SA Navy celebrates SAS Protea’s 50th birthday


On 23 May, the South African Navy (SAN) celebrated a remarkable achievement when its hydrographic survey vessel SAS Protea turned fifty. This is the first time ever that a ship of the SA Navy reaches this golden (sea) milestone.

Warships are designed for long service of thirty to forty years, but more than fifty years of military service is an exceptional achievement. The second-oldest naval vessels were the boom defence vessel SAS Somerset and the minesweeper SAS East London, both of which were in service for 43 years. What makes the achievement more remarkable, however, is that the Protea – compared to other ships of the navy – had a particularly active and uninterrupted period of service behind it.

An important function

Hydrography involves the survey and description of the sea, coastal areas, lakes and rivers to establish safe navigation in support of marine activities. The most important product of hydrographic work is nautical charts that show the depths of water, contours, navigational aids, shipwrecks and other relevant information – a necessity for safe navigation. These nautical charts, which are also available in electronic versions today, are continuously updated by the South African Hydrographic Office located at Silvermine outside Cape Town. The office was established in 1955 and has played a leading role in the field of hydrography for several years. A former SA Navy hydrographer, Captain Abri Kampfer, was awarded the international Alexander Dalrymple Prize in 2009 and currently serves as director of the International Hydrographic Organization in Monaco.

Four Proteas

The South African Naval Service (SANS), established on 1 April 1922, is widely regarded as the forerunner of our modern navy. It is significant that one of the first vessels that the SANS commissioned in 1922 was a hydrographic survey vessel – HMSAS Protea. The first survey work was completed in 1922 at Simon’s Town and the following year at St Helena Bay. The Protea continued this task for more than ten years until the drastic economic consequences of the Great Depression in the early 1930s forced the SANS to withdraw the vessel from service. The situation was so dire that the SANS virtually closed its doors.

The first Protea – HMSAS Protea (1922-1932).

The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, however, led to a rapid naval expansion and the establishment of the Seaward Defence Force and subsequent SA Naval Forces (SANF). Hydrographic work was temporarily suspended during the war years and the second vessel bearing the Protea name was an anti-submarine vessel, one of many commercial whalers and fishing trawlers converted to serve in the SANF. HMSAS Protea (ii) served in the Mediterranean and on 11 July 1942 – in a joint effort – attacked and sank the Italian submarine Ondina. The battle honours that were consequently awarded to this vessel have since been transferred to naval ships bearing the Protea name.

The post-war SA Navy again continued hydrographic survey work after a former British corvette, HMS Rockrose, was acquired and rebuilt in Durban for this purpose. SAS Protea (iii) rendered valuable service from 1950 but was replaced after only seven years by another converted vessel, the former Loch-class frigate, SAS Natal, due to obsolete technology.

The first 40 Coloured sailors – members of the SA Cape Corps (SACC) who were permanently recruited for the SA Navy – were taken on board in June 1966. They were employed as sailors, riggers, engine room mechanics, chefs, stewards, storekeepers, shipwrights and survey recorders. At the time, SACC members on board comprised nearly fifty percent of the Natal ship’s crew. This was one of the first instances of racial integration on board naval vessels of the Navy and their application would later be continued on the new Protea.

A South African ship from Scotland

A close association with the Yarrow shipyard in Glasgow was renewed in 1969 when a contract was signed with this famous shipyard to build the first new hydrographic survey vessel for the SA Navy. Two of the three President-class frigates, the SAS President Kruger and President Pretorius, were built at Yarrow in the early 1960s and the SA Navy was already well acquainted with Yarrow and Glasgow. However, amidst the government’s apartheid policy, growing isolation and looming arms boycotts against South Africa, the new Hecla-class hydrographic survey vessel was the last British-made ship purchased for the SA Navy.

A SA Navy project team left for Glasgow at the end of 1969 to oversee the construction of the new ship. The keel of the new vessel was laid down in March 1970, but construction was repeatedly interrupted due to persistent strikes at the shipyard. On 4 July 1971 the new vessel was launched on the Clyde River and christened the SAS Protea – the fourth ship to bear that name – by the wife of the Commandant General (Chief of the Defence Force) Rudolph Hiemstra.

