Newsletter No. 461
KwaZulu-Natal July 2014
The June 2014 meeting was addressed by Colonel Steve Bekker and fellow member John Oliver. Col Bekker’s talk was entitled “Flying School Dunnottar” and focused on his training there as a young recruit in the South African Air Force, as well as when he was a flying instructor on Harvards. Col Bekker underwent National Service in the SAAF in 1973, and became a General’s driver. His biographical sketch states that the fact that he didn’t kill himself or his General proves that there really is a God! In 1976, Col Bekker was selected for a pilot’s course and his flying tours consisted of (in his own words) three death defying years on Kudus, Dakota DC3s, a three year tour of duty as a flying instructor on Harvards at Central Flying School Dunnottar, C47TP “Turbo Dakotas”, the Albatross P166S, as a display pilot at the SAAF Museum, and King Airs and Caravans.
He also spent 5 years as a lecturer at the SAAF College, and later he spent 6 years at the Inspector General’s office, during which time he was the Chief Internal Auditor in the SAAF for three years, completing his distinguished service as the Officer Commanding Air Force Base Durban from 2006 until he retired in 2010.
Col Bekker focused, however, on his experiences with Harvards at Dunnottar and related numerous hilarious incidents that had the audience in stitches. The Harvard was known as the “Spamcan” because it was claimed that the plane’s bodywork was constructed with bully beef tins. The “Spammy” was first designed in 1937 but was manufactured as the “Harvard” from 1940. Our speaker then showed several slides of him as a young pilot, starting in 1976 as a “Jack of all trades”. Trainees were sometimes required to use a toilet brush as a throttle in the “simulator”, while sitting on the roof holding a rubbish bin lid in front of one as this was the same view pilot’s had of the ground when landing!
Our speaker also spoke of several legends who served in the SAAF – personalities such as “Pinky and the Red Man” and another incident that revolved around someone’s home brewed beer. During winter, it was the duty of the young recruit to sit on a freezing cold seat in the outside toilet to warm it up for the senior officer.
In another instance during training, young trainees were required to fly a Harvard with a certain number, one of which was No 7573, which was perched on top of a pole. The student was only informed of where the aircraft was after he could not find it among the 55 aircraft parked on the hardstand.
The speaker told how on one occasion, a trainee was ordered to show a group of schoolchildren around the hangars and he proceeded to give them the most elementary description of the ‘planes. Unbeknown to him, however, they were extremely bright children, who had done some intensive research and had the trainee totally stumped the instructor with their questions.
The highlight of his time at Dunnottar, however, was formation flying in the Harvards and Colonel Bekker’s photograph of 59 Harvards lined up in the parking area was amazing. Even more fascinating was the Harvard 50 Ship, that took to the skies on the 21st April 1990 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Harvard; no fewer than 50 of these grand old ladies took part and it is believed that it was the largest diamond formation in the world. Colonel Bekker described the emotion felt as the participants all ‘shut down’ in unison.
In response to questions, it was revealed that Harvards were used as spotter aircraft in Korea as well as by the SADF in the so-called Bush War of the 1970s and 1980s.
Apparently all have now been disposed of with some having been donated to the SAAF Museum and the Harvard Club, and the rest sold to private individuals locally and in the USA.
John Oliver’s Main Talk was entitled “Operation Neptune”. 70 years ago during the Second World War three Allied armies landed simultaneously on a stretch of beach in France. This was Operation Overlord. Operation Neptune was the bridge over the sea to get them there.
General von Runstedt was Commander-in-Chief of the German Army in France. In early 1944, Hitler placed Field Marshall Rommel under General von Runstedt's command with the specific responsibility of defending the Atlantic coast from Belgium to the Bay of Biscay. The two men had totally different views to achieve the same result. Rommel wanted the troops and armour on the coast; von Runstedt wanted it concentrated inland. Hitler resolved the situation for them – troops on the coast, armour and reserves inland. Denied the forces he needed, Rommel concentrated upon static defence.
