South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 478
December 2015

Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Roy Bowman 031 564 4669

SA National Society.

Congratulations to Fellow Member Hardy Wilson who has been elected as Chairman of the SA National Society. The KZN Branch of the SA Military History Society enjoys a close working relationship with SANS and we look forward to continuing this link. Well done to the previous Chairman of SANS, Ian Smith, whose expertise will continue as a committee member of SANS.

Mervyn Mitton.

We have been informed that the former Chairman of the Society for the Preservation of Militaria, Mr Mervyn Mitton, has passed away. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy several years ago.

This Branch has had a long standing association with the Society and Mervyn has addressed us on a couple of occasions. He was an expert on British Police weaponry. Our sympathy goes to his family, friends and the Society.

Remembrance Sunday.

The Branch was represented at the Durban Remembrance Day Service at the Cenotaph by Chairman Roy Bowman, past Chairman Charles Whiteing and Ulrich Duebi. Roy laid this wreath on behalf of the KwaZulu-Natal Branch.

Our November 2015 speakers were past Chairman Charles Whiteing and fellow member Donald Davies.

Charles's topic was entitled "Poppy Power". The centenary of the commencement of the First World War or Great War as it became known was remembered last year. The horrific destruction and loss of human lives deters one from calling it a celebration. The landscape of France and Belgium was shattered by the onslaught of mines and shells from 1914 to 1918. Amid this lunar landscape of mud, metal and men, grew a symbol which reminds us to this day of this "Great War", or also cynically referred to as the "war to end all wars." Before the First World War, Professor John McRae was a medical academic at McGill University in Montreal and at the outbreak of the First World War he joined up and landed in France as a Medical Officer with the first Canadian Army. In 1915, while in charge of a First Aid Post at the second battle of Ypres and during a lull in the fighting he pencilled a poem in a despatch book. The proliferation of bright red Flanders poppies across these battle fields inspired him to title his epic poem "In Flanders Fields"

In January 1918 Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was injured and was evacuated as a stretcher case to one of the big hospitals on the coast of France. The evening before he died on January 28, 1918, he asked to be wheeled onto the balcony of his ward where he could see the white cliffs of Dover in the distance. The words of his poem he wrote were swirling in his mind and he told the doctor in charge: "Tell them this. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep." His grave is located in the Communal Cemetery at Wimereux.

In 1918 Moina Michael was a professor at the University of Georgia and became a volunteer worker for the YMCA. Inspired by John McCrae's poem, she published a poem "We shall keep the Faith", and vowed to always wear a red Remembrance Poppy. At a conference in 1920, the National American Legion adopted the poppy as their national symbol of remembrance. A French woman, Anna Guerin sent her red silk poppy sellers to London where they were adopted by Field Marshal Haig, founder of the Royal British Legion in 1921. The Royal British Legion officially adopted the poppy as the emblem of remembrance, and to finance their welfare work, nine million American poppies were imported that year, resulting in sales totalling 106,000 Pounds; - a huge amount at the time.

In 1922, Major George Howson established a factory in Old Kent Road London where five disabled servicemen began to make poppies. Production grew to the extent that three years later, they moved to their current site in Richmond. In 1922 a second factory was opened in Scotland to make a four petal version, although without a leaf. (The correct way to wear the poppy is with the leaf pointing in the eleven o'clock position). Today 40 million poppies, five million petals, 750,000 crosses and over 100,000 poppy wreaths and sprays are manufactured and sold by the Legion each year and remains the highest charity appeal in Great Britain.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the poppies have two red paper petals, a green leaf and are mounted on a green plastic stem.

In Scotland, the poppies are curled and have four petals and no leaf. The awareness of the "Poppy Appeal" is manifested annually from late October to mid November.

It is worn by the general public, politicians, the Royal Family and others in public life and is sometimes seen on cars, lorries and public transport like buses, trams, even aircraft. In November 2011, a Lancaster bomber dropped 6 000 poppies over the town of Yeoville in Somerset.

In November 2007, Animal Aid started a campaign to remember the animals used in theatres of war. A Purple Poppy was dedicated as a symbol to remember those animals that were lost during wars. Over and above those killed or injured on a war zone, there were animals of all species that were used to test the efficacy of chemical weapons, and the testing of weapons. Animals were used for detection, rescue and tracking. There are records of animals that were acknowledged as heroes with some being awarded the Dickon Medal, the animal Victoria Cross. The SA Legion of Military Veterans supports this cause with Military Veterans adopting the Purple Poppy alongside the Red Poppy in remembrance of both human and animal sacrifices during all past wars.

The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war was to be commemorated by many countries and in different ways. There was a reference in the Will of a local Serviceman who had joined up in 1914, and was later killed in Flanders. He had written about the "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red where angels fear to tread."

These words inspired Paul Cummins, a ceramic artist at a studio in Pride Park, in Derby. He conceived an idea to create a memorial "sea of poppies" in the dry moat surrounding the Tower of London.

The significance of the site was that in August 1914, the moat of the Tower of London had served as a parade ground for volunteers responding to the call including those recruits for the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. They referred to themselves henceforth as "Ditchers" since the day the joined up in Tower Ditch.

