Senior academic reflects on history of the SA Navy


Senior Professor (Emeritus) and Research Fellow at the University of Free State (UFS) Andre Wessels compiled a brief history of the SA Navy (SAN) for the SA Naval Museum. It is reproduced with attribution and appreciation to him and museum Officer-in-Charge, Commander Leon Steyn.

Adding to its value is that the maritime service of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) is today (Wednesday, 18 May) taking the first of three new multi-mission inshore patrol vessels (MMIPVs) into service.

Wessels writes: “The SA Navy of the truly democratic South Africa dates back to 1994 and since then there have been important developments and milestones, but the Navy can trace its history all the way back to 1922.

“What has been achieved since 1994 has been built on work done in the course of many decades. In this article, a brief review will be provided of certain important events in the history of the SAN and its predecessors since 1922.

“After all, the centenary of the Navy is an opportunity for all South Africans to reflect on its Navy’s history, take stock of the Navy’s present state of affairs, and look ahead and plan for the future. We need more constructive debate in our country with regard to military matters, including the relevance and role of our Navy. And South Africa needs to become a truly maritime nation.

“Throughout the ages, the politics and strategy of sea power was (and still is) of crucial importance for littoral countries; and sea power had (and still has) a profound influence on the history of the world.  To ensure the free flow of trade around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, a naval presence was (and still is) necessary.  The development of South Africa’s naval forces has to be seen against this background.

“The SAN is neither one of the oldest nor one of the major navies in the world, but nevertheless has a fascinating and proud history, albeit also a chequered one. South Africa is, everything taken into consideration, supposed to be a maritime nation. After all, with oceans forming three of South Africa’s borders, the country is – geographically speaking – a large peninsula. It has a coastline of approximately 2 800 km and an exclusive economic zone that stretches 200 nautical miles from the coast into the oceans. When it is furthermore considered that at least 90 % of South Africa’s trade flows through the country’s harbours, it should be clear why the country should be a maritime nation, but in practice this is not necessarily the case. Too many South Africans suffer from what could be regarded as ‘sea blindness’.

“In the course of the first century of its existence (1922-2022), South Africa’s naval forces have, on several occasions, undergone a process of transformation.  The South African Naval Service (SANS) was established on 1 April 1922 as a small coastal force, with one survey ship (HMSAS Protea) and two minesweeping trawlers (HMSAS Sonneblom and HMSAS Immortelle), but the world-wide Great Depression (1929-1935) led to the withdrawal from service of all three.  As a consequence, from 1934 until 1939, the SANS existed only as a nominal naval force with only a few personnel and no ships.  In the meantime, war clouds gathered in Europe and in September 1939, the Second World War broke out.

“The SANS became the Seaward Defence Force (SDF) in 1939, which in turn, was transformed in 1942 to become the South African Naval Forces (SANF). Under the leadership of South Africa’s wartime prime minister, General Jan Smuts, the Union Defence Force was expanded, including its naval forces. By the end of the war more than 8 000 persons had served in the country’s naval forces, inter alia on board 88 naval vessels – mostly fishing trawlers and whalers converted into minesweepers or anti-submarine vessels. It was only in 1944-1945 the SANF received its first ‘major’ warships, three British-built “Loch” Class frigates: HMSAS Good Hope, HMSAS Natal and HMSAS Transvaal.  After the war in Europe ended, Natal was sent to the Far East to briefly serve in the war against Japan.

“In the course of the war, South Africa’s naval forces made a small but noteworthy contribution towards the Allied war effort, while approximately two thousand South Africans serving in the Royal Navy, saw action in all war zones.  South Africa was spared physical attack, but 133 Allied merchant ships were sunk within 1 000 nautical miles of the South African coast.  More than ever before, the importance of safeguarding the Cape sea route was emphasised.

“After cessation of hostilities, the SANF (renamed the SA Navy in 1951) was downsized, but expanded from 1947 onwards.  In 1947, the SANF acquired two ocean minesweepers from Britain (commissioned as HMSAS Bloemfontein and HMSAS Pietermaritzburg), as well as a Royal Navy corvette in due course converted to a hydrographic survey ship and commissioned as HMSAS Protea.  Further expansion followed, with no fewer than 18 new or used ships acquired from Britain in the course of the 1950s: two “Wager” Class destroyers (commissioned as SAS Jan van Riebeeck and SAS Simon van der Stel), one Type 15 frigate (SAS Vrystaat), five “Ford” Class seaward defence (patrol) boats (SAS Gelderland, Nautilus, Rijger, Haerlem and Oosterland), and ten “Ton” Class coastal minesweepers (SAS Kaapstad, Pretoria, Durban, Windhoek, East London, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Kimberley, Mosselbaai and Walvisbaai).  This was mainly the result of the Simon’s Town Agreement of 1955, which also led to Britain handing over the Simon’s Town Naval Base to the SA Navy on 1 April 1957 with the handing over ceremony a day later.  The SA Navy thus became a small, blue-water navy, capable of guarding the Cape sea route in the interests of South Africa and the West.

