South African Military History Society

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A nice surprise awaited us when we arrived for the meeting on 13 August - we were going to be able to use the auditorium! The new carpet was in place and the seats re-upholstered but, although the electrics were not quite finished, we managed very well. Our compliments and thanks to the renovation team who have been working very hard and putting in long hours.

The meeting was opened by Malcolm King, the chairman, who had the sad duty of announcing the death of Beth Savage in March. We were reminded of the forthcoming movies - Regeneration 18 October and The Red Baron 22 November - for details contact The Majestic (011) 486 3648.

Malcolm introduced or first speaker, Hamish Paterson who has an MA from Natal University and has worked at the Military History Museum for 29 years. His lecture was Trekkoppies 25 April 1915. This was a decisive action which took place in the deserts of German South West Africa in the early part of WWI. The South African Northern Force there was commanded by General Botha however, the key problems of the battle were extremely high temperatures, lack of shade and shortage of water for men, horses and the railway engines. Botha had decided to advance on Windhuk via the Riet River but then realized that he would need to use the railway for both supply and support. So Col. Skinner was given the task of protecting the railhead and the construction teams and, so sure was Northern Force command that the Germans would not attack him that they withdrew the 12-pounders of the artillery.

However, the Germans were observing from the air and saw all this plus the camp layout. The Germans decided to cut off Skinner's force from reinforcements and attack him at Trekkoppies. However, Skinner had an improvised anti-aircraft gun "Skinny Liz" and was sent 12 armoured cars each of which had a mounted Vickers machine gun which gave him huge fire power. Unfortunately for them, the German air observation thought the cars were water tanks. Col. Skinner decided to conduct a reconnaissance up to Ebony on the night of 25 April and they spotted a German force on its way to attack the South African positions. Skinner prudently withdrew to Trekkoppies and summoned the Second Rhodesia Regiment from Arandis.

The Germans opened the action by blowing up the railway line. Unfortunately, they blew it up to the north of the South Africans not the south as intended, so the reinforcements were able to get through and man the ridge defenses. Next the Germans opened fire with a three-hour artillery bombardment but the South Africans were in the trenches not the camp. Then the Germans tried an outflanking movement only to encounter the seemingly invulnerable armoured cars [that they had thought water tanks] which kept forcing them to retreat down the railway line. The fire-power of the cars combined with the South African rifle fire proved a barrier which the Germans were not able to suppress so their attack at Trekkoppies failed to dislocate the South African strategy so that Botha was still able to exploit both the railway route and the Riet River.

Our next speaker, Ken England, had begun his connection with Captain James Cook in 1957 when he and his wife were looking for a house at Marton-in-Cleveland after he had joined ICI in Teesside, North Yorkshire. They ended up with 19 Tasmania Square off Captain Cook Crescent. So although they had Cook all around them, international interest only started with the Bicentenary of Cook's First Voyage of Discovery in 1968. Ken's talk James Cook: the Early Years and First Voyage was beautifully illustrated with portraits, maps and, most unusually, stamps. James Cook was born 27 October 1728 and was sponsored by his father's employer to attend the village school in 1736. He did four years there before going on to be apprenticed to a shopkeeper. His apprenticeship was transferred to the Quaker brothers, John & Henry Walker of Whitby who owned a fleet of colliers. When Cook wasn't sailing, he lived in their attic and they encouraged him to study seamanship and navigation. They offered him the command of one of their colliers in 1755 but he refused it and went to London and joined the Navy as an able seaman.

This was a good time to join the Navy as Britain and France were arming for what was to become the Seven Years War. The Captain of his ship, Hugh Palisser, became a lifelong friend and benefactor who encouraged him to study for promotion. In October 1757, Cook sailed to Canada and took part in the capture of the fort of Louisburg at the mouth of the St Lawrence River. Here he met Lt Samuel Holland who was surveying the island for the military and from him Cook learned the methods of land survey producing his first charts of the island's harbour. Later the two completed a full marine survey of the St Lawrence enabling the navy to land General Wolf's troops at the Heights of Abraham to capture Quebec in September 1759. His survey work was submitted to the Admiralty and his reputation started to blossom. For the next five years Cook spent most of his time, apart from getting married, surveying the coast of Newfoundland and adding astronomy to his list of skills. As a result he was able to submit a report to the Royal Academy on a solar eclipse he observed there.

