A ship called Pietermaritzburg

2013-05-31 00:00

IT’S official. Pietermaritzburg is a wreck. A wreck that lies 22 metres below the choppy waters of False Bay near Simon’s Town, the spot where the SAS Pietermaritzburg came to rest after being scuttled in 1994 to create an artificial reef that is now a popular dive site.

Moves are afoot to declare the wreck a heritage site, in a bid to prevent the depredations of salvagers pillaging metal from the ship.

“We first heard about this 18 months ago,” says Eric Mawhinney of the Simon’s Town Historical Society.

“We’ve now started a process to get the ship declared a heritage site. We have succeeded in getting a two-year protection on it and are now pursuing a formal declaration.”

According to Tara van Niekerk, a heritage officer in the Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit at the South African Heritage Resources Agency, there have been two public meetings regarding the declaration process, and a petition was signed in July 2012 by 381 individuals supporting the nomination.

“Because the declaration process can take a while, due to legislative requirements, we have, in the meantime, provisionally protected the SAS Pietermaritzburg under section 29 of the National Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999,” says Van Niekerk.

“We are working on the final stages of the declaration process.”

Why such fuss over a wreck? Because the SAS Pietermaritzburg boasts an illustrious history, one that includes an important role in one of the great events of the 20th century: leading the invasion fleet on June 6, 1944 — D-day.

SAS Pietermaritzburg began life under another name, HMS Pelorus, one of 18 Algerine Class minesweepers built during World War 2 by Lobnitz of Renfrew in Scotland, and was launched on June 18, 1943. Pelorus was the fifth ship of the Royal Navy to carry the name, originally that of Hannibal’s pilot. Her first captain was Lieutenant-Commander M.L.M. Taylor RNVR.

He was relieved on December 6, 1943, by Commander George Nelson, and Pelorus became senior officer ship of the 7th Minesweeping Flotilla, Royal Navy.

In late April 1944, HMS Pelorus was caught up in the activity off the English south coast that presaged the implementation of Operation “Overlord” — the Allied invasion of German-occupied France — and its naval component “Neptune”.

“As mines posed the greatest threat to the huge armada being assembled for the D-day invasion, it was planned to establish 10 separate channels from England to France,” writes Roger Williams in the Naval Digest.

“As flotilla leader of the 7th MSF, HMS Pelorus was the most forward ship to sweep a clear path for the invasion armada to the beachhead code-named ‘Juno’. As such she became, in effect, the point of a huge arrow that took shape in the English Channel.”

The British press made much play on the fact that the invasion fleet was led by an officer named Nelson, a surname shared by national hero Horatio Nelson, admiral of the British fleet that vanquished the French at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. “A Nelson led them”, read the headline on a report in the Evening Standard of June 19, 1944: “As the Allied invasion fleet steamed out from Britain on the eve of D-day, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay flashed to the senior officer of the minesweeper flotilla who was leading the long lane of minesweepers: ‘Good luck, drive on’. The minesweeper’s signal lamp twinkled, says Reuters correspondent Desmond Tighe, and back came the reply: ‘Aye, aye, sir, with Nelson in the van’.”

This reply signal was repeated by the rest of the fleet as Pelorus steamed across the English Channel at the head of the greatest invasion armada in history — a total of 4 266 ships and landing craft — carrying 130 000 men to the beaches of France.

After the first day of the invasion, HMS Pelorus continued with her minesweeping duties until July 10, when damage caused by a mine saw her return to port for repairs. By September, she was back on duty, sweeping in the North Sea. In 1945, HMS Pelorus took part in mine-sweeping operations in the Pacific, as part of the British East Indies Fleet based in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Following the surrender of Japan, she participated in the sweeping of the Malacca Strait ahead of the Singapore occupation force, and was one of the first ships of the Royal Navy to enter the harbour of Singapore since its fall in February 1942.

In 1947, HMS Pelorus was sold to the South African Navy. An impressive handover ceremony was held at Chatham. Among those there to say goodbye to the ship was the famous actress Vivien Leigh, star of Gone with the Wind, who had “adopted” HMS Pelorus during the war.

Pelorus was renamed HMSAS Maritzburg (HM fell away when South Africa became a republic in 1961), but following an appeal by the Pietermaritzburg city council, this was changed to HMSAS Pietermaritzburg. Inevitably, she became known by those who sailed in her as the “PMB”.

HMSAS Pietermaritzburg was officially christened and dedicated at a ceremony at Maydon Wharf in Durban, on January 21, 1948, by Pietermaritzburg mayor A.E. Hirst and his chaplain, G.P. Jeudwine.

According to The Witness report of the event, the Pietermaritzburg “wore a gay party dress … brilliantly hued flags fluttered against the bright blue sky, the crew wore crisp white uniforms, and most women present wore multicoloured frocks”.

When naming the ship, Hirst said: “We have read with pride of the part played by HMS Pelorus in the Normandy landings and the war in the Far East, and we rejoice that the name of our city should be linked with those historic days.”

According to The Witness, the ship was “the first South African naval vessel to have a crest” — the Maritzburg city crest depicting an elephant surmounted by five stars. The mayor was also presented with a painting of the ship “which he said would be hung in the Maritzburg City Council Chamber as ‘a remembrance of this happy day’.”

During her life with the SA Navy, the PMB served as a midshipmen’s training ship. In September 1953, she was the largest SAN vessel to visit Knysna, a visit marking the closing of Knysna as a port.

In 1959, she was taken out of service and laid up in reserve. Following a major refit, she was recommissioned in 1962. Less than a year later, she was involved in a collision with a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Leopard, during a joint exercise off Cape Point, resulting in the death of a British sailor.

In 1964, following service updating the water temperature charts of the south and east coasts as an aid to submarine detection, the Pietermaritzburg was paid off into reserve at Simon’s Town. In 1968, she was back in service as an accommodation ship for the minesweeping base at Simon’s Town until 1991, when ministerial approval was obtained for her disposal.

An SAS Pietermaritzburg Preservation Committee (SAS PPC) was formed, which went on to fight a long but losing battle to have her preserved as a floating museum. On November 19, 1994, writes Williams, “the rusted hulk of the proud old PMB, its bilges packed with powerful explosives, was towed to a spot several hundred metres from Miller’s Point near Simon’s Town, and moored in position”.

Several hundred people gathered to pay their respects. Padre Ralph Thornley, who had served on her as an able seaman, led prayers.

“Then, at precisely 11h00, the explosive charges on board PMB were initiated. There was a rapid-fire series of blasts along the ship’s bottom and she settled gracefully to the sea bed on an even keel, to become an artificial reef at a spot chosen by divers.”

According to the website south-africagreatestdivesites.com, the SAS Pietermaritzburg “makes for a great wreck dive, broken into three parts during storms in 2006. You can enter parts of the wreck, but be extremely careful. Winter months are best and don’t forget your torch. The marine life and growth are spectacular for a ship this young. The SAS Pietermaritzburg is an eerie dive and absolute must.”

• Check the website: http://www.



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