A Biographical Note on the life and career of
Captain G. V. Legassick DSC RD RNR
Captain Ian Manning SM MMM South African Navy [Ret]
Published by The Naval Heritage Trust, PO Box 521, Simon’s Town 7995. Pages: 278
The average cadet at the SA Nautical College General Botha knew very little about their Captain Superintendent, Commander George Victor Legassick RNR. He was of the old school who did not easily engage in small talk with teenage boys, especially when they were cadets in his charge.
Ian Manning’s meticulously researched biography on this enigmatic man reveals for the first time the fullness of his life and the high aspirations he had for the General Botha, an institution he served with uncommon zeal and vision. It also reveals more about the sly, contemptible and vindictive manner in which the Nationalist Government summarily fired him for no good reason
This book traces Captain Legassick’s early days as a Merchant Navy officer at sea during the depression of the 1930s and his subsequent naval career in World War II. We cadets knew he had commanded escorts in the Western Approaches and that one of them was sunk but that was about all. The small talk during Sunday evening dinners with the Captain Superintendent and Mrs Legassick, to which small groups of cadets were occasionally invited, was directed at gaining an insight into our various backgrounds and did not encourage any reciprocal probing into his life.
Ian’s book provides a fascinating glimpse into Captain Legassick’s early life and the experiences which equipped him with the knowledge and foresight to turn around the fortunes of the foundering “Ship” and drive her forward to become one of the world’s finest mercantile marine training institutions – on a par with her naval equivalents of Dartmouth and Annapolis.
Unfortunately, “Gus”, as that is how we cadets referred to him, was – like many of his English middle class contemporaries – blind to the social evolution surrounding them both at home and abroad. Their affected manner implied a superiority of culture and outlook which infuriated their hosts and counterparts in the then British Dominions and other countries. Undoubtedly this played into the hands of the Department of Education’s Broederbond officials who knew little of maritime matters and cared even less and simply dismissed him for reasons of political ideology after eleven years of efficient and honourable service. It is a timely reminder that the old nationalist regime’s ideologies were not limited to Black/White matters.
Wilhelm Grutter’s book on the history of the General Botha “A name among Seafaring Men” records the high esteem with which the college was held in seafaring circles. It, together with its British counterparts Conway and Worcester, produced cadets who were highly sought after by the then vast Commonwealth Merchant Service. Captain Legassick’s post-war contribution to the General Botha was innovative and effective. He was a visionary whose holistic approach to the management of the college and firm leadership of staff and cadets was years ahead of its time. Some may call him a martinet but from his own hard won knowledge of life at sea, he recognised the value and necessity for the attributes of an ability to work hard, integrity, duty, loyalty and service. These values, which we all assimilated to a greater or lesser degree during our two years under his guidance stood us in good stead for the rest of our careers. This clearly came to the fore during the 50th reunion of my class, when so many of my classmates played tribute to the formative effect of the “Ship” on their lives.
Many did not like Captain Legassick but very few did not respect him. He was a living embodiment of the General Botha’s motto of “Honour and Duty”, principles which guided him to his end despite the cruel blow to his fortunes.
This is a book about the life of a seaman in a time that is now history; yet we can still learn much from it when integrity, duty and service were honourable and highly respected traits in a man’s character. A far cry from today’s shallow obsession with so called celebrities and their sleazy antics.
Although the title of the book has a negative theme, I believe that over the longer course of time, Captain Legassick’s true legacy, which is embodied in the lives and careers of the many cadets who served under him, is now recognised and this book will do much to propagate this amongst those who are interested in South Africa’s maritime history.