My Story

I was 18 years old when I was assigned to do two year national service in the South African Medical Services. I was sent to Potchefstroom to do my basic training. My Basic Training was equal to three months of getting fit as well as learning about the defence force, Biology and medical training. After Basic Training I was sent to 2 Military Hospital for Ops Training and then I asked to go Simonstown Medical Centre where a Doctor and a Medic like me were assigned to a War ship.

In December 1981 I first boarded the SAS President Kruger. The whole reason I wanted to be on this specific ship was, my oldest brother was onboard this ship as well. He worked in the electronic warfare department. Fortunately for him he was drafted off the ship not long after, for training somewhere else.

The ship had a compliment of 193 men, and consisted of the bridge, different decks, and divided into living areas, office areas as well as warfare departments. There were other compartments like the Engine room, storage and cold storage, junior rates mess hall, senior rate’s mess, and officer’s mess, as well as bathrooms and showers and a sickbay.

The Sickbay consisted of an operating table; two cradle beds (like a double bunk but swings with the motion of the ship), lockers full of medical equipment and a toilet. As I arrived I had to learn the who what and where of the ship. Where to eat, daily routine, and sleep onboard was all new to me.

In January 1982 I went on my first trip to Port Elizabeth, the seas were not bad, I had to learn to find my sea legs trying to walk in a straight line down the alley ways (passage) while the ship is rolling around. The only time I felt a bit affected by the ship’s rolling to port and starboard, forward and aft, was after lunch or supper, my stomach felt a bit weird, but I never got sea sick. (By the way, if anyone got sea sick, on any trip, these old sea dogs would make fun of you forever and a day). Motto of the story is never ever get physically sick. Even with the sea not being so bad one of the ship’s crew got sea sick every single day and even with medical treatment he had to be drafted (transferred) off the ship when we returned to Simonstown.

In February 1982 we were told that we must prepare and that we will be going to Walvisbay, Southwest-Africa (Namibia), for at least a week or two. Everybody stocked up with food, water, fuel, and medical, office, ammunition and liquor supplies. We were ready for the trip.

On Monday we left Simonstown and I knew there was something different about this trip, because the sea was more rough than before, and one of the Warrant Officers, mentioned that during Tuesday night water ran into one of the hatches and he has never experienced that before.

On Tuesday during the day one of the men from the engine room, hurt his ankle while going down the stairs. The doctor had a look at him, and because his ankle was very swollen and we did not have luxury facilities like the x-ray machine onboard, the Doctor and I put his leg in plaster of Paris in case it was broken and at least his ankle was stabilized.

Our ship the SAS President Kruger and other War ships as well as a Submarine were engaged in exercises, and basically only the people on bridge and deck would know what is happening, as all other men below deck would go on with their daily task, without knowing where we were going or how fast we were going

Wednesday, 18 February 1982

I woke up with a tremendous crashing sound, the doors of sick bay bursting open and I jumped off the top bunk, dressed only in a tracksuit pants, t shirt and no shoes of course. As I put my feet on the ground I realized that I am standing in fuel oil, in the dark with no lights burning except for a red lights in the alleyway that is on as per normal, I look up towards the passage (alleyway) and all I see is loose wires and what looked like disconnected piping.

I was sleeping in the top bunk and the person sleeping in the bottom bunk was the person who possibly broke his ankle the previous day. Still in a daze we try to find out what actually just happened. To me it looked like a pipe burst in the alley way, as I looked into the passage towards the back of the ship about a meter to the left, I looked straight into a wall of twisted metal blocking off the passage towards the rear exit of the ship, so I knew that I cannot go in that direction and had to turn right towards the front of the ship. I told the seaman who’s leg was in plaster of Paris from his toes up to his knee, and only dressed in shorts, to go to the front of the ship, and he hobbled as fast as he could down the alley way. I never saw him again after that.

As I stepped into the alley way I noticed debris all over the place and sea water already leaking into the passage, as I went past the junior rates bath room I then looked at the outside wall (bulkhead). There was nothing, I was staring into the darkness of night, and as the ship was tilting I saw the white foam as the sea was breaking into the bathroom. Panic stricken by all of this, I knew I had to get away from there to my emergency mustering point which was the officers mess in the front of the ship.

At this time the ship was already starting to list on one side and I had basically walked on hand and feet to get to the front of the ship, getting cuts on my feet from the debris on the deck. On arrival at the wardroom I met up with the Doctor and I asked him if he knew what happened, and he said he heard that a Tanker crashed into our ship (at this stage I thought that the Tanker was a private oil tanker ship, not our own Navy’s Supply ship) The Doctor then said we need to clear the room of the tables and chairs as there will be casualties as the result of the collision. The first casualty arrived, it was a Petty Officer from the cabin where the impact occurred and he was dressed only in his underpants and had lacerations on his body. The Doctor then attended to him, and they covered him in a blanket as he was in shock and cold.

