When the past meets the present in Gqeberha

The Officer-in-Charge of the South African Naval Museum recently had the opportunity to visit Naval Station Port Elizabeth (NSPE) in Gqeberha in order to make an assessment of heritage items at the unit. This was done to affect a possible transfer of certain items, especially those items associated with the former Citizen/Reserve Force unit SAS Donkin to the SA Naval Museum in Simon’s Town. A number of paintings, photos, memorabilia and books, safely kept in storage at the unit, were identified for future transfer to the museum.

The visit also afforded the OiC Museum the chance to view a historic building in the vicinity that once housed the Naval Base Port Elizabeth, SAS Donkin and before that, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) detachment in Port Elizabeth. The current naval station is no longer lodged in the old derelict building, but the 83 year old building nevertheless remains the property of the Department of Defence. A number of photos were taken of the building for the naval museum’s own records and included images of the two prominent foundation stones at the entrance of the old building.

Back at the naval station a closer inspection of the old photos in storage, revealed a magnificent set of black and white images featuring the laying of the foundation stones on 4 September 1938! In the photos, Vice-Admiral George Lyon, the Commander-in-Chief of the Africa Station in Simon’s Town can be seen officiating the ceremony and laying the foundation stones of the new building. Among those present were the Commanding Officer of the light cruiser and flagship of the C-in-C HMS Amphion (later HMSAS Perth), Captain R.L. Burnett, the Commanding Officer of the local RNVR detachment in Port Elizabeth, Lieutenant Commander Russel Paterson and the Mayor and Mayoress of Port Elizabeth, Mr and Mrs W.C. Adcock.

The opening of the new building provided the RNVR and later SAS Donkin with a modern and large facility that was used most effectively for training and accommodation especially during the Second World War (1939-1945). As such, the RNVR provided the nucleus of personnel for the embryonic Seaward Defence Force and SA Naval Forces during the war, while several RNVR personnel from PE were seconded to the Royal Navy. After the war the base reverted to its reserve status with SAS Donkin maintaining a small, but recognizable naval presence in the Eastern Cape for more than 50 years. A naval station was established on 23 March 2003 in the run-up to the disbandment of all reserve force units in the SA Navy. SAS Donkin was finally decommissioned on 6 November 2004.

The old SAS Donkin building and terrain with the new facility currently utilised by Naval Station Port Elizabeth in Gqeberha, seen in the background.

Although the unit no longer exists, its heritage continues to live on. The recovery of SAS Donkin memorabilia from NSPE is deliberately aimed towards the preservation of its memory at the Naval Museum in Simon’s Town. An exhibition depicting the history of the Citizen/Reserve Force units of the SA Navy is planned for 2023.
Article and photos: Commander Leon Steyn