South African Military History Society

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The March meeting started off in a slightly "shambolic" manner because of a recent upgrade of the light and sound facilities of the Museum's lecture theatre. Eight o'clock arrived with the trusty computer boffin Colin Dean, Hamish Paterson and both speakers desperately trying to come to grips with the apparent incompatibility of the system with all computer programmes known to mankind.

The chairman, Bob Smith, who was the curtain raising speaker, had felt that it would be unprofessional to run the meeting as well as appear as a speaker and had stood aside for the evening. Vice Chairman Ivor Little was thus faced with opening the meeting, notwithstanding the state of unreadiness and the high nervous tension of the two speakers, who could see their carefully prepared Power Point presentations getting lost in the world of cyberspace! Ivor commenced by welcoming all present and giving out the usual notices. Members were reminded of the forthcoming Swartkop Gun Challenge in Ladysmith over the period of 10/11 April. They were also invited to think about participating in the Fugitive's Trail Run, organised by Honeyguides of Zululand and set to take place on 21 August. There will also be a branch visit to "The View", the headquarters of the Transvaal Scottish Regiment. A guided tour will be led by Captain Peter Digby of the Regiment and will include a lunch in the Officer's Mess. The tour will take place on Saturday, 10 April and will cost R70 per head, lunch included. For further details contact Bob Smith via the Secretary's e-mail.

These announcements done, and with an increasing air of desperation around the computer system, Ivor then asked all present to complete the voting forms issued to them to enable the committee to decide on the best curtain-raiser and best main lecture of 2009. One or two members objected that they felt that they needed more time to consider this and a few more pointed out that they had no pens! The objections were waived when it was pointed out that the results need to be announced at next month's Annual General Meeting. The ballot papers were duly completed and returned.

With signs of new-found optimism from the computer brigade, Ivor then decided to give them a bit more time by doing the raffle draw for the set of World War II DVDs, made available by member Jan-Willem Hoorweg. This led to more semi-confusion as a number of members had decided that either they had not bought a ticket or else had not handed in the ticket for the draw. With the situation rapidly becoming farcical, if not downright comical, Ivor then called upon the Chairman's wife, Joyce Smith, to draw the lucky number - 43 - and the prize was promptly claimed. Almost simultaneously the lecture screen lit up, order was restored and Ivor was able to introduce the first speaker, Chairman Bob Smith, who had chosen to speak on "The Perils of Pearl Harbour".

Bob is a keen photographer and his interest had been piqued by a series of photos of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour, supposedly taken with a Kodak box brownie camera. Whether or not this was indeed true was irrelevant as Bob used them, together with other innovative lecture aids, as a basis for his excellently illustrated talk on Pearl Harbour.

Starting with the causes of the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941, Bob led us through the events leading up to it and the lackadaisical approach to the security of the base on the part of the US authorities. We were shown graphic views of the base's vulnerability and Japanese preparations leading to the attack itself. The attack was described and then Bob ended with the effect of the raid on the US and the devastating consequences of this action for Japan.

Following a short question period, Ivor then introduced the main speaker for the evening. By this stage the computer problems had been overcome and, except for one or two irritating blackouts and an absence of the sound system, the evening then continued normally, much to the speaker's relief.

This was Robin Smith, a Natal member who has addressed us before and whose topic was Pickett's Charge. Thus we had a themed evening of two Smiths talking on battles of the USA and, to mark the occasion, there was a prominent miniature US flag on the lectern.

Robin had the difficult task of condensing a three-day battle, the Battle of Gettysburg, into a 40-minute talk and did this extremely well, with the emphasis on one of the most famous actions of the US Civil War. However, he did have the advantage of being a keen battlefield "walker" and, using his own personal recollections and photographs backed up by historical illustrations, gave us an excellent description of events.

In July 1863 the Confederate forces, under Robert E Lee, were driving into Federal territory when they encountered a large Federal Army under the leadership of a newly appointed George G Meade. Lee's objective was to gain a major victory on Federal soil and to do this he decided to employ the same tactics as he had previously employed successfully at Chancelorville. This was to carry out probing attacks on the enemy's flanks and then a frontal assault on the centre, preceded by a heavy artillery barrage. Robin showed us the dispositions of the various elements of both armies as well as drawings made at the time of both generals planning their strategies with their subordinate. Meade and his staff anticipated Lee's moves and disposed themselves accordingly. On the afternoon of 3 July 1863 the Confederate cannonade commenced. It took devastating effect on the opposing Federal artillery but left the infantry relatively unscathed. Not knowing this, Lee ordered his centre forward when his barrage began to falter because of lack of ammunition. Among the troops so ordered was the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of James Longstreet who, although he felt the advance could not succeed, put the order into motion.

One division, led by Major General George E Pickett, gained immortality as one of the most famous single actions in US military history. Advancing over a lengthy piece of open ground in the face of shot and shell from the Federal infantry ensconced behind a stone farm wall, elements of Pickett's division got to within 10 paces of the wall and one unit, led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, actually got over the wall but was decimated in a counter attack. Eventually, the Confederate troops could take no more and some started surrendering, while others made an ordered retreat. Using maps, Robin showed the progress of this advance, or charge, whose failure let to Lee's retreat back into the Confederacy and marked the high watermark of the Confederacy. Thereafter, their cause was basically lost.

Concluding his talk, Robin showed the Gettysburg Battlefield as it is today and the various monuments erected to the memory of the 23 049 Federal troops and 28 063 Confederates killed, wounded and missing during the battle. 17 000 of those were incurred on the day of Pickett's charge.

A short question time followed at the conclusion of Robin's talk, after which Ivor called upon Committee member Hamish Paterson to thank both speakers. This was most ably done and Ivor then closed the meeting by inviting all present to refreshments in the hall.

Ivor Little,

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This serves as a reminder that the forty-fourth AGM of the Society will take place in the J.C. LemmerAuditorium at the SA National Museum of Military History at 20h00 on Thursday 8th April 2010.