HMS Sybille - Boer War Naval Action

A hundred years ago, a storm on the South African Cape west coast resulted in the death of a sailor and the total destruction of a ship of war. That storm on 15 January, so typical of that region, achieved notoriety as the cause of the only shipping loss experienced by the Royal Navy as a result of the Boer War.

At the turn of the nineteenth century the Boer forces were on the rampage. The situation for the British was so disastrous that it seemed that the previous year of war, death and high expenditure had been for nothing. The Cape was again being invaded, with the added very real threat of rebellion that, if it had occurred would certainly have turned the tide of the war. On all fronts the Boer Generals were successfully gaining ground over the British. In the Cape, General Kritzinger had pushed further south than any other commando had been and General Hertzog had moved west of De Aar.

Hertzog had been informed that a ship was on its way from Europe with arms, ammunition and mercenaries. His westward march had placed him in an ideal position to meet up with the ship at Lambert’s Bay. On arrival in the area, the General sent a party to the dunes to scan for the promised ship. A ship was seen at anchor, but she flew the white ensign of the enemy.

The Royal Navy

During the war the Royal Navy not only supplied brigades that served ashore, but its main role was the maintenance of patrols off the South African coast as far north as Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa. In this way the British attempted to limit the re-supply of the Boer combatants through ports close to their strongholds. Although the ships could not blockade neutral ports, least of all one of Britain’s oldest allies, they could stop ships while still on the high seas and search them for war goods. If such supplies were found then the ship was forced to sail to a British held port and the cargo confiscated.

A more direct contact with the enemy came about through the employment of guard ships along the coast from the Limpopo around to German South West Africa. It was not uncommon for these ships to put ashore small parties of naval troops to protect coastal towns that were under threat from the Boer forces. The ships that were recorded taking part in such actions were the H.M. Ships Sybille, Terpsichore, Widgeon, Naiad and Niobe. Naiad landed a force to protect Vredenberg in November 1901, while Niobe’s forces were put ashore at Walvis Bay as it was incorrectly thought that the town was soon to be attacked by the Boers.

HMS Sybille, however achieved greater ill fame as the only ship of the Royal Navy that was lost during the Boer war. She was an ‘Apollo’ class medium cruiser of 3400 tons, powered by a pair of three cylinder triple expansion engines. Built in 1890 by Robert Stephenson & Co. of Hebburn on Tyne, she was armed with two 6 inch, six 4.7 inch and eight 6 pounder guns.

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The Loss

On the evening of 15 January 1901, she arrived off the coast at Lambert’s Bay. The task was to land a naval brigade that would hold off a thrust towards the coast by Hertzogs commando. If this could be achieved then the danger of war reaching Cape Town could be averted. It was as she drew close to the shore that it is reported that fire was exchanged between the ship and Hetrzog’s men, however this was neither recorded in the ship’s log nor in the Admiralty records.

In any event a party of fifty sailors under the vessel’s Captain, Hugh Williams, landed to protect the small port’s anchorage and stores. The First Lieutenant, Hubert Holland, took command of the ship and soon found that the worsening weather forced him to weigh anchor and put to sea. In the morning the weather was somewhat calmer and the Lieutenant made toward land to pick up the shore party. Lights ashore must have confused him, as he did not realise that during the night HMS Sybille had drifted six miles south of the original landing point. The ship was driven onto a rock 300 metres from shore at Sterkbokfontein and became a total loss. Only one crew member, Able Seaman William Jones was killed in the collision, while eventually the rest of the crew arrived in Simon’ s Town.

The aftermath

At his subsequent court martial, the First Lieutenant, the navigating officer and the officer of the watch, Sub-Lieutenant Street, were dismissed from the ship and severely reprimanded. In addition Holland lost two years of his seniority for his negligence. Sub-Lieutenant Street resigned his commission in 1906 but served in the Royal Navy again in both World Wars and retired as a Commander.

Hertzog’s men were driven back eastward, by a new corps of irregulars, Kitcheners Fighting Scouts. Led by the famous hunter Johannes Collenbrander they were successful in pushing the Boers inland to Carnavon, west of De Aar. This action in conjunction with other concerted efforts by the British signalled the beginning of the end of Boer supremacy.

General James Barry Munnik Hertzog, born in 1866, became one of the most audacious generals in the Boer War. A lawyer by profession, he carried out daring raids in the Orange Free State and the Cape Province against the British forces. He established the National Party and became Prime Minister in 1924. This post he held for fifteen years until defeated in parliament when he refused to declare war on Germany in 1939. He retired to his farm where he died in 1942.


The wreck, accessible from the shore or by boat, is situated 200kms north west of Cape Town and 8 kilometres south of Lambert's Bay at Steenbokfontein. It is approximately 150 to 200 metres off from farm buildings, at a depth between 6 and 10 metres in position 32o 10.10S, 18 o 18.60E. Although there were the usual rumours of gold on board, none has ever been reported found. The guns were salvaged at the time and at least one propeller and various other artefacts have been recovered in more recent years.

At the Sandveld Museum on Kerkstraat Lamberts Bay there is on display from the Sybille, a wine cask, telescope, port hole, navigation instrument, canon bullets and shells. Contact Margaret van Zyl on (027)432-1000 who will be able to give you details of the opening times and nominal entrance fee. Close by is the old cemetery in which Able Seaman Williams is buried. In the Sybille Room at the Plaaskombuis, Steenboksfontein, further artefacts and photographs can be seen.

For another view of this incident and for a drawing of the vessel on the rocks, please visit