South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 8 October 2015 was Rear Admiral Chris Bennett SAN (Ret) whose topic was South Africa’s Frigates, both those that served in the SAN and those which remained purely paper projects (as will be discussed further on in chronological order). The frigate as a type of warship had its origins in the Galleass, built for speed and maneuverability and powered by oars and sails, used in the Mediterranean during the 15th century. It was lightly-armed but more powerful than the normal galley which was oar-powered. Over the years, this ship developed into the 18th century frigate which had three masts, was square rigged and faster than line of battleships and carrying guns of a lighter weight.

In the Royal Navy of the 18th century a frigate carried between 28 and 40 guns and was a 6th rate vessel. Battleships were rated from 1st rate with 100 guns down to 5th rate with 50 to 60 guns. Ships with less than 28 guns could be sloops, brigs or corvettes, but were normally commanded by a commander and not a captain. In the 19th century frigates became heavier, with armour and heavy guns. In fact, the modern battleships were descended from the armoured frigates of the 19th century. The term “frigate” was not used during WW1 at all. Anti-submarine operations were carried out by torpedo boat destroyers (or destroyers) and trawlers.

During the years between the two World Wars, destroyers were the premier anti-submarine ships but the British and French also developed another class of ships used to police and patrol shipping lanes. These were known as sloops (in French an aviso) and were well armed but slower than destroyers.

World War 2 saw a huge expansion in submarine warfare against both warships and merchant ships which, if not stopped, could have caused the defeat of Britain and its allies. So there was a huge expansion in the number of anti-submarine vessels. The first of these were corvettes, of some 800 to 900 tons, lightly-armed but carrying a big suite of depth charges. They were very uncomfortable ships which “rolled on wet grass” but which were cheap and easy to build. The sloops were also converted to anti-submarine warfare and they, the corvettes and as many of the older destroyers as were available, bore the brunt of anti-submarine warfare in the first half of WW2. A new class of vessel, smaller and slower than a fleet destroyer, with a reasonable armament of anti-aircraft guns and a heavy armament of depth charges and other anti-submarine weapons, known as a frigate or destroyer-escort, came into use in the second half of WW2. This type managed to turn the tide against submarine aggression.

In the post-1945 period, the term corvette refers to a smallish warship larger than a missile boat but smaller than a frigate, with a fairly light armament and a displacement of 800 to round 1,600 tons. The frigate is larger than a corvette, with a displacement of some 2,500 tons to 4,500 tons. Some of the newer varieties have a displacement of up to 6,000 tons. These may be multi-purpose or with a single main function, e.g. anti- submarine. Destroyers nowadays are even larger and are multi-purpose.

South Africa’s navy came into existence in 1922, with a survey ship Protea and two Admiralty type trawlers Sonnebloem and Immortelle. With the depression years that followed, this miniscule force was reduced by 1939 to five officers and ratings and no ships. Our naval defences consisted of coast artillery batteries in Table Bay, Simon’s Town and Durban. WW2 saw the formation of the Seaward Defence Force and an increase in numbers both of men and ships. These latter were all small, being whalers converted into anti-submarine ships and trawlers converted to mine-sweeping. For a long time, the largest ship in the SA Naval Forces, formed August 1944, was the salvage vessel Gamtoos. These ships gave good service round South Africa’s coast, up the East coast of Africa and in the Mediterranean.

In 1945 the Admiralty supplied South Africa with three newly-built Loch Class anti-submarine frigates, which would form the nucleus of the SA Navy post-war. The first to be commissioned was the Good Hope, the second was Natal, which sank a U-boat on its maiden voyage, and, finally, the Transvaal. They were 94 metres in length, 1,575 tons and armed with two 4-inch guns, some light weapons and two Squid anti-submarine mortars.

These three were joined by Vrystaat, a Type 15 conversion from a destroyer, and the ‘W’ class destroyers Jan van Riebeeck and Simon van der Stel. These ships were all designed or converted to anti-submarine ships and they defended the sea route round the Cape and our coastal zone, as well as the enormous Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) surrounding the Prince Edward and Marion Islands, south-east of South Africa and in the Roaring Forties. They were initially armed as destroyers but later ended up with two Squid launchers, a pair of 4 or 4.7-inch guns and a few light guns. They were 103.5 metres in length.

