South African Military History Society

Tel (+27)(0)10-237-0676 Fax (+27)(0)86-617-8002


Hats off to those brave folk who, on a bitterly cold Highveld night, filled the auditorium for the last meeting.

After the usual welcome greetings, the chairman, Ivor Little, dealt with a slew of monthly notices. He first paid tribute to member Liz Simmons who passed away on 25th May and then advised the audience of the next South African Tattoo, which will be held at Monte Casino from 2 - 4 September. Booking is now open. He then asked our tour organiser, Bob Smith, to give details of the next Society tour, which will be to Melrose House in Pretoria. Marjorie Dean then stepped forward to give details of the new hotel at Rorke's Drift. This done, Ivor then drew attention to Bob Smith's book launch at the Ladysmith Festival on 2 July. Bob has written an historical novel entitled "A Legacy Fulfilled". Another of our members, John Mahnke, has also just had a book published. In his case a biography of his father entitled "For Kaiser and Hitler".

Ivor expressed his congratulations to both these newly-published authors and then introduced the curtain-raiser speaker. This was our well-known member, Terry Willson, an acknowledged expert on classical firearms, who has spoken to us on previous occasions. The subject of his talk was "Sir Charles Ross and his Notorious Rifle. This proved to be a fascinating talk of a millionaire with an overriding obsession and the money to carry it through to the point of tragic failure.

Using a Power Point presentation and an exhibition of his own rifles, Terry commenced his story.

Sir Charles Ross, the ninth Earl of Balnagowan in Scotland, was born in 1872 into one of the wealthiest families in the United Kingdom. He was intellectually brilliant; took an engineering degree at Cambridge and had an enduring interest in firearm design, which resulted in his creating an unusual bolt-action rifle. He was also involved in a number of other business enterprises which involved moving his centre of operations from Scotland to Canada.

The Boer War then broke out, placing the Canadian Government in a situation where it faced an acute arms shortage, which neither the British Government nor its suppliers were in a position to meet. Using his political connections, Sir Charles persuaded the Canadian Government to accept his offer to manufacture rifles of his design locally. Building a factory at his own expense, Sir Charles was soon in business and his first rifles were issued to the Mounted Police. From the start there were problems, some of which resulted in death and injury.

Those early Ross Rifles were recalled and, following many modifications, a relatively successful military replacement was developed, which proved to be outstandingly accurate, winning target shooting championships both in the United Kingdom and internationally. After the Boer War these successes did much to redeem the Ross Rifle's tarnished reputation. Concurrent with these events, Sir Charles developed an outstanding .280 calibre cartridge and a modified action in a sporting rifle to handle it. A new military rifle, the Mark III, was designed around this action and accepted by the Canadian Government. This was the first step in Sir Charles' plan to persuade both the British Government and Empire to accept a military package comprising both his rifle and the .280 cartridge. Showing his characteristic lack of patience and attention to detail, the new rifle was rushed into production without adequate testing. Shortly thereafter the First World War broke out and soon Canadians armed with the Mk.III Ross Rifle were fighting alongside the British against the Germans.

From the very start, the military Ross Rifle proved a disaster, with an unfortunate tendency to jam solid at the height of a battle. Further problems involved its length, its weight and the possibility of mis-assembling its bolt, with fatal consequences to those who fired it in that condition. By the time the main cause of the jamming had been traced to a design fault and rectified, all confidence in the Ross Rifle had been lost and they were withdrawn and replaced with British Lee Enfields. The Ross factory in Canada was expropriated and Sir Charles relocated to the United States. That brought to an end what had proved a highly successful series of sporting rifles, a revolutionary cartridge and what could have become a significant industrial empire.

Terry concluded his presentation by tracing the history of one of the rifles exhibited which, following withdrawal from the Canadian forces, had been relegated to the Royal Navy. Here it was assigned to the Royal Marines on HMS Canada, a battleship being built for Chile in Britain but expropriated when the First World War broke out. HMS Canada was eventually returned to Chile, complete with her compliment of Ross Rifles, where she reverted to her Chilean name of Almirante Latorre and the rifles were marked accordingly. The Almirante Latorre was scrapped in the 1960s and her complement of Ross Rifles, including Terry's, sold commercially.

