South African Military History Society

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The meeting was opened by the Chairlady, Mrs Marjorie Dean, who welcomed all present. She then read a Remembrance Day tribute and thanked all those who had purchased poppies in the foyer, the sale of which had brought in over R600 for the SA Legion. This done, she thanked member Pierre du Toit who once again had produced a top-quality presentation of "Today in History". This presentation was then shown on the big screen and met with a round of applause.

Returning to her notices, Marjorie remarked on the good financial and membership statistics of the branch. The Society as a whole now has 535 paid-up members and the Johannesburg branch evenings now have an average attendance of 82 (86 in September). In view of this healthy position, the Society's annual subscriptions would remain unchanged in 2014. This, too, drew a round of applause.

Marjorie then announced the award of an Honorary Life Membership to Major Tony Gordon of the Cape Town Branch, before addressing the subject of co-operation with the Military Museum, which was very good.

With regard to future events, the proposed tour of Smuts House in Irene has been postponed, at their request, and will now take place early next year. Members will be advised of the new date.

Marjorie then introduced the curtain-raising speaker for the evening. This was fellow member Tim Waudby who has spoken to the meeting on two previous occasions and is a well-known member of the Branch. The subject of his talk was "The Focke Wulf FW 190". Tim is a keen amateur historian, engineer and flyer and it is the combination of these three factors which makes him stop and admire the Focke Wulf on display at the Museum whenever he arrives for a Society meeting and which, in turn, inspired this talk.

The Focke Wulf Company has been associated with aircraft manufacturing since World War I and during the 1930s tried and tested the FW 190, designed by Kurt Tank. The Luftwaffe ordered 100 of these 'planes and by 1942 forty had been produced in a pre-production run.

At that time liquid-cooled aircraft engines were the vogue and the FW 190 was unique in that it was fitted with a BMW radial engine, a technology considered out-dated. The first six off the production line were sent off for a final evaluation where it was found that the BMW 801C-1 engine was prone to overheating. In all other respects the 'plane was the ideal fighter. It was well-armed and the cockpit protection was excellent. Unfortunately, the BMW engine was the most modern and advanced in the world and when the overheating problem was solved its sheer complexity proved too much for the maintenance staff.

The programme was almost cancelled but by June 1941 the problem had been solved and production changed to a better version, known as the 190A-1. This had an explosive jettisoning device for the canopy and a cannon in each wing root, replacing two of the 'plane's 7,92 mm machine guns. The other two machine guns were mounted on the engine cowling in line with the cockpit.

Production of the 'plane was spread out among several factories, to be less exposed to Allied bombing raids and, in the spring of 1942, the 190A-3 was rolled out, with an improved engine and better radio. This model was the fastest fighter in the world and was capable of reaching 412 miles per hour. Thus it was better than the Mark V Spitfire or any other Allied fighter at the time. However, it was not as manoeuvrable as the Spitfire and suffered from poor altitude performance.

Although smaller than contemporary Allied fighters, it was very heavy and rugged and could be used in an amazing variety of rôles, including as a fighter-bomber or torpedo-bomber. The aeroplane was updated continually as the war progressed and ultimately the BMW radial engine was replaced by a 24 cylinder in-line engine, provide by Junkers or Mercedes. It then became known as the "long-nose" FW 190 and after the end of the war these aircraft were taken up into the Russian and Turkish Air Forces and continued in use until the 1950s.

At the end of this most interesting and detailed lecture Marjorie allowed a brief question period before calling on the main speaker of the evening. This was Mr Raymond Heron, an internationally known Natal Battlefield tour guide and the proprietor of Spioenkop Lodge on Woodlands Farm (formerly Spearman's Farm) near Ladysmith in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Ray is also a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and Assistant Chairman of the Natal Battlefields Association. Thus he is uniquely qualified to speak on "Buller's Campaign during the Anglo Boer War".

Redvers Henry Buller was to become a controversial figure but in 1895 he was at the height of his career as Adjutant General of the British Army. He had had a distinguished career, serving in most of the hot spots of the British Empire, and had earned the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Hlobane, in the Zulu War. He was regarded as a fighting soldier and an Africa specialist. He was also regarded as a good leader, although in fact he had never held an independent command.