Commencing in January 1943, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan of the British Army was directed to survey possible landing beaches on which to land a whole army quickly and with minimum loss. He and his staff considered the coast from Norway to Portugal, with special attention to those on the English Channel. Seven months later the approved draft plan set Normandy as the landing area.
General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed supreme commander for Operation Overlord and he initially set the target date for 01 June 1944. This was about as late as the invasion could take place, because the Allies needed all the summer weather they could get. The specific requirements were:-
All the required conditions could be met over a three day period once each month. For June it was June 5, 6 or 7. Eisenhower selected June 5th for D-Day.
Secrecy was Vital; German security codes were based on the Enigma cypher machine and all services used it. The Germans considered Enigma messages impossible to de-code. Britain acquired an Enigma cypher machine in August 1939 from the Polish intelligence; and one from submarine U 110 in May 1941. Gifted people and mathematical brains were assembled at a manor house at Bletchley, north-west of London. They were tasked to break these codes and gradually built up an increasingly confident stream of information deduced from German High Command signals.
This intelligence distilled from this source was labelled 'Top Secret Ultra'. Under this label would be filed only that intelligence from Bletchley.
A skilful web of Ultra deception had spoon-fed German intelligence (Abwehr) with misinformation as to where the invasion would fall and when. General von Runstedt and Hitler were persuaded that the Allied invasion would be launched across the narrowest part of the English Channel, at Calais.
Thirty divisions of Allied troops seemed poised to strike at Calais from Dover. They did not exist.
Neptune's equipment consisted of several types of Landing Craft: The landing Ship Tank, Landing Craft Tank, Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel, Landing Craft Assault, Landing Craft Mechanised, Landing Craft rocket, Landing Craft Gun, Landing Ship Infantry, Landing Craft Infantry as well as the DUKW were described.
Then there were the 'Funnies' - tanks, Churchill or Shermans modified to detonate mines, flame throwers, mobile ramp carriers, mortar throwers and the like.
Weeks before D Day the entire southern part of England became an armed camp, sealed off from the rest of the country. Stores of all kinds crowded the depots. As early as May 30th, troops began to embark in the transports and beaching craft that would carry them across the Channel. The uncertainty was the weather.
Beginning on the 1st of June General Eisenhower met twice daily with the top army and navy commanders to hear the weather forecasts. On the morning of the 3rd the forecasts began to be discouraging, and grew more alarming during the day. At an early meeting on the 4th, the meteorologists reported hopeless prospects for the 5th. Gale force winds, low clouds and high waves would combine in the target area. Air support would be impossible, landing of troops most hazardous, and naval gunfire undependable as a result of the storm conditions. Eisenhower decided to delay for 24 hours. The last date for favourable tides in June was the 6th.
At the last weather conference on the 4th June, the Met. people reported that the weather would clear the following night and would last at least until the afternoon of the 6th. After consultation with senior staff Eisenhower decided to go.
Off the British beaches, two small submarines went in 24 hours before the main force and remained submerged until the early morning then surfaced with a white light facing seaward marking each flank. Even on the 4th of June in German occupied France, there was no inkling of the approaching armada.
The chief meteorologist of the Luftwaffe reported to Rommel that the weather in the Channel was so poor there could be no landing attempted for two weeks. The reason for this massive gap in weather knowledge between the allies and the Germans was that all German submarines on weather patrols in the Atlantic had been sunk.
On June 5th Rommel set out to visit his family, planning to then go on to meet with Hitler.
Our speaker then dealt briefly with an overview of the D-Day landings. Most of the DD Shermans reached the beach but at the Eastern end the 8th Canadian Brigade had no armour and suffered heavy casualties initially, but were still able to make good progress.
The landings went smoothly for the British at Gold and Sword beaches. Troops boarded their LCAs 7 miles out and endured a two hour passage to the beach. The sea partly sheltered by a reef offshore enabled DD Shermans and 'Funnies' to land and clear mine paths up the beach. 'Crocodiles' with their flame throwers probed German bunkers, and Landing Craft Rocket cleared exposed defenders from the beach. Landing Craft Gun from just behind the surf line brought 25 pounder artillery fire to specific targets. Naval spotting parties had landed with the first waves of troops and radioed back to their ship for pin point gunfire support. This back up from the sea continued until well after the first waves had landed and until most of the active German gun positions had been silenced.
