... Saldanha Bay is sixty miles from Cape Town by sea ... and one hundred and fifteen by land, and is situated in a barren and unproductive country, a mere desert, the nearest village or hamlet worthy of the name being Malmesbury, which is at a distance of about eighty miles, through an arid and rugged waste ..."

T.E. McClintock, Assistant Commissary General, British Army, 10 Jan 1866

McClintock made this statement in answer to charges of reckless extravagance in the quartering of the right wing of the 1st Battalion of the 9th Regiment at Saldanha Bay, a large inlet with a narrow sound on the west coast of the then Cape Colony, accommodating the hamlets of Hoedjes Bay and Langebaan; which although one of the finest harbours in Africa, remained almost a forgotten anchorage, generally bypassed by early navigators in view of the extreme shortage of fresh water and the hostility of the Cochokwa, a warlike people who for centuries had lived in the area.

Yet the hostility of the Cochokwas did not deter seafarers from calling periodically to obtain respite from the stormy seas or take fresh fish, seals and other natural resources aboard. Saldanha was even for a brief period during the seventeenth century, a minor focus of contention between the french and Dutch; but, although a major source of fish for the fledgling Dutch trading post at Table Bay, Saldanha - in view of the absence of a fresh water source - remained an alternate anchorage only used during times of war or exceptionally bad weather.

EXCELLENT PORT: NO FRESH WATER

More than 500 years ago, Saldanha Bay was "rediscovered" by the Portuguese. But strange as it may seem, it was not discovered by Antonio de Saldanha, the man whose name it bears. Saldanha visited the Cape of Good Hope in 1503, and Table Bay was originally known as Saldanha Bay. Confusion followed when in 1601, a Dutch seafarer, Joris van Spilbergen, mistook the present Saldanha Bay for Table Bay and since then the name has remained while the original Aguada de Saldanha has become known as Table Bay.

Soon after his arrival at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, Jan van Riebeeck made contact with the Cochokwa of Saldanha; and these people, whom he called Saldanhars, traded regularly their sheep and cattle for copper plate and tobacco at the Dutch fort in Table Bay. In September 1652, Van Riebeeck sent a boat to Saldanha to investigate the trade potential of the area and soon realised that the French were making extensive use of the bay as a halfway station to their Asian colonies.

In fact, prior to the arrival of Van Riebeeck, most of the important bays and waters of South Africa, and particularly along the south and west coasts, were well-known to European navigators. Although the first fishing by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and Free Burghers took place in Table Bay and the waters of the Salt River, a variety of reasons - including a shortage of fish - drove attention up the southwest coast to Saldanha Bay, where fish were plentiful, and where the roadstead was well enclosed within the large bay affording good, safe anchorages and many landing places. In 1658, a group of Free Burghers - the Saldanha seafarers - obtained rights from the Company to fish the waters of Saldanha and ferry their catches to the Company's now permanent trading post at Table Bay. The Saldanha seafarers had sole rights to the lucrative fishing until 1711, and established small huts for the storage of their nets. One fifth of the catch had to be delivered in salted or dried form: and so bokkoms was made!

The directors of the Dutch East India Company, being in the bsuiness for profit, were anxious to prevent the establishment of a rival French trading post at Saldanha and in 1666 erected a military post there. This was soon captured by the French and the guard ejected. So in an effort to regain the upper hand, the Dutch removed the French markers in 1667 and in April 1669, established a post office and enlarged the military post at the bay to twelve men. France briefly retook the area in 1670, but from that year the Dutch retained full possession until 1795. In fact, the VOC's possession was formally confirmed when a visiting commissioner, Arnout van Overbeeck, purchased the country from Hout Bay to Saldanha Bay from the Khoikhoi on 19 April 1672, for the sum of four thousand reals of eight.

The position of the VOC military post, which gave the name to the Postberg peninsula, and small fountain near modern Langebaan, can be seen on this contemporary map.

During the Second Dutch-Khoikhoi war (1673-7), Saldanha Bay stood derelict. This was not to remain so for long as the situation changed dramatically following the arrival of a new governor, Simon van der Stel, in 1679. The post at Saldanha Bay was re-occupied and Van der Stel set about the development of a chain of farms stretching from table Bay to Saldanha Bay: the territory acquired by Commissioner van Overbeeck. Settlement was made easier after the Cochokwas were defeated in 1689 in an internecine war by a combined Charingurikwa-Namakwa force.

In 1711, Simon van der Stel, now retired, obtained a five-year lease on the fishing and sealing rights at Saldanha Bay. Plans for development, however, were soon stunted by his death a year later; and the 1713 smallpox epidemic, which wiped out the local Khoi tribes, brought trade in the Saldanha area to a standstill. The bay, nonetheless, continued to be used as a safe and convenient harbour. Although the bay was surveyed by the Dutch in 1729 and 1738, the lack of an adequate water supply forced Saldanha to play a secondary role to Simon's Bay as the chief alternative to the exposed roadstead at Table Bay.

