Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Town at War during World War II

Maybe the battlefields were thousands of kilometres distance, yet far-off Port Elizabeth was affected in numerous ways from the mundane to the deadly. Apart from the direct effect on the town, numerous of its citizens, such as my father and many of my uncles, volunteered for active service.   

The focus of this blog is on Port Elizabeth itself, both as regards military establishments, training and enemy actions. 

Main picture: The Fortress Observation Post at Seahill, Cape Recife

The U-Boat Menace

Twenty-five days after Germany invaded Poland, the German Navy placed an order for U-504 with Deutsche WerftHamburg. In the German arsenal, the U-Boats had played a decisive role during WW1 and Admiral Doenitz anticipated that they could again exert an inordinate influence on the war’s outcome. In the annuals of warfare, no other predator was invisible to its foe and hence their ability to strike terror into the ships’ crews was unsurpassed. Their emotive power would set the tone of naval warfare until 1943 when a combination of improved detection technologies and continuous airpower over the Atlantic, saw the U-Boat fleet rapidly culled.

U-504

U-504

U-504 was amongst the urgent orders placed for additional U-Boats, as there was a dearth of submarines.  What did not augur well for the Kriegsmarine was the period from placement of an order for this Type IXC submarine until delivery was almost two years. This meant that U-504 was commissioned on 30th July 1941. Only then could it enter the fray.

On 19th August 1942, U-504 slipped silently from its berth at Lorient on the Brittany littoral of France on her fourth patrol. Her destination was south to the waters off South Africa as part of Wolfpack Eisbär [Wolf Pack Ice Bear]. Then, on 17th October, about 450 nautical miles (830 km) south of Cape Town, she torpedoed and sank the unescorted British ship, the 5,970 ton Empire Chaucer. On the 23rd she sank the British ship, the 5,669-ton SS City of Johannesburg, and on the 26th she attacked the unescorted American 7,176-ton Liberty ship Anne Hutchinson. The crew abandoned their vessel after she was hit by two torpedoes and fatally damaged. However the ship remained afloat, and on the 29th was taken in tow by the South African armed trawler HMS AS David Haigh (T13) and a harbour tug. Lacking sufficient power to tow the ship to port, explosive charges were set, cutting the ship in two. The aft section sank, and the fore section was towed into Port Elizabeth. Part of the crew was picked up at sea, while the rest made it to land in their lifeboats.

Anne Hutchinson after being torpedoed by U-504

Anne Hutchinson after being torpedoed by U-504

U-504 sank two more British merchant ships on 31 October, about 200 nautical miles (370 km) east of Durban. First, the unescorted 7,041 ton Empire Guidon, then the unescorted 5,113 ton Reynolds, which, hit amidships and in the stern, capsized and sank within seconds.

Finally, on 3 November off Port Elizabeth, she sank the unescorted and unarmed Brazilian 5,187 ton cargo ship Porto Alegre en route from Rio de Janeiro to Durban. Hit by a single torpedo, the crew abandoned ship before the U-boat delivered the coup de grâce. Only one crew member was lost. The survivors were questioned by the Germans, and later made landfall about 50 nautical miles (93 km) from Port Elizabeth on 7 November. After a highly successful hunting trip, U-504 left the southern waters and sailed north, arriving back at Lorient on 11th December 1942 after a patrol lasting 115 days.

U-boat bunker in Lorient

U-boat bunker in Lorient

The U-Boat sinkings must have unnerved and alarmed somebody in authority. In a belated response on 7th September 1942, No 25 Squadron under Major KSP Jones began to arrive in Port Elizabeth. New airfields were built to allow more planes to be available for patrols to curb the loss of shipping. This squadron was based at a new airfield at St. Albans using Lockheed B34 Venturas.

Black-outs

Prior to this expedition by the U-504, the submarine menace had already caused a minor panic and stung the authorities into action. In order to prevent attacks on the city, on January 9th 1942, Port Elizabeth experienced its first trial black-out. My late mother, Eunice McCleland, could recall the wardens performing their inspections. Any shard of lighting emanating from the windows would cause a sharp rebuke from the officious warden. For some unknown reason black-outs were only enforced until the 23rd August 1943. Perhaps the authorities had realised that black-outs were no silver bullets as regards deterring the submarine menace or possibly it was found, like in the U.K. that black-outs were the greatest cause of civilian fatalities. Whatever the reason, the U-Boat menace was not yet a spent force. Instead, other measures were taken during the same month with the harbour being declared a prohibited area.

