South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 465
KwaZulu-Natal November 2014

Contact: Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Charles Whiteing 082 555 4689
Society’s web site address:

There was a good turnout of members and guests to listen to our two speakers at the October 2014 meeting. The first was highly decorated former WO1 John Goodrich whose topic was entitled “The Formation, Training and Operations of WW2 Commandos”

After the miraculous evacuation of the British Expeditionary force from Dunkirk, Britain - with the bulk of their medium and heavy weapons abandoned on the beaches of Dunkirk - was extremely vulnerable to a German invasion. She needed every available man to defend the island. Nevertheless Churchill, on the recommendation of Lt Col Dudley Clarke RA, approved the formation of an elite force of 5000 men which despite some opposition from many senior military figures, was named the Commandos after the Boer Commandos from the Anglo-Boer War. This was due to the mobility and fire power of those Boer horsemen and the noteworthy South African link is reflected in the Royal Marine Commandos’ Regimental March, which is Sarie Marais. Ten Commandos were formed and the four Royal Marine Battalions were converted to Commandos.

The aim of this force was as follows:
* Maintain a presence in occupied territory. To spread the enemy in preparation for D-Day.
* To gather information and destroy enemy infrastructure.
* To bring back volunteers for the free forces based in London.

These men were billeted in private residence; the idea was to divorce this force from barrack room routine. Selected from a strict list of criteria, their training was initially limited to advanced map reading, fitness and initiative exercises. All other training took the form of rehearsals for actual raids. It later became apparent that there was a need for a dedicated depot for the initial training of this force. Achnacarry Castle in the inhospitable North West Scottish Highlands was chosen for this aim. Captains W E Fairbairn and E A Sykes (ex Shanghai policemen) were recruited to teach unarmed combat. They also designed the renowned Commando knife.

After the highly successful raid on the Vaagso fish factory in Norway, (Operation Archery, 27 December 1941), this operation was claimed to be the only Commando raid that went entirely by the book with no hitches. General Eisenhower, so impressed by their achievements requested the Commandos to train an equivalent US army force. Achnacarry Castle therefore became the birth place of the US Army Rangers.

Fifty US Army Rangers were part of the ill-fated Dieppe raid (code named Operation Rutter, August 1942), the US Army’s baptism of fire in Europe. The Commandos made their presence known from the Mediterranean to the Far East. In 1944 the 1st Special Service Brigade began preparation for the D-day invasion.

On the night of 5/6 June 1944, 82nd and 101st US Airborne Divisions and The 6th British Airborne Division, parachuted into France and formed a protective screen around the Normandy beaches - the Americans in the west around St Mere Eglise and the British in the east along the Orne River. The 1st Special Service Brigade consisting of 3, 4, 6 and 45 (Royal Marine) Commandos under command of Brigadier Simon Christopher Fraser DSO MC TD, the 15th Lord Lovat, were the first to land on Sword Beach. Having been placed under Command of the 6th Airborne Division, their task to relieve the paratroops on the now famous Pegasus Bridge. They were also required to set up defensive positions east of the Caen Canal and the Orne River, preventing interference from the German reinforcements from the East. 3 Commando under command of Lt Col Peter Young DSO landed on Sword beach with bicycles, important to the speed of their deployment.

After D-Day the Commandos crossed the Rhine in March 1945. They destroyed the V2 Rocket factory in a daring night raid on April Fools ’ Day 1945, Their last action in Europe was the Clearing of Lauenburg on 29 April 1945.

Our second speaker was our Chairman, Charles Whiteing, whose topic was entitled “Lawrence of Arabia".

Thomas Edward Lawrence, was born on 16 August 1888 in Tremadoc, North Wales. He was one of four sons; of parents that never married. His father was Thomas Chapman, an aristocrat of Anglo Irish decent. His mother, Sarah Lawrence, was the governess to Thomas & Edith Chapman`s four daughters. TE Lawrence attended the Oxford Boys school, but he detested school sports, and spent his leisure time exploring archaeological sites around Oxford and rubbing brasses in local churches.

In 1908 he offered to tidy the display cases at the Oxford Ashmolean Museum where he met DG Hogarth. He was an archaeologist, the keeper of the museum, and an associate of the British Intelligence Service. While Lawrence attended college in Oxford, Hogarth tutored him in Arabic and on the Middle East. In 1906, 1907 and 1910, Lawrence spent his summer holidays cycling through France to study the architecture of medieval castles. In 1909, he visited what is known today as Lebanon, Syria and Israel, and walked a total of 1100 miles while visiting 36 Crusader castles.

