J.B. McLoughlin # 641 – 1932/33

In that excellent history War in the Southern Oceans, it is stated:

“Occasional patrols were flown to intercept Vichy ships believed to be passing the Cape, but without success. A special patrol on 13 July (1941) found Hannington Court on fire 92 miles from Robben Island and the derelict was kept under observation until the 19th when it was sunk by gunfire from HMS Dragon”.

There was, however, more to it than that ………

We, in HMSAS Cedarberg, were on local patrol of the Western approach to the port of Cape Town, the line of patrol being from Mouille Point to Robben Island. An urgent signal was received to proceed to a ship on fire about 100 miles to the Westward. Waiting only for a patrol relief, we took off for the given position at full speed. The weather was good, wind light and patches of mist. The usual Cape swells kept us rolling on our way. A few hours out, we passed one of the converted anti-submarine trawlers HMSAS Mooi-vlei, or Blomvlei, and they signalled that they had picked up the crew of Hannington Court from that vessel’s lifeboats.

Our arrival at the derelict was at first light. She was easily located as the glow of the fire was lighting up the Western sky as if the sun was about to rise there. What a sight the ship was, very little smoke, although she had a full cargo of sugar burning and was on fire throughout her whole length except for the poop, which still appeared to be unaffected. One could see stringer and ribs right through the red, sometimes white hot, side plating. Steam rose in clouds as she rolled and pitched in the Southern ocean swell.

Was she worth a try at salvage ? We thought so and with great care the CO, Lieut. (Daddy) Brown, put our starboard bow against her port quarter. Waiting for a suitable chance, Sub Lieut. (Johnny) Walker and two ratings jumped aboard. They found the deck to be very hot and quickly skipped their way right aft, where it was cooler. Our big worry was the ammunition for the ship’s 6″ gun on the poop, in both the ready use lockers and in the magazine below.

The three of them quickly found the insurance wire on its geared reel and after passing the end eye of it through a fairlead, lowered it down to us. To it we shackled our heaviest manila rope. They continued playing out slack until they deemed that enough had been let out, then with the aid of a chain stopper, turned up on the ship’s bitts. They then slid down a rope to rejoin us. We had been hanging on waiting for them with some difficulty, discomfort and trepidation.

Away we went, only too pleased to get away from the threat of exploding 6″ ammunition. We slacked away on the manila and then turned up on both our after and for’ard bitts, being a bit nervous of their being pulled right out of the deck when we took the weight.

Slowly, we went ahead to take up the slack of the wire. Then it happened. We took the strain just we were lifted by a huge swell and the tow-rope, both wire and manila whipped viciously up out of the water like a striking snake. The gear held, but the bo’sun shook his head.

“No good, sir,” he said. “We’ll never get her back now !”.

How right he was. No sooner had we got her moving than she slewed round to starboard, taking complete charge despite all our engine-room’s efforts. Three times we tried, always with the same result, with us almost alongside her with our fire hoses going because of the great heat. Her rudder had been left hard over !

The weather was worsening, blowing up from the NW when we reluctantly abandoned our salvage attempt. We hauled in our manila and slipped the tow, leaving the Hannington Court to her fate and headed back to Cape Town.

You may ask why the Bo’sun shook his head and why he was so pessimistic about the whole thing. Well, as we took the initial strain and the tow-rope whipped up, a solitary albatross, minding his own business, flying over the boundless waters of the South Atlantic and with all the infinity of space and time on his side, chose that exact moment to fly over the rope at just the right height. It struck him a murderous blow and he cartwheeled into the sea like a black and white cross to drift away, a pathetic bundle of feathers in a rising wind.

Always bad luck to kill an albatross, they say, but on this occasion our luck was better than his. We at least got home safe and sound.

I have often wondered what the crew of the Dragon made of the heavy wire leading over Hannington Court’s stern and what they though it was for – whale fishing ?