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HMSAS Agulhas (R01)

The story which didn't happen ... outside Atlantic Air Combat

A steadfast ally during the Second World War as a Member of the British Empire, South Africa had always been a dependable partner, at least till the implementation of the apartheid policy in 1948, which slowly but surely made the country a political outcast.  We all know in 2013 that the country eventually emerged from this dark moment back into the light in the early 1990s, especially when Mr N. Mandela was elected President of the Republic of South Africa in 1994.

Therefore the use of South Africa's ancient flag in the context of Atlantic Air Combat should not be misinterpreted.   It just belongs to the period at stake (1963-1967).  The only nostalgy expressed in AAC is about the aircrafts flown in the fifties and sixties.  Therefore, the remaining of the reading below only belongs to the aerial military fantasy that AAC actually is.

South Africa - The Guadian of the door
The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 significantly reduced the importance of the passages south of Africa and the Americas.   It was thus reduced but not annhilated and German corsairs had shown in the early stages of WW2 that a raid in the Southern Hemisphere could still create a lot of damage.

But the Suez canal was also very fragile and it was very easy to shut down.  So the keeping of the two south doors, and especially the one south of the African continent, was vital.  Where would otherwise the oil tankers sail from Arabia to either North America or Europe if not round the Cape of Good Hope ?   Thus, however despicable the apartheid policy was, South Africa remained an essential player in the security of the West.  Real politics has its own set of ethical rules and so, at the end of the Korean War, South Africa alike other Western Allies had received two batches of F86F Sabre fighters from the US totalling 56 aircrafts.

These were a welcome supplement to the DH Vampire acquired in United Kingdom but the US Congress became more than reluctant to authorize further weapons sales to Pretoria.  So besides a few C130B Hercules in 1962 the American source of equipment had dried out and South Africa had to turn toward Europe for their military equipment.

So, having secured the acquisition of a Colossus class carrier in UK, and more than a handful of Supermarine Seafires of various marks, it was no surprise when the United States totally refused to sell them the A4 Skyhawks that the South African Navy wanted to operate from its deck.  The very request was received like an insult before the US Congress, to the point that it was made clear to their European allies that no plane powered with a US made engine could be transferred to South Africa.   So far for the political gesticulation.  In practice the arms embargo listed an awful lot of equipment into which Pretoria had no interest, skillfully not mentioning US made or patented air-to-air missiles.  Probably someone in Washington thought that depriving the South Africans from Sidewinder missiles was probably asking too much...

In any event, Pretoria first looked after the modernisation of the ship.   With similar works undertaken either in UK, the Netherlands and Sweden, they hoped for the best and readied themselves for the worst as shipyards in Durban were hardly fitted to take the job.   But while Sweden was generaly reluctant to deal with South Africa, their own carrier project was a very costly one and, exceptionnally, agreed to look after the South African ship as they were looking after their own.   While they had no aircraft they could suply along with the ship, except the Gannet which FFVS has totally revisited for the benefit of the Swedish Navy and was producing under licence, South Africa had to turn toward either France or UK for shipborne aeroplanes.

What the South African Navy wanted was a simple performing day fighter/attack aircraft which could operate under the direction of airborne command platform, which implied the acquisition of AEW aircrafts.  True, they had received the latest Spitfire variant in the form of the Seafire FR47.(refurbished, and re-engined) but it was only a stopgap measure.  With the Hawker SeaHawk still under production, it initially was their prime choice.  But as international relations became more tense, especially with UK - South Africa quitted the Commonwealth in 1961 and faced an international arms embargo as from 1963 - the perspective of acquiring aircrafts (and spares) from UK appeared less likely every day.   This created a situation which France couldn't miss and indeed negociations swiftly started in order to secure not only the supply of modern aircrafts but also local aircraft assembly or production, actually creating a high technology industry at the same time.  It went on successfully, with the newly establish Atlas Aircraft Corp to assemble Mirage III fighters and Alouette helicopters.  The aircraft complement for the R01 Agulhas wasn't forgotten and Dassault managed to increase the production rate of the Etendard shipborne figher and deliver them in time before the embargo was decreeted in 1963, even if the last batch of IVPZA was only delivered that year.

Then, as tensions continue to rise with the USSR, and in response to their own aircraft carrier programme, South Africa got interrested into the Blackburn Buccanners.   With hostilities opening in the Baltic in 1963, the arms embargo was applied with some down to earth flexibility and 16 Blackburn (then Hawker Siddeley) Buccaneer S50 were delivered in 1965.   Although a sizeable aircraft for such a little carrier, the type did boost considerably the attack capacity of the South African Navy.

The ship
The R01 Agulhas (after the name of the most southern point of South Africa, the Cape of Agulhas), was thus the ancient HMS Ocean (R68) which had been acquired by South Africa in 1958 en entrusted with Ericksbergs in Gothenburg, Sweden for its modernization.   It was this shipyard that initiated the refit of the A2 Gotland for the Swedish Navy a year before similar works were undertaken by another shipyard on what was to become the A3 Lappland.  Ericksbergs was thus the most experienced of the two and actually exercised leadership in the Swedish project.

