South African Military History 


Newsletter No 85 October/Nuusbrief Nr 85 Oktober 2011

The family member's military service presentation by Fred Nel was on Ray de Beer, the late father of SAMHSEC member Brenda Nel. Ray was born on 5 March 1925 and attested in Johannesburg on 11 September 1940 at the age of 151/2 years, claiming to be 18. He joined the 1st Battalion SA Irish, part of the 5th Infantry Brigade of the 1st SA Division. After basic training in Durban, he embarked for Kenya and took part in the invasion of Abyssinia in February 1941. The SA Irish fought four battles within four weeks and Ray participated in all four before turning sixteen. After returning to Kenya, the battalion embarked for Egypt in April 1941. After desert warfare training, the division marched to Sidi Barani. En route they were diverted to Sidi Rezegh, arriving a few days before the battle, which 5800 1st Division troops entered and just over 2000 survived, with Ray one of the few not wounded. Taken prisoner by the Germans, he was handed over to the Italians and sent to a POW camp in Benghazi. Shipped to Italian occupied Greece, the ship was torpedoed by a Royal Navy submarine, with about 400 POWs killed. The ship was run aground and the survivors made it ashore. Ray was a POW in Greece, Italy and Germany, before being liberated by Americans in May 1945. He was repatriated to South Africa and discharged on 29 September 1945 at the age of 20 1/2 years, having served for 5 years and 16 days.

Peter Duffel-Canham started his curtain raiser on The Ships That Durban Built by explaining that the ships in question were built by public subscription. At first there was a plan to build a flotilla of Motor Torpedo Boats, but by the time the scheme was finalised, the people of Durban had already contributed to the "Buy a Spitfire Fund". Nevertheless, the Patrol Boat Fund raised more than 18 000 of the total cost of 30 000 for two 72 foot Harbour Defence Motor Launches (HDMLs).

Peter then looked at the history of the home of these two ships, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) base in Durban. Its origins lay in Russian interference in Afghanistan in 1885, when Great Britain realized that the strategic port of Durban was undefended. The Natal Naval Volunteers was formed under the direction of Harry Escombe and the Port Captain. From the start, emphasis was on coastal artillery to defend the port. There was also sea training aboard a paddle wheel tug and a sloop. Members of the unit were besieged in Ladysmith during the Anglo-Boer war, as well as being part of the relieving force with their now land based guns. About 100 members of the unit were attached to colonial troops during the Bambatha uprising. The unit provided sailors for the Royal Navy during WW1. The first members were mobilized on 3 August 1914 and the last demobilized on 21 September 1919. Among them was Peter's grandfather Richard, who served aboard the RN ships which sank the German cruiser Konigsberg in the Rufiji River in German East Africa. By the time WW2 was declared, the base housed the RNVR and the Royal Navy in Durban. It was at this base that Peter's two uncles and father served as Sea Cadets and joined the Royal Navy and South African Naval Forces on active service.

After being armed and fitted with anti-submarine equipment, the two HDMLs left for Kilindini in Kenya, where one of them spent the war patrolling the approaches to Mombassa harbour. The other, HMS Insizwa, performed various duties in the Indian Ocean, probably far beyond the intention of the original design. At the end of the war, two HDMLs were based in Durban, but as with all wooden boats, needed a lot of maintenance. Eventually one was sold as a pleasure boat for tours of the harbour and the other towed to Simonstown and later scuttled.

The main lecture on The Battle of Thermopylae by Brian Klopper opened with the memorial text engraved on the stone that marks the burial place of the Spartans at Thermopylae, from the original epigraph by the poet Simonides "Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie." Sparta was the ancient capital of the Lakonia district of the south-eastern Peloponessos and the most powerful city state in Greece. The city was never fully walled until the Roman conquest because Spartans believed that their men were their walls. Sparta's single-minded military dedication precluded any hope of political unification of classical Greece, but it performed its greatest service to Eleftheria Ellas (Free Greece) in 480BC at the Battle of Thermopylae and its subsequent leadership of Greece in the Persian Wars.

Xerxes' Persian army of about a quarter of a million men invaded Greece in the spring of 480BC. Their advance was painfully slow as the Persian fleet had to provision the army, thus giving the Greeks ample time to prepare their defences. Leonidas decided to confront the advancing Persian army at Thermopylae, a narrow, 7 kilometres long pass on the east coast of central Greece, with his Spartan hoplites, who were heavy infantry and the best fighters in the Mediterranean world. The choice of this position was good because all the Spartans had to do was to prevent the Persian advance. Xerxes began operations against Thermopylae in August. Leonidas and his 6 000-7 000 hoplites withstood relentless Persian attacks for 2 days with minimal losses. The hoplite phalanx formed a wall of overlapping shields and layered spear points spanning the width of the pass and could rotate ranks in the phalanx to prevent battle fatigue. The Persian infantry, with their wicker shields and shorter spears, were unable to engage the hoplites effectively. One of the tactical ploys used by the Spartans was to feign retreat, after which they would turn, re-form the phalanx and kill the pursuing Persians. After the second day, Xerxes ordered his infantry to break off the engagement and return to camp. At this point the Greek traitor Ephialtes offered to guide the Persians to a position in the Spartan rear via a mountain path. Leonidas then ordered the withdrawal of the main Greek force, which would release men to fight again elsewhere, leaving himself and his royal guard to cover the retreat. Leonidas and his 300 men abandoned their defensive position and advanced to meet the Persians in the wider part of the pass. In this phase of the battle, Xerxes lost two brothers and Leonidas was killed by Persian archers. The final stand by the Spartans took place on a nearby hill, which the Persians surrounded and rained arrows down on the Greeks until every one was dead. The pass at Thermopylae was opened to the Persian army at a cost of about 20 000 men. Greek losses were probably about 2000.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on 10 October 2011 at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be HMS Victory by Stephen Bowker. The main lecture will be by Ian Copley on The Battle of Trafalgar. The World at War episode to be shown from 1830 will be Wolfpack 1939 - 1944. The family member's military service series presentation will be by Andre Crozier.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
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