‘His last Good time on this earth’- Hermanus life during World War II

For Hermanus, the years of World War II (1939-1945) were full of interesting change, new faces and much sadness. The sadness was linked to the fate of Hermanus residents in the fighting in North Africa and Europe, and to the injuries and suffering of many soldiers, sailors and airmen sent to Hermanus to recover from their experiences, or, in some cases, to come to terms that they would never be as they were before.

Hermanus had already established a proud record in World War I when the town had the highest level of volunteering per size of population in the British Empire. The War Memorial was erected near the Old Harbour in 1929 to commemorate the 11 volunteers who never returned. In 1939 the level of volunteering was high again. This time 15 volunteers did not return and their names were added to those already on the War Memorial. Also added was the name of Roger Bushell, “Big X” in the story of the Great Escape, whose grandparents and (later) parents lived in Hermanus, though he had received his university education in Britain and practised law in London.

The War had a huge impact on ‘tourism’ to the town. The military authorities in Cape Town determined that troops could only travel short distances on leave, to conserve fuel, and set the limit at 100 miles. Hermanus was just a little nearer to Cape Town than the 100 mile limit and troops were easily able to spend their leave here. And they came in numbers, flooding the hotels and guesthouses. There were thirteen accommodation establishments operating during the War, the most popular of which were the Marine, the Bayview and the Riviera hotels.

The best source of information about troops and hotels at this time is the Wartime Journal of Berdine Luyt, excerpts of which have been published by S J du Toit in “Hermanus Stories III”. Berdine Luyt (1916-1980) was one of the daughters of the owner of the Marine Hotel, P J Luyt and his wife Joey, and worked full time at the hotel during the War. Berdine describes the population of the town as being deeply involved in war work, making socks and gloves, accommodating soldiers, organising entertainments, participating in events to raise money for war funds – and finding enough food for everyone. There was no flour for white bread, almost everything else was rationed and two days a week were designated ‘meatless days’.

Berdine describes two kinds of soldier. The first was one who was simply on leave: “Hermanus was crowded with soldiers, sailors and airmen – many of them merely on holiday from the camps and in transit to or from the battlefields of the world.” The Marine was always stretched to capacity for these troops on leave. And the Luyts tried to find a place for everyone: “…we put them up wherever we could; often, when the hotel was full, in our own private sitting room upstairs and in the sitting rooms of obliging guests who had suites. We once had six sailors sleeping in the billiard room on camp stretchers for a week.”

Berdine saw the second kind of soldier as very different: “…wounded, convalescent…ill, disabled, shocked or trying to heal.” She felt the same about both groups: “We never knew who of all the brave boys we met was having their last good time on earth (in Hermanus).”

Despite the understandable preoccupation with the War, a really significant event took place locally, the consequences of which are with us today. In 1941 the town of Hermanus came into existence, with roughly the area it has today. Prior to this date three local authorities operated in the Hermanus area. There was Hermanus itself, that is, the old Hermanuspietersfontein, renamed Hermanus in 1902. It covered the area roughly from Mount Pleasant to Hoy’s Koppie. To the east of Hermanus was an independent Village Management Board, administering the area from Lord Roberts Street to the Mossel River, and known as Poole’s Bay. To the east of the Mossel River was the third village, named Mossel River and which continued to the Klein River Estuary, thereby including all of the present Voëlklip. The negotiations for the merger were sensitive and protracted and it is agreed that a major role was played by Miss A M (Bebas) Smuts, sister of General Jan Smuts, who had retired to Hermanus and served as Mayor from 1941 to 1946. Despite the difficulties, the merger took place and altered the future of the town forever.

Occupancy of the hotels was further boosted by the arrival of families living in (then) Rhodesia, East and West Africa and Mocambique who would usually have holidayed in Europe or the United Kingdom, but were not able to reach those destinations. There were also refugees fleeing from the Japanese advances in the Far East. They also could not get beyond the Cape. Among these refugees were the wife and daughter of a little known Russian artist, Vladimir Tretchikoff. They stayed in Cape Town while Tretchikoff remained incarcerated in a Japanese concentration camp. At the end of the War he made his way to Cape Town and the family stayed there permanently, visiting the Marine Hotel in Hermanus for holidays on a least two occasions.

Hermanus was directly affected by the war at sea. German U boats operated along the coast from Walvis Bay to Lourenco Marques and took a terrible toll of Allied merchant shipping. An authoritative account lists 156 vessels sunk or damaged in that area during the War, with 15 being sunk between Simons Town and Cape Agulhas. From 1941 to the end of the War Hermanus was placed under blackout every night. Even the light in the Danger Point lighthouse was dimmed. Rumours of German spies being landed from U boats circulated regularly in the town, though no spy was ever captured.

The War came even closer in 1943 when a squadron of RAF pilots began to undertake missions to detect the locations of U boats, so that the information could be passed to ships sailing along the coast. These could then take steps to avoid the submarine. From a base on the Bot River Estuary, they flew Catalina flying boats, with a cruising time of 17 hours, but they had light armament and were equipped with depth charges, which were effective only against submerged U boats. They could not effectively engage a U boat that was on the surface.

The 25 RAF pilots fitted easily into Hermanus life. Some stayed at the Onrust Hotel and others in Hermanus. They participated in entertainments, especially dances, raised funds and, in late 1943, played a major role in repairing damage caused to the Onrust River bridge (now on the R43) which had been completely destroyed by a huge flood.

In 1940 the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory was opened on a site in what is now Hospital Road. The original Magnetic Observatory had operated in Cape Town, but, as the city grew and the railways electrified, electrical interference began to disturb the readings in the Observatory. There was no chance of this happening in Hermanus and the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory operated here under that name for 69 years. In 2010 its scope of work was enlarged and it was renamed the South African National Space Agency. Sign posts reading “Space Agency” appeared at some intersections in the town, causing not a little interest among visitors.

World War II was in some ways a turning point in the history of Hermanus. The original three Villages became a much bigger, single town, with a Municipality. The town was established as a popular holiday destination and showed that it could cope with inflows of visitors. The pattern was set for the transition from a village economy based on fishing to a town where tourism and, finally, eco-tourism would become the economic driver.