South African Military History Society

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The chairlady, Marjorie Dean, opened the meeting and commented on the very good attendance on such a cold wet evening. She then proceeded to "This Day in History":
13/03/1756 Admiral Byng was executed by firing squad for failing "to do his utmost" to keep Minorca for the British.
13/03/1884/85 Siege of Khartoum culminating in the death of General Gordon.
13/03/1900 Lord Roberts entered Bloemfontein.

Marjorie then reminded everyone of the AGM in April and pointed out that only members in good standing might vote. Anyone who might have issues that they would like to raise should submit them to Joan. Similarly, any new submissions for committee membership should also be submitted to Joan.

Several meetings have been held with Mr.Monyela and the Museum staff in connection with the centenary of World War I and they have been most helpful and constructive. The Majestic Film Society will be showing four movies at the Museum with WWI as a subject. The first will be on 10th August followed by a light supper/tea and snacks at a total donation cost of R100 pp.

Also in August, Richard Cock and the Chanticleer Singers will present a programme of songs and poems relating to WWI at the Museum - on Monday 4th August to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the war.

Reminders of:
The Anglo-Boer War Conference to be held in Dundee 20 - 22 October - contact Ken Gillings.
The Boer & Brit Day at Val at the end of May - a coach has been sponsored - contact David Scholtz for details.

The notices completed, Marjorie introduced the first speaker for the evening. This was Ian Thurston who first visited South Africa in 1960 whilst he was in the Merchant Navy. He immigrated in1981.The subject of his talk was "James Stewart: Actor, Oscar Winner, Bomber Pilot".

James Maitland Stewart [1908-1997] was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania into a family that already had a military background as both his grandfathers had fought in the American Civil War. He was expected to take over the family hardware business but went to Princeton where he graduated with honours in architecture. It was here at Princeton that he joined the Triangle Drama Club. Then, in the summer of 1932 he joined the University Players at Falmouth, Massachusetts and here he met Henry Fonda. The two went to New York where they shared an apartment and made model aircraft in their spare time. They had moderate success on Broadway then passed screen tests and went to Hollywood. Stewart was given a seven-year contract by MGM in April 1935.

Stewart began flying, gaining a private pilot's licence followed by a commercial licence. He also bought his own plane - a Stinson 105. As he had won the 1941 Oscar for best actor in Philadelphia Story, MGM resisted strongly when he wanted to enlist. This problem was solved when he was drafted in late 1940, but he was rejected as 2.5kg underweight. Not deterred, Stewart went off and began eating everything he could to gain weight and at his second medical he just made the minimum weight and joined the air force as a volunteer.

Stewart was inducted on 22 March 1941 as a private and sent to Moffett Field near San Francisco where he applied for pilot training. He was commissioned as 2nd Lt on 19 Jan 1942. But now he wanted a combat assignment. No luck! He was made an instructor and even flew bombardier students in training at the Norden bomb site. Of course, no one wanted to be responsible for sending such a celebrity into battle but in the end he was helped to join Col. Robert Terrill who was forming the 445th Bomb Group flying B24 Liberators. As a result, Stewart became Squadron Operations Officer, 703rdBomb Squadron.

The group was transported to Tibenham, Norfolk, UK in November 1943 and began to fly missions immediately. In Jan 1944 Stewart was promoted to Major and squadron commander. He was awarded his first DFC in Feb 1944 but the climax of his flying career with the 8th Air Force came as a leader in 1000 bomber raid on Berlin. Promoted Colonel in March 1945 which meant he had risen from Private in 4 years.

Stewart returned to the States in 1945 but continued service in the reserve and even managed in 1966 to fly in a B52 to North Vietnam as an observer. When his wife, Gloria, the love of his life, died of lung cancer in 1994 he withdrew from life with failing health and deafness. He died 2nd July 1997 aged 89.

A question period followed this unusual and entertaining talk, after which Marjorie introduced the next speaker. This was Advocate John Myburgh who has had a most distinguished law career culminating in becoming a judge. He has spoken to the Society in the past and his paper on this occasion was "The Battle of the Somme".

The Battle of the Somme commenced on 1 July 1916 and ended on 21 November 1916, four and a half months later. The cost of this was between 1 million and 1.2 million casualties (killed, wounded or missing in action) - 600 000 Germans, 194 451 French and 419 654 British. Those killed are estimated at 310 459; Germans 164 055, French 50 729 and 95 675 British. The British were drawn from Britain, Dominions and Colonies. The number of dead in the four and a half months is equal to the total American dead in WWII - 362 561 in roughly three and a half years.

The British dead were later buried where they had fallen in 400 cemeteries along a 30 km crescent. The largest British war memorial in the world is the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme which shows the names of 73 335 who have no known grave. The German casualties were high because General von Falkenhayn insisted on counterattacks to retake any lost ground.

British soldiers carried between 30kg and 34kg of equipment and it was said that this caused them to move slowly and with difficulty. In fact, they had been ordered to move slowly over open ground in order to stay together and form a line. The largest group (90 000) in the British Army on the Somme was called the New Army or Kitchener's Army because they were volunteers. These were known as the "Pals" or "Chums" battalions as they were deliberately drawn from the same schools, towns or professions - the idea being that men would be more willing to volunteer with those they knew. These battalions of a thousand men or more fought on the Somme amid fierce comradeship. (The decimation of their home towns when they failed to return was briefly mentioned.)

The German Army, on the other hand, was the result of a highly efficient conscription system resulting in two years military training for men from the age of 20 to 22 who were then released into reserve forces. Therefore, the Germans were able to mobilise a trained field army of nearly 2.5 million in 1914.

The first day of the battle was preceded by an artillery barrage along a 29km front meant to destroy the barbed wire and front line of the German army. This failed in both objectives and allowed the Germans to fortify their lines heavily. Just before zero hour, 07h30 on 1 July 1916, ten mines were detonated under German lines and a quarter of a million shells fired. The noise could be heard on Hampstead Heath north of London. The loss of life on the first day was the worst disaster ever to have befallen the British Army in its entire history. The South African Brigade took part in the Delville Wood offensive which started on 15 July for six days, after which the total of officers and men was reduced from 3153 to 755.

More than 60 British soldiers were executed for "desertion or cowardice" during the battle but in 2006 the British Government granted a blanket pardon for them and all others shot during the War. This was mainly due to the lobbying of a citizens group Shot at Dawn. On the other hand, 51 Victoria Crosses were awarded during the battle.

None of the strategic objectives were achieved during the battle; the deepest penetration of German lines was less than 9.6km: no permanent gap in the lines had been created through which the cavalry could advance: no German supply or communication lines had been disrupted: no French towns had been liberated: German troops had not been demoralised. Martin Gilbert in his book on the battle concludes "The heroism and horror of war were seen there without disguise, unembellished and unadorned".

Pat Henning


Jan-Willem Hoorweg has once again generously donated a boxed set of CDs which is to be offered as a raffle prize. Tickets will be on sale in May, June and July at a cost of R20 each or R50 for three with the draw taking place at the July lecture meeting. The programmes have been produced by the BBC and their retail value is over R800


This serves as a second notice that the 48th AGM of the Society will take place in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the SA National Museum of Military History at 20h00 on Thursday 10th April 2014.

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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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