Essentially the R01Agulhas was a sistership to the Gotland including its peculiar machine gun close range anti-missile defense system. However, the South African Navy had insisted to have the 13.2mm guns replaced with Colt .50cal (12.7mm) M3 guns, of which they had plenty.  It was a ammunition they were more familliar with and indeed the Colt gun offered a significantly higher rate of fire (1200rpm instead of 900rpm).   Another difference was that the ship with provided with tanks for high octane petrol to supply piston engine aircrafts.  When the request came in at Ericksbergs, it was received with some surprise as South Africa was known to be negociating a license production of the turbine powered Alouette III helicopter but the motive was two-fold.   First, they just acquired FR47 Seafires, and while obsolete by modern standards, they were due to be maintained operational for yet a few years.  Second, nothwithstanding the fact the RSAN was looking to acquire CM175 Zephyr jet trainers, with over 700 AT6/SNJ Harvard or Texan on inventory and several being brought up to SNJ5C standards  the Navy wanted the capacity to operate these aircrafts rather than just have them land and take off while sailing close to shore.   Third, while negociations were thus going on with France about various military acquisitions and license productions, the only certainty was that the three piston powered Sikorsky S51 acquired in 1948 had been allocated to the Agulhas....  The RSAN clearly wanted their options to remain open as far as helicopter operations was concerned and piston engined aircrafts of one kind or another was a certainty.  Then there was yet another motive as South Africa was trying hard to convince both Brazil and Argentina to have their respective navies cooperate in the South Atlantic.   Allowing their piston engined fleet (SNJs, F4U5s, Trackers) to operate from the Agulhas or at least making sure it would effectively be possible was a mean to achieve this political goal.   Eventually this prospect never materialized, and having failed to procure the Zephyr, SNJs thus remained the only carrier capable training aircraft operated by the South African Navy.

Aicraft complement was modified in 1965 with Buccaneers being absorbed by the Navy rather than the Air Force, although they were operated in parallel with the French manufacured Etendards, the latter then operated more as fighters and recce platforms.



- Etendard IVMZ (French manufactured) Fighter/Interceptor/Attack


- Etendard IVPZ (French manufactured) Reconnaissance aircrafts


Br1050 Alizé (French manufactured) ASW/COD


TBM3W Avenger (ex-French Navy AEW


H-5 Sikorsky S51 (ex-SA Air Force, ex-French Air Force/Navy) Pedro
In addition, the SNJ trainers could fully operate from the carrier.  When they did, SNJs usually were strapped on deck rather than stored in the hangar.


SNJ5C Texan - Trainers
As from 1965 Blackburn Buccaneer began to regularly operate from the R01 Agulhas, then replacing half a dozen Etendard IVM aircraft within the carrier air wing


- Buccaneer S50 - Attack

With well over 700 AT6-SNJ Texan or Harvard in storage, and among them plenty of SNJ the South African Navy didn't look elsewhere for a solution and intially brought 30 of them to SNJ-5C standards

Advance Trainers
With the FAA relinquishing all Spitfires and Seafires from Reserve Squadrons in the mid-fifties, it made quite a few airframes available.  A dozen of Seafire III were converted to "Seafire III TR9", very similar to the Spitfire IX transformed into two seaters

Stopgap Fighter
With the Seafire FR47 being retired from active service, the SA Navy saw an opportunity to obtain a few at a bargain price.  With the ongoing deliveries of the Shackletons, 20 aircrafts were refurbished and re-engined with the Griffon 58 engines to standardize engine maintenance.

Interception, Attack and Recce Fighters - 1
With strong ties established with France in the early 1960s the matter of supplying Etendard fighters was swiftly solved, even more so as, contrary to the Mirage IIIC acquired for the Air Force, the Etendards came straight from the French production line.   Two types were supplied to the South African Navy : 
32 Etendard IVMZ : standard fighter/attack aircrafts
16 Etendard IVPZ : armed photo-reconnaissance aircrafts

Besides their standard inboard 30mm guns, and array of external weapons,  the SA Etendards were equipped with AIM-9B Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.  This weapons arrangement was common to both the attack and recce versions as the South Africans asked for the IVP version to retain the 30mm DEFA guns.   This deprived them from using the specifically designed reconnaissance pod but not only were they happy with the set of 3 cameras intalled in the nose, but they had acquired Vinten pods which could be carried in a more conventional manner making the removal of the guns unnecessary.  Essentially, they wanted the IVP to remain combat aircrafts to the largest extend possible.

Interception, Attack and Recce Fighters - 2
In 1965 a small batch of 16 British manufactured Blackburn Buccaneers S50 was delivered.  Initially intended for the South African Air Force, these carrier capable aircrafts were allocated to the Navy.  While Buccanneers could be also armed with AIM-9B air-to-air missiles for self defense these were thus attack aircrafts and exclusively used in this role with either bombs, rockets and AS20 anti-shipping missiles.  They replaced the Etendards in this role although the latter remained a multipurpose platform.  

In the context of the arms embargo looming up when the aircraft equipement of the Agulhas was being defined, newly established ties with France was used to their full extent

 ASW - Anti Submarine Warfare

32 Breguet Alizés ASW were aquired.  These were stock French standards.  Besides their dedicated role, they also could be used as attack platform with bombs and rockets

 COD - Carrier On-board Delivery

South Africa could not afford to acquire specific aircrafts for that secondary but nevertheless important role.  Instead Alizé were used, with cargo being tucked in an ad hoc manner inside the aircraft bomb bay.  As the aircraft could be operated with a single pilot, three passengers could also be transported, using the co-pilot and system operator seats 


ASW - Airborne Early Warning
In the absence of an AEW version of the Alizé and with both UK and the USA refusing to make their respective carrier capable platforms available, South Africa faced an apparent difficult issue.   But real politics have their own rules, and with France making their TBM3W redundant in 1960, 7 aircrafts were discreetely shipped to South Africa along with a dozen TBM3E airframes and as much spares France managed to gather considering they were maintaining a few TBM3S2 active.

SAR - Search And Rescue (PEDRO)
While the Navy had intially been promised some Alouette III for carrier operations to replace the ageing Sikorsky S51 transferred from the Air Force, Alouettes being on high demand by other services, the Dragonflys reliably continued their operations aboard the Agulhas.  The procurement of additional aiframes and spares from France allowed the type to be skillfully maintained.