The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal - Vol 8 No 5


by Norman Clothier

On 1 May 1943 the troopship Erinpura was sunk by a German air attack in the Mediterranean with the loss of 943 lives of whom 633 were Basotho soldiers of the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps.(1)

In June 1941 recruiting commenced in Lesotho (then Basutoland) for the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps (High Commission Territories). The Paramount Chief Seeiso Griffith had already announced at the outbreak of war with Germany that his people were 'at war and they awaited any call for service made upon them.' That call finally came in the form of a request to the High Commissioner from General Wavell after his victories over the Italians in North Africa and Abyssinia. Similar appeals were made for volunteers from Botswana (then Bechuanaland) and Swaziland.

Large numbers of trained soldiers were wanted who could be relied on to work hard and steadily making roads, unloading ships, loading and unloading trains and lorries, building railways and defensive positions in spite of the possibility of enemy attack.

With the support of the Paramount Chief tribal chiefs and sub-chiefs, there was no shortage of volunteers. Thousands of men passed through the tented Ha Ratjomose Camp (Walker's Camp) near Maseru and were trained by officers and NCOs sent out from England. Uniformed in khaki drill (later there would be battle-dress in winter) and equipped, the first six companies, each of about 350 men, embarked at Durban for Egypt on 6 October 1941. Thereafter others followed as training was completed and shipping became available. After a short spell in Egypt at Qassassin (Mahlabatheng) the first thirteen companies went to Palestine and Lebanon to join the Allied force preparing to meet the threat of a German advance from the Caucasus if the Russians failed to hold them there. Their first job was to build defences in the mountains west of Damascus. Living in tents they suffered severely from vicious windstorms and heavy snowfalls.

More companies followed to work at closing a 100 mile (160,9 km) gap in the coastal railway between Acre, north of Haifa, and Tripoli. The previous experience of many of the Basotho in South African mines with automatic drills and dynamite was found to be most valuable. 1927 Company was among these and was one of those that provided a guard of honour for a visit by the Duke of Gloucester.

Other companies, including 1919, remained in Egypt carrying out such tasks as unloading ships in the ports and providing guard units. Later some of them commenced training as anti-aircraft gun-crews with the Royal Artillery. Some companies worked behind the lines at Alamein and were among those told, on the morning of 23 October 1942, the plan for the attack that night. When the enemy finally broke and ran, Basotho companies followed the pursuing Allied forces mending roads and airfields, opening new railheads and unloading supplies.

Malta had survived its siege successfully and its facilities were being developed to improve it as a base for sea and air attacks against the enemy. It was decided to send Basotho, Mauritian and Palestinian troops to help with this work. Basotho Companies 1919, 1921, 1923 and 1927 were selected. 1923 made the still very dangerous passage safely in February 1943.

The last of the German and Italian forces surrendered in Tunis on 12 May 1943. In endeavouring to support and supply them in the last weeks of resistance, the Luftwaffe squadrons based in Sicily and Italy had suffered crippling losses in aircraft and air crews. Their ability to attack Allied convoys in the Mediterranean had been severely reduced.

On or about 28 April(2) Companies 1919 and 1927 boarded the troopship Erinpura in Alexandria. This vessel under Captain R V Cotter was the Commodore Ship of a convoy of twenty-three merchant vessels and eleven naval escorts. On board the Erinpura were 179 crew, eleven DEMS gunners and 1 025 troops, of whom over 700 were Basotho.(3)

Among those who boarded her were Captain Bill Westrop, then second-in-command of 1927, CSM Gabriel Lehlabaphiri and Private Dyke Sebata (later Sergeant), both of 1927 and Private Mokhethi Leluma of 1919. The latter three were all from the Butha-Buthe district in north-eastern Lesotho. Westrop was one of the first group of officers, WOs and NCOs who came from England to serve with the AAPC. Arriving in Durban in October 1941 they had a crash course in Sotho and were allocated to companies in Maseru the following month. He started as a lieutenant in 1903 Company serving mainly in Palestine and Lebanon. Later he was transferred to 1927 where he became second-in-command.

The Erinpura was a twin-screw steamship of 5 143 gross tons, built in 1911 for the British India Steam Navigation Company for service in the Bay of Bengal and Singapore. She was a fast ship with an original speed of over 16 knots, ideal for mail, passenger and cargo service between Calcutta, Madras, Rangoon and Singapore. She was considered a beautiful vessel with fine clean lines. In 1914 she went into Government service as an ambulance carrier and hospital ship, mainly in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Still under Government control in 1919 and in a sand-storm, she ran onto a reef in the Red Sea. There were no casualties, but it proved impossible to tow her off. Eventually she was cut in two, the fore-part abandoned on the reef and the aft towed to Bombay. A new fore-part was built in Scotland and shipped to Bombay in sections, enabling the ship to be re-assembled and returned to peace-time service in 1923.

She was still considered to be a fast, well-found ship. In 1941 she took part in the evacuation of personnel from Singapore when its fall was imminent. Thereafter, she was in Government service, mainly as a troopship.

