Commander Leon Steyn

The South African Navy Museum can be regarded as the “Memory of the Fleet”.  In this respect the museum assisted Navy Headquarters in Pretoria recently,  whom had requested the confirmation of pennant numbers utilized by the South African Navy through the years, and more particularly related to the prefix “P” allocated – that is for Patrol and Light Forces.  The prefix (called a flag superior), identifies the type of ship, and the numerical suffix (called a flag inferior), uniquely identifies the specific individual ship in naval service.  After the Second World War the Royal Navy adopted a rationalized pennant system to identify the type of ship (as seen below) and several European NATO and Commonwealth navies, including the South African Navy followed suit:

  • A — auxiliaries
  • C — cruisers
  • D — destroyers
  • F — frigate
  • H — shore signal stations (military); survey vessels
  • K — miscellaneous vessels
  • L — amphibious warfare ships
  • M — minesweepers
  • N — minelayers
  • P — patrol boats
  • R — aircraft carriers
  • S — submarines
  • Y — yard vessels

Navy HQ’s enquiry to the Navy Museum was specifically directed to the planning and allocation of pennant numbers to the three new Inshore Patrol Vessels (IPVs), now on order from Damen Shipyard as part of the Project BIRO requirement.

The compilation of the list; to provide NHQ with the necessary guidance; revealed an fascinating list of South African Navy vessels that were allocated the P prefix (Patrol and Light forces) pennant through the years.  (See the complete list below)

The first allocation of the prefix P, was perhaps a bit against norm, as it was allocated to the two Boom Defence Vessels of the Bar class the SAS Somerset and SAS Fleur (i).  Although originally allocated pennant numbers Z185 and Z173 during the Second World War, the use of the Z-prefix for gate, mooring and boom defence vessels were discontinued after the war and the two vessels were allocated the numbers P285 and P273 respectively.  At the time of writing the historic SAS Somerset, which had been preserved as a museum ship at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town since 1988, was in the process to be disposed of.  See a previous article on this matter.

A total of 23 Ford class Seaward Defence Boats were built for the Royal Navy of which five were allocated to the SA Navy between 1954 and 1959 as part of the Simon’s Town Agreement.  The batch of boats were allocated a block of numbers, that ranged from P3101 to P3127.  The five boats were SAS Gelderland (P3105), SAS Nautilus (P3120), SAS Rijger (P3125), SAS Haerlem (P3126) and SAS Oosterland (P3127).  The Ford’s were built to detect, locate and engage submarines in the approaches of ports and harbours, while Haerlem was converted to an inshore survey vessel in 1963.  The class continued in service until 1985.

Three Air-Sea Rescue Launches (ASRL); or “crashboats” as they were also known; were transferred from the Air Force to the Navy at SAS Flamingo in Langebaan in 1969.  The two Krogerwerft boats (R30 & R31) and the remaining Miami boat (R9) were given pennant numbers P1551 to P1553 on transfer, while two new Tracker ASRLs were added in 1973 and given pennant numbers P1554 and P1555.  When these boats were retired (one was lost off Saldanha in 1988) the pennant numbers were reserved and taken up with the delivery of three new locally built Inshore Patrol Boats from 1992 onward.  Simply referred to as “T-Craft”, they were only identifiable by the their pennant numbers for many years.  They were officially commissioned in 2003 as the SAS Tobie, SAS Tern and SAS Tekwane.

A surprising addition to the “P-forces” were the allocation of two former Ton class minesweepers in the mid 1970s.  From the total of ten Ton class minesweepers taken into service between 1955 and 1959, two were converted to patrol vessels/sweepers.  SAS Kaapstad (M1142) and the SAS Pretoria (M1143) underwent conversion to patrol vessels in Simon’s Town in the mid-1970s and consequently their pennant numbers were changed to P1556 and P1557 respectively.  Both ships were decommissioned in 1985.

The last of three President class frigates were also decommissioned in 1985 and left the South African Navy with the relatively small Minister class strike craft (450 tons) as its major surface combatant.  The fleet of nine fast missile-carrying strike craft (and the three Daphne class submarines) constituted the main offensive strength of the SA Navy for many years, until the arrival of the new Valour class frigates and Type 209 submarines from 2006.  The Minister class strike craft were allocated pennant numbers P1561 to P1569, but in 2007 those that still remained in service were reclassified and renamed Warrior class Offshore Patrol Vessels.  At the time of writing SAS Isaac Dyoba (P1565), SAS Galeshewe (P1567) and SAS Makhanda (P1569) continued in service, all based at Naval Base Durban.

