For King and Country

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


Maydon Wharf was allocated by the harbour authority at Durban, presumably in consultation with the Defence Force, to the minesweepers and A/S vessels based on that port. The wharf was on the South side of the bay, with a dredged channel leading to it for the bay is shallow and considerable areas dry out at low tide. The entrance was, and I suppose still is, an artificial one. Two breakwaters leading out below the Bluff to deeper water outside. Dredgers were nearly always at work keeping the channel deep enough for large ships to enter. Easterly winds were fortunately rare, prevailing winds were up or down the coast, but when they blew the swell would sweep right up the entrance channel and a ship could be pitching into it before reaching the ends of the breakwater.

The available water for anchoring was restricted. Unlike Table Bay, Durban did not have scores of ships anchored outside the harbour waiting for a berth to oil or water or load or discharge cargo. There were three Anti Submarine patrol lines. One out to sea and back again from the Bluff; another to sea and back to shore some four miles north of the harbour entrance. The third ran North/South parallel to the shore at the extremities of the other patrol lines. Three A/S vessels were always on patrol, with a fourth at anchor to the north of the entrance breakwater, ready to proceed anywhere as required. A deadly boring berth this. Swinging to anchor all night, radio listening watch; bridge anchor watch; standby engine-room watch. A chance for the C.O. to catch up on paper work, or more often than not, on sleep.

I do not recall any enemy attempt to attack the Durban anchorage when I was stationed there; nor at any other time. But if the enemy ignored us the sea did not. There were inshore sets and off shore drifts and an inshore South to North current which would, quite unpredictably, move well out to sea where normally the current would be the Agulhas, sweeping down the coast from Mocambique to the Cape. And it was the sea which caused our first casualty. We had, that evening before sailing early in the morning, been playing 'liar dice' at the bar of the Wardroom of the Durban base. Both of us lieutenants, I, I think, the senior, but that is neither here nor there. We left early in the morning to relieve our sister ships. I took over at anchor off the breakwater before proceding later to the North/South patrol line, my friend to the patrol north of the bay, closing the end of the guarded rectangle. During the night the current played one of its tricks. My friend's ship (he and the ship shall be nameless) was set inshore by a current and in the small hours went ashore on the beach. She could not be re-floated in spite of all efforts, including towing by some of the most powerful tugs in the world. There were no casualties; all on board got ashore safely but the ship was a total loss and my friend was returned to Cape Town. I think the enquiry exonerated him and subsequently he was given another command.

While I was in Durban in command of Tordon we had a visit to the S.A.N.F. base - an inspection I should call it - by the Admiral Commanding in Chief in the Indian Ocean, Sir James Somerville. We were told that he would merely walk around the base, pay a short visit to a ship, and depart. Tordon was the ship selected for his visitation and we prepared to show as clean and shipshape a vessel as we could. In due course the Admiral arrived, to be met on board by myself, in immaculate whites and with an immaculate salute, plus specially rehearsed boatswain's pipes, to inspect the ship. Which he did. From stem to stern. He was interested in everything, perhaps it was his first visit to a converted whale catcher, but he certainly asked a great number of questions. But hardly had the words of a question left his lips than a certain Commander in his party would reply, providing the information requested. This went on as the inspection proceeded until we arrived on the foredeck, alongside the 4 inch low angle gun mounted there. The Admiral asked questions about it and our drill for working it, particularly about the replenishment of the ready-for-use ammunition. To explain. We had on the gun deck, reached by ladders from the lower deck, racks in which shells were kept and lockers in which the charges were stowed. There were about five practice rounds, painted black all over, to be used not only for practice but also if we ever had to stop a ship by 'putting a shot across her bows', plus about a dozen rounds of semi-armour piercing shells, painted yellow with a red stripe around them. Obviously one did not keep too much ammunition on the gun deck, exposed to the weather all the time we were at sea. If we were to have to use the gun against, say, a U Boat we might use up all the ready-for-use ammunition in a few minutes so that it was vital to any hope of continuing an action to have a flow of shells and charges reaching the gun. This was part of the gun drill, and a vital part, which we exercised frequently and we thought that we were pretty good at passing the ammunition from the magazine, in what used to be the fore-hold, across decks and up ladders to where it was needed. No special hoists for us, as there would be on a destroyer or cruiser. Just hand to hand passing with all spare hands, including the cook and steward in the handling chain.

