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Hugh Baakens' Diary

Highs and lows of a once proud vessel

IT’s back to matters nautical and nice this week. On your columnist’s desk is the latest Naval Digest sent along by Roger Williams, Cape Town journalist and still busy years after his retirement as chief reporter of the Cape Times.

There’s no direct Port Elizabeth connection with the subject of this volume, (HM)SAS Pietermaritzburg, but local ex-navy men who might have served in the ship will appreciate its story – as has Hugh who had no personal links with the vessel.

The tragedy of the Pietermaritzburg is that she is no more: scuttled and turned into an artificial reef off Simon’s Town after desperate efforts to raise the vast sum needed to preserve her as a nautical museum.

Fortunately, the story of this gallant vessel and those who served in her lives on, recorded by Roger.

But the loss of that living link with British and South African naval history continues to be mourned.

As HMS Pelorus, the Algerie class fleet minesweeper played a heroic part in the Second World War, leading the D-day fleet across the Channel under the command of Cdr George Nelson DSC who sent the Admiral a brave signal reminding him that Nelson was in the van.

Perhaps another reason why the ship prospered was that she had world-renowned actress Vivien Leigh, heroine of Gone with The Wind as her sponsor.

The star always took an interest in the ship and visited it whenever possible. And she continued to follow its fortunes after its transfer to the South African Navy as HMSAS Maritzburg, soon altered to Pietermaritzburg.

This particular Naval Digest chronicles the vessel’s story – its achievements and its misfortunes, too, not least a collision with a Royal Naval vessel in a joint exercise.

That was a low point. But there were high ones, too, not least when a gallant South African of Nordic extraction was captain.

Jack Netterberg SM DSC was a legend. Ashore, he found an excuse to stop at every pub. But he was brave and daring at sea where he seemed impervious to hardship, increasing it for himself by taking cold baths whatever the weather and eschewing heavy weatherproof gear.

It says much for his memory that his funeral when it came was more of a celebration of his life than a time for seeking comfort in cups of tea.

We’ve talked about the Naval Digest before. This is Volume 6 and once again Roger and his fellow workers have done a superb job.

Want a copy? Fogarty’s will soon have it in stock and Teresa or Rhona or any other members of the team will be happy to keep one for you.

AS a reporter, Hugh found himself attending many farewells but none has been as poignant as the one at SAS Donkin last Saturday night when the base said farewell to Lt Cdr Tom Dreyer, its paymaster for many years. He is to retire with his wife, Christine, to Betty’s Bay in the Western Cape.

Curiously, one of the many ships in which he served as a Citizen Force member was SAS Pietermaritzburg and the badge of that ship is one of five which adorn a handsome mirror presented to him by Cdr Gordon Webber on behalf of SAS Donkin at the farewell ceremony.

But that was only one of many generous presents handed to him and Christine by his shipmates and friends.

The Dreyers have a son, Rudolf, who lives at the Cape and their daughter, Hanli, is in Port Elizabeth.

Tom’s naval service began in 1948 when he volunteered and his work as a paymaster at Port Rex, East London and later at SAS Donkin has earned him many decorations – not least the John Chard Decoration and the Medal of Military Merit.

He’ll be sorely missed.

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