|The Story of Simon's
The part which Simon's Town has played in maritime strategy is inseparable
from that of the Cape of Good Hope and South Africa as a whole. The
meeting point of the two great oceans, the Atlantic and the Indian,
is a key point in the world naval strategy; it is the focal point
of maritime trade between East and West.
Inevitably it followed that the two good anchorages, Table Bay and
Simon's Bay, become important havens for shipping. The dangers of
the Table Bay anchorage during the winter months were quickly and
forcibly brought to the notice of seafarers, but were tolerated when
the callers were few. As ships began to frequent Table Bay in increasing
numbers at all seasons of the year the incidence of ship-wrecks during
the winter become greater than could be bome with equanimity.
Simon van der Stel names bay
The False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula, sheltered from the violent
northwest gales, was the obvious winter alternative, and Simon's Bay
was selected by Simon van der Stel himself as the safest anchorage.
For many years to come there were no facilities for visiting ships
and communications with Cape Town were exceedingly difficult. In spite
of the greater safety in winter, captains of ships tended to avoid
calling there whenever possible, preferring to risk the greater danger
of Table Bay in order to enjoy the superior amenities of Cape Town.
France controls the Cape
In 1650 the Dutch East India Company decreed that a permanent station
should be established at the Cape solely as a post for the replenishment
of the Company's vessels on the passage to and from the East Indies.
At no time was it ever intended to extend inland or to become a colony.
The Cape of Good Hope only began to assume importance as a strategic
point in the military sense with the increasing rivalry between France
and Great Britain in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
In 1780 when Holland entered the War of American Independence in alliance
with France and Spain against Great Britain, the British Government
had become aware of what a menace the Cape of Good Hope could be (to
its trade with India) if it fell into the hands of an enemy. It was
soon decided that an attempt must be made to capture the Cape.
The first attempt under Commodore Johnstone suffered so many delays
that the French were able to forestall him and reinforce the defences
too strongly to admit of successful attack.
During the next decade these dilatory methods cost Great Britain dear.
With the Cape under their control the French were enabled greatly
to increase their depredations on the British ships trading between
India and Europe.
Relief only came with the termination of hostilities when French troops
returned to Europe.
With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1793 the Directors of
the English East India Company were not unnaturally nervous about
the consequences of the Cape once again falling into the hands of
the French. The occupation of Holland by the Revolutionary armies
in the winter of 1794/5 brought matters to a head and called for action.
Two British occupations
The British Admiralty lost no time in preparing an expedition for
the occupation of the Cape, which object was successfully accomplished
in 1795. The Netherlands government (in its new republican form) at
last realised that an occupation of the Cape by a hostile power posed
a very real threat to communications with Batavia.
With a well-situated base to work from the ships of the Royal Navy
were able to establish an effective blockade of Mauritius which drastically
restricted the depredations of the French commerce raiding frigates.
During negotiation for peace in this year, the possession of the Cape
became one of the most important bargaining points. Preliminary Articles
of peace were not signed until 1801, and as one of the conditions,
the short-sighted government of Addington agreed to restore the cape
to the Dutch. When the Treaty of Peace was signed in 1802, restoration
of the Cape to its former owners was no longer possible as the Dutch
East India Company had gone bankrupt in 1799. Instead, its successor,
the Batavian Republic, become the new owner of the Cape.
News of the terms of the Treaty did not reach the Cape until August
1802 and for various reasons the British evacuation was not completed
until March 1803. The evacuating squadron had not reached England
before war broke out again, but preparations for the re-occupation
of the Cape were not put in hand until a new government under William
Pitt come to power. In January 1806 a British force too strong for
the weak Batavian forces to withstand took possession of the Cape
Within two or three months of the capture of the Cape all effective
threats to the supremacy of the Royal Navy in southern waters were
ended and their ships were again able to establish a blockade of the
French islands, although it was not always possible to make the blockade
entirely effective. The only complete solution of the problem was
the capture of the islands, and measures to this end were put in hand.
In 1810 Mauritius and Bourbon were captured and the fall of Tamatave
in Madagascar in 1811 left the French without a single colonial possession.
As a consequence there was little left for the ships of the Royal
Navy to do in Cape waters and their number was soon reduced.
R.N. base moves to Simon's Town
The naval authorities now had leisure to give some time and attention
to the consolidation of the base facilities. The removal of the whole
naval establishment from Table Bay to Simon's Bay and vice versa at
six-monthly intervals was manifestly inconvenient and costly. It had
furthermore become clear to the experienced seamen of the Royal Navy
that Simon's Bay provided a safe anchorage at all seasons, which Table
Bay did not. The Commander-in-Chief of the Cape station was emphatically
in favour of removal of the principle base of the Royal Navy to Simon's
Bay and this was immediately accepted. The necessary buildings were
completed in 1814. It was perhaps fortunate that this was accomplished
before peace was declared in 1815, as it is doubtful whether the considerable
expenditure would have been authorised in peace-time!
A period of peace
Valuable as Simon's Town had been in wartime, in the years of peace
which followed it proved to be quite invaluable. The first important
task laid on the ships of the Cape of Good Hope Station was the guardianship
of Napoleon Bonaparte during his years of detention on St. Helena.
With his death in 1821 the Simon's Town Dockyard establishment was
drastically reduced. A nucleus of trained staff remained to cater
for the ships which continued to call on their voyages to and from
the East. There were still a few ships on the Cape Station, including
those commanded by the illustrious surveyors who in the 1820's carried
out the survey of the coast of southern Africa. Simon's Town was their
secure base to which they returned for refitting and recuperation.
Much of the some consideration applied to the small vessels employed
in the suppression of the slave trade. In addition the cargo of slaves
in the captured slave ships, which could number up to seven hundred
or more, were landed and housed in any accommodation available pending
their allocation as indentured apprentices.
