South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 445
March 2013

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 Chairman Bill Brady on "The St. Nazaire Raid."
The raid on St. Nazaire in March 1942 was one of the most outstanding acts of heroism in World War Two. More VC's were won during this classic combined services raid than in any other operation in the war. The St. Nazaire dock was the largest dry dock in the world, able to accommodate a ship of 85,000 tons and contained a fully-equipped submarine base. The Tirpitz, then in Norwegian waters, was the most powerful battleship in the world, and St Nazaire, where she could be maintained and repaired, was the key to her wider operations in the Atlantic

In January 1942 Lord Louis Mountbatten, Director of Combined Operations, was requested to examine the prospect of an attack on St Nazaire. A plan was developed taking into consideration the latest intelligence information from all sources. The German defences were extremely strong; armed with numerous dual-purpose 40-mm, 20-mm and formidable 88mm guns.

During February, Lieutenant-Colonel Newman, commanding No. 2 Commando, was ordered to draw up a list of one hundred men to undergo special training. Commander Ryder was appointed naval force commander. The plan was to ram the lock gates with a destroyer and destroy dock installations. HMS Campbeltown, once the USS Buchanan, was converted for this purpose. Two of her four funnels were removed, and her original armament was replaced by one 12-pounder on the foredeck and eight Oerlikon cannon. The bridge and wheelhouse were armour-plated and her decks cleared except for 10 armoured screens, intended to provide shelter for the commando's during the attack. Delayed action explosive charges were placed in the bow. They were then encased in concrete in order to disguise the Campbeltown as a blockship. The ship was to be scuttled after ramming, thus making it impossible for her to be dragged clear of the dock gates before the delayed action explosion. In addition to commandos aboard the Campbeltown, other teams would travel in motor launches. A motor torpedo-boat, commanded by Sub-Lieutenant Wynn, was given the task of entering the dock and place delayed action torpedoes at the inner gate. A motor gunboat would carry the leaders of the expedition into the attack. By March 25th the force under the code name 'Chariot' was assembled at Falmouth. Two destroyers were to provide escort until night fall immediately before the attack. The total force numbered 611 men.

60 RAF bombers took off from England, bound for St Nazaire. Selected targets had been clearly identified. A few bombs were dropped, but cloud cover dropped well below 6,000 feet. Unfortunately, the air raid served to arouse the suspicions of the defenders and all Wehrmacht command posts were alerted. Newman's force entered the Loire estuary at 00 30 hours. Below decks the time fuses had been activated. At 01 20 hours the gunboat leading the force passed the port entrance. Suddenly, a searchlight flooded the force. Every German gun that could be brought to bear opened fire and every British gun replied. As the biggest ship, the Campbeltown was immediately the prime target. She took several direct hits and enemy fire took a heavy toll of the tight-packed commandos. Campbeltown's commander increased speed to 20 knots and gave the order: 'Stand by to ram!' Six minutes after Campbeltown struck, Newman and his party were ashore, running between the warehouses in the dock area. The officer in charge of the demolition squads landed and set out with his team to neutralise the locks. Charges were placed under the bridge, but the party then ran straight into German defenders and were cut down. Gun and searchlight positions were stormed and destroyed. German gun teams on the roof of the pumping house fled before the kilted Highlanders could reach them. The demolition team for the northern gate winding mechanism had laid their charges, but detonation had been delayed because other teams were still laying charges in the area.

Not many were able to get clear of St Nazaire; those caught were herded together in various German interrogation centres. One of the survivors was Campbeltown's commander Lieutenant- Commander Beattie, who had been picked up by a German trawler after his launch had been blown up.

