For King and Country

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


In August 1943 I was posted to the Mediterranean to take over as CO of HMSAS Southern Sea, one of the three remaining large 'Southern' whale-catchers based on Alexandria. "Southern Floe" had been sunk by striking a mine off Tobruk. I left Cape Town with a draft of about 40 Petty Officers and men. Plus some hundreds of troops of various kinds we filled the troop train to Durban and on arriving there went on board 'Orchades', a P & O liner of about 18,000 tons converted to a troopship. We sailed from Durban in convoy. With us went HMS Ramilles - but whether for her protection or she to protect us, I do not know. The Senior Naval officer on board was a Lt. Cdr. RNR. I was given the job - every officer had to do some job or other - of organising sports. I shared a cabin with a RN lieutenant returning to the Med after taking leave from HMS Aurora. With us in the cabin were many uninvited guests - bedbugs! In the short time available between discovering them and the ship sailing I rushed ashore to the town and bought as much Keating's Powder as I could. We waged war on the insects and after a day or so had them under control but never entirely eliminated. My cabin mate was not much affected by them but I have always been sensitive to insect bites of all kinds and for the first few days was a mass of red itchy blotches.

The voyage was uneventful. I can recall the humid heat of the tropics and the Red sea and the discomfort of mess dress - Red Sea rig - white shirt with epaulettes and long blue trousers with a black scarf as a cummerbund - stifling! But the highlight of the trip was that the Naval party, against all the odds, and only as the result of the expert coaching of a RN Petty Officer, won the tug-of-war. No other team could beat us, not even the Garrison Artillery, strong, heavy, beefy, men who made light work of the other teams. The secret was that we did not attempt to pull the rope. We lay back on it, at an angle decided by our coach, and pressed our feet into the deck. As the opponent's coach called 'Heave' our coach called 'Press'. It was remarkably simple. We just could not be moved and, as we were always laying back, and always had pressure on the deck, the opposition had only to relax for a moment for us to gain an inch or two - shuffle back - and press again. In fact we pulled with out legs and merely kept our arms straight.

When the ship reached Suez we disembarked and continued the journey to Alexandria by train. Two things I recall about this. First that one of the ratings became ill - really ill in my view - and I had him removed to hospital in Cairo rather than run the risk of carrying on to Alexandria. It was just as well I did so for the man was found to have meningitis. I also recall that at Suez we were issued with light-weight khaki shirts and shorts and were told that this was the 'rig of the day' for travelling. So the whole party changed into khaki. But when we arrived at Alexandria we were taken to task - at least I was - by an irate Commander RN for not being in whites. My explanation, protesting that I had the party properly dressed when leaving Suez was not accepted. Not a very auspicious arrival.

Southern Sea was away from Alex when I arrived but when she returned I joined her as First Lt. to Lt. Terry Lloyd to do a convoy run to Gibraltar and back before taking over from him. But I too fell ill, reported to the MO and was whisked into 64 General Hospital with, of all things, measles. And I had a fairly thin time, being virtually blind for a few days. But I recovered and in due course eventually set off in Southern Sea. I had been in command for so long that I found it difficult to do a First Lieutenants job. However we coped, the CO, the crew and I, and got to Gibraltar safely. We were in the 47th Escort Group and our SO was Commander Pung-Smith, then in command of a corvette, Delphinium. I shall not go into detail but mention that at a party on board that ship there was some horseplay and while wrestling with his SO, Terry-Lloyd suffered an injury to his knee and had to leave Southern Sea to be flown back to Alex and in due course to South Africa. I never saw him again for our paths did not cross. So there I was, CO of an escort vessel in the Med and an interesting and varied time it was. I estimate that from October 1943 to November 1944, we had about ten hours of actual warfare. One or two anti-submarine episodes, which may or may not have been U-boat contacts. One doesn't make a detailed study of an echo when abeam of a convoy; one goes for it and drops depth-charges first and goes into detail afterwards. We had a full-scale air attack - in May 1944 - in the Western Med. It was one of the last the enemy made on our shipping and the losses in aircraft were severe. By that date the 47th Escort Group had in it two 'River Class' frigates with Pung-Smith in command of one, 'Evenlode'. The other was Usk; there were two corvettes and Southern Sea and we had by then been specially fitted to make CS gas smoke.

