South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 433
March 2012

Contact: Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Bill Brady 031 561 5542
Society's web site address:

The Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture ("DDH") was presented by fellow member Rob Crawley entitled "Jackie Fisher and the Dreadnaught".
The day HMS Dreadnought joined the Royal Navy in 1906; she rendered every existing battleship in all other Navies obsolete. That remarkable achievement came about by the drive, enthusiasm and passion of one man - Admiral Sir John Fisher - Britain's First Sea Lord. John Arbuthnot Fisher was born on 25 January 1841 in Rambodd, Ceylon - now Sri Lanka. His first seagoing experience was on the 84-gun 2 Decker Calcutta to the Baltic Sea. The Royal Navy at this time had not known a major war since Trafalgar - some 40 years before, and the Crimean war had just broken out. An inefficient naval force headed for the Baltic Sea under the Command of the Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Napier, whilst the Mediterranean Fleet made its hesitant way in the Black Sea. The conduct of these campaigns provided Fisher with evidence of the decay in the fighting efficiency of the Navy and this prepared the ground for his later reforms.

His appointment to the China Station as a Commander saw him institute many needed reforms. Work was a great balm which deflected his irritation in a more profitable direction - like improving every branch of the service and his own reputation at the same time. As a result of the high praise from admiral Kellet, Fisher was promoted to Captain at the early age of 33. He became the protégé of two most senior and powerful admirals, Sir Astley Cooper-Key and Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, future and past First Naval Lords.

A crisis was developing in Egypt which demanded the attention of the Mediterranean Fleet. Fisher was put in charge of defending Alexandria, and together with Captain Arthur Wilson contrived an armoured train for reconnaissance with a 40 pounder gun mounted on it. The successful defence of Alexandria and construction of the armoured train with which Fisher was exclusively credited, brought his name for the first time before the British Public. Admiral Seymour and the Army Generals heaped praise on him. The queen sent him a letter of congratulations. When the honours and rewards list was published, his name appeared to be appointed as a Companion of the Bath (CB)

The Naval Defence Act 1893 provided for seven battleships, thirty cruisers, no fewer than 112 torpedo boats and destroyers. Fishers own part in this victory for National Security was recognised when he was appointed a KCB on 26 May 1894. Fisher's reform continued - quick firing guns, water tube boilers, torpedo boat destroyers. In March 1892 he was sent to The Hague Peace Conference as the British Naval Representative. At the end of the conference, he was to take up the appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. He was determined to change it from a Cruise Fleet, to one ready for instant war. Within a year, Fisher had entirely transformed the spirit, skill and fighting prowess of his fleet. Dreadnought's keel was laid on 2 October 1905 and she was launched on 10 February 1906. She went to sea one year and one day after she was begun.

Fisher was raised to the Peerage on the King's birthday and retired on his own 69th Birthday. Fisher died of cancer at St. James Square, London, on 10 July 1920, aged 79. Fisher's ashes were taken by train to Kilverstone, escorted by a Royal Navy guard of honour, and were placed in the grave of his wife, underneath a chestnut tree, overlooking the figurehead of his first seagoing ship, Calcutta.

The main talk was presented by guest speaker Captain Charles Ross entitled "The Commonwealth War Graves Commission in South Africa".
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Sir Fabian Ware was concerned that the lack of a dedicated outfit to record the graves of the fallen would result in that the graves would be lost forever. He mobilised a number of volunteers and proceeded to France to ensure that all the graves of the fallen were marked and recorded. By 1915 the volunteers were incorporated into the British Army with the official title Grave Registration Commission. This resulted in the establishing of the Imperial War Graves Commission by Royal Charter on 17 May 1917. In accordance with the Royal Charter the "Imperial War Graves Commission is to commemorate the Imperial war dead of the two world wars by making fit provision in perpetuity for their graves and memorials and by maintaining records of the dead." The Commission had to abide by the four principles: Each of the dead should be commemorated individually by name either on a headstone on the grave or by an inscription on a memorial. Headstones and memorials should be permanent. Headstones should be uniform. There should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed.

After the First World War the Commission constructed a number of cemeteries and memorials using some of the best known architects. During the Second World War the Armed Forces and the Commission were much better prepared. Today the Commission is responsible for the following: 1.7 million casualties, 940 000 burials, 2 000 constructed cemeteries, 21 000 other cemeteries, 760 000 no known grave. To ensure that the Commission achieve its objectives as stipulated in the Royal Charter it is organised as follows: Head Office, 5 Area Offices, United Kingdom, France Area, Northern Europe, and Western Mediterranean. The Commission is also active in another 150 countries.

