The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 5 No 4 - December 1981

East Coast Rescue during World War II

by Alan J. Nathan

Editors' Note.The author was serving as a Lieutenant aboard HMS Ceres during the events about which he writes.

South African forces played a prominent part in the East African campaign in World War II when they advanced from Kenya to drive the Italians out of Somaliland, and then carried on at great speed into Abyssinia. When they entered Kismayu only four days after beginning the operation in February, 1941, they discovered that 200 British merchant seamen and officers were interned at Mecca, a small village on the coast 65 km south of Mogadishu, and that 90 Lascar firemen were at a settlement further along the seaboard. These men were the survivors of the crews of seven ships sunk by the German commerce raider Atlantis. Their ships had disappeared in the Indian Ocean without trace and their families had given up all hope of ever seeing them again.

Early in February 1941, conditions were favourable for an advance from Kenya into Italian Somaliland. South African troops had arrived from Mombasa, well equipped with mechanical transport, and supported by several battalions of native troops from West Africa. A combined operation by the navy, army, and air force was planned, with the capture of Kismayu as its primary objective in the initial stage.

For many months previously a watch had been kept on enemy troop and shipping movements. The light cruiser HMS Ceres, based on Kilindini (Mombasa), made patrols, each lasting about a week, off the coast of Italian Somaliland and from time to time reconnaissances were made of the harbours of Mogadishu and Kismayu to check on the movements of ships and dhows. These inspections were usually made just before sunset at a distance of about 19 km from the coast. The only interest shown by the Italians was on 13 September, 1940, when a high level bombing attack was made on Ceres by three aircraft, but all bombs fell wide of the target.

The Italians seemed to have had advance information of the date of the beginning of the operations against them, for when the navigating officer of Ceres flew over in a Glenn Martin to have a look at the anchorage at the mouth of the Juba River, transport was already moving northwards. The aircraft dived on one column and set a petrol lorry on fire.

On 10 February the cruiser Hawkins and the aircraft carrier Hermes put to sea from Mombasa, followed next day by the cruisers Shropshire, Ceres, and Cape Town, later to be joined by the K-class destroyer Kandahar that had just arrived from Aden.

Four enemy ships were scuttled by their crews in the harbour and several left Kismayu in an attempt to escape, but they had left too late and were soon spotted by aircraft from Hermes. Their positions were radiod to Hawkins and within two days five ships were on their way to Mombasa with prize crews on board. The German Uckermark, a ten year old vessel of about 4 000 tons, painted in Japanese colours, attempted to scuttle by flooding the engine room. Hawkins took off the crew of 37 and she was temporarily abandoned pending further operations. Several days later Ceres took her in tow but unfortunately after six hours her engine-room bulkheads gave way under the pressure of water, and she sank.

While the army's operations were proceeding and the advance was going ahead faster than expected, the navy was following up and giving support by sea. During the forenoon of 13 February, Ceres and Cape Town appeared off Brava to give the impression that either the town was about to be shelled or that a landing was imminent, so giving the civil population and any military who might be there the opportunity of withdrawing northwards and allowing our troops to move in without opposition.

At the same time Shropshire, which was covering the light cruisers, was informed by the spotting planes that Italian transport was retiring along the road behind Brava; she therefore opened fire with her main armament and scored a direct hit on a camp. She then went north to shell Mogadishu, returning later to bombard the island forts guarding the entrance to Kismayu. Her gunnery was very accurate for as well as putting one of the gun sites and the signal station out of action an oil tank was hit and set on fire.

After refuelling at Mombasa, Ceres was ordered to proceed to Somaliland to take off merchant seamen who had just been released from the camp near Merca, where they had been imprisoned after their ships had been sunk by the German commerce raider Atlantis. She arrived on 1 March but continued along the coast firstly to pick up the Lascars at their camp, and then to return for the others. They were grateful to be on board and soon settled down on the gun decks. Feeding them presented some unexpected problems due to their various religions. The Moslems would not eat meat unless they had killed it themselves, so a bright sailor suggested they might accept bully beef if they were allowed to open the tins; but this did not work!

Ceres anchored a couple of kilometres off the shore at Merca, as there was no harbour worthy of the name and there was a strong swell running. The seamen and their officers were brought to her in diesel-driven lighters that the retreating Italians had left undamaged. They were wet with spray when they came alongside but all cheered for they were overjoyed that they had at last been rescued. Considering the privations that they had suffered the majority were remarkably fit. Most of them only possessed the clothes that they were wearing and many were in rags. Those who had managed to save anything from their ships had sold it long ago to obtain money with which to augment their meagre camp rations. They had all worn out their shoes and were wearing canvas and leather boots provided by the Italians.

The only reasonably clothed crew was from the Jugoslav ship Durmitor which they did not leave until they had reached the coast of Somaliland, and were therefore able to save some of their belongings, including a dog and two canaries. After a successful run of sinkings the Atlantis had so many prisoners on board that they had become an embarrassment due to the space they occupied and the quantity of food consumed. Captain Rogge decided that instead of sinking the next ship he would capture it intact, transfer all his prisoners to her and turn them over to the Italians in Somaliland. This victim was the Durmitor of 5 000 tons en route from Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) to Batavia. She carried a cargo of saltpetre and the seamen had to live in the hold on top of it, experiencing the worst conditions of their whole period in internment.

The food was very poor and water limited to half a cup each per day. As they slowly steamed towards the coast of East Africa they prayed that a British cruiser might appear and release them, but their luck was out.

Treatment by the Italians in the camp at Merca was far worse than on the Atlantis and so intolerable that several letters were written to the Camp Commandant drawing his attention to the rules laid down by International Law for the treatment of prisoners-of-war, but these were ignored.

When all were safely on board, Ceres proceeded to Mombassa at high speed. With so many additional mouths to feed, food stocks were getting low and in any case an unexpected meeting with the enemy would have been embarrassing, to put it mildly, with two hundred additional men on board.

The arrival at Mombassa was a complete anti-climax as no arrangements had been made for the reception of the seamen due to the lack of co-operation between the navy and the army. The Naval Officer-in-Charge at Kilindini had been warned by radio that they were on their way and, having insufficient accommodation at his disposal, had sought the aid of the local military authorities who had several camps in the district. Unfortunately they showed little interest in distressed sailors and had to be persuaded to help. Thus, instead of landing in reasonable comfort in daylight, the former prisoners-of-war had to pile into lorries in pitch darkness to be driven to camp.

Meanwhile, several days went by and they were still living in the same clothes that they had had in the Merca prison camp. There was difficulty in obtaining enough money to buy clothes and to send cables home to say that they were still alive. It seemed that even in war-time red tape could not be avoided for there was reluctance to take responsibility for anything that was contrary to normal service routine. After a day or so the padre in charge of the local Mission to Seamen was asked if he could assist and he inserted an appeal in the Mombasa Times.A considerable amount of clothing was immediately provided by generous civilians.

It was nearly two months before the men reached Cape Town and then the same sorry story began all over again due to lack of official recognition. Several were practically destitute and had to ask for charity to be fitted out with clothes and necessities. Many of the men, in some cases complete crews, had been presumed dead, their estates wound up and the wages due to them paid to their widows. Officialdom, beyond providing the passage home to England, was not going to spend any more on them than it could help. After a period of leave with their families they were again drafted to ships to carry on their hazardous lives. It is to be hoped that they all survived the war and that some, at least, have revisited South Africa under happier circumstances.

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