South African Military History Society

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NEWSLETTER - FEBRUARY 2010 The first meeting of the year was opened by Chairman Bob Smith, after he had delayed the start for a few minutes to allow the large audience present to take their seats. Bob commenced with the opening notices and gave notice of the forthcoming Anglo-Boer War Conference in Ladysmith, and drew the attention of all present to the relevant display in the tea room. He would be laying two wreaths on behalf of the Society at Spioen Kop on Sunday, 24 January. Members interested in touring the battlefields of Angola between 16 May and 8 June are to contact the Secretary. With these notices delivered, Bob then introduced the "curtain raiser" speaker. This was the well-known gun collector and weapons expert, Terry Willson, who has addressed the Society on previous occasions. The subject of Terry's talk was "The Boer, his Mauser and the First World War". Using the actual weapons to illustrate his talk, Terry covered the influence on British military rifle design and marksmanship resulting from their experiences against the Boer and his Mauser during the Boer War, 1899-1902. This presentation, covering short-term changes, musketry practice and long-term planning, commenced with a comparison of the Boer Mauser's strong points against the corresponding shortcomings of the contemporary Long Lee Enfield, as used by the British at that time. The average Boer's superiority over the British Tommy as a marksman and its causes was also considered. Terry continued by outlining the apparently "stop-gap" changes which the British introduced into the original Lee Enfield design, as inspired by their experience of the Boer Mauser. This resulted in the superb Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle with which the Expeditionary Force was armed in late 1914, when it faced the German armies at Mons, Ypres and other battles in the early days of the First World War, thus stabilising the Allied line and almost certainly preventing a catastrophic breakthrough. This "stop-gap" rifle, with relatively minor modifications, was to remain in service for the duration of the war and for almost 40 years thereafter. Attention was also drawn to the corresponding improvement in British musketry training, practice and marksmanship in the years leading up to WWI. The presentation finally covered the so-called "long-term plan" in which the British, highly impressed with the performance of the Boer Mauser, developed their own version, closely based upon it, the Pattern '13. When hostilities commenced, the design of this rifle was used to produce the highly successful Pattern '14 which armed second line and training units, thus releasing Short Magazine Lee Enfields for front line service. It also became a popular sniping rifle. Because of a serious arms shortage, the design was also adopted by the United States of America when it entered the war in 1917, as the Model '17. This rifle armed two third of its soldiers, and the timely entry of the United Stated into the war ensured an Allied victory. Terry concluded by pointing out that, although it is certainly not possible to claim that the changes and development brought about by British exposure to the Boers and their Mauser actually won the First World War, their most signification contribution at all stages must be acknowledged. Following on to a most interesting round of question, Bob then introduced the next speaker. This was Alan Mantle, who is also very well known to our members. His subject was "Leonardo's Inventions for War", which Alan illustrated by means of a collection of top-class power point slides. Alan commenced by giving a brief summary of Leonardo da Vinci's artistic and other achievements which have made his name remembered through the ages. This was followed by an overview of the geographical and political points of Italy in Leonardo's time as well as landmarks in his career. Born in April 1452 in Vinci in Tuscany, Leonardo spent his early years in Florence and completed some memorable paintings, and in 1481 applied for the job as military engineer with the Duke of Milan, although he was a pacifist by nature. He obtained the post, moved to Milan and began a prodigious output of military designs. He remained in Milan until 1499 when the French invaded that city and during this period carried out some advanced military projects, while at the same time gaining fame as an artist, sculptor, architect and engineer. Fleeing to Venice, he became, of all things, a naval architect, coming up with a multitude of advanced ideas for the Venetian Republic. These included a fast ram; a submarine; the first double-bottoms; underwater breathing apparatus and an air supply for divers. In 1401, Leonardo signed up with Caesare Borgia at Urbino, where he applied his mind to advanced ideas in fortification, many of which became standard practice in later years. He was a great believer in the modern theory of the "force multiplier" and many of his inventions reflect this. Many of his ideas could not be implemented at the time because of the lack of the technical resources required, but have modern day descendents in the tank; machine gun; gun carriage and Bailey bridge. In 1503, Leonardo left Urbino and for the next twelve years lived in Florence, Rome and Milan. During this period he became famous as an artist and for his studies, through art, of anatomy and geometry. He was also fascinated by the idea of flight and, after a few abortive attempts at a flapping wing structure, became interested in gliding. From this he developed the concept of ailerons as part of a wing structure. As in his other ideas regarding the forerunners of the modern destroyer; submarine; tank; machine gun and portable bridge, Leonardo was stymied by primitive technology but during this "flying" phase, he also came up with the concept of modern wing design; the airscrew and propeller; the helicopter rotor and others. In 1516 he was "head-hunted" by François I of France and died at Cloux near Amboise in May 1519. Interestingly enough, his designs for dykes to prevent flooding were actually implemented as recently as 60 years ago! A vast quantity of da Vinci's notes and manuscripts are still available at museums and libraries in France, Turin, London, Madrid and Seattle. After a wide-ranging question period in which, surprisingly, most of the questions asked came from ladies in the audience, Alan was thanked by Committee member David Scholtz for his most interesting talk. Bob then closed the first meeting of the year. Ivor Little, Scribe. Forty-eight members braved a torrential Highveld rainstorm to be present when the Chairman, Bob Smith, opened last month's meeting. This he commenced to do by reporting back on the recent successful visit to Nooitgedacht battlefield by a group of fourteen members. He also reminded those present of the forthcoming Anglo-Boer War Conference in Ladysmith. This conference will be attended by lecturers and delegates from all over the world and members interested in joining them should contact Bob Smith at 011-760-1660. (Details are also on the web-site under Tours and Events)

