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1. Background

In recent years, the global maritime domain has grown in stature and in importance. This argument is expressed by editors Francois Vreÿ and Thomas Mandrup in their introduction to Towards Good Order at Sea: African Experiences (2015). This rise in prominence is particularly visible in the spheres of innovation, competition and knowledge, where the principal aim is to make more constructive naval use of the oceans. The outcome is the tendency for both traditional and new maritime powers to position themselves strategically to utilise the political, economic, and military potential of the vast oceans. The visible increase in cases of maritime insecurity is associated with this strategic positioning, especially due to the lucrative maritime offerings of commerce, information and resources. Moreover, the willingness or ability of littoral countries with large ungoverned maritime spaces to enforce maritime jurisdiction over these areas remains problematic. Amid the growing global maritime dynamics, Africa, and southern Africa in particular, faces unique problems in ensuring good order at sea.

Vreÿ and Mandrup further argue that the customary strategic outlook of Africa has been largely continental. African coastal states, have, by tradition, tended to neglect their oceans, maritime resources, naval forces, related affairs and other matters that culminate in creating a general state of maritime insecurity in African waters. As a result of this neglect, a general maritime deficit exists today. The shortfall is exacerbated by an observed lack of capacity of both naval forces and national legislative bodies to enforce jurisdiction over the territorial waters of coastal countries.[1]

[1] F. Vreÿ and T. Mandrup, Towards Good Order at Sea: African Experiences (Stellenbosch: SUN MeDIA, 2015), p. 5. This sentiment is incidentally shared J. Black, War in the New Century (London: Continuum, 2001), pp. 86-90.

A somewhat similar state of maritime insecurity existed around the southern African coastline shortly before and during the Second World War. This distinct historical case of maritime insecurity was the result of the strategic location of the Union of South Africa astride major shipping lanes rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Its physical positioning was coupled with the general interwar apathy shown for all matters relating to naval and coastal defence, as well as the overreliance on Britain to secure the Union’s territorial waters during hostilities. The Axis naval forces thereupon exploited the situation. They launched a series of naval operations with the explicit aim of disrupting merchant shipping traffic along the South African coast. They also sank sufficient Allied vessels in pursuit of the so-called war of tonnage.

The evident state of maritime insecurity has, however, received scant scholarly attention. What has been notably overlooked is the interrelatedness of the Axis and Allied maritime strategies employed in the waters off southern Africa. Concomitant matters relating to said strategies include wartime shipping, coastal defences, naval operations, the naval intelligence war and anti-submarine warfare (ASW). An informed study regarding the maritime war off the South African coast thus remains wanting. Few historians and popular writers have been willing to engage with the wealth of primary archival material available on this particular subject in South Africa, the United Kingdom (UK), and further afield.

 In Rethinking Military History, the renowned British historian Jeremy Black cautions the intrepid military historian to remain ever-aware of the marked distinction between air, land, and naval warfare. He argues, however, that the uniqueness of naval history requires it to be studied by taking the adjoining conflict on land and in the air into account. Despite Black’s forewarning, contemporary naval histories, and particularly those focusing on the naval war off the southern African coast between 1939 and 1945, have generally fallen into the trap of isolating naval history to a mere tactical and operational study of the conflict at sea2] In South Africa, this isolationist approach is particularly evident, with the vast majority of historiographical works only addressing the operational level of the naval war.

Black further draws attention to the benefit of re-examining historical events, particularly when the military historian can reconcile a variety of primary and secondary sources on a subject. This allows the military historian the unique opportunity to reinterpret previous historical accounts, probe largely untapped primary archival sources, and provide a fresh analysis on crucial moments in military history.[3] The unique occasion to do so has presented itself in this dissertation. This opportunity allows for a re-examination of the Axis and Allied maritime operations off the southern African coast during the Second World War. Black, citing Rory Muir’s Salamanca 1812, highlights the unique undertaking created with this dissertation, particularly in addressing the research gap. Muir states:

… while the sources are plentiful, they do not always fit neatly together; indeed, they are riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, gaps and uncertainty … Normally the historian deals privately with these problems … This method is inescapable in addressing a large, sweeping subject if the narrative is not to lose its momentum and the reader to miss the thread of the argument. However, it can also mislead the reader by suggesting that our understanding is far more securely based than is the case.4

[1] F. Vreÿ and T. Mandrup, Towards Good Order at Sea: African Experiences (Stellenbosch: SUN MeDIA, 2015), p. 5. This sentiment is incidentally shared J. Black, War in the New Century (London: Continuum, 2001), pp. 86-90.

[2] J. Black, Rethinking Military History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), pp. 22-23.

[3] Black, Rethinking Military History, pp. 30-32. 4     Black, Rethinking Military History, p. 30.



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