Black-outs

Black-outs

Naval Officers’ Training at Seaview Hotel

The strictures of war probably reduced the normal customer load to the point where the owners faced the grim possibility of insolvency as war pays scant regard for life or hotel profitability. Instead, the hotel was to receive a new lease of life as the training base for Officers of the Royal Navy, RNVR and S.A. Naval Forces. It was the first Naval Officers training establishment outside Britain. The Commander was J.S. Head and the base was given the name HMS “Good Hope”. It was in operation until 30th June 1944. In February 1945, with the end in Europe winding down, the Richardson Brothers advertised that the hotel would be operational again.

 

Coastal Fortress Observation Posts

I cannot remember which of these buildings was the first one that I became aware of as a child. It could have been Brooks Hill or possibly Schoenmakerskop but it was definitely not Sea Hill, at Cape Recife. Finally, a year ago I came across a comprehensive article by Richard Tomlinson on this issue. Except for minor adjustments such as deletions of his copious references, I have used his original article as the basis of this section of the blog.

View from the Cape Recife Forward Observation Post

View from the Cape Recife Fortress Observation Post

Port Elizabeth has arguably the most complete collection of surviving coast artillery buildings and equipment dating from the Second World War (1939-45) of any port in South Africa. However, completeness is not their only claim to distinction. Prior to 1939, the harbour of Port Elizabeth had no defences except, of course, Fort Frederick, the square stone fort on the hill above the mouth of the Baakens River. This was built in 1799 to 1800 to guard the original landing place, before the arrival of the 1820 British Settlers and the development of the town.

A fortnight before South Africa declared war on Nazi Germany on 6 September 1939, No 3 Heavy Battery, South African Artillery, at East London was divided into Right Section, which remained there, and Left Section, which comprised sixteen other ranks under Captain C E G Brereton-Styles. This section was despatched to Port Elizabeth with two 6-inch (152 mm) Mark XIX field guns, and was later renamed No 6 Heavy Battery.

View of the ruins of the barracks from the Forward Observation at Cape Recife

View of the ruins of the barracks from the Fortress Observation at Cape Recife

An 18-pounder quick firing (QF) pedestal gun mounted on a steel-plated truck of First World War vintage, which was brought to Port Elizabeth by Lieutenant Robert Meintjies, who joined the battery to assist Brereton-Stiles, was added to the armament on the Charl Malan Quay at the harbour for protection against motor torpedo boats. (Brereton-Styles may have been only a lieutenant when he was transferred to Port Elizabeth, as a letter of 9 November 1939 from Commanding Officer, Coast Artillery Brigade [CAB] to Director General Operations [DGO], Pretoria, mentions a ‘Lieut Stiles’ in connection with the mounting of guns at the harbour. According to C J Nothling, he was CO of 8 Heavy Battery at Saldanha Bay by 1946.) By the end of 1939, two searchlights had also been installed on Charl Malan Quay.

Work started immediately on the levelling of sand dunes at the site chosen by Brereton-Styles, at Humewood, south-east of the harbour. This was to provide temporary emplacements for the two 6-inch Mark XIX guns, which were operated from wooden platforms dug into the ground. Ammunition magazines and keeps were also dug in and reinforced with railway sleepers and sandbags.

Bluewater Bay Forward Observation Post

Bluewater Bay Fortress Observation Post

This temporary battery was nicknamed ‘Fort Gocom’ because sour figs (gocoms) were planted to stabilise the sand. However, by early November 1939, work had commenced on the setting out of the permanent emplacements for the new Algoa Battery. These, together with the magazines and living quarters, were completed by April 1940. A month later, the two 6-inch Mark XIX field guns of Gocom Battery were superseded by two 6-inch QF guns from Simon’s Town. These were mounted in the new concrete emplacements of Algoa Battery. German intelligence was so good that a wireless broadcast from Zeesen announced the removal of the guns before they had left Simon’s Town.

 

In January 1940, a recommendation was made for the immediate construction of a combined Battery Observation Post and Director Station (BOP&DS) for No 6 Heavy Battery. This refers to the surviving night BOP at Algoa Battery. The following August, correspondence on the Humewood BOP  and wireless station mentions that the roofs were to be parapeted and loopholed and that a rifleman’s post was to be constructed of sleepers near the foot of the navigation beacon overlooking the engine room of the wireless station. The whole site was to be enclosed within a wire entanglement. At this site there were to be provided also a latrine and washing accommodation, with a separate, small room for the use of the garrison. These structures were all on Humewood Hill – now named Brookes Hill – and have survived. The exception is the engine room which was demolished a few years ago.

