The South African Navy’s earliest beginnings can be traced to the Port Elizabeth Naval Volunteer Brigade that was raised in 1861, but seems to have merged with a volunteer artillery unit in the following year. On 30 April 1885 a part-time unit named the Natal Naval Volunteers (NNV) was formed in Durban.
These men manned the six-inch guns that were to defend Durban from Russia, should she decide, as was feared, on a programme of expansionism. They served ashore in the South African War (1899 – 1902) and the Zulu Rebellion of 1906. The SA Navy has an unbroken link with the NNV, which later became the reserve unit SAS Inkonkoni. A similar unit, the Cape Naval Volunteers (CNV), later SAS Unitie, was formed in Cape Town in 1905, and on 1 July 1913 the two units formed the South African Division of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR).
During the First World War, South African Naval Volunteers served in the German South West African and German East African campaigns. South Africans served in the Royal Naval Air Service and contingents in British warships.
In 1921 a new RNVR base was established in Port Elizabeth (later SAS Donkin) and in the following year another base was commissioned in East London (later SAS Port Rex).
SAS Inkonkoni, SAS Unitie, SAS Donkin and SAS Port Rex were four of the seven Naval Reserve units of the SA Navy. The others were SAS Rand in Johannesburg, SAS Magaliesberg in Pretoria and SAS Yselstein in Simon’s Town. The Naval Reserve is being integrated with the Fleet as part of the new SA Navy force structure. The last reserve unit to close, in 2005, will be SAS Unitie.
South Africa’s first Permanent Force Navy, the SA Naval Service, was established on 1 April 1922. The first ships, a hydrographic survey vessel renamed HMSAS Protea and two minesweeping trawlers, renamed HMSAS Sonneblom and HMSAS Immortelle, were purchased by South Africa and they were to form the nucleus of the fledgling force.
Between 1933 and 1934, however, the Great Depression forced Government to return the ships and pay off all but two SANS officers and three ratings who were retained for survey work. The Royal Navy retained three officers, nine ratings and ten civilians to continue the training and supply of the RNVR (SA), which continued to operate.
In January 1940 South Africa established a new naval unit, the Seaward Defence Force, which was commanded by Rear Admiral G.W. Halifax, CMG. The Seaward Defence Force took over responsibility from the Royal Navy for operating the minesweepers, anti submarine services, and the other examination and signaling duties in South African waters.
During the Second World War, South Africa’s “little ships” earned an enviable reputation in the Mediterranean. It was said that “the discipline, morale and above all, the marksmanship of the 22nd Anti-Submarine guys, were unequalled in the inshore squadron.”
In South African waters our ships patrolled the entrances to our ports, escorted convoys between them, swept enemy mines and rescued more than 400 survivors from ships torpedoed by the many submarines operating in the area.
On 1 August 1942 the Seaward Defence Force and the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (South Africa) were amalgamated to form the South African Naval Forces (SANF) in which 10 332 officers and ratings served during the Second World War. At the peak period of the Second World War in 1944, the South African fleet consisted of 87 vessels. A total of 329 members of the SANF were killed in action or died in service and 225 awards for gallantry or distinguished service were bestowed on South African sailors.
Twenty-six battle honours were confirmed on our ships, three of which served in the Far East.
The SA Woman’s Auxiliary Naval Service was established in October 1943. About 280 “SWANS” served as harbour defence operators and in administrative posts.
A total of 2 937 officers and ratings were seconded to the Royal Navy, so that our sailors took part in nearly every major naval operation in the Second World War, as well as performing all manner of obscure duties from minesweeping off the Faroe Islands to hydrographical surveying in Chinese waters.
They served in the convoys to Russia, were present at the Normandy landings on D-Day and many of them served in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. During this time, South Africa’s sailors showed that they were as good as the best in the world and established a proud fighting tradition.
At the end of the war, South Africa received three Loch Class frigates: HMSAS Good Hope, HMSAS Natal and HMSAS Transvaal. HMSAS Natal achieved a war record when she sank the German submarine U714 whilst still on trials off St Abb’s Head on 14 March 1945.
On 1 May 1946 the SANF was reconstituted as part of the Union Defence Force with compliment of 60 officers and 806 men. Its fleet consisted of the three Loch Class frigates, two boom defence vessels (HMSAS Barbrake and HMSAS Barcross), one minelayer (HMSAS Spindrift) and 12 harbour defence motor launches. In 1947 the Algerine Class ocean minesweepers HMSAS Bloemfontein (ex HMS Rosamund) and HMSAS Pietermaritzburg (ex HMS Pelorus) arrived, both of which were commissioned in September that year.
In 1951 the SA Naval Forces became the SA Navy (SAN) and had grown to 132 officers and 1 499 men. Around this time, the V&W destroyers SAS Jan van Riebeeck (ex HMS Wessex), SAS Simon van der Stel (ex HMS Whelp) and the Type 15 frigate SAS Vrystaat (ex HMS Wrangler) were added to the fleet.
