South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 458
KwaZulu-Natal April 2014

Contact: Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Chairman: Charles Whiteing 031 764 7270
Society's web site address:

Eighty five members and visitors packed the auditorium of the Murray Theatre to listen to two outstanding talks at the March 2014 meeting.

The Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture, entitled “Guadalcanal – the Naval Battles” was presented by fellow member Roy Bowman.

On 7 August 1942, Allied forces landed on Guadalcanal , Tulagi, and Florida in the Solomon Islands chain. The landings on the Islands were meant to deny their use by the Japanese as bases for threatening the supply routes between the U.S. and Australia, and secure the islands as starting points for a campaign with the eventual goal of isolating the major Japanese base at Rabaul while also supporting the Allied New Guinea campaign. The landings initiated the six-month-long Guadalcanal campaign.

The Allied landings were directly supported by three U.S. aircraft carrier Task Forces: TF 11 (USS Saratoga), TF 16 (USS Enterprise), and TF 18 (USS Wasp), their respective air groups, and supporting surface warships, including a battleship, cruisers, and destroyers. The overall commander of the three carrier task forces was Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who flew his flag on Saratoga. The aircraft from the three carriers provided close air support for the invasion forces and defended against Japanese air attacks from Rabaul. After the successful landing, they remained in the South Pacific area charged with guarding the line of communication between the major Allied bases at New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo, supporting the Allied ground forces at Guadalcanal and Tulagi against any Japanese counter-offensive, covering the movement of supply ships to Guadalcanal, and engaging and destroying any Japanese warships that came within range.

Between 15 and 20 August, the U.S carriers covered the delivery of fighter and bomber aircraft to the newly-opened Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. This small but hard-fought airfield was a critical point in the entire island chain, and whoever controlled the airbase controlled the local airspace. Indeed, Henderson Field and the aircraft based there soon began to have a telling effect on the movement of Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands and in the attrition of Japanese air forces in the South Pacific Area. In fact, Allied control of Henderson Field became the key factor in the entire battle for Guadalcanal.

Vice Admiral Ghormley suspected that Admiral Yamamoto was sending a powerful force to attack the newly ensconced aviators at Henderson Field. An intelligence report from Nimitz’s headquarters, based on aircraft and submarine reconnaissance, suggested that a heavy Japanese strike force of carriers and battleships could arrive in the area around 24th August 1942. At daybreak on 23rd August, a U.S. PBY Catalina flying boat based at Ndeni in the Santa Cruz Islands sighted Vice Admiral Tanaka’s convoy of three South bound transports and their escorts. By late afternoon, with no further sightings of Japanese ships, two aircraft strike forces from Saratoga and Henderson Field took off to attack the convoy. However, knowing that an attack would be coming his way after being sighted, Tanaka reversed course once the Catalina had left the area and eluded the attacking aircraft.

At 15h00, the American fliers from the Enterprise found the Shokaku and delivered a hit and a near miss causing minor damage. Less than an hour later, aircraft from both U.S. Carriers located the sacrificial lamb, the Ryujo and attacked it, causing heavy damage.

The Japanese counterstrike arrived quickly. Soon after 16h00, the U.S.S. North Carolina’s air-search radar detected bogeys at 180 miles. The arrival of the Japanese provoked a general scramble of all available F4F Wildcats. The Japanese formation absorbed the first runs from the American fighters, and then bore in against the Enterprise and her escorts.

The radio frequency used by the combat air patrol was a frenzy of voices. American pilots hadn’t learnt to separate the urgent from the merely important and with everyone transmitting on a single channel; the vital instructions from the shipboard controllers were confusing to say the least.

An avalanche of dive bombers attacked the Enterprise. The sky was a solid sheet of tracers and shell bursts. Reaching the release point, the planes discharged their explosives, then either withdrew or plunged into the sea.

The Atlanta seemed to burst into flames from bow to stern and from mast top to water-line. Each turret in the anti-aircraft cruiser’s main battery could put out a two gun salvo every four seconds and thirty shells per minute, with eight turrets so engaged, the fire from the American task force was furious and effective.