Brookes Hill Battery Observation Post

Brookes Hill Battery Observation Post

In addition to these facilities, advance warning of the approach of shipping and aircraft to the harbour was given by three fortress observation posts (FOPs) which were built at Amsterdam Hoek, Seahill – on the Cape Recife peninsula – and Schoenmakerskop, together with a Port War Signal Station next to Cape Recife lighthouse. The FOPs were planned towards the end of 1939 and were built during 1940. Each is double-storeyed with a flat roof reached by a steel ladder, with loopholed free-form parapets rising above the roof, and each was protected by a barbed wire fence or entanglement.

The FOPs at Amsterdam Hoek and Schoenmakerskop were both approached by a long flight of concrete steps – 85 at the former and 70 at the latter. Each has a concrete ‘slide’ down one side, presumably to assist with the hauling up of equipment or provisions. Both slides have grooves at prominent points which appear to have been formed by ropes or hawsers.

Cape Recife Port War Signal Station

The Port War Signal Station was recommended as ‘urgently necessary’ in a letter of 19 June 1940 ‘as the one on No 1 quay at Port Elizabeth is not able to command all directions of approach to the port.’ Three pre-existing garages were rebuilt on the ground floor of the new structure. The work was probably completed in the second half of 1940 and they are still in use by the lighthouse division of the National Ports Authority of South Africa.

Schoenmakerskop FOP

The Fortress Observation Post at Schoenmakerskop

To return to Algoa Battery, the two 6-inch QF guns installed in 1940 were replaced in April 1942 by two 6 inch, breech loading (BL), Mark V guns enclosed within steel shields. These two guns are still in position, although they have lost their breech blocks and the breeches have been welded closed. The barrels are dated 1900 and 1902 respectively on the breeches. In April 1944 a 6-inch, BL Mark VI gun was mounted and tested in a third rear emplacement, but was later removed. The Defence of Bases Committee, formerly the British Ports Defence Committee, decided that the 9,2-inch (234mm) and 6-inch (152mm) coastal batteries should have no fewer than three guns ‘for effective observation of fall of shot in adjusting the mean point of impact, on which the engagement of targets depended.’). This third gun was later removed

Docks Battery was armed with a 6-pounder QF Mark I (twin) gun installed in June 1943, and four naval 12-pounder QF guns. These have all gone. Radar was introduced in 1942.

Brookes Hill Battery Observation Post

Brookes Hill Day Battery Observation Post, with artillery radar building behind

Buildings at Sea Hill, Cape Recife

The buildings on this site serve two different purposes. As secrecy in wartime is paramount even though both of the units using this site shared the same camp at Sea Hill, the Special Signals Services and the Artillery Personnel in theory did not talk to each other and hence were unaware of each other’s function. In practice this was strictly adhered to by SSS personnel.

The Fortress Observation Post [FOP] was constructed early in 1940. It sole function was to observe the approach of enemy shipping towards the harbour from the west. In the event that the observers spotted an enemy ship, their responsibility was to contact Algoa Battery at Humewood by telephone. Having been notified of the location of the hostile vessel, a decision would then be taken, usually involving an air reconnaissance by the air force or, if the ship was identified as enemy, the six-inch guns on Brooke’s Hill would engage them. Three Riflemen’s Posts were provided for the men for local defence, as well as two toilet cubicles. As no accommodation was provided on the site, the artillery personnel were ferried out each day from Humewood; the adjacent Bungalow seems to have been built later in the War, but artillery personnel did not stay on site overnight.

Sea Hill Military Site

The majority of this site was utilised by the SSS – Special Signals Services – the radar arm of the SA Corps of Signals. Even though the development of radar had commenced in South Africa in 1939, it was not until 1942-1943 that radar stations for coastal defence were provided in the Port Elizabeth area.

The Cape Recife station was equipped with a JB, the original South African radar set developed in Johannesburg, and hence its name. This set was located in the Tech Hut to the west of the Artillery Buildings. Observations were relayed to the filter room in Pembridge House, Bird Street. Here they were sorted and the appropriate information passed onto the Navy, the Artillery or the Air Force for appropriate action.

The buildings used by these units are today visible to members of the general public when they walk the Roseate Tern Walking Trail. These buildings are described below.

View from the Fortress Observation Post with the Artillery Bungalow on the right and the Radar Tech Hut at far left

View from the Fortress Observation Post with the Artillery Bungalow on the right and the Radar Tech Hut at far left

The barracks near the roadway were built solely for 18 female SSS Personnel comprising an officer, a warrant officer, 15 operators and a cook. In addition, there were four males – officer commanding, two technicians and an engine minder – as well as the NMC – Native Military Corps. The radar operators worked in five shifts around the clock with three girls per shift.

