The Agreement between Britain and South Africa would last for two decades while becoming an example of the British strategy to retain a global reach at reduced costs.
On 30 June 1955, a naval co-operation agreement was signed between the United Kingdom and the then Union of South Africa. The “Simonstown Agreement” marked the end of the British control over the naval base at Simon’s Town (also spelt “Simonstown”) and formally transferred the command of the South African Navy to the Government of South Africa. However, the Agreement also determined that the British Royal Navy would retain access to its former naval facilities. Additionally, the Union Government agreed to acquire British-built and designed vessels: six frigates for Anti-Submarine Warfare, ten minesweepers and at least three Ford-class seaward defence boats. Thus, while the Agreement ended the British command over the South African Navy and transferred Simon’s Town base to South Africa, it also secured Britain as the leading defence partner of the South African Navy for at least another decade.
When the Agreement was signed in 1955, the UK was a significant force in the African continent. Except for the end of the British rule over Egypt, the British Empire was mostly intact in the continent. In the mid-1950s, the Union of South Africa had already transitioned from a British Dominion to an independent state that would retain the Monarchy until 1961. However, within the context of the Cold War and the pressure for decolonisation, the UK’s position abroad was increasingly fragile. Additionally, economic restrains at home, and numerous commitments overseas meant that Britain would need to find a new balance between its strategic desires and reality while preserving its links with the Commonwealth and other relevant partners. Therefore, what the country could afford in the 1950s meant that many commitments would have to be revisited and reformulated. In part, the Simonstown Agreement is an example of retaining some privileges while giving up others; transferring the control and costs of the naval base to South Africa while maintaining right of access was seen in London as an acceptable option to reduce commitments and expenditure.
Technically, beyond some Memorandums, three agreements constitute the final “Simonstown Agreement”. These three accords were separately signed during the various exchange of letters between the British Minister Selwyn Lloyd (briefly Minister of Defence in 1955) and the South African Minister of Defence Frans Erasmus. The “Agreement on Defence of the Sea Routes around South Africa” was the first result of the exchange of letters. Following this accord, came the “Transfer of the Simonstown Naval Base” and the “Ancillary Financial and Administrative Arrangements”.
One of the most relevant points discussed between the UK and South Africa concerned the military leadership of the ‘South Atlantic Maritime Strategic Zone’ during wartime. The ‘Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic’ of the Royal Navy would remain as the operational head of command of the Strategic Zone, which included the South Atlantic and the Mozambique Channel. In short, based at Simon’s Town, the Royal Navy would command and coordinate war efforts over a relevant geostrategic region, enabling Britain to safeguard the Cape Sea Route. Additionally, the first accord determined that during wartime, a ‘joint maritime war planning committee’ would be established. This committee would have representatives of the South African Navy and the Royal Navy. One of its most important roles was the co-ordination of the use of maritime facilities in South African and British territories in the regional Strategic Zone.
Lastly, Britain retained the right to use the naval base during military conflicts that did not involve South Africa. Thus, the Simonstown Agreement can be seen as the result of British efforts to maintain the UK as a country with a ‘global reach’, capable of defending its interest overseas and with a voice in the South Atlantic and surrounding regions.
Roughly a century and a half before the Agreement, in 1806, after the second British occupation of the Cape, the Royal Navy established the first installations for a small naval base in ‘Simon’s Bay’. The sea route of the Cape was – and still is – one the most vital trade routes of the world and the only practical sea route to India and the Far East. Despite the opening of the Suez Canal, the Cape Route remained at the centre of Britain’s imperial strategic thinking.
In the decades after the Napoleonic Wars, as global commerce increased, the Cape Sea Route’s importance followed suit. The small naval base would be expanded slowly during most of the nineteenth century. In 1898, the Cape Colonial Government authorised the development of Simon’s Town port as a significant naval base for the Royal Navy. The new base would take 12 years to be completed. When it officially opened in 1910, it was one of the largest naval bases of the Royal Navy in Africa and the main base for operations around the Cape of Good Hope. Coincidently, in 1910, four British colonies in the region agreed to form the ‘Union of South Africa’.
Between 1921 and 1930, the UK and the Union Government went through agreements concerning the ownership of buildings and lands within the naval base. One of these agreements is the ‘Smuts-Churchill’ Agreement, which would transfer to South Africa the administration of the land defences of the Cape Peninsula. In 1930, the Union Government recognised the British Admiralty as the ‘perpetual user’ for naval duties of several buildings and lands in Simon’s Town. This “cordiality” between the British and Union governments would remain throughout the decade and during the Second World War.
However, the relations between Britain and the Union of South Africa began to face strain in 1948. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Union had two political parties disputing power. The settlers of British-descent mostly supported the United Party of Jan Smuts, which favoured close links with Britain and the Commonwealth. On the other hand, there was the Afrikaner-backed National Party, which held anti-British sentiments and was strongly opposed to South Africa’s participation in the Second World War. Similarly, in the 1930s and 1940s, there were Nationalist organisations such as the Ossewa Brandwag, which were anti-British and pro-Nazi Germany.
