For King and Country

WW II Reminiscences of Nelson Albert Tomalin R.N.V.R..


Walvis Bay I remember for its fogs. The moist air from the North, meeting the cold water of the Benguela current flowing northwards along Africa's West Coast, condensed into white fogs in which visibility was, on the average, about 50 yards. If that fog was present in the early morning - no sweeping; but if it was clear we would set out and if no fog came, complete the sweep. But time after time, as the air warmed further about noon, the fog would suddenly form. Station keeping, except in line ahead following a fog buoy towed behind the leading vessel (we had no radar) became impossible. The sweep wire would be slipped, wound back on the winch drum, and we would set course back to the fairway bell-buoy, tolling its dismal, but to us welcome and vital, note. Passing close to the buoy, and steering carefully the well-known courses, we would steam slowly into the bay, edge close to the long jetty, and find our berths.

It was not all fog and gloom however. There was a very convivial officer's club ashore and a club for the ratings too, and the beer brewed at Swakopmund and Windhoek had to be tasted to be believed. It was German Beer at its best and we soon learned to drink it in South West African style, as a chaser to a liqueur distilled by the monks of a German monastery. The liqueur was named 'Katollechen' as I recall. It was served in tiny glasses and its taste was something like a Benedictine, crossed with Grand Marnier with a dash of van der Hum. Whatever the recipe it was a warming brew and the drill was to knock back the liqueur in one gulp and then leisurely chase it with cold beer. I was not a drinking man. One round of liqueur and beer would see me through the evening and back on board for a full nights sleep.

The posting to Walvis Bay was a short one. Within a few months I was back in Cape Town. Time had gone by; more sweepers were ready; more officers commissioned and to my surprise I was appointed to command a group. That is to say that I had not only to command my own ship but be responsible for the operations of three others. Truly a meteoric career by normal standards. From a first command to senior officer of a sweep in just over a year could only happen in wartime when the flotillas were expanding as fast as dockyards could convert whale- catchers and trawlers; faster than men could be trained to man them. It was at this time, when I was moved from ship to ship to train officers and men, that I found myself in temporary command again of my old ship Natalia, as Senior Officer of the group. One episode of that period remains in my memory - and it is one of the few events of those days, which has documentary evidence as to when it happened in the form of a letter from the CO of HMSAS Soetvlei, a sweeper in my group, to myself as CO of Natalia. It was dated 31st July 1941. It was at dawn on the day before that the group left harbour for a routine sweep of the Cape Town channel. A N.W.gale was blowing itself out and while the wind was moderating the sea was as high as ever. Somehow, in the passing of the sweepwire off Green Point, Soetvlei got it around her propeller. The wire broke of course leaving a fair amount tangled around the screw. Soetvlei's engines were jammed and there she was, powerless, not far from the rocks and being driven towards them by wind and sea. I brought Natalia round, passed close to Soetvlei, passed a heaving line followed by the grass line, which in turn brought our towing hawser aboard her. Soetvlei made fast, Natalia steamed slowly ahead and was all set to tow her back to harbour. But we reckoned without the breaking seas and Soetvlei's high bow which kept her yawing from side to side before we could get enough steerage way upon her so that she could follow us. The towing hawser broke. We gathered in the broken end, tuned again towards Soetvlei, went past her and took, via her heaving line, her towing hawser which we made fast. Off we set again, taking the strain very slowly. But the weight of a whaler lying broadside to wind and sea, is great and no sooner had we got her going than the wire parted. Meanwhile our boatswain had been using his skill. He had already spliced a new part to our hawser and this we passed as soon as we could; this time we took things even more slowly while the boatswain spliced more wire to the piece of Soetvlei's which we had hauled aboard. Again the tow parted; again we passed another and within a quarter of an hour had taken the strain again. This time, without any idea of towing Soetvlei away. We took the strain gently, Oh so gently, with the object of keeping her from drifting any further inshore for the weather obviously would not permit us to pull her away. So we kept barely steerage way at minimum revolutions, anxiously watching bearings. All went well. We were not making much progress off the land but at least Soetvlei was not closer to the rocky shore.

