Newsletter No. 438
The National Chairperson Marjorie Dean addressed the meeting to remind all that the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is in 2014. Marjorie called for some initiatives from the various regions of the Military History Societies to commemorate this momentous occasion.
The Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture ('DDH') was presented by fellow member Jayne Moir on 'The lonely Boer graves of St. Helena'.
All cemeteries are of course sad places, and the Boer War Graves on St Helena are particularly so. Tucked away on steep slopes - the graves merely concrete slabs with numbers on them - no names or stories of those buried beneath, and devoid of flowers. At the foot of the slope two granite obelisks only naming the dead and giving their ages. The story of the Anglo Boer War Prisoners does not feature very prominently on St Helena today, competing as it does with a more illustrious past resident, namely Napoleon, who was exiled here from 1815 until his death in 1821. Although the Boer graves are neat and tidy, one can see from the overgrown pathways that they are not often visited, considering over 5000 Boer prisoners were held on the Island, and 180 died there.
Now from the graves, let us back track to explore when and how these prisoners of war happened to be on St Helena, how they lived, and how they died. Statistics were compiled by a pupil from a local school in 1977, and show the youngest who died was 16, and the oldest 74. The highest number of deaths occurring in the age group 20-29; the main cause of death was enteric fever, the cause of which remains obscure. The water supply was not found to be at fault, so it was concluded that the disease had been brought to the Island by the last contingent of prisoners. Typhoid, beriberi, bronchitis, pneumonia and TB also took its toll. Three prisoners were shot, and a few tried to escape (more of that later). I can find no reference of any prisoners dying through cruelty or neglect. During the Anglo Boer War of 1899 to 1902, the British took as many as 20 000 prisoners which resulted in severe overcrowding in prison camps which were situated in the Cape Colony, and which were also particularly vulnerable to attack by opposition forces. Therefore the decision was made to ship out prisoners to various British overseas territories, including Bermuda, India, Ceylon and St Helena. In December 1900, 7424 prisoners were held outside of South Africa, by the war's end this had increased to 24 261, and St Helena was the first location used and held 5 685 prisoners.
The Boer prisoners expecting harshness, rudeness and ill-feeling amongst the inhabitants, soon discovered, from the Governors proclamation, that they might actually anticipate courtesy and respect instead. Neither a jeering sound nor rude remarks were heard from the crowd of islanders who had congregated to see them pass on their way to the camps which had been prepared for them. I believe this was really significant - particularly as this huge influx of prisoners, over 5 000, greatly outnumbered the local inhabitants, and I think the residents had every right to be apprehensive! Amongst the first contingent of 514 prisoners to arrive on St Helena in February 1900 was General Piet Cronje who had surrendered to Lord Roberts after the Battle of Paardeberg. He had been allowed to bring his wife with him, together with his small entourage, and was housed at Kent Cottage. He insisted that he should be afforded the respect of his rank and that a mounted guard should be provided. These guards were to escort General Cronje whenever he went riding, but as none of the St Helena Volunteers had ever been on a horse, a few riding lessons did not make them into proficient horsemen! Despite his rather dour exterior, I think old Piet had a good sense of humour. Whenever he wanted to inspect the prisoners' camps, some 10km from where he was staying, a mounted guard had to accompany him. The General led the way at a gallop with the guard; following as best they could - no doubt falling off their horses left, right and centre. This was not to be the end of their torment however, because once at the camps the General dismounted, followed by the troops who then had to re-mount when the General was ready to leave. This they found almost impossible, so the General had to call a couple of the prisoners to help the guards back into the saddle, meanwhile also holding their rifles! All this in front of an audience of laughing, cheering Boer prisoners who were for the most part skilful horsemen themselves!
The main talk of the evening was a presentation by Johannesburg Member and former National Chairman Colin Dean on 'Nazis on Ice'. Colin started by going back in time to 10th July 1945; two months after Germany's WW2 surrender, when a German submarine, U-530, arrived at the Argentine naval base at Mar del Plata. Leutnant Otto Wermuth, the Captain of U-530, appears to have believed that he would be well received by the Argentines. His arrival created much speculation. Many people disregarded the news of Hitler's suicide on 30th April, earlier that year, preferring to believe that U-530 had spirited away Hitler, Eva Braun, Martin Bormann and others, either landing them on the coast of Patagonia or in Antarctica. The speculation increased when U-977, under the command of Oberleutnant Heinz Schaeffer, appeared in Mar del Plata on 17th August. The crews of U-530 and U-977 became prisoners of war and were interrogated by personnel from the Argentine Navy, the US Navy and the Royal Navy. At the end of the investigation the interrogators were satisfied that the late arrival of the submarines was entirely innocuous. But, their report didn't stop the speculations and these were enhanced 2 years later in 1947, when Ladislas Szabo (the Hungarian exile) published a book titled "I Know that Hitler's Alive". Szabo's article in the Buenos Aires newspaper Critica, plus his persuasive writing in his book have caused this whole complicated fantasy to evolve; a fantasy about the post war Nazis being safely encamped in Antarctica, in Dronning Maud Land, in a secure base that is often referred to as "Base 211" just before the start of WW2, in 1938/39.
