THE DAY WHEN SUE LABUSCHAGNE, SWAN, SANK A U BOAT IN SOUTH AFRICAN WATERS
Taken from Code Name Oath 19, the technical diving book.
“Saldanha Bay (about 55 miles west of Cape Town, on the Atlantic Ocean) was known as North Port during the Second World War. Some wits called it ‘North Pole’ and the harbour was important for the war effort, it acted as a convoy staging point and hence had to be protected. They used heavy naval guns and minefields, especially between Hoetjies Point and Marcus Island as well as the area between Marcus Island and Elands Point. This was manned by not the Pongoes (Naval slang, he meant Army lads, army artillery) but by Naval Forces, included in which was a platoon of SWANS.”
“SWANS, South African Women’s Auxiliary Naval Service,” Angelique said dutifully as he glanced at her curiously, of course, she would know. “Trained in controlled mining operations. This was done to release more trained men for sea duty, not for liberal reasons to promote women.”
“Ahem, yes, quite, different times, of course, women knew their place and men were men (Angelique looked up sharply at this wisdom, Foxtrot). They arrived in April of 1944 for duty. As you know, Saldana is a somewhat remote place even today and then must have looked like the moon to many of the girls. Nevertheless, they settled down, their training and enthusiasm better than the men’s to be honest. Now how the defensive mining system worked was reading the electro-magnetic field that ran around the underwater minefield. If a submarine entered the field, it would change the readings and they would blow the mines manually underneath or close to the submarine. As far as they knew, only metal could disturb the readings, not whales or anything else. Keep in mind that explosives only explode once, this was hit and miss, they better be sure before detonating it, one shot only.”
In Saldana Bay, the SWANS quickly took over from the men, they started watching the MAD dials to see if a submarine is close. The idea was that they would blow the mines manually if something goes over it. Many tons of explosives were placed on the seabed and wired for command detonation. A minefield was created.
“Fair enough, and then what happened?” Angelique asked, attentive, after all, her gender was involved.
“A dance took place, on June 1st, 1944, a dance was arranged and Leading Seaman Sue Labuschagne was on duty, she volunteered or was asked, so that others could attend the dance. She detected an anomaly in the minefield at 22h50 at night and informed the Officer of the Day, a Lieutenant de Beer. He checked her conclusions and called her commander, harbour defence expert Lieutenant Commander Holmes, who arrived at great speed. Clearly, they had a problem, something was moving over their sea mines and a convoy was waiting inside the harbour proper, this was serious.”
We nodded, a submarine inside a bay among the merchant vessels, heavily loaded, cannot miss his targets, many ships would be sunk. U-boats usually attacked at night, hiding in the shadows, to get them, an experimental laser beam system was set up across the Gibraltar Straights, infrared and very fancy for the time. The shore defence lass had to do what was needed. I would have blown the sea mines if in charge.
“At 23h19, according to the logs, Lieutenant Commander Holmes told Sue to set off the sea mines and she did, she pulled the lever. Sixteen tons of TNT went up with a roar which impressed the lads at the dance, surely so. At the same time, the searchlights went on with sirens shrieking away. The dancers came rushing back and the search for U-boat wreckage started the next morning at daylight. That is where things went wrong, no wreckage was found. Then an asdic (sonar) search spotted a U-boat’s conning tower laying on the seabed, hurrah! Alas, that turned out to be an oddly shaped rock, now changed forever by depth charges galore. No evidence would be found ever of any wreckage, not even in 1970 when the harbour was modernised (deep dredging, Angelique).”
“So what was it she blew up? I mean, if sixteen tons of TNT goes up under your ass, there would be precious little wreckage, to begin with.” Angelique defended her gender bravely and as expected. I told her once that she was behind the cattle in importance, an honourable position, but one she had a problem with, she became very violent (Foxtrot ran away, Angelique). “Just because you found nothing is not to say there was nothing. Tannie (Afrikaans, older woman) Sue was picked on by jealous men, yes, I have experienced that myself in years gone by!”
I suppose she did as does every other woman in the world. Men tend to judge by looks, not brains, it is wrong.
“Eh, quite, Mrs Dawson. But then a rumour started going around that she fired the explosives because she lost out on the dance, yes, her section, she was not alone, became known as ‘The Death Watch’ since then on. On the other hand, we also know that the German Kriegsmarine did report a submarine lost on the night of the incident in the North Port area. Perhaps Mrs Dawson is correct, well she is technically, to be sure, sixteen tons of TNT will destroy a submarine, there will be nothing left to find.” The flag captain ended his story.
“And the minefield is still there?” Liam wanted to know.
This was crucial to him. He went white in the face during the tale, a remarkable feat for a black guy. I suspected his recent training mission at Saldana was the usual stuff that the sea warfare lads do, meeting the submarine in the dark, close to the shores or in other words, right among the old minefield, highly unstable by now. He would certainly see this as another attempted murder, again by the surface lads, this time at Naval HQ, a place not admired by the seafarers, if they failed to warn him.
“No, my word, no. It was blown on Van Riebeeck day, April 6, 1945, probably for festive reasons too. As you should know, the day was a holiday back then. The war was over with Germany if not yet Japan and Japan was not seen as a great invasion threat or submarine threat anymore. It was considered easier to blow the mines than to recover them and must have been a sight when they went up. I don’t know if they used ripple fuses or blew all at once.”
* Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape of Good Hope on April 6, 1652, since then the day was a public holiday, summarily ended in 1994, being “colonialism,” GMJ.
“It must have been a sight when it blew,” Angelique said pensively. “I love explosives and am an artist with all known types, ask Geelslang and Foxtrot. What is your gut feeling, Captain? Did Sue Labuschagne sink a U-boat that night or not?” Angelique queried again, standing up for her gender.
She was frowning severely about the “party” rumour, clearly not amused.
We all have opinions, they are worth as much as the man giving them. If a liberal opens his mouth we know he is lying or the village idiot and probably both, we start laughing before he finishes his sentence. Hopefully, he will then get upset and the swinging can start in peace, we don’t mind kicking his ass behind the gym. When a known historical buff like the flag captain gives an opinion, you may want to take some note.
“She sank that submarine, Mrs Dawson. Look, both officers, Lieutenant de Beer and Lieutenant Commander Holmes tracked the target with her. She only fired the explosives when it, the target, was leaving the area after it could not penetrate the harbour boom nets and on Holmes’ instruction. Yes, I think she sunk a U-boat and remember, the Kriegsmarine did acknowledge losing a boat around that area at that time. Two and two give us four in this Navy. Leading Seaman Sue was not, though, as far as I know, decorated for her actions. If so, wrongly so, she deserved a medal.”
“But that was not the only one sunk here, was it?”
Angelique was shaking her head sadly at the blatant discrimination against Sue Labuschagne, 66 years ago in 2010. At a time when medals were handed out by the millions, that was abnormal. She should have gotten more recognition.
So, let us remember Sue Labuschagne when telling the story of submarines around the South African coast – discussed in detail in Code Name Ghost, the submarine book.
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