I realised then that I never took my life jacket that was hanging from my bunk, back in the Sick Bay, and went back down the alley way to go and fetch it. Halfway there at the junior rates bathroom I saw sparks flying from an electrical box on the wall, and realized that I cannot get passed it to get my lifejacket, so I turned around and headed back to the wardroom, and from there we were told to “Abandon ship.” We headed for the hatch in front, between the big cannon and the bridge. The ship was already listing about 30 to 40 degrees over to its side at this stage. We crawled up the steps leading up to the bridge on the outside. Close to bridge where the life rafts were kept in grey  looking capsules, we were ordered to jump off from that point one by one in an orderly fashion, as not jump on top of each other(The life rafts were already released prior to our arriving at that point)

Being a medic and not even from the navy, I have never been through an actual drill, and what to do in the event of an emergency and this was enormously overwhelming for me. Not being a good swimmer I asked one of the guys for a life jacket, which I quickly put on. Each life jacket has a little light which is connected to a seawater battery, and when the battery comes into contact with seawater it automatically lights up.

When I eventually jumped into the water, dressed only in a lifejacket, T-Shirt, tracksuit pants and underpants, it hits you like a ton of bricks. The only way I can describe it, is that it’s like being woken up at 4.00am in the morning and told to take an ice cold shower and then go outside while a howling South Easter is blowing. It takes your breath away.

You look around and all you can see are the lights on what seems like a hundred other lifejackets. At first you panic and try to swim, but then you realise there is nowhere to swim to. It’s like me taking you out in the middle of False Bay or Table Bay at night and then asking everybody on Land to switch off all the lights. Its pitch black, there are no reference points. Where do you go from here?

There you are, in pitch darkness, fitted with a lifejacket and thrown into a sea being buffeted by a 30 knot South Easter in water that is 3000m deep, 144km offshore at 4AM. That far out to sea the swells are the size of multi-storey buildings and you lose sight of any others floating with you.

I swam around aimlessly and swallowing seawater (and not knowing fuel oil as well) and vomiting for 5, 10 or 20 minutes (time stood still) praying “God help me please” and in the end said “God I can’t do this anymore” and was ready to give up, when I floated past a sailor who tells me not to try to swim, but rather just to stay afloat. “Do breast-stroke” he says. I know that God put this person right there at that exact moment so that I could survive.

Something brushes past my leg, and reaching down I found I have caught a drogue (a sea anchor, looks like a parachute, designed to prevent lifeboats being blown away by the wind). Pulling me along the rope I arrive at a life raft but it is upside down. Which means you can’t climb into the raft; you just have to hang onto it as it never inflated properly when it was released. Also hanging onto this raft was the Doctor, Captain of the SAS President Kruger, Air Force Pilot and helicopter mechanics as well as the injured person from our ship and other men.

I spend the next two to three hours hanging onto the side of it, first with this arm, then with that arm, desperate not to let go. Somebody decided, in order to keep our spirits up, to sing songs, ironically one of the songs was “My Bonnie lies over the ocean

The Warship SAS President Pretorius was close to us during that exercise and made a wide turn and basically drifted without propulsion as not to hurt anybody in the process and started picking up guys from the water. This was a lengthy process as the swell was pushing the guys up against the Ship that was rescuing us, as high as the deck and then in the next few seconds, you would drop meters below to almost the keel of the ship.

Then at last a rescue harness was lowered from the side of the flight deck, it was my turn to be hoisted up against the side of the ship. I’m telling you, there was no better feeling, when I safely put my feet onboard the SAS President Pretorius, I swear I could have kissed the deck, just to know that I am safe and don’t have to battle it out there against the elements.

By this time it was getting lighter outside, it was round about 6 or 7am. Onboard the SAS President Pretorius you see a sailor standing at the side with a rifle. The thoughts pass through your mind – why would they want to shoot you, they’ve come to rescue you! You learn later that they were there to shoot sharks. Sharks! It hasn’t occurred to me once that there might be sharks that could attack us.

After we got rescued by the SAS President Pretorius I was taken to have a shower, and given lots of soap to wash off the fuel oil we were drifting in, we were pitch black from head to toes. After the hot shower we were given navy overalls and tackies. A roll call (Head Count) was done by senior Ranks of the SAS President Pretorius every hour or so as more and more people were rescued, a recount was done to make sure all of us were identified. We weren’t sure who was rescued and who was not as some of The President Kruger’s crew were picked up by the SAS Tafelberg (the replenishment ship that crashed into us) whom, after assessing their damages, came back to assist with the rescue effort.

