NEWSLETTER NO.303 JULY 2000
** Please note that there was a date error on the last newsletter. If any member collects these newsletters, and would like a corrected copy, please contact Paul Kilmartin
The June meeting started with Ken Gillings, our ex Chairman, giving a summary of the Society's highly successful Battlefield Tour, which had taken place over the previous weekend, 3 /4 June 2000. A group of 43 members had driven into Zululand, where under the expert guidance of Ken himself, and with help from his invited speakers Ingrid Machin, Brian Thomas and Paul Kilmartin, they were taken through the rich heritage locations of the Zulu nation and ended with a vivid description on the battlefield of Ulundi. An overnight stay at Umfolozi, with game viewing and a communal Society braai, added to the enjoyment.
The DDH was a most unusual talk on a little known subject. Dave Matthews gave his talk on The Victoria Scarf, which he described as "one of the most unusual awards for bravery ever made". Eight scarves were hand knitted by Queen Victoria and she intended to present them personally to enlisted soldiers from the Colonial forces who had served in the Anglo-Boer War. Sadly the Queen died between the completion of the scarves and the presentations.
The scarves were knitted from khaki coloured Berlin wool with a fringe at each end. They were 6 inches wide and 6 feet long with the Queens monograin VR1 in red cotton lettering on one of the fringes. The first four scarves were presented to men in the ranks, on the recommendation to Lord Roberts by the senior officers from the Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa forces. The South African award went to an American citizen, Trooper Chadwick, who was serving as a volunteer with the SA raised unit Roberts Horse. Due to his nationality, special permission had to be obtained from the Queen, before it was approved.
The second four scarves were presented to noncommissioned men serving in the British Army with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division under the command of Major General Sir Henry Hildyard. Three of the four British recipients were also awarded the DCM during their careers. Due to the unique, and limited nature of the award, many people - including some recipients - made various claims to exaggerate its importance and status. However, Field Marshall Lord Roberts, the C-in C of the British Army had made it clear that at no time was the scarf intended to be an "official" military award and this was confirmed by his use of such words as "distribution" and "selection" together with other comments in his dispatch on the scarves. Dave Matthews then gave career details of the eight holders of the scarves, including the battles in which they fought in the Anglo-Boer War, and their other military and non-military career details, together with the known locations and histories of the remaining scarves. It provided for a fascinating talk on a rare and unusual detail of military history.
Our Vice Chairtnan Bill Brady, who continued his series of talks on important, but controversial battles and/or events of the Second World War, gave the main talk of the evening entitled Norway Fiasco -1940. When the war broke out in 1939, Norway was committed to remaining neutral. Due, however, to its geographical position and its strategic importance to both Britain and Germany, this hope of standing aloof from the war was always unlikely. Norway was of particular importance to Germany war plans. The occupation of the Norwegian coast would provide safe naval bases for their U-Boats and their surtace fleet, allow them to outflank the British naval base at Scapa Flow and to avoid the British naval blockade of German ports. Capture of the air bases would allow the Luftwaffe to launch additional air raids on Britain from the north and so stretch the capacity of Fighter Command. But more important than the strategic advantages, occupation of Norway would safeguard Germany's essential iron ore supplies from Sweden. The first step, however, came from Britain when the British Navy intercepted the German supply ship Altmark in Norwegian territorial waters, in order to free captured British merchant seaman. This was followed by the decision to lay mines off the Norway coast. This violation of Norwegian neutrality in February 1940 gave Hitler the incentive to launch an invasion of Norway. The German plan was high risk, as every available surface ship was to be committed in the face of massive British naval superiority. Despite that gamble, the German amphibious assault was well planned with a high level of co-operation between the German Navy, Army and Air Force. With luck on their side, they achieved total surprise on a grand scale, and landed over 10,000 troops in 5 key locations exactly as planned. In parallel, to support its communications to the south, they completed a successful invasion of Denmark.
Bill, using slides, overheads and video, then concentrated on the events of the Battle of Norway, with specific focus on why the British response to the German preparation and eventual invasion, was so inept. His underlying theme was that Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Adnurilty, was entirely to blame for the "fiasco". He covered the Altmark and mine laying events, how the British Admiralty misinterpreted intelligence reports on mass movements by the German Navy and how politicians - particularly Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister and Churchill - made open parliamentary and press statements that any German move on Norway, would be a strategic blunder for Germany.
