The Chairlady, Marjorie Dean, opened the December meeting by welcoming all present to the last meeting of 2013, a year which had been a good one for the branch and the Society as a whole.
After the usual monthly notices Marjorie paid tribute to the late president Nelson Mandela and then introduced her husband, Colin, who would give the curtain raiser lecture.
Colin Dean is a well-known member of the Society and long-standing Committee Member who, as "head computer honcho" is familiar to all who attend the Johannesburg meetings. The subject of Colin's talk was "A Strange Naval Officer, a Cat and a Dog, Tanganyika 1916".
With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, a state of war also existed between the colonies of the then Belgian Congo and German East Africa. These two colonies were separated by Lake Tanganyika, with the border running down the middle of the Lake. To enforce their colonial rule, the Germans had two warships on the Lake, the 57-ton steam launch Hedwig von Wissmann and the 45-ton Kingani. At the commencement of hostilities, the Hedwig von Wissman sailed across to the Belgian port of Lukuga and sank the Belgian steamer Alexandre Del Commune. In November 1914 the Germans also sank the British steamer Cecil Rhodes and thus had complete control of Lake Tanganyika. They followed up this success by the launching of a 1575-ton ship at their fortified base at Digoma. She was the Graf von Goetzen and once put in to service she would be able to move 800-900 troops along the Lake at will.
All this was observed by a British big-game hunter by the name of John R Lee. He was a veteran of the Boer War and, recognising the strategic advantage this would afford the Germans in any East Africa campaign, he brought this threat to the attention of the British authorities. On 21 April 1915, he received a hearing by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Harry Jackson, in London.
Lee proposed to Jackson, who accepted his idea, that the Royal Navy should despatch two well-armed, fast, manoeuvrable and small motor gunboats to Lake Tanganyika. Given the state of the infrastructure around the Lake at that time, the only practicable route, which could also be kept secret from the Germans, was to send them out to South Africa, up the existing railway to the Belgian Congo and then overland through mountain and bush to the Lake itself. If the British could wrest back control of the Lake it would allow Belgian forces from the Congo and British forces from Kenya and the then Northern Rhodesia to use the Lake as a springboard to push the German colonial forces back to the East African seaboard. The plan was accepted and the Naval African Expedition conceived. Admiral Sir David Gamble was given the job of organising the Expedition and his first job was to find the men to take part in it.
Lee was given the rank of Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer reserve and appointed second-in-command. An Irish volunteer named Frank Magee was also taken on. The commander would be another volunteer, Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson. He had had a most unusual career up until then, with a dismal tale of accidents and bad luck, which resulted in his being in a career backwater shore job. He was described by one source as a "Man court-martialled for wrecking his own ships; an inveterate liar and a wear of skirts"! However, he did have the African experience of commanding a survey ship on the River Gambia and was fluent in French and German, three valuable attributes for the proposed theatre of operations.
Spicer-Simson was duly appointed and assembled 27 men and two ex-Greek motor boats built by Thornycrofts. These two 12m motor boats were armed and tested on the River Thames; named, at Spicer-Simson's request, as Mimi and Tou-Tou, and on 15 June shipped out to South Africa in the Llanstephan Castle. Also aboard was the main body of the expedition and all the supplies and spares needed.
Colin then went on a pictorial tour as he followed the expedition from its arrival in Cape Town, by rail to Elizabethville and up the rail head at Fungurume in the Congo. Using a combination of motor lorries, steam tractors and oxen, the two boats in the cradles were then hauled overland for 146 miles, taking six weeks to do it. Colin detailed the difficulties and problems encountered before the relieved group arrived safely at Sankisia, a rail head near the Lualaba River. Here the boats were loaded on to a train and carried to Bukama on the river, launched and sent 350 miles downriver, a perilous undertaken in its own right as the river at that stretch was shallow and rocky. A few days later they arrived at their destination of Lukaga on the shores of the Lake. Before the boats could be launched, Spicer-Simson found that he had to construct a breakwater and harbour, as Lake Tanganyika is subject to violent tropical squalls and accompanying heavy waves.
Eventually Mimi and Tou-Tou were launched and outfitted for their task. On Sunday, 26 December, 1915, the unsuspecting German gun-boat Kingani arrived off Lukaga and Spicer-Simson reacted immediately. Using Mimi and Tou-Tou, plus two Belgian boats, Netta and Tenton, he promptly sallied forth to engage the enemy.
Colin then described the spirited engagement which followed and resulted in a battered Kingani being taken as a prize and brought in to the Royal Navy as HMS Fifi, after being repaired. There was much celebration in naval and Belgian circles over this victory and the expedition even received a letter of appreciation from King George V.
