdr. Dean fell ill and his place was taken by Lt. Cdr. Scott-Napier (also of the SANS hydrographic division of the RN) and once again the flotilla set out for the Agulhas banks.
We again used the protective Oropesa sweep and quarterline formation with the SO's ship in the lead, and me in it with him. On the first search I think that, like many others, I was too excited and had too much to do to be frightened. But on the second visit to the area I caught myself wondering about what lay in sea ahead of our bow. I do not think I was really scared, I had too much to do; I was more frightened of getting a signal wrong or making a mistake in the plot. We anchored within the searched area at night and it was in the darkness that one wondered what was in store for us next day. But I for one was so weary that such thoughts could not keep me awake when it was my watch below. We continued exploratory sweeps and at last found and cut the moorings of another mine. When the first had been cut a marker buoy had been dropped; it was still in sight, a dan buoy can with a pole through it and a flag about twelve feet above the water level. So too, with the finding of another mine, a second buoy was placed in position. The plot showed that the second buoy was in the line from the first and the lighthouse, i.e. the two buoys and the light formed a straight, or nearly straight, line. Scott-Napier made a bold decision; we would sweep from the position in which we found the second mine towards the light-house, keeping the first buoy in line. His reasoning was that whatever ship laid the mines would have wished to mark them on the chart and what simpler method than to steam towards the light, dropping mines on the way, and then turn away to sea, again laying mines. So the mines would be in a V formation with the light-house at the sharp end of the V. We set out to sweep on the courses indicated and several mines were cut. But I was not to see the end of the work. One of the skippers was taken ill - if my memory serves he had gastric ulcer trouble - and I was ordered to take temporary command of 'Natalia' and take her and her skipper back to Cape Town. The chance of a lifetime. I took command, found my way back to Cape Town, put the ship alongside the quay in the Alfred basin and within a day or so found myself appointed to commission and take command of HMSAS Robinson, a whaler converted to mine-sweeper. Looking back on this I feel that it must have so happened that the SDF was woefully short of skippers and I was lucky enough to be available when a job had to be filled. From then on I was always to be at sea, always in command (except for AS training and a short take-over period in the Mediterranean in 1945) until VE day when I informed the drafting officer that I had done enough sea time.
'Robinson' was a coal burning whale catcher. One of the smallest of the Union Whaling fleet. Capable with a clean bottom and good stokers, of about 10 knots but, as was usual with such vessels, had powerful towing power. A crew was drafted aboard, as was a Petty Officer mate, second in command; he had been to sea before as a fishing mate; many of the other draftees had never set foot on a whaler before. Stores and ammunition came on board; bunkers were filled with coal and tanks with fresh water. It was all done in a hurry. It will convey something about the speed with which ships were converted, of the urgency of everything done at that time, when I record that we did the take over trials of HMSAS Robinson on June 22nd 1940, barely a month since I set out with the flotilla to search the Agulhas bank. It was memorable day (the date is recorded in a letter I wrote on another subject at a later date) for on the conclusion of trials, when returning to her berth after a day of manoeuvering, firing of gun, testing of sweep gear and so on, the steering gear failed as we were entering harbour and the ship rammed the entrance to Cape Town docks, causing some damage to the dock wall and timbering, and no little damage to our bows. Repairs were carried out quickly and, as can be imagined, with all the haste with which things were done, we had troubles from time to time. Crews were discontented and grumbled about everything from their quarters to the food prepared in the tiny galley by the so-called cook. (If a small ship is to be a happy one it must have a good cook - more about this later) We had defect lists yards long. We went to sea to sweep in such a state that would have had any Trade Union official tearing his hair or gloating over the opportunity to take the employer to court. But there was no Trade Union; there was only the job to be done. The channel to be swept every day. We did the job as best we could. All the major South African ports had their searched channels out to the 100 fathom line and as well as sweeping out of Cape Town I was based for a while at Simonstown and after that at Walvis bay. Work at Simonstown started when I was transferred from Robinson to HMSAS Swartberg. Another old ship but, joy of joys, she was oil burning and despite her age had a good turn of speed - 12 knots on occasion. It was not long before the monotony of sweeping out to beyond Cape Point and back again day after day, in all sorts of weather, was broken by an accident to the steering while we were sweeping with our sister ship. The port side steering chain parted and we had to struggle back to port with rope tackles fitted and orders relayed to the pulling party. Both chains were supposed to have been tested during a refit two months previously but when the Simonstown RN Dockyard engineer examined the chain it was found that a link had been worn and had been holding by a mere fragment of metal. It had been in that state, out of sight in the chain tunnel for a long time. Just as well that the chain did not break with us close to the Cape Point rocks!
