Newsletter no. 414
The Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture ('DDH') was presented by fellow member Charles Whiteing entitled "A Bridge Called Pegasus."
Hours before midnight on the 6th of June, thousands of people in England were woken to the sound of 1200 aircraft containing three airborne divisions taking off. One of these, the British 6th Airborne Division, was heading east of the River Orne to secure Montgomery's left flank. Their objectives were the two bridges spanning the Orne River and the Caen Canal. This strategic route had to be secured before the Germans guarding the two bridges could detonate any demolition charges, thereby sealing the bridgehead from the Allies advancing inland from the beaches. They had defend the bridges against German counterattacks, and to "hold until relieved." Flying in six Horsa gliders towed by Halifax bombers, commanded by Major John Howard. The gliders descended from 7000 feet to about 500 feet, reducing airspeed from 160 mph to about 110 mph. The bridge which they previously had studied from many photographs and a detailed model of the area became visible. Should they hit any trees or anti glider stakes they would all be killed or badly injured. The pilots flew the cumbersome Horsa glider with incredible skill and accuracy. Some of the plywood Horsa gliders broke up on impact, and the troops scrambled out of the sides and doors. The first men out of Howard's glider lobbed hand grenades through the slits of the German pill box on the west side of the canal. The rest of the platoon led by Lieutenant Den Brotheridge charged across the bridge. There was no time for the German bridge guard to deploy, although the NCO in charge managed to fire a burst with his machine gun which killed Lt Brotheridge who was shot in the neck and died soon afterwards. He was the first British soldier to die on D-Day.
The other platoon secured the bridge after a brief but fierce exchange of gunfire. It was hard to believe that such a tricky operation had proceeded so well; and in the early hours of D Day, was about the only one which went according to plan. Shortly afterwards, Howard's small defence force was relieved by the 7th Battalion, commanded by the most inappropriately named, Lt. Col. Pine-Coffin. Other gliders had now landed with Jeeps and anti tank weapons to support the defences. The Germans then attempted to counterattack by sending gunboats armed with 20mm Flak guns down the canal from the direction of Caen. This attack was discouraged with a round from a PIAT hitting the first boat resulting in the rest speeding past under the bridges towards the safety of the open sea; where unbeknown to them the biggest invasion fleet in history was awaiting them.
The defenders then heard the sound of distant bagpipes. Lord Lovat, the legendary commander of the Commandos approached the bridge dressed in his green beret, white sweater and walking stick. Howard remarked; "he looked as if he was on an exercise back in Scotland." Lovat met Howard at the east end of the bridge, shook his hand and said, "John, today history is been made."
In 1946 Howard had an audience with the King in Buckingham Palace.
On June 6, 1954, on the tenth anniversary of D-Day, Howard received the Croix de Guerre from the French government who had already renamed the canal bridge, Pegasus Bridge. The road crossing the bridge was later renamed Esplanade John Howard. He later served as a consultant to Darryl Zanuck who produced the wartime epic, "The Longest Day" with Howard's role played by Richard Todd, himself a paratrooper on D-Day. The town of Benouville is basically as it was in 1944, as with Ranville; where Lt. Den Brotheriridge is buried in the British Military Cemetery.
Today the canal has been widened and the original bridge replaced. The water tower is gone but the machine gun pillbox that John Howard used as his CP is still there. The bunkers have been filled in but the anti tank gun remains in its emplacement. Three stone markers indicate the site where the first three gliders landed.
Had the Germans succeeded in blowing the bridges, the 6th Airborne would have been isolated, in a position similar to that of the 1st Airborne later in the war in Arnhem. Bill Brady and I visited Pegasus Bridge in 2004. We have poignant memories of some of those elderly veterans sitting outside enjoying refreshments in the summer sun, proudly wearing maroon pullovers, their berets adorned with that horse called Pegasus.
The main talk was given by fellow member Dr. Lynn Coggin and was entitled "Factors Making Durban Vulnerable to Attack from Germany and Japan in 1942."
The mineral wealth of the entire African continent was a major lure to Germany, as was Arabian oil. In respect of the oil, Nazi Germany had strong support from Mufti Haj Amin el Husseini of Jerusalem, He became a strong ally of Hitler in exchange for a promise from Hitler, that he would annihilate the Jews of Palestine after Germany had won the war. To add to the threat of German colonisation of South Africa and indeed the whole of Africa, Germany possessed an Axis ally which had already occupied parts of East Africa. Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy, which together with Japan in September 1940 became the Tripartite Axis. Its goal was of course to control the entire world. Germany and Italy already enjoyed dominance over nearly the entire Mediterranean Sea. In North Africa, Germany's Field Marshall Erwin Rommel was conquering all before him up until the battle of El Alamein in October 1942 and was rapidly advancing on Egypt and the Suez Canal and of course gateway to the Arab states and their oil. When South Africa opted by a few votes to help Britain in this World War and ipso facto to thwart Germany's designs on Africa, history records that Hitler laughed derisively, as South Africa had no army to speak of at all. Adding to South Africa's risk was the fact that undercover German agents and other Nazi sympathisers in South Africa commenced their sabotage operations and spying activities immediately war broke out, as they were already well prepared. The Ossewabrandwag movement was very much against South Africa joining Great Britain's war and was thus sympathetic to the Nazi cause.