: He returned to Oxford confident of his physical stamina; and intellectually enriched by his Middle East experiences, won a First Class Honours with his BA thesis titled “The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture till the end of the 12th Century.”

Guided by Hogarth and C. Leonard Wooley, he photographed their finds and sorted the delicate pieces that had been excavated. His knowledge of colloquial Arabic improved while supervising the workers. He established a somewhat antagonistic relationship with the German engineers, who were building a bridge in the vicinity as part of the Berlin Baghdad railway line.

In January 1914 Lawrence and Wooley joined Captain Stewart Newcombe of the Royal Engineers in Beersheba to conduct a survey of the northern Sinai desert. Officially it was financed by the Palestine Exploration Fund to study Israelite, Nabataean and Byzantine ruins but in fact it was a spying mission. The team mapped and studied Turkish military installations along the borders of Ottoman Palestine and British Egypt, only 100 miles from the Suez Canal. When war broke out in 1914, Lawrence was back in Oxford and on Hogarth`s recommendation, joined the General Staff of the War Office Geographical Section. He proceeded to work on his book “The Wilderness of Zin” which was in fact a report and maps on their spying mission. Kitchener was anxious that the book be published soonest, to mislead the Turks on their actual spying mission.

In December 1914, Lawrence was transferred to the cartography section of Military Intelligence in Cairo. His responsibilities included producing maps of the Middle East and interrogating Arab and Turkish prisoners. By 1915, by the time Britain was at war with Turkey, Lawrence had drawn up a final map based on this ambiguous sketch. The revised map, edited by Newcombe, improved the British position opposite Taba by establishing a boundary post just where the British wanted it, as with a new boundary in relation to Akaba.

By 1916 he was 27 and had been promoted to Captain. His constant sloppy appearance and flaunting of regulations never ceased to irritate his superiors; especially those he perceived as pompous.

However his talents and abilities were acknowledged, and in June 1916 he was transferred to the Arab Bureau. This special section within Cairo Intelligence was headed by Hogarth and had been established to monitor and co ordinate covert operations in the Arab sphere.

On 13 October 1916 he travelled to Jidda with Ronald Storrs to meet with Prince Feisal to evaluate the prospects and requirements for Feisal`s revolt against the Turks. On his return to Cairo, Lawrence reported that what was required was a team of advisors and logistical support by the Royal Navy. This angered the French, but was welcomed by Sir Archibald Murray who was reluctant to spare troops for this “sideshow.”

Lawrence was now viewed in a totally different light. This irritating untidy officer had now become popular around head quarters and Colonel Gilbert Clayton, the Director of Military Intelligence, ordered him to return to the desert as official military advisor to Feisal.

Supported by Royal Navy logistics, British gold, and a team of British and French advisors, Lawrence developed guerrilla tactics in the Hejaz region. Blending in and dressed like a Bedouin, he perfected a strategy of strikes on the Hejaz Railway line and the defending Turkish outposts. This had the effect of rendering the large Turkish force in Medina virtually helpless while control of the countryside fell into the hands of the Arab insurgents.

In the past the Royal Navy held the port of Akaba at the head of the Red Sea; but the Turks now controlled the heights above the town making British occupation impossible. However the artillery faced seaward, with a landward attack never being envisaged. The Turks had a large garrison stationed there which maintained security over the Hejaz Railway.

On 18 June 1917, Lawrence set off for Akaba with Sherif Nasir and Abu abu Tayi, the leaders of a mixed group of Arabs. Feisal asked Lawrence if he would wear Arab clothes like his own when in their camp. This he accepted as the only other wearers of khaki were the Turkish with its negative association.

He was presented robes of white silk with gold embroidery and found these loose fitting garments more suited to desert life and acceptance by the Arabs.

Lawrence observed that the Turks succeeded in frightening the Arabs with their artillery and he said “the sound of fired cannon sent every man within earshot running for cover.” They thought the effectiveness of a weapon was in proportion to its noise it made, but their guerrilla warfare tactics would have been limited with the burden of field guns.

