South African Military History 


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 128
May/Mei 2015

SAMHSEC’s April meeting took place on 13th April at theVeteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The Open House series was presented by Ian Pringle who spoke on the 100th Anniversary of the Imperial war Museum in London.

Ian spent a most interesting day at the Imperial War Museum in London in July 2014. The occasion was a celebration of the start of WW1 and the museum had created a fantastic display of what the conditions were like at that time. Displays he concentrated on were the following:
15 inch guns developed in 1914. One was on HMS Ramillies which saw action in 1916 in the Greek- Turkish war. The other was from HMS Restitution.

Capt. Annan Dickson of the Sherwood Foresters had his life saved by a note book carried in his chest pocket. The bullet is still lodged in the book. This encounter took place when the Post Office in Dublin was burnt down and 183 Foresters were killed. Arising from that 15 Irishmen were shot.

Some interesting statistics of the time were also spoken about. In 1914 six percent of those at school were aged 16 years and over. A shocking life expectancy in London’s poorer suburbs averaged 30 years for males and was only milder better with 35 years in the better suburbs. Every 4th person in the world lived in the British Empire. Despite the huge losses in WW 1 there was no so called “lost generation” as 88% of those who enlisted returned home. By 1929 there were 2.5 million receiving veterans’ pensions and benefits. However, there were many towns, villages or even streets who lost many where men from the same area had perhaps all been in one regiment which in the course of a battle suffered severe casualties.

Some highlights of man power required in the war were emphasised. It took 450 men six hours to dig a 230m trench using their trenching spade. Snipers operated in pairs. One to spot and the other to snipe.

The atrocities of the war which were highlighted included an account of James Connelly, who despite being wounded in both chest and ankle faced a British firing squad.

In France on Saturday 1 June 1916 at 7:30am the bombardment of the German positions ceased and those in the trenches “went over the top”. On that day and within hours 19 240 were killed and 37 646 were reported as either wounded or missing. The attack failed as the German guns were not destroyed, many of the shells were duds and the barb wire was left largely intact.

The curtain raiser was presented by Richard Tomlinson on the topic Nyasaland Incident. He has provided the following report:
In the 19th century colonial ‘Scramble for Africa’, Lake Nyasa was surrounded by land which in the 1880s was divided amongst 3 European powers – because of David Livingstone’s explorations along the west bank in 1858-63, this area was claimed by Great Britain and became the colony of Nyasaland (now Malawi.) From the north end of the lake down the east coast to the line of the Ruvuma River was claimed by Germany and became part of German East Africa (Tanganyika, now Tanzania) and south of this line by Portugal as part of Portuguese East Africa (later Mozambique). The lake (now lake Malawi) is 590 km long by an average 84 km wide.

In 1901, an anti-slavery gunboat of 350 tons, the SS Gwendolen (sometimes incorrectly spelled Guendolen or Gwendolyn), was launched on Lake Nyasa. Armed with a 6-pdr Hotchkiss BL gun, Gwendolen (locally known as the Gwen) was the largest of 4 British vessels in the fleet, the others being Chauncy Maples and Queen Victoria, with the smaller Pioneer. The Germans had a single vessel, the 100-ton steam gunboat Hermann von Wissman – named after a German explorer, she had electric spotlights and a gun turret, and was based at Sphinxhafen (now Liuli). All these vessels had a similar provenance – built in their native homelands, they were disassembled, shipped out in parts to East Africa, carried overland by native porters (except for the boiler, which had to be mounted on a sled and dragged) and re-assembled at Fort Johnston (now Mandochi) at the south end of the lake. The Gwen was commanded by Captain Edmund L Rhoades and the Hermann by Kapitan Berndt; both captains and ships had plied the lake for a decade in an anti-slaving capacity and were good friends and drinking buddies.

On 4 August 1914 the British Governor of the Protectorate of Central Africa, Sir George Smith, was informed by telegram that war had been declared between Britain and Germany. He cabled District Commissioner Frank Webb in the northern lakeside province of Karonga and passed on the British High Command’s order to “sink, burn or destroy” the German Empire’s only gunboat on Lake Nyasa; it was vital for Britain to achieve complete control of the lake. Both men realised that there was no chance of Britain’s local military being able to hold back the 2 000 German-officered askaris in GEA, as the Kings African Rifles (KAR) were over 400 miles (nearly 650 kms) to the south and the only route to Karonga was via the lake, a 4-days’ sailing.