Saldanha Bay, however, was also not as safe as initially thought. The capture of five VOC merchantmen by the British in 1781 and the entrapment of the Dutch men-of-war under Admiral Engelbertus Lucas in 1796 - again by the British - proved that Saldanha Bay was useless to the Cape government unless it was adequately fortified. On the latter occasion, the British trashed the house of the postkeeper, Jacobus Stofberg, and inflicted heavy damage to his furniture, crockery and equipment. They also drove off ten of his pigs! Stofberg must have been a man of substance as he lived in some style at this still very small hamlet. The claim of compensation he submitted to General Craig reflects a fine lifestyle:

  • an Amboina (emboia?) cabinet with six china pots;
  • four four-poster bedsteads and six chamber pots;
  • eight stinkwood and six teak chairs;
  • three dozen China plates and dishes;
  • three dozen English plates and dishes;
  • six decanters and 24 wine glasses;
  • four paintings; and a further
  • "Ses Groote Schilderijen op Koopere Plaaten met Vergulden lijsten"

CHANGE IN GOVERNMENT: NO CHANGE IN POLICY

Soon after the First British Occupation of the Cape (1795), the new governor - Lord Macartney - played with the idea of turning Saldanha Bay into a naval fortress: a southern Gibraltar. As fate would have it, the lack of water and the return of the Cape to the Dutch in 1801 put an end to this idea; which was also not resusitated after the Second British Occupation in 1806.

By 1818, the Cape government had very little ground left around Saldanha Bay, for most of the land had been organised into loan farms. Simon van der Stel's dream had materilised but this lack of Crown property was, in turn, to stunt the development of the area.

Throughout the nineteenth century, various harbour-development schemes failed to get off of the ground and gradually Saldanha began to reassume its humble place as an outpost of the colony - so close to Cape Town yet so far in terms of development. The transit of the Irish settlers through Saldanha en route for Clanwilliam in 1820, the guano rush of 1845 and the visit of the Confederate ship ALABAMA in 1863, briefly pulled Saldanha out of obscurity. However, for the last three decades of the century, Saldanha assumed the most lowly of roles: that of a quarantine station for British ships infected with smallpox and bubonic plague. The 9th Regiment was quarantined at Saldanha in 1865, after leaving Gibraltar aboard the RENOWN. Saldanha was still such that communication with the rest of the colony could be easily prevented. In the words of McClintock, it was a tiny hamlet "situated in a barren and unproductive country" cut off from the nearest village by "an arid and rugged waste".

Notwithstanding this unfavourable state of affairs, Saldanha had a number of superb geographical features which which could not be ignored. These were extolled by the Cape Attorney General, Sir Thomas Upington in London, at the 1887 Colonial Conference. Upington admonished the British authorities for deciding to reduce the defence of the Cape Colony. after merely referring to maps in London and not acquainting themselves with the situation on the ground. While the conference stressed the importance of the Cape peninsula to British strategy, Saldanha did not weigh heavy in the discussions on the defence of the Peninsula despite the role the bay might have played in the occupation of the Cape by the British in 1806.

According to Upington, during war scares, the Cape government was "obliged to keep people on the look-out at Saldanha Bay who, by riding at full speed to the nearest telegraph station, would give us information of any ship or ships anchoring in Saldhana (sic) Bay, and making that a rendezvous and suddenly coming down upon us [at Cape Town]."

Although an ideal port, Saldanha Bay was an undefended port, being neither a military port nor a coaling station and as such had to the minds of the British naval authorities, no strategic value.

INCREASED ATTENTION: THE SALDANHA BAY HARBOUR & ESTATE CO.

However, during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), Table Bay harbour proved inadequate to deal with the sudden and sustained increase in the numbers of ships which were supplying the british army in South Africa and attention once again turned to Saldanha Bay, which experienced a sudden and enormous increase in mercantile activity. The area suddenly emerged as something of a novelty and the Bucknall Line ran week-end excursions from Cape Town to Saldanha, for the return fare of £3 7s. 6., including accommodation at the Saldanha Bay Hotel!