The advance on Akaba, which bordered on the Nefud desert north east of the port; involved overnight camps at Bair, Jefer, Aba el Lissan and Guweira. En`route they dynamited a train near Amman, blew a bridge near Deraa, and laid mines behind Turkish lines. At sunset, Auda abu Tayi and his men opened fire on the Turkish outposts and charged down into the valley of Aba el Lissan, the final approach to the town. During the charge, Turkish gunfire smashed Auda`s binoculars, pierced his revolver holster, nicked his sword and killed two horses from under him. Lawrence on his racing camel Naama, followed by four hundred Bedouin tribesmen, accidentally fired the fifth shot from his revolver into the back of the head of his camel. Lawrence describes the incident as ‘sailing grandly through the air for a great distance, and landed with a crash which seemed to drive all the power and feeling out of me.” Fortunately he had fallen in front of his dead camel which resulted in dividing the charge of the Arabs behind him thus saving him from being trampled. Following extensive looting and killing; Anglo / Arab control of the port was secured.

Lawrence reported to Admiral Wemyss at GHQ in Cairo, stressing that the Royal Navy needed to send supplies to Akaba. General Allenby arrived at the station at Ismailia to assume the position of Commander-in-Chief. Admiral Wemyss reported that Akaba had been captured and Allenby sent for Lawrence. From a throng of Arabs and staff officers standing in the vicinity, there emerged a barefoot 5ft 3”youthful looking man in Bedouin robes.

Lawrence describes the scene; “Meeting Allenby was a comic interview with him being large and confident, but was hardly prepared for anything as odd as myself- a little bare footed silk skirted man offering to hobble the enemy by his preaching if given stores, arms and a fund of two thousand sovereigns to convince and control his coverts.”

Lawrence said “We did no mix the tribes in the respective raiding parties because of inherent distrust of each other. All served for a common ideal but any of the Arab soldiers could return home without penalty unlike a conventional soldier. The efficiency of my forces was the personal efficiency of the single man. Our ideal was to make our battles a series of single combats, and our ranks a happy alliance of agile commanders".

Was this concept not the embryo in the formation of the Long Range Desert Group, the SAS, or in fact the Chindits in the next world war?

Lawrence; now promoted to Colonel; returned to Akaba with a reward of 50,000 pounds being offered by the Turks for his capture dead or alive.

After Akaba the campaign of mining train lines continued to fragment Turkish logistics and frustrate their lines of communication. Lawrence`s group were using a new type of automatic lyddite mine supported by Lewis machine guns. During one of the attacks on a wrecked train, Lawrence was injured in the hip by a shot fired by a Turkish Colonel`s Mauser pistol from one of the wrecked carriages. Rumours of the lucrative rewards from attacking Turkish trains spread among the Arab tribes and it was said “Send us a Lurens and we will blow up trains.” In the following four months seventeen locomotives were destroyed and travelling by train became a risky business for the enemy with travellers in Damascus paying a premium for seats in the rear carriages and there was also a strike by Turkish engine drivers. This isolation kept Turkish troops trapped in Medina and other centres as if they were surrounded by a besieging force.

Throughout the Revolt, Lawrence conducted clandestine activities, supplying confidential reports to Cairo. It was during one of these trips that Lawrence entered the town of Deraa with its strategic railway junction. He was disguised as an Arab, but was captured by a Turkish patrol. He describes that he was brutally whipped and sexually assaulted by the Turkish soldiers. However he managed to escape without his true identity being revealed. He later wrote in ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ that; “In Deraa, the citadel of my integrity had been lost.”

The hardships of Arab desert life, wounds sustained, and the mental stresses had all but exhausted Lawrence. He had also become troubled with the political role` he was playing; on the one hand as a British serving officer, and on the other as an Arab mediator, who had implied that once the Turks were defeated, they would have their own ‘homeland.” During the Revolt he found himself espousing the Arab cause more strongly than the British and French policies. Although not in a position to offer substantive military aid in the Middle East, France wanted control of Syria. However to secure French support during the war, the Sykes-Picot treaty was signed, wherein Britain agreed to French interests in Syria and Lebanon.

On October 1st 1918, Sherif`s forces reached Damascus and proceeded to set up an Arab government. Lawrence`s plans included uniting the Arabs as a force, as well as allaying their suspicions of British intentions.

In protest to the Sykes-Picot Treaty, he refused to attend his official investiture from King George V with the Distinguished Service Order (for the Battle of Talifeh), and Companion of the Bath.

On 18 January 1919 he attended the Peace Conference in Versailles representing the Foreign Office as Feisal`s unofficial advisor. Here he met and made a lasting impression on Winston Churchill; which was the beginning of a long association.

In May 1919 he then flew to Cairo but the Handley-Page aircraft crashed near Rome with Lawrence suffering from a broken collar bone, a fractured rib and a pierced lung.