I will never forget as we sailed into False Bay that evening, we were sitting in the junior rates mess (dining hall) and someone put the TV on, and there we were on prime time TV news on SABC as we were sailing towards the harbour, filmed from a helicopter above.

I can’t remember exactly at what time we came alongside the pier, but we were escorted to a waiting bus, and from there we were taken to Simonsberg where our family and friends were waiting for us. There were lots of tears of joy to see us but let me tell you there were lots tears of loss as well. I only understand now having met some of the deceased family and friends what they must have gone through that night and thereafter.  It is sad, very sad, and I often think of the guys who did not survive, and the good times we had together.

We were each given a lousy R50 and a week’s leave to recover from the experience.

WOW!!!!

This tragedy was all over the news for days and months and even after I finished my national service I had to go to the Cape Town court for the inquest. Immediately after the event military intelligence confiscated all photographs and speaking about it was strictly forbidden. Searching the internet even now you will find very little about this tragic event, yet there were 16 lives lost that night.

I still have the watch I was wearing, with its hands forever stopped at that time.

I was serving as a Medic, seconded from the SA Medical Services, on board SAS President Kruger and returned to Simonstown Medical Centre where I finished my National service on dry land.

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Responses

  1. hi, i got this lovely story on the web and would like to use it as caption for a pic. who are you? what is your name? many thanks. francois swanepoel

  2. Wow! Thanks for this. I hadn’t realized just how close this was to a complete disaster. I served on the Kruger during my national service in 1964. I was a UW3 rating and also did Quartermaster duties.
    Strangely my father and I gave a lift to a sailor who was hitching on a deserted road between Middleburg and Wolwekranz in the Eastern Transvaal. He had been on the Kruger at the time of sinking and told us his experience. We dropped him off a while later also in the middle of nowhere.

  3. thank you for sharing the story. I was an ops medic as well but I did my course in 1992. I joined the navy pf after my general service year and stayed in the navy band as a musician for almost 20 years before resigning service in 2013. I have often heard stories about the terrible accident but never knew how it all happened. I guess it will never really be known except by the officials of the time. what a terrible experience it must have been, and how tragic that so many good sailors lives were lost because of an accidental collision.

  4. I was a chef in the Navy on the PK in 1972. Ten years later, in 1982, I was doing a camp in Walvisbaai when the news came that the PK sank. Of course all us PK Old Boys were quite shattered at the news. In my town there lives someone who survived the disaster. I only know him as Erich and I think he was a Leading Seaman at the time. Regards. Pierre Massyn.

  5. My uncle drowned on this ship and I am trying to find information about what happened as his family in the U.K. Know very little about what actually took place. This helps, thank you.

  6. Thanks, yes it was a very sad day 18 February 1982. My farther also died that day on SAS President Kruger.

  7. We were at that time in the morning Patrolling in the Cape town Coast, on board of one the Naval Warships Mine Sweepers. We did reoeived the Radio Call around 04h00 in the morning about, the Accident between the SAS P.K. and the SAS Tafelberg.

  8. I also served as a national serviceman on the PK as boiler room mac. I was just about to be relieved from my 12 to 4 shift when accident happened. Was thrown about 4m from catladder to up against the port boiler. Within 5 to 10 minutes enginroom was flooded. I have read numerous stories around the sinking of the PK but no one seems to say any thing about us guys that kept the donkey boiler going for as long as we could so that sailers would be able to find their way. We were the last of in total darkness.

    • Marius Gerber this is your time to say something since no one else on here was doing what you were doing. It would seem that your roll was extremely heroic and its a miracle that you survived. please do tell the entire story of your roll that day and exactly what happened in he boiler room that fateful evening. I am just wondering if you were ever recommended for the honorus crux as i think you deserve to get awarded this medal along with any surviving crew that helped you in the boiler room that night. If you dis not receive this award I will see if I can make an application for this award possible as I have certain contacts still in the Navy that may be able to advise. my email address is gmacd2009@gmail.com so please make contact if you want me to find out if that is even possible so long after the event. I think you deserve recognition and the Navy may well agree. kind regards. George

  9. In 2003 when I was undertaking photographic research on the life of Group Captain AG ” Sailor ” Malan at the South African Library in the Gardens, Cape Town ( now National Library of SA Cape Town campus ), the librarians on duty asked me to look through a box of black and white printed photographs that had just arrived. These miscellaneous photographs were dumped from the photo archives of Die Burger and donated to the SA Library. In the box were scores of photographs taken at Simonstown that very morning as the survivors landed by Die Burger’s photographer who got the tip off to be at the dock in Simonstown. One photograph I remember is of a haggard and wet Captain Wim de Lange and other survivors coming ashore.
    So the photographs which military intelligence never got are all now in the library. Hope you find them..Best wishes SVN – History Alive

    • Thank you, I will gave a look to see what they have available.

