SAS Rand foundation stone to move to Military History Museum

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The pride, care and support the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) maintains it gives to its military heritage sites and museums appears not to extend as far as decommissioned units and the facilities they used to occupy.

This was found out the hard way by David Kaufman, the last Officer Commanding the then SA Navy Reserve unit, SAS Rand, based at Wemmer Pan in Johannesburg’s southern suburbs.

After SAS Rand was decommissioned in November 2004 the Wemmer Pan base fell into disrepair and is now a total ruin due to a lack of interest from the departments of Defence and Public Works. He wrote to the Minister of Defence, President Zuma (who is also Commander-in-Chief of the SANDF) and the directors general in the departments of Defence and Military Veterans seeking support for funding to have the Wemmer Pan building’s foundation stone moved to the National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg.

None has been forthcoming and Kaufman, aided by other SAS Rand members and private company GlobeSec Global Security Consultants, have banded together and the stone will be taken out, properly cleaned and relocated to the military history museum.

The unveiling is scheduled for November 27, 10 years to the day the base was closed.

The foundation stone is all that remains apart from memories of SAS Rand as the base itself has been stripped of memorabilia and everything else when the unit was disbanded. It was laid on July 16, 1938 for the Navy League building on the banks of the southern suburbs water feature. It was put into position by then then mayor of Johannesburg, Clr J S Fotheringham and became the Naval Cadet Base in the city.

After World War Two the then SA Naval Forces decided to recruit volunteers to bolster its ranks and realising the potential of many trained naval personnel returning or moving to the Witwatersrand area, Commander FJ Dean OBE obtained the Naval Cadet Base building and on April 26, 1948. It was the first naval inland reserve base in South Africa to come into being, under the command of Commander Taffy Owen, with 160 volunteers.

At 6 000 feet above sea level the base became the highest naval unit in the world.

The Naval Cadet Unit was later re-established alongside SAS Rand and named TS Immortelle. It served as a feeder unit for Rand.

By 1950 the number of volunteers increased to 200 and the unit was declared a Naval Reserve Base and officially named SAS Rand and in due course received its own ship’s badge.

A look at some of the unit’s highlights provided by Kaufman, shows SAS Rand members manned the minesweeper, SAS Bloemfontein, during fleet exercises in 1950 and in 1957 a tactical anti-submarine warfare simulator was installed for ASDIC, now known as Sonar, training.

In 1972 SAS Rand obtained its own diving tank and decompression chamber and was able to provide trained naval divers with facilities to train. SAS Rand divers supported regular Navy diving teams in South African ports and Walvis Bay, doing regular inspections to ensure ships’ hulls were kept free of limpet mines.

September 7, 1963, was a red-letter day for SAS Rand. The unit had the proud distinction of becoming the first naval unit to receive the Freedom of a City, when presented with the Freedom of Johannesburg. This honour allows them to march through the streets with “fixed bayonets, colours flying and drums beating”.

By 1991 SAS Rand’s strength number more than 3 600 officers and ratings making it the single largest Citizen Force unit in the then SA Defence Force.

In 2002 the first warning shots were fired across the bows of naval Reserve Force units when it was revealed that all seven units would be closed. Despite lobbying at the highest level by a number of eminent and leading people, the then Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Johan Retief, decided the unit would be decommissioned. This was within his authority but closing of the units would require an Act of Parliament.

An indication of the value of the Naval Reserve comes from HMSAS Natal. During World War Two she became the only ship to sink an enemy vessel while still on trials. The captain of Natal was a peacetime mining official from Krugersdorp, the operator who detected the submarine was a jockey and the officer in charge of the ASDIC team a physicist at the Onderstepoort Veterinary research centre.
“SAS Rand was decommissioned on November 27, 2004, drawing the curtain down on years of dedicated service by its members. It is for this reason the unveiling of the foundation stone at its new site at the Ditsong Museum of Military History will take place on November 27, exactly 10 years to the date and time,” Kaufman said.