As usual the Commander started to answer the first question asked by the Admiral but was stopped dead in his tracks by the Admiral quietly saying "Don't you think the Captain would be able to tell us?" Collapse of Commander. I forget my reply but it must have been satisfactory and the inspection continued. At the end of it, despite meaningful looks from his Flag-Lieutenant and mutterings about the time, Sir James came down to our wardroom and took a glass of sherry with us while he chatted about the progress of the war and our work off the African Coast. And I think there was not a man on board who, having met those candid and penetrating blue eyes, would have hesitated for a moment to carry out any task the Admiral might set us.

Durban was of course blacked out. No street lights, no harbour lights, no marker lights nor any lighthouses. Even our little hut wardroom next to the wharf had its black out curtains even though it was surrounded by tall warehouses. But one thing could not be blacked out, and that was the flash of the tram pick-up arms (if that is the right term) as they switched from one overhead line to another, or travelled over joints in the overhead system. So that as one steamed up and down offshore one could always see the flashes along the shore road. It was not wise to rely too much on the flashes for after the last tram had gone its way there was indeed complete blackout. But in the early part of the night the occasional flash was useful for, knowing roughly where the origin was one could use the flash to judge what the current was doing. If after an hour or so one found oneself more to the South than one should be it was not difficult to establish that there was a current of one or two knots setting that way. Currents could vary depending upon the state of the tide the wind and even the sea temperature but with care, and constant observation, it was possible to maintain position reasonably accurately. But it was possible to be caught out. The set may reverse itself between midnight and dawn and I recall at least one occasion when we were dutifully patrolling our line parallel to the shore, but not off the Durban anchorage, but off the rolling green hills of sugar cane some ten miles north of the port as dawn broke to reveal our true position. A quick scamper back at full speed and then the resumption of our patrol at eight knots.

The defences of Durban had their big moment one early evening when, as we were off duty ship, my lieutenant and myself were enjoying a pre-dinner drink in the wardroom ashore. The duty officer burst into the room announcing that we had to prepare for immediate sea duty as a Japanese fleet had been sighted by an air-reconnaisance plane of the S.A.A.F. many miles out to sea but heading towards Durban. It was assumed that this was an invasion fleet and we in Tordon were to proceed as soon as possible to join the rest of the A/S flotilla and resist said invasion. As the reader will have gathered if it had been an invasion it would be most unlikely that I would be writing now. Of course there were no Japanese warships. What the aircrew had seen we never could ascertain. It was probably a convoy which had been routed well offshore and was now steaming directly to Durban. It was exciting while it lasted and we did get to sea in quick time, thus demonstrating that we could act quickly in an emergency, and the whole affair provided a good test of communications. Maybe it was just all thought up by some brass hat as a practice exercise after all.

There was one most interesting job we did in Tordon; possibly we were chosen because of my signals background. We were fitted with an experimental VHF radio transmitter and receiver and took part in many ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship tests. The remarkable things about this VHF (all this is probably old hat to readers years afterwards) was that the radio beam travelled in a straight line and could be interrupted by any object, like a hill or a building, in its path. The officer-in-charge of radio communication in Durban was Lt. Millard, in peace time an employee of the Marconi Company which supplied the radio telephone sets for the trawlers and whalers. (The senior radio man was Bullard, in Cape Town; we were intrigued by the Bullard/Millard duet). Millard explained, in terms which even I could understand, that longwave radio was like sound, the waves of which could go round corners whereas shortwave - particularly very short wave radio was like light; it travelled in a straight line. So, if one used long wave radio in convoy it could be picked up by anyone within range, up to 100 miles or more and by using direction finders the bearing of the origin of the signal could be worked out. But VHF waves went straight out - in all directions certainly, - but instead of following the curvature of the earth they went out into space, much like a light beam. If one was high enough and the light strong enough, a light signal could be read 100 miles away. But ships at sea could not transmit or receive at such a height so the radio waves, like the light of an Aldis lamp, would go on travelling in a straight line and no one outside visibility distance could intercept the signal. The VHF beam could, like light, be reflected and I understood that some ionised atmospheric layer or other could reflect the signals. Thus I heard afterwards that some of our experimental signals had been picked up in the Pacific; but that was far enough away to safeguard any convoy in which VHF was used in the Atlantic or Indian Oceans. It was quite uncanny to be listening to Millard reading a test message and to have his voice fade as we steamed across the line between his transmitter and a large building on the foreshore.

VHF radio, and afterwards, UHF radio helped a great deal in co-ordinating the work of convoy escorts. By day or by night it was far quicker and easier and more effective, to speak to your escorts - or for escort ships to speak to their Senior Officer, in plain language, than to signal by light or flag. VHF radio meant that an escort group could be worked as a unit, a one man controlled defence or attack team. We learned to bless the boffins who had worked it all out.