The result was that Germany took the initiative. They reached all their designated landing objectives in Norway, including the key airfields, on schedule, and all before the Norwegian forces were mobilised. This forced Britain to be reactive and late. They missed a number of open opportunities to attack German forces at Narvik and Trondheim, and Bill described in graphic detail the total disagreement and then the co-operation breakdown between British naval and army commanders and their forces. Missed opportunities were compounded by poor planning, last minute changes in plans, under trained troops and political interference, particularly by Churchill. The result was chaotic, with troops landing in the wrong place, their supplies landing elsewhere, and troops under prepared for the Norwegian climate. Most important of all, by allowing the Germans to capture all the Norwegian airfields, the British had to fight a naval and amphibious response without air cover.
The result was inevitable. The superior German tactics, and their inter-service co-operation had given them a strong base on which to defend their new positions. The British troops, under trained and under equipped and lacking air support, had to abandon Central Norway and concentrate all their forces in Narvik in the north, in an attempt to block the iron ore exports. At this stage, news reached both forces of the disastrous news (for the allies) from France. The Blitzkrieg was launched on the 10 May 1940 and the allied troops in Norway were needed in France. Narvik and the Norway campaign was suddenly a low priority and to make muatters worse, Chamberlain announced the news in Parliament before the troops in the front line were advised. This resulted in major naval losses, including the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and its escorts with a loss of 1,515 sailors. Bill summed it up with the words: "in such ignominy was the Norwegian campaign lost for Britain against Germany's brilliantly conceived and executed plan". The performance of the British armed forces in Norway proved that they were not ready to fight a modern war against a strong and well-prepared opponent. This point was made most strongly by our speaker, but he ended on a positive note. He said that there was one point of victory coming out of the campaign that would have a huge impact on the eventual outcome of the war. The failed Norwegian campaign led to the collapse of the British Government and the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Mimuster. At the time that the French and British forces were facing defeat in the 1940 fall of France, Winston Churchill was appointed as the British wartime Prime Minister, despite his responsibility - so graphically described by our speaker, for the "fiasco" in Norway.
After a lively question time, in which questions were asked as to why our speaker could hold Churchill to blame for the performance of the army and its commanders, when he was only responsible for the navy (!!), an eloquent vote of thanks was proposed to both speakers by Major Keith Archibald, for two well researched and well presented talks.
The main talk will be entitled: THE AFRIKANERS AT WAR: THEIR RESOURCES, EXPERIENCE AND EMPLOYMENT DURING THE ANGLO-BOER WAR, 1899-190.
Professor Wessels will discuss inter alia, the Afrikaners commando system, the role played by their presidents and officen, the characteristics and tactics of the Afrikaners citizen army, the role played by the Cape rebels, hands-uppers, joiners and women, and the Afrikaners attitude towards, and the employment of blacks and coloureds.
It is not often that we have a Professor of History address the Society, and we are grateful to Andre for making his time available and for making the journey from Bloemfontein to Durban to talk to us.
By way of something very different to start, the DDH will be given by Dr. Gus Allen, who will give a talk on IRISH CAMEO'S. He has selected 4 military events, all with a distinctive Irish flavour.
Our speakers will be a distinguished pairing. STEVE WATT, the author of "In Memoriam", will speak on A STATISTICAL ANALYSIS of the DEATHS of the IMPERIAL SOLDIERS in the ANGLO-BOER WAR and GLENN FLANAGAN, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Route du Prince Imperial, will talk on the life of THE PRINCE IMPERIAL. More information will be given at the 13 July meeting, and in the next newsletter.
As this is a unique meeting for the Society, we hope that all members in the Pietermaritzburg area, and their interested friends, will attend and that as many members as possible will make the journey up the N3 from Durban and its surrounding areas. We are hoping to arrange meeting places in Westville and the Kloof area, so that we can share transport and travel in convoy. Again, more details at the next meeting and in the next newsletter.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 201 3983