South African Military History Society

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The April meeting started promptly at 8 pm when Chairman Ivor Little welcomed all present and dealt with the monthly notices. He then introduced the first speaker, Mrs Marjorie Dean, who is well-known to all members as the Vice Chairman and assistant editor of the SA Military History Journal.

The subject of Marjorie's curtain-raiser talk was "Military Miscellany! A Collection of Trivia from Here and There." This turned out to be both humorous and informative and a delightful contrast to some of the heavier and more erudite lectures of the past.

Marjorie started with an anecdote about the sinking of U1206, a German submarine in World War II, a U-boat sunk by plumbing malfunction. Apparently what happened was that the Commander of the submarine, Karl Schlitt, had a call of nature and in the process of using the "deep water high-pressure" toilet, there was a malfunction and a high-pressure "blow-back" from the pan. This shot out over both the captain and the "heads" area, flooding the latter. By the time the flow was cut off, it had started to drain down into the battery room and the mixture of sea water, sewage and dry cell batteries started producing chlorine gas. This is highly toxic and Captain Schlitt had no option but to surface to vent fresh air. At the time they were only 16 km off the Scottish coast, immediately spotted and bombed. U1206 was badly damaged, so Schlitt scuttled his boat. Four men lost their lives in this remarkable incident of the only submarine to be sunk by its own plumbing system.

Marjorie then recounted the tale of the code-breakers of Colditz Castle, used during World War II as a prison for officers deemed "high escape risks". Two of these prisoners, Captains Pat Reid and Rupert Barry, decided that to escape from this formidable prison they would need sophisticated help from outside. Captain Barry's wife, Dodo, was a cryptic crossword "boffin" and, banking on this, her husband sent her a letter based on cryptic sentences. On receipt of this seemingly nonsensical letter, Dodo figured it out and took the subsequent message to the War Office. After managing to gain the attention of someone in authority, a plan was worked out whereby Dodo wrote back in plain language to inform Rupert Barry that his elderly "Aunt Christine" was upset to hear of his captivity and would also write to him. This duly happened - Auntie of course being Military Intelligence.

Dodo then started sending "comfort parcels" through the Red Cross, an effort which was expanded to include the numerous girl friends of Pat Reid, who apparently was quite a ladies' man. These parcels included all sorts of hidden escape equipment with instructions enclosed in an agreed code: maps, blueprints, real currency in the guise of monopoly money, fake documents, etc. Using these aids, some 130 prisoners escaped from Colditz during the course of the war and 32 made it home. How many of us would have guessed that Noel Coward, a star of stage and screen in the l930s and '40s, was a spy? Indeed, he was. With the outbreak of World War II Coward volunteered to be an agent, on the grounds that he was such a famous personality that no one would ever suspect him. Marjorie showed us how successful he was in this role as he travelled the Allied and free world, meeting heads of state and other notables and feeding back information thus gained to the British Military Intelligence. After the war he was put forward for a knighthood but this was denied him because of his flamboyant and homosexual lifestyle.

Turning to something more serious, Marjorie then dealt with the shocking state of medical and logistical aid available to soldiers and sailors at the time of the US Civil War. This was before the age of antiseptics, antibiotics and refrigeration, and the lack of these three cardinal ingredients of modern life, combined with an abysmal lack of knowledge of basic health, hygiene and sanitation, were military killers.

Another little-known aspect of military history went around the siege of Seville by the Spanish King Alfonso VI. The Moorish commander of the city, Ibn Ammat, knew that Alfonso fancied himself as a man of culture and, instead of prolonging the siege, challenged Alfonso to a game of chess. Whoever won could have the city! Ibn won and, being a man of his word, Alfonso lifted the siege and went off to attack the Moors somewhere else.

On a final note, and to illustrate how nothing changes in this world of ours, Marjorie elaborated on the problems Horatio Nelson encountered when he claimed "injured on duty" payment for his damaged eye. After a long bureaucratic wrangle, he finally got it, but a reduced amount - because the eye was not obviously damaged.