The Val pilots who attacked the Enterprise were persistent. Enough of them survived to deal her six damaging blows; three bomb hits and three near misses. The first hit the aft elevator near the starboard gun gallery, penetrated five decks and exploded deep within the ship. Half a minute later, a second bomb hit the deck just 15 feet from where the first one hit. Exploding instantly and igniting powder bags that started deck fires. The third bomb hit just aft of the island, on the number two elevator. Although it only partially exploded, it was enough to tear a ten foot hole in the flight deck and disable the critically important elevator.

As bombs rained down into and around the carrier, Admiral Kinkaid and his staff were tossed around the flag bridge by the shocks. Seventy four Enterprise men were killed. The small blazes throughout the ship were quickly extinguished; it was the timely work they had completed just minutes before the attack, draining and venting the aircraft fuel lines on the hanger decks and filling them with carbon dioxide that prevented a far worse result. With holes in her flight deck patched with sheet metal, she turned into the South-Easterly wind to begin the recovery of her aircraft. 90 minutes after the last Val had departed the helmsman noticed a serious and potentially fatal problem. The carrier had lost steering control. A flood of water and foam had swamped the steering engine room, disabling the engine that moved the rudder, freezing the ship in a starboard turn. Recovery of aircraft ceased as the ship circled out of control. While she sheered through the formation, her officer–of–the-deck blasted her whistle in a warning to smaller ships in her path. Chief Machinist William A Smith was instrumental in restoring the steering under appalling conditions.

The Americans lost the service of the Enterprise. She, with the heavy cruiser Portland and four destroyers, set course for Pearl Harbour by way of Tongatabu. As the carriers of both nations made tracks for safer waters, a wag in General Vandegrift’s Marine Force was heard to remark: “Everybody is withdrawing except the Marines!”

The speaker for the main talk of the evening was one of our former chairmen, Paul Kilmartin. Paul returned to live in the UK in 2010 and comes to South Africa for a lengthy holiday every year. As a regular speaker to the society on World War 1, he agreed to give one of the talks in the series the society planned for 2014, to mark the centenary year of the outbreak of the war. The subject of his talk was entitled “The German Invasion and Occupation of Belgium and North-East France from August 1914.”

To put the events of that time into perspective, and particularly from the perspective of the French nation, Paul started with the signing of The Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919 and why the French prime minister, George Clemenceau, was so determined to make the wording of the treaty as harsh as possible in its criticism of Germany. He then explained, with the help of a map of Europe as it was in the run-up to 1914, that Germany had one serious enemy – Russia – and the reasons why war between the two countries had become inevitable.

When, in 1892, an entente was signed between Russia and France it highlighted the danger that Germany faced of having to fight a war on two fronts when war with Russia became a reality. France had been planning a war with Germany since the Treaty of Frankfurt was signed on 11 May 1871 to end the Franco-Prussian War, as that treaty took the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine away from France and had them integrated them into the newly created German Empire. The entente with Russia gave France the opportunity they were searching for although they would have to wait a further 22 years for the war to start.

The German high command, led by General von Schlieffen, took it on themselves to prepare a plan to overcome the dangers they faced as a result of this new double front danger. Von Schlieffen spent the rest of his life finalising what became known as the Schlieffen Plan, which he completed by the end of 1905, and then worked on fine tuning it on a regular basis until his death in 1912. No one in the German government knew anything about this plan until after von Schlieffen had died.

The plan, although prepared in the greatest detail, had a simple basis for its success. Seven German armies, spread from behind Holland to just north of Switzerland, were to attack and defeat France in just 6 weeks – 42 days. The main attack would come from the north where the 1st German Army, under General von Kluck, would sweep through to take control of northern France and capture Paris from its non-defended west side. At the same time, the German armies on the southern flank – armies 5, 6 and 7 – would retreat under the expected attack by the French Armies as they tried to regain Alsace and Lorraine.

