South African Military History 


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 123
December/Desember 2014

SAMHSEC’s monthly meeting held on Saturday 15th November combined a morning field trip to the Schoenmakerskop area near Port Elizabeth, followed in the afternoon by the usual schedule of talks,which were held at the Sappershoek Community Centre.About 25 members met at the Sacramento Cannon, braving winds gusting up to 50km/hr, to look at the gun and discuss its history before visiting the nearby monument to the Sacramento, led by Malcolm Kinghorn. The Sacramento ran aground just off Schoenmakerskop on 30th June 1647 in foul weather. Members then visited the nearby WW II Artillery Observation Post under the guidance of Richard Tomlinson, who explained its role and significance.

The Open House continued with Malcolm Kinghorn’s eighth presentation in the Battle Handling series. Having focused in October on how soldiers are told what to do by means of orders, the November presentation described deployment drills, which is the process followed on receipt of orders. Deployment drills follow a set sequence of: receive warning order from the commander; do a time and map appreciation; issue warning order to subordinates; attend commander's order group to receive orders; issue a supplementary warning order if necessary; do reconnaissance; do appreciation; make plan; prepare and issue orders to subordinates; deploy in accordance with commander's orders.

The curtain raiser was presented by Pat Irwin on the subject of The Sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915.

The sinking of RMS Lusitania, a large passenger ship, remains one of the most controversial events of the Great War, the circumstances of its sinking still being shrouded in official secrecy. At the time of her maiden voyage in September 1907, she was, at 44 000 tons displacement, the largest and one of the fastest ships in the world cruising comfortably at 25 knots, thus easily able to outpace any submarine. She was twice the holder of the Atlantic Blue Riband. She could carry 2198 passengers and had a crew of 850 (a total of over 3 000) and was luxuriously and sumptuously fitted out with a view to capturing the patronage of the wealthy as well as the bread-and-butter income from European emigrants to North America.

The Cunard Line, which built the Lusitania for the lucrative transatlantic passenger trade, was short of capital and had negotiated a generous subsidy from the British government. In return the ship had to be built to certain naval specifications so that it could be used as an armed merchant cruiser in the event of war. This involved inter alia: gun platforms under the wooden decking; the hull being designed in Admiralty experimental tanks; the engines being similar to that of a Dreadnought battleship; all machinery having to be below the waterline where it would be protected from gunfire (submarines were not at that stage considered a serious possibility or threat); a requirement of 12 watertight compartments; and a double bottom. She also conformed fully to the Board of Trade safety regulations with 16 standard lifeboats which could accommodate 1 000 (!) people. In addition there were 32 collapsible lifeboats.

At the outbreak of the First World War, the 1856 Declaration of Paris (as amended), which codified the rules for naval engagements involving civilian vessels, was still in force. These were known as The Cruiser Rules, both Britain and Germany being signatories. They were essentially as follows:
* Passengers and crew had to be safeguarded in the event of a ship being confiscated or sunk;
* Ships had to fly their own flag, not a false flag;
* Ships had to stop when confronted and allow themselves to be boarded and searched;
* Ships were not allowed to be armed or take any hostile action;
* Ships were not permitted to carry munitions of war.

It is significant that these rules were agreed to before the days of wireless/telegraph technology and hence ships’ capacity to warn others that they were under attack, or call for armed assistance. In 1914 they had not been updated to take account of new technologies such as the submarine. From September 1914 the Lusitania was placed on the official list of Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMCs), about the time that submarines began to be recognised as a new threat to shipping.

Shortly after the start of the war, Britain imposed a naval blockade on Germany with a view to cutting off all her trade and starving her into submission. On 4th February 1915, the Germans responded by declaring that the seas around the British Isles would be a war zone and that from 18th February Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning. This was not total unrestricted submarine warfare (USW) since efforts would be made to avoid sinking neutral ships. With few exceptions, the Imperial German Navy adhered to the ‘Cruiser Rules’. Britain, however (with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty), blatantly contravened them: ships, including the Lusitania were instructed not to fly their flag, and in some cases to use false flags; British merchant ships were instructed to attack submarines on sight by either ramming them or firing upon them (Submarines were small and relatively frail craft and very vulnerable to even light gun fire); and Britain used passenger ships for transporting munitions of war.