In June 1955, the UK and South Africa signed the Simon’s Town Agreement in terms of which ownership of the Simon’s Town Dockyard was handed over to South Africa and the RN ships based here were withdrawn, largely for financial reasons. In return for this South Africa agreed to expand its navy. This involved the purchase of a Type 15 frigate – the Vrystaat referred to above, as well as the construction of three Type 12 frigates, ten coastal minesweepers and some motor launches. This would give South Africa a largish force to patrol its coastline and the sea routes round Southern Africa, a large task for the ships the Navy was equipped with. In addition to this, our Navy’s ships also went on “show the Flag” trips and exercised with ships from friendly navies. Defence Headquarters accepted this that these were the functions to be carried out by the Navy.

The destroyers were upgraded a number of times, ending up as helicopter carriers and well-armed for anti-submarine operations. The type 12s were also upgraded and equipped with helicopters. Vrystaat was the first of these ships to be taken out of service.

The Navy received a small portion of the Defence Budget and always had difficulty in keeping its ships operational. Only two of the Type 12s were operational at any one time. In 1977, the UK unilaterally cancelled the Simon’s Town Agreement in view of the growing anti-South African sentiment in the world at that time.

At that stage the “Border War” had started and the Army and Air Force generals running the Defence Force looked at the Navy budget as a source of extra funds to run this war. It was decided by Chief of Defence Force that the Navy should confine itself to the role of a coastal maritime force and protect the interests of the RSA in its territorial waters and EEZ, as well as discourage any maritime aggression against South Africa and carry out operations in support of land operations. This was a similar approach to that taken by the Union Defence Force (UDF) in 1939, confining the Seaward Defence Force to SA territorial waters. In accordance with this short-sighted policy decision, sacrificing strategic imperatives for purely tactical considerations, the Navy had, in the 70’s and 80’s, attempted to buy corvettes in a number of projects which were initially budgeted for.

The design selection in each of these tended to be more dependent on political objectives rather than on actual naval requirements. The ships were all a bit smaller than Loch class frigates and, in most cases, were not suitable for South African sea conditions. A precedent was now set in the minds of politicians and Defence Headquarters that the Navy needed corvettes and not frigates.

The fleet slowly lost ships in the years from 1955 to 1977 and, in 1982, President Kruger sank after colliding with the tanker Tafelberg, leaving only President Pretorius operational. The end of the road had been reached by our frigate force. Purchasing new ships had become difficult in view of the arms boycott against South Africa. The new functions set for the Navy by Defence Headquarters made it impossible for the Navy to get approval for anything other than a corvette. The Navy was well aware that a corvette with a waterline length of 90 metres would never be able to carry out useful patrols round our islands. A ship of 110 metres minimum is required for patrols in those Southern waters. In November 1977, the French joined the UN Arms Boycott and cancelled our corvette programme.

The generals seized their opportunity and the Navy share of the Defence Budget of 17% in 1977 was reduced to 9% and less after 1979. The Navy could not compete with the Army and Air Force big guns for money for capital projects. They knew that they needed frigates but realized that to ask for a frigate would kill the project before it started. For the next 15 years or so, they tried to regain their blue water capabilities with a series of projects for warships bigger than a strike craft. These all had more sensors and weapons than were normally fitted to a corvette but the term “corvette” had to be used. It was only after 1994 that the Navy saw its opportunity to get some blue water ships and the Valour class were ordered – patrol corvettes not frigates of 3600 tons displacement and 121 metres waterline length. The armament was that of a corvette, not a frigate, which can be a bit confusing.

We will now look at some of these projects. The first was Project Taurus. Portugal had ordered six ships of the Joao Coutinho class and the idea was to purchase four more which South Africa would pay for. They would be modified and fitted with the British/Australian Ikara anti-submarine weapon (range 5,000 yards). However, the sonar fitted had a range of 3,000 yards only. In addition, the displacement of the Joao Coutinho was 1,250 tons and its length was 84 metres, so it was not suitable for our waters. Another bright idea was to fit gas turbines instead of diesels but this would have meant complete redesign. This was cancelled as a result of the Portuguese Revolution in 1973/4.

Then came Project Picnic. This was for the purchase of two Aviso A69 corvettes and two Agosto submarines. The A69s were only 80 metres long and, although well-armed, were even less suitable for our waters than the Joao Coutinho class. These orders were cancelled in November 1977 when France imposed the UN Arms boycott.