It is possible that almost the whole of Africa and indeed South Africa would have been occupied by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany by end-1942, and possibly the Natal seaboard by Japan. Japan may also have had designs on South Africa and indeed after her capture of Singapore, Japanese submarines were active off the Eastern Seaboard of Africa in 1942. Was Japan interested at all in invading Natal? There will be those among you who could well believe that an attack on or invasion of Durban could not have been seriously contemplated by Japan. Did the Americans believe that Japan would or could attack Pearl Harbour? Japan may well have entertained ideas of invading our Eastern 'Seaboard. That they were heavily committed in the South Pacific and their supply lines to Africa were particularly lengthy, may not have been a particularly inhibiting impediment to their arrogant and strategic thinking, particularly if they believed that Germany and Italy would soon exercise all control of North and East Africa, Egypt and Suez. It certainly appeared as if British Intelligence viewed the ceding of Madagascan ports to Japan by Vichy, in a very serious light. The British feared that Japan would take over Madagascar and make it into a base for attacks on Allied shipping in the whole of the Indian Ocean. This would enable them to attack Allied troop ships and supply ships making their way round the Cape and to India, as well as the tankers bringing Middle Eastern oil round the Cape to Europe. Moreover a base in Madagascar would give Japan other capabilities. In particular, they would be able to strike at the US Lend Lease supply route to the Soviet Union, which went through the Persian Gulf, and it might even enable them to link up at Suez with the Germans. Moreover, if the Japanese got properly established on Madagascar they would be able to launch a Pearl Harbour style strike on Durban. Japanese submarines aided by carrier - borne aircraft, could tear into Durban, sink the ships of the Royal Navy and South African Navy there, blow up oil installations, sink the large number of tankers and cargo ships using the port and destroy the harbour facilities, radio communications and much else besides.
Submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy were moving freely throughout the Indian Ocean. In March 1942, Japanese aircraft carriers conducted the 'Indian Ocean Raid'. This raid drove the British Eastern Fleet out of the NE Indian Ocean and the British were forced to relocate to a new base at Mombasa, Kenya. Japanese submarines with their 16 000 km range would have been able to attack shipping right down the east coast of Africa to the South Atlantic. The Japanese also had a marked propensity for inflicting the most horrifying tortures on POWs, women and children. Had they invaded and occupied South Africa ahead of the Nazis it is possible that no one would have been spared. As for the Nazis, it is possible that the South African population would have been subjected to the most hideous atrocities as were the Jews of Europe. Roughly half of the White population and surely the entire non-White groups of South Africa might have been enslaved, or placed in death camps and made to work the mines without remuneration and very little sustenance. Possibly, only the rabid Nazi sympathisers, roughly half the population of Whites in SA would have been spared. Fortunately, the British, Indian and South African forces in East Africa had already expelled the Italians from Abyssinia by 1942. By mid-1943 Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had been expelled from Africa by the Allied armies, which included servicemen from South Africa. This is how close South Africa came to occupation by the Axis powers. The Apartheid regime would have seemed a picnic by comparison, as egregious and hideous as it nonetheless was if an occupation had ever taken place. Italy capitulated in September 1943; Nazi Germany was forced to surrender unconditionally on 8th May 1945 and Japan on 14th August 1945. Nations in Africa were now free to press for the expulsion of other colonial powers such as Great Britain, Portugal, Belgium and France, but in South Africa the Nationalist Government and its Nazi sympathisers, led by Dr D F Malan, surprisingly beat Field Marshall J C Smuts at the polls in 1948. This era lasted forty six years.
Dr. Coggin then elaborated on the role played by Percy Mayer and his wife in assisting the Allied invasion of Madagascar and the threat posed by the German pocket Battleship Graf Spee.
Fellow member James Trinder presented a vote of thanks to both speakers for their excellent presentations and congratulated them on their thorough research.
THE SOCIETY'S NEXT MEETING:
Thursday 12 August 2010 - 19h00 for 19h30. Venue: Murray Theatre, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban. The Darrell Hall (DDH) Memorial Lecture will be presented by Capt Brian Hoffmann. It is entitled: 'Allied Operations in Syria, Persia & Iraq, May to September 1942'.