In November 1767 everything changed. On 3 June 1769, a Transit of Venus between the Earth and Sun was to take place and would not occur again for 105 years. An accurate observation from the Pacific would enable valuable scientific calculations to be made but the real purpose of the voyage was to head south after the observation , find the "Great Southern Continent" and claim it for George III who gave 4000 pounds towards the costs. Cook was appointed to command the expedition on Endeavour which was an old collier that had a shallow draught and good storage space. The astronomer, Charles Green, was appointed to observe the actual transit and assist Cook with navigation. Joseph Banks FRS was also to sail with them along with his team of scientists and assistants. There were two botanists, Solander and Sporing, from Sweden to collect new plants and two artists, Parkinson and Buchan, to record what was found and places visited. Banks made a huge financial contribution to the voyage - fortunately he was very rich.

The Endeavour sailed from Plymouth on 26 August 1768 with a huge amount of baggage and scientific equipment plus 71 crew, 12 marines and 11 "others". Several of the crew had sailed to Tahiti previously and were very happy to return to the Pacific - lure of the dusky maidens? Cook was determined to run a healthy ship so insisted that everyone bathed and washed clothes regularly. He also carried enough food for everyone to eat a balanced diet to ward off scurvy which was the main cause of death on long voyages. On 13 April they arrived in Tahiti to a warm welcome. A small fort was built to ensure the observation could be carried out with the minimum of interference from the local population; nevertheless a vital scientific instrument was stolen and only returned after Cook took very stern measures. The observation was finally completed although Cook was not entirely happy with the results due to "hazy weather".

Then they set off in search of the Southern Continent. After sailing 1500 miles and reaching 40 degrees south, Cook was beginning to doubt that it existed. So he turned west and found Tasman's New Zealand. They charted both islands and these charts were not bettered for 100 years. Cook decided not to return via Cape Horn but to go on to Van Diemensland [Tasmania]. He was blown off course and made a landfall in present-day Victoria. Although Cook preferred to chart from the sea, Banks prevailed on him, when he could, to go ashore to collect specimens or hunt for the depleted larder. Their first real landing was at Botany Bay [named for the plant life] where Banks collected many specimens which were later painted by Parkinson. Local natives were present but the party's interpreter failed to make contact and found them aggressive. They sailed on to Port Jackson [Sydney] where they could anchor. Then proceeded on north on the inner side of the Great Barrier Reef which proved very hazardous and at one point the ship grounded on the Reef. They got off and went ashore where the repairs took two months. During this time excursions were made into the surroundings - north of present-day Cairns - where their first kangaroo was seen, shot and promptly added to the menu. When they reached the most northerly point, which Cook named Cape York, he went ashore and formally claimed the whole east coast of New South Wales for King George.

The Endeavour made it to Batavia where proper repairs were done. Cook sailed home via Cape Town and arrived back in England after almost three years. The Admiralty and the Royal Society were very pleased with Cook. Although he had lost 29 people on the voyage, his strict approach to cleanliness and a balanced diet had greatly combated scurvy which was a real break-through. Cook recommended New South Wales for colonization and twenty years later the first settler ship arrived.

The vote of thanks for both lectures was given by Peter James-Smith who commented on the huge volume of work - sketches, paintings, and sample-taking and scientific observation - done by the team on Captain Cook's first voyage.

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On Sunday, 23 August members of the MHS attended the Military Associations of Gauteng Family Musical Picnic held at the War Museum. It was a lovely spring day and wonderful live music was provided by the South African Medical Health Services Military Band and the massed pipe bands of the Transvaal Scottish, the South African Irish and the Wits Rifles. The SA Legion conducted a short service of remembrance. This was followed by lots of other music and Irish dancing. The large crowd enjoyed their picnics as there was plenty of shade provided. The children particularly were very entertained and took great interest in all the weapons and planes on display. Many thanks to all those involved for arranging a delightful way to spend a family Sunday.

Pat Henning

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