So the Gwen was commandeered by the British military authorities - but she was at Fort Johnston and Capt Rhoades was at Nkhata Bay in Karonga, on the west bank directly opposite the German base at Sphinxhafen. Nobody knew how to fire the Hotchkiss, but some shells were eventually found in a box in the workshop, and a Scottish shop assistant, Jock, who had bragged about being a volunteer seaman-gunner in Glasgow, was enlisted. HMS Gwendolen set off with 5 Brits, 30 African stokers and 25 KAR askaris commanded by 2nd Lieut Beaumont, an official in the Public Works Dept., who wore a monocle and was known as ‘Champagne Charlie’. Four days later the gunboat arrived at Nkhata Bay and here Captain Rhoades took command.

Some days of intensive training followed to familiarise the crews with their vessel. Then on the night of 13 August the Gwen slipped away from her mooring and crossed the lake to arrive off Sphinxhafen just before dawn; the Germans were caught entirely by surprise, with the Hermann still up on the beach for repairs. At 2 000 yards, Jock was ordered to open fire. The ammunition was over 15 years old and the first shot was a dud; the next few landed way beyond the target, but finally a direct hit was scored. Rhoades was then startled to see his enraged German oppo leap into a dinghy, row out speedily and climb aboard the Gwendolen screaming curses and questioning Rhoades’ sanity, as it transpired that the news of war had still not reached Sphinxhafen. Rhoades sat his friend down with a whisky, explained the situation and then led away his angry prisoner of war – who was now loudly berating the German officials at Songea for not keeping him informed.

The Times of London pronounced this action the first British naval victory of the Great War – but it was not to be the last military action in the area. On 8 September 400 German-led askaris crossed the border from the north into Karonga Province, but were repelled by a strong British force, killing 150 men.

The Kings African Rifles attacked Sphinxhafen on 30 May 1915 and again put the Hermann von Wissman out of action. On 24 April 1916, after the Hermann had been repaired, an expedition employing 10 gunners under Lieut H Swifte, was mounted from Nkata Bay in all 4 British ships, with Pioneer being the hospital ship. The gun was dismounted from Gwen and, together with 18 rounds, loaded into a boat, offloaded on the German shore, the gun reassembled and prepared for action. Engineers were to remove any useful parts from the Hermann, but they stirred up a large swarm of bees, resulting in much waving of hats and jumping in the lake, before the bees were brought under control by setting fire to some old wooden huts nearby which produced a good pall of smoke.

After the war, Gwendolen became a passenger ferry, but was eventually retired from the Royal Navy in 1940 and scrapped in 1943. The Hermann von Wissman served the British as HMS King George from 1916-1920, then as the cargo steamer Mlonda until scrapped in 1945.

The Chauncy Maples has a remarkable history; designed by Henry Marc Brunel (son of famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designer of the Great Western Railway in England and the huge liner Great Eastern) and Sir John Barry (designer of London’s Tower Bridge), she was built in Glasgow. Named after the 6th Bishop of Nyasaland (who was drowned en-route to his diocese on Likoma Island in the lake when the sailing boat transporting him capsized), she was launched in 1901 as a mission school, emergency refuge from Arab slave traders and hospital ship. Fitted with a diesel engine in 1967, she is currently under restoration in Mangochi as a mobile clinic; she is Africa’s oldest working ship and the last working vessel to have taken part in the Great War.

The wheel, compass binnacle and the telegraphs of the Gwen were removed when the vessel was broken up and, with a scale model of the ship, are on display at the Lake Malawi Museum in Mangochi; and her Hotchkiss stands outside Rhoades’ old home, now the Villa Tafika Hotel, in Mangochi. – References available on request.

The main lecture titled Collisions and Accidents at Sea was delivered by Barry de Klerk. He summarised his talk as follows:
Collisions and other accidents, as with Friendly Fire, appear like a cruel twist of fate in which one escapes the enemy only for bad luck or incompetence to triumph. It is like Formula 1 World Champion Mike Hawthorne, who retired after a season in which four other racers were killed in accidents, only to be killed himself in a road car accident shortly afterwards.