In 1948, the United Party lost the election to the National Party. The new Government quickly brought the question of the British control over Simon’s Town to the negotiation table. One year later, in 1949, Union Government officials engaged in the first informal discussions with their British counterparts. In late 1950, the issue was raised again, but Britain stated that it would only negotiate the future of the naval base after the Union Government provided written details of what it wanted. Less than a year later, during the Commonwealth Defence Ministers meeting in London, South Africa had already provided documents stating its demands and took the ministerial gathering in Britain as an opportunity for further conversations concerning Simon’s Town.
Negotiations between the two countries found many difficulties, especially about the use of the base in wars that only involved Britain. The Attlee Government faced resistance from South Africa to guarantee the right to use Simon’s Town in a conflict that South Africa was not involved. Similarly, the Churchill Government found the same resistance. Churchill avoided further conversations concerning the naval base as he feared Britain would lose a vital link for imperial communications. Eventually, in late 1954, Churchill agreed to send an Admiralty mission to South Africa to reopen negotiations. The mission resulted in a draft that would be the basis for the final Agreement. In June 1955, the South African minister Frans Erasmus visited London to discuss the last diverging points with the Eden Government. Later in that same month, exchange of letters between Erasmus and its British counterpart resulted in the “Simon’s Town Agreement”.
Writing about the Agreement, Rear Admiral Allan Kendall du Toit, a retired officer of the Royal Australian Navy, states that Britain achieved a favourable agreement:
“it [the Agreement] importantly provided for the continued use of the base at Simon’s Town by the Royal Navy in peace, and by the Royal Navy and its allies in any war in which the United Kingdom was involved, even in a war in which South Africa was not involved. It significantly increased commonality and interoperability between the two navies and in time of war placed South African maritime forces under the command of the British Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic, who continued to fly his flag at the Cape after the signing of the Agreement and who would be responsible for war planning for both countries.”
Besides, the Agreement meant that Britain would retain full military access to Simon’s Town while transferring the costly upkeeps and modernisation obligations to the Union of South Africa. Beyond that, as the Union Government sought to modernise its Navy to play a role in defence of the South Atlantic Strategic Zone, the Agreement’s terms cited the South African commitment to acquire several British warships, patrol boats, helicopters and other military equipment. The resulting deal was the sale of 19 warships, including ten Ton-class coastal minesweepers and four antisubmarine frigates (one Type-15 and three Type-12 frigates). Thus, although the National Party had an anti-British instance, in the late 1950s Britain secured friendly and profitable relations with South Africa.
Nevertheless, the 1960s would witness South Africa becoming a problematic partner. The racial policies of the National Party led the country to become increasingly isolated. Moreover, in October 1960, the National Party pushed a referendum about the future of the South African Monarchy. The vote, which was restricted to whites, approved the formation of a republic with a 52.29% majority. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth members and nations about to become independent from Britain declared that South Africa’s membership was an affront to the Commonwealth’s principles and many announced their intention to leave or not join the organisation if no action was taken about South Africa.
Thus, the traditional biannual ‘Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference’ was held in March 1961, a year ahead of planned. The South African Prime Minister, H.F. Verwoerd attended the Conference to give official notice that his country opted to become a republic; the change would happen in May 1961. The South African constitutional changes meant that the country would need to re-apply for membership. However, soon it became clear to Verwoerd that the Commonwealth would reject his country application. Verwoerd withdrew South Africa’s request to re-join the organisation and left the Conference, meaning that upon its becoming a republic, the country’s membership lapsed. South Africa would only return to the Commonwealth in 1994, after the end of the apartheid.
Despite South Africa’s departure from the organisation in 1961 and the increasing international pressure to isolate the country, Britain would maintain defence exports to the new Republic. When Harold Wilson formed a Government in 1964, the British position changed. The Wilson Government rejected to supply new defence equipment to South Africa while the segregationist policies remained in force. This ban had some concessions; Britain would remain committed to honour contracts that were signed before 1964. Later, other sales to South Africa would be confirmed as part of the ‘concessions’ made by the British Government. Considering that in the early 1960s all vessels of the South African Navy were built and designed in Britain, the British Government would still maintain exports of spare parts and ammunition to supply the British-built ships, many of which were acquired due to Simon’s Town Agreement.
Two year later, in 1966, the British Government published a Defence White Paper (also known as the 1966 Defence Review). The Paper confirmed that Britain would withdraw from several overseas defence commitments and reorganise their naval presence throughout the globe. Plans to close the South Atlantic Station in April 1967 were part of the considerations. After the official closure, the South Atlantic Station’s duties were transferred to the Western Fleet, which itself was disbanded in 1971. In consequence, the British Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic lowered his Flag at the Cape.