At the conclusion of this collection of humorous anecdotes there was a brief question period, after which past chairman, Bob Smith, came forward and briefed the audience on the coming Saturday's excursion.

This done, Ivor introduced the main speaker of the evening, the well-known amateur historian Robin Smith, who has addressed the meeting in the past. Robin is an undoubted expert on the US Civil War and the subject of his talk was "The Vicksburg Campaign".

Using a top-class Power Point presentation, Robin walked us through this campaign, which changed the course of the Civil War. After the outbreak of war in April 1861, the north-western states of Illinois Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin were alarmed by the secession of Mississippi and Louisiana. These two states sat astride the Mississippi River, which had served as their outlet to the sea at New Orleans for the last 60 years. Their governors thus got together in Cleveland, Ohio, and sent a request to President Lincoln that the opening up of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers should be a priority objective of the North's strategy against the Confederacy. Lincoln agreed and a fleet of formidable ironclads was built up in the riverside city of Cairo, Illinois. This alarmed the Confederates, who invaded neutral Kentucky and occupied Columbus, Ohio, to block the river further upstream. The Northern side responded to this invasion by a retaliatory invasion of Kentucky, led by Brig. Generals U S Grant and Sherman. They took Paducah, Kentucky, at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers. The next objectives for the North were Forts Henry and Donelson, on the Tennessee River and, after a short delay while their superior, Maj. General Henry Halleck, dithered until prodded into action by Lincoln, these two forts were taken by Grant.

This opening gambit was followed by the famous Battle of Shiloh on the Tennessee River, which Robin handled in detail. After this battle Halleck was "kicked upstairs" to become General-in-Chief and was succeeded by Grant, who now realised that he had to move down the Mississippi, past Memphis, Tennessee, and take the river port city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. An advance parallel to the river by Northern troops brought them to Memphis and up against stiff Confederate resistance.

The Confederate commander, Lt General John C Pemberton, was based at Jackson, Mississippi, and he was fully determined to deny the North any further movement along the Mississippi River, by holding and reinforcing Vicksburg. Robin then explained the many minor battles and skirmishes as Grant pushed his way south to within sight of the seemingly impregnable fortress city. The United States Navy now played a very active role, under Rear Admiral David Porter, whose ironclads now supported the land advance or acted as transports down the river. Using an intricate network of bayous and rivers, many of which were mined and caused the loss of the ironclad USS Cairo, these ships penetrated the swamps in front of Vicksburg and emerged into the open Mississippi.

Fighting their way past Vicksburg, which is situated atop high bluffs, they got to level ground south of the city and anchored off a place called New Carthage. There they were able to put troops ashore to form a beachhead. Robin then explained how more and more troops were poured in by both sides and more and more ever-more senior generals pitched up on the scene. There were feints, raids and counter-feints, but eventually Jackson and then Vicksburg fell to the superior Northern forces. The way to the sea was open and the Confederacy had been cut in two.

At the conclusion of this excellent talk there was an interesting question period before Ivor asked committee member Malcolm King to step forward and thank both speakers. This was done with aplomb, after which the 72 members present concluded with refreshments in the lobby.

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On the following Saturday, 10 March, a group of 26 members took advantage of the tour arranged by Bob Smith and descended on Church Square in Pretoria. There they were met by Brigadier General Deon Fourie and his charming wife, Felicia, for a guided tour of that city, taking in the points of interest associated with the first Anglo-Boer War of 1880/81.

Felicia proved, as usual, to be a fount of knowledge as members gained access to the Old Raadzaal, investigated Church Square, visited Loreto Convent and the Catholic Cathedral and then crossed to Heroes' Acre for a visit to, amongst others, the graves of Paul Kruger and "Breaker" Morant. After that it was on to Fort Commeline on one of the hills overlooking the city and then out to Rooihuiskraal Battlefield for a final military appreciation in situ, by Deon, of that battle. To the members from Johannesburg the glimpses of Pretoria proved an eye-opener and this, coupled with the excellent lectures by the two Fouries, made for a memorable outing. We look forward to the next one.

Ivor Little
Chairman and Scribe.

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Contact details

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