The barracks from the west consisted of the operators’ quarters, women’s ablutions and boiler room with pit toilets on the slope behind, female officer’s and Warrant Officer’s quarters, the mess, the men’s quarters with pit toilets on the slope behind and the recreation room with fireplace. The office and wash-up area was adjacent with a small store on the slope above. The foundations of the building just east of the Recreation Room, probably represented the guard room during this period.

Roofless radar barracks at Seahill, Cape Recife

Roofless radar barracks at Seahill, Cape Recife

To the east of the track up to the ridge are the foundations of four buildings and remains of a pit toilet. Previously these had been the barracks of the Native Military Corps.

Electricity was generated on the site in the small generator room half way up the track to the ridge. One of the engine minder’s responsibilities was to take care of the diesel generator.

The whole site of the artillery and radar establishments was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, which was guarded by the NMC.

42nd Air School

With war clouds gathering, No 3 Squadron SAAF, equipped with Hawker Harts was sent to Port Elizabeth in September 1939. However, by December the squadrons last four Harts were ferried back to Zwartkops where they were needed for advanced training duties.

42 Air School

42 Air School

No 3 Squadron had been joined by No 14 Bomber/Reconnaissance (BR) Squadron flying three ex-SAA  Junkers Ju86s which had been converted to bombers and distributed to four coastal squadrons to fly maritime reconnaissance patrols. Junkers flew with 14 BR Squadron from Port Elizabeth from 21st September 1939. In terms of order AHQ 14/6 dated 29th November 1939 No 14 (BR) Squadron was re-designated “B” Flight of the newly constituted 31 (Coastal) squadron with effect from the 1st December 1939.

Macchi CR 42

Macchi CR 42

A captured Italian Macchi CR 42 is believed to have spent some time at PE’s 42nd Air School.

The advent of war, as far as South Africa itself was concerned, was to be a maritime war with the bulk of operational battles taking place in the Northern Hemisphere. Troops would go off to war, training took place and there was rationing, but for the local populace at home, it was business as usual, as they were to see nothing of the dramas that took place over the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, other than occasionally when survivors of torpedoed ships from the convoys travelling around the coast would arrive at the various ports. For instance, after going undetected off Port Elizabeth by the Ju86s of “B” Flight, December 2 1939 saw the first success of the coastal patrols and the first South African action against the enemy, when a Ju86 flown by Captain H.Q. Boschoff of 15 BR Squadron, Wingfield intercepted the Watussi after she rounded Cape Point. The Watussi, a Deutsche Ost-Afrika Linie liner which had served the South African route had sailed from Lourenco Marques with German passengers to make a dash for Rio de Janiero. After a signal had been sent from the Ju86 instructing her to head for Cape Town, she sailed on flying a bogus British Red Ensign in an effort to mislead the SAAF crew.

Junkers Ju-86

Junkers Ju-86

Anson over Cape Recife in 1942

Anson over Cape Recife in 1942

Three bombs were dropped to encourage the ship’s captain to change course, but the Junkers now had to return to Wingfield for refuelling. A second Junkers now appeared on the scene and the pilot Major J.M. Botes asked for permission to machine gun the life boats, but his request was heard by the Watussi’s captain, so he placed men alongside the lifeboats. A Swordfish from Ark Royal also appeared on the scene and circled the vessel, so the German ship’s captain set his ship alight as the passengers and crew made for the lifeboats, scuttling her rather than accepting surrender. Shortly after this incident, patrolling Ju86s from B Flight 31 Squadron spotted a Japanese ship, the Hokoku Maru in Algoa Bay. It had previously also served the South African trade and was proclaiming its neutrality by displaying Japanese flags on either side of her hull.

Hokoku Maru

Hokoku Maru

In support of these coastal operations from Port Elizabeth, ground on the south side of the aerodrome was taken over by the Department of Defence with the permission of the Port Elizabeth Municipality to build a new hanger. (The largest of the rearmost hangers and in the middle of those built for 42 Air School later). “B” Flight of 31 (Coastal) Squadron, which was exclusively manned by the SAAF, therefore moved to tented accommodation on the other side of the airfield.