He was interrogated by a German Intelligence officer who remarked rather patronisingly:
'Your people obviously didn't know what a hefty thing that lock gate is. It was really useless to try to smash it with a flimsy destroyer. ' At that moment an enormous explosion shattered the windows of the office in which the interrogation was taking place, and a vast black cloud shot up from the Campbeltown. The lock gate disintegrated and a huge wave flooded in, carrying the remains of the shattered destroyer half way along the dry dock. 'That, I hope,' said Beattie 'is proof that we did not underestimate the strength of the gate.' The following day, the first of Wynn's delayed action torpedoes blew up; and an hour later the second torpedo exploded. Operation 'Chariot' was over. Many years afterwards, at a memorial service held on the scene of their triumph, the survivors were told by the French Prime Minister: 'You were the first to bring us hope.' It was a fitting epitaph recognised by the award of 5 VC's.

The main talk was presented by fellow member Robin Smith on "Military History Travels".
Tourists with a military history interest seldom make time enough to visit anything other than the major battlefields. Famous battlefields like Isandlwana, Waterloo, Gettysburg, the Somme and Normandy all attract huge numbers of tourists. Less glamorous sites see a much lower volume of visitors. Many places where quite important battles were contested see but a handful of people. Robin's special interest is in finding and investigating those places that are in danger of being lost altogether so his presentation included some famous battlefields, some less well-known and some that had really disappeared from sight until fairly recently.

Masada is the most ancient place of conflict that he has visited. Overlooking the Dead Sea, it is a rugged natural fortress on which the Judaean king, Herod the Great, constructed a sumptuous palace complex in classical Roman style. It is an archaeological site of great significance. The remains of Herod's palaces are an outstanding and very intact example of this type of architecture, while the untouched siege works are the finest and most complete anywhere in the Roman world. Practically the only written source of what happened at Masada is The Jewish War by Josephus Flavius, born Joseph ben Matityahu. He was Governor of Galilee when the great Jewish rebellion broke out in 66 AD. He surrendered to Vespasian and became a Roman citizen, calling himself Josephus Flavius. Herod the Great, made king of Judaea by the Romans and hated by his subjects, built the fortress and palace for himself between 37 and 31 BC. Besides the palace, it included barracks, storehouses and ingeniously-filled cisterns for water. The Romans recaptured Jerusalem in 70 AD but a group of Jewish rebels and some Zealots, under Eleazar ben Ya'ir overcame the Roman garrison at Masada and occupied the fortress. They raided and harassed the Romans for two years until, in 73 AD, the Roman governor Flavius Silva marched on Masada with the Tenth Legion. The Romans established camps and built a wall around the hill. The remains of two of the camps can be seen in this picture. Using a natural spur, the Romans constructed a ramp along the western approach to the fortress. With a siege tower and a battering ram they breached the wall in the spring of 74 AD. Josephus Flavius recounted the story as told to him by two women survivors. The defenders, almost one thousand men, women and children led by Eleazar ben Ya'ir decided to end their own lives rather than be taken alive. To Israelis, Masada symbolises the determination of the Jewish people to be free in their own land.

The last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses took place on Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485. Richard III's standard was displayed on the flagstaff in Robin's slide. This site has a stone to mark the site of the hunchback King Richard's death. Unfortunately, recent research has ascertained that this is not the right place and moved it a short distance to the south, now a farmer's arable field. The reason for this is the finding of a bronze boar badge and a hoard of medieval weapons on the new field. It is said that the badge is almost certainly from a knight on Richard's retinue who rode with him to his death in the last charge.

Robin considered Waterloo to be the pivotal battle of the 19th century, marking the end of Napoleon's military career. This place is really very easy to access, just a few kilometres south of Brussels in Belgium. The panorama shown in Robin's slide is the scene looking to the east, taken from the top of the Lion. Wellington's headquarters during the battle was at the crossroads. On the right of his picture was the farmhouse of La Haye Saint, defended by the King's German Legion. Napoleon's headquarters was in the farmhouse of La Belle Alliance. At Hougoumont where the first action took place on the morning of 18th June, 1815, were large wooden gates, which have not been replaced, and the wall has not been rebuilt to the original height. The farmhouse of La Haye Saint, defended by the King's German Legion, is still a working farmhouse although battlefield guides are sometimes given permission to visit. The plaque on the wall is to the French attackers who eventually captured it towards evening on 18th June. The fighting around here was the fiercest anywhere on the field and Captain Johnny Kincaid of the Rifle Brigade, in position nearby, later wrote "I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed; but this seemed likely to be an exception."

