NEWSLETTER NO. 313
Our DDH talk covered "The Last Flight of Junkers 88A 9K+GN" and was given by fellow-member, Pat Budd. This was the story of the destruction of a German bomber that was targeting a small aircraft factory near Gloucester at the start of the Battle of Britain. If this "nuisance" raid had succeeded, it could have had dire consequences for Britain. It occurred on the 25th July 1940 and took the form of a sneak daylight bombing attack that formed part of the Luftwaffe's strategy of probing the British anti-aircraft defences prior to an all out bombing blitzkrieg as a forerunner to a German invasion.
The bomber was a Junkers Ju88 and its base was Orly airfield, near Paris in German occupied France. It crossed the British coastline at the Isle of Wight at about 6000m (18,500ft) in broad daylight and in an almost cloudless sky. It flew over a number of operational airfields in southwestern England undetected and almost reached its target. It was finally spotted by an aircraft maintenance unit and ferry-pilot pool base at a non-operational airfield.
At this point the action gets confused, as there were several radically different accounts of what happened. In the first version, two Hurricanes scrambled and tried to intercept, but encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire from their own ground forces. Meanwhile the Ju88 had spotted the attacking fighters, jettisoned its bombs and sought refuge in cloud. One of the Hurricanes followed it into the cloud and managed to press home an attack, but pealed off and went into a spin almost immediately. While it was in the cloud, the Ju88 received a heavy jolt, which the crew thought was due to ramming. Meanwhile the other Hurricane saw the Ju88 as it emerged from the cloud and opened fire at it, hitting one of the engines. Whether it was rammed, damaged by the Hurricane's guns or hit by A/A is not known, but the Ju88 caught fire and the crew parachuted to safety.
However, shortly thereafter, the pilot of the remaining Hurricane saw some 'Spitfires' approaching the stricken Ju88. The second version states that as the Ju88 emerged from the cloud, one of the 'Spitfires' attacked. The Ju88 started to disintegrate, the crew baled out as it caught fire and parachuted to safety. Our speaker felt that it was all a problem of aircraft recognition, which at that stage was a neglected science. It would appear that the 'Spitfires' were actually; a Hurricane and a Miles Magister from an OCTU.
None of the pilots was credited with the 'kill' and none was eligible to wear the Battle of Britain bar to their 1939/45 Star medals as none of the participating squadrons was accredited operationally. However, what was even more intriguing was the fact that the target was to have been a small aircraft factory which not only produced Hurricane fighters, but was also the facility being used for the design and construction of the Gloster E28/39 - the first experimental jet-propelled aircraft to have been produced in Britain!
Our main talk for the evening was given by our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin and he spoke on "Gas - the Second Battle of Ypres" and was the fifth in his series on Battles of WWI. As before, he started off by giving us a brief overview of the causes of that War and stressed the fact that it was always going to be France against Germany as the main protagonists. Both sides had believed that it would all be over by Christmas 1914, but their battle plans had foundered. Count von Schlieffen's brilliant plan drawn up in 1895 had failed to reach its objectives, due to the tinkering of the details by his successors and, ironically, the French aspirations for the same reasons.
Our speaker then summarised the three previous battles, including the Battle of the Marne - which stopped the main German advance, and the First Battle of Ypres that held the final German attempt to break through in 1914, with heavy losses for both sides. None of the main contenders had made any contingency plans and a stalemate had been reached with extensive defensive trench lines that stretched from the Swiss border in the south to the North Sea. In addition, because of the great losses incurred and becanse of the lack of foresight, there were now crippling shortages of both men and materials, particularly artillery shells. A major shift in strategy was indicated.
Our speaker then went on to describe what technological advances had been made since the turn of the century and how this had affected the whole face of warfare. There were now aeroplanes capable of aerial surveillance and bombardment of civilian targets remote from the battlefronts. There were submarines that could sink the most heavily armed battleships with impunity and cut vital supply lines. There was wireless telegraphy and finally there was chemical warfare in the form of poison gas, even though its use had been banned by the Hague Convention. It was this latter weapon and its introduction that formed the basis of this talk on the Second Battle of Ypres.