This was the situation pertaining to the Lusitania when she left New York on 1st May 1915 under the command of Cunard’s senior Captain, William Turner OBE, RNR. Prior to her departure, however, a group of German-Americans, hoping to avoid controversy if the Lusitania were attacked by a U-Boat, discussed their concerns with the German Embassy in Washington. The Embassy consequently published a warning in 50 American newspapers, including several in New York, to the effect that Britain and Germany were at war, that the ships of Britain and her allies were subject to attack, and that passengers travelling on such ships would be doing so at their own risk. A significant number of passengers subsequently cancelled their bookings on the Lusitania.

On 7th May the Lusitania was running parallel to the south coast of Ireland, some 16km offshore when, by sheer chance she encountered the U-Boat U-20 on her way home after a successful operational tour. Not only did she present a full broadside target at short range, but was, following instructions from the Admiralty, running at only 15 knots. U-20, under command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schweiger, seeing a large ship looming ahead of him, took an opportunistic chance and fired a single torpedo at 14h10. It struck the Lusitania on the starboard side just below the bridge. Less than a minute later a second, larger internal explosion took place amidships. Schweiger was surprised at how quickly the great liner began to sink, and only as she did so, with the survivors (including women children) struggling in the water, did he see the name of the ship, and realise with regret what he had done. He wrote in his logbook: “I couldn’t have fired another torpedo into this mass of humans desperately trying to save themselves.”

The log also records chaos on the decks but, fearing the imminent arrival of Royal Navy vessels, U-20 dived and proceeded to make its way home. The RN did not arrive: HMS Juno which had originally been the designated escort for the Lusitania was recalled, for which no explanation has ever been forthcoming. Such rescue as there was, was carried out by Irish fishermen from the nearby port of Queenstown (now Cobh). Just 18 minutes after the torpedo had detonated, the Lusitania sank. Schweiger was surprised that a single torpedo could cause this, and assumed that something like coal dust must have caused the second explosion. What he could not have known was that the Lusitania had in her cargo a very substantial amount of munitions and explosive material used to manufacture ammunition, which possibly blew the bottom out of the ship, thus accounting for its extraordinarily rapid sinking, particularly as all watertight bulkheads were closed.

The loss of life was considerable: 1195 men, women and children. Most were British and Canadian, but of the 139 Americans on board 128 lost their lives. While it is presumed that most of the casualties were a result of drowning or hypothermia, some may have been as result of the explosions. The loss of life was exacerbated by watertight doors which were electrically operated. When electric power failed four minutes after the torpedo strike, many passengers were trapped; the second explosion was below the First Class section where the majority of Americans were located; insufficient lifeboats and not all could be a launched especially the collapsible ones. In the end only six of the 48 lifeboats were successfully launched.

The sinking led to outrage in the United States with pressure put on President Woodrow Wilson to immediately declare war on Germany. This was fanned by the British hoping to bring the US into the war on the Allied side. It was resisted by Wilson, who correctly sensed that the mood of the American people was not ready for war with Germany. Largely in deference to the Americans, USW was partially lifted, but re-imposed again in 1917, when the memory of the Lusitania became a contributory factor in America entering the war on the Allied side.

In Britain, the propaganda machine, by far the most effective and vicious of all the belligerents rose to the occasion with intensified vilification of ‘the Hun’, accusations of a war crime, continued demonization of the Kaiser, and fabrication of the most bizarre stories. This was also almost immediately used as capital for military recruitment. There was complete and official denial that the Lusitania was carrying any munitions or equipment of war, even though the cargo manifest showed, amongst other things, 4.2 million rifle bullets. Subsequent evidence has shown conclusively that a very substantial amount of explosive material and other war materials were also on board. Only in 2014 was a partial public admission made, when the treasury put out a warning to divers and salvage operators that the wreck still contained dangerous explosives. Much of the documentation relating to the Lusitania still remains under embargo and the few records which are available are often missing critical pages.

In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm was appalled at the loss of life of so many women and children. Schweiger and his crew received no official praise for their deed and, again contrary to Allied propaganda, never received any rewards or decorations for the sinking of the Lusitania. There was in fact substantial criticism of it within Germany. The German government, while regretting the loss of life, nevertheless pointed out that they had given due warning, that the Lusitania was sailing either under no flag, that she was listed as an AMC, and had been ordered to ram submarines – all of which were true. They also argued that on previous voyages she had carried munitions and transported Allied troops.

