South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926



Our Speaker on 12 July 2018 was Captain Glen Knox, SAN (Ret) whose topic was a visual trip along the old Simon’s Town waterfront – the West dockyard and East dockyard – the SA naval dockyard, in an excellent PowerPoint presentation.

Captain Knox introduced his talk by explaining that Simon’s Bay had originally been named Iselsteijn Bay after the Dutch flute Yselstein which had anchored in the bay on 29 May 1671. In 1687 Simon van der Stel the Dutch Governor at the Cape surveyed Baai Vals and named the bay and later the town after himself.

Caption to an imageSimon’s Town Naval Dockyard

Town Jetty was built in 1886 and improved in 1905 and in 1920. It was from here that the Boer POW were taken to the ships which took them to the British prison of war camps in Ceylon, the West Indies and St Helena. On the jetty are two muzzle- loading cannons from the Batavian ship Bato (68 guns) burnt in 1806 on instructions from Gen Janssens to prevent the ship been captured by the British, and a monument to SA divers by Johann Hugo.

The Patent slipway near the entrance to the West dockyard was built in 1860 and used by the SA Navy Ton class minesweepers in the 1970s. The Seaplane Shed was erected in 1935 for the Royal Navy 716 Catapult squadron. The hangar was handed over to the South African Navy in 1957 and is now the small craft centre.

The British Hotel opposite the West dockyard gates started as the Clarence Hotel in 1830. In 1890 it was the venue for the reception by the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Mr C J Rhodes, on the opening of the Simon’s Town rail station. Mary Kingsley stayed there while she was nursing the Boer prisoners. Her bedroom has been preserved as a memorial. Many British Antarctic explorers stayed there.

The De Beers building was designed by Sir Herbert Baker for Imperial Cold Storage in 1903, and in 1921 it became the Standard Bank.

SAS Simonberg, the accommodation block, was built for the SA Navy in exchange for Robben Island. It is presently used for advanced naval training; the original mast has been replaced and the original wooden figurehead of Admiral van Geems moved to the SAN Museum.

The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was built in 1828 and is the oldest Methodist Church in South Africa. Sgt John Kindrick was the founder of Methodism at the Cape. The church was also used by the Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches and was consecrated by the designated Anglican Bishop of Calcutta. Alongside the church is the Soldiers and Sailors Rest Home which was completed in 1900. Actor Edgar Wallace and his future mother-in-law raised the money to build the house. It is now the rehabilitation centre for Alcoholics Victorious.

The Camber is a small enclosed dock in the West dockyard, built in 1814. It was originally used for lighters conveying provisions to ships in the bay. Nearby is the Tower Diving Tank in which divers are trained in underwater welding, and the new submarine escape trainer in which submariners learn how to escape from a submarine which has bottomed.

In front of the Mast House is an old boat slipway. The Mast House was built in 1815 and the largest mast repaired there was 35.5 m long. Upstairs is a sail loft which was used for church services for many years and eventually became St George’s dockyard church. The SAN Museum is now housed in Mast House.

The Dutch East India Company storehouses were built in 1743 on the orders of the Governor General Baron von Imhoff. In addition to stores it housed a magazine, bakehouse, barracks, kitchens, guardrooms and offices rooms. For many years it was the naval base detail clothing store (slops).

Caption to an image: Outside the West dockyard is the Residency which was completed in 1777 by the Dutch East India Company as a winter residence for the Governor. The Royal Navy converted it into a naval hospital. For many years it housed the Magistrate and Magistrate’s Court. It became the Simon’s Town Museum on 1 April 1977. It is haunted by a lady named Eleanor.

Next to the Simon’s Town Museum is St Francis of Assisi Anglican Church opened in 1837, originally named St Francis church as a tribute to Lady Frances Cole who raised most of the money used to build it.

Westgate Terrace was built in 1860. In 1900 it became the Commander-inChief’s office. It then became the office of the Chief of the Navy until he moved to Pretoria, when it became the HQ of the naval officer in command at Simon’s Town. It later became the office of the Inspector General of the Navy and fleet officer commanding the Navy. For some years a single gun fired one round to announce that a court martial was in session.

Higher up the hill is former False Bay hospital which was built in 1905 as the Cottage hospital. When the hospital moved to Fish Hoek in 1964, it became the HQ of the Naval Officer-in-Command at Simon’s Town.