Phillip Walker of Sheffield England relates his story of 42 Air School.
I spent the last 4 years of the war in South Africa 2 years at 42 Air School in Port Elizabeth and 2 years at 43 Air School in Port Alfred. We travelled out on a troopship, which sailed as close to the American coastline as possible to avoid U-boats, the journey took 6 weeks and it was very cramped. On the troopship we were allowed a beer in the evening in the ships canteen we only got one and as you can imagine the queue was miles long. We hadn’t enough time to queue for another so we thought of a wonderful idea, we took the tea bucket and got that filled, some of the lads got quite merry and they soon put a stop to our game.

Image from an original photo album which formerly belonged to a RAF Serviceman trainee pilot who did his pilot training in South Africa during WW2 at 42 Air School

Image from an original photo album which formerly belonged to a RAF Serviceman trainee pilot who did his pilot training in South Africa during WW2 at 42 Air School

Harvard

Harvard

The aim of us being in South Africa was to train navigators and air gunners we also had to service and maintain all engines and to keep them flying at all times. We had to look for engine frames cracking at joints due to metal fatigue. Then it was a case of engine removal and new frames been placed in. When we had finished this operation we had to test them whilst on flight, so you can guess there was no slip-shod work. We worked on ‘Harvard’s’, ‘Airspeed Oxfords’ and ‘Avro Anson’s’.

Special Signals Services

During WW2, the SSS operated the Radar Units of the Union Defence Force. The stations in the Port Elizabeth area were at Tankatara, Hougham Park, Cape Recife, Seaview and Schoenmakerskop, the last being replaced by a new one at Mount Pleasant in April 1944. All five camps had the same manning being a female Commanding Officer, 20 female radar operators, a female cook, 5 men in charge of maintenance and a contingent of men of the Native Military Corps who worked as Camp Guards.

A Tech. Hut housed the radar set which was out of bounds for all who had not taken the Secrecy Oath. The station operated 24 hours a day and the operators were on duty for 3 days and off duty for the next two days. As the rations were delivered daily, on the off days, the staff was able to travel to the Headquarters which was in a house in Park Drive which is now occupied by a block of flats called Parkview Flats. There used to be an entrance to the back of the house along a lane from Cape Road. Before one was allowed to go on Pass, squad drills were held at the Westbourne Oval.

Pembridge House, 13 Bird Street (corner Trinder Square)

Pembridge House, 13 Bird Street (corner Trinder Square)

 

 

All of the five stations were in direct telephonic contact with the Filter Room or “Freddie” which was based at Pembridge House at 13 Bird Street. Members of SSS were operators at Freddie and their barracks were in St George’s Park [now Olympic Grounds]. Like in submarines, the principle of “hot beds” was used. The first night shift was from 10pm to 3am and the second one was from 3am to 8am. “Freddie” was downstairs in the Billiard Room. Much like the radar operators in movies on Battle of Britain, these operators wearing earphones would plot the movement of all ships and ships on a large map. In South Africa, the map was on a table. On a platform, others – usually officers – would transmit information to Naval or Air Force control. There was also a contingent of SSS personnel based at 42 Air School, which was based at the main Port Elizabeth airport. The Air Force unit responsible for Coastal Patrol was based where Military Headquarters is located today.

Operators read the screens of a COL radar

Operators read the screens of a COL radar

Other buildings and units

Army headquarters was located in Western Road in a building, which was converted into offices and renamed “West Hill.” Pembridge House and Army Headquarters could be accessed from each other by means of back entrances of both buildings. The row of detached rooms between Army headquarters and the block of flats were Q Stores. The army medical officer was housed in a hutment in the grounds of the Fort where Captain Evatt is now interred. There were other hutments around the Fort also in use.

There was a large military camp at Cradock Place. One of uses to which it was put was to test the Gas Drill.

The large house on the S bend of the Humewood Road, now used as the headquarters of the Sea Scouts, was then used as Convalescent Home for officers. The Sandford Maternity Block was converted into the Military Block at that hospital with Military A being for men and Military B for women.

Sources

World War 2 Buildings at Sea Hill, Cape Recife by Richard Tomlinson (1997, Site plan & notes compiled for Parks Department – Looking Back, Vol 36)

The Second World War, 1939-1945, Artillery Buildings in Algoa Bay by Richard Tomlinson (June 2002, Military History Journal, Vol 12 No 3).

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth).

Port Elizabeth in World War II by Mary Tudhope (March 1990, Looking Back, Vol 29 No 1).

The Special Signals Services by Mary Tudhope & Richard Tomlinson (2001, Looking Back, Vol 40).

Past Reflections – 42nd Air School http://mype.co.za/new/past-reflections-42nd-air-schoolpast-reflections-42nd-air-school/36060/2014/04#ixzz4aGbGmO9a

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/19/a4429019.shtml


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