Newsletter No. 459
KwaZulu-Natal May 2014
Before the commencement of the meeting, the Branch held a brief AGM in line with the other three Branches of the Society. Charles Whiteing was re-elected Chairman and Prof John Hart was elected as a new Committee Member. The Vice Chairman will be elected at the next Committee meeting. The KwaZulu-Natal Committee now comprises the following:
Chairman: Charles Whiteing
Members (in alphabetical order): Roy Bowman, Maj Dr John Buchan, Dr John Cooke, Prof Philip Everitt, Ken Gillings, Prof John Hart, Maj Gen Chris le Roux, Don Porter (Honorary Treasurer).
The new National Chairman is Mr Malcolm King, who replaces Mrs Marjorie Dean. The Branch wishes Malcolm a successful and enjoyable year in office, while we thank Marjorie for her enthusiastic chairmanship of the Society over the past two years.
There was yet another packed auditorium at the April meeting to listen to two excellent talks. Our first speaker was 92 year old Prof Ken Knight, who gave the audience an amazing illustrated account of his experiences as a young officer in a campaign that very few of us had heard about, which took place in the Aegean area of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is given below in the first person, in order to bring it to life.
“On the 25 April 1944, the Greek Navy mutinied. It was one of the very long nights I experienced during the war. I was the naval officer in charge of a group of seamen required to ensure that a particular jetty in the harbour of Alexandria was not taken over by the mutineers and I spent the night sending wounded mutineers to hospital. The next morning I reported to Commander Courage of Coastal forces who gave me a travel instructions enabling me to travel to Haifa to join an H. D.M.L. in Haifa. When I got to Haifa I found that the ship had sailed for Beirut. At Beirut I was told that it had returned to Haifa, but I was asked to become first lieutenant on M L 350 because the captain was in hospital and the first lieutenant was acting Captain.
I stayed on 350 until 13 Jan 1945 when I was wounded. There were three different Captains during my 9 months on 350: one was Gordon Wiley who later became a member of the S A Parliament.
My story this evening is verified in five books: Churchill’s Volumes IV and V of “The Second World War”, L C Reynolds & H F Cooper’s “MTB’s At War”, Adrian Seligman’s “War in the Islands” and W E Benyon-Tinker’s “Dust upon the sea”. Churchill’s Volumes deal mainly with the Political Facts of what was important relating to the role of the country of Turkey in my story. Churchill was trying to persuade Turkey to become a belligerent in the war. He was also arguing against Roosevelt and Stalin to allow the navy to occupy the island of Rhodes. Roosevelt and Stalin were against using landing ships required for D Day.”
Prof Knight then used a map to indicate the combined German and Italian advance into Greece and the Islands of Greece. He continued: “The Axis created garrisons in the Islands of German and Italians. However Italy surrendered in September. Some Italians commandeered boats and sailed away. Some retreated to the mountainous parts of the Island and some were imprisoned by the Germans. During and after the invasion owners of sailing ships sailed with their friends to Egypt and Beirut and then travelled to Cairo to join the Greek army. The boats were interesting; Adrian Seligman established the Levant Schooner Flotilla of these boats called caiques. They were fitted with single cylinder diesel engines with no reversing mechanism. They then ferried units of the Greek Sacred Company and units of the army long range raiding forces.
The caiques and M L’s were all capable of hiding during the day when they were tied up or anchored adjacent to the shore because of the very special camouflage nets which they used to make the vessels look like the shore behind them. These camouflage nets were designed by an Army Officer - Maurice Green who commanded the 9th army camouflage unit. Maurice was an artist who studied colour and shadows and specified the colours in our camouflage nets. He knew that the caiques preferred to tie up on exposed rocky headlands to enable a quick getaway. These rocky headlands were less likely to be investigated by Turkish Patrolling coast guards. The only photos I have are black and white since in 1944 colour photography was not readily available. M L 350 was able to install its nets in 20 minutes! We sailed during the night and hid beneath the nets during the day.”