The wreck lies in 90m of water and for various reasons, including extensive depth-charge blasting by the Royal Navy in the post-World War II period, is in poor condition. A Dublin-based technical diving team, who dived on the site in the 1990s, reported that the wreck looked like a "like Swiss cheese", there were so many holes in it, and that the seabed around was "littered with unexploded hedgehog depth-charges".

Among the questions which remain are: why, when the British authorities were aware that a German submarine was in the vicinity of the Lusitania, did it fail to divert the ship to a safer route; why was there no escort, even though destroyers were available in a nearby port; why was the ship ordered to reduce speed in the war zone; and how did such a big ship sink so quickly from a single torpedo strike? These questions have inevitably given rise to rumours, imaginary explanations of the events, and the blossoming of conspiracy theories. One of the most persistent of the latter, with some circumstantial evidence to support it, and implicating Churchill himself, is that the British Government deliberately put the Lusitania at risk in order to embroil the US in the war. The talk concluded with a reference to the subsequent lives of the two captains and the fate of U-20 later in 1916. There is little dispute that the sinking of the Lusitania played a role in reshaping the course of the First World War.

[The Lusitania in its heyday (left) and as an armed Merchant Cruiser when torpedoed (right).Source: Common Domain - photographs not available for html version]

The main lecture, by Geoff Hamp-Adams was titled SAAF: history made, heritage lost. Geoff began his talk by referring to the official opening of the South African War Museum in Saxonwold by General Jan Smuts on 29th August 1947. At that time South Africa possessed examples of many of the aircraft used by both sides during WWII. Mindful that out of the gift of 113 aircraft that Britain gave South Africa to start the South African Air Force in 1920, only two survived (a De Havilland DH9 and a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E. 5a) and are in what is now the [Ditsong] South African National Museum of Military History, it was felt by a few far-seeing individuals, such as Captain John Agar-Hamilton and General George Brink, that a better attempt should be made with the aircraft which South Africans had flown in and fought against during the Second World War.

Regrettably this was not to be. Of the 1605 aircraft of all types held by the SAAF in November 1946, 862 were declared ‘surplus’ and were disposed between 1947 and 1949 apparently without thought being given to preserving even representative types. (See table on following page).

Discussing these aircraft types, Geoff described some of their individual histories and fates. Priceless aircraft were scrapped, given away, sold for a song to foreign collectors,or left to deteriorate and later sold as scrap metal. Among the aircraft discussed and illustrated were a Junkers 88 H-4 Trop; Curtiss Tomahawks; Hawker Hurricanes; Supermarine Spitfires; MesserschmittME 109Es and Fs; Focke-WulfFw 190s; MesserschmittME262s;Avro Ansons; Airspeed Oxfords; Fairey Battles; Martin Marylands; Consolidated PBY Catalinas; and Lockheed Venturas.


Hawker Hart4-4
Tiger Moth11510015
B34 Ventura6262-
PV1 Ventura8686-
Source: The Director General South African Air Force
Conference minutes for the 26th November 1946.

A few, such as the ME 262 and FW 190, have been preserved for posterity at the three SAAF Museums and the SANMMH, but in the case of the vast majority, it is a tragic story of lack of interest by the authorities, a lack of concern by those who should have known better and woeful ignorance of historical value and perspective.

Geoff also made specific mention of the 15 Short Sunderland and SupermarineSpitfires which, for reasons unknown, were not on the ‘list’. The case of Spitfires is particularly pertinent. Efforts to restore and fly them across the world have met with resounding success, with the exception of South Africa. The situation has been compounded by the poor preservation of post-war aircraft such as Gloster Meteors; De Havilland Vampires; North American Sabres; and the Sikorski S-51 (South Africa’s first helicopter).

In summary, South Africa has a long sad history of neglect and non-concern about preserving its aviation history, both military and civilian.Most of our military aviation heritage has been permanently lost to South Africa and what remains is relatively speaking, little more than “a hotch-potch of bits and pieces”. There is little evidence of a change in this trend: as recently as this year the Avro Shackelton at Ysterplaat AFB has been disposed of. The course of events is doubly tragic given that the SAAF is the second oldest Air Force in the world after the RAF.