From the start of 1915 both the British and German strategies had changed, but the French policy remained constant. They wanted the Germans off French territory as soon as possible. The Artois offensive was the corner stone of their plan, but they needed the British who were holding the Ypres Salient and the area to the south, to line up with them in a joint effort to capture Vimy and Aubers Ridges. The British, although initially supporting the plan, were forced to change plans when their government decided to open another front (at Gallipoli) that they thought would split the German forces
and thereby enable the allies to break the stalemate of defensive trench lines on the German Western Front. As far as the Germans were concerned, their priorities had also changed. They now wanted to finish off the Russians on their Eastern Front first, and then concentrate all their forces against the West.
To do that they planned to withdraw forces from the Western Front and so dilute some of their armies, particularly in the British sector. The British held back their reinforcements so that they could use them at Gallipoli, but Field Marshal French having promised support to the French had no option but to go on. The British attacked and recovered some 1,000 yards of the territory at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in early March 1915, but once again at a very high price. A month later, the German Army withdrew some of their crack regiments opposing the British, for use on the Eastern Front, but launched a diversionary attack on the British and French lines at Ypres to camouflage their troop movements. Also it offered an ideal opportunity for them to try out the use of poison gas.
It was at this stage that a major intelligence blunder occurred. British MI had received several reports on the German's proposed use of gas on the 16th April, but their generals had discounted them as improbable and no counter-measures were takcn. The initial attack was to have taken place on that date, but due to unfavourable winds did not start until six days later. At 17h00 on the 22nd, a bluish-green cloud was seen to be wafting from the German trenches towards the French lines. The French and Algerian regiments
were the first to be affected and, after seeing their comrades double-up coughing and choking to death, they panicked and fled. The road to Ypres was left wide open for the Germans, but the Canadians who had come in as reinforcements were lucky in being able to nullify the effects of the gas and held the line.
A Canadian medical officer, who happened to be a chemist, realized what the gas was and told his men how to neutralize its effects. That night, Gen. Smith-Dorrien who was in command of that sector was ordered to counter-attack and next morning, although he had no artillery support, he complied, but his forces were virtually wiped out. St Julien then became exposed to capture. Somehow they managed to hold the line, but the Germans then opened up from three sides with the heaviest artillery bombardment in history. They also used gas in another attack on the apex of the Canadian position in an attempt to drive them out of the salient. The Canadians held on, but at a terrible cost and eventually had to be withdrawn.
Meanwhile on the same day, namely the 25th April, Smith-Dorrien decided to counter-attack to retake St Julien, but such was the chaos behind the lines that he could only bring 5 battalions out of a possible 15 into position almost two hours later than scheduled. However, over 2000 men were lost to German artillery, before they even reached the starting line. At the same time, the British were having problems in locating their already limited artillery. Because of the risk of capture, they had to be emplaced on the west side of the canal where they could not support the infantry. It was at this stage that the decision was taken to fall back and form a new line known as the GHQ line, which was to be the last line of defence before Ypres. On the 4th May, there vvas a pause that signalled the end of the first phase of the battle. It was just prior to this that one of the worst political blunders in military history occurred. Field-Marshal French fired his field commander, Gen. Smith-Dorrien in the middle of a critical battle because he had written a letter to him stating that unless the French army was prepared to assist, they could not hold on to their current position due to a serious shortage of shells, and that they should fall back to the GHQ line. There had been a long-standing feud between the two mnen and French took advantage of the situation to pay back a previous contretemps when Smith-Dorrien had said that the cavalry was obsolete and should be trained as mounted infantry. Gen. Plumer was appointed in his stead, but three days later, French was forced to do exactly what Smith-Dorrien had suggested.