  10. thank you for sharing the above – i found it fascinating – respects to all the family who lost loved ones

  11. During my ACF service in 1965-66 I spent 3 months aboard the PK. Being a simple AB1 I recall all the menial tasks that we, the lowest ratings had to carry out, but in general I recall my time on the ship with some fondness. When I first arrived on the ship I was put to work scrubbing alleyways and applying a water-based shine product afterwards. Of course, it was hilarious for some of the crew to spend a bit of time dirtying up the alleys as you cleaned, but the job always got done. I also did some repainting and was put on a wooden platform secured to the ship by some dodgy looking ropes, wondering when I’d go flying down into the sea many feet below when a rope broke. I can’t recall doing much actual painting, it was mostly half-hearted preparation and lots of laughs and chat with my co-painter. I recall the uncomfortable hammocks we slept in in the ratings mess, the night time red lights, the constant comforting hum of a ‘live’ ship and the passage of Petty Officers going to and from their mess, forehead of our mess, the watertight door between us being opened and closed with a bang at all hours. Surprisingly I soon learned to sleep through the noise and during shore leave (most weekends) I found it quite hard to get to sleep in my own, very quiet bedroom at home. Once, we left the harbour and headed into False Bay to do steering trials. Most ratings had the day off and a lot of us took advantage of the beautiful day to do some tanning on the aft deck. The Captain would take the vessel to full speed, which was, I think, a none too shabby 30 knots and then he’d swing the helm full to port or starboard and the ship would heel over to the point that the aft deck was mostly awash, some sun tanners just managing to hold on for dear life as the wash threatened to tear them into the sea. This went on for the best part of a day and I’ll remember it always. There was a really happy atmosphere aboard that day and it was amusing to wait until the ship was fully heeled over and walk down an alleyway with one foot on the deck and the other on a bulkhead, because using the alleyway as normal was simply impossible. I was soon transfered to the much-envied post of Coxwain’s writer. Why envied? Well, who wrote the rotors? Who got left off at least 75% of weekend duties? The Swain was a big bloke, Warrant Grove. He was OK to work with and we got on pretty well, as I recall. He cut himself shaving one morning and his collar was stained. When he came into the office (just a double-width passageway with an opening porthole) he told me to go and get a saucer of milk. ‘Why?’, I asked, ‘Have we got a cat?’ Not pleased with the question I was shouted at to get the effing milk and stop asking stupid questions. When I got back with the milk, he’d taken off his shirt and proceeded to dip the bloodied collar into the milk. The stain vanished! I still use this trick today and I’m now in my 70s.One morning the ship was stationary in the Bay and there was a big, slow swell. I was at my typewriter and the porthole was open and one of the little diesel generators had its exhaust just forward of the porthole. Slowly I started to feel a bit poorly, then suddenly I had to stick my head as close to the window as possible and spew what seemed like two years worth of food intake into the Bay. The puking did nothing to resolve the sick feeling, but with nothing left to throw up it didn’t seem to matter much. Then I had a bright idea, why not close the porthole and stop the fumes from getting into the office? Duh. Within ten minutes of doing this, the sick feeling had subsided sufficiently for me to carry on typing, although not at the usual full tilt. On this same foray into the Bay, we were told that the ship’s ‘master switch’ was being thrown and everything would stop. We had to stop talking or walking about. This was an exercise to stay ‘hidden’ from an enemy sub. It was one of the wierdest experiences of my life. The ship suddenly became a big, dead floating thing, with all the life taken out of it. It was amazing how even a whisper could be heard in the next room and it made you realise just how noisy she was when working normally. I also remember the amazing hot, hot showers, pressure fed into shower cubicles with room for three….if you were that way inclined, of course. After three months on the ship I asked to be transferred to SAS Scala, where ‘Betsy’ the huge nine inch gun was still fired once a year. The Simonstown residents were given fair warning of the occasion, so they could open all their windows to prevent the glass shattering from the massive concussion as the gun was fired. Sadly, I now understand that this previously impeccably maintained gun has fallen into disrepair and has to some extent been vandalised. I enjoyed my final three months at Scala as a driver, but I’ll always remember with fondness the lovely President Kruger and my time with her as a Torpedo Anti-Submarine operative. I spent a chilled-out Christmas Day 1965 on board and the Chef fed us like kings, with a selection of roasts and lots of Christmas pudding. I was always proud to be associated with the Kruger, it was a well maintained, fast, fine handling little ship and it made me terribly sad when I heard she’d been so tragically brought to her end, even more poignantly with human life ending too, as she died. RIP to those who died and also to the F150 President Kruger. herself.


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