After some months in Swartberg I was transferred to Oostewal. A dainty snip I would describe her. Newer than the Swartberg she nevertheless was old enough to have thinned deck plates. I know because a zealous rust chipper put his hammer through the deck and the dockyard had to weld a patch over it. It gave one cause to speculate when, in rough weather, those decks were continually under water with seas breaking along them. These whale catchers had a freeboard of no more than eighteen inches amidships when fully loaded with a four foot steel guard rail above the deck. Even in a flat calm a large helm movement would heel the ship and put the deck under water to the casing. The Simonstown ships searched the channel day after day. Our worst weather was when the 'South Easter', a gale from the South, raised short breaking seas all over the shallow water of False bay. There were occasional breaks from the monotony of sweeping. If no ship was expected for a day or so we would tow a target for gunnery practice for any sloop, destroyer or cruiser which happened to be at Simonstown. I recall one such occasion when, having done a very early morning sweep of the channel we took the battle practice target, some 100 feet long and 50 feet high, in tow of the Oostewal, across the bay towards Cape Hangklip in a freshening SE'ly gale. We were instructed to tow on a certain course at a given time in the afternoon and we could expect a ship to open fire from the direction of Cape Point. We plodded on slowly into the weather, the target wallowing along behind us. Suddenly six six-inch shells arrived, straddling the target, from a ship which had just come into sight off the Point. In an amazingly short time six more shells arrived sending up high spashes all around the target. Salvo followed salvo; from six the number of shells increased to twelve as the cruiser, for it was a cruiser, altered course and brought all guns to bear. There was no falling off in the rate of fire and within a couple of minutes it was all over. Some 10 salvos had been fired, a signal flashed from the cruiser 'practice completed', on a searchlight which then directed us to return to harbour. It was bad enough towing an unwieldy target out into the teeth of the gale; it was worse towing it back for the wind would catch the tall lattice work of the target and it would veer to one side and then the other while we steamed as fast as was needed to keep in front of it and retain control. What would have happened if the tow had parted I do not know; target on the beach I suspect. But all went well and in due course we reached Simon's Bay, shortened the tow and came alongside the target to act as a tug and put it on its moorings. This was the sort of thing which whale-catchers with their great manoeuverability were good at. We were pleased and heartened by a signal from HMS Birmingham, which read, as far as I can recall "Thank you for towing; we hardly expected to have a target in this weather". I heard afterwards that Birmingham was reckoned to be one of the best shooting ships in the Royal Navy. Her display that afternoon certainly bore this out.
One day, in May 1941, we returned from a routine sweep to hear the news that HMS Hood had been sunk in action. It was of course May 24th, the day when Hood and Prince of Wales encountered Bismark and Prinz Eugen. I shall never forget the effect the news had upon us and our men. The un-imaginable had happened; our great battle cruiser had blown up. We were stunned, what would happen next. To say we were downcast is to say little.
I have a feeling that never before or since has the morale of the British Navy and the Commonwealth fleets been so low. There was a hushed silence over everything; men went about their work with long faces. There was only one topic of conversation; How could it have happened?. And so for twenty four hours. We then had a signal to say that Mr. Churchill would speak to the Navy in a special broadcast. We took this broadcast and the ship's company listened to the plain speaking of the Prime Minister of Great Britain. As his speech went on shoulders began to lift, backs to straighten, necks to stiffen to raise our heads again. It was a transformation brought about by one man and his gift for speaking from the heart to hearts all over the world. We breathed again and got on with our work.