SAS President Kruger was sunk in a collision with the tanker SAS Tafelberg. The two remaining South African Navy frigates - President Kruger and President Steyn - and the Tafelberg were involved in an exercise with a submarine, in which the frigates were to protect the Tafelberg from attack by the submarine.

In order to stay in the exercise area, some distance south of Cape Point, the three ships had to reverse course at regular intervals. At these reversals, the frigates had the choice of turning inwards or outwards – the Principal Warfare Officer (PWO) on watch, who was not very experienced, chose to turn towards the SAS Tafelberg. While the two ships were turning towards each other the Officer of the Watch, responsible for the safety of the ship, but totally inexperienced and outranked by the PWO, argued about the turn instead of countermanding it as was his prerogative, and while these two officers were distracted the President Kruger was rammed and sunk by the Tafelberg. This sinking of the fleet flagship naturally sent a shockwave through the navy, although with typical dark naval humour we afterwards referred to the Tafelberg as our “destroyer”, because it had actually sunk a warship.

The sinking raised several questions, most notably why the captain of the Tafelberg had chosen two inexperienced officers (a choice described as extraordinarily inept), who did not understand their responsibilities properly, to stand watch together and unsupervised on the midnight to 0400 watch.

The South African Navy does not have a monopoly on accidents. The Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne sank two of its escorts. First the destroyer HMAS Voyager was run down when she turned towards the carrier instead of away when changing position. Later Melbourne collided with and sank an American destroyer during a SEATO exercise.

Aircraft carriers are dangerous to be around. The supercarrier USS John Fitzgerald Kennedy was involved in a collision with the cruiser USSBelknap. The overhanging flight deck of the carrier collided with the aluminium superstructure of the cruiser, showering it with fuel which ignited, the fire destroying everything above deck level on the cruiser.

In 1923 a squadron of US Navy destroyers ran aground at Honda Point, 7 ships out of 14 were lost. Bad visibility and imperfect dead reckoning meant they got the coast sooner than they expected.

The British submarine depot ship HMS Hazards collided with and sank one of her charges, and sank after colliding with a hospital ship. Six out of eighteen British WW1 K-class submarines were lost, none due to enemy action.

The armed merchant cruiser Ortranto survived the Battle of Coronel and was later converted into a troopship only to be rammed and sunk by another troopship in a storm.

Finally, the liner Queen Mary, acting as a very large and very fast troopship, rammed and sank her much smaller and somewhat smaller escort, the AA cruiser HMS Curacoa.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe

The next meeting will be held in Grahamstown on Saturday 16th May. Members are to meet at Fort Selwyn at the 1820 Settlers’ Monument at 09h30. Starting at 10h00 there will be a walking tour of the many buildings of military historical interest on the Rhodes University campus, led by Prof Hugo Nel.

Lunch will be between 13h00 and 14h00. It is suggested that members and their guests bring a picnic lunch to have either on the lawns outside the Department of Education or indoors if the weather is inclement. The curtain raiser will be presented by Bill Mills on the subject Burma in World War II. The main lecture, by Rod Hooper-Box, will be on the topic Weapons used in the East Cape Frontier Wars. He will be bringing a number of them with him.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang

Thanks to Yoland Irwin

As your regular scribes will be visiting the Kruger National Park and some of the battlefields en route during April and early May, Yoland has kindly agreed to finalize this Newsletter in our absence.

Individual members’ activities / Individuele lede se aktiwiteite

Barry Irwin has received the Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Researcher Award for 2014. His research has focused on computer security, including aspects of cyber warfare.

Honoring and remembering

Peter Duffel-Canham has given us this brief obituary of his last surviving uncle, Alfred Duffell-Canham who passed away quietly at his retirement complex on the West Coast in January, aged 93.

He was a survivor of the sinking of the battleship HMS Barham, torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea with the loss of over 800 lives. He was one of 12 South Africans who had joined the ship in Durban while she was being repaired. Six weeks later, only six of them survived. They were all friends who had been through school and Sea Cadets together.

