South African Military History Society


Founded 1965
P.O. Box 59227
2100 South Africa
Tel (+27)(11) 648-2087
Fax (+27)(11)648-2085

The curtain raiser at the lecture meeting on 10 May was given by society deputy chairman Colin Dean, whose subject was early submarines, in particular the CSS Hunley, a submersible built and used by the Confederacy in the American Civil War. The Hunley has recently been raised from the seabed outside Charleston harbour, where it sank 137 years ago. The operation is providing answers to some important questions about early submarines and their use in the warfare of the period. Equally, some intriguing new questions are emerging.

The Hunley was a submersible craft, built of iron boiler plating, that carried a crew of eight under a captain, Lt. George Dixon. She was conceived with the aim of lifting the Unionist blockade under which Charleston was suffering at the time, and her first target was the USS Housatonic, one of the blockading warships. She was propelled by means of her crew turning a crank connected directly to the propeller. Her weapon was a "Singer ramming torpedo", which contained a 100lb explosive charge strapped to a 10m spar projecting out from the bows. The whole concept was so revolutionary that to General Beauregard, who commanded Charleston's defences, the Hunley seemed more dangerous to the Confederates than it was to the enemy.

Yet surprisingly it worked. The Housatonic was attacked successfully and sank in three minutes. But the Hunley did not return to her base and was declared lost with all hands.

Exactly what happened in those three miles the Hunley had to cover to reach home is still largely speculation, although it is hoped the current investigations will solve that mystery. The numerous searches for the Hunley that were launched in the many years after she vanished, proved futile, probably because the wreck had been completely covered by sand and mud within 30 years of the sinking. Only in 1995 was the wreck clearly identified when, it is assumed, it had been uncovered by a fortuitous shifting of currents.

It has taken five years, and the application of considerable money and technological expertise, to raise the wreck from it grave on the seabed and install it in a specially built laboratory at the Charleston Naval Base. The secrets of this early submarine are now being methodically uncovered. One discovery is that the structure was considerably more complicated than expected. Another is that the hull was about 20 per cent smaller than depicted in a recent film that featured the Hunley, probably because the average human being has increased so much in size since the 1860s.

It is expected that as soon as the human remains have been identified, they will be interred with military honours. Meanwhile work goes on to learn all about what is now accepted as being one of the world's greatest unopened time capsules.

Society chairman Hamish Paterson substituted at the last minute for the scheduled speaker, Rod Hooper-Box, of the Arms and Ammunition Society, who was absent abroad. The title of his main lecture was Mortimer's Cross to Towton, the subject being the massive defeat of the Lancastrian forces in the Wars of the Roses which brought Edward, Earl of March and son of the Duke of York, to the throne of England in 1461. This was the second of Hamish's talks on the Wars of the Roses, the first being in January this year.

The Wars of the Roses had their roots in the deposition of Richard II by his cousin Henry, son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who took the crown as Henry IV in 1399 to the exclusion of the heir, through marriage, of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March. During the reign of Henry IV and his son, the warrior king Henry V, the Yorkists remained quiescent. Henry V died young, leaving the throne to his minor son, Henry VI, who had none of the assertiveness that characterised his two predecessors, and whose sanity was at times in question.
The empire Henry VI inherited from his father began to melt away, and the increasingly unsatisfactory state of the reign revived the Yorkists' pretensions.

In 1425, Richard, Duke of York married the Mortimer heiress, and thus inherited the Mortimer claim to the throne. The struggle for domination that ensued led up to the Yorkist victory at First Battle of St Albans in 1455. Then followed the attempt by Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou, to eliminate the Yorkists by Act of Attainder in 1459. The Yorkists struck back and won the Battle of Northampton in the following year. The parliament that followed proclaimed the Duke of York heir to the throne. The duke then sent his son Edward, Earl of March, to eliminate the Lancastrian forces in Wales while he went north to deal with Margaret of Anjou. The duke's army was defeated at the Battle of Wakefield, and his head, complete with paper crown, ended up on a spike on the Mickelgate Bar Gate at York.

Edward was in Gloucester when he learned of the death of his father. His plan to go straight to London to claim the crown was, however, delayed by news that a Lancastrian army had moved from central Wales over the English border to Mortimer's Cross, near Hereford. It was led by Owen Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the Welsh magnate who had married HenryV's widow, Catherine of France, and whose grandson would become Henry VII.

At the head of an army of 11 000 men Edward engaged this Lancastrian force and dispersed it. Meanwhile the victors of Wakefield were marching south to London. They took St Albans and destroyed the Yorkist left at Barnards Heath. The two main armies finally met at the Battle of Towton on 29 March 1461. The Yorkists, lead with great energy and panache by Edward annihilated the Lancastrian army of about 29 000 men, killing 20 000 of them for the loss of only 8 000 of their own. The battle was fought in severe weather with high winds that ensured the Lancastrian arrows fell short, while the freezing night that followed explained why so many of the wounded did not survive.



14 June
CR Geoff Hardy - General George H Thomas
ML George Barrell - The Battle of Britain - An Alternative View
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


14 June
DDH Bill Brady - USS Harry S Truman
ML Philip Everitt - Sidi Rezegh - The Full Story

Cape Town

14 June
Johan van den Berg - Railway Guns

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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