This retreat was a trap, which would enable the 2nd, 3rd and 4th armies to attack the French armies from behind them as the 5th, 6th and 7th German armies counter attacked the French front. It was a high risk plan for 2 reasons: firstly due to the time restraints of completing the defeat of the French before the Russians could attack German territory in the old North-Eastern Prussia, and secondly because the German’s underestimated the resolve and strength of the French military.

General von Schlieffen’s successor as commander–in-chief of the German military was General Helmuthe von Moltke and he made major changes to the plan after von Schlieffen’s death. These were explained as reducing the chances that Germany had to win the war before it even started. Von Moltke reduced the strength of the right wing, strengthened the left wing in the south and so changed the whole concept and balance of the plan. Also he decided to keep Holland as a neutral country and as a result his armies on the right wing, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd armies of 700,000 men in total, marched round Holland to approach Belgium from the south.

Belgium knew in advance that this would happen and were ready and waiting to repel an attack on their country. Kaiser Wilhelm had told King Albert 1 of Belgium that war between Germany and France was inevitable and the King knew that Germany would have to invade Belgium to get to French territory.

Belgium rejected German demands to allow their forces to march through their country but despite that the German advance of 700,000 men started in the very early hours of 4 August 1914. To avoid the major towns of Namur to the west and Liege to the east, together with the great circles of Meuse forts that defended these towns, the German armies tried to cross the River Meuse on a front just 15-16 kms wide and based on the village of Huy. The defence of the Belgians was so strong that the German infantry suffered heavy losses and were delayed for 12 days until a large artillery gun arrived to shell the forts around Liege. As soon as this was done the Belgian Army retreated to Antwerp, leaving Brussels an open city to avoid damage, and the German army started their advance into Belgium on 16 August 1914, a delay that impacted their overall plan to defeat France in 42 days.

As soon as the invasion started, the German’s found that Belgian civilians were as active in trying to stop the German advance as the Belgian army had tried to do. The result was that the German high command took the strongest possible measures against the civilian population as they regarded their activities as “illegal” and “contrary to the rules of war”. To demonstrate the level of the measures taken, our speaker gave examples from just 5 of the Belgian villages and towns occupied by the German forces, where all properties were looted and then destroyed and residents “executed” in German terms but “shot” or better “murdered” in allied terms. The 5 residential locations were:
Andenne: 110 shot although Belgians later raised that number to 211
Sielles: 50 shot
Tamines: 384 shot and outside the town to this day, is a cemetery with 384 graves and under the names of all killed the simple words “Fusille par les Allemandes. 1914”

Dinant: 612 shot, after waiting all day in the town square on an extremely hot day before being shot late in the afternoon.

Louvain: This was a centre of excellence for Belgium. It had the oldest university, founded in 1426, the outstanding library in the country even possibly in Europe with over 230,000 volumes and over 650 medieval manuscripts – all priceless. To begin all was well but as the German 1st Army left the town they were attacked by the Belgian Army and those who could, escaped back into Louvain. The result was 4 days of destruction of homes, business, shops and worst of all the university and the library were both burnt to the ground. This event caused international outrage.

The German Army admitted that these “executions” were not carried out as a penalty for a particular village but “Pour Encourager les Autres” to attempt to stop all civilian activity against the invader.

Before explaining the role of the German Army when in occupation, our speaker gave details of a conference held in The Hague in 1907, attended by all European countries plus Britain and America. It led to an agreement, signed by all countries including Germany, and known as The Hague Convention. The purpose was to regulate the relationship between an occupying power and the occupied population. This was to ensure, among many things, that the rights of all civilians and their property should be respected, that the local civil law must be retained by the local officials at the time of occupation and that the occupying force could not force civilians to work for them if that was against the interests of the home country. It also declared that looting was illegal and that all goods and services must be paid for at the proper market rate. All this, seven years later, was ignored by Germany during both the invasion and the occupation of Belgium and North-East France.