Increased attention inevitably led to speculation and the Saldanha Bay Harbour and Estate Company was floated under the chairmanship of L.F. Zietsman, a member of the Cape Legislative Assembly, to develop a port at the bay. The planned developments - which included a railway line connecting Saldanha to the main-line system at Porterville, a pipeline for the supply of fresh water to what was essentially a 'waterless village', and a harbour works for the loading and unloading of vessels - could only take place with the approval of the Cape government. The company's interests seemed secure as the directors included four Cape Legislators, a former general manager of the Cape Central Railways (General Sir Edward Brabant - of Brabant's Horse fame), and the president of the Cape Town Chamber of Commerce. Three private members' bills were subsequently introduced in the Cape parliament. The entire scheme rested, of course, on the success of the Saldanha Bay harbour, something which the inhabitants of Cape Town were afraid of. Consequnetly, the Select Committee - packed with majority-party members - to whom the Bill was referred, effectively killed the scheme.

There were also a number of other influences which may have played some part in the sinking of the scheme. One of these was the mistake made by the directors of the Saldanha Bay Company in approaching the Governor instead of the government for approval. This was clearly not appreciated by the government of a colony which jealously guarded her constitutional position as a self-governing territory: "The Colonial Government having, however, been ignored Ministers have no observations to make upon the documents enclosed in the Minute." This was a particularly sensitive issue, as Milner had only a few years earlier thought of stripping the Cape of her self government. Furthermore, the preamble to the bill had not been proved and the village of Hoedjes Bay, by a narrow majority (32 to 29), refused to refer the bill back to the committee.

In view of this stalemate, the Saldanha Bay Company, in 1904, offered to donate some of its land at Hoedjes Bay to the British government on the condition that they establish a coaling station and docks at some future time. This they did in the hope of increasing the value of their remaining property - something the Governor was quick to point out to the Colonial Secretary. The British Commander-in-Chief at Simonstown, Rear Admiral A.W. Moore, nonetheless believed that Hoedjes Bay "would make a very good coaling station, but [was] of the opinion that the Government will do well, in view of probable future requirements, not to part with the best part of the available foreshore" - a mistake which had cost the British government very dearly in many parts of the United Kingdom. Moore also pointed out that it was very undesirable to establish a coaling station at an undefended port. If commercial interests warranted the establishment of the coaling station, then some light defence was essential for protection against a raid by one or more enemy cruisers: a couple of six inch B.L. guns and a few 12-pounder Q.F. guns was thought to be adequate.

A fresh attempt was made to pass the bills in 1907 but again did not receive the support of the government. Five years later development at Saldanha received a further setback. The War Office, acting on Admiral Moore's recommendations, intervened in 1912, when it appeared that the Union government was granting fishing and foreshore rights to private individuals. This the War Office believed would prejudice military and naval interests; and extracted an assurance from the newly formed Union government of South Africa that no development would take place without London's approval!

In the light of these events, it was consequently not surprising that Saldanha Bay did not play an important role during the First World War; and the area remained very much on the periphery of defence planning. The German presence in South West Africa (later Namibia) was perceived as the only major external threat to South Africa and, as a result, all attention was focused on the defence of Kimberley and the far-northern Cape, and the coastal defence of Table and Simon's bays.

MILITARY NECESSITY: DEVELOPMENT AT LAST

Then, towards the end of the war, the Union began to recognise the strategic significance of Saldanha Bay and the small settlement of Hoedjes Bay, which received village status on 20 November 1916. In 1917, Sir Roland Bourne - South Africa's Secretary for Defence - instructed Major J.G.W. Leipoldt, elder brother of the poet, to report on the possibility of an enemy raider berthing at Saldanha. He also had to produce a map that would be the last word on the area, sufficiently precise to allow for the designing of coast defences. Finding the bay practically undefended, Leipoldt reported the potential and very real use of Saldanha as a temporary sea base by an enemy of South Africa. The port officer at Saldanha, who was in telegraphic communication with the Admiralty in Simon's Town, was the area's only defence; and then it would still take five hours after his giving the alarm, before cruisers could be in Saldanha Bay.

Leipoldt also found that the water shortage at the village of Hoedjes Bay would frustrate any enemy attempt to establish a base. Most of the water sources were at the southern end of the Langebaan lagoon, while the best landing places were further north, near Hoedjes Bay. Having secured a beachhead on the lagoon, an enemy would have to push 18 miles to the east and establish an advance base on the Berg river. In view of these difficulties, Leipoldt thought that an attack made directly on the bay, would be unlikely without the support from a landing somewhere else: he thought St Helena Bay, some twnety miles to the north. Leipoldt was convinced that Saldanha was only vital to an enemy as a sea base, enabling the landing of heavy stores which could not be landed anywhere else.

The survey ship Africana and ships of the South African Navy in Saldanha Bay, 1945. The Leipoldt report on Saldanha remained a strategic working document within the Department of Defence, the Royal Naval establishment at Simon's Town and the South African Railways and Harbours Administration. It was this report that led to the survey operations undertaken by HMSAS PROTEA from 1923; and contained the cardinal theory that gave impetus to the inception of the armoured trains in the 1930s.