Now let me tell you of a somewhat special operation. This was the Simi episode, involving six Fairfmiles six HDMLs and I think eight or nine caiques all loaded with members of the Greek Sacred Company and many of the specialist army personnel, like Captain Gordon Hogg and Benjamin Tinker and units of the long range desert group, commanded by Adrian Seligman.
The Island of Simi is not a big one but in a strategic position on the best access route to the large island of Rhodes. This quite big group left Castelorisso at different times days before the planned action, and tied up in these coves or headlands of the Turkish mainland to make the secrecy as successful as possible. We checked on each about an hour before the landing deadline in complete silence in the very dark night. Each craft had a landing place allocated. Not all went well; the M L on the next cove to ours lost one man carrying 40 pounds weight of explosives. We subsequently could not be sure how the accident happened; falling into the sea with a back pack of 40 pounds of explosives doesn’t give the man much chance of swimming. It was serious because we were now short of explosives and the special blasting the drowned man had been allocated and trained to do was lost. This was the only casualty during the landing.
The program was to capture the whole German Garrison before allowing the demolition groups to demolish the gun emplacements and barracks. Then the prisoners were to be marched down to the port jetty to be picked up by the M L’s at six am. It didn’t work quite like that because a shell hit the sea just ahead of the M L which I was conning. Fortunately only one shell arrived. We subsequently discovered that the single shell had been fired accidentally by one of the groups who were required to spike the guns.
The second unexpected event occurred shortly after we left the port and were getting into the course we intended to take. We saw two German transports arriving to deliver supplies to the garrison of Simi. A very short naval fight resulted in the transports being taken. We did enjoy the provisions! The rest of this action was to transport the prisoners to destroyers by the U J Boats who took the prisoners to Alexandria in Egypt. The war was over for them. It might be interesting to you to quote an episode Benyon-Tinker wrote on page 193.of his book: “It was interesting to see that the German naval ratings were truculent and arrogant (almost as if they had won the battle). A short sharp kick in the pants would have done the strutting Nazis a power of good; particularly a small party who were on my M L”. They complained about the food and the sleeping conditions we were able to offer. “This party lounging on the deck forward, suddenly noticed a dory coming alongside with two or three visiting Greek officers. They waited until the officers were about to clamber on board, and then, as if by some unspoken word of command, spat in unison over the side: they followed this pretty display by an even less pleasing physical process, also in unison. However they did not realize that this was the windward side and so when this group was handed over to the prison ship they were rather smelly!
Simi was then occupied by an Italian garrison friendly to the population. Because of radio and telephone dismantling it was several days before the Germans on Rhodes found out that Simi was no longer in German hands.
A few months after this Simi episode I was wounded near Kalymnos and operated on by an army doctor on the kitchen table in a house in Simi. The light was an electric globe in an opened paraffin can suspended from the ceiling.
At this time the M T Bs were operating in the northern Area against convoys of retreating Germans in F Lighters and armed trawlers. After one of these fights during which an F Lighter had been sunk by the MTBs, we received a signal to look for two airmen reported to have ditched in the sea but unfortunately they were not found. The reason why I mention this is that it is almost certain that one of the airmen was my cousin Donovon Collins.
The capture of the provision ships at Simi reminds me of another episode when a smallish provision ship was captured. It contained food and liquor and toilet rolls for the German garrison. The boxes of liquor were marked for the use German Officers only. It was sensible to test the liquor so a very riotous party occurred. Gordon Hogg showed everyone that toilet rolls can be thrown to make long white streamers in the trees of Turkey. Next morning at 4 a.m., a work party of the celebrants armed with log sticks removed most of the white streamers. This was done to reduce the possibility of the British ambassador in Turkey receiving a note of disapproval from the Turks. There was another occasion when a captured provision ship was given to the local Turks in a very remote area. These Turks also used the toilet rolls to festoon the trees.
The next episode I think you might find interesting concerned an occasion when daylight found us a long way from our normal daytime hide out. We went into a cove on the Turkish Coast tied up to a suitable rock outcrop and started installing camouflage nets. It was also our practice to send one of the crew up a high point near the ship to look for unusual problems. He signalled to us that an enemy motor boat was sailing towards us around the end of the cove, so we manned the guns and waited. When the enemy boat saw us he stopped and raced away. He stayed within Turkish waters so we couldn’t attack him. And of course we did have another program to attend to that night.