For the Americans at Omaha beach, German defensive mortar and machine gun fire was so fierce that virtually all of the officers and NCO's were killed in the first wave. Surviving troops remained close to the LCVPs for cover. Following waves of LCVPs then piled up on the beach and soon there was a shambles. Nearly all of the DD Shermans had been swamped in the heavy sea running and the troops were without armour or mortar support. Also the troops had boarded the LCVPs 11 miles out, had endured a three hour voyage in full view of the German defenders and many of them were seasick by the time they landed. None the less small groups of troops rushed across the open beach during the day to the protection of a sea wall and proceeded to provide a growing covering fire for those following.
The bombardment from the United States ships stopped at the moment that the first troops landed and was found to have been totally ineffective. By nightfall the Germans reckoned that they had stopped that landing which was temporarily true, not realizing that tomorrow the Americans would be back in force with armour.
As far as the Americans at Utah Beach were concerned, in an almost bloodless landing the troops, confused by a smokescreen landed on the wrong part of the beach, saw little German opposition and galloped inland to join up with the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions who were scattered some 5 miles inland.
After the invasion had started the Luftwaffe to all intents and purposes made no show.
Initially it would be impossible to capture a major port intact, but armies would still have to be supplied on a scale beyond what could be landed on open beaches, so the Allies brought their own harbours. This was Neptune's Operation Mulberry – The two ‘Made-in-England’ Harbours.
Allied forces on the European Continent required a tremendous amount of fuel. Pipelines were considered necessary to relieve dependence on oil tankers. After two years of development Neptune’s ‘Operation PLUTO’ (Pipe Line Under the Ocean) pipeline was ready for deployment. This was manufactured in continuous lengths and coiled around huge drums towed behind a tug. PLUTO provided a constant flow of petrol and in due course a network of pipelines followed the Allies right up to the Rhine.
All these contributed to the success of D-Day, and the turning point in WW2.
Both speakers responded to lively questions from the audience and the thanks of the meeting was conveyed by Major General Chris le Roux.
CONFERENCE: FROM THE ANGLO-BOER WAR TO THE GREAT WAR.
Members are reminded that the Society has teamed up with the Talana Museum, Dundee (Northern KwaZulu-Natal) to arrange a Conference at the Museum with the theme “From the Anglo-Boer War to the Great War”. An impressive array of speakers has been lined up, two of whom will be travelling from the UK to present a paper each. The programme is enclosed.
ANNUAL BATTLEFIELD TOUR:
By popular vote at the last meeting, it was decided that the Branch’s Annual Battlefield Tour would take place over the weekend of the 11th and 12th October 2014, and would cover the eMakhosini Valley, the recently discovered spiritual homestead of King Shaka, built after his assassination by King Dingane, the site of kwaBulawayo No 1, Gqokli Hill Battlefield and Ulundi Battlefield. Accommodation is being negotiated with the Mtonjaneni Lodge and further details will appear in subsequent newsletters.
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.
Thursday 14th August 2014:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: Mr James van Vuuren will give the Branch an update on the activities and key role of the Provincial Heritage body, “Amafa aKwaZulu-Natali / Heritage KwaZulu-Natal”.
Main Talk: Another in our series on WW1 100: “The Umvoti Mounted Rifles in World War 1”, by Dr Mark Coghlan.
Thursday 11th September 2014:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: WW1 100: “Extracts from Harold Sampson's Diary”, by Jane Sampson
Main Talk: “Genocide of the San” by Dr Alex Coutts.
Thursday 9th October 2014:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “The Formation, Training and Operations of WW2 Commandos”, by Mr John Goodrich
Main Talk: “Lawrence of Arabia”, by Charles Whiteing.