In the latter half of 1942, building work was begun at Mount Tabor Base Camp on the heights above St Lucia. This radar and observation post, situated about 130 metre above sea level, has a commanding view of the Indian Ocean on one side and the waterways of St Lucia on the other. It was designed to support coastal command aircraft operating our of the northern end of Durban harbour in an area known as Congella. At the time, Allied shipping plying the South African coast had very little in the way of effective protection against German U-boat attacks.
Bring in the military
In an effort to combat the German U-boat menace in the Indian Ocean, the Royal Air Force established 262 Squadron on 29 September 1942. The task of 262 Squadron would be to protect Allied shipping routes, primarily by conducting anti-submarine patrols along the East African coast and by providing escorts to ships sailing within their range of operation. These aircraft were also to search for survivors from ships sunk by German U-boats, and by reporting their location they helped reach safety.
On 28 December 1942, for example, the Nova Scotia, an auxiliary cruiser carrying 1000 Italian civil internees, was sunk about 50 kilometres off the coast of St Lucia by the German submarine, U-177. (The U-177 was eventually sunk in the South Atlantic, west of Ascension Island by a US Liberator aircraft. Fifty of the crew died and 15 survived.) On 1 December 1942, Flight- Sergeant S J Wood had been sent to St Lucia to build a new advance base on the eastern shores of the lake, near to the Mount Tabor observation bunker, and on 21 February the following year, 262 Squadron's first Catalina flying boats arrived in Durban, carrying out patrols five days later. Shortly thereafter, the squadron was relocated to a newly established flying base at St Lucia.
The squadron's first contact with the enemy occurred about three months later when the aircraft Catalina J sighted the German submarine U-198, under Kapitan Hartman, while out on patrol and forced U-198 to dive by dropping six 250-pounds bombs around the submarine. The U-boat consequently suffered machine-gun damage to its port engine in the process and limped back to base. (The U-198 was eventually sunk with all hands near Seychelles on 12 August 1944 by the British frigate HMS findborn and the Indian sloop HMIS Godavari.)
A second sortie occurred south of Madagascar on 20 August 1943, this time involving the U-197 captained by Kapitan-Leiutenant Robert Bartels. On this occasion, it was Catalina C that attacked the submarine and forced it to drive, but shortly afterwards, the U-197 resurfaced, probably as a result of damage sustained in the first bombing, and was attacked again. Following this renewed attack, the submarine dived a second time, leaving oil patches on the surface. The U-197 was later reported missing with the loss of its entire crew of 67.
On 25 June 1943, Catalina H crashed shortly after take-off, killing eight of the nine crew, and the aircraft wreck can still be seen near the eastern shore of the lake, due west of Mount Tabor when lake levels are low.
Sighting off St Lucia
In November 1943, 262 Squadron, which by then was manned almost entirely by South African Air Force (SAAF) personnel, was transferred to the SAAF and renamed 35 Squadron. By this time, U-boat sighting in the area were occurring fairly regularly and on 5 July the following year, U-859, commanded by Kervettenkapitan Johann Jebsen, was sighted in the Indian Ocean by Catalina C.
Jebsen decide to fight it out with the attacking aircraft and during the subsequent exchange of fire, one German seaman was killed and three were wounded when depth charges landed near the submarine. The U-boat was forced to dive, leaving an oil slick on the surface of the sea.
(The U-859 was eventually sunk two months later on 23 September 1944 near Penang in the Straits of Malacca by the British submarine HMS Trenchent. Forty-seven of its crew of 67 were killed.) The following day, a second unidentified U-boat was attacked by a Catalina from St Lucia, but that was to be the last aircraft attack on German submarines in South African waters during the war. The air-force base at St Lucia was finally abandoned on 2 February 1945 and the buildings were handed over to Durban Fortress Command. Mount Tabor Base Camp is now the only building left standing, although the ruins of the air base's barracks and workshops are still visible.
The bigger picture
The battle for supremacy of the world's major sea lanes, which was fought primarily between the German and British navies, was mainly confined to the Atlantic Ocean and in the first years of the war, German U-boat packs wreaked havoc on the shipping routes between Europe and North America. At the outbreak of the war, the German U-boat fleet consisted of less than 60 submarines, but by 1943, this figure had leapt to about 400, of which about 110 were in the Atlantic at any one time.
In 1940, Britain lost four million tons of shipping, mainly as a result of submarine action. German operations destroyed a similar amount in 1941; then in 1942, the wort year of the war from the Allied perspective, this figure doubled to eight million tons lost. Most of these losses occurred off the east of the United States. During this period of the war, German 'wolf packs' – where groups of up to 15 U-boats would combine to lay in wait for Allied convoys – were sinking an of average five ships a day. The problem for the Allied was twofold: many of the convoys were slow-moving and were largely unprotected as most British naval, destroyers in particular, remained close to the British Isles in order to repel an anticipated German invasion.
Furthermore, the Germans had also managed to break the Allied codes, which meant that they could monitor communications and often knew the size, location and destination of convoys they intended to attack. Significantly, the British and Americans were aware of this because they had also managed to break the German secret cipher system, though they acted upon this knowledge with some caution,sometimes sacrificing vessels they knew the Germans would attack, in order to protect what they saw as a tactical advantage, at least in terms of intelligence gathering. The climax finally came in march 1943 when the Allied lost 97 ships in the first 20 days of the month.