It was while I was in Oostewal that the old, well-known, steam pinnace the 'South-Easter' parted from her moorings in a gale and went ashore near Glencairn, not far from the remains of the wreck of a larger vessel. The 'South Easter', mentioned in one of Kipling's short stories, was the liberty boat which did the round of ships at anchor or at buoys, taking off their liberty men and taking them back on expiry of leave. She was a delightful little craft and many had been the times I had gone ashore in her. Her triple expansion steam engines were a delight. Her boiler, no bigger than a forty-five gallon drum, was fired by a diminutive furnace fed with small coal, a shovelfull at a time, sparingly. She was the pride of her coxswain and petty officer stoker and, I think, two hands, one fore and one aft to handle the lines when she made fast alongside. She went ashore broadside on and soon there were seamen on the beach and we in Oostewal came to anchor in about four fathoms and floated a line ashore. This secured it was used to haul in our towing hawser, two lengths of stout steel cable spliced to a centre portion of heavy manila rope. When the line had been made fast we commenced to pull. Without success. The towing line stretched taut but the pinnace was held tightly in the sand. We increased the pull by heaving on our anchor cable but only succeeded in dragging the anchor. The tow line parted. We hauled it aboard, raised the anchor and steamed a short distance off shore and dropped it again. Veering cable we manoeuvered until we were in position to drop a second anchor off the other bow. Hauling in chain on the first and veering chain on the second we positioned ourselves with two anchors down to float another line ashore to take the tow rope back. All went well. The tow was again made fast. We put the engines ahead, used the winches to bring and anchor chains bar taut - and the pinnace did not move an inch. The water was so shallow that our screw was stirring up the sand under the stern. To continue our efforts might result in our touching ground ourselves and this risk we could not take. Reluctantly we abandoned salvage efforts, signaled the position to the Admiral's office and in reply were ordered to return to our buoy, with thanks for our efforts. The old 'South Easter' was a complete loss.
Oostewal had a mixed crew - that is to say, the Petty Officer Coxswain was white; The Engine Room Artificer and stokers also, while the deckhands were 'Cape Coloured' mainly from Kalk Bay. The boatswain - a leading seaman - was coloured and a fine seaman good with ropes and tackles. We all got along together very well although some of the customs of the Navy were very different from those of the coloured fishermen. For instance, everybody, from Commanding Officer to the lowliest deckhand, was encouraged to make an arrangement with the pay side so that part of his pay would go direct to his wife, or mother, or whoever he might designate. It was a good idea for what would a seaman in a minesweeper do with the cash put on his cap at the end of every month? He could take it with him in the liberty boat and spend it all on cheap Cape sherry or wine; or he could give it to his wife when next he went home. So it was a sensible arrangement to make an allotment, half, or three-quarters of the pay, to be paid directly to your dependant. A simple and straightforward arrangement? Yes: it was to us. But to a Kalk Bay fisherman, whose income depended upon the weather and the vagaries of fish movements, and who, on the way home after a good catch would spend a good proportion of his earnings convivially and be nagged to pass on to his wife what was left, the idea of a regular payday and a routine allotment was quite foreign. To suggest such a procedure was to suggest that the sailor was not competent to manage his own affairs, which was quite true, but not to be assumed by the Captain. It took a long time and much tact to win over the men and, truth to tell, I heard complaints from the men that their wife or dependant was mis-spending the money, blueing it all in the first week or so and having nothing left in the latter part of the month. Weekly pay days would have helped but this was not possible for the administration, or so they said. When a complaint was well founded and justified the allotment terms could be amended but this meant more clerical work for the pay-master sub-lieutenant who looked after our two ships. Being in command of a ship is not, or was not, just a matter of good ship-keeping, good seamanship, and bravely going forth against the enemy; socio-economic skills (to use the modern, 1984, jargon) were also required. But above all it required the ability to listen to and try to understand, the position of people whose daily lives were very different, the seaman from the craftsman artificer, the young aspiring sub-lieutenant from the stoker. To take all sorts, from all sources, and make a smooth working team; that is the greatest skill of the commanding officer.
It was not long after the 'South Easter' salvage episode that I was moved to Walvis Bay, and it is time I moved to another topic.
Copyright Gillian van Zijl (née Tomalin)
Put onto the web (2007) by Joan Marsh