“The Navy continued to expand in the 1960s and 1970s, acquiring, inter alia, three new Type 12 frigates from Britain (SAS President Kruger, President Steyn and President Pretorius; 1962-1964) and a replenishment ship (SAS Tafelberg) in 1967. In 1969, the locally built torpedo recovery and diver support ship SAS Fleur was commissioned. A  Submarine Service was also established.  The Navy wished to acquire British “Oberon” Class submarines, but in the light of a British arms boycott, had to buy three French-built Daphné Class submarines (commissioned as SAS Maria van Riebeeck, Emily Hobhouse and Johanna van der Merwe in 1970-1971) which in practice proved to be a better choice. As part of a continuing transformation process, the three submarines were respectively renamed SAS Spear, Umkhonto and Assegaai on 19 May 1999. The last British-built naval vessel to be acquired was the hydrographic survey ship SAS Protea in 1972 (which, fifty years later, still serves in the Fleet).

“The Navy entered the missile age, thanks to the acquisition of nine missile-carrying strike craft in the years 1977 to 1986: SAS Jan Smuts, P.W. Botha (renamed Shaka on 1 April 1997), Frederic Creswell (Adam Kok), Jim Fouche (Sekhukhune), Frans Erasmus (Isaac Dyobha), Oswald Pirow (Rene Sethren), Hendrik Mentz (Galeshewe), Kobie Coetsee (Job Masego) and Magnus Malan (Makhanda).  The Navy also acquired four minehunters in 1981, commissioned as SAS Umkomaas, Umgeni, Umzimkulu and Umhloti.

“For several decades, the SA Navy was guardian of the Cape sea route. But the National Party’s policy of separate development (apartheid) led to ever-growing international isolation.  Naval contact with other countries was limited.  In 1977, in the wake of the mandatory United Nations (UN) arms embargo, delivery of two corvettes and two submarines was cancelled by the French government.  By 1985, the SA Navy was reduced to a small ship navy that concentrated on defence of South Africa’s harbours and coasts, albeit the Navy did play an important (some will say controversial) role in the War for Southern Africa (which included the so-called Border War), especially between 1975 and 1988.  In 1987 the SA Navy commissioned a second combat support ship SAS Drakensberg – the largest ship of any kind of thus far designed and built in South Africa.

“After the combat support ship, SAS Tafelberg was withdrawn from service in 1993, she was same year replaced by Ukrainian-built Arctic support ship, Juvent, transformed by the SAN into a combat support ship and commissioned as SAS Outeniqua.

“The run-up to and dawn of a new and democratic South Africa in 1994 created new opportunities for the SA Navy. In 2000, six used Type 351 minesweepers were bought from Germany and two of them were in due course commissioned (SAS Kapa and SAS Thekwini) and briefly served in the Navy. Thanks to the commissioning of four new frigates (SAS Amatola, Isandlwana, Spioenkop and Mendi) and three new submarines (SAS ‘Manthatisi, Charlotte Maxeke and Queen Modjadji I) from 2006 to 2008, the Navy regained its blue-water status, and enhanced its power.

“In the course of a century since 1922, South Africa’s naval forces provided support to other government departments, took part in numerous search and rescue (SAR) operations, as well as humanitarian and other support operations.  Navy ships and submarines successfully took part in many exercises, from the “DURBEXs”, “CAPEXs” and “SANEXs” of the 1940s to the 1960s, to the  “new” SA Navy’s participation in, for example, “ATLASUR”, “IBSAMAR”, and “Good Hope”. Other achievements include that at crucial times in its history, its leaders were able to convince politicians money had to be allocated to expand the Navy, including new submarines and frigates. The last-mentioned acquisitions were not only necessary lifebuoys for the then ailing Navy, but indeed gave it more tools and confidence to fulfil its mandate. They have also played an important role in the Navy’s counter-piracy “Operation Copper” in the Mozambique Channel.  Since 1922, South Africa’s naval forces have also done excellent survey work along the country’s coasts, making it safe for ships to sail and enter and exit ports.

“Everything considered, the major achievement of South Africa’s naval forces since 1922, and in particular since 1988, has been via its diplomatic outreach actions. Throughout the ages it has been the practice of seafaring countries to send warships to one another from time to time; sometimes to take part in joint exercises, but usually to establish better relations or to strengthen ties that already exist.  In this regard our Navy is no exception.  Since the end of the Second World War, 60 of the country’s 68 major warships conducted approximately 100 flag-showing cruises, visiting more than 100 ports in approximately 50 countries. Of particular importance in this regard has been the role played by the SA Navy in the African context, as well as in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean rim areas.

“In accordance with the SA Navy’s core business, ‘To fight at sea’, its mission ‘To win at sea’ and its vision ‘To be unchallenged at sea’ it is of the utmost importance for South Africa to have a well-equipped, well-balanced, well-trained and disciplined navy. There are those who (erroneously) argue South Africa is under no military threat. What about terror groups and other threatening organisations?  What about piracy?  What about the unstable international situation, especially thanks to super/great power rivalry in the Far East and now again in Europe?

“South Africa as a political entity is the product of rivalry between seafaring nations (The Netherlands, France and Britain) for control over the world’s most important trade routes, including the Cape sea route.  Most South Africans however have a land-bound culture. Small wonder there are people who do not appreciate the value of the country’s navy.

“In the years 1922 to 2022, South Africa’s naval forces developed a proud tradition with regard to support and assistance to South Africa and all its inhabitants.  The SA Navy must build on this tradition and hopefully, all South Africans will appreciate and support their navy.  After all, the SA Navy has indeed been transformed into a navy of and for all the people of South Africa.”

André Wessels is the author of several publications dealing with the history of the SA National Defence Force, including its Navy.  His latest book is A century of South African naval history:  The South African Navy and its predecessors 1922-2022 (Naledi, 2022).