The work was 99% routine. The enemy, more often than not, was the weather and the frustrations the ships in convoy. It would be wearisome to describe the day-to-day activities - even if one could recall the details. But some highlights come to mind. The first was leaving Gibraltar with the Escort Group and the convoy, in my first command in the Med. The day before sailing we had the Convoy conference, which I attended in my new capacity. We went through the convoy list, met the captains of the merchant vessels, noted the destinations and any special features about these such as changes in lights or buoys. We were informed of the latest enemy intelligence reports. The commodore described his intended signal procedure; the SO Escort indicated how the escort ships would be stationed and the proposed movements in the event of attack and what he expected the convoy to do in the event of air or U-boat attack. The possibility of surface attack did not exist for the Italian navy had been confined to port since September 1943. So we left Gibraltar and Southern Sea took up her station which, for once, was not astern but on the starboard beam of the convoy, possibly in a position where the SO could keep an eye on the new CO. There were about forty ships in eight columns of five ships each and it took several hours of manoeuvering before all ships were in their right positions. I do not think I felt nervous but I do recall the awful feeling of responsibility. Of course I had done convoy work before but with smaller convoys up and down the East coast of Africa, many thousands of miles from any enemy aircraft base and with little likelihood of a German U-Boat lurking ahead or following astern. But here in the Mediterranean U-Boats were still leaving Toulon and the German Air Force still had bases in occupied Italy and Southern France. The enemy was a few hundred, not some thousands, of miles away. Such conditions concentrate the thinking and I recall that I had to make a great effort of will to leave the bridge to the officer of the watch and relax.

It is not in any sense derogatory to consider the ships in convoy as sheep and the escorts as sheep dogs. Not only did we have to protect them from any 'wolves', we had to meet joining ships and take them to their positions, see to it that ships leaving the convoy did so in the right place, at the beginning of the swept channel to the port they were bound for. Or, for ships detaching to proceed independently, confirm the exact point of departure. Anyone who has done any navigation will know the importance of the 'departure', the point and time from which the dead reckoning begins. Usually all would go well for most merchant ship captains were experienced seamen and navigators. One episode does stick in my mind. It was when we were on the port wing of an Alex to Gib convoy in which there was, carefully positioned at the end of the port column of the convoy, a ship bound for the port of Bone. It was our job to see that she did so, and to escort her to the buoyed entrance to the swept channel. As we approached the departure point I made a signal to her to turn to port and follow me. Nothing happened. The signal was repeated and we steamed close alongside, signal flags flying and Aldis lamp winking the ship's call-up. Still nothing happened; she steamed steadily on her course following her next ahead. We closed to a cable or so and used the loud hailer. In days of old a shot used to be fired to draw attention to a signal but I thought this might be going too far. Closer and closer we steered, watching the bridge for a sign of life. I could see only one man, the helmsman. We sounded the siren, shouted through the loud hailer and I saw the helmsman move away from the wheel and then return to it. Shortly afterwards, up a ladder to the bridge, came a figure wearing what appeared to be pyjamas. I shouted "You must leave for Bone - follow me". Still no response so I repeated 'Bone' several times and sounded two blasts on the siren to indicate a turn to port. At Last! A wave from the bridge and the ship started to turn to port, across our bows. 'Full astern, hard a port' was my order and we swung away to avoid a collision, and set a course back to the position where we should have left the convoy. We showed the way in, gave the course down the swept channel and left him to it. No doubt he arrived safely; if not it was no fault of ours. We had an hours steaming at full speed to regain our position. I recall mentioning this episode to Pung-Smith when we reached Gibraltar. His comment was 'well it just shows what confidence they have in us.'

'They' may have had confidence but others apparently did not for it was at about this time that the US navy, or perhaps a US politician, decided that US ships reaching Gib and bound for Alex or other Mediterranean ports would be escorted by US naval vessels, of which they had a good number, including some coastguard cutters, splendidly armed and the envy of us whaler and corvette skippers. The edict went forth to all concerned and the next Gibraltar/Alex convoy was split into two parts, one the US ships and the other all the other nationalities. I cannot remember the numbers but I do recall that there were many US ships carrying supplies to support landings and so on, and the remnant was left to us. We were not amused. But there it was, orders were orders and we were to sail 24 hours after the US ships has set out with a US escort group which, as I recall, consisted of two destroyers, three coastguard cutters and a rescue tug. I cannot be absolutely sure that there were no more US escorts but even with the five mentioned their fire-power and modern anti-submarine gadgetry was far superior to ours in the 47th. Alas, things did not go well with that convoy and we heard afterwards that they had lost two merchant ships and an escort vessel! We, of the 47th, in the period Sept 43 to November 44, lost two ships only. No further comment except that thereafter the segregation idea was dropped and when next we turned round at Gib to escort a through-Med convoy we had some 80 ships of all nationalities, including US, in our charge. On one memorable occasion we left Gibraltar with some 70 ships, had many more join us from Oran, Algiers, and by the time we reached a point just East of Malta had a total of 120 ships which we then had to split up into groups to go to Sicily, Italy, Bizerta, or Alex and on to the Far East. Sorting that lot out took quite some time with the five of us steaming hither and thither collecting the ships for which we were responsible, like sheep dogs sorting out a flock for various pastures.