The Main Talk will be presented by Jesse Wesseloo, and is entitled: 'The Raid on the Medway'
FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: September - November 2010.
9th SEPTEMBER 2010:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: 'Lt Col JN Crealock's Watercolours - Then and Now', by Ken Gillings.
Main Talk - 'The Role of Indian Troops during the Anglo-Boer War', by Ganes Pillay.
14th OCTOBER 2010:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: 'Lt Col Paddy Mayne - an SAS Legend' by Bill Brady
Main Talk: 'The U-Boat War in WW2 - sinking statistics' by Steve Watt.
11th NOVEMBER 2010:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: 'The Conquest of the Incas' by Dr. John Cooke.
Mail Talk: Subject to be confirmed.
1. The Branch's Annual Battlefield Tour over the weekend of the 18th / 19th September 2010 is now virtually fully subscribed. It will cover the Isandlwana Campaign and the Defence of Rorke's Drift in great detail. It will include following the Fugitives' route from Isandlwana (for those who wish to walk it. Non walkers may be asked to ferry vehicles to Fugitives' Drift). Bear in mind that this will entail crossing the Mzinyathi River. There will be two presenters: Ken Gillings and Anthony Coleman (Chairman of the KZN Tourist Guides Association Battlefields Region). Anthony will deal with, inter alia, the Disputed Territory as a factor in the casus belli.
Members are requested to contact Elandsheim Lutheran Church Retreat at Elandskraal. NB: MEMBERS ARE REQUESTED TO MAKE THEIR OWN BOOKINGS WITH ELANDSHEIM. THEIR E-MAIL ADDRESS IS firstname.lastname@example.org . PLEASE MARK YOUR RESERVATION FOR THE ATTENTION OF WERNER HARMS. ELANDSHEIM'S TELEPHONE NUMBER IS 034 642 1703.
The following accommodation is available at Elandsheim:
Dinner B&B is R320.00 per person per night.
Self catering: Huts with en suite facilities and Rooms under the oak tree are R220.00 per room per night.
Huts with shared ablution are R180.00 per night.
Camping is R100 per site (max 6 per site). We can offer Breakfast for R40.00pp. If bedding is required, add R40 extra per person. Ideally, participants should book accommodation on the Friday and Saturday nights.
1.1. 07h30 Saturday 18th September 2010 - Depart Elandsheim. RV at the bridge across the Mzinyathi River at Rorke's Drift for briefing on the events leading to the outbreak of the Anglo-Zulu War. Proceed to Mangeni (the site of the Central Column's next campsite) and time permitting to the Mabaso, site of the main Zulu Army's bivouack. Walk the Fugitives' Trail. Return to Elandsheim at 18h00. NB: We will probably need to ferry walkers and vehicles. Participants will be informed. Cost: R20 per person entry fee.
1.2. 09h30 Sunday 19th September 2010 - Depart Elandsheim for Rorke's Drift for 2 hour dissertation on the famous defence. ETD 12h00 (4 1/2 hour return journey to Durban).
NOTE: If Elandskraal is fully booked, fellow member Elizabeth Durham has offered accommodation at her B & B, 'Chez Nous'. Here are the details:
'All members of the SAMHS get a 10% discount at Chez Nous B&B situated in Dundee itself, which works out as follows: B&B R342.00 per person per night. Dinner bed and breakfast R450.00 per person per night, 3 course dinner served with home made bread. Please bring you own drinks as we are not licensed. Bookings must be booked in advance please'.
Chez Nous Bed & Breakfast + Self-catering. Tel/fax: 034 212 1014
Email: email@example.com. Website: www.cheznousbb.com
2. SAMHS Tour to the Po Valley and Delville Wood, July 2011: KwaZulu-Natal Branch Tour of the Po Valley and the Somme, July 2011. The Central Committee of the SAMHS has approved the organising of a follow-up of the highly successful and historical tour to the Battlefields of the Western Desert in Egypt and Libya in May 2009. In conjunction with the Royal British Legion's Poppy Travel, we are putting together a tour to follow the Springbok Soldier through Italy, then to the Somme when the tour will coincide with the official South African Government commemoration of the Battle of Delville Wood on the 17th July 2011. The provisional dates will be from the 9th to the 20th July 2011 and the sites that are likely to be included are Cassino, Castiglione, Monte Stanco / Monte Sole, Po Valley, Adige Valley, Arras, Thiepval Memorial, Delville Wood, Butte de Warlencourt and possibly Pèronne. As was the case with the Egyptian / Libyan tour, we will be accompanied by a Royal British Legion specialist Battlefield Guide.
Please make a note of this unforgettable experience and let Ken Gillings know if you are interested in accompanying the KZN Branch on the tour. Tel 031 702 4828 / 083 654 5880 or preferably by e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org
South African Military History Society / email@example.com