The final episode concerns a “spy”. We received a signal to collect a civilian for transport to a British destroyer. We discovered this was a spy who had travelled overland from Germany to Turkey. It turned out to be a very complicated and attractive lady spy who sailed on our M L for twelve hours and spent most of the time in the ward room. I spent all the time on the bridge trying to find the destroyer because one of the signals had got distorted giving the wrong position and course for the destroyer. And we had radio silence routines so as not to give our position away. This lady during her sojourn in the ward room emptied a bottle of Cyprus brandy. My knowledge of Britain at the time was all based on the last 4 volumes of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, so I had a vague suspicion about whether she was in fact a British Spy going home or a German spy making this the best way to get to Britain. I was not in a position to communicate my suspicions to the destroyer Captain. Incidentally this destroyer was one of Mountbatten’s Fifth Destroyer flotillas”.
The main speaker was Captain (SAN) (Retd) Brian Hoffmann, a former Committee member of the KwaZulu-Natal Branch, whose talk was entitled “The Prelude to the First World War”, and was the next in the Branch’s series of talks to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. Brian and Delia Hoffmann recently relocated to Fish Hoek and travelled to Durban to address the meeting.
The origins of the war can be traced back to the Franco – Prussian War of 1870/71 which saw the establishment of Germany & the annexation of Alsace & much of Lorraine. King Wilhelm I was crowned Emperor & Count Otto von Bismark became Chancellor. In addition the French province of Alsace & much of Lorraine were annexed by Germany.
Europe was dominated by 5 major powers. Great Britain under Queen Victoria ruled over 25% of the world & had a powerful Navy but lived in “splendid isolation” of European affairs. Germany wanted her own Empire & a comparable navy to Great Britain. Bismark’s foreign policy was one of peaceful relations & reconciliation with France & Russia. All this changed in 1888 when Kaiser Wilhelm II succeeded his father. He sacked Bismark & declared his aim to make Germany a world power, which antagonized the other European powers. Russia was a poor country ruled by Tsar Nicholas II who was weak & easily influenced. He was at logger heads with Great Britain over warm water access to the Indian Ocean & the Mediterranean. Austria-Hungary comprised of 11 nationalities ruled by Emperor Franz Joseph II which by 1914 was in a state of collapse. France was about the size of Germany but less productive & with a shrinking population. She was eager to avenge her defeat in the Franco – Prussian War.
From 1872–1914 the balance of power in Europe shifted as alliances between the major powers changed. League of 3 Emperors (1873-1887) was an agreement between Germany, Austria- Hungary & Russia to maintain the balance of power & control ethnic minorities in Eastern Europe/Balkans. The Dual Alliance (1879) was between Germany & Austria-Hungary after Germany & Russia quarreled, pledging to help each other if attacked by Russia, a key factor in the outbreak of war in August 1914. The Triple Alliance (1882) was formed when Italy joined hoping to enlist support for territorial gain. The Franco-Russian Alliance (1892) was signed when both countries agreed to help each other if attacked by the Triple Alliance–a crucial factor in the outbreak of war in August 1914. The Entente Cordiale (1904) was an agreement between France & Great Britain in response to growing German antagonism & her threat to British naval supremacy. The Anglo-Russian Alliance (1907) ended their rivalry in Central Asia. The Triple Entente (1907) resulting from earlier alliances between Great Britain, France & Russia. The battle lines in Europe had been drawn.
The Kaiser’s vision of Germany as a world power required a Navy to challenge the British Navy. A warship construction race ensued resulting in the Super Dreadnought which rendered all other warships obsolete. The British First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher, believed war would only start when widening of the Kiel Canal was completed in June 1914.
For Germany, war was necessary to stamp her authority on Europe but she had to avoid a war on two fronts. The Schlieffen Plan involved the invasion of Northern France through Holland & Belgium to capture Paris & defeat France in 6 weeks. The German Army would then shift to the eastern front to face Russia. The French planned to recapture Alsace & Loraine by a high speed attack, then to cross the Rhine & head for Berlin. Great Britain agreed to help France with an Expeditionary Force of 144,000 soldiers. By 1912 Germany was ready for war but Admiral Tirpitz persuaded the Kaiser to delay it until widening of the Kiel Canal had been completed in June 1914, necessary for the transit of ships between the Baltic & North Sea.