This was after we had had a full-scale air attack on a convoy in May 1944. This was my first, and only, for myself and the ship, experience of what a torpedo bomber attack was like. Early one afternoon, as the convoy was passing North of Bone on its way to the swept channel off Cape Ben, we received a 'yellow' air-raid warning. This is the signal, alerting those likely to be involved, of a possible attack by air. It was followed shortly afterward by the 'blue' warning, which meant that we were the most likely target and within minutes we received the 'red'. Trouble was on the way for us.

While these warnings were being received the escorts took up their defence positions. Southern Sea's position was on the exposed side of the convoy, as were the others, but we were to go ahead of it by two miles or so, there to zigzag within about 5 cables (half a mile) width making the smoke which would lie in a band between the convoy and the attacking aircraft. We had been fitted for discharge of CS acid and had many cylinders of this Chlorosulphonic acid under pressure which when released into the air would form a dense white fog. This mixed with black funnel smoke would make a good screen. There was little wind on this occasion and our screen laid on the sea surface very nicely alongside the convoy with the escort steaming outside it ready to keep up a barrage of fire from every available weapon in the face of the attacking torpedo bombers. That we were to expect an attack from this type of aircraft had been told us in the warning signals.

With all escort ships in position, and the convoy braced for attack, we waited. The waiting is the worst part. But it was not long before the aircraft came on to the radar screens of the escorts and fire was opened. Soon we could see the Heinkels low down above the water. Our four inch gun fired time fused HE shells as fast as possible on the port beam. No question of aiming, just keep the shells coming out and bursting four to six thousand yards away in the path of the attacking aircraft. The Oerlikons likewise were sending out a steady stream of 20 mm shells. No matter that hundreds of them fell harmlessly into the sea; one might reach a target and that was all that was needed. Like all naval ac[t]ions it was somewhat confused; so much required attention. To keep the zig-zag regular; to maintain station; to attend to the Radio telephone via which orders would come from the SO. All this in the noise of scores of guns, and looking astern, a fog of smoke. I saw one enemy aircraft only which crossed our bow and disappeared. across the course of the convoy. In ten minutes or so it was all over. One good thing about an attack by torpedo carrying aircraft is that once the torpedo is dropped the aircraft can only turn and make for home; no hanging around to be a nuisance.

So the order came on the R/T to stop making smoke; cease fire; resume cruising stations, and that was that. We learned afterwards that this was one of the last, if not the last, attempt by the German airforce to attack a convoy in the Mediterranean. It appears that over forty aircraft took off from airfields near Marseilles. They were intercepted by fighter aircraft on their way to us; they were met by smoke and concentrated barrage fire; they were set upon by our fighters on the way home and intercepted by intruder aircraft as they tried to land. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the report but we were told that only four of the attacking aircraft returned safely to base. We had one ship hit by a torpedo, the second lost by the group in more than two years.

Late in 1944, September or so, Southern Sea was detached from the 47th Group and I was ordered to escort, from Gibraltar to Port Said, the Admiralty Floating Dock AFD 17, with three tugs, (I think one, the largest, was named "Lizard")and two AS trawlers, one of which was HMS Walborough; the name of the other I cannot remember. Both were commanded by RNR Skippers. We were routed slightly to the south of the convoy track as far as Cape Bon channel, and to the north of it thence to Port Said. The reason for keeping off the convoy routes was that the speed of the tow was expected to be less than 5 knots. I could only hope that we were not overtaken, or meet coming to us, a convoy while we were passing through the swept channel off Cape Bon. We would certainly be the most unpopular things afloat if we were. As senior officer I was in charge of the tow.

