South African Military History 


Newsletter No 93 June 2012 / Nuusbrief Nr 93 Junie 2012

In the open house series, Pat Irwin briefly recounted the 1949 ‘Yangtse Incident’. This followed an earlier talk (April 2012) which highlighted the story of Able Seacat Simon who had been awarded the Dicken Medal for gallantry during that action. HMS Amethyst, a 1350 ton sloop sent to Nanking to provide support for British subjects in the beleaguered capital had become trapped on a sand bank after being fired upon by the Chinese communists during the civil war then raging in China. She was shelled and sniped at for a further 100 days despite fruitless negotiations and attempts to tow her off, sustaining considerable damage and the loss of her Captain and 22 crew members. Eventually on Sunday 30th July Amethyst, having secretly repaired her engines, broke free, her surviving crew reportedly singing ‘Cruising down the river on a Sunday afternoon’, which was subsequently to become a popular hit song. Upon reaching the mouth of the Yangtse, she sent out the famous laconic signal “Have rejoined the fleet.”

Delivering the curtain raiser, Anne Irwin demonstrated how a dictionary entry about the colour of a dye led to some interesting information about the Battle of Solferino, fought on 24th June 1859. Not only was it the last decisive engagement in the Second Italian War of Independence, but it was the last major battle where all the armies involved were under the personal command of their monarchs i.e. Napoleon III, Victor Emmanuel II and Franz Joseph I. The blood-drenched battle field, which had been the scene of 40 000 casualties in a single day, was the inspiration for the colour solferino.  It is also significant that the Swiss businessman, Jean-Henri Dunant, happened to witness the immense suffering of the wounded and later set in motion a process that would lead to the drawing up of the Geneva Conventions and the establishment of the International Red Cross and later, the Red Crescent. She ended her presentation with a reading of a poem, The forced recruit at Solferino by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The main lecture was presented by Franco Cilliers on the ‘Battle of Jutland’ which was fought in the North Sea from 31 May until 1 June 1916. The combatants were the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas fleet. The Admirals involved were John Jellicoe and David Beatty on the British side and Reinhard Scheer and Franz Hipper on the German side. The German plan was to use Admiral Hipper’s battlecruisers to lure a part of the Grand Fleet towards the German submarines and the High Seas Fleet, and thereby destroy parts of it to even out the High Seas Fleet’s numerical inferiority. The battle is commonly divided into three parts, the battlecruiser action, the fleet action and the night and disengagement action.

The British, knowing through code breaking that the High Seas Fleet was deploying, set out to destroy it. The battlecruiser action was fought between Beatty and Hipper. Hipper attempted to lure Beatty and his battlecruisers toward the German High Seas Fleet that was acting in distant support of him. Once the British battlecruisers sighted the High Seas Fleet coming north however, they turned and withdrew towards the Grand Fleet, which was heading south to intercept the Germans. At this point, Scheer had no idea that the Grand Fleet had sailed from its base at Scapa Flow.

The fleet action was joined by the Grand Fleet deploying in a formation that would cross the High Seas Fleet’s T. A very brief exchange of gunfire ensued before the German fleet reversed course to escape the concentrated gunfire of the Grand Fleet. Scheer, realizing that if he withdrew at this point he would be in tactical trouble, decided to turn back towards the Grand Fleet, during which manoeuvre he ordered his escorting forces to launch torpedo attacks against it. After about 15 minutes he ordered his battlecruisers to ‘charge’ the British fleet, as a cover for him to withdraw. The High Seas Fleet also laid smoke screens to cover their second turn away from the Grand Fleet. As night settled, Jellicoe thought that Scheer would head south to escape. Instead, Scheer decided to cross Jellicoe’s wake and escape via Horn’s Reef. The night action was an extremely confused affair, with seven encounters between the two forces.

The main sources of controversy after the battle were the use of battlecruisers in a role for which they were not intended and the poor performance of the British armour piercing shells. The unsafe ammunition handling in the British ships significantly contributed to the loss of three British battlecruisers, including HMS Queen Mary, from which there were only 20 survivors of a crew of 1 286. The British method of gunnery control was superior to that of the Germans and achieved more hits at long distance, but the German gunnery was quicker on target than the British. The signalling in the British fleet was not well executed and caused uncoordinated actions among the ships. The fleet standing orders were also inflexible, which led to a lack of initiative among the British captains. Subsequent to the battle, an additional signal was added which allowed the commanders to act independently, whilst still in support of the fleet.