Admiralty House is the oldest building in the town, original house built by Anthony Visser, the Dutch East India Company’s unofficial representative in Simon’s Bay, who loaned the property on 12 July 1724. It was purchased by the Admiralty on 22 April 1814 and later became the official residence of the Royal Navy Commanderin- Chief until 1957. The Chief of the Navy moved in when the SA Navy took over the naval base. Capt Knox reminded us of the many distinguished visitors who have visited or stayed in the house, he pointed out the enclosed alchemy where Lady Packer (Joy Packer the author) wrote some of her books and showed the Yellowwood tree planted by HM King George VI when he visited the house in 1947.

Capt Knox showed us Admirals’ Pier originally built in 1827 or 1828 at his own expense by Lord John Churchill, Captain of HMS Tweed who was then housed in Admiralty House in the absence of the C-in-C. The pier was probably rebuilt in 1871.

Up on the mountainside to the right of the former False Bay hospital is the goal built of sandstone from Jackson’s quarry in 1903. The building was a goal from 1903 to 1913 and convict station until 1936 when it became a work colony. It was a reformatory from 1949 to 1953. It later became the SA Navy “Lay Apart Store” and is now the SANDF military police headquarters in Simon’s Town.

Palace barracks originally belonged to Antoni Visser. In 1784 William Hunter purchased it as an annex to his guesthouse (the present Admiralty House). In 1813 it was purchased by John Osmond, a wealthy former sailor, who was nicknamed King John. His house became known as the Palace. In 1886 it was purchased by the British War Department it became a military mess referred to as the Palace Barracks. In 1900 it became an emergency hospital for Boer prisoners of war suffering from typhoid. Mary Kingsley, who nursed them, contracted the disease and died there. The building later became the headquarters of the British coast gunners at Simon’s Town. The building was one of the British War Department’s properties handed over to the union government in 1921 and became the headquarters of the second heavy battery, SA Permanent Garrison Artillery.

Lower North Battery was built on the site of the Dutch Zoutman Battery built by Lt Louis Thibault on the orders of Commissioner General A J Sluysken in 1793. It was remodelled in 1885-6 and armed with rifled guns. Since 1957 it has been the SA Navy’s gunnery school firing range.

Capt Knox discussed the Roman Rock awash at low tide and covered at high water and its danger to shipping. The lighthouse was built in 1861 despite some difficulties. It has been unmanned since 1914.

The East dockyard or SA Naval dockyard was built between 1900 to 1910 as HM dockyard because the West dockyard was too small and a dry dock was urgently needed by the Royal Navy. It was opened by one of Queen Victoria’s Navy Field Marshals, HRH the Duke of Connaught. The cost of the project was 2½ million pounds. Capt Knox showed photographs of the Selborne dry dock and its walls which are decorated with the ships badges of ships which have undergone repairs or refit there. In addition to the RN and SAN ships’ badges there are others of the US Navy, Israeli Navy and Imperial Iranian Navy.

The Cable Restorer was built as HMS Bullfrog, a RN cable ship, in 1944 and later utilised to maintain the undersea telephone cable. The ship has also been utilised by the Lawhill Maritime Academy as a restaurant.

Committee member Tony Westby–Nunn thanked Captain Knox for his most impressive and interesting coverage of the topic and presented him with the customary gift.


Our Speaker on 9 August 2018 was Captain Chris Dooner, SAN (Ret) whose topic was Fortress Cape Town, an excellent PowerPoint presentation on the gun batteries, fire and control points around Cape Town

Captain Dooner began his talk on how Cape Town was fortified to defend it from attack by sea shortly after van Riebeeck landed here 1652. For 250 years the muzzle-loading weapons used to defend the Cape had short range, while a gunner at sea level had a horizon of around six thousand yards, or 3 Nautical Miles (nm) which enabled the gunner to engage targets directly. The introduction of breechloading guns towards the end of the 19th Century resulted in weapons with ranges that far exceeded the gunner’s visual horizon, with targeting and accuracy exacerbated by the speed and manoeuvrability of steam-driven ships.

The effective ranges of the first Breech-Loading (BL) and Quick-Firing (QF) guns were restricted by the use of low angle mountings. Effective ranges and visual observation and command ranges were increased by placing batteries at altitude. Placing of batteries at altitude also had the advantage of placing them higher than early naval guns could reach.

During the First World War guns were effectively locally controlled, with the Battery Command and Observation Posts located nearby. However, as larger calibre guns with greater ranges were fitted to warships with higher angle mountings, the same was necessary for gun batteries on the coast.

