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Amatola departs on epic European adventure

The SAS Amatola departing Simons Town. Photo by Dean Wingrin.The South African Navy frigate SAS Amatola departed Naval Base Simon’s Town on 16 January on a 96 day operational, commemoration and diplomatic visit to various European and African countries, known as Operation Ketane.

The main purpose of Operation Ketane is to participate in the centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi in the UK. Other activities around the commemoration included training with the Royal Navy, participation in Exercise Good Hope VII with the German Navy and diplomatic visits to four West African ports on the return trip.

Despite the South Easter that gusted to speeds in excess of 38 knots, the frigate was effortlessly manoeuvred into False Bay to commence her important mission, made more significant because Amatola has undergone an extensive refit, the first refit for the Valour class frigates. The R335 million refit took 18 months in 2014/15 under the leadership of current Officer Commanding Captain Frans Roux.

Captain Michael Boucher, the Task Force Commander for Operation Ketane, noted that Roux had taken the ship through the refit and extensive workup procedures during 2016. These activities commenced in January 2016 and included work up and training to participate in the Armed Forces Week that took place in Port Elizabeth in February, a March deployment under Operation Corona (maritime border protection duty) as well as a passage exercise with a visiting Chinese naval task group.

April saw the vessel participate in missile and torpedo firing exercises during Exercise Red Lion off the Cape coast, for which she was awarded the Red Lion trophy as the most operational ship in the fleet for this period. The final months of the year was occupied by preparations to be operationally ready for Operation Ketane.

Roux notes that there has been a large crew change since entering the refit, mainly due to crew training and promotions. Roux and his crew have been working incredibly hard with long days to be mission ready, only finishing all their training on 23 December.

“This journey is the culmination of 2016's hard work,” Boucher told defenceWeb, “We believe the ship is ready and able to deploy overseas on an operational and diplomatic mission of this nature.”

As if their regular training was not enough, the ship’s emergency response teams were called out to fight mountain fires threatening naval and civilian residences and buildings above Simon’s Town in the second week of January.

The first phase of Operation Ketane consists of a border and anti-piracy patrol along the South African West Coast to Namibia. Roux explains that these patrols form part of the territorial water operations that are conducted in cooperation between the Navy, Air Force, police and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

“It is really information gathering, not so much anti-piracy, but more a deterrent to piracy. The main priority there is more for the protection of national resources and marine territorial waters,” Roux clarified.

Following a refuelling stop at Rota, Spain, they proceed to the UK to arrive in Plymouth on the 8 February, from where they will participate in the British Operational Sea Training (BOST) until 18 Feb.

On completion of BOST, the Amatola will proceed to Portsmouth for the commemoration of SS Mendi’s sinking, which Roux said is the highlight and priority for this deployment. The SS Mendi, carrying 805 black South African Labour Contingent (SANLC) troops, five white officers, 17 NCOs and 33 crewmen, sank in the English Channel near the Isle of Wight on the morning of 21 February 1917. The troopship took 616 South Africans, all but nine black troops of the, and 33 crew down with her within 20 minutes of being rammed in fog by the SS Darro. Stories of the troop’s heroism abound, with the survivors continuing with their military service in France.

There will be various activities to commemorate the sinking of the SS Mendi between 19 and 23 February, with the main activities taking place on February 20 and 21. The first day comprises the shore phase which includes ceremonial activities at the cemeteries, whilst 30 relatives of the soldiers whom were lost in the sinking have been flown to the UK will go on a trip to sea with the Amatola to lay wreaths at the position where the SS MENDI sank.

The ship will proceed to Kiel in Germany on February 24 to participate in Exercise Good Hope VII, the seventh iteration of the biennial maritime interaction between the South African and German navies, which this year will take place from 27 Feb to 10 March. Normally held in South African waters, the German Navy will act as lead.

To prepare the South Africans for operations in the cold Baltic seas, three officers from the German Navy have joined Amatola for the trip to Spain. Roux said that they will “help us in the preparations for European waters, just supplement the training that we will be having on board.”

On completion of Exercise Good Hope VII, the ship will make a historic visit to Rostock (previously part of East Germany) before departing for Spain again for refuelling between March 19 and 21. From there the South African sailors we will proceed down the African west coast and conduct diplomatic activities and visits to Tema, Ghana (30 March to 3 April), Malabo, Equatorial Guinea (6 to 8 April), Luanda, Angola (11 to 13 April) and Walvis Bay, Namibia (17 to 19 April). The ship is scheduled to be back in Simon’s Town on 22 April.

Although no at-sea exercises with the African navies have been confirmation, there will be alongside interaction and community projects.

The number of persons aboard totals 177, made up of the ship’s crew, 12 air and ground personnel from the SAAF to support the embarked Super Lynx maritime helicopter, a doctor and two medics, a Legal Officer, a Defence Intelligence representative, a chaplain and members from the Maritime Reaction Squadron (MRS).

Roux remarks that taking a ship on deployment is a logistical challenge, particularly when it comes to food. “We’ve taken on board food to sustain us for about 28 days. The catering staff work 24 hours a day as the crew is so busy, we run 24 hour watches, quite a vigorous maintenance and training process throughout the day, the crew get hungry, they eat a lot. So the galley staff is one of the key components from a morale point of view. So I put a lot of investment into the catering side to make sure the meals are good. It’s a big morale booster.”

Roux said he doesn’t know how to control his excitement “because it is such an incredible opportunity to interact with the navies and to train and to really culminate in everything we have done. There is a buzz within the ship. It's probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of us. It's not something we get to do every day. The biggest portion of our crew has never left South African waters, so they are just as excited to meet up with new cultures, to interact with everybody.”

Perhaps one of the most important duties Captain Roux will have to undertake on this mission is one not noted in any Navy media release.

Roux is due to hand over command of Amatola to Captain Harry Gwala with effect from 1 April. With Amatola only due back on 22 April, this is no April Fool’s joke, thus Gwala is accompanying the Amatola on her trip. The time consuming and bureaucratic process of handing over command will be undertaken on the return trip, accounting for every item aboard the ship. Roux is due to take over command of SAS Isandlwana, which is the next frigate due for a refit.

The ceremonial side of the handover will be performed under the eye of Rear Admiral Mosuwa Hlongwane, Chief of the Navy, after the Amatola has returned safely from her epic voyage.