We were in R/T touch all this time, both between ourselves and with the harbour signal station, to which a request for help had long ago been sent. But nothing came to our aid. We prepared wires and springs again in case the tow should part again, and in due course it did. Lines were passed yet again. Not for the last time. In all we passed tow five times that day and after the fifth time, the sea having dropped somewhat and the wind reduced to a breeze, we began to make progress off-shore. By this time it was well after noon and as we began to get Soetvlei moving through the water, and in fact had got her well away from the shore, out came a harbour tug. She passed her wire, we had orders to hand over to her, and towed Soetvlei back to into Cape Town docks while Natalia followed astern, cleaning up the mess of broken wires and hemp hawsers on the decks. Soetvlei was put alongside the quay and Natalia made fast along side her. It was not long before Captain Dalgleish was on the quayside. Praise for saving a ship? Censure for having got a wire around the propeller? Neither. A blowing up for the CO of Soetvlei for using his sweep wire, the handiest, for making fast to the quayside bollard I thought it a bit unfair at the time, and will always remember the look of astonishment on Sub.Lt Taylor's face as he looked down from his bridge to an irate Captain on the quay below. Afterwards I realised that what the Captain had done was to scold his child, much as a mother would do when her child was rescued from danger while mother had spent anguished hours waiting for the outcome. I still have among my papers a letter from Taylor to Natalia and her crew, thanking us all for the "tireless assistance you afforded yesterday". Taylor went on to write "It is beyond question that without the assistance given by you the Soetvlei would have gone ashore". One had only to watch the breakers crashing on the rocks off Green Point to realises what that would have meant to the ship and her men.

The cause of Soetvlei' s misadventure was a collision while passing sweep with her partner, the Blaauberg. Both were whale-catchers from the Hektor fleet and if my memory serves they were difficult to handle at slow speeds on account of a high-built bow structure. The older catchers were lower in the water at the fore end and less subject to windage. It was only a few days after the Soetvlei towing episode that her sister ship, Brakvlei, managed to get a wire around her propeller. Once again Natalia acted as a tug. But this time the weather was calm and we merely towed Brakvlei into open water and stood by while her crew struggled to clear the wire, which they did eventually. Wires around propellers were common accidents. I found myself in this position when in False Bay, trying to recover a marker buoy. There was a brisk gale and a strong set for which I did not allow enough and the mooring wire went under the ship and was of course picked up by the propeller. However engines were stopped in time - both ends of the wire were secured on deck and by turning the prop-shaft by hand, to avoid overwinds, we gently pulled the tangled wire clear of the propeller. On letting one end go we were able to recover it all, weigh the anchor we had dropped as a precaution against drifting ashore, and proceeded on our way. As far as I can remember we had five turns of wire around the screw in spite of emergency stopping of engines.

It was not long after the Natalia/Soetvlei towing party that I was involved in a more serious accident. This was a collision between my ship and the merchant ship 'City of Lille'. I cannot remember what ship I was in, they changed so often, but she was oil-burning, and small, 600 tons versus 8,000 tons of merchantship. There is nothing more alarming to those on the bridge of a small ship than to be eyeball to eyeball, as it were, with a huge mud and water dripping anchor which appears to be about to drop on ones deck. The matter was serious enough to warrant an enquiry, and a summary trial by the Officer Commanding Cape Town Forces, an Army Brigadier as I recall. Because of the serious nature of the matter I felt obliged to write a memorandum to the CO of the sea-going forces, Capt. Dalgleish, and I have kept a copy from which I am able to obtain details, noted at the time. In fairness to the powers that be I think that little would have been said had not the City of Lille, through her agents, presented the SA Defence Force with the bill for some cement placed in her bow.