The evolution in gunnery and maritime platform technologies had been paralleled by scientific understanding of the effect of internal and external ballistics on a projectile and the development of sights and mechanical computing devices that applied this to the aiming of the guns. This enabled the Battery Command Post to track a target and provide accurate information for a gun to hit a target.

With the introduction of larger calibre guns into service it became impossible to manually move the gun fast enough to compensate for the target speed. Hydraulic technology was used to provide an easily controlled force required to move the gun.

Naval gunnery led the field in applying technology to improve the ranges and accuracy of guns. Coastal Defence quickly realized that naval technology could make great improvements and by the 20th Century guns were mounted on mountings that could be infinitely and rapidly trained and elevated mechanically to manually track moving targets. Electrical communication technology increased the speed and accuracy of training the guns and allowed Observation and Command Posts to be separated from the guns. This allowed the guns and observation posts to be placed in separate positions, best suited for each task.

As the range of guns increased gunners used triangulation to establish the accurate position of a target. Land-based observers could be located several miles from each other thus increasing accuracy as well as being located much higher giving a much greater visual horizon.

The earliest range finder, was a combination of optical lenses, the operator adjusted the device to get the best possible image which then provided the range to the object on a calibrated dial. The Depression Range Finder (DRF) was effectively a theodolite turned on its side to provide the vertical angle from the observer to the object. In the case of Coastal Artillery, it was calibrated for the observer’s height above sea.

The Direction Position Finder (DPF) a large telescope mounted on a very large protractor base was the most accurate instrument in the Coastal Defender’s pre-radar arsenal. The use of radar during World War II increased accuracy by establishing the bearing and range of an object from a single observation point. Accuracy was further enhanced using trilateration1, with or without triangulation.

Even the fastest projectile takes time to get to the target. The gun had therefore to aimed off the “Present” position of the target to ensure that the projectile and the target arrived at the same “Future” position at the same time. A number of factors had to be taken into consideration in order ensure that this happened. The factors were typically divided into internal and external elements. Typical examples for internal ballistics on range and bearing are Charge, Barrel Wear, Projectile Type, Rifling and Barrel Length.

The British Royal Navy was ahead of the Army in modern gunnery and established Range Tables for projectiles fired through given barrels (guns). These tables catered for typical conditions and could be extrapolated to cater for variations.

There are many external ballistic factors to determine range they are:

The introduction of mechanical computation devices enabled a Command Post to provide future ranges and bearings. Electro-mechanical devices simply increased the speed and accuracy of predicted future range and bearing, but required many operators. A number of devices to enable the prediction of future positions of targets were developed. Some were called clocks and others tables depending on what they looked like. Clock type instruments were used on the 6-inch BOPs and tables on the 9.2-inch guns.

The pre-Second World War batteries all had single Battery Observation Posts (BOP) and Command Posts (BCP), typically within the battery lines. There were also Position Finding Cells (PFC) in the vicinity located and straight above Sea Point (Glengariff) on the slopes of Signal Hill. As Sea Point included 6-inch guns it can be assumed that they also received target information from the PFCs.

Just before World War II saw the introduction of remote observation posts. They enable the detection and tracking of potential targets at ranges that exceeded the range of both the Coastal Defences and enemy guns. From this time onwards, Fortress referred to an area and not a single fortified building. The remote observation posts were called Fortress Observation Posts (FOPs) and with associated batteries, were grouped into the Cape Town Fortress.

Caption to an imageBattery Observation Posts, Apostle (left) Gordon’s Bay (right)

The Cape Town Fortress included the 9.2-inch batteries of Robben Island and Apostle, the 6-inch batteries of Cornelia, Fort Wynyard and Lion, the Docks Battery with 12-pounders and twin 6-pounder and York and Fine View defending Hout Bay with 12-pounders.

The FOPs were located at Blaauwberg, Robben Island, Ridge and Rump on Lion’s Head and Oudekraal, with BOPs at every battery and Fire Command Post (FCP) on Lion’s Head

The practical application when using remote observers required fast, effective and accurate communications. This problem was solved using dedicated telephone and signal lines to connect all the components of a fortress. Both the FOPs and BOPs would track and report potential targets to a FCP, where the decision would be made to treat the vessel as a target and which battery was to engage.