The new vessel cost the government R6 million, but was in all respects a major improvement on the old SAS Natal which was withdrawn from service in March 1972. The new ship was 79.25 m long, 14.94 m wide with a full load displacement of 2 750 t and was powered by four 12-cylinder Paxman Ventura diesel engines giving it a top speed of 16.5 knots and a range of 12 000 nautical miles at 12 knots. The vessel was not armed, but equipped with a flight deck and hanger, large enough for a single Wasp or Alouette helicopter. As with other hydrographic vessels, the hull was painted white – unlike the distinctive warship grey of other naval ships and in later years the vessel was fondly referred to as “the white lady”. The crew consisted of 18 officers and 114 sailors which included 45 members of the SACC.

The selected crew left for Scotland by mid-May 1972, where final preparations were made for the commissioning of the new ship. The South Africans were told to wear civilian clothes in Scotstoun and Glasgow as it was thought that the public display of SA Navy uniform would further fuel the anti-apartheid sentiments there. But for the South Africans, the extra warm clothing and daily allowance of R13.50 made up for this “inconvenience”! The SACC sailors were housed at Yarrow shipyard, while their white counterparts were housed at boarding houses in Scotstoun. Leading Seaman (later Warrant Officer) Peter Jacobs remembered the regularity of fish and chips that were served with almost every meal. Chief Petty Officer (later Warrant Officer) Herman Anthony remembered that they were advised to avoid contact with the locals of Scotstoun and to not divulge the details of their visit! Despite these restrictions, the crew were nevertheless invited by the local Royal Marines to their unit in Glasgow, from where the group visited the local pubs and dance venues on more than one occasion.

Under the watchful eye of the Yarrow shipyard, a series of sea acceptance trials commenced in early May. After the necessary tests and technical adjustments, the SAS Protea was officially handed over to the SA Navy and commissioned on 23 May 1972 under the command of Captain Arthur Fawthrop. The crew said goodbye to Yarrow, Scotstoun, the River Clyde and Scotland, from where the ship sailed to the British naval base Portland in the English Channel for basic operational sea training and evaluation. Navy ships from other countries were also there for the exercise, during which the readiness of the crew and equipment were thoroughly tested. SAS Protea passed the evaluation and on 6 June the bow was turned southwards for the long voyage back to South Africa. From Portland the ship sailed via Lisbon, Las Palmas, Luanda and Walvis Bay, before its arrival in Simon’s Town on 14 July 1972. A typically wet Cape winter’s day did not dampen the spirit of the large crowd when the crew set foot on South African soil to loud applause after two months abroad. The Minister of Defence, PW Botha, was also in attendance to welcome Captain Fawthrop and conveyed his personal thanks to the crew who, according to all reports, did exceptionally well. During the same event, Botha announced that the “experiment” to employ Coloured sailors had proved a great success and that their employment in the SADF would be expanded.

Remote islands and Antarctica

The Protea ‘s long range, cargo capacity and helicopter on board made it suitable to sail to the remote islands of the Southern Ocean. Shortly after the ship returned home to Simon’s Town in 1972 it sailed to Tristan da Cunha to provide medical supplies and assistance to the isolated inhabitants. The ship’s dentist extracted not less than 300 teeth in three days on the island!

The first of many visits to Marion Island followed in 1974 when a number of huts were placed on the island for scientific research purposes. In 1977 SAS Protea was back again, this time for hydrographic survey work, but also to curb a troublesome cat plague on the island. An international krill research project then took the Protea further south to Antarctica in February 1978 and in the process became the first SA Navy ship to sail around the infamous Cape Horn. More voyages to Marion Island followed in later years (see below), but in January 1994 the Protea again sailed south to Antarctica and Bouvet Island. On this voyage, Ensign Anne Myers became the first SA Navy woman to sail across the Antarctic circle. By the end of the year Myers had earned the coveted bridge watch keeping badge – the first female to do so.

