South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our Speaker on Thursday 10th of May 2018 was Mr Colin Sutherland whose topic was Living and Working in the former USSR, fourteen years on the Eastern Front a power point presentation on the fourteen years Mr Sutherland spent in the former USSR between 1991 and 2005. This was a period of dramatic change for all the citizens including military personnel and industrial complexes. The former USSR was twenty-three times the size of South Africa, covering eleven time-zones. You can walk from Lisbon to Vladivostok, it is one land mass.

Mr Sutherland started his talk with the affect that the Great Patriotic War had over Russia from 1941 – 45. Over 31 million Russians lost their lives during this war and most of Western Russia was destroyed. The gratuitous death of millions of civilians, and the uprooting of many as refugees, tends to be forgotten when appraising military campaigns. Belarus lost one half of its population in that war.

Whole populations were moved from Western Russia across the Ural Mountains into Eastern Siberia. With them went the manufacturing plants that would later provide the materials to fight the war, such as the tank factory at Novosibirsk which by 1943 provided a large number of the tanks used at the Battle of Kursk.

After the Battle of Kursk, the Germans were not able to advance any further into Russia. In the opinion of Russians the Normandy landings in 1944 was a sideshow when compared to this titanic struggle.

Russia has been invaded many times and this explains the need for buffer States which surround the country. Only afterward did Mr Sutherland become aware of the suffering, and thus the ability to survive, of the North Slavonic people with whom he worked and lived. Neither the UK nor the USA have, in modern times, been invaded and experienced the total devastation of their nations. Only a century before was Russia part of Western European culture and society.

During the Cold War era Russia’s priorities were for military preparedness. The order of manufacturing and industry was, military needs first, exports second and consumer goods last. This was aptly portrayed by the remark “The USSR made the best tanks, but the worst women’s underwear”.

USSR Prior to 1991

Mr Sutherland pointed out that there were no cars depicted in one of his photographs and explained that there were scarcely any in the USSR nor were they needed; public transport was free. The apartment blocks were uniform, but they provided homes for all, near to work, schools and recreation, so that none of the workers needed to travel far. Children were cared for while their parents worked and full employment meant that if you did not have a job you could help at a crèche or be a street sweeper. Russians tended to look after each other.

Much has been made in the West of how dull and uniform the USSR was under socialism. However, all citizens valued full employment, even if the job might not be very economic. Retired soldiers were allocated to security duties and all were guaranteed a State pension.

Education from nursery school to university was free, as well as a free medical service and which was available over this vast territory.

On the down side of the former USSR as seen by an outsider:

Map included in original; unable to show here

USSR Post 1991.

Order and central control disappeared dramatically with the introduction of the market economy where economy, efficiency and effectiveness replaced equity and empathy.

Exports took priority, consumer goods next and military needs came last. Posts, careers, salaries disappeared. Officers became taxi drivers, generals created security companies. Only dollar jobs counted.

Gas and electricity prices were now based on market prices and many people were not able to afford to buy, so they went cold.

Accurate maps became available, which many Russians had never seen before. Military and staff equipment was transferred to the tourist business to help the economy to grow.

In Kazakhstan skill shortages in nuclear facilities led to great concern when Russians returned to the Federation yet save in Western Ukraine there is still a certain affection for the old days symbolized by statues of Mr Lenin.

All property prior to 1991 was state-owned, after 1991 the right to own property was given to the occupier who promptly sold the property to well-connected individuals and the previous occupants were now required to pay rent.

Personal Experiences in Russia

Mr Sutherland had lived and worked in 41 countries which included Russia after 1991, the cities he worked in were Novosibirsk-Siberia, Minsk – Belarus, Almaty – Kazakhstan, Bishkek – Kyrgyzstan, Kiev – Ukraine, Moscow and Ulan Bator – Mongolia.

Mr Sutherland then went on to describe that although he could not speak Russian it was not a problem, but rather an advantage – 1991 nobody in the West spoke the language, Westerners who could speak Russian were eyed with suspicion.

Working in Russia, one soon finds that there are three types of foreigner’s mercenaries, missionaries and misfits. The Americans who could never be properly understood by Russians were often were classed as misfits.

