Book review: Three Frigates

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Three Frigates is a cautionary tale about a country that acquired a modern Navy for political reasons and a defence force too pennywise too support that fleet. The result: monumental short-sightedness and waste. And it could happen again.

This book, therefore, should be on the desk of every official and officer at the Treasury, in the Department of Defence and even in the Navy, charged with funding the current and future fleet, especially the Project Sitron Valour-class Meko A200SAN frigates.

Rear Admiral Chris Bennett (Ret) writes the National Party (NP) government acquired the three Type 12 President-class antisubmarine frigates and a number of other ships and aircraft as a part-payment for the return of the sovereignty of the Simon’s Town naval base, ceded by an Act of the Cape Parliament in 1885. This British possession of this South African soil had long been a “hot-button” ideological issue for the NP.

Britain was at first cool to the advances of defence minister Frans Erasmus on this score, Vice Admiral Herbert Packer, Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic stating “the Malan government had no idea of the cost of running the base or the difficulties in training their personnel to assume management.” Nevertheless negotiations commenced in the early 1950s, driven, in part, by bankrupt post-war Britain’s need to cut costs and keep its shipyards busy. In the end, South Africa agreed to buy six frigates – three state-of-the-then-art Type 12’s and three converted W-class destroyers reclassified as Type 15 frigates, as well as 10 Ton-class coastal minesweepers and four Ford-class seaward defence boats. This would cost “some” 18 million pounds Sterling over eight years.

Bennett wryly notes this grew to “some” 24 million pounds Sterling by the time the last Type 12 had been delivered in 1964 – despite South Africa cancelling two of the Type 15s. The Rand value of this was R24.48 million for the Type 12s – some two-thirds of the price quoted for all 20 ships in 1954/5 “and did not include items such as the first outfit of stores and ammunition.” Also to blame “was additional items that the SAN wanted included as the programme progressed as well as the 3% Agency Fee that the British Admiralty required for acting as South Africa’s agent.”

Equally unhelpful as the small project team dispatched to Britain. Bennett notes: “This tendency to try to handle highly complex projects with a minimum of staff seems to be a failing of either the SA Navy or the South African psyche. Whether we believe that the tasks we take on are simpler than everyone else seems to find, or whether we simply believe we are that much better than other navies at handling projects is a matter for debate. Nonetheless we always seem to try and run our projects on a shoestring, especially as far as specialist personnel is concerned.”

Trouble was this shoestring mentality did not end with the project phase. “Throughout the life of the … ships, the SA Navy struggled with critical shortages of trained and experienced manpower, especially in the engineering fields. … The shortfall in numbers was exacerbated … by … ‘trickle drafting’. This meant that not only did the ships continually have to cope with changing ships’ companies, it also made it extremely difficult for the men … to qualify themselves for the required watchkeeping and charge certificates. The other invidious aspect of this system was that when a man was required to attend a course he was often drafted from the ship ‘temporarily’ without replacement. When this happened the ship either accepted a downgraded capability or lobbied to prevent the move, in which case the career and morale of the individual concerned was adversely affected.”

As a consequence, it “seems incredible that we [in November 1975] sent a ship off to enter what was in reality a war zone, instructing it to be prepared to provide Naval Gunfire Support to the Army, with a guns crew who had never fired he guns at sea and a helicopter crew who appeared to be inexperienced in gunnery spotting.”

As the cost of the “Border War” escalated, the Navy and especially the frigates, were increasingly seen as “surplus to requirement” and budgets were cut, the naval allocation in the defence budget dropping from 18% in 1977 to under 10% two years later and to 6% at its nadir. “savings” started with “spares and logistics back up” as well as the replacing of defective equipment and necessary through-life upgrades. The Navy was increasingly “forced to fall back on its holdings of emergency stores and war stocks in order to maintain some semblance of operational capability.” This, combined with British sanctions against Apartheid, meant a slide into a state of lower operational readiness “began as early as the 1970s whilst they were still comparatively new ships.”

The end result: “Ships of the size and cost of the Type 12 frigate should have provided a Navy such as ours with at least 30 years of good operational service, as well as a further ten years or more in a downgraded role, i.e. at least 40 years in total. Regretably this was not the case and only on managed to make it more than half this time. Their service from completion date until final decommissioning was between 17 years for President Steyn and just over 21 years for President Pretorius, whilst at the time of her loss President Kruger had been in the SA Navy for nearly 19½ years.”
(The publisher offers a publicity poster for his book that should perhaps be framed and hanged over the desks and beds of the ladies and gentlemen mentioned in the second paragraph of this review. Just a thought…)

Three Frigates – The South African Navy comes of age, 2nd Edition

Rear Admiral Chris Benett (ret)

Just Done Productions



Durban
2009
(This book is not generally available. It is, however, for sale through the publishers at www.justdone.co.za and is also for sale at the SA Naval Museum in Simon’s Town)