South African Military History Society

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The Chairlady, Marjorie Dean, opened the August meeting by welcoming the 80 members present, with a special welcome to Johan van der Berg from the Cape Town branch. Marjorie then did the usual monthly notices, mentioning in particular that the Society had congratulated the Journal editor, Susanne Blendulf, on the birth of her second child and had also sent a letter of condolence to the family of the late Vice Admiral L Woodburne.

Members are reminded of the annual "Boer and Brit" Festival at Val (outside Standerton) on Heritage Day, 24 September. The Society has organised an outing to this function which will include the unveiling of a monument to the memory of Martin Leake, VC and Bar. There will be a cost of R125 per person which will include the coach fare to and from Val. Lunch at own cost. Coach departs the Museum at 08h30 returning about 17h30. Details from or 082 557 0047.

Next on the agenda was the curtain-raiser talk and Marjorie invited Marion Mangold to come forward and introduce the speaker. Marion opened by telling the audience that the idea of the talk arose when she came across some old letters written home by her father Hubert Bowker during his service with the South African Air Force in World War II. She then introduced her brother, Stephen Bowker, who would deliver the talk.

Stephen is a member of the Eastern Cape branch and brought greetings from the branch, at which he is a frequent speaker. As well as being a keen amateur historian and biblical scholar, Stephen is also a member of the Grahamstown Historical Society. His talk was title "Hubert's Descent by Silk."

Stephen set the scene by giving a background description of the Battle of El Alamein on 23 October 1942. The Allied forces involved were supported by air cover, among which were units of the SAAF. One of these, 24 Squadron, flying Boston bombers, was charged with laying down a smoke screen across the front of the advancing infantry, a task which called for low-level flying across the length of the front line. On 24 October the squadron set off on this mission, being joined by 69 Squadron and a fighter escort en route.

Although they were met by heavy anti-aircraft fire the mission went off successfully and, after releasing their smoke bombs, the anti-aircraft fire slackened and the formation closed up. In the process a Boston from 69 Squadron rammed Boston A of 24 Squadron from behind, severely damaging its tail. "A" promptly went into a spin and the rear gunner, Hubert Bowker (Marion and Stephen's father), requested permission to "bale out". This was refused by the pilot who brought the plane under control. They were then flying straight and level and over the Allied lines, but had dropped behind the formation and had become a lone straggler.

In this vulnerable position they were pounced upon by a German ME 109F fighter. The Boston was outgunned and, to make matters worse, Hubert found that his ammunition was faulty and his twin rear machine guns kept on jamming. The Messerschmidt was on their tail and fifty yards behind when a round from its cannon hit the Boston's right engine and set it and the right hand tyre afire. While Hubert desperately kept cleaning his guns and firing in short bursts, the enemy fighter clung to their tail at fifty yards and Hubert managed to get a long tracer burst at him, which clearly registered hits on the enemy's nose, after which it broke off the engagement streaming smoke. For a brief moment calm returned in the Boston. A quick roll call revealed that the co-pilot, Lt Tom Browning, was a casualty. This was followed by a sheet of flame from the right engine nacelle and one flap of the right wing broke off. The Boston went into a violent spin and the pilot, Lt Bob Roberts, gave the order to "bale out".

Upside down and being thrown around in the spin, Hubert pulled himself to the belly hatch, passing the belly gunner, Sgt. Geyser, who was trapped beneath his gun. Hubert reached the hatch and threw himself out, being narrowly missed by the spinning plane. His parachute opened and he drifted down unmolested from a height of 5 000 feet. He landed awkwardly and was in the process of being dragged along the ground on his back by his parachute when he was rescued by a South African infantryman.

The belly gunner, Sgt Geyser, also survived. On breaking free from his gun he had no chance to clamber through the hatch but opened his parachute inside the 'plane and was whipped out at 200 feet above the ground, suffering burns and minor injuries. Lt Roberts stayed with the 'plane and attempted to level it out but was killed in the crash. The two survivors were taken to a section of the SA Infantry, then on to an Indian field hospital and finally to a hospital in Alexandria. Geyser was suffering from shock but Hubert was OK, except for a few bumps and bruises.

After a physical check-up in Cairo, Hubert was returned to the squadron where he became part of a crew piloted by a Captain Margo, later to become a prominent judge. The enemy fighter pilot also survived after a crash landing. He was Unteroffizier Erich Krainik and already had twelve victories to his name. He flew again two days later and was listed as "missing in action".

Hubert Bowker survived the war to become a member of the "Late Arrivals Club" and the "Caterpillar Club", membership of both requiring that the applicant should have been shot down in action, parachuted out and walked home back to base!

Marjorie thanked Stephen for his most interesting talk and after a short question period she introduced the next speaker. This was our well-known fellow member, Alan Mantle, who has addressed the Society on a previous occasion. Alan is a keen amateur historian who believes in on-site research and on this occasion his talk dealt with Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, the scene of his latest research.