If Waterloo is the easiest place to get to then the Crimea, in 1999, must have been the most difficult. By air to Odessa, in the Ukraine, where Robin and his party had dinner in an Irish pub, and then an unspeakable ten-hour ride in an old bus to Sevastopol. The hotel was grand from the outside but the plumbing and lighting were primitive. The city was then still a military zone although the army roadblocks at the entrances to the city had recently been removed. Our speaker had constant attention from the Ukraine secret police who presumably by then had little else to do. The Crimean war of 1854-56 involved Britain, France and Turkey in conflict with the Russians. Later the Sardinians joined in on the Allied side as well. The dispute was about who had jurisdiction over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, then part of the Turkish Empire. Roman Catholic monks, backed by France, had taken possession of the keys and placed a sliver star over Christ's manger. Monks of the Russian Orthodox Church objected violently and several were killed in the riot that ensued. The Czar Nicholas sent an army into the Turkish Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Neither Britain nor France was prepared to countenance an advance by Russia to gain control of the Bosphorus and the Dardenelles and thereby access to a warm water port. The Commander-in-Chief, General Lord Raglan, had a magnificent viewpoint on the Sapoune Ridge, 150 metres above the Balaclava plain, from where he issued all his orders. His orders to Lieutenant General Sir George Cathcart to move his infantry division from the ridge down onto the plain would take some time to take effect. Raglan needed immediate action and so he sent a series of messages to Lieutenant General Lord Lucan, the cavalry commander, urging an advance. Lucan took some time to act and finally, an exasperated Raglan sent Captain Louis Nolan, an expert horseman and someone who had been very critical of Lucan, with a message that said "Immediate".

There were 10,000 clashes between the forces of North and South during the U.S. Civil War which lasted from April 1861 to June 1865 when the last Confederate soldiers in the field laid down their arms west of the Mississippi River. The major battlefields are well preserved and so are hundreds of minor ones. In all, 400 battlefields are protected. Determined to preserve a way of life rooted in slavery, 11 southern states declared themselves the independent Confederate States of America early in 1861. President Abraham Lincoln's principal aim was to preserve the Union but, once he perceived that the forces of the north were gaining the ascendancy, he issued the proclamation of emancipation which declared that "all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free. Just a hundred miles separated the Union capital of Washington from the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia enjoyed a number of smashing victories in the eastern theatre of the war until the tide turned against him after Gettysburg in July 1863.

Following a lively question and answer debate, the vote of thanks was presented by Charles Whiteing who congratulated both speakers on outstanding presentations.

THE SOCIETY'S NEXT MEETING: 19h00 for 19h30. Venue: Murray Theatre, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban

14th March
DDH - "The Prince Imperial's Final Journey". By Ken Gillings.
Main - "Being a Peace Keeper in Africa". By Maj Peter Williams.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: March - February 2013:

11th April
DDH - "Trench Raids on the Western Front." By Captain (SAN) Brian Hoffmann
Main - "Gen Ignatius Ferreira (1844-1900) - my father." By Gerhardt Buchner

9th May
DDH - "Fireforce." By Dr Richard Wood
Main - "Operation Mincemeat". By Charles Whiteing

13th June
DDH - "The Paratroopers in Operation Meebos." by Maj. Gen. Chris le Roux.
Main - "The History of Submarines - Their Disasters and Rescues." by Joyce Peet.

AGM. This will take place at the April meeting. Please forward your nominations for chairman and committee members to Ken Gillings.

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South African Military History Society /