So who won? This is a matter of debate. Materially, the Germans were the victors as they sank more ships, but they surrendered control of the North Sea to the British, the High Seas Fleet, apart from minor sorties, remaining in its base at Wilhelmshaven for the rest of the war. So, in a sense, one could argue that the British were the real winners, although not all British saw it that way. The indirect sequel to this non-action by the High Seas Fleet was the 1918 fleet mutiny. After the November 1918 Armistice the German fleet was required to sail to Scapa Flow to surrender. There it was deliberately scuttled by its German crews rather than hand their ships over.

Two anecdotes relating to the battle are of interest. It saw the posthumous award of the VC to the youngest ever recipient – Boy, First Class, Jack Cornwell, aged 16, who continued to man his gun on HMS Chester, despite being mortally wounded. One of the survivors of HMS Queen Mary, one Bill Bailey, was also a survivor of the Titanic four years earlier. He subsequently emigrated to South Africa and lived in Barberton until his death in the 1960s.

Next meeting
SAMHSEC’s next meeting will be at 14h00 on 9th June 2012 at the Rhodes University Education Department, Grey Street, Grahamstown. The curtain raiser will be by Rick van Heerden entitled ‘The Extraordinary Case of Mikhail Petrovich Devyataev’. The main lecture will be by Olenka de Sas Kropiwnicka on her experiences of the Warsaw Uprising and incarceration in the Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck Concentration Camps. There will be no screening of the ‘World at War’ series.

Starting at 10h30, there will be a tour of the following sites in Grahamstown: The Bible Monument (with Ds Strauss de Jager), the WW II 44 Air School signalling devices, the trenches on the golf course manned by St. Andrew’s College Cadets during the ABW, and the Royal Engineers Building on the Rhodes University campus. This will be followed by a bring-your-own picnic on the Education Faculty lawns.

Matters of general interest
New Members: We welcome Carol Victor and David Brown to the Society.

Malcolm Kinghorn has the following interesting material if you would like a copy. They are available from him on request, up to the end of June 2012 :
- Two items on the Australian commemoration of ANZAC Day.
- The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Quarterly Report – February to April 2012.

Gert Opperman het die volgende inligting oor die gereelde klagtes wat oor die toestand van die O'Niel se kothuis (O’Niel’s Cottage) ontvang word, aan ons aandag gebring. Die kothuis is geleë aan die onderkant van die Majuba-berg, ongeveer halfpad tussen Volksrust in Mpumalanga en Newcastle in KZN. Die vredesooreenkoms wat die eerste Vryheidsoorlog tot 'n einde gebring het, is in hierdie huis onderteken. Beide die SA Erfenishulpbronagentskap (SAHRA) en die provinsiale erfenisliggaam van KZN (bekend as AMAFA), was hul hande van O'Niel se kothuis, wat vroeër 'n verklaarde erfenisterrein was. Die Erfenisstigting het gevolglik verantwoordelikheid aanvaar vir die pogings om dit van totale verval te red, sonder enige vorm van staatsbydrae. Vir verderer inligting oor besluite geneem na afloop van besoek aan O'Niel's Cottage en Newcastle op 20 Apr 2012 kontak  Gert Opperman, Besturende Direkteur, Die Erfenisstigting Tel: 012 - 326 6770 Sel: 083 300 4580 Faks: 086 615 9587

Paul Els het inligting oor die Grensoorlog Gedenkaand op 1 September 2012 onder ons aandag gebring. Majoor Jack Greeff, oud-Recce en ontvanger van ‘n Honoris Crux gaan oor OPERASIE KERSLIG – 1981 praat by Bobbiespark, Bloemfontein. Koste R 180-00p/p (Ete ingesluit). Kontak : 08 444 88 575 Theo du Plessis en 082 336 4431 Willem Venter (Gereël deur en vriende in samewerking met CVO Skool Dankbaar). Kaartjies is te koop by MM Boekhandel, Meditas Sentrum, Universitas, Bloemfontein.

Members’ activities
Several members (Malcolm Kinghorn, Andre and Lynn Crozier, Richard Tomlinson and Pat Irwin) attended the Echo (East Cape Historical Organisation) weekend in Grahamstown in May. Peter Duffel-Canham recently visited Haenertsburg, the ‘spiritual home’ of the ABW Long Toms, and Lake Chrissie, the site of a pre-dawn clash between Generals Louis Botha and Horace Smith-Dorrien on 6th February 1901.