The expedition came about because the German government was concerned about the future of the German whaling industry. At that time, whaling was an important activity supplying oil, lubricants, glycerine (for nitro-glycerine used in explosives), margarine and other essential products. Germany's investment in the industry was large, with an output of 492,532 barrels of oil in the 1938/39 whaling season. The German whaling fleet operated off the coast of Dronning Maud Land which had been claimed on behalf of Norway, though not yet officially announced by royal proclamation. The German government wanted to avoid the South Atlantic situation, where Great Britain asserted the right to charge heavy fees for whaling concessions and imposed restrictions on whaling activity. This secret Antarctic expedition was planned in order to be able to claim a piece of Antarctica for Germany, it was authorised by Herman Goering as part of a four-year plan for economic development. But it also had some secret military aims; for example, Goering wanted to learn about whatever strategic opportunities the Antarctic might offer, and wanted to know about the functioning of aircraft at low temperatures; knowledge that was to prove useful during the German invasion of the Soviet Union. A series of expeditions was planned. The first, in 1938/39, was to map the region by air for the purposes of discovery and exploration, before either making territorial claims or deciding where to locate a whaling base. The Schwabenland expedition was led by Captain Alfred Ritscher. It was not a military expedition and Ritscher was not a military man, even though he was on the staff of the Kriegsmarine. The Schwabenland was an 8000-ton floating airport, equipped to catapult flying boats into the air, and to lift them out of the water after landing. It belonged to the German airline, Lufthansa, whose crews piloted and maintained the Lufthansa planes during the expedition. There was a seasoned whaler, Otto Kraul, in the ships crew, to assist with the search for a possible whaling base. He was also the ice pilot and contributed a section on ice conditions to the expedition report. The expedition succeeded, largely due to good weather. They used oblique aerial photography to map an area of some 250,000 sq. The follow-up German expeditions planned for the southern winters of 1939/40 and 1940/41 didn't happen because of the outbreak of WW2. No German documents have been found that indicate that German activity continued in Dronning Maud Land after the Schwabenland expedition and during WW2.
U-977's voyage is somewhat simpler. The U-boat sailed from Kristiansand on 2nd May; hostilities ended on 8th May and Schaeffer, like Wermuth, decided to aim for Argentina rather than be captured. 16 of his men opted to go ashore near Bergen, Norway on the night of10th May. On the morning of 11th May the boat, with its crew reduced to 32, dived to skirt the UK, using a snorkel to secure air. A record 66 days later, when they were safely past the British naval base on Gibraltar, they surfaced. As they had little fuel, having been allocated only 80 tons in Oslo, they had to travel very slowly. From North Africa, they sailed south on one of their two diesel engines while on the surface at night. During the day they ran on electric motors while submerged. They crossed the equator on 23rd July, arriving in Mar del Plata, Argentina on 17th August, with all of the ship's papers intact. They had crossed 5 200km of ocean in 25 days; that required an average speed of 4.7 knots. A careful look at the dates, times and speeds suggests that neither U-530 nor U-977 had time to visit Antarctica. But sailors can lie, and ship's logs can be forged.
The existence of a Nazi Antarctic base hidden in vast caverns was considered feasible. The Tabarin bases on the Antarctic Peninsula existed, and all but two are still there to be visited, although they are not now manned. The expedition to set up the Tabarin bases left London in November 1943, bound for the Falklands. From here they sailed for Antarctica on 29th January1944, heading for Deception Island, in the South Shetland Islands, to set up "Base B". They reached the island on 3rd February and having established a shore party they then sailed for Hope Bay, at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula to establish "Base D". But foul weather ruined that plan. Instead they set up "Base A" on Goudier Island in Port Lockroy, a bay on the south coast of WienckeIsland. The Hope Bay base was established later in February, 1945.
Following a lively question and answer debate the vote of thanks was presented by Ken Gillings who congratulated both speakers on their excellent research and presentations.
THE SOCIETY'S NEXT MEETING:
Thursday 9th August 2012 - 19h00 for 19h30. Venue: Murray Theatre, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.
The Darrell Hall (DDH) Memorial Lecture will be - 'Arthur Martin-Leake, VC' and Bar by Robin Smith.
The Main Talk will be '1941 - 1945: The Naval War in the Pacific' by Capt. Brian Hoffmann.
FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: September - November 2012:
DDH - 'HMAS Sydney and her fate' by Ian Sutherland.
Main - 'Long service in SA. Colonial Volunteer forces and in the Union Citizen Force 1894 - 1930' by Brian Thomas.
DDH - Uluthi; Secret of the South Pacific by Roy Bowman.
Main - Manstein - Supreme Strategist; Hitler - Supreme Commander by Bill Brady.
DDH - Beyond Patton -"The Early Cold War", by Dr. John Buchan
Main - Hitler's Car - the story of the Volkswagen, by Charles Whiteing.
Day Tour -The Holocaust Museum has been recommended. Charles Whiteing will finalise and make the necessary arrangements.
2012 BATTLEFIELD TOUR (27TH / 28TH OCTOBER 2012).
This will cover the 1906 Poll Tax (or Bhambatha) Rebellion and we will cover the following sites: Greytown Museum (09h00 rendezvous), Ambush Rock (Mpanza), Natal Police graves, Kranskop, King Cetshwayo's grave and Mome Gorge Battlefield. Accommodation at a special rate has been arranged at the George Hotel in Eshowe and members are required to make their own booking. Please refer to the SA Military History Society Tour when doing so. Telephone Lee-Ann on 035-474 2298 or e-mail email@example.com . Should you intend participating in the tour, please inform Ken Gillings so the final arrangements and timings can be forwarded to you. Ken's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his contact numbers are 0317024828 / 0836545880.
South African Military History Society / email@example.com