There were two more German attempts to break through to Ypres. The first started on 8th May with a heavy artillery barrage that was supposed to annihilate all opposition, but as the German infantry moved in, they were faced with fierce resistance from the British and were mowed down with machine-gun fire as they tried to cross No-man's-land. On the 9th May, the same thing happened again, and the Germans were still not able to break through. Then on May 11th, they made their final attempt in that sector, but
this time, using gas. Unfortunately for the Germans the wind changed and it all blew back into their faces.
The Germans had succeeded in reducing the salient and had forced the allied line to retire, but they had sustained heavy losses. They were denied the capture of Ypres and tried no more advances on that section of the line. An utneasy peace prevailed for 10 days before the Germans tried one last attack on Ballewaarde Ridge. It took the form of a mammoth gas attack nearly 4½ miles wide and, although there was a minor artillery bombardment - the Germans had also used up all their shells - the British only gave up a limited amount of ground. Field Marshal French stopped the battle further south, at Aubers Ridge, due to lack of shells and blamed Lord Kitchener who was War Minister in the British Cabinet for the debacle. "Second Ypres" had simply petered out for want of ammunition and manpower on both sides.
Significantly, our speaker finished off his talk with the reading of Lt Col. John McCrae's poignant poem, "In Flanders Fields", which he felt was the only good thing to come out of this terrible conflict in which over 60,000 British and nearly 35.000 Germans had perished.
After our usual probing question time, fellow-member Brian Norris thanked all our speakers for a most interesting, varied and informative evening.
AGM: During the course of the evening our Chairman confirmed that in the absence of any additional nominations for our Committee, the existing Committee had indicated that they were prepared to continue serving our Branch and were elected unanimously en bloc. Our Chairman took the opportunity of thanking the previous Committee for all the hard work they had done in the interests of the Branch over the past year.
THE SOCIETY'S NEXT MEETING:
THURSDAY 14 JUNE 2001
PLEASE NOTE : Due to an important business meeting at the University, Professor Philip Everitt will not be able to attend our June meeting when he was due to present the main talk. As you will read below we have secured an excellent replacement.
The main talk at the June meeting will now be given by Lt.Colonel RAY LOTTER, who has kindly agreed, at very short notice to give us a talk on THE BATTLE OF DELVILLE WOOD: JULY 1916.
Delville Wood, which was part of the overall Battle of the Somme, was the bloodiest battle ever fought by South African forces. They faced frequent infantry attacks, some of the heaviest artillery barrages of the war and finally hand-to-hand fighting. At one stage their lines were overrun, but despite all they had suffered the 1st South African Infantry Brigade forced the enemy back and eventually held their corner of the wood "at all costs". Sir Basil Liddell Hart, the famous military historian described the battle as "the bloodiest battle hell of 1916". Ray Lotter is a new member of the Society and we are extremely grateful that he has agreed to travel to Durban from Uvongo to give his talk.
Major John Buchan will give the DDH, and his talk will be LOUIS RENAULT and his MILITARY INVOLVEMENT. This will cover RENAULT's background as an industrialist and his involvement, amongst other things, with bringing new technology to the 1st World War.
The evening will start with BEWARE ALL WHO WENT TO MAJUBA! The Society's resident photographer will present his usual review of the unusual, as seen through his camera lens during the Battlefield Tour 2001. Not to be missed !!
To any members who have not yet paid their subs for 2001, this is a gentle reminder to do so as they are now WELL overdue !!. Rates are R 90.00- single, R 99.00- family.
BATTLEFIELDS TOUR 2001: Due to the untimely rain experienced during our February Battlefield's Tour to Majuba, it had been decided to make a second visit to the area and complete the original programme as far as climbing up Majuba to the scene of the action. This had been provisionally booked for some time in July, and at the next meeting we have to finalise the details of the visit and the names of all those who will be interested in joining "another of Ken Gillings' famous climbs".
FUTURE SOCIETY DATES : July to September 2001
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 201 3983