Bob then introduced the curtain-raiser speaker, Mr Ian Thurston. Ian was born in Norwich in England and educated in great Yarmouth and at HMS Worcester, before going to sea in the Shaw, Saville Line as an officer. He subsequently left the sea and, after a spell in the livestock and poultry industries, emigrated to South Africa as a factory manager. In 2002 he established his own sewing machine repair business, which he still runs. He has a keen interest in maritime and military history and the subject on which he was going to speak was "Escape from France: 1940".

Illustrating his talk with computerised slides, Ian then gave a humorous and interesting account of the first few months of the Second World War, as experienced by his father, Alfred John Thurston. Starting with his call-up in 1939, Ian then led us through the "phoney war" and then the sudden German "blitzkrieg" in May 1940. Corporal Alfred Thurston of the Royal Norfolk Regiment was part of the general Allied retreat in France, and by 3 June 1940 had, as part of the 51st Highland Division, fallen back to Abbeville. In the meantime the evacuation of Dunkirk had been completed and the Division now found itself alone in France.

On the night of 10 June, the Division retreated through a burning Dieppe and formed a new defensive line near Veules les Roses, about 12 miles west of Dieppe. After a series of German attacks, it became obvious the situation was hopeless and, on the evening of 11 June, Alfred's company commander, a Captain Colley, gave the order to disband with "every man for himself". Determined not to be captured, Alfred walked through the village towards the sea. There he found a roofless hut and Captain Colley, and the two of them spent the night in pelting rain in this makeshift shelter.

The next morning the weather cleared and, wishing Colley luck, Alfred set off along the beach, where he found the French ship Cerons aground on the beach at low tide and taking on refugees. Alfred joined a group of several hundred men on the beach trying to board the ship, which he achieved after wading out to it. He was placed down below as the ship waited for high tide to refloat. Unfortunately, the Germans arrived before that and commenced shelling the ship. Two shells penetrated the area in which Alfred was sheltering but he emerged unscathed as the only person from that area to survive to abandon ship. The survivors were being machine-gunned as they swam towards the shore so, seeing a small boat drifting far out to sea, Alfred grabbed a lifebuoy, jumped overboard on the seaward side and swam towards it.

Arriving at the boat in an exhausted and bleeding condition, he found himself being pulled aboard by it's occupants, 5 British soldiers and a French sailor, and told to lie down in the boat and pretend to be dead. The boat ultimately drifted ashore on a deserted stretch of coast. Seeing no sign of the enemy, they then pushed off and set out to row to England. Only two could row, one of them being Alfred, but after several hours they met up with a ship's lifeboat with two men, six oars, a compass and flares.

Now there were nine of them. Two were too sick to row, which left six on the oars and one on the tiller. Blessed by calm and sunny weather, they rowed all day, all night and through the following day. Overwhelmed by sheer exhaustion, they then let the boat drift.