In February 1977, the C-SADF Gen Magnus Malan accepted a report which concluded that the Navy should dispose of all large ships and become a coast defence force. Resulting from this report was Project Japonica, another politically inspired project for the construction of six strike craft in Israel. This was completely opposed by the Navy but went ahead. Three were built in Israel and six in South Africa. They were very successful ships operated far beyond their capabilities, much to the horror of their Israeli designers. They were built by Sandock Austral which had a huge building in which the ships could be built in secrecy.

The next was Project Burlap for the design and construction of six 80 metre corvettes – designed by YAMCO (owned by Yarrow) and built by Dorbyl. The hull design was tested in Holland and found to be suitable for the sea conditions round our coasts. But Armscor and the Navy kept modifying the design, going from two diesels, two propellers to four diesels, two propellers and then, as a result of the increasing influence of Israeli advisors at Defence Headquarters, gas turbine engines giving less range at greater cost. Politics again interfered in 1982 and YAMCO and Dorbyl were told by Defence Headquarters, under the influence of the Israelis, that their services would no longer be required as South Africa would be turning to Israel for advice and assistance. YAMCO withdrew its staff from South Africa and Dorbyl concentrated on commercial business only. So we lost the ability to construct naval ships in this country.

The next was Project Foreshore. This was a whole series of warship designs for ships larger than strike craft for the Navy. Both the ship and weapon designs proposed for the various iterations of the project as the naval staff battled to get Israeli concepts, based on the calmer Mediterranean Sea conditions and strategic situation, to fit in with South African needs. Basically the Navy was looking at a ship of 2,000 tons displacement and 100 metre length, against Defence Headquarters perception, strongly supported by the Israelis, of a 1,500 ton ship of 80 metre length. There were also problems with the engines – diesels were preferred but the requirement was for gas turbines which would have left the ships with insufficient range. So this project also petered out.

Project Lumeen was designed to get at least one Type 12 operational. No funds were available and the two remaining frigates were in such poor condition that they were scrapped.

The ANC government that came into power in 1994 had some understanding of the importance of maritime defence, as the threat of South African submarines which acted as deterrent should the Russians and their allies had any intention of invading SA and/or SWA from the sea. The Navy and Armscor could not understand that the new government worked differently to the old one but eventually a consensus was reached and orders were placed for three submarines and four “patrol corvettes”. These are frigate-sized ships with a corvette-type armament. They are 121 metres long and have a displacement of 3,590 tons and are suitable for operations round Prince Edward Island. A Lynx helicopter is carried although the hanger can carry two of these. The four Lynx helicopters were paid for out of the savings on the other contracts. All of the projects included in the Arms Deal came out under budget. In contrast, the latest ship for the USN is between 200% and 400% over budget.

In conclusion, Adm Bennett noted that the ships have worked very hard since they came into service and have been a success in the service of our Navy.

Cdr Mac Bissett thanked our speaker for a very interesting lecture and noted that much of what we were told this evening is little known to the general public. He then presented our speaker with the customary gift.



We welcome Mr G B Gloyne who joined us at the last meeting and hope to see him at future meetings.




Major Heitman’s annual overview of the security situation in Africa has never failed in the past to draw a full-house as far as attendance is concerned – this year it certainly would be no less so, in view of the continuing unstable political situation and economic turmoil in many an African state. As with his previous lecture, he will start the evening with a short introductory talk on an as yet undisclosed subject.

What better than a power-house presentation by one of our ever-popular speakers to end the year’s programme with. Make sure you don’t miss it.

The lecture will be illustrated.


No lectures are scheduled for December as the Cape Town Branch will be in recess in view of the upcoming summer holiday/festive season at the end of the year. The Branch will routinely commence with its activities on the third Thursday of January (being the 21st), 2016.

THURSDAY, 21 January 2016: BATTLE SCARS & DRAGON TRACKS – A FAMILY STORY OF LOVE AND WAR by Anthony Louis von Zeil and Glenn von Zeil

Our first speakers in the New Year are the father-and-son duo of Louis and Glenn von Zeil. Glenn is a long-time and well-known fellow member of the Cape Town Branch of the SAMHS. His father, Anthony, is the author of the historical biography, Battle Scars & Dragon Tracks. It is the story of one of his ancestors, Arthur Owen Vaughan, a Welsh soldier who served in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. It is also a story of the war in the eastern Free State, of intrigue, romance and fate. Vaughan met, fell in love and married a Boer girl from Vredefort and this is his story of fighting and family. Vaughan later on became a well-known author of military-romantic novels.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /