Simon’s Town’s significance in SA military history showcased


The most senior warrant officers’ course in the SANDF (SA National Defence Force), the Joint Warrant Officers’ Programme (JWOP) based at the Warrant Officers Academy, Military Base Wonderboom, visited historic Simon’s Town earlier in November.

As part of the JWOP, a new military culture short course was developed by Professor (Dr) Ian van der Waag – and presented for the first time from 4 to 12 November, SA Naval Museum curator Commander Leon Steyn writes. The short course, weighing 20 credits, is presented through the Faculty of Military Science of Stellenbosch University with the residential phase at the Military Academy in Saldanha.

“Two days were set aside for a practical ‘field trip’ to Simon’s Town, where the SA Naval Museum hosted ten senior warrant officers with their facilitators from the military history department. They were Van der Waag, Dr Evert Kleynhans, Louis Makau and Anri Delport. Set piece work and assignments were given to the students before leaving Saldanha.”

The Simon’s Town tour kicked off at the SA Naval Museum where the group was welcomed by Steyn who also introduced the visitors to the concept of military museums, uses and functions as well as an overview of the history of military museums in South Africa.

“The visit,” Steyn writes, “was planned to coincide with Armistice Day (also known as Poppy Day) and the group travelled to Middle North Battery where the museum’s old Rifled Muzzle Loader cannon is. At exactly 11h00 the cannon was fired by Cannon Association of SA members, in observance of members of South African armed forces who died in the line of duty. The Last Post was sounded by a SA Navy band bugler, after which a two-minute silence was observed by all present”.

“Simon’s Town provides a wonderful example of military fortification and the different layers of coast defence and artillery through the years. For a better understanding of its history and functions the group moved to Scala Battery where retired SA Navy captain Chris Dooner provided a guided tour of one big 9.2 inch cannon installation. The group descended into the – little known – underground bunkered operations room that formed an important part of the coastal artillery setup during the Second World War.

“The afternoon was spent at the old naval cemetery (old burial ground) in Simon’s Town where Van der Waag organised activities to uncover the oft-hidden, social military history of the naval base. This led to a discussion of the sinking of the Birkenhead, of twelve imperial Russian sailors buried in the graveyard and of a young man who fell to his death while on construction works in the dockyard at the turn of the last century. The important work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was not missed.

“The next day the group visited the Martello Tower at Naval Base Simon’s Town. The tower dates back to 1796 and is said to be the oldest British built structure in South Africa. WO1 Harry Croome (retired) provided an informative talk about the fortification, its original function and preservation efforts through the years.

“The tour concluded with a visit to the frigate SAS Isandlwana (F146). En route to the ship, there was time to go past the historic Selborne Graving Dock. The dry dock was opened in 1910 and apart from its important function to maintain ships today, it features a historic collection of 140 ship badges along its walls – a tangible record of our naval history.

“The group returned to the naval museum for  much needed stand-easy and to reflect on a totally absorbing and enjoyable two days in Simon’s Town.”

Published with attribution and appreciation to Cmdr Leon Steyn, SA Naval Museum.