The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 16 No 5 - June 2015


By Allan Sinclair
Ditsong National Museum of Military History

On 27 November 2014 at a ceremony held at Ditsong National Museum of Military History, the SAS Rand Association unveiled the foundation stone of its former base at its new permanent location. The stone was originally laid and dedicated on 16 July 1938 by the Mayor of Johannesburg, Councillor J S Fotheringham, at the SAS Rand Naval Base at Wemmer Pan in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg. It was relocated to the Museum after the buildings and grounds of the original site had fallen into disrepair following the decommissioning of the unit on 27 November 2004.

During the unveiling ceremony, speeches were delivered by R-Adm (JG) Lukas Bakkes SD, SM, MMM, JCD, Cdr David Kaufman MMM, JCD and Mr Jonathan Meyer. Adm Bakkes was a former officer commanding SAS Rand and is currently the National President of the Naval Officers' Association. Cdr Kaufman was officer commanding SAS Rand at the time of its decommissioning and the person who played a leading role in the relocation of the stone. Mr Meyer, from Globesec Global Security Consultants, provided the financial support to remove and restore the stone. The speeches provided a brief overview of the history of SAS Rand, its eventual closing and the move to preserve the foundation stone.

Unit history

SAS Rand was established as one of seven Citizen force (CF) units of the South African Navy and was one of only two situated inland. The core function of these units was to provide specialised training for naval CF personnel prior to their deployment at sea. Restructuring of the South African armed forces that took place after the first democratic elections in 1994 saw the CF reconstituted as the Reserve Forces of the new South African National Defence Force. This had an impact on the future of SAS Rand, but to appreciate this, one must revisit the history of the unit.

At the end of the Second World War in 1945, there was a need to bolster the ranks of the South African Naval Forces (SANF) with volunteers. There were many ex-naval war veterans living on the Witwatersrand, and a possibility of potential recruits in the area. The Navy League, an organisation raised to promote public awareness of maritime matters, had established a naval cadet base at Wemmer Pan in 1938 and granted the SANF permission to use this location as a CF base.

The new unit was commissioned on 26 April 1948 under the command of Cdr D H ('Taffy') Owen. The first intake comprised 160 naval volunteers. By 1950 the unit's strength had increased to 200. As it is customary for naval units ashore to be granted ship's names, the unit was officially named SAS Rand in 1954. It later received its own ship's badge. At an altitude of 1 829 metres above sea level, the unit was the highest naval base in the world. The naval cadet unit, re-established alongside SAS Rand, was named TS Immortelle. The cadets co-operated closely with SAS Rand and some of these youths joined the unit in adulthood.

SAS Rand had a long and varied history, highlights of which included the following: In 1950, the unit provided the crew for the minesweeper, SAS Bloemfontein, during extended exercises off the South African coast. A tactical anti-submarine warfare simulator was installed at the unit in 1957 to provide training on ASDIC, today referred to as SONAR. On 7 September 1963, SAS Rand became the first naval unit to be granted the Freedom of the City of Johannesburg, which enabled it to parade through the city with 'bayonets fixed, flags flying and drums beating'. The unit received its own diving tank and decompression chamber in 1972, allowing inland-based naval divers to train regularly and maintain proficiency. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, divers trained at SAS Rand provided invaluable support to diving teams posted to South African ports and to Walvis Bay in South West Africa (now Namibia) by carrying out regular inspections of ships' hulls and ensuring that they were free of limpet mines.

In 1975 a Theta Class keel yacht was donated to SAS Rand to provide sail training on the Vaal Dam and some of its sailors went on to receive their national colours. Members of SAS Rand also took part in various trans-Atlantic Cape to Rio and later Cape to Uruguay races. The high standard of yacht training led to the deployment of a crew from SAS Rand on Voortrekker I during the inaugural Europa Island offshore race held in 1984.

In 1976 the unit took control of the Seaward Defence Boat SAS Nautilus, based in Durban. This provided invaluable training for SAS Rand officers and other ranks. The SAS Rand Navy Band, South Africa's only naval CF band, was established in 1977. The unit formed a pipe band in 1989, which was officially sanctioned and budgeted for in 1991, and thus SAS Rand had the added distinction of being one of only a few naval units in the world to have its own pipe band.

In 1978 a crew from the unit was posted to the Seaward Defence Boat, SAS Gelderland, during her three-month deployment to patrol the waters along the west coast of South Africa. In the same year, the Walvis Bay Naval Base was re-established and SAS Rand supplied four groups each consisting of 150 personnel for three month periods to fill various positions at the base.

In 1979, after the announcement that the South African Navy was re-instituting the Marine Branch, SAS Rand provided a large bulk of the CF requirement. The purpose of these deployments was to support the South African Railways Police in securing the country's ports and to carry out riverine patrols along the northern South West African/Namibian border during the Border War.

