Wrens in Durban

The port of Durban in South Africa became an important stopping point for merchant and naval shipping during World War II on its long journey from India and the East to the United Kingdom and back again. The city was a paradise after the hazards of wartime Britain and soon had a sizeable Royal Navy and Royal South African Navy presence. For those trooping out to the east, it was a welcome break with time to see the sights and relax before continuing their journeys. One of the highlights for tourists in Durban then (and indeed to this day) was to take a ride in the brightly coloured rickshaws around the city. In 1902 there had been over 2000 licensed rickshaws although today it is less than 20 and they are limited to the promenade. The rickshaws were pulled by a single man, usually wearing exotic headdresses designed and made by their wearers and in today’s photograph we can see a group of four Wrens enjoying such a ride in the Autumn of 1942:

Durban rickshaws are unusual in having a smaller wheel set at the rear between the two main wheels and the rickshawmen are known to suddenly make a yodeling sound and tip the rickshaw backwards to the surprise and amusement of their passengers!

Durban was a busy port throughout the war and Les Pivnic was a young boy living in the city for whom all this activity was fascinating:

My dad was a sergeant-pharmacist in the South African Medical Corps and was first stationed at Baragwanath Military Hospital to the south-west of Johannesburg. In 1942 he was transferred to Snell Parade Military Base in Durban and, while he was there, he also served at the Sick Bay on the Bluff before being shipped ‘Up North’ to the Middle East a year or so later. My mother and I lived in a residential hotel on the Esplanade during this time and I attended Addington School, on South Beach, close to the harbour. My classmates and I were acutely aware of the War, because we had air-raid practice once a day, every day. This was brought about by the fact that a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft had flown over Durban during 1942…

Allied convoys would often call at Durban en route to the Middle East and other theatres of war. It was too risky to allow the vessels to drop anchor in the roadstead off Durban, so the ships were all admitted to the Port and banked in multiples at each berth in the harbour. Seeing these troopships in their drab grey paint was quite a sight. We were not allowed into the restricted harbour areas during the War, but it was easy to see the ships standing tall behind the sheds on the quayside.

The exception to the drab grey troopships and naval vessels was the regular appearance of hospital ships and, in particular, the Oranje, Tjijalengka, and Amra were frequent visitors. As hospital ships, these vessels were painted overall white with a wide green band running the length of the hull with a large red cross amidships and slightly smaller red crosses at the bow and stern. These ships brought battle-scarred patients down to South Africa for treatment of their wounds in military hospitals, notably at Oribi, near Pietermaritzburg. They also conveyed mainly British soldiers who had contracted tuberculosis in the Western Desert campaign. The latter were transported by South African Railways’ hospital trains from the quayside to Baragwanath Hospital near Johannesburg.

Durban Maydon Wharf Drydock 1942 : Hospital Ship ORANJE having a refit : photo : SAR.

My dad went ‘up North’ on the Amra and, although she was supposed to be protected by the Geneva Convention, she still had periods at sea when all the lights were switched off due to the presence of German and Japanese submarines in the area.

The Royal Navy also visited Durban regularly during the War. In the early 1940s, HMS Nelson, that great battleship with three triple 16-inch gun turrets all mounted ahead of her bridge, called in at Durban with several other notable ships like the aircraft carrier, HMS Eagle. When the Nelson entered the harbour, I was told that she only had a couple of inches to spare between her keel and the seabed.

Durban Harbour 14.12.40 : Troopship convoy in Port : photo SAR.

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