The 9.2-inch batteries introduced Fortress and Battery Plotting Rooms (FPR and BPR) located about 30 feet underground. Because of the range of the guns and scale of the area to be defended the FPR converted the Polar coordinate2 into Cartesian coordinates3 that could be plotted onto a standard naval chart, or army map, and more accurately transmitted as such to other areas and fortresses. The guns then simply “followed the pointer” for range and bearing and reported to back to their BOP, which, under normal conditions, was also the Command Post where the decision to FIRE (engage) was made.

The exact positions of every FOP, BOP, BPR, FPR and gun trunnion were surveyed to ensure that all information regarding their positions was as accurate as possible. While everything had been done to ensure that the projectile hit the target, this rarely happened and that some correction based on the projectile splash relative to the target would have to be made. The gunners knew that they were likely to miss first time around so they tended to go for a “Gunnery Correction” of 400 yards between rounds, a Time of Flight clock would be used provide a warning to observers that the round was about to fall.

Ideally the guns would engage allocated targets using information provided to them by the Fortress. If the Fortress lines went down the battery would select the best information available to it to provide fire control information to its guns. In the event of the BOP or BPR being neutralised the guns could engage targets, at reduced ranges, using their auto-sights which took them back to the pre-Second World war method.

The advent of radar provided the Coastal Defenders with a means to detect and track vessels at all times of the day and night. Two basic types of radar were installed:

Information from the radars was fed through to the Filter Room located at the Castle in Cape Town. From there it was be passed into the Fortress systems. Their accuracy in range made them very useful for trilateration position fixing.

As the war progressed and men were required to fight elsewhere women were brought in to staff the observation posts, plotting rooms and radar stations.

Committee member Mac Bisset thanked Captain Dooner for his most impressive and interesting coverage of the topic and presented him with the customary gift.


  1. In geometry, trilateration is the process of determining absolute or relative locations of points by measurement of distances, using the geometry of circles, spheres or triangles.
  2. In mathematics, the polar coordinate system is a two-dimensional coordinate system in which each point on a plane is determined by a distance from a reference point and an angle from a reference direction.
  3. A Cartesian coordinate system is a coordinate system that specifies each point uniquely in a plane by a pair of numerical coordinates, which are the signed distances to the point from two fixed perpendicular directed lines, measured in the same unit of length.



    At the committee meeting on 26 June 2018 the committee finalised all the talks for the year. Our final talk in November will be by Johan van den Berg. We have started to approach other speakers and we hope to have a bumper crop next year.

    We have also decided to broaden the scope of topics so as to encourage other people to join the Society. We trust you have enjoyed the last three talks and would appreciate getting your feedback Please contact any committee member to give your feedback, we appreciate all input both positive and negative.

    The committee has also completed updating the members list. It would appear that we do not have the correct details for all members, please contact a committee member should you not be receiving any communications from the Society.

    Committee member Tony Westby-Nunn has also resigned for personal reasons. We thank him for his hard work and input.



    Chris Dooner who gave us a talk in August 2018 on Fortress Cape Town giving us much detail on 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.



    You are invited to attend the Annual Military Dinner tobeheldonthe 4 October 2018 at 19h00 at Kelvin Grove. For further information and to confirm a booking please contact Captain B Risien on 082 493 6048




    Ian van Oordt, as Peter Voigt had to stand down on his talk, will present a talk on the Battle of Trafalgar. This well-known battle represents the turning point in the Napoleonic War and follows on from his previous talk on the Trafalgar Campaign.

    Ian has been busy researching the Battle of Blaauwberg for over 10 years. This archival research has led him to visit many overseas archives, where he discovered the impact that the Trafalgar Campaign had on the Battle of Blaauwberg as well as the Battle of Maida (1806).

    Peter Voigt sends his apologies and promises us to give the talk in the future.



    Greg Pullin follows on from his previous talk on the initial German invasion of Russia in 1941. His talk will deal with the Soviet Winter Campaign which started on the 5th December 1941 to the defeat of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad and its aftermath in the German Operation Winter Storm, which collapsed on 24 December 1942.
    Greg is an avid model builder and has a keen interest in aviation and World War 2 history. He is a founder member of the Friends of the SAAF Museum in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. His interest in World War 2 has taken him overseas to Europe to visit battle sites and aircraft shows. He is a keen war gamer and works mainly to support his hobbies.


    Ian van Oordt (Secretary)

    021 531 6612

    South African Military History Society /