Russia tends to be a very secretive society and photographing any building was not allowed. Most buildings and roads were considered as national key points, things were said to be secret and of strategic importance, including a factory, owned by a friend, that made bathroom fittings. However photographing statues was acceptable, and there were plenty of them, Russia has approximately 5000 statues of Lenin alone and has a dedicated team working on new statues.

He discussed the heyday of Aeroflot when there were half a million workers and 2000 jets and the huge changes in 1992 when 51% of the staff were retrenched and only 172 aircraft retained; the others were cannibalised to keep the remainder operational.

He discovered that to switch off the gas stove pilot light would be a serious problem as matches were unobtainable. He had to roll up a newspaper to form a sort of torch so that he could relight his gas stove using his neighbour's stove.

During a visit to the Chinese border he discovered one of many short distance eight lane highways in the middle of nowhere, he later found out that this was a military airbase to be used in time of war.

Mr Sutherland discussed the problem of families divided by the division of Germany into Russian, French and British zones and on the country’s reunification in 1989 to 1991. In many instances language differences were added to their problems. While working in Siberia and further east, he met many people whose origins were from Western Europe and even in faraway Kazakhstan, Volga Germans.

One of the interesting photographs taken was of the street that had been dug up for repairs and a manhole cover removed. When he revisited this area six years later nothing had changed. Being a foreigner, he had a torch and he inspected the manhole which he found was very deep and dangerous.

Photo of manhole in street in original; unable to show here.

Touring Russia was another problem, Mr Sutherland and his wife were taken on a helicopter flight to the northern border of Mongolia. He was rather worried on the flight as the fuel tank for the helicopter was in the passenger compartment right next door to him. Mongolia is one half times bigger than South Africa.

Photo of large yellow helicopter; Unable to sh ow here.

No great border disputes took place when the USSR broke up. The borders between the fifteen states and Mongolia had been set well before the Second World War. Open for concern is that of Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine was divided into two by a pencil line that was drawn by three men in 1924 to 36 with no thought on its people.

Post Script

A response to the question raised by a participant was to “why post 1991 were Germans so well accepted by Russians, bearing in mind the history of destruction of 1941/3.”

Russians are culturally similar to Germans rather than French, British or the Americans. They interact in a straightforward way that is much more comfortable to each other. They also share the somewhat subdued “winter is coming” type of cultural that depresses Westerners and certainly South Africans.

Ian van Oordt thanked Mr Sutherland for a very informative and interesting talk giving us a peek at Russia from behind the Iron Curtain. He presented Mr Sutherland with the customary gift.


The June meeting started with a short introductory talk on the archaeological research project on the 9.2 inch disappearing gun at Sea Point battery by Captain Chris Dooner.

The remains of the battery were found whilst excavation work was being conducted on the building site of a multi-storey complex. Greater details will be provided during Capt Dooner’s talk in August.

Photo labelled 'Part of the Rotating Arm' in original; unable to show here.

Photo labelled 'Detail elevation of the Gun and Mount' in original; unable to show here.


Our speaker on 14 June 2018 was Capt PD Rogers SAN (Ret) whose topic was The development of a professional world class mine counter-measures capability in the SA Navy in the 1970s.

Capt Rogers introduced his talk by mentioning he could trace the history of the SAN mine counter-measure flotilla from its humble beginnings to its development into one which was as good as the best in the world. A rise of the Phoenix story.

For those who were Pongos (ex-Army) or Penguin (Air Force) or had not served in the forces he up gave a description of the development of mine warfare. Sea mines can be ground influenced, magnetic or acoustic or all three.

The commonest type of mine is the contact mine which is attached by mooring wire to a sinker or moving weight and when a ship hits the mine, the lead horns sets off the detonator and explodes the mine.

Captain Rogers explained the “LL” sweep which was developed to destroy magnetic mines. Wooden minesweepers not being built of metal have no magnetic field. Working in pairs they each towed two electric cables one long and the other short, the cables being buoyed to remain on the surface of the water. An electric pulse was passed through the cables and this produces a magnetic field between the two pairs of cables exploding any magnetic mines which might be between the ships.

