Robben Island diversifies rich historical attractions by adding restored World War II De Waal Battery

By Lt Cdr Glenn von Zeil, SA Naval Reserve
Enquiries: 021 787 4697

On 04 March 2011 the CEO of the Robben Island Museum (RIM), Mr Sibongiseni Mkize, at the opening ceremony of the restored heavy coast gun on the Island, indicated that the World War II De Waal Battery display incorporated an additional historical layer to the already impressive set of products to Cape Town’s world heritage and premier tourist site. This added another diverse narrative of the Island’s rich history which would be of interest to military tourists.

A squad comprising Maritime Reaction Squadron, Cape Field and Cape Garrison Artillery representing past and present gunners.

The Robben Island Museum together with the Department of Public Works, the Department of Arts and Culture, the SA Navy, MLB Architects and ARMSCOR Dockyard all played a role in restoring the De Waal Battery and the 9.2-inch No 3 gun. Capt (SAN) Chris Dooner, SA Navy Fleet Logistics Division, played a significant role in assisting to restore the gun and as a result this working display is able to traverse 360 degrees and elevate from -5 to 35 degrees.

Since the inception of international maritime trade the sea route around the Cape has long been of strategic importance and coastal defences have been set up, beginning with the Dutch in 1652. The sites of over 60 forts, batteries and redoubts, dating from the Dutch occupation can be identified around the coast of the Cape Peninsula, most of them on the shores of Table Bay. Most were positioned to defend the anchorage. Technology has since changed from smooth bore cannon firing round shot to more modern breech loading guns using streamlined ammunition, as typified by the restored gun.

Rear Admiral Arne Soderland with Lt Cdr Bob Sharp (Technical Officer), and Major General Graham Moodie (Ret), ex Commanding Officer of Robben Island.

Capt (SAN) Chris Dooner, SA Naval Fleet Logistics Division, talks the crowd through the rotation and elevation procedures whilst the ARMSCOR gun crew go through their drills. Modern technology has resulted in the gun being able to be operated by one tour guide as opposed to several gunners as would have been required during World War II.

During World War II Robben Island was fortified against attack by ships and aircraft. A gunnery school was situated on the Island. Naval control of the degaussing range (it demagnetized ships hulls against magnetic mines) was operated from the Island and in addition a separate naval control station for the anti-submarine loop system was also situated there.

Col Lionel Crook, former Deputy Director Artillery (Field) and the author of “Island at War”, in the opening address of the ceremony, indicated that “No 3 gun had a range of almost 30 km at supercharge. It represented the peak of coast gunnery development and remained so until coast guns were declared obsolete in 1955”.

No 3 gun was manufactured by the Royal Gun Factory at Woolwich, London, in 1901 and was first issued on 23 September 1904. It arrived in the Cape in November 1940. It weighs 140 tons. Each piece was brought to Robben Island from the mainland using a barge specially constructed for this purpose. The gun was erected by human muscle using only a hand operated 20 ton gantry.

The restoration of No 3 gun as well as the adjoining buildings, magazines and bunkers will give tourists an insight into the coastal defences on the island and around the Cape’s coast during World War II.

While the restoration of the De Waal Battery was underway the rich hidden history associated with this period of the Islands emerged. This included the Women’s Auxiliary Army Service (AS WAAS); trained in coastal gunnery, the South African Women’s Auxiliary Naval Service (SWANs) trained in anti submarine operations and the Cape Corps Gunners who fulfilled artillery as well as anti aircraft roles.

Ex SWANS Lucy Edwards and Jane Bates recall their service on Robben Island during World War II whilst Gun No3 looms in the background.

Attending the opening ceremony were amongst others, several past service men and women who had served on the Island during World War II – Major General Graham Moodie (Ret), aged 99, Commandant of Robben Island, Joan Rabkin, ex ASWAS, SWANS Lucy Edwards and Jane Bates.

The Guard of Honour, provided by the Maritime Reaction Squadron, Cape Field and Cape Garrison Artillery regiments did themselves proud by ensuring that the strong traditions and commitment of the artillery, past and present, were witnessed.

Anyone wishing to arrange a visit to Robben Island to view the De Waal Battery should contact the Robben Island Museum Media Officer, Shone Khangala, on 083-628-3428.