The Erinpura had an upper and a lower level of troop-decks. Company 1919 were billeted in the lower one and 1927 above them.

In the late afternoon of 1 May 1943 the convoy was in six columns on a westerly course not far from the North African coast. The first warning of air attack caine at 18:43 when a single aircraft approached the convoy out of the sun. Flying at about 50 feet (15 m) above the sea it flew between the starboard line of escorts and the convoy, so that only two ships were able to engage it. Apparently no hits were made. Reports differ as to whether it released a torpedo or jettisoned something, but no ship was hit. This aircraft retired to the north-east pursued by shore-based fighters who claimed to have destroyed it. It would have been able to report the convoy's position by radio before it was shot down.

Shortly after 19:10 another plane attempted to repeat the same tactics, but it was driven off by fire from the escorts. Retreating to the north-west it, too, was pursued and destroyed by fighters.

Finally the main attack commenced at 19:50. A German source(4) says that it was made by two Gruppen (equivalent squadrons), 111/KG 26 under Major Nocken and 11 KG 26 led by Major Werner Klumper, who also commanded the attack as acting wing commander. British estimates of the number of attackers vary from 18 to 36. The lower figure seems to be more probable. The attack was synchronised by two groups so as to confuse the defence. British reports differ. Apparently the first attack was made by bombers. Ships in the convoy twisted and turned to avoid the falling bombs and no hits were made. All vessels were firing their anti-aircraft weapons. At the same time a Heinkel 111 was seen to drop a torpedo about a mile from the convoy, later a flash was seen and an explosion heard. The tanker British Trust was hit, her port side was opened for a third of her length and her cargo of oil caught fire. She listed heavily and sank in about three minutes. No boats could be lowered and difficulty was experienced in getting rafts clear, but her crew, mainly Indian lascars, behaved very well and many survived to be picked up.

The action intensified at about 20:10 with many bombers overhead, the guns of the convoy and escorts firing furiously and the scene partly lighted by the burning oil from the British Trust. At this time fighters were probably overhead attacking the bombers, as shore command claimed that it had three Spitfires, eleven Hurricanes and a Beaufighter airborne very quickly.

In the Erinpura all troops had been ordered to their action stations or below to the troop decks. This was to minimise casualties if the ship was machine-gunned or bombed when men were crowded on the open decks. 1929 Company commander Major Tulloch was on the bridge with Captain Cotter. Westrop and a Guards officer were stationed on the starboard boat-deck.

Early in the second attack the Erinpura was hit, probably by a bomb which passed through the forward hatch-cover or deck to explode below doing enormous damage.(5) The general din was so intense that Westrop did not realize that the ship had been struck, but noticed that the water seemed to be rising fast on starboard side and that the ship was tilting slightly. When the water had risen almost to the rail he went forward to see Tulloch on the bridge. Looking forward he saw that the whole of the fore-peak was under water. He shouted down the nearest stairway, 'Everyone overboard' and soon afterwards took to the water himself.

The sea was fairly rough. As he swam away to get clear of the ship before it sank, Westrop turned and saw it, bows under water, stern up at an angle of 45 degrees. It capsized as it sank by the bows, but there was little suction or pull from the vortex. It had disappeared within four or five minutes of being struck.

The DEMS gunners under Gun Layer Albert Whittle kept on firing their 12-pounder until the ship sank. Only six of the eleven survived. Captain Cotter was knocked unconscious on the bridge by a column of water. He was rescued and placed on a raft by Indian seaman Motiur Rahman. Many of the troops must have gone down with the ship, especially those from the lower deck.

The fire from the ships against the aircraft lasted for some time after the Fri npura went down, but no other ship was hit. The men in the water, nearly all in life-jackets floated or clung to wreckage. As soon as the planes departed, the escorts started the work of rescue using their searchlights. Some of the men in the water thought that the lights were from German ships looking for them and were reluctant to call out for help. Later they decided that it was better to be saved, even by Germans, than die in the water. Some of them only realized they were among friends when brought aboard the rescue ships.

Lehlabaphiri was on a small middle deck below his men on the upper troop deck. He made his way to the boat-deck and ordered his men overboard. He, too, went over, but was trapped below the surface by cordage. The capsizing motion of the ship as it sank released him and saved him from being dragged down with it.

Dyke Sebata of 1927 Company was mixed in with the men of 1919 on the lower deck, but he managed to make his way out in his shirt and shorts and went overboard. Well supported by his life-jacket, he was alone in the sea until he bumped into a piece of wreckage, a 'plank', which was supporting another man. He joined him and they floated together. Three times an escort vessel approached them and they shouted for help, but it turned away to pick up others. They were seen the fourth time, ropes were thrown down to them and they were hauled aboard.

