The South African Naval Museum celebrates 30 years

The South African Naval Museum celebrates 30 years

 The origins of the Naval Museum date back to 1966 when a naval historical collection was displayed at the Castle in Cape Town. In the mid 1970’s this collection was transferred to the Martello Tower in Simon’s Town and thereafter, Fort Wynyard where it was enlarged to include a much wider display of naval associated artifacts. With the decentralization of museums from the former Directorate Military Museums to the Arms of Service in June 1987, the SA Navy Museum (Martello Tower) was transferred to the functional control of the SA Navy, while Fort Wynyard was transferred to the Western Province Command (Army).

Investigations to establishment of a museum for the SA Navy in Simon’s Town were launched during 1988 and the project, dubbed Project Oubos was registered at Navy Headquarters. It was eventually decided that the most appropriate location for the new museum would be the former Royal Navy Mast House that dates back to 1815 and the adjacent Dutch Store House that dates back to 1743. Both buildings are located in the historic West Yard of Naval Base Simon’s Town.

The former Royal Navy Mast House (1815) where the South African Naval Museum was established on 1 April 1993. Photo: Norman Larsen                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The new SA Naval Museum was officially opened by Chief of the Navy Vice Admiral Simpson-Anderson on 1 April 1993.  The first phase of the new display comprised exhibitions of the historic clock tower and part of the sail loft.  The second phase of the development included the utilization of two display areas on ground level, the history and functioning of the Submarine, Divers and Weapons branch suitably displayed.  The South African Navy themselves were involved in the conversion of the building to that of a museum.  This internal capacity of the SA Navy was aptly displays in the work of the SAN Works Branch that made all the structural changes and enhancements to the building. Units of the Navy, such as SAS Simonsberg and SAS Chapman took ownership of many of the new displays and contributed in the donation of display items and the physical construction of these new displays.
The Westland Wasp maritime helicopter on display inside the South African Naval Museum. Photo: Norman Larsen                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             More recent additions to the museum display include the addition of a Westland Wasp maritime helicopter and Leyland Cub fire tender. The new ‘Mac Bisset Display Hall’ situated in the Dutch Storehouse now houses the Transformation display, the Arctic Convoy display, the updated Chiefs of the Navy display and the ‘100 years of naval forces’ display. A popular feature of the ‘living museum’ concept is the occasional firings of the museum’s Rifled Muzzle Loader cannon at Middle North Battery.

Apart from the SAS Assegaai (see below) other significant items that have been allocated to the museum include the navy yacht Voortrekker of Bertie Reed fame and a Second World War Marine Tender (MT2800). The future placement of these large items is dependent on the allocation of additional (indoor) space to the museum.

SAS Assegaai Submarine Museum

In November 2003 the South African Navy decommissioned the last of its three Daphne Class submarines, the SAS Assegaai (formerly the SAS Johanna van der Merwe), in preparation for the introduction of the new Type 209 Submarines. A submission was made to the Chief of the Navy and the Naval Board to preserve the SAS Assegaai as an exhibit at the SA Naval Museum in Simon’s Town.

Approval was duly given and during December 2010 the submarine (still in the water) was opened to the public on a trial basis. Africa’s first submarine museum, officially opened in Simon’s Town on 1 March 2011 by Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Mudimu. The project managing team consisted almost entirely of retired Naval Officers and volunteers that provided guided tours through the submarine on a daily basis. The main purpose of the project is to preserve the submarine as a museum and to promote technology and science among the youth. The official opening marked the first step in the Assegaai’s eventual placement ashore.

A Memorandum of Agreement was duly signed in May 2022 between the Navy and the Naval Heritage Trust, who has been entrusted with the project. This will see the relocation of the submarine ashore to an area near Cole Point and its eventual reopening to the public in 2024.

Curators of the SA Naval Museum

Cdr W.M. Bisset – 1985 to May 2002

Capt Manning (Res) (acting) – May 2002 to Aug 2002

Cdr E. Wesselo (Res) – Sept 2002 to Dec 2004

Cdr W.M. Bisset (Res) – (acting; relieved Cdr Wesselo for two months Sept and Oct 2004)

Cdr A. Dutton – Jan 2005 to Oct 2008

Cdr C. Pratten – Nov 2008 to Jan 2010

WO1 A. Wessels (acting) – Jan 2010 to March 2011

Cdr L. Steyn – April 2011 to presently

Former and current Naval Museum curators and staff. Front row fltr: Cdr Mac Bisset, Cdr Eddie Wesselo, Cdr Leon Steyn, Cdr Cara Pratten and WO1 Andre Wessels. Photo: CPO Jean-Pierre Grant.

On 29 March former and current curators and staff gathered to celebrate the 30 years existence of the museum. The new ‘30 years logo’ was unveiled, which also adorned the birthday cake and 30 cupcakes. In his speech the first curator, Cdr ‘Mac’ Bisset, who is regarded as the ‘father of the museum’ congratulated the current curator, Cdr Leon Steyn and his staff on the achievement and wished them well for the future.