In 14 August 1919, following his hospitalisation after the aircraft crash, Lawrence returned to London. At the Royal Opera House in London, Lowell Thomas opened his film show “With Allenby in Palestine,” which was ultimately seen by millions in all the major cities. This resulted in Lawrence became the most celebrated soldier of the First World War. He detested this new status and fame, and as a result, became a troubled bohemian recluse.

By July 1920 he emerged from semi retirement and began writing letters to the Press in support of the expelled Feisal, and protesting British control of Mesopotamia. In February 1921, Winston Churchill asked Lawrence to join the Colonial Office, and in March 1921 he attended the Cairo Conference as their official representative. In July 1922 he left the Foreign Office satisfied that he had done all he could and promised, on behalf of the Arab cause.

In August 1922, to avoid further publicity, and to earn a steady salary, he joined the ranks of the Royal Air Force. Under the alias of John Hume Ross, he was able to work on his book, ride his motorcycle and fit in with normal barrack life. In January 1923, the Press exposed his true identity as Colonel Lawrence, and he was discharged from the RAF photography school at Farnborough.

In a further attempt to hide, he joined the Army Tank Corps as Private T E Shaw, but found the men to be of a lower calibre to that of the RAF and he disliked army life. Using his contacts in military circles, he was allowed to leave the army, and in August 1925, rejoined the RAF and was posted to RAF Cranwell.

During this period he bought “Clouds Hill,” a cottage about a mile from the base. This he furnished in austere good taste and it became his retreat to write and listen to the music of Elgar and Mozart.

By 1926 he had completed two books, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and “The Mint”, which was a frank biography of service life.

In his continual quest to avoid publicity, he managed to get a transfer with the RAF to India.

He then returned to England, serving under Wing Commander Sydney Smith at RAF Mountbatten in Plymouth. He owned a number of Brough (pronounced Bruff) motorcycles, and assisted in the organising of the Schneider Cup Seaplane races of 1929.

He learnt to fly a Gypsey Moth aircraft and assisted in the designing of a rescue launch which were known as RAF “Crash Boats,” and would save the lives of many Allied pilots during the Second World War. This technical expertise led him to write a book on boat maintenance.

On 23 February 1935 he retired from the RAF to his Dorset cottage “Clouds Hill,” where he continued to write, read and in collaboration with Edward Spurr an engineer, he worked on a prototype of a hovercraft and a hydrofoil.

On the 13th May 1935, he was returning home on his Brough motorcycle, but to avoid two delivery boys on bicycles, he was forced to swerve and crashed. He was fatally injured, and at the age of 47, died six days later as a result of his injuries.

Major General Vervey said afterwards, “The revolt in the desert may have been a side show, but it played a very important part in Allenby`s victory over the Turks.”

In 1938 Edward Spurr produced a working prototype of his hovercraft named Empire Day. He dedicated it to Lawrence with the letters “L of A” at the bow.

T E Lawrence was described as having the capacity to befriend both Arab and Jew, respect Bedouin nomads as much as British Lords, serve equally well as a colonel and a private, ride motorcycles and camels and design books as well as boats. He was not afraid of following his own logic wherever it took him.

At his funeral Winston Churchill said: “He was a dweller on the mountain tops where the air was cold, crisp and rarefied, and where the view on a clear day commanded all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. His name will live in history - in English letters, in the annals of war, in the traditions of the Royal Air Force and in the legends of Arabia. I was under his spell and deemed myself his friend. I account him one of the greatest beings alive in our time.”

Branch Luncheon.

Please diarise Sunday 30th November 2014 for the Annual Lunch. The venue will be the Hellenic Club, High Road, off Brown’s Drift Road (off Riverside Road), Durban North. Cost R150 per person, payable at the next meeting. Please see Chairman Charles Whiteing with the FULL AMOUNT. Time: 12h00 SHARP.

Thursday 13th November 2014:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “Operation Torch; General Patton in North Africa”, by Maj Dr John Buchan

Main Talk: “Collapse in the West, 1940”, by Past Chairman Bill Brady

Future Meetings:
Thursday 11th December 2014:

Only one lecture: Ian Sutherland on “An RAF Crash in the Scottish Highlands”. This will be followed by an end of year cocktail party.


Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “A Tribute to Winston Churchill – the 50th Anniversary”, by Past Chairman Bill Brady;

Main Talk: “Al Qaeda - the Eye of the Tiger” by Major Peter Williams

Thursday 12th February 2015 (NB – BACK TO THE SECOND THURSDAY):

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “The Battle of Santa Cruz, 25th October 1942” by Roy Bowman

Main Talk: “Shaka; his military career” by Dr Alex Coutts

South African Military History Society /