Capt Rogers showed a Ron Belling painting of the South African Navy’s first two warships, the minesweepers HMSA Immortelle and Sonneblom in Simon’s Bay. The SA Navy was established as a permanent force unit on 1st April 1922 and was then designated the SA Naval Service. South Africa’s naval volunteers (the Royal navy volunteer reserve (SA division)) received their minesweeping training in these ships until 1934 when the great depression forced the Government to dispose of the ships and retrench all but a handful of the personnel.

During the Second World War whalers and trawlers were converted into auxiliary minesweepers. Eight magnetic minesweepers served in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas and 38 served in South African waters in which they cleared enemy minefields.

After the Second World War the SA Naval Forces (which the SANS had become) were retrained as part of the permanent force and expanded. In 1947 the SANF acquired two Algerine class ocean going minesweepers HMS Pelorus which was renamed HMSAS Pietermaritzburg and HMS Rosamund which was renamed HMSAS Bloemfontein. HMS Pelorus had had a very distinguished war record as the lead ship in the Normandy invasion on D-Day. Her commanding officer was Lt Cmdr Nelson. The ship later served in the Pacific war zone where she cleared the Moluccas Straits of mines and was one of the first ships to enter Singapore. The ship is now a fish haven below Rocklands farm.

In 1955, as part of the Simon’s Town agreement, the South African Navy acquired eight Ton class minesweepers. Their design was copied by the Dutch, French and American navies.

Capt Rogers shared a photograph of the SA naval dockyard at Simon’s Town which was taken over from the RN in 1957 and pointed out the location of the Minesweeping base, SAS Chapman, which for many years was painted green and known as the Peppermint Palace. Nowadays it is painted brick brown.

The patented slipway in the West dockyard was utilized to dry out the hulls of the Ton class minesweepers. During the 1960s two to three minesweepers were in commission and utilized for coastal patrols, target training and by citizen force reservists for annual training call-ups.

Knysna was accessible for the Ton class minesweepers, and one would visit the port every year. The Navy was so popular that the town proposed granting the freedom of Knysna to one of the ships. Chief of the Navy requested that the freedom be granted to the SA Navy instead and the minesweeping base was very proud when the ship painting in the illuminated address was a Ton class minesweeper. This link with the town and the subsequent Oyster festival was much appreciated.

Capt Rogers next describe the Royal Navy’s minesweeping commanding officers course which he and Commander (later Rear Adml (retired)) I G Bothma attended in England. When they returned to South Africa they gave much thought to impromptu improvements here. There were the problems of noisy engines and the need to improve safety. They devised a 6 state operational triangle, green, yellow and red. In state red and the whole of the lower deck was closed off with only two engine artificers on watch. The improvements were reported to naval headquarters but were not taken seriously. Discussions with the Royal Navy, then the SA Navy’s Guardian Angel, who approved of the idea but said that the changes would be too costly for them to implement. The system was later adopted in the SA Navy.

Capt Rogers explained that the MS flotilla motto was “where the fleet goes we have been”. Serving in minesweepers was hard, dangerous and dirty work. It required excellent teamwork and was dangerous, necessity to the wearing of hardhats when working with a heavy overhead float. Unlike their counterparts in the submarine or strike craft flotillas, the offices and ratings who served in minesweepers lived in their ship and did not have more comfortable wardrooms or mess ashore.

Capt Rogers described the mess dinner on board SAS Fleur at which each course was prepared by the galley of a different minesweeper. The guest of honour was Commodore PJC “Tubby” Brown, director of naval stores who had never been invited to a mess dinner in one of our ships before. He was greatly impressed and sometime later minesweeping branch personnel were granted a special additional uniform allowance because of the nature of their duties.

In 1976 formal minesweeping training courses for officers and ratings were introduced. During the mid 1970s SAS Port Elizabeth and SAS Mossel Bay were converted to coastal minehunters. They lost their minesweeping capability but were fitted with two French ECA PAP 104 remote-controlled mine disposal vehicles and the SAN acoustic mine hunting system Mk 1, which had been in storage.

Captain Rogers discussed the problems with unsatisfactory high resolution multibeam side scan sonar and the valuable help provided by Marty Klein. At that stage South Africa had strong ties with Israel and thanks to Mr Klein the SAN acquired an extremely effective side scan sonar.

