Late morning on 02 October
2009 was a cool spring day when a solemn, however
significant ceremony took place. Eight nautical
miles off Slangkop, with the majestic Chapman’s Peak
outlining the southern shoreline of Hout Bay and the
Sentinel distantly on guard to the north, naval chaplain
Padre Ralph Thornley gave the orders to commit to the
deep the body of 84 year-old Cdr John Bennett.
Having served in the South
African Naval Reserve for 44 years, Cdr Bennett had
fulfilled the dream of a young sailor to serve at sea
and be buried beneath its waters at his life’s end.
As dark clouds rolled in overhead and waves pounded the
boat, the ceremony witnessed by family and friends, was
brief but a fitting tribute to an old sea salt.
A young Seaman John Bennett who attested in the Navy to
join World War II
Full burial at sea is
uncommon these days and much planning was needed for Cdr
Bennett’s unusual request to be executed. In
tribute to the man himself, the task was undertaken with
military precision to the last detail. With a
first-choice Navy Corvette unavailable at the time due
to maintenance scheduling, another suitable vessel was
arranged. Fittingly the Calypso, owned and
skippered by a family friend Ken Evans, took the
commander out to sea for the last time. The two
men had had a long-standing maritime friendship, which
included seeing a decommissioned wartime navy
minesweeper, the Oosterland, salvaged from its sinking
and refurbished into a passenger leisure craft.
Unlike simply scattering
ashes at sea, there are strict protocols for sea burial.
The depth of the water and distance from shore - beyond
trawling lanes and diving areas – are both critical for
the body’s final resting place, which should not be
disturbed. In true ancient maritime tradition the
undertakers were instructed to prepare Cdr Bennett’s
body with the last stitch of the canvas shroud (there is
no coffin) put through the sailors nose. This was
done to make sure the sailor had indeed passed on!
So too a steel girder, instead of a cannon ball, was
placed between the legs to weigh the body down and sink
it purposefully to the ocean bed.
John Bennett was born in
Woodstock, Cape Town on 1st January 1925 and spent his
formative years at Sea Point Primary School. His
parents John Bennett senior and May Stevenson had
emigrated to Cape Town from Kilmarnock, Scotland shortly
after marrying. During his early years John
learned to play the violin and sang as a soloist in the
St George’s Cathedral. The Bennett family
relocated from Sea Point to Rondebosch in the southern
suburbs and John attended Rondebosch Boy’s High School
for a short while. When the family returned to the
Atlantic seaboard a few years later, John was enrolled
at Sea Point Boy’s High School, and much to his delight
he could spend long afternoons following class, paddling
his self-made tin canoe in the breakers.
At 17 years John left
school early to join the Navy and enter World War II
underage. He joined the Seward Defence Force in
1942 and by 24 August 1943 whilst on Officers’ course at
HMSAS Unitie he was commissioned as a temporary
Midshipman. Thereafter he served in mine sweepers
initially off the Cape Town and Durban coasts and later
in the Mediterranean. Whilst serving in the
Mediterranean Sea an exploding German mine blew him off
his ship leaving him blind in both eyes for a week and
receiving shrapnel wounds to his neck. In 1944 as
a young 19-year old Sub Lieutenant he commanded a motor
launch and thereafter served in HMSAS Natal and onboard
HMSAS Transvaal gaining more sea time experience.
This experience was to prove invaluable.
After the war John worked
for the Cape Town Divisional Council while completing
his studies as a Civil Engineer before beginning work
with petroleum company Caltex. During this time he
was selected to represent the SA Navy contingent at the
Queens Coronation in 1953 in London and took a leave of
absence to fulfil this responsibility.
On his return from royal
duties, civilian life continued for John. He
joined an engineering firm, Cape Conveyors, in Cape Town
and in 1965 finally married his girlfriend of 10 years,
Sally Georgene Sturgeon. In the years that
followed the couple gave birth first to a daughter,
Sarah Jane, and then a son Andrew John. John and Sally
were married for 44 years.
Although Cdr Bennett had
vowed that he would “shake HMSAS Unitie’s dust from
his heels as soon as peace returned” he remained
passionately involved in the SA Navy and especially SAS
Unitie for more than 35 years. After the war in
1946 he attested in the reconstituted Citizen Force and
served at SAS Unitie for the next 43 years rising
through the ranks until he took command when Captain
R.D. Smith retired in February 1977. He handed
over command to Cdr Neil Guy in April 1980 and went on
to serve after his retirement in the Silvermine
Operations Room until 1986.
Beyond the Navy, Cdr
Bennett flew aeroplanes and was a champion ballroom
dancer who was part of a group of officers chosen to
dance with a young Princess Elizabeth at her 21st
birthday held in Cape Town, 1947. On land,
however, John’s greatest passion was for cars and motor
racing. This developed soon after he watched his
first races with friends at Gunners Circle, Cape Town in
early 1949. As an engineer, who could build and
fix anything mechanical, he is quoted as saying: “if it
is so easy (motor racing) why am I not doing it?”
By October 1949 he had won his first race and over the
next 15 years became well known in racing circles
winning the Western Province Sports Car Championship at
Killarney and even competed against world Grand Prix
champion Stirling Moss. The first car he raced was
his ordinary Singer and thereafter he raced mainly MG’s
including TCs, TDs, TFs and an MGA.
His 1957 MGA, number “43”,
the familiar British motor racing green car complete
with springbok gold strip was his pride and joy.
Ordered specially, and the second MGA to land in South
Africa, John took delivery of the brand new car and
immediately stripped the engine completely, balanced the
flywheel and polished the ports. He changed the
drum brakes to disc brakes, fitted a super charger and
experimented with fuels such as ethanol and methanol
claiming that these adjustments were the reason he was
winning so many races. The car completed over 100
Cdr John Bennett during his
44 years service in the South African Navy was awarded
1939 - 1945 Star, Atlantic Star, War Medal, Africa
Service Medal, 1953 Coronation Medal, John Chard Medal,
John Chard Decoration and Bar.
He left a legacy at SAS
Unitie and the familiar smell of his pipe and call for
the “other half” of his favourite Castle beer still
reverberates around the Unitie Association room.
Although not in good health he was present when SAS
Unitie, his second home, was de-commissioned in 2005.
He is fondly remembered by
his shipmates for his ability to lead by example, his
tenacity, his practical approach to life, challenging
authority when required and above all the many seafaring
and motor racing stories he would recount to anyone who
would lend an ear.