Before these measures, the revision of the Simon’s Town Agreement took place between Britain and South Africa. Britain would commit a small representative detachment under a Commodore at Youngsfield, just south of Cape Town, while withdrawing its last Royal Navy frigate permanently stationed at Simon’s Town. Both countries agreed that the Chief of the South African Navy should have more responsibility for the Cape in wartime. One of the most significant changes concerned the British access to Simon’s Town. According to Rear-Admiral du Toit, “a caveat was made which required mutual agreement between the Governments of the United Kingdom and South Africa before the facilities could be used in a war not involving South Africa.”
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the Royal Navy and the South African Navy continued to attend annual military exercises (called “SANEX”) involving the two forces. Beyond that, interactions between the two navies were a regular practice when British vessels and submarines used South African ports while heading to or returning from operations in the Indian Ocean and the Far East. It is worth mentioning that this kind of interaction would increase after the closure of the Suez Canal in June 1967 in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.
Nevertheless, the British Government was increasingly preoccupied that the international community would target its relatively close relations with apartheid South Africa. As a result, Britain requested that the traditional annual joint exercise to be conducted without publicity and far from the busy sea-lanes of the Cape Route. The British Government’s fears became a reality in late 1969 when news about the naval exercises began to circulate in the British press. In the following year, South Africa tries to order frigates from British yards, but Britain privately states to South African officials that politically it would not be the adequate moment to accept orders for the frigates.
Eventually, in March 1974 the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson returned to power and imposed a total arms embargo against South Africa. The response came as a formal inquiry on behalf of the South African Government questioning if Britain desired to renegotiate the Simon’s Agreement. Later, in late August and early October, two Royal Navy flotillas would meet near the Cape for a training exercise with the South African Navy. This British naval deployment was the largest in the region since the Second World War receiving extensive press coverage. The extremely negative reaction in the UK compelled the British Government to suspend all defence co-operation. In late October 1974, the UK decided that the political costs of the Simon’s Town Agreement outweighed its benefits.
At this point, it is worth mentioning the British withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’. This decision has its origins in two supplements to the 1966 Defence Review dating from 1967 and early 1968. Britain would withdraw all forces from East of Suez by the end of 1971, granting independence to its Gulf Protectorates as a part of a long trend present in British foreign policy since the independence of the Indian subcontinent in 1947-1948. As the British Government reduced its military and territorial presence East of Suez, the operations of the Royal Navy in those regions declined accordingly.
Thus, in October 1974, the Wilson Government was willing to terminate the Simon’s Town Agreement without risking many British commitments. Although recognising the relevance of the naval base for the Royal Navy’s operations, Britain informed the South African Government its intentions to end the Agreement in late 1974. Following negotiations, the Simon’s Town Agreement was officially terminated in June 1975, roughly 20 years after its creation. The Royal Navy’s last shore establishment at Youngsfield (HMS Afrikander) – near Cape Town – was closed in February 1976.
During most of its existence, the Simon’s Agreement was subject of intense criticism not only in Britain but also within the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, as a sign of its importance for both countries, the Agreement would last for two decades. For Britain, the arrangement put no strain over the Defence Budget while preserving the Royal Navy’s right to access the facilities in peace and wartime. Additionally, the strategic position of Simon’s Town was perfect for the defence of the Cape Sea Route. For South Africa, the Agreement handed back the control of the last British base in the country. At the same time, the Royal Navy presence and Britain’s willingness were vital for improving the South African naval capabilities. Moreover, the Agreement was a way to maintain connections with the Western countries, minimising South Africa’s increasing isolation.
Roughly seven years after the end of the Agreement, in 1982, the Falklands War would require the deployment of a large Task Force to the South Atlantic. Having no longer access to Simon’s Town in wartime, the UK naval forces had to rely mainly on the British territory of Ascension Island. However, British ships continued to call port regularly at Simon’s Town and other South African ports in peacetime. The United Kingdom would only restart naval co-operation with South Africa in the 1990s when the apartheid regime ended.
Since the mid-1990s, the Royal Navy’s vessels permanently assigned to the Falkland Islands or using the Cape Sea Route have been using the facilities at Simon’s Town. Examples of this practice were the visits of HMS Clyde. According to the Royal Navy, the offshore patrol vessel went through two periods (one in 2011 and another in 2017) of ‘comprehensive overhaul’ at Simon’s Town. The facilities of the South African naval base surpasses the ones found in the Falklands or other British territories in the South Atlantic. One of these facilities is the dry dock. Once in the base, the dry dock allows the HMS Clyde to be ‘out of water’ so extensive work is carried to remove algae and marine growth from the hull; the ‘drag’ caused by the algae reduced the ship’s top speed. Clyde’s successor, HMS Forth, eventually is going to undergo ‘comprehensive overhauls’ during its position as the ‘Falklands guardian ship’.
Therefore, the Simon’s Town naval base still valuable for Britain even after the end of the Agreement. Moreover, since the 1990s, the defence co-operation between Britain and South Africa was resumed without the shadow of the apartheid regime, and bilateral links have been growing steadily since the mid-1990s. In short, the Simon’s Town Agreement is a model of successful naval co-operation and an example of the British strategy to retain its presence overseas at a reduced cost.