A unique feature of the history of the unit was that, during the hand-over of command by Capt E D Bower to Capt L M Bakkes in 1979, a telescope was used for the first time as the symbol of command. The Chief of the South African Navy, V-Adm R E Edwards, who was the guest of honour at the parade, was so taken by the idea that he decided that a telescope would henceforth be used as the symbol of command at all naval change of command ceremonies. Two former OCs SAS Rand, Captains Bower and Bakkes, were later promoted to the rank of commodore (a rank later to be renamed 'rear admiral (junior grade)') and appointed in succession as Director of Naval Reserves on the staff of the Chief of the Navy.

On 23 February 1980, the unit exercised its right as a recipient of the Freedom of the City of Johannesburg to march through the city. On that occasion some 700 personnel took part in the parade. In 1986, SAS Rand exercised this right again in conjunction with the other Freedom Regiments of Johannesburg, on the occasion of the Johannesburg centenary celebrations.

On 22 November 1986, the unit provided the venue for Admiral's Divisions and a medal parade hosted by the Chief of the Navy, V-Adm Glenn Syndercombe. On 10 June 1990, SAS Rand was presented with a Colour during a parade held in Durban. At a subsequent parade held on 11 August 1990, a memorial in memory of all those who lost their lives at sea was dedicated at SAS Rand. The occasion provided an opportunity to parade the Colour in front of the unit's complement which, by that time, had risen to over 3 600 personnel.

In 1998 SAS Rand celebrated its 50th anniversary with activities that included a unit shoot and a weekend at the Vaal Dam where extensive use was made of a Harbour Protection Boat which had been allocated to the unit a few years previously.

The decommissioning

The first warning shots were fired across the bow in 2002 when the Chief of the South African Navy, V-Adm Johan Retief, announced that all seven naval Reserve Force units were to be closed. Lobbying followed at all levels and the Chief was reminded that military units could only be closed down by approval of the minister. Adm Retief, in his determination to bring the matter to finality, then took the decision to decommission the units, as it was within his authority to do so. On 27 November 2004, therefore, SAS Rand was formally decommissioned, thus drawing down the curtain on 56 years of dedicated service by its members.

Despite the circumstances under which SAS Rand's fate had been sealed, the future of the base itself at first appeared secure. It had been agreed that the premises would become the headquarters of the South African Irish Regiment, while both the SAS Rand Association and the University Reserve Training Unit would be able to make use of the facilities as and when required. These plans, however, never came to fruition. The South African Irish were denied use of the base and the premises were eventually transferred to the General Support Base (GSB) in Lenz outside Johannesburg. While the GSB provided a guard at the base, there was little logistical support for the sentries and, eventually, the posting of sentries ceased altogether and the premises were abandoned.

The foundation stone

As time passed, the effects of neglect and vandalism took their toll on the old base and Cdr Kaufman was horrified at the extent of disrepair over only a few years. Surveying the damage from the quarter deck of the main building during a visit, he undertook to save at least one historical piece of the base. This piece, he decided, had to be the foundation stone, the link signifying ties between the South African Navy, SAS Rand and the City of Johannesburg. He decided that the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, as a home for the memory and study of military history in South Africa, would be an appropriate resting place for the stone. The Museum not only affords visitors the opportunity to view artefacts of military heritage, but it also serves as a spiritual and symbolic home for regular and reserve soldiers and veterans in South Africa. It is also located within easy reach of the veterans and families for whom the stone would have particular relevance. With the approval of the Museum management, Cdr Kaufman immediately set to work on turning his idea into reality.

In his attempts to raise awareness of the plight of the former base and to raise funds for the relocation of the foundation stone, Cdr Kaufman addressed letters to the President of South Africa, the Minister of Defence, the Director-General of the Department of Military Veterans and the City of Johannesburg, amongst others. In each of these instances, no answer was forthcoming. Yet, his persistence would payoff - he reached the sympathetic ear of Mr Jonathan Meyer of Globesec, a security consulting company which facilitates multinational solutions to complex security issues in high risk areas, including maritime security in Africa. Mr Meyer published an assessment of maritime terrorism and piracy along the African coast in 2010. Globesec did not hesitate to provide the funds required both for the project and for the unveiling event.

With funds secured, Hawley Marble and Granite Works CC were commissioned to remove the stone from its site at the former base, re-furbish it and transport it to the Museum. The stone was re-sited at its new location, in the naval exhibit area of the Museum, on 17 September 2014.

The unveiling ceremony

The unveiling ceremony was held on 27 November 2014, ten years after the decommissioning of the unit and sixty years since it was officially named SAS Rand. Around 40 people attended the event, with guests including former OCs, other former members, family members and people associated with the unit at various stages in its history. A special guest was Mrs Diana Higgs, the wife of R-Adm Robert Higgs, current Chief of Naval Staff in the South African Navy. The Admiral and Mrs Higgs have a unique affiliation with SAS Rand, members of which had formed the Guard of Honour on the occasion of their wedding in January 1982 at St George's Anglican Church in Parktown. Another of the guests at the unveiling, Lt Cdr Mike Cordes, had formed part of the Guard of Honour on that day. It was an occasion for being in the company of former ship mates, and stories of past experiences resonated all around, with suggestions that the SAS Rand Association be revived and the Museum offering the use of its facilities in support of such an initiative.

