by John H Marsh




"BEING in all respects ready for sea, H.M.S.A.S. TRANSVAAL is to sail from Cape Town at 1000 hours on Sunday...
Your destination is TOP SECRET and is NOT to be disclosed to the ship's company until you are at sea.
"All signals are to be TOP SECRET and encoded in High Grade Code . .

As the alert eyes of Lieutenant-Commander John Fairbairn, S.A.N.F., skimmed over the document just delivered into his hand by special naval messenger, he had difficulty in suppressing his excitement. He had been eagerly, anxiously, awaiting this confirmation of the verbal orders he had already received last night. He knew there would be nothing about them of the routine operational orders with which he was already becoming so familiar, and which frigate captains receive in peace-time. These spelt adventure ... He was aware that only two others besides himself in this city had any knowledge of their nature.

As he considered the document, standing in his cabin aboard the frigate which nestled snugly against the quay in the Duncan Dock of Table Bay Harbour, the thoughts of the young naval officer flashed back to the wedding reception yesterday afternoon where all this began-for him at least ...

It was the wedding of Number One of the Good Hope, sister ship of the Transvaal. The ceremony had been performed aboard the bridegroom's ship and the many guests were celebrating when the message had come for him. He was to hurry and meet the Director at Brooklyn Airfield. The Director, Commodore J. F. Dean, was flying back from Pretoria by special plane, and wished to confer with him immediately he alighted.

A fast car had taken Fairbairn and the Chief Staff Officer, Lieutenant-Commander A. K. Ryall, the three miles to the airfield, in good time to meet the incoming plane. Commodore Dean's first question to Fairbairn after he stepped out was: "How soon can you be ready for sea ?" When the Commodore had added : "You may have everything and everyone that you want for the asking, and you'll be given the highest priority," Fairbairn had replied, after a moment's consideration, "Monday, perhaps Sunday." Then, while he hurried the officers towards his waiting car, Commodore Dean had told them that the Prime Minister had just given the South African Naval Forces a rather important task -- possibly the most important task the Union's young Navy had yet been asked to tackle. Briefly, while yet out of earshot of others, he had told them what it was to be. Then he had warned them that the General Staff wanted it done in complete secrecy and with the maximum speed. They were not to disclose its nature to a soul without permission from higher up. The operation would be officially known throughout as "Operatidn Snoektown." The Government had ordered that it should be given the highest priority.

While the Commodore had gone to his office to draft the necessary orders, Fairbairn and Ryall had returned to the Transvaal. There, behind closed doors in Fairbairn's cabin, they had remained together until late in the night, poring over charts, sailing directions and weather data ; estimating steaming radius and endurance on the fuel and fresh water the frigate would have available; and compiling a complete list of the thousand-and-one things that would have to be done on the morrow. It was early morning when they decided that, if everything went well, the Transvaal might be able to put to sea the next day.

And here it was Saturday morning, and the written orders were in his hands. They were clear and concise.

"TOP SECRET" seemed to be stamped all over them. They directed him to put to sea next morning in accordance with attached instructions. He was to proceed by the most direct safe route at 15 knots on the outward passage, to arrive at his destination at dawn, and thereafter to maintain his most economical speed in order to conserve fuel. Fresh water was, if necessary, to be rationed from the beginning in order to attain the ship's maximum endurance, and only if it was essential was the evaporator to be used to make more. All radio signals, besides being in code, were to carry the instruction that they should be handled by officers only, and were for the personal attention of the Deputy Chief of the General Staff and Director of the South African Naval Forces. They were to be transmitted through the military radio station at Waterkloof, near Pretoria. A cipher expert, an engineer, an airman, and a meteorologist were to embark and come under the captain's orders. Each day at noon he was to signal his ship's position, the prevailing weather conditions, and a brief report of operations. Accompanying the sailing orders were a chart and two heavily sealed envelopes containing, according to the sailing orders, Instruments of Sovereignty.

The Captain lost no time in posting up orders notifying the ship's company that the Transvaal was sailing almost immediately for an unknown destination. They were strictly enjoined not to disclose this to anyone and to discuss their impending voyage and the preparations for it with nobody. All shore leave was cancelled with immediate effect.

The Commodore himself came aboard to address the petty officers, gathered for the purpose in the wardroom. He told them that they would be sailing in a hurry - he could not say whither - and that many folk would almost certainly soon start asking questions. He relied upon them to enlist the full co-operation of the men in preventing indiscreet talk.

