South African Military History Society


The American Civil War has secured its place in military history as being the first industrial revolutionary war, meaning that it was the first one where the outcome was decided mainly by a preponderance of economic power and size of urban population enjoyed by one side. But the human element can never be excluded altogether, and the curtain raiser given by Geoff Hardy, a confessed American Civil War enthusiast, at the 14 June society lecture meeting, introduced us to General George H Thomas, of the Union Army, a man whose admirable soldierly qualities made a notable contribution to the Union victory.

General Thomas served the US Army throughout his entire working life, including that part of it taken up by his education and training at West Point. Although a Southerner, he remained loyal to the Union, and achieved enduring fame for the part he played in the Kentucky and Tennessee campaigns between 1862 and 1865.

His three nicknames hold the clue to his character. "Slow Trot Thomas" suggests he was a man who moved with measured caution and acted with great deliberation rather than impetuous speed. "Papa Thomas" pays tribute to his human concern for the lives and wellbeing of the men who served under him. "Rock of Chickamauga" was earned when, during the Chattanooga campaign in September 1863, he rallied the Union Army and prevented its defeat from becoming a rout.

His achievements at Chickamauga enabled the Union troops to force the breakthrough, which led to the spectacular victory at Missionary Ridge in November 1863. In turn, this opened the road to Georgia, and must certainly have shortened the war. At Nashville, Tennessee, in December 1864, Thomas "completed the double". Only twice in the civil war, the first being at Missionary Ridge, was an army turned out of prepared defensive positions. On both occasions it was Thomas who did it.

The slow, careful way in which Thomas approached his actions was not without its critics, however. Before his success at Nashville, his commanding officer, General Ulysses S Grant, had decided to replace him, and his successor was already on the way when his victory was announced.

One of his many critics was instrumental in his death in 1870. After the war Thomas was appointed to head the military department of California at San Francisco. He died of apoplexy when composing his answer to a newspaper article critical of his military decisions.

Few episodes in WW2 have been so thoroughly analysed as the Battle of Britain. In the main lecture of the evening George Barrell, a former chairman of the society and current scribe, sought to put this vital conflict into a new perspective. History records that Britain won that battle. But it was a close-run thing, and if the subsequent night-time bombing of British cities considered along with the daytime raids as part of a larger Battle for Britain, the victory is less obvious.

The failure of fighter aircraft to prevent the bombing of Britain in WW1, first by Zeppelin and then by aircraft, persuaded those concerned with the country's air defenses that the only effective answer was retaliation. This view persisted throughout the inter-war period, and was not seriously shaken even when, around 1935, the development of the high-speed, heavily armed, low-wing monoplane fighter aircraft, with retractable undercarriage, promised to revolutionise interception techniques.

Fighter Command was established in 1936, but its build-up was constantly impeded by the Air Staff's addiction to retaliatory bombing as the primary means of defence. The officer appointed to head the new Fighter Command was the elderly, dour, irascible Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding. Although constantly at odds with the Air Staff, Dowding proved himself open to new ideas and technological innovation. By the time the battle started in July 1940, he had established an efficient, highly centralised defence system using radar to warn of the bombers' approach and modern, high-speed fighters to intercept.

Half of Fighter Command's strength was destroyed in the Battle of France, and this led to a continuing shortage of trained and experienced pilots throughout the subsequent air battle over the Channel and south-east England. Yet "the few" triumphed over the German offensive and frustrated the plans for the invasion of the British mainland.

Dowding's handling of the battle aroused much controversy, but when the daylight bombing petered out towards the end of October 1940, the Churchill Government was able to bask in the propaganda glory of a great victory. But the end of the daylight bombing did not mark the true end of the Battle for Britain. The night-bombing phase of the battle - the Blitz - had already begun on 7 September, before the daylight phase ended, and throughout the following autumn and winter all Britain's cities, particularly London, and many of its smaller centres, were heavily bombed.

In contrast with what had happened in daylight, the defences against this new onslaught were derisory. The RAF did not succeed in developing an efficient night-fighting capability before the Blitz ended with the last massed bomber raid on London on in May 1941. Britain had triumphed over the daylight phase of the Battle of Britain, but failed completely in the subsequent night bombing phase of the Battle for Britain. During that period of agony, it was just the British public against Luftwaffe. Through no fault of its own the RAF was forced to look on virtually helpless. The fast, radar-directed, night fighter did not become effective before the night raids ended.

Your committee has organised a members' and friends' tour to the military history sites of Mpumalanga. Our tour guide will be Marion Moir of Cottonwood Tours. The cost will be R356 per person sharing, R396 single. (This may be slightly less if we get the numbers.) The tour will be self-drive, and sharing transport is encouraged to minimise costs. There is an option to travel from Belfast, with the tour guide, at an extra cost of R85,30. Arrangements will be made to leave cars overnight in secure parking. Dinner, B&B accommodation in Lydenburg is included. Picnic lunches for Saturday and Sunday will be needed. A minimum of 10 people is required to make the tour viable. If we have more than 20 people an alternative date can be arranged for a second tour. For more details and booking information, call Lynn Miller at (011) 442-7540. Final day for booking and payment is July 31st.



12 July
CR Flip Hoorweg - The Last Stand of the White Bread Division
ML Pierre du Toit - Anglo-Boer War Lantern Slide Show - from the Boer Side
16 August/DT>
CR John Murray - Profiles in Courage (Campbell VC and Esmonde VC)


12 July
DDH Brian Thomas - The Last Man to Leave Delville Wood
ML Fiona Barbour - Sergeant Thomas Lane (ex-VC)

Cape Town

12 July
Dr John Austin - Ages of Empire: From Musket to Rifle

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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