When things started to get difficult in South Africa in 1899, he was summoned to the War Office and offered the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Forces in South Africa, in the case of war breaking out. He declined the post, pointing out that he would rather go as Second-in-Command. Nevertheless, when the Anglo-Boer War did break out, he was appointed as Commander-in-Chief, with immediate effect. His request for an additional 50 000 troops for his campaign was slashed to 10 000 and his departure for South Africa was delayed for a fortnight by red tape.

When he finally arrived in Cape Town he decided that as the Commander he should operate against the Boers in Natal. He had specifically ordered the local commander, General Penn-Symons, not to cross the Tugela River to meet the Boer advance. This order had been ignored; Penn-Symons was killed at Talana and his successor, General White, was bottled up under siege in Ladysmith. Other British forces were besieged at Mafeking and Kimberly, but Buller saw relieving Ladysmith as his first priority. He promptly moved on up to Durban, gathered together a force of 30 000 men and advanced up the rail line to Frere, where he established his headquarter.

His first major task was to get across the Tugela and he decided on a frontal attack at Colenso. The Boers, under General Louis Botha, were waiting for him and the assault ended in an ignominious defeat. Buller suffered heavy losses, amongst whom was Lt Freddie Roberts, the only son of Field Marshall Lord Roberts. Freddie was killed in a gallant, but vain, attempt to move a number of Buller's guns which were in danger of being over-run by the Boers.

The defeat of Colenso was followed by the even more disastrous defeat at Spioen Kop. Buller was by now personally thoroughly demoralised and made the career-limiting mistake of telling Whitehall that he intended to tell General White to "fire off all his ammunition and surrender". This thoroughly alarmed the British politicians and they promptly sent out Lord Roberts as new C-in-C, with Kitchener as his 2IC. Buller was relegated to OC of the Natal area and told to do nothing further and await instructions from Roberts. White ignored Buller's suggestion that he surrender and Buller continued in his attempts (ultimately successful) to cross the Tugela and relieve Ladysmith.

At this stage, Ray broke away from Buller's campaign and instead postulated the theory "what if Buller's idea of surrendering Ladysmith had been accepted?" If Ladysmith surrendered, the Boers would have been able to call for negotiations, in which they would have held the whip hand, and it is possible the war could have been ended. This didn't happen and instead the war dragged on, with its attendant concentration camps and guerrilla phase; the construction of about 8 000 block houses across the country and the subsequent desperate fight to the bitter end by the so-called Boer "bittereinders". The legacy of hate and mistrust by the Afrikaners towards "the English" which arose from this lasted for generations and culminated with the Nationalist Party coming in to power in 1948. Ray proffered the idea that it is just possible that if White had indeed surrendered much of what subsequently occurred might not have happened and South Africa's history might have been irrevocably changed.

Returning to Buller, Ray added, during the ensuing question time, that Buller, although sidelined by the War Office, remained a highly respected general, especially by those who served under his command. He is one of the very few soldiers present at the unveiling of his own monument when, in 1905, a statue in his honour was unveiled in his home town of Exeter in Devon. He died of natural causes in 1908.

At the conclusion of this question period Marjorie called upon Committee member David Scholtz to thank both speakers. This was done with aplomb, during the course of which Mrs Lynette Heron was presented with a bouquet of flowers for accompanying her husband Ray all the way from Ladysmith to attend the meeting on her birthday.

Ivor Little.

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May all members enjoy a blessed Christmas and a prosperous 2014, while those who travel do so safely.

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12th December:
CR: Colin Dean - A Strange Naval Officer, a Cat and a Dog: Lake Tanganyika 1915
ML: Temba Ndebele-Monyela - Personal experiences of Military Training in Russia

16th January 2014 (Please note THIRD Thursday of the month)
CR: Fr Anthony Egan Can there be a Just War ?
ML: Dr. Anne Samson Behind the Scenes of SA's WW1 Involvement

KZN in Durban:

12th December 2013 (note one talk only):
Main Lecture: Ken Gillings Groenkop - General Christiaan de Wet's Christmas Day surprise

16th January 2014 (NB Third Thursday):
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "Tin Tin and Military History" by Dr Mark Coghlan
Main Talk: "Update on Syria" by Major Peter Williams.

Cape Town:

December - in recess


Monday 9th December
at 19h30 at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth.
The topic for the evening will be Military aspects of the Great Trek presented by Pat and Anne Irwin. The meeting will be preceded by the screening at 18h30 of the next episode of the 'World at War' series which was not broadcast on television. This is the remaining 50 minutes left of Episode E which was started in October..

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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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