My time in Durban came to an end. I was relieved and returned to Cape Town where I was given command of the best ship I ever had the good fortune to go to sea in. She was slightly bigger than Tordon. One of the latest Scandinavian whale catchers; a lady in all her ways and a fine sea-keeping ship - H.M.S.A.S. Sonneblom. This appointment brought with it an enlarged scope of activities. No longer was I confined to A/S patrols outside harbours. Convoy escort duty became the main work. Convoys from Cape Town to Durban and back again; guard ship for convoys at anchor in Saldanha Bay. There was the occasional patrol and once an exciting dash to sea on receipt of an enemy sighting report. Sonneblom had had an extensive refit and was newly manned and so we had a working up period doing exercises and patrol duty off Cape Town.

It was on one of these patrols that I encountered the worst storm and the most vicious seas I have ever experienced. It all began in the usual way. A hot, fitful, 'Bergwind' from the North-East changing to North as the low pressure area passed over the Cape Peninsula, then to the Northwest, when it began to blow and blow. I do not know what the Anemometer on the grain elevator recorded but the wind we had at sea was well into the 70mph range. With hundreds of miles of South Atlantic to the North West it was not long before the gale built up a formidable sea, driving straight into Table Bay. Our patrol line was between Robben Island and Green Point, and the courses to be steered, allowing for leeway, were roughly NorthEast and SouthWest, which, as a glance at the map will show, was at right angles to the NW wind. We maintained the patrol with the beam seas rolling us scuppers under as each one passed. An ASDIC watch was virtually impossible as the sound beam range was restricted to a short distance. It would have a greater range if we were to steam slowly head to sea but that would not be a very effective way of keeping the patrol.

Night came down and the wind, instead of dropping as it sometimes did at sunset, increased as did the sea which soon started to break all along the 20 fathom line between the island and the mainland. We battled on but Sonneblom, and the crew, were taking punishment, and then, out of the dark came a huge breaker, a freak wave, which broke fair and square on the side of the bridge, and over most of the ship. The force of the water wrenched the steam pipes to the winch, just in front of the bridge, from their usual place alongside the bridge structure plating out to the bulwarks. Solid water swept over the upper deck and casing. The windward lifeboat was filled and dragged from its chocks and left hanging from one end onto the lower deck. There was no point in staying out in such weather and we groped our way, chased by breakers, into the shelter of the Breakwater, over which the seas were coming green.

It turned out that I had done the right thing in deciding to leave the patrol for, as soon as our damage report had been received by the base we were ordered in for repairs as quickly as possible for we were scheduled to form part of the escort of a convoy leaving within a day or so. Repaired, re-fueled and re-stored, orders came for us to join a convoy from Cape Town to Durban. About nine ships and three escorts steered out of Table Bay along the swept channel (was I once sweeping that channel?) until South of Cape Point and at the end of the swept area we turned to the north-east to skirt the coast as far as Cape Agulhas (more minesweeping memories), then Eastwards to Port Elizabeth, and then by successive course changes North East to Durban, past East London, Port St Johns, Port Shepstone, always outside the 100 fathom line. Past, too, the area off Bushman's River mouth where, only a few days before, an attack had been made on another convoy with the loss of some ships including, alas, one carrying many hundreds of Italian prisoners of war. It was with keen eyes and sharper ears that we zigzagged ahead of our ships in case the u-boats were still about. There were none that we could detect, nor were we attacked, but the evidence of their having been there was plain to see. Wreckage and, sadly, many drifting bodies carried northwards on the inshore current, some reaching as far as Durban itself.

