South African Military History Society

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A pleasingly large audience attended the August meeting of the Gauteng Branch, notwithstanding the fact that it was both a public holiday and freezing cold.

The meeting was opened by the National Chairman, Marjorie Dean, who, before giving the monthly notices, welcomed those members of the Naval Officers' Association who were present. She then commenced with the notices, of which a few are detailed here as they will take place after the publication of this newsletter.

There will be a conducted tour of the battlefields in Kwa-Zulu Natal, relating to the Bambatha Rebellion and commencing on 27 October. There will also be a tour conducted and organised by Bob Smith to the Kedar Country Lodge, outside Rustenburg, on Saturday, 13 October. The Kedar Lodge is rapidly becoming one of the foremost Kruger and Boer War private museums in the country and has a superb collection of Boer War paintings and artefacts. An air-conditioned coach has been hired and the tour will have specialist guides available. The cost per person will be R170 for the full day's outing and includes a gratuity to the driver. There will be food and antique stalls on site and members can choose whether to eat at their own cost in the lodge restaurant or to sample the variety of food available at these stalls.

Bob will be away for the next few weeks so for booking or further details please contact the Secretary, Mrs Joan Marsh. There is room for only 36 people and more than 20 people have already signed up.

Bob has also managed to arrange a Military History tour to Walvis Bay and St Helen Island, aboard the cruise liner MSC Simphonia. This 11-day voyage, which normally costs R14 000 per head, has been secured for the bargain price of only R7 000 for the 11-day voyage, a saving of more-or-less 50%. The offer is exclusive to members of the Military History Society and is scheduled to commence on 25 January 2013.

Marjorie then introduced the curtain-raiser speaker. This was Jan-Willem Hoorweg, one of the committee members. Jan-Willem was born in Holland and came to South Africa at an early age. Educated in Bloemfontein, he did his National Service with the Army and served in the S A Police Service before becoming a professional musician. At present he is a sales executive with a leading record company and a keen amateur historian.

The title of Jan-Willem's talk was "The Fighter Pilots War in the European Theatre, 1939-1945". He explained that he would concentrate on the flyers of Britain; the USA and Germany. In the period between the two world wars and many of the lessons learned in World War I were followed up on. In Britain particularly, great emphasis was placed on pilot training and effective organisation, such as the formation, in 1936, of Fighter Command.

Germany, under the Nazi regime, also spent a lot of time and effort in building up her Luftwaffe; the USA lagged behind but had ample notice to catch up. All three Air Forces realised that the bomber was the main aerial weapon and that to use it successfully fighters had to be used to obtain control of the skies. Accordingly, Britain and Germany concentrated on short range defensive fighters, until the USAAF developed long-range fighter escorts and set a new trend.

As the war progressed, Britain and Germany turned to night bombing and this in turn led to the development of the night fighter, a highly specialised machine. The training of fighter pilots was a time-consuming affair, but this attracted a certain type of young man, full of youthful exuberance and filled with the romance of the possibility of single combat and flying. Flying skills, courage and physical endurance were pre-requisites for survival and bred a unique breed of pilot.

History has proved that, despite the British victory in the Battle of Britain, on average the German pilots were the better. They had more experience, dating back to the Spanish Civil War, the Polish campaign and the invasions of the Low Countries and France. They flew a greater number of missions against superior numbers and, towards the end of the War, were on continuous duty. The top three fighter aces of World War II were German - Werner Molders; Adolf Gallard and Helmut Wick - each of whom had double the amount of kills than those of the Allied air aces. In the beginning the Luftwaffe had a technical advantage in the Messerschmitt 109, which was superior to the Hurricane. It was only in 1940 that the Spitfire appeared in numbers, to give the RAF superiority.

Likewise, the American P47 and P51 fighters were no match for the German FW 190 and ME 109F. It was only the arrival of the P51 Mustang that turned the tide, although by then the Germans had also introduced the ME 262 jet fighter.

Sheer weight of numbers and growing Allied competence and advanced technology finally gave the Allies the control of the skies they wanted and the Luftwaffe entered into a war of attrition it could not win.

Jan-Willem closed his talk with a selection of slides showing the comparative scores of the various leading fighter pilots of World War II. This was followed by a short question period, after which Marjorie introduced the next speaker. This was the well-known Deputy Chairman, John Parkinson, who has established himself as an expert on the history of the Royal Navy in the Far East. The subject of his talk was "HMS Hermes in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf in 1941".

HMS Hermes was the first aircraft-carrier in the world to be specifically designed as such. Launched in 1919, she was already obsolete by 1941. She was equipped with equally obsolete aircraft; 12 Swordfish torpedo bombers, more commonly known as "stringbags". In 1941, she was commanded by Captain Richard Onslow and assigned to duties in the Indian Ocean. These duties consisted of intercepting enemy shipping and offshore support for the Allied troops engaged in operations against the Italian colonies. In this she was very successful. Her aircraft were able to cover a considerable area and acted as spotters for HMS Enterprise, a cruiser accompanying Hermes, which was then able to intercept. In this way the two ships captured the Vichy French Sontay. HMS Enterprise was replaced by HMS Hawkins and this team also succeeded in taking four Italian ships and forcing the German freighter Uckermark to scuttle herself to avoid capture.

In between these operations Hermes also offered off-shore support to the Allied ground force operating in Southern Somalia. This was "Operation Canvas" and Hermes' role was to proceed parallel with the advancing troops northwards up the coast; to intercept shipping attempting to escape; provide anti-submarine patrols; spotting duties for the other ships in company and in general to provide air cover.

With this operation successfully completed, Hermes returned to Kilindini in East Africa on 18 February 1941. On 22 February she was sent out to sea again to participate in the hunt for the German commerce raider Admiral Scheer, which was at large in the Indian Ocean. The search was unsuccessful and the Admiral Scheer eventually made it home to Germany. Hermes then continued a series of patrols and shore calls to the Seychelles, Maldives, Ceylon and the Chagos Archipelago, until Easter 1941 when she was sent to Basra in the Persian Gulf to assist in putting down a revolt in Iraq.

In April 1941, a pro-Nazi Iraqi by the name of Rashid Ali had come to power in a bloodless coup d'etat and it was vitally important to the Allies that this strategically important and oil-rich country should not be allowed to ally itself with Germany. The British and Indian government reacted quickly and by 19 April Allied troops had occupied Basra. After a call at Bahrein, Hermes arrived off the mouth of the Shatt-Al-Arab, from whence she provided air cover for the ships in the Gulf and those proceeding the 121 kms up-stream to Basra. She also became involved in a series of air raids on rebel positions , in co-operation with the RAF and to do this her aircraft were flown off and temporarily based ashore at the RAF base at Shaibah. From there they participated in a number of successful bombing raids, receiving, in turn, an amount of damage but no casualties.

By 1 June 1941, the insurrection was over and Hermes sailed to Colombo via Bahrein. She then commenced the usual round of patrols in the area around Ceylon.

On 9 April 1942 Hermes and an escorting destroyer HMS Vampire were caught off Trincomalee by aircraft from a Japanese task force and her lengthy career came to an end within twenty minutes.

At the conclusion of this excellent and well-illustrated talk, committee member Hamish Paterson came forward and thanked both speakers. Marjorie then declared the meeting closed and reminded all those present that as from the September meeting, Margaret and Peter Rush will once again be selling military history books, after the monthly meetings.

The meeting then adjourned for tea and refreshments in the lobby.

Ivor Little,


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

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