South African Military History Society

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The Chairlady, Marjorie Dean, opened the October meeting by welcoming all present and then presenting a Power Point display of "Today in History". She then tackled the monthly notices. The Society is going from strength to strength, with an average attendance of 82 members at each Johannesburg monthly meeting. The outside activities are also doing well. An instance of this was the recent Heritage Day tour to Val, which was a resounding success. The next outing will be on Saturday, 16 November, and will take the form of a self-drive tour to Jan Smuts' house in Irene, commencing at 11h00. Further details will be provided at the forthcoming monthly meeting.

The notices concluded, Marjorie then introduced the curtain-raiser speaker, who was our well-known former chairman and tour organiser, Bob Smith. Bob recently took a group of Society members on a cruise to the South Atlantic island of St Helena and this talk, titled "Boer Life on St Helena Island", was in the nature of a feedback about this visit.

During the course of the Second Anglo-Boer War, from 1899-1902, over six thousand Boer prisoners were transported by the British and incarcerated on this lonely island.

Bob started by giving the audience an historical background of the island, first touched at by the Portuguese in 1502. Since then it has passed through English, Dutch and English possession and has been British since 1673. It has the oldest Anglican Church in the Southern Hemisphere (St James, built in 1774) and is one of the remotest settled islands in the world.

Using a map of St Helena, Bob showed the location of Jamestown, the capital, named after King James II of England. It is a natural fortress and is located in a long, narrow and steep valley. Bob then showed the location of two camps erected by the British to house their Boer prisoners and their relation to Jamestown.

Using photographs taken by Mr Robin Castell in a book titled "A Photographic Journal of St Helena", and with the author's permission, Bob then went back in history to the time of the island's most famous resident, Napoleon Bonaparte. He started with illustrations of Jamestown and Longwood House where Napoleon lived and died, paused briefly to meet Chief Dinuzulu KaCetshwayo, who spent seven years in exile on the island, and then introduced a 170-year old tortoise named Jonathon, who personally witnessed many of the events in Bob's talk.

Most of the Boer prisoners sent to St Helena were captured when General Piet Cronj‚ surrendered to Lord Roberts after the battle of Paardeberg on 27 February 1900. These men were delivered to St Helena in several ships and split up between two camps named Deadwood and Broadwood. General Cronje‚ and his wife were separated from his men and accommodated at Kent Cottage, in an area named Briars.

The Boer prisoners of war were well received by the local population and Governor and, although originally their living arrangements were very primitive in tented camps, they soon settled in and erected wooden and tin cabins. As the prisoners settled in, so they expanded their amenities and included shops, workshops and classrooms. They were able to earn money by working for the islanders; the younger men attended school; hobbies were encouraged and amateur theatricals were popular. Many of the artefacts carved and produced by the prisoners are sought-after antiques today. Only one prisoner, a man named Smorenburg, attempted an escape but he was re-captured at Ascension Island and returned to St Helena.

At the war's end the prisoners were repatriated and the camps demolished. Five prisoners elected to remain on the island, together with about 200 Boers who died in captivity and were buried on the island.

Bob then changed to photographs of the recent Society tour and showed that these graves are beautifully maintained. There are also two reminders there in honour of those who died. The prisoners are also commemorated by a statue titled "Banneling" (Banished) in the grounds of the Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein.

At the close of this most interesting talk Marjorie allowed a short question time and then introduced the next speaker.

This was Andre van der Veer, a keen battlefield traveller and researcher, investment banker and financier. His chosen topic was "Kormoran: Surprise on the High Seas" and his talk dealt with the naval action on 19 November 1941 during World War II when HMAS Sydney, searching for a possible German surface raider, came across the German raider Kormoran.

Andre commenced by giving a brief history of the Kormoran and her raiding career, which resulted in her being off the coast of Western Australia at the same time as the Sydney. He did the same with the career of the latter ship and then did an overview of the careers of both ships' captains.