On the two days prior to the collision I had been in charge of a sweep formation new to the men in the ships carrying it out. I think it was the quarterline Orepesa sweep, which I have described in an earlier chapter. So I had my own ship to handle, three ships and the operation to control. I did the navigation, having no first-lieutenant, nor navigating officer, nor any officer other than the petty officer coxswain. I also did the signalling, having no signalman. The only things I did not have to do on the bridge was to steer and work the engineroom telegraph; there was an AB to do these tasks, under my direction. On the day before the accident we sailed at 6 am and exercised sweeping until 3 in the afternoon, when we entered the Alfred Basin and secured. At 6.50 PM I left harbour to go on patrol, steaming back and forth along the patrol line all night; one end of the line was Robben Island, the other the mainland near Blaauberg. It was watch and watch with the coxswain, and when off watch cat napping for no CO can really sleep at sea. At dawn we returned to Table Bay to anchor prior to setting out on another day's sweeping. We stayed at anchor until the other sweepers appeared, a period of about three hours during which I had a much needed short sleep, breakfast, and shave etc. We weighed anchor so as to join the other ships as they left harbour and steamed through the other ships anchored in the Bay, and up alongside and past the City of Lille on her port side. On reaching a position just ahead of her bow I altered course to starboard, to clear her and get out beyond the breakwater. Alas - I had not noticed that the black 'at anchor' ball on her forestay had been hauled down, she had heaved short on her anchor and was moving ahead. There was no avoiding action I could take. Her bows cut into our side, in to the starboard wing oil tank, to a distance of some four or five feet. We heeled under the blow and were pushed broadside through the water until she went astern and pulled her stem away from us, whereupon we took a list of some 20 degrees as the fuel tank filled. Miserably we steamed slowly back to the Alfred basin and I went ashore to report to our sweeping CO, Commander Dean. I expected the mother and father of all wiggings. To my astonishment my report was received sympathetically. I was not exactly praised, for as a result of the accident a sweeper was out of commission and would need repair, but I gathered that anyone could make a mistake and I had best go back to the ship, prepare her for docking, write a report, not worry, and report next day to take command of another sweeper.

As mentioned, all would have been well but for the claim of the City of Lille; I would have been ticked off by Capt. Dalgleish for having hazarded my ship and that would have been that. But the merchant ship's agents claimed some 400 pounds for damage repairs, some rivets strained and a plate bent, needing that cement plug in her bows. The authorities i.e. the Dept. of Defence, could not accept this without having someone upon whom to pin the blame and in due course I was informed that I could choose between being tried by court martial for endangering my ship or a summary trial before the Brigadier in command of Coastal forces, on, I think, a charge of damaging defence property. Cdr Dean recommended the latter as being quicker, less troublesome to all, and the less trouble I caused the better it would be. So, one morning, accompanied by Cdr. Dean, both in our best uniforms, I presented myself at the Castle, before the Brigadier. I distinctly remember being ordered by his staff officer, or someone like that - in a peremptory voice, to "remove your headgear"; meaning my cap. In the navy we had a short term for this "off Cap"! I did so. The brigadier had a file on the table in front of him. He tapped it with a finger and asked if I were the officer whose report it contained. Presuming that he would have the right file I replied that he was correct. "Then", said the brigadier, " I find you guilty of negligence; be careful not to be negligent in future". His staff officer said "case concluded - dismiss", and that was that. So far so good. But the sting was yet to come in the form of a letter from the Adjutant-General of the Union of South Africa Defence Force advising me that as I had been found guilty of negligence in the matter of City of Lille versus Union Defence Force, I would be required to pay the cost of her repairs. It was this that impelled me to write a memorandum in my defence and, thanks I believe to Cdr. Dean and Capt. Dalgleish, the amount was reduced to one quarter of the cost of repairs, payable by deduction from my pay over the next six months. With this I had to be content. In fact bearing in mind the cost of repairs to my own ship, which must have run into many thousands of pounds, the experience may have been thought to have been bought cheaply. But I can't help remembering that when an A/S ship ran aground just north of Durban and became a total loss, the Captain was not brought up for negligence nor asked to pay for the cost of the vessel! And it was only a month or so after this that I was selected for training in Anti-Submarine work and spent the next two months in the class room and in sea-training prior to the opening up of a completely new phase in my war service, and at the end of the course, having passed, I was promoted to Lieutenant.