In conclusion, Geoff paid tribute to the following individuals who over the years strove to bring the importance of our aviation heritage to the attention of both the private sector and officialdom; in the latter case often dealing with bureaucratic indifference:

The late Colonel Peter Mcgregor (First OC of the SAAF Museum)
The late Major David St H Becker (Historical Research Officer, SAAF Museum)
The late Major Ronald R Belling (Official War Artist of the SAAF)
The late Major Ivan R D Spring (ex SAAF/RAF author and historian)
Dr Dennis Hoskin (SAAFA and ex 60 Sqn. Mosquito crew member)
The late Major Des Eden (SAAFA and ex 35 Sqn. Catalina crew member)
Steven McLean (Aviation author)

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstigebyeenkomsenuitstappe

The next meeting will be at 19h30 on 8thDecember at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The ‘open house’ will be the ninth in the Battle Handling series presented by Malcolm Kinghorn. The curtain raiser and main lecture will be combined with Barbara Kinghorn presenting a continuation of a talk which she delivered in 2013 titled A dependent’s tale. The forthcoming talk is titled ‘n Soldaat se vrou.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemenebelang

2015 subscriptions and postal strike

The SAMHS National Committee has decided the subscriptions for 2015 will be slightly increased as follows:
Single membership: from R215 to R225 a member
Family: from R230 to R240 a family (two people sharing the same postal address)
This is the first time in three years that subscriptions have been increased.

Please note that subs are payable to SAMHS, Johannesburg, on 1st January 2015 and that SAMHSEC will assume that those who have not renewed their membership by the AGM in March 2015 do not intend to do so. The SAMHSEC committee looks forward to all current members renewing their membership and to encourage others to join. Membership renewal/ application forms and banking details are available on the SAMHS website,

Joan Marsh, our national secretary has noted the inconvenience to some members, caused by the postal strike. Anybody who wishes to change to e-mail can send her their address at and let her know which newsletters they are missing. She will send them pdf copies so that those who keep the newsletters won't have gaps in their collections.

The Battle of SidiRezegh

As we prepare this Newsletter we are reminded that of the 73rd Anniversary of the Battle of SidiRezegh which took place on 23rd November 1941 in eastern Libya. It was one of the blackest days in South African military history. The 5th SA Infantry Brigade of the 1st SA Division was for all practical purposes annihilated and the three regiments composing it (2nd Regiment Botha, SA Irish and 3rd Transvaal Scottish) ceased to exist when they were overrun by Rommel’s Panzers. Some 3 800 men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

For a first-hand account of the battle, see the article by Capt. D Matthews, ‘With the 5th South African Infantry Brigade at SidiRezegh’in our Military History Journal 10 (6) 223-25 December 1997. It can also be read at

World War I Centenary Year / EersteWêreldoorlogEeufeesjaar

The Christmas truce of 1914

Over the Christmas period of 1914, a remarkable truce took place on the front lines between the British Expeditionary Force and the German army facing them. According to Great War historian, Jeremy Paxman, a “live and let live” attitude had developed; “in parts of the line an unwritten agreement had come about that neither side would shoot while the men ate their breakfast and visited the latrines in the morning”. From there on accounts vary a little. Some claim that the British responded to the Germans’ singing of Stille Nacht, Heil'ge Nacht (TheBritish are said to have replied with We are Fred Karno’s army to the tune of a popular hymn at the time, The Church’s one foundation). Another account has it that as early as 23rd December a sentry of the 2nd Cameronians saw unarmed Germans climbing out of the trench opposite making friendly gestures. Yet other stories tell that the Germans erected a Christmas tree with lights and that they called across to the British in English, some of them having worked in London before the War.

What all accounts agree upon is that at some point, soldiers and their officers from both sides clambered out of their trenches and met in no-man’s land where they exchanged gifts “plum puddings for sauerkraut, biscuits for coffee and cigarettes for Schnapps” according to Paxman. Some tell of badges and items of clothing being traded as well. In some sections there are even claimed to have been shared Christmas dinners. The various incidents recounted in personal and regimental diaries suggest the phenomenon was fairly widespread. All accounts are however in agreement that it was a spontaneous affair without any prior organisation or arrangements, and most suggest that it was a German initiative.

One of the most persistent stories relating to these events is that of a football match played in no-man’s land. Although there is some quibble over whether it really took place, the weight of evidence suggests with reasonable certainty that it did; that it was between men of the 1st Warwickshire Regiment and German troops from Saxony. Recent research has also suggested that the man who most likely kicked off, was a Private William Setchfield of Newark in Nottinghamshire, who was an avid soccer enthusiast. The Germans won 3-2.