The SAN acquired four new minehunters in 1981 which were initially designated research vessels because of the UN embargoed on the sale of arms to South Africa. Consequently, they were painted in the usual research vessel colours with blue hulls and white upper works and named Navors I to IV. In 1988 they were commissioned as SAN ships and given SA river names. The ships were equipped with two electrically driven ECA PAP 104 remote-controlled mine disposal vehicles. When a mine is found the charge is dropped near it and the vehicle guided back to the ship. The charge is detonated from a safe distance.

Capt Rogers explained that mine hunting is very slow work. The exit channels of our ports are surveyed so that every mine like object on the seabed is plotted. This work has been facilitated by the invention of the Plessey Tellurometer. It is then only necessary to identify new objects. Prior to the introduction of new maritime regulations merchant ships would drop into old oil barrels and other objects overboard thus adding items to be surveyed.

Whilst captain Rogers was visiting the Republic of China (Taiwan) on a sports tour he received a request to brief the chief of the ROC Navy and his senior officers on MCM warfare. Fortunately, the translation was done by a ROCN hydrographer who had studied at Stellenbosch University and was familiar with MCM terms. The Admiral was keen to acquire the South African technology but Border War priorities prevented this.

In 1985 captain Rogers visited the NATO School of Mine Warfare and held discussions with the Royal Netherlands and Belgium naval officers and was very pleased to discover that despite our years in isolation our MCM expertise was equal to that of the best navies in the world.

Capt Rogers next discussed Adml Chester Nimitz quotation “amateurs discuss tactics and professionals discuss logistics”. SAN realized, that in the event of a war it might be necessary to move personnel and equipment to another port. To test their capacity to do this it was done twice: First to Saldanha in 1984 in exercise Spanbou. Three hundred men, minesweepers, minehunters and all the gear needed to support them were moved. Personnel were housed in tents. The system worked; the next deployment was to Port Elizabeth and was equally successful.

Capt Rogers explained the costly problems with Napier Deltic minesweeper engines, which were initially shipped back to England for repairs, which took 18 months to complete. The SAN dockyard at Simon’s Town took over this job and solved the problem.

Mac Bisset thanked the speaker for his well-illustrated talk and praised captain Rogers important contribution to the recording of SAN minesweeping history.



At the committee meeting on 17 April 2018, Mr Carl Burger was elected as the Chairman. At the meeting of the 10 May 2018 he thanked the outgoing Chairman Mr Johan van den Berg and Editor Mr Ray Hattingh for their many years dedicated service, this was endorsed by the members.

Mr Burger sadly announced the death of a member Mr Stephan Fourie in a motor accident and called the members to rise in a silent tribute to him. Mr Fourie was a member of the Rhodesian Selous Scouts.

The committee has also been hard at work updating the members list; it is noted that a number of members have not paid their subs for this year. We would appreciate those who have not paid to please do so urgently. Mr Buser will be sending out notices to all members who have not paid.



Chris Dooner who gave us a short talk in June 2018 on the progress of the archaeology survey presently being conducted at the site of the 9.2 inch disappearing gun at Sea Point.

He has invited all members to join him on a conducted tour to be arranged in October. If you’re interested please get in contact with the committee.




Captain Glen Knox -In 1973 joined the SA Navy as Seaman and then became Midshipman in 1974.

He served in Minesweepers as a young officer and passed through the Destroyer Jan van Riebeeck, Frigate President Kruger, Tanker Tafelberg and the Survey Vessel Protea.

Saldanha as the Training Commander for three years during the first Integration intakes.

He was privileged to have had 5 Commands at sea the last being the SAS Outeniqua.

His last main appointment was as the Naval Harbour Master and Harbour Pilot for Simon’s Town which he held for 9 years. During this period he sailed, berthed and docked some 3500 ships amounting to 11 million tons of shipping.

He retired from the SA Navy in October 2013.




Captain Chris Dooner - Joined the SA Navy in 1969 shortly afterwards he was placed into the officer corps and became a Midshipman. He studied at the University of Stellenbosch and the then CCATE.

He trained in the navy on weapon systems, serving for 47 years; retiring from the Regular Force in 2012 and the Reserve Force in 2016.


Ian van Oordt (Secretary)
021 531 6612

Tony Westby-Nunn (Editor)
083 444 4662

South African Military History Society /