It is said that a thing quickly learned is quickly forgotten. I must have learned enough of the theory and practice of the ASDIC apparatus to satisfy our instructor; but I cannot remember more than the broad outline of the mechanics of the device. The principles I do remember, and the application of them at sea. A directional sound beam, produced by an electric charge into a crystal plate beneath the ship's keel, was sent out into the water. As the beam travelled away, so a listening device, ending in a pair of ear-phones on the operator's head, enabled him to hear it. And if it met with any obstruction it echoed back, and he could hear this echo too. Not unlike the well known Echo sounding machine, with the additional capacity of being directional. The shape of the sound beam was conical so that at its furthest effective range, about 3000 yards, its depth was much greater than the depth of the oscillator beneath the keel. If nothing intercepted the sound beam it faded away and the operator turned his directional wheel control 5 degrees forward just as the transmission faded and in time for the next transmission to be sent out on a new bearing. The operator started his "sweep" seventy degrees on one or the other bow; he moved his wheel, and the oscillator and the sound beam moved with it, five degrees forward as each transmission faded. So, after fourteen pulses on one side his beam would be directed straight ahead. On reaching this point he would turn his wheel rapidly to seventy degrees on the opposite bow and once again begin to creep, five degrees at time, to a straight ahead position. Each pulse took about five seconds to reach fading point, so every five seconds the beam direction was altered. It is easy to see that the sweep up each bow would take about a minute. The area explored by the sound beam was roughly one and a half miles on either bow, so a single ship could search a swath three miles wide along the course steered. Variations could be made eg, one hundred and twenty degrees on one bow to thirty degrees on the other. Going through a swept channel in a minefield the asdic beam could sweep from forty-five degrees on the exposed bow to ninety degrees, and the mines detected as the ship passed them and their range determined. This was very useful if there were a current setting the ship towards the edge of the swept channel; the range could be seen to be closing and the appropriate alterations or course made.

Our instructor was Lt. Burton R.N. A large man, a good instructor, and the owner of a four-liter open tourer Bentley which he drove with great verve. It was a case of back to school. Electrical theory, physics, maintenance of equipment and then the real thing, the technique of using the ASDIC as a detection device for the protection of convoys against submarine attack plus convoy operating methods. After lectures on the subject we were initiated into the mysteries of the "attack table". This was a glass covered table some six feet square with wonderful, to me, electric gadgets underneath it and a sheet of transparent paper over it. The instructor and his team would control the 'submarine' represented by a dot of light shining through the glass on to the paper. This dot could be moved, right, left, forward, backward, faster, slower; depth could not be shown but was recorded by one of the team every 30 seconds or so, and at about the same intervals the position of the light would be marked by a dot on the paper by another member of the team. The position of the surface vessel could be marked in similar fashion as one altered course and speed, either by a cross or in a different colour. By means of an electronic device, yes we had electronics even in those days, the beam of the asdic could be simulated, as could the echo when it intercepted the "submarine". The ship's team, operator, Asdic officer and CO, were enclosed in a mock bridge and could not see the attack table. The only contact was by means of the asdic and a voice pipe by which the orders for course and speed were passed to the table operators, plus of course orders to fire or release depth charges, the exploding positions of which could also be shown on the paper covering the table. So the stage would be set. Surface vessel steaming at a set course and speed while the instructor maneuvered his submarine into a position where an echo could be picked up. The attacking team would start the attack procedure while the instructor would manoeuver his submarine to evade the attack. The exercise started with simple interceptions but soon became a battle of wits between the attack team and the submarine team. Lots of people know that sloops and corvettes and frigates attacked and sank U-boats but I imagine that only those who have been engaged in the work know what goes on. I've never read a description of a typical attack so I will try to give one.