Some notable anniversaries in June
June is a month of many military historical anniversaries. Here are a few of interest:

Websites of interest
World War I

The original Air Aces: The Royal Flying Corp’s 100th Anniversary
BBC News Magazine 7/5/2012

World War II
This year marks the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, a man whose super-intelligence made a significant contribution to the outcome of WW II.
S. Barry Cooper, ZDNet UK 12/3/2012
See also general sites on Turing

The Spanish link in cracking the Enigma code.
Gordon Corera Security correspondent, BBC News 23/3/2012

Lost Second World War pilot's family hope to lay him to rest after plane found.
Hannah Furness, The Telegraph 14/5/2012

The Dambusters remembered.
The Sun 16/5/2012

[Food for thought] Surge of offers to help NZ Pathfinder veteran to fly to UK. 12/4/2012

Victoria Crosses in one family.<
Submitted by Richard Tomlinson

The Falklands war
Thirty years on, Argentine survivors of the sinking of the heavy cruiser Belgrano recall the moment the Falklands war erupted around them. Also gives a number of interesting leads to follow.

The Border War
Submitted by Malcolm Kinghorn and Jeremy Swanson
SADF Operation Packer (1988) Part 1.
SADF Operation Packer (1988) Part 2.
SADF Operation Packer Part 3.

Cyber warfare
There was Stuxnet, Duqu, now Flame is spreading
The Sydney Morning Herald 29/5/2012

Books of military historical interest

New/Recent books on the market

The following books focus on reminiscences of the Border War / Bush War / War in Angola in the 1970s and 1980s. They deal with similar issues from different perspectives and both are valuable contributions to South African military history.

Geldenhuys Jannie (Compiler) 2012 We were there: Winning the war for South Africa. Pretoria Kraal publishers 716pp.
This substantial collection of reminiscences and first-hand accounts by South African soldiers will in the long term provide valuable and authentic sources of primary material for anyone with an objective interest in the study of the South West African /Angolan conflict between 1965 and 1989. The accounts, which cover a very wide range of experiences from weapons procurement to the difficult and unenviable role of chaplains, are generally well written, easy to read, refreshingly honest and sometimes critical of the SADF and South African politicians; it is a credit to the integrity of the compiler that these have been included. There is also much humour. One frustration, however, is that there is little in the way of referencing, and no index. More rigorous editing could also have substantially enhanced its value to users. If one were to fault the book as an historical source, it is unfortunate that there is only one account from the many black soldiers who fought willingly, loyally and bravely in the SADF and SWATF. Their stories would add valuable perspective to that long conflict as well as correct some of the current political distortions of it. A difficulty of a different sort lies in some of the chapters, (particularly the later ones) in which Geldenhuys does not separate his own political views from the broader political issues he is outlining. The discerning reader will however sort this and a few factual errors (such as the meaning of the name SanParks) out. This book is nevertheless essential reading to understand the war. It is also available in Afrikaans as Ons was daar: Wenners van die oorlog om suider Afrika.

Shubin Gennady & Tokarev Andre (Eds) 2011 Bush War: The road to Cuito Cuanavale: Soviet soldiers accounts of the Angolan War. Auckland Park Jacana Media 200pp.

This book offers a perspective on the war by seven Russian military advisors to the Angolan and Cuban forces in Angola in the late 1980s. Written without rancour and free of ideological rhetoric, it is ‘soldiers’ stuff’ – how individual professional soldiers experienced events and coped with them, many of which dovetail with the accounts of the individuals in Geldenhuys’ We were there. The perspectives offered are often disarmingly frank, containing interesting comment on the organisation and combat performance of the Cubans and FAPLA as well as the SADF and UNITA. There are many interesting comments on the weaponry employed, for example the G5 and G6 guns (and their remarkable accuracy!), the Russian D30 howitzer and the Valkyrie and BM-21 rocket launchers. Two thirds of this book is made up of the diary and reflections of Lt.Col. Igor Zhdarkin – a short extract from which also appears in Geldenhuys’ book. Six other officers and the editors occupy the remaining 66 pages. The book will be of interest to many South Africans who participated in that conflict, not least to hear something of their erstwhile enemies’ viewpoints.

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn: -
Scribes: Anne and Pat Irwin
Correspondence to:
Society’s Web address: 

South African Military History Society /