The occupation of these territories followed immediately after the invasion and immediately military law was imposed on all areas. The brutality shown by German troops during the invasion was increased against the civilian population and maintained for the next four plus years. Our speaker reviewed the impact of the occupation on the following main areas: governance, agriculture, natural resources, industry and civilian life. He quoted, as a summary of those 4 years, the words of Herbert Hoover – a future president of the United States – who wrote “Occupied France can be seen, from all aspects, as a vast concentration camp in which all forms of economic life are entirely suspended.”

Reference was also made to the preparation of, and German retreat to, the Hindenburg Line and the extreme suffering imposed on the local population that led to a scorched earth policy and destruction of all buildings in the area of retreat.

To explain the suffering in numbers, 8 slides were shown following an audit carried out after the war to show the extent of damage and losses suffered by occupied France during the whole war.

Our speaker then provided a conclusion to these events by asking “why?” and particularly “why did the German Army act in this way”. He compared the great reputation of German speaking central Europe over the last 200 years plus, where the world’s greatest composers were born, where great musicians played this newly written music with skill, where German speakers made great artists and architects and where a number of the world’s greatest writers, philosophers and scientists all came from this German background. In addition they lived, in peace-time, devoted to family life, hard work, wealth creation, high discipline and respect for the rule of war. So again “why”; why did they change so dramatically in all times of war, including 1870-71, 1914-18 and 1939-45, to impose such brutality on enemy civilians?

In trying to answer that question our speaker reached the conclusion that a book written by Major-General Carl von Clausewitz could be the answer. This book, which became the bible of German militarism, was entitled “On War – The Philosophy and Theory of War.”Extracts from the book were quoted based on one von Clausewitz’s theory of making a war successful by keeping it short, sharp and decisive. Civilians should not be exempt from the effects of war and if they interfere they should be dealt with by “the severest measures”. This section of the book comes to a final conclusion with the words “Terror is the proper method to shorten war”.

This was, perhaps, the only way to try and understand just why the German military acted in such a barbaric way in a war that started just under 100 years from now.

After a lively question time, Lt Col Graeme Fuller conveyed the thanks of those present to both speakers for two brilliantly prepared and presented talks.


Thursday 10th April 2014 (NOTE: This will be the Society’s AGM throughout all Branches):

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “RN Gunboats & Motor Launches - I was on them” by Prof Ken Knight

Main Talk (as part of our WW1 100 series): “Prelude to the First World War” by Capt (SAN) (Retd) Brian Hoffmann. Note that Capt Hoffmann will be travelling from Cape Town to deliver his lecture.

Future meetings.

Thursday 8th May 2014:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: WW1 100: “Forts in Belgium and France” by Prof Philip Everitt

Main Talk: WW1 100: “The War against disease in German East Africa, 1916 – 1918” by Donald Davies.

Thursday 12th June 2014:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “Central Flying School Dunottar” by Colonel Steve Bekker

Main Talk: “The 70th Anniversary of Normandy; Neptune”, by John Oliver

Thursday 10th July 2014:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “John Cummings' ride & the attack on Fort Peddie” by Prof David Walker

Main Talk: “Guadalcanal - The Follow On” by Roy Bowman.

COMMEMORATION OF THE 115TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE START OF THE ANGLO-BOER WAR, 1899 TO 1902: “From Anglo-Boer War to World War 1” – Talana Museum, Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal, 20th to 22nd October 2014.

The Society and Talana Museum have combined forces to bring you an impressive array of speakers with an equally impressive series of topics, from the UK, Ireland and South Africa. This event will coincide with the Talana Museum’s Annual “Talana Live Weekend” from the 17th to the 19th October 2014. This is an event that military history enthusiasts simply cannot afford to miss. Conference Delegates’ attendance costs have been kept to a minimum at R350 per day or R950 for the three full days. A copy of the programme will appear with the future newsletters.


Members are reminded that all branches of the Society will hold their AGMs before the start of the lecture programme on THURSDAY 10TH APRIL 2014. Kindly e-mail your nominations for Chairman and Committee to or post them to him at 19 Bearemount Park, 4 Ryan Road, Pinetown 3610, before the meeting.

South African Military History Society /