In 1920, the lords commissioners of the Admiralty - possibly stimulated into action by the Leipoldt report - finally granted an interview to representatives of the Saldanha Bay Harbour and Railway Company, who now suggested the development of a submarine and aerial base. However, although not interested in acquiring another facility, the Admiralty had identified Saldanha as a port of fuelling and supply, and were no longer opposed to development.

In 1923, following the new line of the Company, the Hoedjes Bay Village Management Board approached Colonel Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, the Director Air Service, to consider Saldanha as a site for an airfield for the fledgling air arm of the Union Defence Force. Nothing materialised although the Union Defence Force in unison with the Admiralty, was re-evaluating its policy and re-aligning its position with regard to Saldanha. Both were now greatly interested in the bay, not as an air force base but as an anchorage for war and merchant vessels in time of war.

Leipoldt was, in 1924, commissioned to make another survey of the Saldanha Bay area; and, on this occasion - in line with the views held by Admiral Moore some twenty years earlier - he suggested the erection of a series of forts at Hoedjes Point, North Bay Point, Elands Point and South Head Point, which would command the whole entrance to the bay. The PROTEA then charted all the principal ports and landing sites along the west coast including Saldanha and St Helena bays. Naval activity began to pick up after the Royal Naval Intelligence Return for 1925 portrayed the Saldanha Bay area as the most likely landing place along the west coast, for an enemy invasion. HMS REPULSE visited the bay in that year and was folloed by various combined Union Defence Force-Royal Naval exercises over the following decade: HMS WESTER, HMS MILFORD, HMS DAFFODIL, HMS NEPTUNE and HMS AMPHION all making regular visits.

However, unlike Simon's Town, Cape Town and Durban, Saldanha remained a low priority. The Union government, strapped for cash, hoped that the british would step in and fortify the bay. Fortification was expensive and was not affordable to the Union Defence Force which was not only experiencing enormous budgetary cuts, but was also committed to the fortification of Cape Town and Durban. However, Saldanha would assume considerable importance in time of war and could not be neglected. Afterall, the Admiralty had earmarked Saldanha as one of two convoy assembly ports in the Union. In 1930, sites for the erection of a Port War Signal Station (PWSS) and Fire Commander's Post were approved. However, it was decided that these structures together with the gun emplacements would only be erected in the event of war.

THE SECOND WORLD WAR

Before long, the potential for another war in Europe was recognised. In 1938, Oswald Pirow (Minister of Defence) and Pierre van Ryneveld (Chief of the General Staff), deciding to sharpen coastal defences, approved estimates for the concrete bases of the fortifications at Durban, Cape Town and Saldanha. These bases would accommodate six-inch mark XIX mobile guns and defence electric lighting. By the middle of 1939, Saldanha had acquired a diaphone for her PWSS. The equipping of what was to become the Saldanha Sub-Fortress had begun.

Following the declaration of war on 6 September 1939, little other action was taken concerning Saldanha. It appeared that South Africa would not be seriously affected; and the Union Defence Force was unwilling to spend large sums erecting coastal defences which would not be used. The Royal Navy posted an intelligence officer to the bay to monitor shipping. Nothing more was done. However, with the Fall of France in 1940, the situation changed dramatically. The Mediterranean sea was no longer safe for Allied convoys destined for the Middle East and Far East; and these convoys were now diverted around the Cape of Good Hope. This naturally caused congestion at Table Bay and in 1941 plans were prepared for a harbour at Saldanha Bay to relieve pressure at the Cape.

A Catalina on Langebaan lagoon. At this point, and prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States - wanting to project her naval power by establishing a chain of bases and having already received long-term leases on naval facilities in Newfoundland, Bermuda and the Caribbean - wished to obtain the use of Saldanha Bay: a move that would project American power right across the Indian Ocean. The opposition National Party gained wind of the negotiations before anything could eventuate and the whole matter seems to have been shelved; although the British later used Langebaan as a small fleet air-arm base (Catalinas of 262 Squadron RAF).

HMSAS Barcross laying the anti-submarine nets. The entrance of Japan and the United States into the war at the end of 1941 and the Fall of Tobruk in 1942, compounded the situation even further. Saldanha, now urgently required as a relief harbour, at last became a priority. It became a defended port in June 1942 and for the first time in the history of Saldanha, both flanks of the entrance to the bay were adequately protected against surface raiders. The long-awaited development followed on the heels of the Defence Force. A good supply of fresh water was finally laid on by the South African Engineers Corps. Saldanha's largest problem, which for centuries had effectively diverted large-scale settlement and development to what became Cape Town, had been solved! Mines are layed across the straits, Saldanha Bay. The controlled minefield is detonated after the official ending of the Second World War.

© Lt Col Ian van der Waag {jcomments on}

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