Rich military history at SA Naval Museum

We all know Simon’s Town. We all know about our navy, what with their early morning traffic and their loud drills from time to time. But how many of us know of the South African Naval Museum?

The City of Cape Town, along with its partners in tourism, launched the Military Heritage Route in early September, and the Naval Museum is one of the sites, along with the Castle of Good Hope and the Chavonnes Battery Museum, all of which showcase Cape Town’s rich military history.

The Naval Museum pays tribute to our extensive naval history. It spins dramatic tales of sea battles and enormous warships and brave sailors. Here you may catch a glimpse of World War II era weaponry and machines.

As we entered the historic building, we were met by a friendly and welcoming tour guide, ready to take us through the navy’s history. In the first room, we saw delicately and intricately constructed models of famous ironclads such as the SAS Somerset and famous frigates like the HMS Victory. We learnt about the SAS Goodhope, one of two A69-Class Corvettes which was initially designed for anti-submarine operations but her surface-to-surface missiles made her formidable in anti-ship situations and she made an excellent replacement for the outdated frigates. I wish I could translate all this into plain English but it’s basically “the little warship that could”.

The second room that we visited was a chapel that was constructed in 1816. Small but beautiful, it had a painting that spanned the entire wall and took 23 years to complete. It showed the history of Cape Town, some folklore, Jesus Christ since it was a chapel, and some of our modern contraptions. A tour was on at that moment and I watched in fascination as a young boy was fitted into prehistoric fire-fighting gear. The poor boy could barely move. His classmates loved it, though, and the boy earned a rank badge for his efforts.

The third and most dangerous room of them all was the armoury. This enormous room was filled with anti-aircraft guns, massive artillery shells and an ancient helicopter, the West Land Wasp. It was the first anti-submarine helicopter in the navy and it could reach a speed of 104 knots, that’s 193km/* to us non-navy types. It was 12.3m long and 2.7m high. It was an impressive spectacle, its rotor blades touching both
walls.

Finally, the last room we explored was an exposition of the navy’s exploits during World War II and it showed the chain of command since then. We learnt about the Russian route through the Arctic Circle, and we saw the names of men and women who went through hell, or vasbyt I believe the jargon was, to be immortalised on plaques displayed in museums honouring their triumphs.

The last great sight I saw was the entrance to the old boathouse.

Wooden doors larger than life, open to the world with this extract quoted around its frame: “And when your children ask in time to come, ‘What mean these doors?’ Answer ye them and say, who made these seas this path walked there with some that held it, so his servants passed that way.” On either side of the quote were the dates of World War II .

Even the buildings themselves have a history, with one dating back 200 years when it was a boathouse for the British. On the whole, the museum was informative, the sheer size of the weaponry was mind-boggling and our heritage is rich. If tales of battles on the high seas are of interest to you, get going!

* The South African Naval Museum is in the Naval Dockyard with access from St George Street and is open daily from 9.30am to 3.30pm except on Christmas, Good Friday and New Year’s Day. Entry is free. For more information contact 021 787 4686/4635 or museum.info@sanavy.co.za

* Shay Visser is a Grade 11 Fish Hoek High pupil who job-shadowed at the False Bay Echo.

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