Leluma of 1919 was in the lower deck. He was one of the few that managed to make their way upward and jump safely into the water. There he got into trouble among the ropes and wreckage and his legs were pulled into a violent split which injured him severely. He was partly paralysed, but while the battle raged above him and the oil from the tanker burned, he floated away alone. Later he managed to pull himself onto a plank and lay there face down, praying to God. An escort vessel found him and threw down a rope. He held on to it with his hands, but his strength failed and he fell back into the water. Next time he held on to rope with his teeth and was pulled aboard. Partly paralysed and crying out with pain and distress, he was quietened by Lehlabaphiri who was called to his side.

Lehlabaphiri after escaping from his trap of ropes floated in his life-belt. He and some others found a floating raft, but when they climbed on it a wave threw them off. They held onto its side ropes until they drifted into a mass, a 'nest' of wreckage and were able to perch on that until they were picked up by an escort vessel soon after midnight.

Westrop went on swimming around, always confident that he would be picked up. He found a floating spar with men sitting on it, but there was no room for him. A ship approached and he called to it, but it turned away. This left him a little disheartened, but soon afterwards he was picked up and hauled aboard the minesweeper HMS Santa.

As he sat thankfully with his back against the warm engine-room casing, the man next to him said, 'Don't go on about this. I've been torpedoed four times.'

Survivors said that the water had not been very cold, but men had drowned and died in the water and some expired on the rescue ships. Rescue ships coming out from Benghazi, 30 miles (48,28 km) away, arrived at 13:00, but found no one alive in the water.

Two Basotho soldiers had a remarkable escape. They were trapped below decks with the water rising and no escape route open. The water compressed the air and forced them up through a ventilator to the deck. They were picked up and saved.

The RAF Command ashore claimed that four of the attacking aircraft had been shot down, one by AA fire and three, plus one probable, by the fighters. One official report noted that the captain of the British Trust had now had five vessels sunk under him and suggested that he be considered for a shore job!

Of the ship's total complement of 1 215, only 273 survived. Four ships' officers and 110 ratings, mostly Indian, were lost. Only(6) five of the eleven gunners survived, of the 1 025 troops only 203 were saved. Six hundred and thirty-three Basotho lost their lives, along with sixty-one Batswana. Only about 100, seventy-five from 1927 and twenty-five from 1919, survived.

The bedraggled survivors were landed at Benghazi next morning. Westrop made the long hot walk down the pier in bare feet. He and others were billeted in a large building with many small rooms which they believed must have been a convent. Later they learned that it had been an Italian military brothel! They were issued with new kit and equipment and in due course transported to camps near Cairo. From there they were given two weeks leave to Jerusalem.

1919 Company was not reformed, but 1927 went on to Tripoli and later landed in Taranto. They worked on airfields at Forli and were attached to 83 RA Regiment to train and serve as gun-crews.

Many of the AAPC companies served in Italy. By this time, from being highly regarded labour troops they had diversified into other activities. Some served on gun-crews with RA AA batteries which later acted as field artillery, others went to the Royal Corps of Signals and to Royal Engineer survey companies. Many served as muleteers carrying ammunition and supplies to forward positions, and on foot where mules could not go when, beside their own kit, the standard load was a 60 lb (27 kg) pack and a two-gallon (9 l) can of water in each hand. This sometimes in rain or snow up slippery mountain paths. They suffered casualties from mines, air attack, artillery and small arms fire.

By the time they came home AAPC troops had served in Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine, Libya, Tripolitania, Tunisia, Malta, Sicily (where they took part in the initial landings), Italy (where a company landed at Salerno), the Dodecanese and again, after the war, in Palestine. In general they displayed high standards as disciplined, reliable soldiers. Beside the appropriate campaign stars and service medals, including for some the General Service Medal with 1945-48 bar, they were awarded two MBEs, seven MMs, eight BEMs, sixty-one MIDs and twenty-three Commendations. 21 462 Basotho, about 10 000 Batswana and about 3 500 Swazis served in the AAPC. The total fatal Basotho casualties were 1 216, so that more than half were lost with the Erinpura.

Westrop went to Italy with 1927 Company. Later he was promoted to major in command of 1044. He was and is highly regarded by his men who knew him affectionately by a nickname which he translated as 'Old Baldy'. At the end of the war he returned to England from Italy.

Lehlabaphiri went to 1944 as CSM with Westrop. After the war he returned home to the Butha-Buthe district. A burly, impressive, jovial man, he manages a country store for an expatriate white owner.

Sebata was mentioned in despatches. He returned to work his small-holding in a remote valley 'over the mountain' from the Lesotho Highlands development. His two rondavels and his fields are kept in immaculate condition.

Leluma spent many months in military hospitals before and after returning home and being discharged. His hospital certificate refers to 'motor hysteria after a fractured pelvis'. He feels that he was badly treated by the military doctors. He lost his 'land rights' in a family dispute and has never been able to work on a regular basis. He receives a Basotho military disablement pension of R1O per month, augmented by the grant of a similar amount from the South African National War Fund.

The men of the Basotho companies were great singers and they composed songs about their war experiences. Their song about the Erinpura went like this:-