The military top brass on both sides are reported to have warned that any friendly intercourse with the enemy was prohibited, but that failed to stop both the fraternisation and the football match, as Captain Andrew Hamilton, one of Private Setchfield’s officers wrote in his diary. A commemorative match between Newark Town Football Club and the German football club FC03 Emmendingen is due to take place in a field outside Comines, in Belgium on 20th December 2014, close to where the 1914 game is thought to have been played.

A full account of the truce, based on Capt. Robert Hamilton’s account in his diary, is given in the book Meet at dawn unarmed: Captain Robert Hamilton's Account of Trench Warfare and the Christmas Truce in 1914. It is written by Andrew Hamilton (his grandson) and Alan Reed (a Great War historian) and was published in 2009 by Dene House Publishing, Walton, Warwickshire. It is available in both paperback and Kindle.

Some related websites:

Some firsthand accounts:

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang


Patricia Davies was the last of the team behind Operation Mincemeat, the subterfuge which allowed the Allies to invade Sicily
The Telegraph 16th October 2014

World War I

How the Tower of London poppies were made
Claudia Joseph The Mail On Sunday 1st November 2014

The Battle of Coronel remembered
Gideon Long BBC News 1st November 2014

The other side: An account of German communication troops, with fascinating photographs.
Original source unknown now ‘viral’ apparently in public domain.

World War I Battlefields, 100 Years Later
Twisted Sifter11th November 2014

In France, a WWI soldier’s bedroom remains frozen in time 11th November 2014 ewwpe-1227119274061

World War II

Census shows Hitler’s brother, married to an Irishwoman, lived in Liverpool
Casey Egan @irishcentral 20th August 2014

The tale of a Jewish child as a Nazi mascot
Olga Craig  The Telegraph   1st June 2014


Once a Year at 11:11 am the sun shines perfectly on this memorial
Twisted Sifter 11th November 2014

The Cold War

New Russian Boldness Revives a Cold War Tradition: Testing the Other Side
David E. Sanger& Nicole Perlrothoct. TheNew York Times 30th October 2014

Something very different

A Canadian tribute to those who suffer from PTSD
JP Cormier Hometown Battlefield

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang


This month we look at an unusual rendering of the Last Post and a few ballads centred on the Great War. These items are all easily accessible on the Internet. This first of these is a guitar rendition of The Last Post by Mark Knopfler, one of the world’s great guitarists. It is hisFirst World War guitar tribute for ‘The Last Post Project’ – a non-profit organisation to mark the Centenary in Music.Knopfler’s performance is very impressive and moving.

Duration: 1min. 51sec.

The second piece was written in 1975and is sung by Eric Bogle, a Scottish-born folk singer-songwriter living in Australia. He titled it No Man's Land but it is also known as The Green Fields of France and was made popular by, amongst others, TheFureys & Davey Arthur. This beautiful rendering is sung in both English and German and has resonance not only with the First World War, but for our own times too. or at
Duration:4min. 33sec.

The original version of this song in English, focused on the personal tragedy of Private Willie McBride, is considered by many as one of the most powerful anti-war songs. It can be listened to at
Duration: 6min.30sec.

Stephen Suffet’s challenge and responseto this song, set to Bogle's tune and titled Willie McBride's Reply offers justification of why Willie McBride chose to go to war and why he felt his life was not wasted. The underlying sentiment is that to take up arms against an oppressor is justified. The big question is of course who is the oppressor?
Duration: 4min.38sec.

If you feel like engaging with a little controversy over a new recording of ‘No man’s land’, by Joss Stone, have a look at:

The final piece, also by Eric Bogle, is The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, an Australian ballad on the futility of Gallipoli. It also has echoes of the Second World War as well as our own times.
Duration: 7min. 24sec.

Members are invited to send in to the scribes, short reviews of, or comments on, books, DVDs or any other interesting resources they have come across, as well as news on individual member’s activities. In this Newsletter, there have been contributions by Barry Irwin, Richard Tomlinson, Malcolm Kinghorn, Michael Irwin, Ian Pringle, Peter Duffel-Canham, Fred Nel and Jonathan Ossher.

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn:
Secretary: Richard Keyter:
Scribes (Newsletter): Anne and Pat Irwin:
Society’s Web address: 


[Sorry, unable to display the bugle]
A bugle used at the Battle of Loos, 1915. It was also used to play the Last Post every Armistice Day at the Imperial War Museum, London, during the 1920s and 1930s.

Source: 12

South African Military History Society /