Nearer at home, the ships of the Royal Navy were in constant demand
for the transport of troops and their equipment to the frontier
during the many Kaffir Wars of the nineteenth century, Algoa Bay,
the Kowie and the Buffalo Rivers and Waterloo Bay provided convenient
disembarkation points and each was provided with a resident harbour
master and boats crew. All had to be supplied from the main base
of Simon's Town. It was on short coastal journeys such as these
that steam driven vessels proved most suitable, For all ocean voyages
sail remained the normal means of propulsion until the end of the
Steamships and the Dockyard
It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that improvement
in steam propulsion began to make a real impact on the Cape Station
and purely sailing vessels unaided by auxiliary steam power were
becoming the exception rather than the rule. The installations in
the Dockyard, which had not been altered in any way since 1814,
proved quite inadequate to deal with the complexities of steam engines.
The increasing use of iron in the construction of ships as well
as their very size posed new problems in maintenance. Considerable
extensions and reconstruction took place during the 1850's and 60's.
With the advent of reliable steam engines the smaller vessels were
able to approach close in to the shallow bars of the east coast
rivers in comparative safety. These little ships found themselves
much in demand by missionaries and explorers. Such occasions also
offered convenient opportunities for "show- the flag' in places
not usually visited by ships of any kind and to act as a warning
to any potential slave trader that the Navy's arm was longer than
The Anglo-Boer War
Throughout the Anglo-Boer War, Simon's Town and Cape Town were the
principle ports through which passed the reinforcements of men,
supplies and equipment for the British Army. Without these the few
British troops would have been overwhelmed by the superior numbers
of the Boer forces in the first few months of the war. As it was
the British were able to maintain an uninterrupted flow of men and
ammunition from the United Kingdom and other parts of the British
Empire, while the Royal Navy's command of the oceans virtually prohibited
all similar supplies reaching the Transvaal and Free State Republic
- There can be little doubt also that it was only the healthy respect
for the Royal Navy which prevented Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany
from intervening on behalf of the Republics.
East Dockyard opened
In the closing stages of the nineteenth century the resources of
the Simon's Town Dockyard were once again proving inadequate for
the larger steamships, but with the opening of the East Dockyard
and Dry Dock in 1910 Simon's Town once again become equipped to
meet every requirement of any skip of the Royal Navy. It was not
long before these facilities were urgently needed: in 1914 Great
Britain and Germany were at war.
Simon's Town during World War I
The part which Simon's Town and the ships of the Africa Station
were called upon to play in this war differed in no respect to the
part it had played in earlier wars. These tasks were the elimination
of all enemy ships, especially commerce raiders, from the waters
around the southern end of Africa and the elimination of all enemy
bases within its sphere.
At the outbreak of war there
were a number of German warships at large in all the oceans of the
world; these included the Emden, the Koningsberg and Admiral von
Spee's powerful squadron believed to be in the South Pacific. Until
these ships were accounted for no protracted expedition by sea against
the German colonies could be contemplated without a powerful escort
of warships. The Emden was destroyed at Keeling Island, the Koninsberg
in the Rufiji River and von Spee's squadron at the Falkland Islands.
With all hostile warships satisfactorily disposed of, operations
against the two German colonies of South West Africa and Tanganyika
could now go ahead.
For the remainder of the war Simon's Town spent a humdrum but busy
and essential existence as a refuelling and refitting base for the
escorts of the numerous troop convoys passing between Europe and
Australasia, India and the For East. The most destruction in South
African waters was done by the mine fields laid by commerce raiders
off Dassen Island and Cape Agulhas.
At war again
Simon's Town activity followed
much the some pattern in the Second World War as it did in the First.
In the early stages of the war it was the assembly base for the
skips engaged in the rounding up of the few German ships in the
southern oceans, the most important of which was the Graf Spee.
There followed other heavily armed raiders disguised as merchant
ships, including the Atlantis which laid mines off Cape Agulhas
and elsewhere. They operated with considerable success but were
eventually intercepted and sunk by ships based at Simon's Town.
With the closing of the Mediterranean all traffic between Europe
and the East had to be routed around the Cape as in former days.
Although the merchant ships put into Cape Town for replenishment,
only Simon's Town was capable of dealing with the special requirements
of the warships. The entry of Japan into the war and their swift
conquest of Malaysia and the East Indies intensified the vital role
which Simon's Town had to play.
In the latter stages of the war, with the reopening of the Mediterranean
and the Suez Canal, Simon's Town lost much of its importance as
a staging post. By this time, however, the war in the southern oceans
was virtually over and Simon's Town's task was finished for the
time being. It had done its task and done it well.
Postwar Simon's Town
After the cessation of hostilities the tempo of
naval activities slackened off. Following negotiations between the
South African Minister of Defence and the British Government the
Dockyard was handed over to the South African Navy in 1957. (The
Union Jack that was lowered at the formal hand-over is now in the
Museum). Ten years later, in 1967, Simon's Town was proclaimed a
White Groups Area and over the next few years the coloured people,
whose family ties sometimes went back to the very early days of
the town's growth, were obliged to move away. Their houses in and
around the town fell into disrepair and a lot of them were eventually
bulldozed; thus was part of Simon's Town's quaint attraction lost.
The Historical Society's efforts in preventing such destruction
were to no avail, yet at the some time 'Studland', Admiralty House,
St Francis Church, "Ibeka" Palace Barracks and the Martello
Tower were all proclaimed National Monuments.
In 1975 the face of the town again started to undergo change when
extensions to the Dockyard were started: a large area of land was
reclaimed at Jaffa's Beach and the harbour walls were extended further
to sea to form a new and larger Tidal Basin.
contributed by The Historical Society