With Europe rearming at an alarming rate it was only to be expected there would be tests of strength between the two sides. In 1905 the Tangier Crisis & 1911 the Agadir Crisis nearly led to war as Germany tested the resolve of Great Britain & France to declare war on her.
It was in the Balkans where the flames of war were ignited, a region of 11 nationalities seething with hatred & resentment. It was largely dominated by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the east & Austria-Hungary in the west. The Balkan Wars of 1912/13 had weakened this dominance with Serbia emerging strongest & her ally Russia becoming champion of the Slavs. The assassination of the heir to the Austria-Hungary throne, Archduke Ferdinand, by Serbian nationals during his visit to Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 sparked those flames.
Austria-Hungary felt the need to punish Serbia & on 23rd July sent her an Ultimatum. The terms were excessive. The British Foreign Secretary described them as “the most formidable document ever addressed from one country to another”. The rumblings of war grew louder.
On 24th July Russia partially mobilised. The following day Serbia agreed to most of the demands in the Ultimatum which foreign observers considered conciliatory. The first German warships sailed through the Kiel Canal & Austria-Hungary began partial mobilization. On 27th July Germany urged Austria-Hungary to act quickly against Serbia. The Kaiser told a friend ‘we are not at war, if I can I will prevent it’’.
On the 28th July the Kaiser could have prevented war. Reading the Ultimatum & Serbia’s reply he wrote ‘Every reason for war is removed. On the strength of this I should never have ordered mobilization’. At noon Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The moment was lost.
The 29thJuly was a day of high activity. The German Fleet mobilized, the British Fleet sailed for her battle stations & Russian forces advanced towards the Austria-Hungary border. Mean while Great Britain hesitated to commit itself to go to the defence of France. An exchange of conciliatory notes between the Kaiser & the Tsar came to naught.
On the 30thJuly Russia ordered full mobilization.. The following day the Kaiser sent an Ultimatum to Russia to cease war measures against Germany, she refused. As an ally of Russia, France refused a German request to remain neutral & mobilized her army. Germany was now faced with a war on both fronts, a scenario she had hoped to avoid. A war involving the major European powers was now inevitable. On the 1st August the Kaiser ordered full mobilization. That evening the German Ambassador to Russia delivered the German declaration of war to the Russian Foreign Minister.
On the 2nd August Germany sent an Ultimatum to Belgium demanding ‘German troops be given free passage through Belgium’. The following day Great Britain sent Germany an Ultimatum demanding ‘There must be no attack on Belgium’. Germany declared war on France & crossed into Belgium.
On the 4thAugust the French Army crossed into Alsace-Lorraine confident of a quick victory. At 23h00 Great Britain declared war on Germany. The flames of war had been ignited there was no turning back. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, remarked ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life time.’ The short war Europe clamoured for was to last 4 years & 3 months, with millions killed or wounded.
Both talks were followed by lively questions from the audience and the speakers were appropriately thanked on behalf of those present by Professor Philip Everitt, made even more appropriate by the fact that he had once been lectured in the same Department by Professor Ken Knight. A special word of appreciation was expressed to Capt Hoffmann for having travelled from Cape Town to address the Branch.
Thursday 8thMay 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 12thJune 2014:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “Central Flying School Dunottar” by Colonel Steve Bekker
Main Talk: “The 70thAnniversary of Normandy; Neptune”, by John Oliver
Thursday 10thJuly 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 14thAugust 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.
COMMEMORATION OF THE 115thANNIVERSARY OF THE START OF THE ANGLO-BOER WAR, 1899 TO 1902: “From Anglo-Boer War to World War 1” – Talana Museum, Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal, 20thto 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 17thto the 19thOctober 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.
Venue for the next meeting on the 8thMay 2014. Venue: The Murray Lecture Room, Department of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard Collage Campus. Time: 19h00 for 19h30.