Another major milestone for Africa’s only submarine museum

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Nearly eight years since it closed to visitors, South Africa’s renowned submarine museum is being brought ashore thanks to two specially constructed cradles from shipbuilder Damen Shipyards Cape Town (DSCT). These were handed over to the South African Navy.

The decision to preserve the SAS Assegaai as an annex of the SA Naval Museum was made in 2005, with the understanding that the SA Navy could not legally provide any financial assistance, nor could it allow its personnel to work in the Assegaai museum. Despite this and under the auspices of the Naval Heritage Trust (NHT), a team of volunteers (who are mostly ex-submariners) started the Assegaai museum in 2008.

Being situated in a working naval base posed logistical challenges for the public to access the museum. Despite this, over the next seven years until 2015, more than 56 000 visitors from 110 countries visited the submarine museum.

However, the biggest challenge of having the submarine in the water was the corrosive effect of steel and saltwater. The maintenance costs of keeping the submarine in water outweighed the revenue from visitor entrance fees. When the Assegaai was taken out of the water in 2015, the deterioration of its outer hull was evident. Although the submarine’s interior was well-maintained, it was necessary to find a permanent solution to keep the submarine out of the water yet easily accessible.

Under the NHT, the volunteers developed a viable plan to house the submarine museum in a safe and easily accessible location. A new concrete foundation was laid at the western end of the Cole Point parking area, near the new NSRI Station 10 building and completed in December last year.

During a ceremony at Naval Base Simon’s Town on 14 August 2023, Damen handed over two 7 tonne support cradles that will be used to support the submarine at its new location. The cradles were built using steel salvaged from old Damen ship transport cradles. Work began on the cradles in November 2022.

The cradles, each 3.6 metres long and 9.1 metres wide, were constructed both in the Damen yard in the Port of Table Bay and on location in Simon’s Town. What made the work even more of a challenge was the constant electricity load shedding affecting the naval base.

“This definitely increased the complexity of the job,” pronounced Damen Shipyards Cape Town MD Jankees Burger.

Burger noted that the involvement of civilians in the military, particularly the submarine service, is crucial. He explained that submarines primarily operate unseen, which often keeps them out of the public eye.

“Having a museum submarine helps to achieve this visibility and attracts a lot of people who are interested in seeing the ‘secret service’ for themselves,” he continued.

In response, Chief of the SA Navy, Vice Admiral Monde Lobese, told the Damen employees that “without your generous sponsorship of the steel, as well as your dedicated personnel who sacrificed their free time over weekends and holidays to do the welding, today would not have been possible.”

The process of moving the submarine from the Synchrolift area to its new location will begin in the next few months, with the actual move planned for early 2024.

Lobese emphasized that the Naval Heritage Trust still requires a substantial amount of funding for the project.

“We must all play our part in ensuring that we preserve our unique submarine heritage,” he said. “In order to put my money where my mouth is, I pledge a total of R10 000 from the Chief of the Navy Contingency fund towards this project.”

Once on site, with entrance and exit doors installed in the pressure hull, NHT will manage and operate the submarine on similar principles to those previously in place when the boat was in the water.

The Trust is currently in the process of trying to secure further sponsorship to ensure that the Submarine Museum can be realised in a reasonable time frame. Among the costs that need to be covered are R1.8 million to move the submarine and R3 million for the repair and restoration of the external hull of the vessel.

Retired Rear Admiral (JG) Digby Thomson is one of several retired navy men who is assisting on the Naval Heritage Trust Submarine Museum Project. Thomson said: “We have raised about forty percent of the money we need to move the vessel. Once we have moved her, we will cut two holes forward and aft to allow for tour groups. We will use the funds from the visitors to finalise her look and make her more presentable to the public.”

The Assegai Submarine Museum is the last remaining of three French-built Daphné Class submarines operated by the South African Navy during the 1970s, 80s and part of the 90s and successfully operated as a museum from 2008 to 2015 with the vessel lying alongside the outer wall of the Simon’s Town harbour. After 2015, the vessel required external maintenance and was kept on the synchro lift inside the harbour. The Museum has been closed ever since.

Assegaai remains part of the SA Naval Museum, under the ownership of the South African Navy. It is the only naval submarine to be preserved on the African continent. There are 124 preserved naval submarines in the world – only six are in the southern hemisphere.