Fairbairn was now left with scarcely 24 hours in which to make all the preparations for sailing his ship and her complement of 120 men on a voyage that promised to be lengthy and dangerous, and would call for the maximum endurance of both ship and men. He had to start with a severe handicap for it would be Christmas in five days' time, and weeks ago it had been decided that the Transvaal would spend Christmas in port, and all those of her crew who wished to, with the exception of a small caretaker party, were to have Christmas leave ashore. Many were already on leave and some were scattered as far afield as the Transvaal, 1,000 miles away. In these days of peace, when avoiding waste was more important than being in constant readiness for emergency calls that could not be anticipated, the frigate's stocks of food, fuel, water and general stores had been deliberately allowed to dwindle. Now they would all have to be replenished in full at top speed, additional supplies and equipment for the peculiar requirements of this voyage taken on, and the crew recalled from leave, and, where necessary, supplemented by draftings from other ships.

Before getting busy on the nominal roll of his ship's company Fairbairn briefed his Number One, Lieutenant Bernard Grindley, to whom fell the task of ensuring that everything necessary for the ship's voyage was obtained and on board before she sailed. Unable to disclose to his deputy what was being planned, he could only instruct him to embark stores, provisions, and fuel for one month, as well as warm clothing for the crew, and to be sure that all the deck stores, etc., were complete. He told him also "in case of accidents" to obtain some tarpaulins as they might be required for covering things ashore. He dared not be more explicit than that. He informed his deputy, however, that arrangements had been made for him to be given on demand whatever he wanted from the S.A.N.F.'s stores. For this operation "red tape" had been entirely cast aside. Fairbairn gave similar instructions to his Chief Engineer, Lieutenant P. J. Escreet. By now a big bite had been taken out of the day, and Grindley and Escreet were left with only two or three hours to make all their arrangements with commercial houses and shops before they closed for the week-end. Quickly and efficiently they organised. Soon the oil and the water gangs were alongside to connect up their pipes, and the life-giving liquids were being pumped into the tanks at the rate of several tons a minute. Then the trucks began to arrive with loads of deck and engine-room stores. They brought the ordinary quarterly issues which were in any case due now, and which filled most of the ship's normal store space, as well as the extras which were being ordered for this special emergency. To feed 120 men for one month alone required truckload upon truckload of foodstuffs.

Once he had ensured that the essentials were on board or on the way, Grindley had time to consider the special requirements of the season.

Since the Transvaal's crew were to be denied their Christmas ashore, something must be done to allow of celebrations afloat. He got into contact with Mrs. E. B. Hendriksen, chairwoman of the Navy Welfare Fund, at her home at Kenilworth. In response to his appeal the "Seafarers' Fairy Godmother" hurried down to the ship, and after brief explanations got busy on the telephone.

Although the Christmas rush was on, and she had only two hours in which to do it, when the last shop door shut she had obtained 90lb. of poultry, 20lb. of plum pudding, a few lb. of nuts and some raisins. She had even obtained a supply of Christmas crackers. Grindley had meanwhile secured ten dozen beers, "borrowed" from H.M.S.A.S. Bonaventure 1; the S.A.N.F. headquarters ashore, and H.M.S.A.S. Unitie, the training base near by. He would have been able to lay in extra things for his men but for the money shortage, which was now one of his problems. The South African Navy does not recognise Christmas in so far as making special provision where catering is concerned. It issues the same rations for Christmas Day as for any other day. Any additional luxuries that the men may want they must provide themselves. This they usually do through their canteen funds. But since almost the entire complement of the Transvaal were expected to spend Christmas ashore no provision for expenditure on such items had been made by the canteen fund committee.

It was only towards evening that Grindley was able to give his attention to the mail that had arrived during the day and was now piled on his desk. Opening one letter he found to his joy a 50 cheque for the Christmas celebrations of the frigate sent by the Transvaal Adoption Committee - a group of public-spirited men and women in the Transvaal who had made themselves responsible for the comforts of their Province's name-ship. It was too late to cash the cheque, but collecting all his personal cash, amounting to about 7 lOs., Grindley made straight for the city and late that night cleaned out a café of a huge load of toffees and oranges.

In between attending to all these matters he had given thought to the vague innuendo conveyed by his Captain when briefing him, and had ordered and arranged the delivery of various stores that he thought might prove useful. These included timber sufficient to allow the building of a hut measuring about 30 feet by 20 feet; a number of heavy baulks of timber, some rollers, axes, crowbars, mallets, ropes, wire, extra boats' anchors, stoves (for heating as well as for cooking); five hundredweight of coal in bags; some piping, canvas, extra boat oars, some water barricoes and a multitude of other items for which a seaman always has a use; two small crayfish dinghies, which he had not ordered but which he learned later had been borrowed from the Director of Fisheries on someone's instructions. Other gear that arrived without Number One having asked for it included the very latest in "walkie-talkie" radio sets (a wonderfully effective and useful item, as Grindley was later to discover), supplied by the Army at the request of the S.A.N.F. and not yet off the secret list; also Aldis lamps and other "signalling" equipment.