HMAS Sydney was an Australian light cruiser under the command of Captain Joseph Burnett, a meticulous and painstaking officer. The auxiliary cruiser (raider) Kormoran was a converted merchant ship, under the command of FregattenKapitan (Commander) Theodore Detmers. The latter was in complete contrast to Burnett, being a highly motivated and do-or-die character.

Controversy has surrounded the ensuing action but Andre spelt out the facts very precisely, using a tabular format comparing the action of the two sides. In summary, the action lasted no more than half-an-hour.

The Sydney sighted a strange merchant ship and closed with her, signalling to the Kormoran to stop and identify himself. Detmers, realising that his ship was heavily outgunned and outclassed by the Australian cruiser, deliberately fumbled the flag and lamp signals to gain time and allow the Sydney to approach within range. The Kormoran's disguise as the Dutch ship Straat Malakka, and her apparent incompetence in signalling, drew the Sydney into a distance of 10 000 metres from the Kormoran as Burnett apparently came in close to make sure who she was, thus losing the advantages of her superior armour and gun range. When the Sydney was well within range, Detmers revealed his true colours and opened fire on the unprepared vessel. Engulfed in a hail of fire, the Sydney managed to get off only a few rounds but these were enough to start a blaze on the Kormoran, which rapidly got out of control. The Sydney was also ablaze and completely out of control, sheering away from the action. She staggered towards Geraldton on the Australian coast but was so badly damaged that four hours later her bows broke off in the heavy swell running and Sydney sank with no survivors.

The Kormoran lay stopped with a fire in the engine room which spread throughout the ship until it reached a hold full of mines, which detonated and blew the ship apart, though not before Detmers had successfully abandoned ship. The German casualties totalled 82.

The Australian public refused to accept that a top-class warship of the likes of the Sydney had been sunk by a converted merchantman and many theories were floated regarding submarines and Nazi atrocities but two courts of enquiry failed to find any evidence of anything other than a straight-forward gun action. It was only when the wrecks of both ships were finally located in 2008 that examination of the wrecks corroborated the story above, as first told by Detmers and other survivors. It was simply a case of an over-confident and meticulous captain approaching too close to one who was ready and prepared to go down fighting.

At the close of this most interesting talk and a short question period, Marjorie called upon Vice-Chairman Malcolm King to thank both speakers. This done, she advised members of a bumper book sale put on by Margaret and Peter Rush in the tea room, and then closed the meeting.

Ivor Little.

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POPPY DAY COLLECTION - Johannesburg Lecture Meeting

Please will members be generous in their donations which will be collected on the night.

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by Tim Couzens

A flyer accompanying this newsletter suggests a suitable piece of temptation for inclusion in Christmas stockings.... the SAMHSEC newsletter included enthusiastic support for this book.

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"Chantel Evans" e-mailed:

Could you please direct me to someone that can shed a little light on the Brighton Beach Tidal pool on the Bluff, in Durban. I believe it was built by the Italian prisoners of war after World War two, but cannot fine any documentation or pictures in any archives thereof. I am really interested in the history of the Bluff and would gladly appreciate any help on this.

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14th November:
CR: Tim Waudby - Focke-Wulfe 190
ML: Raymond Heron - Buller's Campaign: S.A. War 1899-1902

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

KZN in Durban:

14th November:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "General George Patton and the Falais Gap" by Dr John Buchan
Main Lecture: "Camouflage" by Chairman Charles Whiteing.

Sunday 17th November 2013:
Branch Luncheon, Westville Country Club. Please confirm attendance with Charles Whiteing.
Tel 031 764 7270 or . Payment in advance at the next meeting please.

12th December 2013:
Topic to be confirmed (one talk only) followed by end of the year Cocktail function.
Cape Town:

14th November:
Commemorating the fallen: The Origin & History of Poppy Day (Remembrance Day) and the
Role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by Brig Gen John del Monte and Johan van den Berg.


Saturday 9th November:
The programme is morning visits to the Prince Alfred's Guard War Memorial in St George's Park
and Headquarters in the Port Elizabeth Drill Hall conducted by fellow member Terry Pattison.
The afternoon speaker is Fred Oelschig on SADF officer training.

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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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