We duly set off. The large tug ahead of the dock and the two smaller ones on either bow. The dock of course could not steer - it had to be pulled in the right direction - and as it towered some 50 feet above the sea surface it offered a large area to any wind there was. It spent most of the voyage crabbing sideways its waywardness corrected by judicious pulling from one or other of the small tugs. Southern Sea took up her position ahead of the towing tug, zigzagging at about 8 knots and the trawlers took station on port and starboard bow, also zigzagging. All went well for three days and we were between Oran and Algiers when the wind piped up from the NE and soon we were plugging along into the teeth of a gale, barely making steerage way. It was as much as the tugs could do to keep the dock head to sea and wind. To have let it swing beam on to the weather would have set the whole tow going sideways. The wind howled, the rain pelted down, the short vicious sea covered the ship in spray, and Southern Sea steamed between tug and dock in visibility which barely allowed of both being in sight at once. We could not run the risk of losing contact so both tug and dock showed lights as the night came on and the gale blew even more fiercely.

After a most uncomfortable 56 hours the weather improved and we could take stock of the situation. There was the dock; ahead of it the Lizard and one tug, a little way off but within signalling distance was one A/S trawler, but where were Walborough and the other tug. Certainly not in sight. We steamed on for there was nothing else to be done. Then, over the RT came the voice of Walborough's skipper giving his position with the missing tug with him and complaining that the convoy was not in sight. It could not possibly have been for Walborough's position was some 50 miles NE of us, and drawing away by the sound of it. He had lost contact, the tug had stuck to him, and he had overestimated the convoy speed, leaving us far behind. We worked out a course for him to steer and radiod "Steer SSW at 10 knots and return to the family". In a couple of hours the truants came in sight, Walborough protesting that he had maintained course and speed and we had been loafing along!

The little convoy continued its laborious course. Off Bizerta we went into the port in turn to re-fuel while the tow held its position. And then came the tricky passage of the Cape Bon swept channel, fortunately blessed with fine weather and little or no current. Thereafter it was relatively plain but very slow sailing and twenty-one days out of Gib we said goodbye to AFD 17 and the tugs took the great floating dock down the swept channel to Port Said. AFD 17 was to be delivered to Colobo. I was heartily glad that I did not have to convoy her all the way. Another 2000 miles plus at just over 4 knots would have driven me round the bend.

We rejoined 47th Escort Group and resumed the convoy work; Alex to Gib - Gib back to Alex. Routine work with little to do except to shepherd joiners into position and see that ships detached as necessary for their ports. I think it was in this period that I saw the greatest concentration of ships into a single group almost stretching from horizon to horizon. There were some 150 ships, of all sorts and sizes, to be sorted out; some to go on to Italy; empty ships to join a convoy to Gib; full ships to be formed into convoy for Alex and then on to the Far East. For the best part of a day we steamed here and there.

The convoy we had brought from Gib was split up. Ships to return to North African ports were sent on their way and at long last we were on our way with, if my memory serves, about fifty ships to Alex.

Then, out of the blue, came the signal that Southern Sea was to return to South Africa. All my officers were replaced with men who had had longer service in the Med; and so too with Petty Officers and ratings. It was almost a completely new ship's company that sailed towards the end of November with orders to proceed first to Aden and then on to Durban. At the last moment a mound of bags of mail was dumped onto the jetty to be loaded into the ship to be squeezed into whatever space could be found for them. New watch and quarter bills were made out and officers allocated their duties. No difficulty about the engineer lieutenant; But what of the rest? Two specialised in gunnery and one general duties' officer. The senior became first lieutenant, so that post was filled. And who was to be the navigator? No one. Not one of the three had handled a sextant. They had only the vaguest idea of taking a bearing, not having had any practise since passing their exams for Lieutenant. So the responsibility for navigation became mine, with no one to help by checking sights or going over the workings. And it was no good hoping that in a few days one or other would have had enough practice to help. Within twenty-four hours we would be steaming at 12 knots down the Gulf of Suez to the Red Sea - notorious for refraction and haze and navigational perils on both sides and in the middle.