General Lord Dannatt, the Constable of the Tower, approved of the concept, and said ":The First World War was a pivotal moment in our history claiming over 16 million people across the globe, and its consequences have shaped our modern society. We wanted the Tower of London's commemorations to serve as a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives during the First World War, while encouraging others to reflect on our past." The moat at the Tower was drained in 1843 after which engineers dumped large quantities of soil in it to level the surface.

During the First World War, two Dutchmen, Haicke Janssen and Willem Roos were found guilty spying for Germany, and were executed by a Scots Guard firing squad in the moat.

On October 5, 1940, during the Second World War, the North Bastion of the Tower was destroyed by a German bomb. Yeoman Warder Sam Reeves was killed during the raid and the North Bastion has never been rebuilt.

A leading theatrical designer Tom Piper joined Paul Cummins to lend his expertise to a project named "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red." The logistics of the project were huge. Paul proposed to make 800 000 poppies by hand using the same methods that potters would have done during the First World War.

The Derby Enterprise Growth Fund made a grant of £450,000 available which enabled Paul to move into an 8 000 sq. ft. production site in Pride Park. They had a lead time of 12 months, but this was tight, as each poppy took three days to mould, fire and paint. Each poppy was hand crafted, making each one unique. Clay was sliced by hand and rolled into large flat sheets and a metal biscuit cutter was used to cut out the individual petals. They were then paired together to form six overlapping petals. Each flower was then individually shaped and fired in a kiln. Bright red glaze was applied before being returned to the kiln for a final second firing. Unfortunately during the manufacturing process, Paul Cummins crushed his right hand resulting in him losing a finger and the use of another finger which prevented him making any more poppies.

The actual figure required was based on the number of British and Commonwealth casualties determined as 888,246, with one poppy to be planted to mark each death. Each poppy was offered for sale at £25, with an estimated target of £11,2 million to be shared between six charities. To support the project, the British government stated that they would waive the VAT on the donations and sale of the poppies.

The project was announced to the public in May 2014. The anniversary of Britain's entry into the conflict was August 5 and coincided the planting of the first poppies on their two foot metal stems in the moat of the Tower. To complete the project by Armistice Day in November; volunteers including many students from the University of Derby worked in shifts.

The proposal was to progressively fill the moat with poppies during the summer months, and to "To encircle the iconic landmark, creating not only a spectacular display visible from all around the Tower, but also a location for personal reflection."

Among the volunteers were sailors from HMS Bristol. The group included eight ratings from Bristol, two volunteers from the Royal British Legion, and one from HMS St Albans. They formed a work party led by Petty Officer Jess Owens who said the team loved being involved and they had T Shirts made up with HMS Bristol on the chest with the RBL logo on the one arm and the Royal Navy on the other. The team placed the green stalks in carefully planned patterns and attaching the blood red ceramic flowers at the required height. Petty Owens said "we felt very humble at the time while we were working, and it does hit home realising how many people died.

The huge popularity of the Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red memorial gathered momentum with tens of thousands of visitors gathering at the edge of the moat watching as the display grew. It created a massive amount of emotion from people especially among the 20,000 volunteers, who dedicated themselves to plant the poppies and become a worldwide community project.

The event was televised around the world and was even photographed from aboard the Mir space station. It was planned that each evening the names of 180 Commonwealth troops who died during the war were to be read out as part of a Roll of Honour.

Members of the public were asked to nominate a name on a weekly "first come first served basis", to be read out the following week followed by the playing of the "Last Post".

By November, it was estimated that more than 5 million people had visited the unique memorial. It was also a tribute to all the volunteers and those who had bought poppies resulting in the raising of millions of pounds for service charities.

It was planned that the very last poppy would be planted just before 11h00, on November 11th. The last poppy was planted by Harry Hayes, a 13 year old CCF army cadet whose great-great-great-uncle was killed in action in 1918. Young Harry was the same age as the youngest soldier on the Somme.

The memorial display would be dismantled afterwards, so that the poppies could be cleaned and sent to the 600,000 people who had subscribed to them. Although there were protests that the display should remain indefinitely, Paul Cummins said "I never intended the poppies to be anything other than transient. Like the real flower, they were planted for a season and then are gone the frailty of the soldiers lives."

In 2015, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper were both awarded MBEs by the Queen for their creativity and outstanding work on the project.

A poem titled "The Poppy Sellers" by Dorothy Smith-Geelong in 1994 gives a perspective to that special day in November each year.

The Main Talk was presented by Fellow Member Donald Davies, and entitled "Four little whalers from Durban to the Mediterranean in 1940".

On the 6th September 1939 the Union of South Africa declared War on Germany. Two months later, on the 1st November 1939, Ernest Cecil Eardley Hughes joined up with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (SA Division), and started his naval training at the Shore Base HMSAS Afrikander in Simonstown.

He was demobilised on the 30th September 1945 having served for almost six years in both the SA Naval Force and the Royal Navy.