Was it really necessary to decommission the naval Reserve Force units?

Considering the unfortunate demise of SAS Rand and the fate of its base, one is drawn to question the necessity for decommissioning the Reserve Force naval units in the first place. An answer to this can be found by looking at the situation prevailing at the beginning of the new millennium. Owing to stringent budgetary requirements, the South African Navy had to embark on a process of restructuring and the maintenance of an ocean-going fleet became the primary focus. The first units affected were those in the Permanent Force structure of the Navy, with a number of bases and units being closed down, various ships being paid off and the fleet consolidated at Simon's Town. It was inevitable that the restructuring would extend to the Reserve Force component of the Navy.

With the rationalisation of the Reserve Force units that ensued, a Reserve Management Committee was formed under the control of the SSO Fleet Reserves to take the place of the de-commissioned units and to co-ordinate the careers and commitments of personnel. While certain positions such as naval control and guidance to shipping would continue as individual posts, the vast majority of reservists were integrated into full-time units in accordance with the 'One Force' concept of the Navy. This new structure ended almost 120 years of traditional volunteer units, most of which preceded the formation of the South African Navy. Sensitive to this time-honoured convention, the Navy News reported that the passing of the Reserve Force units into history would be carried out with the dignity and recognition they deserved. The various unit associations could retain guardianship of their traditions and tangible heritage, while the South African Naval Museum in Simon's Town would become the custodian of their histories.

What of esprit de corps? In military terms, this can best be described as unit cohesion and, historically, military units would cultivate an esprit de corps through a long record of successes and hardships which brought pride and identity to the unit. Most senior commanders do not look so much to the morale of individuals within their unit at a specific moment but rather to the fighting spirit of their unit as a whole, which has been moulded over time. The tragedy is that each of the seven naval Reserve Force units decommissioned had a healthy esprit de corps. This sense of community was almost tangible at the unveiling ceremony as the veterans reminisced about shared, past experiences. The unit's strength in 1991 had numbered over 3 600 personnel, making it the largest Reserve Force unit in the Defence Force. Many members had volunteered to stay on with their unit after their conscription period had come to an end, some serving in excess of 30 years. Whether this tradition will be re-established in the new structure and whether a viable Naval Reserve can be managed from a computer, remains to be seen.

Heritage matters

Why, indeed, were the buildings and grounds of SAS Rand so unceremoniously abandoned and allowed to be vandalised? It is the writer's considered opinion that, taking into consideration the date of the laying of the stone, 16 July 1938, the area should have been declared a heritage site. In terms of the National Heritage Resources Act (Act No 25 of 1999), no structure which is more than 60 years old may be destroyed or demolished without the permission of the relevant provincial heritage resources authority.

Mrs Flo Bird, a well-known heritage campaigner in Johannesburg, who was recently honoured by the University of the Witwatersrand with a gold medal for her work in heritage, stated in her address to the University, that it is essential to distinguish between history and heritage. While history allows little choice, but a good deal of interpretation, choice is inherently linked to heritage. We choose what we want to acknowledge as our heritage and what we wish to honour and remember.

Cdr Kaufman believed that it was important to save the foundation stone of SAS Rand, as it signified the ties that bind the City of Johannesburg with the South African Navy. It is unfortunate that no national, provincial or municipal authority was able to acknowledge that an important part of our City's heritage was being neglected and required immediate action. Fortunately, despite the ill-considered actions that led to the abandonment of the former naval base at Wemmer Pan, what this story showed was that the traditions, proud history, esprit de corps and comradeship of the officers, warrant officers and other ranks of SAS Rand could not be summarily destroyed. In its new location, the preserved foundation stone will continue to remind all who view it that the City of Johannesburg was once home to an exceptional Naval Reserve unit. The Ditsong National Museum of Military History is proud to have played an important role in saving a valuable part of the City's - and, indeed, South Africa's - military heritage.


Bakkes, R-Adm (JG), L M (Rtd), 'Speech delivered at Unveiling Event', 27 November 2014 (unpublished).

Bird, F, 'Speech delivered at Graduation Ceremony, University of the Witwatersrand', 10 December 2014 (unpublished).

Kaufman, Cdr D (Rtd), 'Speech delivered at Unveiling Event', 27 November 2014 (unpublished).

National Heritage Resources Act (Act No 25 of 1999), especially Chapter II, Protection and Management of Heritage Resources.

SAS Rand Association, 'Unpublished History of SAS Rand' (undated typescript). 'SAS Rand Foundation Stone to move to Military History Museum', 30 October 2014. 'Maritime Security in Africa', 7 March 2012. 'Decommissioning of the SA Navy Reserve Units', 17 August 2014. 'Re-siting of the Foundation Stone at SAS Rand laid July 1938', 20 June 2013.

(These internet sites were accessed in December 2014).

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