Meanwhile, by telegram, telephone and special messenger, the recall from leave had, been going out to the Transvaal's men scattered all over the Peninsula and the nearby Cape. No time or effort was wasted in trying to reach those who were too far afield. Men were drafted from other ships or from the shore establishments to take their places. Owing to the many other matters that also required attention the telegrams did not get away until just before midday. They found many of their recipients already in anticipatory enjoyment of their first week-end leave for months in the bosom of their family.

Officialdom being what it is, it was not possible to explain in those telegrams why the men were being recalled. They merely stated that the men's leave was cancelled and they must report on board immediately. Consequently, there was no small stir in many a household when the contents of those telegrams were read. It was not long before the backwash reached the frigate herself. When in port she is always connected by telephone. Soon that telephone was ringing merrily. Voice after voice at the other end inquired what the joke was; suggested a mistake must have been made; insisted they could not do this to him. Grindley handled some explosive calls from wives and sweethearts. Some began with voices coldly polite; others sweet and wheedling. A few indicated that they "wanted only to reason with the Captain." As they sensed that they were making no progress, the voices of some of these callers began to rise in pitch and get angrier. A few became defiant. Their husbands or sweethearts, they said, were not going back, and the Navy could do what it liked about it. It was difficult for Grindley and the other officers who handled the calls, with all the things they already had on their minds, to maintain tact as well as firmness. In a few cases they had to remind the irate callers that the telegrams were addressed to their menfolk, and it was for the latter to decide what they were going to do about it. The men would not need to be reminded that to ignore those telegrams was tantamount to desertion and the penalty for that was rather severe.

There were a few cases where the cancellation of leave came as a particularly hard blow to individuals. These were men who had asked for and had been promised their discharge from the Navy. Some had already paid down the necessary money, and their papers had gone through. It was too late now, however, to draft reliefs in their places. There was nothing for it but for them to come back for this last voyage. It was the womenfolk of these men who were most upset by the turn events had taken.

Considering, however, that the tranquillity of about 100 homes had been shattered by those telegrams, and that the keenly-anticipated Christmas holiday plans of far more than that number of people had been wrecked, the response to the recall signal was amazing. By Saturday night almost all the crew were back on board the Transvaal, and when the ship sailed she was short of only seven men of her complement of 120. Only one of those who had been ordered back had failed to respond. His telegram reached him the day after the ship sailed. No attempt was made to contact six men who were out of reach of the recall signal and they were replaced by draftees from other ships.

Only when the men reported back on board from leave did they learn that their ship was proceeding to sea early the next morning on a voyage of uncertain duration and bound for an unknown destination. There was work enough for all to keep them busy right up to sailing time.

Although it might have been possible to sail herduring darkness, Commodore Dean had decided that it would probably draw less attention if the Transvaal put to sea at 10 a.m., which was the usual time for the S.A.N.F. ships to go out on routine training cruises in local waters. The last man and the last package were on board at the appointed time. At the last moment the necessity for a minor engine-room adjustment developed. It could have been done outside in the bay, but in view of the importance of the coming voyage and the need to ensure that every item of the ship's equipment was functioning satisfactorily, Lieutenant-Commander Fairbairn decided to wait alongside until the adjustment was completed. By the time he backed his ship quietly and unobtrusively away from the quay at 10.30 a.m. quite a knot of curious spectators had gathered ashore. Among them was at least one newspaperman.

Fairbairn felt the thrill of excitement as he rounded the breakwater and, with the engines rapidly working up to fifteen knots, set his course southward for Cape Point. He alone of those on board knew their destination and their mission. For more than a day and a half now he had kept that secret. Not even his wife had any knowledge of it. He was conscious that the 120 men who were his shipmates and who were to share with him all the adventures and dangers that lay ahead of the Transvaal were burning to share his secret also. But until he was ready to tell them they would continue their puzzled speculations.

And now at last the time had come to reveal the secret. He had authority to do so once the ship was at sea.

And so, having given his men the opportunity to lash and stow, and being now an hour out and off Slangkop, Fairbairn announced to the ship's company over the broadcast system that they were under orders to proceed to, and secretly annex in the name of the Union of South Africa, the Prince Edward Islands.

Copyright John H Marsh (1948)

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