On the 10th June 1940 the Government of the Union of South Africa declared War on Italy.

On 8 Nov. that same year 1940, a small group of Norwegian Whalers that had been commandeered by the South Africa Naval Forces, and converted into Mine Sweepers, departed from Durban Harbour for the British Port of Alexandria in Egypt. The crew of the four little ships were almost all South Africans. The route 'Up North' along the East Coast of Africa included stopping at most probably Kilindini in Kenya, then Aden before continuing up the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean Sea and Westwards to Alexandria, where they were to join the Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham.

The was a great need to protect the British Navy against Mines being laid by German and Italian navies which had hampered the movement of the British Navy in patrolling the coastline from The Levant to Malta and beyond to Gibraltar, and in escorting the Relief Convoys to Gibraltar. These losses, in addition to the losses sustained during U Boats attacks, were reaching proportion such that the normal duties of the Mediterranean Fleet were being affected.

At the request of the British Admiralty, the Seaward Defence Force sent four of its 'large' anti-submarine whalers to the Mediterranean. They arrived at Alexandria on 11 January 1941 and were almost immediately put to work along the exposed sea-route to Tobruk. Although the South African ships were scheduled to return home in May 1941, their time of service was renewed time and again. These former 'whalers' formed the 22nd Anti-Submarine Group: The "Southern Floe" of temporary Lt JEJ Lewis (SARNVR), "Southern Isle" of temporary Lt AC Matson (SARNVR), "Southern Maid" commanded by Senior Officer temporary Lt Cdr A F Trew (SARNVR), "Southern Sea" of temporary Lt A Thomas (SARNVR). All departed Durban on the 15 December 1940 for Alexandria, Egypt.

The Southern Isles, Southern Maid, Southern Floe and Southern Sea were former whalers now equipped with one 4-inch gun, several machine-guns, one asdic and depth charges for anti submarine operations. Alternatively, there was one Oerlikon 20 mm gun, one Quadruple 12.7mm Vickers, and an LL magnetic sweep that was towed behind the ship for Anti Mine Operations. Their displacement was 250 tons and they had a timber hull, capable of a speed of 12 knots and whose propulsion was generated by one coal fired 3 cylinder triple expansion reciprocating engine, and ship dimensions of 35.46m in length, 7.38m (116ft) in breadth and a draught of 3.87m (12.7ft).

The active operations began on the 20th January 1941 off Alexandria, when the Southern Isles launched its depth charges after a suspicious submarine contact. Four days later, the Southern Maid made its entrance in Tobruk harbour, some hours after the Italian rendition. There, on 11 February 1941, the SDF suffered its first war loss when HMSAS Southern Floe sank after hitting a mine. On the 11th July 1942, the Southern Maid and the Protea sank the Italian submarine Ondina between Cyprus and Lebanon. Another nine South African ships were sent to the Mediterranean. Three were sunk after September 1941, but the South African ships and crews did excellent work. Two of the vessels sank an Italian submarine. A few of the ships only returned home in December 1945.

Our speaker ended his talk as follows: "This is the story of a small but significant contribution by South Africans to the Allied War effort, it is also one of dedication and duty, and I believe that without their presence, many more Allied Ships would have been lost to Axis Submarines and Mines. For the South Africans and their Anti Submarine and Mine Sweeping Ships operating with the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet during 1941 to 1945, it was period of continued service, interrupted only by a changing of the guard."

Both speakers were thanked in traditional manner by our Vice Chairman, Lt Col Graeme Fuller.

Thursday 12th November 2015:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture:
"Poppy Power" by Charles Whiteing
Main Talk: "Four little whalers from Durban to the Mediterranean in 1940", by Donald Davies.

Future Meetings:

Thursday 10th December 2015:

One speaker only - Professor Donal McCracken: "How the Irish won the Anglo-Boer War!" This will be followed by a cocktail function. The Branch will provide the snacks but members should bring their own liquid refreshment. Judging by the topic, Prof McCracken's talk is likely to reflect his wonderful sense of humour. This is a talk that simply should not be missed.

Thursday 21st January 2016 (NB: This is the third Thursday of the month; we'll revert to the second Thursday in February 2016):

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "Durban / Natal Sportsmen and World War 1", by a team from Glenwood High School.

Main Talk: "The von Blücher Brothers and the Invasion of Crete", by Adrian Nesbitt.

Thursday 11th February 2016 (NB - Back to the second Thursday of the month):

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "Cpl John Joseph Davies' VC near Delville Wood", by Donald Davies

Main Talk: "The Polish Africans of World War 2" by Anthony Zaborowski

Thursday 10th March 2016:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "PT Boats at the Guadalcanal" by Roy Bowman

Main Lecture: "General C R de Wet at Bothaville" by Robin Smith


Please advise Ken Gillings (031 703 4828 / 083 654 5880 / ) if you are interested in participating. The proposed itinerary was included in the November newsletter.

Festive Greetings

We wish all members of the KwaZulu-Natal Branch and their Families a most enjoyable Festive Season and a successful and prosperous 2016.

South African Military History Society /