The South African Navy bought 3 Daphne class submarines from France that were built by Dubigeon-Normandie shipyard in Nantes, in the early 1970s. These submarines were ‘sailed’ down the Seine river to St.Nazaire for first sea trials.

The first two SA Navy submarines: Maria van Riebeeck and Emily Hobhouse have been scrapped after 30 years’ service and the third submarine (renamed ASSEGAAI) is in a submarine museum in Simonstown. Lt Cdr Theo Honiball, long time resident in Knysna and well known raconteur, now lives in Cape Town and is currently compiling a book of stories of his time in the Navy which is bound to be well worth reading.

He gave me two brass submarine crests on meeting him for the first time some years ago when he was downscaling to a smaller home. He also spoke at the first Antique&Classic Boatshow in 2016. These crests have an interesting history:

FNS ( French Navy Submarine ) Le REDOUTABLE

In 1976 Cdr Honiball, whilst a student at the Naval War College in Paris, visited the French nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine

LE REDOUTABLE at the naval base in Brest, France. He was presented with a copy of this submarine’s brass crest as was the custom.

Submarine crest Le Redoutable


The Daphne class, diesel-electric submarines were named after Greek mythology goddesses: DAPHNE, DIANE, DORIS, EURYDICE, FLORE, GALATEE, MINERVE, JUNON, VENUS, PSYCHE and SIRENE (Sirene was in service from 1970 - 1996).

Two of those submarines, MINERVE (1968) and EURYDICE (1970), disappeared with all hands in the Mediterranean due to a snorkel design fault that took a while to detect.

The third of the submarines bought by the South African Navy was named SAS JOHANNA VAN DER MERWE (1971 –2003), later renamed ASSEGAAI. The French crew of  La SIRENE under command of Lt Grassal, were responsible for the diving safety trial of this submarine before transfer to the newly-trained, South African crew under command of Lt Cdr Honiball.

At this handover they exchanged submarine crests. This is the original crest that was given to Theo Honiball by Lt Grassal in August 1971.

Submarine crest FNS Sirene

You might also have looked at the date of the second sub going down in the Med and the purchase of the 3 subs by the SA Navy and asked yourself the questions I put to Lt Cdr Honiball:

“Can you tell me why the two snorkel failures were two years apart?

Did they just take that long to identify the problem or that long to devise a solution to it.

And how was SA Navy convinced after the second failure to go ahead with their purchase in pretty much the same year as the disaster?”

His answer:

The cause of the snorkel failures was due to extreme conditions like a “perfect storm”.

When the upper snorkel head-valve failed to shut in severe weather while the submarine was at periscope depth, the submarine lost depth and the water rushed down the snorkel mast to the drain tank at the base of the mast.

There is a secondary mushroom-valve in a dome-tank at the  base of the snorkel mast, that would be released manually by the Control Centre Supervisor (CCS) in the event of an emergency. The rush of water down the snorkel tube was so severe that when it hit the bottom of the tank, it “bounced/washed” back up with such force that it prevented the heavy mushroom valve from shutting – even if the CCS had tried to manually release the mushroom valve.

As the submarine went deeper with the water still rushing down the open Head-Valve, the volume/weight of water inside the boat, prevented the boat from surfacing (by blowing high pressure air into the ballast tanks). With an upward angle of the submarine trying to drive itself to the surface, the water would have rushed to the stern inside the boat and weighed the stern down, and probably also tripped the power to the motors. I can imagine the submarine going down fast, stern first, passing its crushing depth at 600metres, and ending up in pieces on the ocean floor.

Having been warned about this suspected, potential but as yet unproven, problem we carried on with our business. Then the same thing happened to my submarine one day, but fortunately the Engineer Officer and the First Lieutenant were in the control centre and when they immediately realized what was happening, they managed to activate the blow into the ballast tanks sufficiently to get the top of the snorkel mast above sea level, and our submarine surfaced – which obviously stopped the flow of water down the snorkel mast. Then a bit later it happened to another French submarine too, and they also managed to surface the boat in time to avert disaster.

In the few seconds that the water rushed down the snorkel mast in my boat, our bilge pumps took 40 minutes to pump it out, once we had surfaced. That represented 8 tons of water (8000 litres).