To ensure that the Commission meets its obligations each of the five area offices have permanent and mobile gardening teams. Each of these teams is fully equipped and have gardeners trained at various levels. While the permanent teams are based at specific cemeteries, the mobile teams are responsible for a number of cemeteries which maintained in accordance with a set schedule. Competition between the various teams is very high and teams always strive to ensure that their cemetery is the best. In some of the cemeteries the third generation is working as gardeners. The gardening teams are supported by mobile works teams who is responsible for all structural work in the various cemeteries. The South African Agency was established on 21 October 1921 by means of an Instrument of Agency and formed part of the then Department of Public Works. In terms of the Instrument of Agency a Committee comprising representatives from the Department of Works (who assumed the position as Chairperson), Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs was responsible for the maintenance of the graves in South Africa and Namibia. The Secretary of the Agency was then tasked to ensure that the work agreed upon was carried out.

Since the 1980's the Agency is no longer part of the Department of Public Works and reports directly to the Director General of the Commission. It is only the title of the head of the Agency, ie the Secretary that remained. Today the Agency comprises five permanent staff members and one part time staff member. Staff comprises the Secretary, Office Administrator, a Technical assistant (Commonwealth graves) and a Technical Assistant (Anglo-Boer War graves) while the part time staff member is a clerical assistant that comes in three times a week. Following an initial feasibility study during which 220 sites were identified the formal agreement between the Governments of South Africa and the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland was signed in September 2005. In accordance with the agreement the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was given the responsibility to renovate and maintain the British (Imperial) graves from the Anglo-Boer War. At the time a decision was taken that only those sites with 10 or more graves would be renovated and maintained, unless the site was of significant historical importance.

Work on the project formally started in 2006 and was due to be completed during the 2010/2011 financial year. Due to conditions outside the control of the Agency the project fell behind schedule and has just been completed. In view of the decision not to erect a memorial to those whose graves were not renovated or maintained the number of sites had been increased to 270 sites. The 270 sites will be inspected annually by the Commonwealth staff, where the graves are in the same cemetery as Commonwealth war graves while the Technical Assistant will inspect all other sites. The 85 sites maintained by appointed contractors will also be inspected by Commonwealth staff every year. In 31 of the cemeteries the South African Agency has established, or are in the process of establishing, horticulture while the rest are mainly dry sites.

The high profile sites are visited every six months. This includes the sites where horticultural contractors have been appointed.

Following a lively question and answer debate the vote of thanks was presented by Charles Whiteing

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Thursday 8th March 2011 - 19h00 for 19h30.
Venue: Murray Theatre, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.
The Darrell Hall (DDH) Memorial Lecture will be - The Final Days of the U Boats by Charles Whiteing.

The Main Talk will be presented by guest speaker Stephen Coan on - Rider Haggard and the Anglo-Zulu War.

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12th April 2012
DDH - The Fall of Singapore by Bill Brady.
Main - Impressions of Battlefields by Pam McFadden.

10th May 2012
DDH - My experiences as a NSM Gunner in Op. Savannah, 1976 by Jeremy Day.
Main - Tunnels from the Frontier Forts by Donald Davies.

14th June 2012
DDH - Heritage and Environmental Assessments by Jean Beater. Main - Maj Gen Sir Charles Warren in Northern Natal by Prof Philip Everitt.

The AGM will take place at the April meeting which will be chaired by Ken Gillings. At the last committee meeting we lost two excellent committee members, namely Dr. Graeme Fuller, due to business pressures, and of course Prof. Mike Laing has passed on.

If you wish to nominate any individual for the committee or chairman please contact Ken Gillings, you all have his details.

Day Tours - Bluff gun emplacements and the Holocaust Museum have been recommended. Brian Hoffmann and Charles Whiteing will finalise and make the necessary arrangements.

Annual subs - are currently due and members are reminded to pay promptly otherwise they will be removed from the scroll and not receive the journals or newsletters.

Newsletters - Due to cost and time required it has been decided to phase out posting the newsletter. All members are requested to cooperate and provide an e mail address.

Membership Forms - are available on request.

Purnell's history of WW2. Five of the collection of six volumes of Purnell's history of WW2 have been donated. They are in a very good condition. Price R200,00 as a donation going to the Society. Anyone interested please contact Bill Brady on Tel nos. 031 561 5542 / 083 228 5485 on e mail address on newsletter.

2012 BATTLEFIELD TOUR. We have received several suggestions for the 2012 Battlefield Tour. These include the Brandwater Basin (in the Eastern Free State) and the 1906 Poll Tax ('Bhambatha') Rebellion. The former would necessitate a long weekend or taking leave on a Friday or Monday. The decision was therefore made to cover the latter over the weekend of the 27th / 28th October 2012. The George Hotel in Eshowe has offered the Society a very favourable rate and those intending to join the tour will be required to book directly with them. Details will follow in subsequent newsletters.

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South African Military History Society /