Star sights at sunrise and sunset were the only reliable - and not all that reliable - fixes one could get. Sun sights could be wildly out without an artificial horizon, which we did not have. The Asdic was kept working night and day sweeping not for submarines but in an arc 20deg on either bow listening for echoes from rocks or shoal places. We passed through the canal, swept past Suez at full speed and out into the Red Sea, homeward bound, all joyful and with one exception, not a care in the world. The exception being the skipper who had to get the ship safely through the narrows at Aden, some 1,200 miles SSE. To those who have not done the Red Sea passage it looks like a long and fairly wide stretch of water; just keep in the middle and you can't go wrong. To someone who has spent hours poring over charts it is a narrow piece of sea which gets ever narrower and more beset with dangers the further South one steams. But with due care, and I dare say some luck, we finally passed through the Straits of Perim and turned Eastwards to refuel and pick up fresh food. We steamed into harbour, made fast alongside the oiler and all was well.

But only for a few minutes. A signal from Captain D arrived. We were ordered to escort a submarine on its way to the Far East via Trincomalee, half way across the Indian ocean. Consternation. I did not want an extra leg to Durban, the ship's company would loathe the voyage; it would be a very unhappy lot who would arrive later than they had hoped and expected. And who knows what might happen at Trincomalee where some SOO might take it into his head to send us on to Singapore. Then a brainwave. I remembered all those sacks of mail stowed in all those unlikely places. I went ashore and pointed out to the Staff Officer concerned that by diverting us to Ceylon he was delaying the passage of His Majesty's Army, Air Force and Navy mails to South Africa - and what was more it was Christmas mail ... it worked. Revised orders were issued. We were to proceed to Durban, which we did as soon as possible. Once past Cape Gardafui I enjoyed a well earned rest, keeping no watches and doing only enough navigation to ensure that we did not hit Africa. With the Mo**cambique current behind us we romped down the East Coast and on Christmas morning sighted Durban Bluff. (I had done a bit more detailed navigation at that stage) We entered the harbour and made fast at the familiar quay where SANF ships still berthed and that was that. It was only next day that I learned that we had not received a signal to tell us to carry on past Durban to Cape Town (we had been keeping WT watches on different wavelengths from those used by the shore station) For those of us who had homes in the Cape this was a pity but for others it shortened the time between arrival and reaching home. I must say it would have been frustrating for the men whose homes were in Durban or Natal to be steaming at full speed past that port. We were all due for leave and the ship and stores were handed over to the shore establishment after checking the essentials like the Confidential Books and armament stores. Some time later I received a request to explain a shortage of stores viz. 4 tons of butter! As if 40 odd men could have used nearly 9,000lbs of butter in a month. I ignored the letter and heard no more about it. I wonder if the butter was ever found?

There is not much I can remember about the next few days. We were given rail warrants, and I reversed the journey I had taken when going to the Med. But one thing does stay very much in my mind and that is the kindness of Lieut. Millard, the base radio officer. This was the man with whom I had done the VHF radio tests when based in Durban. He and his wife took me to their home. I phoned my home to tell them of my safe arrival. And then I slept - and slept. I think I was asleep most of the rail journey to Cape Town; I certainly cannot remember any of it. When, after a refreshing leave, I reported to the Cape Town base the war in Europe was almost at its end but the war in the Far East was still going on. I felt that I had had enough seafaring and asked for employment ashore. This seemed to fit in with the ideas of the Staff for there were enough commanding officers for the ships available. I took up an instructor's job, working with the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, whose object it was to try to prepare men in the Army, Air Force, and Navy for their return to civilian life. It was an interesting job varied by the occasional trip to sea as relieving CO. It was at this time that I came into contact with an army officer in the same training unit, Geoff Sargent and through him met Leo Marquard, Ivor de Klerk and also the Rev. Charles Tugman. All were liberal minded, as was I, and did not like the strict segregation of colour by the SA Government. One could say that we were the first 'anti-apartheid' group and we formed the Institute of Citizenship with the object of helping people to play a real role in a democratic system of government. The objective was, and I think still is, a good one, but, human beings being what they are, there was little interest shown by the public. Since those days the need for an informed public has become even more necessary but it seems that the media, and especially TV, has made PR more important than policy and I think it is true to say that the voter makes a choice not on the realities of life but on perceptions based on images induced by skillful presentation by the image makers. Enough of this digression.

Eventually VJ day came and I thought that enough was enough. I had done what I could for King and Country since 1939 and it was time to get back to Shell. I applied for immediate release and got it. Within a month I was out of uniform, back in Shell House, with a salary just one third of what I had been paid as a Lieutenant in Command in the SANF.

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

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