The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 1 No 2 - june 1968


by Neville Gomm

Through my badge collecting activities there came into my possession, during 1964, a pennant which I was unable to identify at the time.

As most really keen and interested collectors do, I determined to obtain further information on this collectors prize rarely seen even in a museum.

The first step in my investigation was a letter to the Editor of Commando, the S.A. Defence Force magazine, which brought the news that it is a Masthead or Commissioning Pennant.

To those of us who have not at some time or other seen service with the Navy, this does not mean much and my researches led me to the "Manual of Seamanship", Volume I, published by H.M. Stationery Office, London (1951), in which appears the following information:

"Commissioning or Masthead Pennant"

This pennant, which is flown at the main masthead, is hoisted on the day a warship commissions, and, except when the ship is wearing a Royal Standard or naval distinguishing flag, it is never struck until the day on which the ship pays off. H.M. ships not in commission do not wear any colours, except that when undergoing trials before acceptance into H.M. service they fly the Red Ensign.

Certain ships which are authorised by warrant to wear a Blue Ensign may be specially authorised to wear a blue masthead pennant. Such ships are usually those which are commanded by an officer of one of the Royal Naval reserves of the United Kingdom, or one of the Commonwealth countries. Otherwise no British ships other than H.M. ships are allowed to wear masthead pennants."

The pennant that came into my possession had the following inscription in marking ink:


"Commissioning or Masthead Pennant"

This fact was mentioned in my letter to Commando magazine. It led to the interesting wartime exploits of Imhoff being passed on to me, by a donor who prefers to remain anonymous.

"During March, April, May, 1942, eight L.L. minesweepers joined the Mediterranean Fleet. This was most opportune, as the enemy had just begun an offensive with magnetic and acoustic parachute-dropped mines.

From June to October the enemy was in possession of all the Libyan ports and being only a few minutes by air from Alexandria, raids on the ports, including mine dropping, greatly increased in intensity and the South African L.L. vessels were fully employed there and at Haifa for four months. This work included minespotting at harbour entrances and then attacking the mines with their magnetic "tails" and acoustic "hammers". The destruction of "clicker" mines, set so as not to explode until their firing mechanism had been actuated an unknown number of dines, was often a lengthy operation; if possible normal traffic was held up or diverted, but the safety of the sweepers themselves depended on how effectively they had been demagnetised.

This continued until the battle of El Alamein, after which a strong force of minesweepers advanced with the 8th Army, to clear the ports as they were captured. On 7th November, 1942, Imhoff and Treern sailed from Alexandria and joined four R.N. sweepers on the 9th off Ras-el-Rum. An area of unknown extent had been thickly sown with moored mines, of which so many were brought to the surface that the South African ships, detailed for mine destroying duties, could by no means deal with them all. The day's sweeping was nearly completed when H.M.S. Cromer struck a mine and sank almost at once - Imhoff picked up some survivors. The force then withdrew to the East, but later Imhoff and Treern were sent back and anchored next day in Smugglers Cove. Next day a narrow channel into Mersa Matruh was swept superficially - the risk was accepted and the army got its first seaborne supplies on the 14th November. Imhoff and Treern, with two other L.L.'s, swept Bardia channel and next day entered Tobruk, two days behind the 8th Army, where they were joined by Seksern and Boksburg.

Leaving the other three to continue an extensive search of the wreck strewn harbour, Imhoff left on 21st November for similar work at Derna, where she was joined by Seksern on 6th December. Imhoff returned to Alexandria to refit on 12th December.

The last major operation in which South African ships took part, was the clearance of the Aegean minefields - a lengthy and hazardous undertaking, which received little publicity. In the middle of 1944 it was known that the enemy had begun a gradual withdrawal to the North. So although the Southern Mainland of Greece was clear of the enemy by October, many small garrisons remained on the islands, either purposely as rearguards or because they were cut off. Meanwhile the L.L. minesweepers remained in the Aegean, except when refitting at Fleet Base. Imhoff arrived at Salonika on 20th January, 1945, and patrolled between there and Kavala, also in the Northern Aegean.

Imhoff and the four other L.L.'s carried out various duties including the final clearances of the Gulf of Athens and Candia Bay and operations on the less important minefields. Imhoff returned to Alexandria early in June and sailed for South Africa on 1st July; after leaving Aden on 15th July bad weather off Cape Guardafui, combined with her worn out condition, caused a series of defects in Imhoff and delayed her arrival at Durban - towed by the frigate Good Hope for the last 970 miles - until 4th October."

The pennant has been placed with the S.A. National War Museum for safekeeping.

On the 21st anniversary of the S.A. Navy in May, 1967, the Cape Town daily newspaper, The Cape Argus, published a special supplement on the Navy from which the following short extract is made:

"Eight more minesweepers eame from South Africa, and in the first four were the Imhoff (Lieutenant H. H. Biermann, now Vice-Admiral) and . . . ."

H.M.S.A.S. Imhoff, was, at some stage during her career, also commanded by Lieutenant C. V. Webb.

In August, 1967, I wrote to the Chief of the Navy, Vice-Admiral H. H. Biermann, SSA, OBE, giving a copy of the above short history of the minesweepers and enquiring as to the whereabouts of Lieutenant Webb. In his reply Vice-Admiral Biermann inforrned me that the information contained in this article is correct. Unfortunately he could not tell me of the whereabouts of Lieutenant Webb. He is no longer on the list of Reserve Officers of the S.A. Navy.

Perhaps at some future stage one of our readers will give us a more detailed account of the activities of the fifteen ships that South Africa had in the Mediterranean during World War II?

Note added in November 2006 - also see article in Volume 9 no 1 about some more of the "Little Ships"

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