Let us imagine an escort vessel, abeam of a convoy, steaming happily at 11 knots and maintaining a 30 degree zig-zag across the mean course of the convoy. Suddenly the pi-i-ing of the Asdic transmission ends with an abrupt pong. Again the searching beam goes out pi-i-i-ing and again an echo-pong. The operator calls "echo bearing green three five", the officer of the watch presses the alarm button, the bells sound, the ship comes to action stations and the Asdic team takes over as the depth charge crews close up. Then follows the laid down attack procedure. Speed is reduced to dead slow, course altered to the bearing of the echo. By so doing the AS vessel can determine which way the submarine is moving and by careful listening and ranging find out if it is moving towards or away from the attacking ship. Range is shown on a recording device in which a strip of sensitised paper slowly unwinds and on which the asdic transmissions show as a thin black line and echo as a thickening of that line. As each thin black line is drawn with each transmission across the paper - ruled vertically in 100's of yards - and suddenly shows darker with the echo, the darkening point can be seen in relation to the vertical distance lines and the distance read off, just as a depth can be read off on an echo sounder. As well as obtaining the range the AS officer can deduce the probable course of the submarine by listening carefully to the pitch of the echo. If the echo is lower in pitch the object giving it is moving away; if higher then it is moving towards. The well-known 'Doppler effect'. We have all heard the Doppler effect as a noise source, a car or an aircraft comes towards us, passes, and goes away. So the operator and the AS officer can report 'echo closing' or 'opening' as the case may be.

The operator works his training wheel back and forth, right and left across the target, reporting the centre line of the bearing and indicating 'moving right' or 'left' as the bearing changes. As the information becomes available it is possible, on the bridge of the escort vessel, to plot the relative positions of the submarine and the attacking vessel and to make an appreciation of the situation. It is then that the skill of the commander of the AS vessel is matched against the skill of the submarine commander, the latter having one factor extra at his disposal, ie his depth, which he can vary as he pleases between 100 and 600 feet, and deeper as the war progressed and submarine were built to stand greater depths. A depth charge, to be fully effective, must explode within forty feet of its target. So the AS vessel may make a perfect attack but by setting charges at 100 feet completely miss the target which has gone down to 400 feet.

The Asdic beam has shown that the submarine is moving left; the range by recorder is increasing and this is confirmed by slightly lower pitch echoes. We can estimate its course and speed and we can adjust our course and speed, so as to arrive at a collision position were both vessels on the surface. What is needed now is to maintain the bearing of the submarine as we increase speed to intercept and drop the depth charges. The intervals between beam transmissions and echoes shorten as the range closes and the attack team listens carefully for the moment when the echo is lost - which means that the submarine is at a depth below the transmission cone. The greater the range at which the echo ceases, the deeper the sub and vice versa; if the echo was continuously maintained the result would be a ramming. But - at 250 yards it suddenly ceases. The sub is deep, say 200 to 300 feet. Quickly the order goes to the depth charge crew to adjust depth settings. This is done and the pattern is dropped. The sequence of the orders is "Drop one; (short pause) then "Two and throwers" (and the mortars hurl the charges fifty feet or so to port and starboard) then "drop five". The attack is over. If we were at sea and the attack real, the ship would shake as the charges exploded. If the settings were shallow five columns of water would erupt astern, white tinged with grey and brown; if the setting were deep the sea surface would bulge above the explosions.

As this is an attack teacher exercise we leave the "bridge" and crowd around the plotting table to see the results of our efforts. If successful we congratulate ourselves and the instructor mutters about 'luck'. But all too often the submarine, guided by the long experienced Lt. Burton, has escaped. We see the little red crosses marking the depth charge explosions as timed by the stop watch, some way ahead and to starboard of the submarines position at that time. As we made our final approach the enemy had stopped engines and put on full starboard rudder. We had overshot and the instructors exclaims "How many times must I tell you to listen for doppler to the last moment; if you didn't have cloth ears you would have heard the doppler go up as he stopped. Now get back on the bridge and see how close you can get this time." But it is not all failure and gloom. We gained experience and in due course some of us passed as Qualified A/S operators, or A/S officers or A/S commanders. Was it luck? or was there a shortage of commanding officers? I do not know. But I was passed as qualified for CO and within a day or so had my orders - to go to Durban and there take command of HMSAS Tordon, a largish Norwegian built whale catcher converted to anti-submarine work. And off I went, in the 'Orange Express' with a draft of men in my charge (it seemed that no officer could possibly travel anywhere without having a bunch of men attached to him to control and shepherd to their destination). The train pulled away from Cape Town station and off I went to start a new chapter in the "King and Country" part of my life.

Copyright Gillian van Zijl (née Tomalin)
Put onto the web (2007) by Joan Marsh

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