On 9 February, 1916, the German warship Hedwig von Wissman came looking for her consort Kingani, for the Germans were still unaware of the British naval presence. Spicer-Simson immediately went after her and in another exhilarating engagement Mimi, Tou-Tou and Fifi sank their German opponent. A while later they attacked the German troop transport Wami, which ran herself aground to avoid capture. The next step was the Graf von Goetzen and a few small boats at Kigoma, but by now the Germans expected an attack, scuttled the Graf von Goetzen by blowing her up and destroyed the harbour installations and small craft. The expedition had achieved its aim and Lake Tanganyika now became a highway for allied troop movement.
The Expedition returned to England having covered 20 000 miles, a record for any expedition in World War I. Simson was promoted to full Commander and received the DSO. Three other officers received the DSC and the remainder were promoted. The other ranks also received six DSMs and Simson also received a Belgian decoration - not a bad haul for a party of 28.
On conclusion of this most interesting lecture, Marjorie allowed a question time, and then introduced the next speaker.
This was Mr Temba Ndebele-Monyela who for the past year has been director of the Ditsong Museum of Military History in Gauteng. Mr Monyela is an ex-MK cadre and was part of the class of June 1976. He is an archivist by profession, having studied in the USSR and worked in places as varied as Lesotho and Erkhuleni, before taking up his present post. His hobbies are jazz, films and the history of the Struggle, and he prides himself on being a contact builder for the Museum. The subject of his talk was "Personal Experiences of Military Training in Russia".
Temba started off by telling how, at the age of sixteen, he decided to take an active role in the Struggle and applied to, and was accepted for, the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK). He was selected for further training and smuggled into Swaziland, then on through Mozambique to Tanzania. While in a training camp there, his leadership potential was uncovered and he was made the Officer Commanding of a camp in Angola.
He then reminded the meeting of the long-standing relationship between the ANC and Soviet Russia, dating back to 1927. The communist ideology held a great attraction for the ANC, which was very pro-Soviet, and many cadres regarded the USSR as something similar to "The New Jerusalem". This closeness was fostered by Dr Dadoo of the S A Communist Party and he attended and played a role at the 22nd Congress of Peace in the USSR in 1960. Notwithstanding the title of the Congress, the USSR approved the use of violence to promote Communism and members of the SACP played a prominent role in the Operation Mayibuye and the formation of the MK. It was at this period, too, that the ANC was actually in decline, before being re-vitalised by the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. This action led to a stream of prospective fighters, such as Temba, later joining the movement.
After completing basic training in Angola, the "June Detachment", consisting of two groups of 20 cadres each, was selected for further training in the USSR. Although they met up briefly in Moscow, the two groups were kept strictly apart. From Moscow, Temba's group was sent to Odessa in the Ukraine for training as marines. They were also given winter training in the snow. This was followed by incorporation into an international group of 70 cadres of mixed languages and where pseudonyms were used instead of names, thus keeping their actual identities secret. All training was given in Russian, although it became apparent that their Soviet instructors were fluent not only in English but also Afrikaans! A course in mine counter-measures followed and then Temba was sent on a Brigade Commander's course. This was part of "liberation training" and consisted mainly of learning how to use explosives for sabotage. There was no effort made to provide the students with any sort of recreation, except for "social evenings" where vast amounts of vodka were consumed and when even then the students were carefully monitored to see how they held their drink and if their tongues became too loose about what they were doing.
Temba then found himself on an Intelligence Course run by the KGB and where each student received individual tuition. It also became apparent that the Russian rulers, Brezhnev by that time, wanted Temba and some of his fellow cadres to become "black Russians", to come back to the RSA, take over the government and then make the RSA a surrogate state of the USSR, with a communist government. The students were by then becoming thoroughly indoctrinated, even to the extent of learning to sing Russian songs. It also became apparent to Temba that as time and the Cold War dragged on, that his military training had evolved into a type of political training to produce intelligence sources for the Soviets and not to fight in the front-line of the Struggle. Indeed, it became obvious that for some reason he was being deliberately kept out of combat and in the USSR. This was further emphasised by his posting to University for a five-year stint studying history. By the time he had finished this, Temba decided that "enough is enough" and returned home to South Africa, a keen ANC stalwart but thoroughly disillusioned by both Communism and the Soviet System. In his six years under training in Russia, only one year was exclusively military, the remaining five were Academic.
He was at pains to point out that MK operations in South Africa were primarily a lot of small operations aimed at specific military or industrial targets and police stations. After 1994, the MK was absorbed into the SANDF with the later's Western, or British, traditions, and any Russian training or influence quickly fell away, apart from diplomatic links with the Russian Federation.
At the conclusion of this most interesting talk, Marjorie called for questions which, in turn, led to a most interesting and spirited debate. This was promptly put a stop to by Marjorie, who called on committee member David Scholtz to thank both speakers and then closed the meeting.
Interesting snippet - according to Google, the Graf von Goetzen was still plying the waters of the Lake as late as 2009 as the MV Liemba, having been raised by the British in 1924 and pressed into service in 1927 as a lake ferry. Not bad for a ship originally built in 1913...
December 2013 Journals
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