On 14 June, they were overflown by unidentified aircraft and "played dead" but later that afternoon attracted the attention of the British ship Petworth. They were 10 miles from the English coast, having rowed and drifted almost 90 miles. They were taken aboard, fed and landed at Ramsgate. A lengthy period of interrogation at various British bases then ensued, before they were finally released on 28 days' sick leave. Alfred was one of only 31 men to return to Norwich out of the approximately one thousand who set out for France a few months previously. He spent the rest of the war as an instructor at Regimental Headquarters.

Ian was thanked by Bob Smith for a most interesting talk and then introduced our next speaker, our well-known committee member, John Parkinson, whose special sphere of interest is naval history. The title of his talk was "HIJMS WAKAMIYA and HOSHO: Early Imperial Japanese Navy Air Power".

Using electronic slides and maps, John started with a picture of the British tramp steamer Lethington Built for a Belfast ship owner by the name of W R Rea, she was a typical three-island tramp steamer of the time (1900) and had a tonnage of 4 421 gross tons. In 1904, the Russo-Japanese war broke out and, in defence of his eastern regions, the Tsar dispatched his Baltic Fleet to Vladivostock to join up with the Russian Eastern Fleet. These ships needed coal and a vast number of ships were chartered to carry this commodity. Among them was the tramp Lethington. Unfortunately for Rea, her owner, she was intercepted and seized by a Japanese torpedo boat in the Tsu Shima Strait. As she was carrying cargo for the enemy, she was escorted to Sasebo in Japan and interned there. She was subsequently declared a war prize and confiscated, becoming the Navy transport Okinoshima Maru. She was later re-named Wakamiya Maru and chartered out as a cargo ship to Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK Line) and remained with them until 1912. Her return to the fleet coincided with the arrival of the first seaplanes to enter naval service in Japan. The Wakamiya Maru was pressed into service as a seaplane tender and equipped with two French Farman machines.

With the outbreak of World War I, Japan entered the war on the side of the Entente Cordial and the first operation undertaken was to invade and occupy the German enclave of Tsingtao on the Chinese mainland. During this operation the Wakamiya Maru struck a mine and returned to Sasebo for permanent repair. On emerging from repairs, she was re-classified as a 2nd Class Coast Defence Ship and re-named WAKAMIYA. She was to serve as the focal point of the Fleet Flying Corps, established in 1916.

The growing air arm proved so successful that in 1920 the Wakamiya was fitted with a flying-off platform and re-classified as an aircraft carrier. The experience gained by her flyers led to a decision to build a purpose-built aircraft carrier, the Hosho. She was the first aircraft carrier in any navy in the world to be purpose built for the job.

A period of expansion was then entered into, in which the Japanese were assisted by a British Civil Air Mission, led by a Colonel Semphill. Also recruited were a British aero engine designer and a British test pilot named Jordan, who was possibly a South African. Under the tutelage of this group of Britons, the Japanese made rapid strides and, in 1923, Hosho was flying her 'planes, the type 10 naval fighter.

The old Wakamiya was de-commissioned and broken up in 1932 but the Hosho stepped into her place and operated successfully off the Chinese coast in the Sino-Japanese War.

With the outbreak of World War II, she was already obsolete but served as a training carrier until being brought back into the fleet for the Battle of Midway. She survived this battle only to be damaged in an air raid while alongside at Kure in 1945. She was repaired and used as a transport for bringing home Japanese troops. She was finally scrapped in 1947, thus ending the first and most impressive era of Japanese naval power.

After a brief question period, both speakers were thanked for a pair of excellent talks by committee member Colin Dean.

The Chairman then closed the meeting by thanking the Committee and members for their support during the year and wishing everybody a happy festive season.

Members are also reminded that the January meeting will be on the third Thursday, i.e. 21 January 2010.

Ivor Little,

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December 2009 Military History Journal

All paid up members as at 31 December 2009 are entitled to a copy of the December 2009 Journal. If received in time for the January lecture meeting these will be handed out to attending members in Johannesburg, failing which they'll be posted to everybody.

Please notify JoanMarsh, Hon Sec/Treas at the letterhead address, or at if your postal address has changed.

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Subscriptions for 2010

Invoices will be posted during January - subscriptions have been increased to R195 single or R210 for a two-person family.

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