Article reprinted here by kind permission of Dr. William Bizley, previously published in the Natal Witness.
Also available in the latest HHS newsletter (courtesy of Adrian Rowe)
This is a story that nearly did not happen. I mean, the events happened, but the story itself nearly disappeared forever. The jigsaw piece that eventually completed it lay around on a Natal sugar farm for nearly fifty years. It was a tube of ointment, whose chief use was to heal burns. When the ointment ran out, the tube was discarded. It might have been forgotten if the children on the farm had not always been curious about the writing on the label, which was in German.
In 1995 I received a telephone call which gave me this clue, so that I could fathom a missing story and slot in the final piece. But, then, most of my reconstruction of the naval war off our coast in 1942/3 had had the character of a de-coding exercise. I happened to be paging through the reminiscences of a Natal mountaineer, Brian Godbold, when I found passing mention of the greatest maritime fatality that ever took place off our shores. After the El Alamein battle, Godbold, being granted leave, went to Port Trewfik to take passage home to Durban. Half way up the gang-plank he was turned back for not having the right papers. He was greatly disappointed, not being able to foresee his extraordinary good fortune. Only in retrospect, when the sinking of the Nova Scotia off St. Lucia became ‘folk’ knowledge (for it was never officially admitted) did he realise how lucky he had been.
You get a clue, and you begin to suspect that there is a whole missing canvas – missing, because its subject matter was kept so secret. More clues and pieces began to arrive. I learned for instance how on March 3rd 1943 there occurred off our shores a devastation of a convoy so terrible that – even as we all slept in provincial ignorance – Churchill summoned his admirals to discuss whether, in the Indian Ocean, the convoy system was still viable.
As for the sugar farm puzzle: I came upon the first piece when I learned of an immense duel fought off Port Shepstone on the 15th of November, 1942, between the Durban-based destroyer HMS Inconstant and the German submarine U 181. Again – the story survives by the narrowest chance. The British destroyer, which dropped depth charges for a whole day and half a night, eventually withdrew. If the U-boat had not survived, and its log-book not been found after the war, it would never have emerged how close HMS Inconstant was to spectacular success. When the German vessel eventually surfaced, 15 tons of seawater had to be pumped out of it, and many of its bolts and rivets re-set.
But whereas the Port Shepstone duel could be reconstructed from a specific source – the U-boat’s log – our sugar farm story, which is also about U 181, could not have been found there. You see, it concerns an incident that the captain himself would not have inscribed. On November 24th, 1942, the captain did something, off our coast, that, by official command, he was not supposed to do.
A supplementary clue to this as yet unfathomed jigsaw was a photograph of U 181′s captain, Wolfgang Lüth himself. Fifty years after the event, I decided, as I studied his picture, that this was the face of no ordinary officer. Certainly it had the firmness and dedication of the second most successful U-boat commander of the whole war (yes: that’s how close Port Shepstone came to marking a red-letter event!) But the face shows also a detached gentleness, almost a sensitivity. I was in receptive mode, therefore, for my next clue, which came into my hands also by something like chance. I found it in the U-boats volume in the Time-Life series on the world’s ships, published in 1979. Suddenly there was Lüth’s name – the U-boat captain who, in 1943 (that is, after the Port Shepstone incident) was singled out to give a lecture in Weimar on how to keep up morale in ‘untersee-boten’. One finds in this lecture no recommendation of patriotic propaganda or the singing of 3rd Reich songs. Rather, the captain arranges lectures for his crew on flying fish or on ocean currents; he stages funny verse competitions and singing contests; he invents phony ‘rewards’ like being allowed to watch a whale from the conning tower or to start the diesel engines.
Such clues drifted in even after I had published my account of the local maritime war, which included, of course, the escapades of U-181 off our coast. When I wrote, I had no idea that the Lüth story might eventually link with a Natal backyard. We must follow the sequence carefully. After the duel off Port Shepstone, Lüth moved north, and his next successes were scored in the waters off northern Zululand and Mozambique (the supply route to the allied armies in Egypt.) Survivors of one of the ships sunk by U-181 off Punto Oro, between Natal and Mozambique, reported the enemy captain as speaking to them ‘in Oxford English with an accent that was German in character…’
It was off Punto Oro in fact that, on the night of 24th November, 1942, Lüth encountered and sank the 6,000 ton Greek freighter Mount Helmos. Sixty nautical miles off shore one might imagine that the flash of a torpedo igniting a steam-ship would be lost to all but those at sea. But someone else saw the flash that night – someone patrolling the Natal Coast on the lonely miles of beach north of St Lucia. This was Mr Nick Selley, a member of the coast watch, who was gazing out from shore far south of where the brilliant flash lit the sky. Selley knew immediately what that flash indicated. He predicted that, because of the southward drift of the Mozambique current, there would be ‘bodies’ off St. Lucia within 24 hours. Sure enough, early next day, Mount Helmos’s two life boats beached themselves at First Rock, six miles north of St Lucia mouth.
We must understand why what Mr Selley discovered, at the scene of the life-boats, could only be preserved by oral tradition. U-181 was operating under the instructions it received daily by high frequency radio from headquarters in occupied France. After the ‘Laconia incident’ off West Africa on12th September 1942, when a U-boat attempting to do rescue work was bombed and nearly sunk by an American Liberator, Admiral Doenitz had forbidden any further lingering around victim vessels for the giving of aid.
What Mr Selley discovered – and he could speak some Greek – was that while many of the Mount Helmos crew were suffering from terrible steam burns, they were well bandaged and supplied with medicines and ointments. The captain of the sinking freighter had appealed to the captain of the U-boat as it circled around its conquest, and by desperate signals and signs, conveyed to him the distress of his men. Kapitänleutnant Lüth (whose identity, of course, we can now reconstruct) had promptly summoned up his medical officer and instructed him to hand across to the stricken lifeboats medical supplies.
It was the gesture of someone big enough – in the most pressing human circumstance – to break the rules. It would, of course, not have been recorded in the log-book; and Lüth himself never survived to tell the story, since, two years later, he was shot by a jittery sentry. Only ‘oral tradition’ in Natal itself could have put together the narrative, and that, indeed, is what ‘oral tradition’ managed to do. A chance reading, some fifty years later, of my article on the Natal submarine war led Mr Roger Gaisford, of the Eshowe Environmental Centre to phone me up from Eshowe and tell me the story of the Mount Helmos survivors. It turned out that (by the good turn of some jigsaw-solving providence) Roger was married to Nick Selley’s daughter. Of course neither he nor she knew (as neither did the Greek survivors) that the U-boat officer in question was Wolfgang Lüth. It was I who, fifty years later, even before the phone call had ended, had made the connection.
I remember asking Roger if there was any tangible evidence for this slenderly-preserved oral tradition. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘The Selley children often used to ask their father about the tube of ointment with strange writing on it. And then of course my father-in-law told them the story, and of his ‘keepsake’ from the lifeboats. Being able to speak some Greek, he had in fact managed to turn the sailors’ nightmare into a warm Natal homecoming – to the extent that the Greek captain, when bidding him farewell at Mtubatuba station, had said in broken English, “Nick, you’re a helluva bastard…” `
‘But of course the chief tangible clue was the tube of ointment itself, which went on being used on Mr Selley’s farm for several decades, until it was eventually finished only a few years ago…’
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