In fact, it was at this point that the situation became so critical the Allied began to use the knowledge they had obtained from deciphering the German coded transmissions in order to redirect the convoys away from the gathering wolf packs. In addition, far greater numbers of naval escort vessels were employed to protect the convoys and to attack the German wolf packs. The Allied also replaced the compromised coded message system used by their convoys so that the enemy could not decipher their ship-to-ship and ship-to shore transmissions. Another factor in the Allies' favour was that they had developed a revolutionary valve called a magnetron, which gave them radar capability of exceptional range and accuracy.
This 'new' radar system, which was fitted to Royal Navy escorts, could locate the conning tower and sometimes even the periscope of a submarine in darkness and proved very effective. Aircraft were also being fitted with airborne radar called ASV (Air-to-surface vessel), which proved equally effected and made submarines extremely vulnerable to air attack. As a result, within two months the tables were turned. In the first 21 days of May 1943, the Germans lost 40 U-boats and a further 72 over the following three months, 58 of these submarines destroyed in attacks from the air.
Admiral Doenitz, commander- in-chief of the German Navy's U-boat arm, ordered an immediate inquiry into the cause for these devastating losses and when it was determined that the U-boat losses were not because the Allies had broken their codes – which was, in fact, the case – he decided to disband the highly successful wolf-pack system in favour of the much less effective system of having single U-boats act independently from each other. Even as late as 1959, when Doenitz published his memories, he refused to believe that the security of the German Navy's coded transmissions had been compromised in any way. He attributed the British successes to a highly superior radar system.
In fact, it was the Allies' intelligence capability – in other words, the fact that they could read the German signals – rather than their technical superiority, which was arguably the most significant factor in the war for control of the seas.
The Dodington makes history
On 1 October 1997, South Africa's National Monuments Council (NMC) received an article published in The Times of London entitled 'Clive of Indian's Gold Found in Pirate Week' that advertised a forthcoming auction in London of 1200 gold coins, weighing a total of 620 ounces. The article also claimed that these coins were part of 653 ounces of gold Robert Clive – appointed by the directors of the British East India Company to lead its operations in India – had taken with him when he sailed for Indian in 1755. The gold in question – which was part of Clive's personal fortune – plus a large quantity of silver was placed aboard the Dodington, which sailed from Dover on 22 April 1755 accompanied by the Stretham, Pelham, Edgecote and Houghton.
Clive, who could not get a berth on the Dodington, sailed on the Stretham – and fortunate it was for him too as, due to a navigational error, the Dodington struck a reef off Bird Island in Agloa Bay on 17 July 1755. Of the 270 passengers and crew aboard the ship, only 23 survived, and none of the gold was recovered... In 1977, the Dodington was located by David Allen and Gerry van Niekerk and five years later, following an amendment to the National Monuments Act, Allen and Van Niekerk applied for and received a permit to excavate the site in collaboration with Port Elizabeth Museum. (In fact, it was Allen and Van Niekerk who petitioned parliament to pass laws to protect historical shipwrecks when they observed the ruthless poaching and plundering of shipwrecks off the South African coast, once word of their discovery leaked out.
The final result of their efforts was the 1979 amendment to the Act.) On learning – via The Times article – of the proposed sale of the Dodington coins, the National Monuments Council instituted legal proceedings against the alleged owner of the gold and silver, and the auction was canceled, with the auctioneer, Spink & Son, retaining possession of the coins until ownership could be established. But subsequent attempts by the NMC to establish the identity of the seller proved fruitless, though acting through lawyers, the seller did say that the coins were (a) found in international waters – which was not the case since the Dodington went down in South African waters – and (b) that the coins were removed by pirates shortly after the ship went down, which was also considered implausible. After four years of legal wrangling, a negotiated settlement was finally agreed upon in 2001: one third of the coins were returned to South Africa, with the rest being retained by the Florida coin dealer who claimed ownership.
The Plundering of Shipwrecks
Since the invention of scuba-diving equipment in the 1940s, the plundering of shipwrecks around the world has been rife and this practice has now reached epidemic proportions. In South Africa, the preservation of any shipwreck that is more than 50 years old and lies within South African national waters – 24 nautical miles or 44'4 kilometres from the coast – is the responsibility of the National Monuments Council. The NMC, in turn, operates within the constraints of the National Monuments Act (1969). In principle, a function of the NMC is to protect South Africa's national heritage from those who would destroy it, accidentally or otherwise, or seek to exploit it for personal gain.
A 1979 amendment to the National Monuments Act gave the NMC the power to declare any shipwreck that fell within South African national waters a protected site. However, where this amendment fell down was that it did make it illegal to remove the contents or cargo from a proscribed shipwreck, merely that it was offence to interfere with the ship itself. In 1981 a further amendment to the Act was passed, which stated that a permit issued by the MNC was required to 'destroy, damage, alter or export from the Republic' any one of a list of artefacts know to have been in the country or its territorial waters for more than 100 years. And in 1986 another amendment to the Act made it an offence t interfere with or disturb in any way a shipwreck over the age of 50 years. What this all means is that it is now an offence to remove anything from, or disturb in any way, any shipwreck that is more than 50 years old and is located within about 44 kilometres of the South African coast without the permission of the NMC. But having a law is one thing; enforcing it and making it work in practice is another....
Rob Marsh. South Africa Weird and Wonderful.2003.Tafelberg Publishers. Pages 40 – 45. ISBN 0 624040682.
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