During the Second World War, 78 South Africans were also seconded to the Royal Marines. The SA Corps of Marines was formed in 1951 and was composed of coast and anti aircraft artillery regiments. When coastal artillery became obsolete in 1955, the Corps was disbanded.
In 1955 the Simon’s Town Agreement was signed by Great Britain and South Africa. In terms of this agreement, the SA Navy expanded and the Simon’s Town base and Naval Dockyard were handed over to South Africa on 1 April 1957. The SA Navy’s main naval base moved from Durban to Simon’s Town and Naval Headquarters moved to Simon’s Town from Pretoria where it remained until 1976 when it moved back to Pretoria.
In terms of this agreement, the SA Navy was to also acquire three new Type 12 (modified Rothesay Class) anti submarine frigates, ten Ton Class minesweepers and five Ford Class seaward defence boats.
Other acquisitions included the tugs De Noorde (1961) and De Neys (1969) – the first tug in South Africa to be fitted with the then revolutionary Voith Schneider propulsion system – plus the torpedo recovery vessel, SAS Fleur, the first warship ever to be designed and built in South Africa (1969). The Navy’s largest vessel, the replenishment vessel SAS Tafelberg, the former Danish merchant tanker Annam, was commissioned after extensive refit in Durban in August 1967. She had the distinction of being the first ever ship designed in Denmark with the aid of a computer. In 1970, the arrival of the SAS Maria van Riebeeck heralded the birth of the submarine branch with three French-built Daphne Class submarines. The SAS Emily Hobhouse and SAS Johanna van der Merwe were to arrive shortly afterwards. Further orders for submarines and corvettes were cancelled as a result of the United Nations led arms embargo against South Africa in 1977. May 1972 saw the arrival of the purpose-built hydrographic survey vessel SAS Protea and, in 1981, the River Class mine countermeasures vessels joined the fleet.
The Marines were re-established as a branch of the SA Navy in 1979 to protect South Africa’s harbours against attacks from land or sea. They were also deployed in South West Africa (Namibia), where they manned the twin-hulled harbour patrol boats and Vredenburg boats patrolling the Zambezi from Katima Mulilo. The Marines served in an infantry role on the Border until 1988 and were employed in counter-insurgency operations in South African townships in support of the South African Army. In September/October 1988 the Navy’s largest and most successful peacetime exercise, Exercise Magersfontein, was held at Walvis Bay. The Navy demonstrated its ability to conduct operations far from its normal bases and revealed its amphibious capability by landing marines in Delta boats from SAS Tafelberg.
The Border conflict ended in April 1989 and was followed by comprehensive rationalisation programmes in all arms of the South African Defence Force. The Navy’s tiny share of the defence budget had dropped even further, but with the need for new ships now critical. To retain a new ship procurement programme and effect the financial cutbacks, the Navy elected to disband the Marines, some of its shore establishments and retrench 23 percent (2 258) of its personnel.
The Strike Craft Flotilla (based at SAS Scorpion in Durban) was commissioned in 1980 with missile-carrying fast attack craft. Based in Durban, these small, fast and lethal ships, armed with surface-to-surface guided missiles, two 76 mm guns and smaller close-range weapons, formed the backbone of the Navy’s surface strike power.
Three strike craft were to be purchased from Israel with the remaining six being built at the Sandock Austral shipyard in Durban.
Sandock Austral was also to build what was the largest, most sophisticated vessel ever designed and built in South Africa, the replenishment vessel SAS Drakensberg. She was launched in August 1984 and arrived in Simon’s Town in November 1987.
A subsequent major purchase was that of the Ukraine built Juvent, renamed SAS Outeniqua on commissioning in the SA Navy in 1993. The Outeniqua replaced the by then decommissioned SAS Tafelberg, but in turn decommissioned in 2004.
On Freedom Day, 27 April 1994, the SA Navy and the rest of the South African Defence Force (SADF) became part of the new SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and its personnel assisted with South Africa’s first democratic election. The need to reduce defence expenditure and improve the effectiveness of the SANDF resulted in the transformation of South Africa’s armed forces. In 1999 the much smaller Navy Office of the Ministry of Defence replaced the Naval Headquarters. The operational head, formerly Chief of Naval Operations, became Flag Officer Fleet and shifted his flag to Simon’s Town. All the flotillas were disbanded and placed under his command. Their administration and logistic functions were entrusted to a general support base, Naval Base Simon’s Town. All but one of the Strike Craft names were changed to honour famous South African warriors and the names of the submarines were changed to SAS Spear (previously SAS Maria van Riebeeck), Umkhonto (previously Emily Hobhouse) and Assegaai (previously Johanna van der Merwe).
Today the SA Navy recalls its origins with pride and confidently provides a professional and cost-effective maritime deterrent in times of war and a large variety of tasks in time of peace.