Humanitarian aid

Apart from the Protea’s primary task as a hydrographic survey vessel, the vessel performed a number of search and rescue operations over the years. The prestigious SA Navy Sword of Peace was awarded to Protea on three occasions in recognition of the ship’s role in such operations. The first event was in May 1978 when 26 crew members of the stranded Japanese fishing trawler, the Kayo Maru were rescued along the inhospitable coast of South West Africa. In July 1984, the Protea was sent to Marion Island again, this time to bring the seriously ill leader of the research team back to South Africa for medical care. The third award was made in 2005 after the Protea rescued the crew of the cargo ship Kiperousa which had foundered off Port Alfred.

A very important person on board

“The white lady” always looked the part and was well dressed on special occasions, especially when presidents and other dignitaries were welcomed on board. Presidential naval reviews were held in 1988, 1992, 1997 and 2008 and the Protea was the chosen review vessel from which the president observed the ceremonial passing of naval vessels and answered the salute. The 1997 International Navy Review in Table Bay, on the occasion of the Navy’s 75th anniversary, was a special affair. Forty-seven ships, including 22 warships from 13 countries, were part of the impressive mass sail past and most appropriately, President Nelson Mandela was on board SAS Protea during this glorious event.

A true ambassador: flag showing cruises

The Protea visited no less than 16 international destinations in the first seven years of service, but the government’s persistent policy of apartheid and the subsequent international opposition and isolation limited the Navy to its own ports for most of the 1980s with few opportunities for international flag showing cruises. Thankfully, a “change in course” occurred in February 1990 following President FW de Klerk’s important “watershed speech”. This paved the way for political reform in the country and South Africa was soon welcomed back into the international fold. Just two months later SAS Protea left Simon’s Town for Portugal as the guard ship of the 1990 Portnet Dias yacht race. It was the first time in eighteen years that a SA Navy ship had visited Europe and the first of many subsequent flag showing cruises. The Navy was invited to participate in the International Hydrographic Organization Conference in Monaco in May 1992. During an extensive 82-day overseas voyage, SAS Protea sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar to Monaco, from where it also docked in Genoa, Istanbul, Constanta and sailed back through the Suez Canal to Simon’s Town. The Navy had renewed old ties and made new friends along the way.

As new ships were put into service by the Navy – especially the SAS Outeniqua and Valour-class frigates – the opportunities for the Protea became less frequent, but the vessel was still able to visit Rio de Janeiro in April 2000 to take part in an international naval revue. The last notable international voyage was undertaken in February 2008 to sail with the new submarine, SAS Queen Modjadji I, from Germany, but the old lady was starting to show her age.

Operations in Mozambique Channel

The SA Navy has been committed to Operation Copper since 2011, which comprises the maritime patrol and surveillance of the Mozambique Channel to curb the threat of pirate activities from the north. Initially, the modern Valour-class frigates were used on a rotational basis, but the latter use of the smaller Warrior-class offshore patrol vessels proved to be a more economical option. In order to support these vessels at sea, SAS Protea was sent to the area in July 2018. The Protea’s presence ensured a successful and more sustained operation during which a larger area could be patrolled.

A replacement on the way

A replacement for the 50-year-old Protea is currently being built in Durban at the Sandock Austral Shipyards – the same shipyard that also built the SAS Drakensberg and six strike craft and two minehunters for the navy in the 1980s. The new 95-meter vessel of approximately 4 000 tonnes is based on the Vard 9 105 design – essentially an evolution of the very similar hydrographic survey vessel, HMS Echo that is currently in service with the Royal Navy. SAS Protea will however continue in service as a training ship for the time being, while the new hydrographic vessel is put into service. Passing down fifty years of experience is indeed a worthy way to go towards retirement!

Written by Commander Leon Steyn, Historian – South African Naval Museum and republished with permission.

More information on the SA Naval Museum can be found on their Facebook page.