SA Naval Museum 30 years on

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The SA Naval Museum this year marks its 30th anniversary with its origins going back 57 years to 1966 when a naval historical collection was displayed at the Castle in Cape Town.

In the mid 1970s this collection was transferred to the Martello Tower in Simon’s Town and later moved to Fort Wynyard where it was enlarged to include a wider display of naval and associated artefacts. With decentralisation of museums from the former Directorate Military Museums to the then SA Defence Force (SADF) services in June 1987, the SA Navy Museum (Martello Tower) was transferred to functional control of the SA Navy (SAN) with Fort Wynyard transferred to Western Province Command (Army).

Investigations to establish a museum for the SA Navy (SAN) in Simon’s Town were launched during 1988 and the project, dubbed Project Oubos, registered at Navy headquarters according to the Museum website. It was finally decided the most appropriate location for the new museum would be the former Royal Navy Mast House dating back to 1815 and the adjacent Dutch Store House that dates back to 1743. Both buildings are in the historic West Yard of Naval Base (NB) Simon’s Town.

The new SA Naval Museum was officially opened by then Chief of the Navy Vice Admiral Robert Simpson-Anderson on 1 April 1993.

The first phase of the new display comprised exhibitions of the historic clock tower and part of the sail loft. The second phase of development included utilisation of two display areas on ground level with the history and functioning of the Submarine, Divers and Weapons branches suitably displayed. The SAN itself was involved in converting the building to one suitable for a museum.  This internal SAN capacity was aptly displayed in the work of the SAN Works Branch responsible for all structural changes and enhancements to the building. SAN units including SAS Simonsberg and SAS Chapman took ownership of many new displays and contributed by donating display items as well as physical construction of new displays.

Recent additions to the museum display include a Westland Wasp maritime helicopter and Leyland Cub fire tender. The new Mac Bisset Display Hall, named in honour of the museum’s first curator from 1985 to 2002, in the Dutch Storehouse now houses the Transformation, Arctic Convoy, an updated Chiefs of the Navy display and 100 years of naval forces displays. A popular feature of the ‘living museum’ concept is occasional firings of the museum’s rifled muzzle loader cannon at Middle North Battery.

Apart from the submarine SAS Assegaai, other significant items allocated to the museum are the navy yacht Voortrekker of Bertie Reed fame and a World War II marine tender (MT2800). The future placement of these large items is dependent on allocation of additional indoor space to the museum.

In November 2003 the SAN decommissioned the last of its three Daphne Class submarines, SAS Assegaai (formerly SAS Johanna van der Merwe), in preparation for the introduction of the new Type 209 Submarines. A submission was made to Chief of the Navy and the Naval Board to preserve Assegaai as an exhibit at the SA Naval Museum.

Approval was given and the submarine – then still in the water – was opened to the public on a trial basis. Africa’s first submarine museum was officially opened in Simon’s Town on 1 March 2011 by the then Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Johannes Mudimu. The project managing team consisted almost entirely of retired naval officers and volunteers who guided tours through the submarine daily. The main purpose of the project is to preserve the submarine as a museum and promote technology and science among the youth. The official opening marked the first step in the Assegaai’s eventual placement ashore.

A memorandum of agreement was signed in May 2022 between the SAN and the Naval Heritage Trust (NHT), entrusted with the project. This will see relocation of the submarine ashore near Cole Point and re-opening to the public in 2024.

At the end of last month (March) former and current curators and staff gathered to celebrate 30 years existence of the museum. A special 30 years logo was unveiled, which adorned the birthday cake and 30 cupcakes. In his speech first curator, Commander “Mac” Bisset, regarded as father of the museum, congratulated current curator Commander Leon Steyn and his staff on the achievement and wished them well for the future.

Republished with permission from the SA Navy Museum. The original article can be found here.