On the fifth day we reached Durban. We went up the familiar Maydon Channel after refuelling at the Point. To replenish fuel tanks was the priority task for any ship on arrival. Then a night's rest and next day, after re-storing, and the usual convoy conference, off southwards with another group of ships. Not necessarily to Cape Town. If the ships were to go further north into the Atlantic we would take them to Saldanha Bay, to await the formation of another convoy up the West Coast. Saldanha Bay is a landlocked harbour or anchorage and accessible only via a fairly narrow channel between headlands. Laid across the channel was the detection system which would indicate the passage of any vessel, on or under the water, and while the ships lay at anchor at the North end of the bay the escort would lie, at shortened cable, off the inner end of the entrance channel, supplementing the detection system with an asdic watch and ready to take any action necessary in case of any vessel entering without the permission of the signal station, with which we were in visual and radio contact. It was while Sonneblom was guard ship that a large ketch, the Alexandra, previously one of the yacht club fleet but now used for coastal work between Cape Town and Saldanha Bay, came in through the heads. The skipper did not reply to challenges from the signal station and instead went on steadily into the bay. We were signalled, and in turn challenged the yacht but she did not respond and merely altered course to head up the bay away from us. Even at short cable anchors take a little while to raise and Alexandra was getting further and further away so I ordered a few rounds of Oerlikon to be fired over her, hoping that this would improve the skippers eyesight, for there is nothing like a few rounds of 20mm tracer over your masts to make you take notice. Alexandra stopped; we had the anchor up in short time and went alongside her to find the skipper quite intoxicated. We knew him, we knew the yacht, a quick check showed that she had not been taken over with the purpose of doing some damage to the anchored ships, so we let her go up to the little harbour. So ended a small incident. It was not until long afterwards that I heard of the story of gunfire in Saldanha Bay, heard ashore; and the appearance of some holes in the roof of the hotel which unaccountably appeared one afternoon. The skipper of the yacht naturally did not comment, if in fact he was aware, we went on our various ways to more convoy and patrol work and our log was never compared with rumour of gunfire in the bay.

This was later followed by a much more serious and exciting incident which again started while we were at anchor as guard ship. I think I was doing some paper work when our W/T operator handed me an intercepted signal originally sent by a minesweeper on passage from Saldanha Bay to Cape Town, reporting the sighting of a submarine on the surface between Dassen Island and the mainland. It was described as being white, large, and steering in a Northwesterly direction when it submerged. Sonneblom was by far the nearest ship and in anticipation of orders to try to intercept (which came an hour of so later) we raised full steam and the anchor and left the entrance at twelve knots signalling our intentions to the signal station. These were to start a 'box' search centred on a position thirty miles NW of Dassen Island, which I estimated the submarine could reach on the surface in the two hours which would have elapsed since the sighting. It would take us about an hour to reach this position, due west from the entrance to Saldanha Bay. If the U-boat was still on the surface we would be in a good position to intercept and if she had dived after the sighting she would still be some miles away from my assumed position and be likely to move into my box area. This presumed that she held to a NW course. The weather was fine, sea moderate, slight swell, ideal for asdic work or visual interception and needless to say as many eyes, plus two pairs of ears, kept a sharp look out from Sonneblom Even off watch engine room ratings came on deck to add to the number of eyes. I do not think anything on the surface could have escaped notice. Of course the U-boat could have gone in any direction into the Atlantic; West, South West even, submerged or surfaced. However no ship could be in two places at once and we were in the search area furthest from Cape Town and Simonstown from whence other ships would join the hunt in other areas.

It was in the forenoon that we started our search and we steamed along our ever-lengthening box courses all that day and into the night. The plot showed the expanding area, moving North and West until we were covering some forty miles between course alterations to start another leg of the box at right angles to the old course. We saw and heard nothing all that night and well into the next day when, about mid-day we received a signal recalling us. The Hunt was off, the U-boat had vanished. The search for a needle in a bottle of hay had had no result. So we set course for Table Bay, still keening asdic and lookout going. I went to my cabin for a rest and a change before entering harbour in about four hours time but had hardly reached it before the alarm bell was rung. Asdic had a contact. We started the hunt, steering slowly towards the source of the echo. We established that it was not a shoal of fish, it was too solid, judging from the echo. We were by no means sure that it was a U-boat; it seemed to be small. But in war one does not neglect any chance and so we went into the attack with a 5-charge pattern. We held the contact until quite close and judged the target to be at shallow depth so the charges were set to 100 feet. We sliced through the water at twelve knots or so as the charge were released and thrown from each quarter. They exploded with huge upheavals of water and we turned 90Deg to open up the angle again when we saw a black object emerge from the water. The Gunnery Officer lost no time and the four-inch gun fired, and fired again, before I could verify through my binoculars that the object was not a submarine but a whale. It sank and we assumed that it had been killed outright for it appeared to just go on sinking. We were sorry but what else could we have done. When we arrived at Cape Town and reported the incident the ordnance stores people were peeved at having to replace 5 depth charges but the senior A/S Officer agreed that we had done the right thing. What was more gratifying was the approval given to our prompt sailing and search efforts by the Officer commanding the naval forces. When one leaves a duty post and acts independently one is always at risk; if all goes well - fine, but if anything goes wrong, the CO is for it!

What pleased me most was the response of the ship's company. Every officer and man played his part not only in the attack but in the many hours of patient searching which preceded it.

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

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