South African Military History Society


The curtain raiser at the 16 August society lecture meeting was given by committee member John Murray. It consisted of a tribute to those two heroic VCs of WW2, Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell of RAF Coastal Command, and Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Esmonde RN, of the Fleet Air Arm.

In the winter of 1941 two German battle cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, broke out into the north Atlantic and created havoc among Britain's convoys. In March they retired to Brest, in German-occupied France, for repairs and re-provisioning before returning to the Atlantic and joining, or so it was planned, the battleship Bismarck and its accompanying heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen. It was discovered that both ships required dockyard overhaul, particularly Scharnhorst, whose engines needed extensive repairs. With both ships temporarily immobilised within easy bombing range, the RAF wasted no time in launching high-level attacks. Results were largely disappointing, but one unexploded bomb lodged in the dock occupied by Gneisenau, and the ship had to be moved to the outer harbour where it offered a less-protected target.

Six twin-engine Beaufort aircraft of Coastal Command were detailed to attack at low level in two waves. The first wave of three aircraft carried mines to destroy the anti-torpedo nets, which in fact were not present, while the second wave carried torpedoes. Campbell piloted one of the torpedo-carriers. He was a Scot, who came from Saltcoats in Ayrshire and was educated at Sedburgh School and Clare College, Cambridge. The other aircraft were diverted by bad weather, but Campbell decided to attack alone. According to French resistance sources, and to Enigma decrypts, he released his torpedo at a height of 50 feet and a range of 500 yards. His aircraft was shot to pieces as he attempted to pull away. But it had left a 40-foot hole in Gneisenau, which consigned her to a further five months of inactivity and renewed bombing raids. The Germans buried all four crewmen with full military honours.

When the Gneisenau finally left Brest on the night of 11 February 1942 she was in company with the Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen, the latter having joined the other two in June the previous year after parting from Bismark the month before. What followed was an event known to history as the "Channel Dash". All three warships, supported by numerous escort ships and with heavy air cover, sailed for Germany through the English Channel in broad daylight without meeting any effective opposition. Britain did have a plan to deal with such a contingency, but it was woefully inadequate, and by the time the German ships were located they were already sailing past Boulogne at 30 knots.

The "reaction force" consisted of six Swordfish torpedo bombers led by Lt-Cmdr Esmonde, who had piloted one of the Swordfish torpedo bombers launched from the brand-new carrier Victorious that had attacked the Bismark the previous May. Esmonde was an Irish Catholic, Jesuit educated, who had played with the idea of becoming a missionary, but instead joined the Fleet Air Arm. His tiny force of obsolete Swordfish were stationed at RAF Manston when the call came to intercept the Channel "dashers", and it must have been vividly clear to Esmonde that his was a suicide mission. Although he was within his rights to refuse to go, and would not have been blamed for doing so, he nevertheless took off knowing his chances of success were negligible. All six aircraft were shot down, and of the total 18 crewmen who took part, only five survived. Esmonde was not one of them.

The main lecture of the evening, entitled Japanese Weapons, was given by Nico Othenos, and featured Japan's characteristic swords and early firearms.

The Japanese sword was fully developed by the 10th century AD. Primarily designed for cutting, not for slashing, as was the case in Europe at the time, it must be appreciated for its unique form and shape. These resulted from the way it was forged, hardened and tempered. To acquire its unique cutting qualities it had to be hard in order to retain its keen edge, ridged to prevent bending, and resilient so as not to break. Such qualities cannot normally co-exist in the same object. The answer was to construct a sword with a complex metallurgical structure, followed by the application of a scientifically advanced and highly sophisticated heat-treatment process. This was far in advance of anything then existing in Europe, and for centuries after. For the Japanese, the sword held unique significance, artistically, functionally and spiritually. In the latter half of the 19th century, a sword polisher, Honami Heijuro introduced a new type of polish, which revealed the pattern of the forged and folded steel on the surface of the swords. This development saved many Japanese swords from destruction, and resulted in people all over the world recognising the artistic value and beauty of these remarkable weapons.

The first Europeans to be seen in Japan were Portuguese. They were washed ashore on the small island of Tangashima in 1543. The matchlock firearms they carried aroused much interest and excitement. The mechanism, and the military significance of these weapons, was immediately understood, and the local warlord instructed his swordsmith to make copies. Forging the barrel proved to be a simple metallurgical process for a Japanese swordsmith, and after some initial problems he was able to produce firearms far superior to anything made in Europe at the time. It is said that within six months he had produced 600 firearms, which were then traded. This spread the knowledge of the new weapon throughout the country, and within 15 years an estimated 300 000 firearms had been produced in Japan.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 dramatically changed Japanese society. Traditional culture and technology were neglected in the rush to adopt Western models. This new direction left swordsmiths and related artists in a desperate position.

It is with deep regret that we announce the death of Paul Lange, an Honorary Life Member of the society and a founder member of the Cape Town Branch. He acted in various positions in the branch from chairman to secretary until his forced retirement due to ill health a few years ago. His dedication will be much missed.

A former national chairman of the society, and currently deputy-chairman of the Cape Town branch, is looking for somebody sufficiently informed in Italian aviation matters to be able to advise in the setting up of an Italian display at the SA Air Force Museum in Cape Town. Contact John Mahncke: Tel. (021) 797-5167.



13 September
CR Louis Wildenboer - The Lady Roberts Gun
ML Rod Hooper-Box - The Cape Mounted Rifles
11 October
CR Alan Sinclair - Art at the Military History Museum
ML Bert Woodhouse - Prehistory of Conflict: Weapons in the Rock Art of Southern Africa


13 September
DDH Lt-Col C Channing-Pierce - On the Run in Burma
ML Ganes Pillay - The Indian Mutiny

Cape Town

13 September
John Mahncke - Stalingrad: The Persistent Enigma

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

Contact number in Cape Town: John (Jochen) Mahncke (021) 797-5167

Contact number in Durban: Dr Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983

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