The title of Alan's talk was "Scapa Flow and the History beneath the Waves". He commenced by pointing out that during the two World Wars of the 20th century Scapa Flow was the Royal Navy's main base and cornerstone of maritime defence. It played an integral role in the British strategy against Germany in World War I; in the defence of the North Sea and of the Atlantic convoys of World War II.

Using an impressive computer presentation, Alan showed that Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland, extends over 120 square miles; has an average depth of 30 to 40 metres and provides easy access to both the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The name Scapa Flow comes from the Old Norse used by Viking raiders and Skapafloi means "the bay of the long isthmus". The British Admiralty first took an interest in using Scapa Flow as a base during the Napoleonic Wars, as its location across from the Skagerrak gave easy access to the Baltic. Interest then lapsed until the rise of Germany as a competing naval power forced the Admiralty to prepare a North Sea strategy which brought renewed attention to the use of Scapa Flow as a base.

Although it was still unfortified, the Royal Navy's first strategic move in World War I was to position the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow in July 1914. When war broke out in August, the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow stood across Germany's access to the Atlantic over the top of Scotland and its access southwards down the North Sea. The Grand Fleet was able to sally out from Scapa to intercept any German movement and did soon on numerous occasions, the three most important being the Battle of Dogger Bank; the Battle of Heligoland Bight and the Battle of Jutland. The base in Scapa Flow was a safe one.

Two attempts by German U-boats to enter the Flow both ended in disaster for them. The Germans missed the approaches to the Flow and achieved a singular success when the cruiser HMS Hampshire, carrying Lord Kitchener on a mission to Russia, was mined and sank while leaving the Flow in June 1916. The only other wartime casualty in the Flow was the battleship HMS Vanguard which accidentally exploded and sank at her moorings in 1917. During that same year an important piece of history took place in Scapa Flow when the South African-born Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning was the first aviator to land an aeroplane on a moving ship. (HMS Furious.)

With the signing of the armistice in 1918, it was decided to intern the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow to await a decision as to its fate. 74 German warships were escorted to the Flow and anchored there under the command of Admiral von Reuter. Negotiations about these ships dragged along and an eventual lack of communication decided von Reuter to destroy his fleet, to avoid the ships falling into British hands in the event of a resumption of hostilities. He chose the moment when the guarding British fleet was out on an exercise and ordered his ships to scuttle themselves. Fifty two of the seventy four German ships successfully carried out this order and this remains the greatest loss of shipping ever recorded in a single day. Many of these ships were subsequently salvaged by Ernest Cox and Company between the wars, who raised all except seven which still lie in the Flow, where they form the ideal location for recreational wreck diving.

Scapa's defences were dismantled after that war and with the outbreak of World War II, when the Flow was once again brought into use, it proved very vulnerable. This was brought home when, in October 1939, the submarine U-47 penetrated the anchorage and torpedoed the British battleship HMS Royal Oak. Three days later the base was attacked by German Junkers 88 bombers in one of the first bombing attacks on Britain. The base was immediately strengthened by anti-aircraft defences; blockships and barriers across the shallow approach channels and off-shore minefields.

After playing a major role in the various battles in northern waters, the base was run down after World War II and eventually closed in 1957. Today Scapa Flow is a peaceful sheet of water used mainly as a transfer point for tankers shuttling North Sea oil. It is also popular with divers going down to the German wrecks. The wrecks of the Vanguard, Royal Oak and Hampshire are protected war graves and there are monuments to the Hampshire (the Kitchener memorial) and the Royal Oak. The anti-submarine barriers (known as the Churchill Barriers) are still there and serve as access roads to the Island. There is also a beautiful chapel on Lamb Holm which was built by the Italian prisoners of war who constructed the barriers but otherwise Scapa Flow has quietly sunk back into obscurity.

At the conclusion of this most interesting talk Marjorie asked Committee member Colin Dean to thank both speakers and then closed the meeting.

Ivor Little

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Forthcoming Lectures


12th September:
CR: John Bleloch The Lion of the West : de la Rey
ML: John Parkinson HMS Durban in the Mediterranean 1934-36

10th October:
CR: Bob Smith - Boer Life on St. Helena
ML: Andre van der Veer - Kormoran : Surprise on the High Seas

KZN in Durban:

12th September::
Ross Cairns - Julius Caesar's Invasion of Gaul
(Note: Ross is a student at Kearsney College).
Roy Bowman - The Naval Battles of Guadalcanal Part 1

10th October:
Darrell Dickon Hall Memorial Lecture: "The Terracotta Warriors", by Dr John Cooke
Main Lecture: "British Psychological Warfare in Aden in the 1960s", by Donald Davies.

Cape Town:

12th September:
Current and recent major armed conflicts in Africa by Major Helmoed Roemer-Heitman


Monday 9th September at 1930 in the EP Veteran Car Club.
Curtain raiser: Alec Grant - Scotland
Main lecture: Sam van den Berg - Armoured car driver in Operation Savannah
The meeting will be preceded by the screening at18h30 of the third episode of the 'World at War' series
which was not broadcast on TV. This is thefirst 50 minutes of 'Episode D' titled Hitler's Germany 1933 - 1939.

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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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