At the conclusion of Terry's talk there were a number of questions, followed by a raffle draw for a DVD box set on the Korean War. This was won by David Scholtz.

The next speaker was then introduced. This was none other than the cheerful smiling face from behind the reception desk, John Parkinson. A frequent speaker at our meetings; a lecturer on the International Circuit and a keen member of the Society, John is well known to the audience. (By a strange coincidence, both speakers of the evening had been born in Trinidad!)

The subject of John's talk was "HMS Dorsetshire : Flagship, Africa Station". Also using a computer display of excellent photographs and maps, John proceeded to give a detailed and thoroughly researched story of the career of '"HMS Dorsetshire".

She was one of a class of 13 "County" class heavy cruisers launched for the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy between 1926 and 1929. She was a good sized-ship and, as a "heavy" cruiser, was armed with 8" guns, various lighter guns and a floatplane. She was manned by a ship's company of 710 officers and men. After completion at HM Dockyard, Portsmouth, she was commissioned on 16 September 1930 and entered service with the Home Fleet until July 1933. Transferred to the Africa Station, she made her way south to become the flagship of Vice Admiral Edward Evens ("Evans of the Broke") who at that time was Commander-in-Chief of the Africa Station and Acting High Commissioner. Then began one of those idyllic peace-time naval sojourns, so beloved of pre-World War II writers such as Bartimeus and Taffrail, as the ship's company slotted into the social calendar. John had done his homework well and one can but sympathise with the strain on their livers as the ship hosted or took part in function after function. Trafalgar Days; the Rosebank Show; the Durban July; the official opening of the Charl Malan Quay in Port Elizabeth; all took a heavy toll. One presumes that the Armistice Day proceedings were in direct contrast to a cricket match against a team from Ohlsson's Brewery. There were visits back and forth with visiting Italian, French and German warships and even a period where the ship was at the beck and call of HRH Prince George (the Duke of Kent) during his official visit to South Africa. During this period calls were made at ports in Mozambique and Angola. The ship also worked her way to and from West Africa as part of her station duties; gave various gunnery demonstrations and even provided a guard of honour for the opening of Parliament in 1935. There was a brief serious interlude when she took part in a mock amphibious landing in Saldanha Bay, but all good things have to end and on 23 January 1935 she went home to Plymouth.

At the outbreak of World War II, she was on the China Station where the "lotus life" was no doubt continuing. This came to an abrupt end as she moved to the Indian Ocean for patrol duties and then into the South Atlantic as a relief for HMS Exeter. She was on her way to South America when Exeter took part in the Battle of the River Plate and, on arrival in the Falklands, picked up some wounded men from that encounter for transfer back to South Africa. In the process she accounted for the German freighter Wakama. Dorsetshire then became involved in the shelling of Dakar and subsequent convoy escort duties in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

In 1941 she was back in United Kingdom waters and participated in the hunt for and eventual sinking of the Bismark . Back she then went to the South Atlantic where she sank the German supply vessel Python. Picking up her convoy escort duties once again, she moved into the Indian Ocean and was south of Ceylon in April 1942 when she and HMS Cornwall were sunk by Japanese Navy dive bombers. Sixteen South Africans were lost in her sinking.

Ivor thanked John for his excellent talk and then asked Bob Smith to formally thank both speakers and hand over the customary mark of appreciation. This done, the audience was invited to stay for refreshments and to peruse copies of Bob Smith's new book.

Ivor Little
Chairman and Scribe.

* * * * * * *

New books by members:

The latest book by Taffy and David Shearing, The Rebel Record, is a list of 15,433 Cape Colonists who joined the Transvaal and Orange Free State forces as Cape Rebels in the South African War of 1899-1902. Contact them at Tel (044) 69-.0501 or Fax 086-516-6714 or e-mail

John Mahnke's biography of his father entitled "For Kaiser and Hitler" - 021-797-5167 or

Bob Smith's novel "A Legacy Fulfilled" - or 011 7675 0836

* * * * * * *



* * * * * * *

KZN in Durban:

* * * * * * *

Cape Town:

* * * * * * *


* * * * * * *

For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
For Cape Town details contact Ray Hattingh 021-592-1279(am)
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676

* * * * * * *

* NOTE* Fast mirror and backup site      BOOKMARK FOR REFERENCE     Main site * NOTE*

South African Military History Society /