Remembering the South African Navy Frigate, SAS President Kruger. The event of 18th February 1982

The SAS President Kruger was a frigate of the South African Navy. She sank in 1982 with the loss of 16 lives after colliding with her replenishment ship, the SAS Tafelberg, in the South Atlantic.

SAS President Kruger was one of three President-class type 12 frigates obtained by the South African Navy in the 1960s following the Simonstown Agreement with the Royal Navy. She was christened upon launch by the wife of Admiral Hugo Biermann; her home port was Simonstown, near Cape Town.

On 5 August 1969, she was recommissioned after an extensive refit and modernization.
She participated in various operations during the South African Border War, including the Ambrizete Incident.

The aging President Class frigates were earmarked for disposal in 1978, with newer D’Estienne d’Orves class vessels scheduled to replace them. However the imposition of United Nations Security Council Resolution 418 put an end to both the sale of the replacement corvettes, as well as any refurbishment of the President Class frigates.

On 18 February 1982, while under the command of Captain de Lange, the President Kruger was conducting complex exercises with the submarine SAS Emily Hobhouse, another frigate, the SAS President Pretorius and the replenishment ship SAS Tafelberg. The high-intensity exercises progressed from 6 am to 11 pm over several days, with different candidate submarine captains being given an opportunity of executing a mock attack against the Tafelberg. From 11 pm until 6 am, the ships followed a narrow zip-zag course that allowed the submarine repeated opportunities to engage the surface ships in lower-intensity exercises while the bulk of the crew rested.

The frigates too were using the opportunity to carry out anti-submarine exercises, with each ship given a patrol sector ahead of the Tafelberg. The escorts were expected to patrol their areas in a random fashion, between 2,000 feet (610 m) and 5,000 feet (1,500 m) from Tafelberg. The President Kruger’s station was on Tafelberg’s port side between 10 and 330 degrees. The President Steyn had a reciprocal box on the starboard side.

At approximately 4 am, the whole formation had to change direction by 154 degrees, a near complete reversal in direction. The frigates had to change direction first to maintain their protective positions ahead of Tafelberg on the new heading. President Kruger’s options were to turn 200 degrees to port, or 154 degrees to starboard. While the latter turn was smaller and tactically sound, it was more dangerous as it involved turning towards the other two ships. Critically, the officer of the watch (OOW) elected to turn to starboard, and initiated a 10 degree turn. A 10 degree turn had a larger radius and would take longer to execute than a 15 degree turn, thereby allowing Tafelberg more time to close on the ship turning in front of her. Partway through the turn, the operations room lost radar contact with the Tafelberg in the clutter. At that point, an argument ensued between the OOW and the Principal Warfare Officer over the degree of wheel to apply. The OOW was unable to recover the situation, and the bows of the Tafelberg impacted the President Kruger on her port side at the senior ratings’ mess. The President Kruger sank 78 nautical miles (144 km) south west of Cape Point with the loss of sixteen lives.

A Westland Wasp helicopter, operated by 22 Squadron SAAF from the other frigate, rescued crew members from the water.

A naval board of inquiry was commissioned, leading to a finding of a lack of seamanship by the captain and officers of the ship. The Minister of Justice introduced a retrospective change in law to allow him to hold an inquest into the death of one of the seamen. The inquest aportioned blame on the captain and PWO. However none of the officers was court-martialled.
As a result of an international arms embargo against apartheid South Africa, the ship could not be replaced, and was therefore a great loss to the capability and morale of the navy for many years afterwards.
The Navy’s prestigious ‘Cock of the Fleet’ trophy, which had been won by her ship’s crew in the annual rowing regatta, was lost with the ship.

The offiical SAS Presient Kruger website @ http://www.saspresidentkruger.com/

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