A locally built patrol boat, originally destined for Lake Malawi was allocated to the South African Navy in 1976, it went unnamed and simply identified by its pennant number – P1558.  It had a varied, under utilized service career, proved unsuitable for seagoing operations and was eventually sunk as a gunnery target in 1988 as part of Exercise Magersfontein off Walvis Bay.  An article by Captain Ivor Little (Ret) tells the fascinating story of Project Dobbin – the story of a South African Patrol Boat P1558.

The Torpedo Recovery and Diving Vessel, SAS Fleur (ii) was allocated the pennant number P3148.  Fleur was laid down, launched and completed in 1969 and was the first operational vessel to be designed and built in South Africa for the South African Navy.  The little workhorse served the navy for 34 years before it was decommissioned in 2004, but at the time of writing continue in civilian service as the Fleur du Cap.

During 2018 Armscor placed an order for three Inshore Patrol Vessels (IPVs) from Damen Shipyards in Cape Town as part of the SA Navy’s Project Biro.   The three IPVs will be built on the Stan Patrol 6211 design of 62 meters that features the distinctive Sea Axe hull – a straight-edged, axe-shaped bow.  With delivery set between 2021-2023 it is anticipated that the three IPV’s will replace the three remaining Warrior Class OPV’s, currently based at Naval Base Durban.  While the class-name and names of the ships still need to be announced, the pennant numbers P1571, P1572 and P1573 have been allocated to the vessels.                                                                                                               And with that, the three IPVs will become part of a unique group of vessels that have served the South African Navy with distinction.


P273 Boom Defence Vessel SAS Fleur (i) 1943 – 1965
P285 Boom Defence Vessel SAS Somerset 1943 – 1986
P1551 Air-Sea Rescue Launch 1962 – 1997
P1552 Air-Sea Rescue Launch 1962 – 1988
P1552 T Craft – Inshore Patrol Vessel SAS Tobie 1992 – in reserve 
P1553 Air-Sea Rescue Launch 1944 – 1973
P1553 T Craft – Inshore Patrol Vessel SAS Tern 1996 – in reserve 
P1554 Air-Sea Rescue Launch 1973 – 1986
P1554 T Craft – Inshore Patrol Vessel SAS Tekwane 1996 – in service
P1555 Air-Sea Rescue Launch 1973 – 1986
P1556 Patrol Sweeper SAS Pretoria (ii) 1955 – 1985
P1557 Patrol Sweeper SAS Kaapstad 1955 – 1985
P1558 Patrol Boat 1976 – 1985
P1561 Strike Craft SAS Jan Smuts 1977 – 1998
P1562 Strike Craft SAS Shaka 1977 – 2005
P1563 Strike Craft / Offshore Patrol Vessel SAS Adam Kok 1977 – in reserve
P1564 Strike Craft SAS Sekhukhune 1978 – 2004
P1565 Strike Craft / Offshore Patrol Vessel SAS Isaac Dyoba 1979 – in service
P1566 Strike Craft SAS René Sethren 1980 – 2001
P1567 Strike Craft / Offshore Patrol Vessel SAS Galeshewe 1983 – in service
P1568 Strike Craft / Offshore Patrol Vessel SAS Job Masego 1983 – 2008
P1569 Strike Craft / Offshore Patrol Vessel SAS Makhanda 1986 – in service
P1571 Project Biro Damen IPV tba 2021 –
P1572 Project Biro Damen IPV tba 2022 –
P1573 Project Biro Damen IPV tba 2023 –
P3105 Seaward Defence Boat SAS Gelderland 1954 – 1985
P3120 Seaward Defence Boat SAS Nautilus 1955 – 1985
P3125 Seaward Defence Boat SAS Rijger 1958 – 1985
P3126 Seaward Defence Boat SAS Haerlem 1959 – 1985
P3127 Seaward Defence Boat SAS Oosterland 1959 – 1985
P3148 Torpedo Recovery Vessel SAS Fleur (ii) 1969 – 2003


DefenceWeb, (27 February 2018) Armscor finally orders inshore patrol vessels for SA Navy, Retrieved from https://www.defenceweb.co.za/

Du Toit, A, South Africa’s Fighting Ships, Past and Present (Ashanti Publishing, 1992).

Wessels, A, Suid-Afrika se Vlootmagte, 1922 – 2012 (Sun Press, 2017).