The last time I saw him I was pleased to give him a copy of my father's book, Seaman Gunner do not weep, about the exploits of the South African minesweepers in the Mediterranean, kindly inscribed by Admiral Bennett of the Naval Heritage Trust. (See review in Newsletter 120.)
With his passing our family lost our last link to that generation. We will remember him.

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HMS Barham at sea in 1940 and the iconic photograph of her exploding within five minutes of being torpedoed by U-331 in November 1941.]

Great War Conference

The Great War in Africa Conference is taking place in Stellenbosch, South Africa on 29th and 30thJune 2015. Details, including registration form and booking details can be found on

For those interested, there is also the South African Historical Association Conference which follows on 1st to 3rd July, also in Stellenbosch, which will also include some WW1 papers.
Details are available at

Battle of Blaauwberg: Advance notice of re-enactment

A re-enactment of the 1806 Battle of Blaauwberg will take place on the actual site of the battle on Saturday 9th January 2016. The site is on the R27 about 25km north of Cape Town and is easily accessible by normal vehicles. This promises to be an impressive occasion with many cannons and a number of black powder firearms. The 200th anniversary held in 2006 was a spectacular occasion.

There is an invitation for interested members of SAMHSEC to participate in the activities. Martin Venter of the Cannon Association of SA has written to say that if there are members who would like to take part, they can possibly help with accommodation. If you are interested, contact Pat Irwin and I will keep you informed of developments.

Vandalism of War Memorials

Over the Easter weekend the Anglo-Boer War Memorial in Uitenhage Market Square was damaged by mindless and ignorant vandals who placed a tyre over the statue and set it alight. Subsequent to this, the Horse Memorial in Cape Road, Port Elizabeth, has been savagely damaged.

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The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing. Attributed to Edmund Burke 1729 – 1797, but may be of much earlier provenance.

Library of the Imperial War Museum, London

Anyone travelling to the UK and intending to use this marvellous library, used by tens of thousands of people, needs to check on it first as it is facing closure due to Government cuts.

World War I Centenary Year / Eerste Wêreldoorlog Eeufeesjaar

German South West Africa

During April and May 1915, the South African army, now numbering some 50 000 against the German’s approximately 7 000, continued to advance eastwards towards Windhuk from Swakopmund and from the south where the three ‘southern’ forces had been combined to approach from that direction. Victories had been gained at Riet-Pforte, Gibeon and Trekkoppies (in which Royal Navy armoured cars played a significant role) despite spirited German resistance. The critical rail junction at Karibibhad been secured and the South Africans were poised to advance on the capital itself, with its important radio infrastructure for communicating with Germany. In the event, the Germans withdrew to north of Karibib with the bulk of their army still intact, in order to continue organized resistance, leaving Windhuk an open city. On 6th May General Louis Botha rode into the town to accept the formal surrender by the mayor. During the remainder of May, the Prime Minister consolidated the South African forces, built up his supplies and prepared for further advance northwards along the railway line in June.

Major engagements in May 1915

In the Gallipoli Campaign the following actions took place:

  The Second battle of Ypres (22nd April to 25th May), the Second Battle of Artois (3rdMay – 18thJune 1915), the Battle of Aubers Ridge (9th May), and the Battle of Festubert, (15th– 25th May)were all linked as part of an Allied offensive to dislodge the Germans. Attacks were made on different parts of the line by the British and French, artillery bombardments being followed by infantry assaults. Minimal gains were achieved and casualties were high. The British, Canadians and Indians lost 16,648 men at Festubert to the Germans approximately 5 000. French casualties during the Second Battle of Artois were approximately 102 500 and the Germans approximately 73000. This was the first Allied attempt at attrition.

The First Battle of Champagne which had been going on since 20th December 1914 came to an end on 17th March. It was the first offensive by the Allies against the Germans after the 'race to the sea', the defensive battles in Flanders and the construction of trenches as a result of the end of mobile warfare during the autumn of 1914. The offensive was called off by the French owing to the strength of German counter-attacks

The Capture of Amara, an important Ottoman administrative centre in Mesopotamia, in late May and early June. Commencing on 31st May, the British and Indians quickly secured Turkish outposts. Then, approaching the town in flat bottomed boats, an advance party of 100 sailors and soldiers convinced the garrison of 2 000 that a larger force was soon to arrive and they surrendered on 3rd June.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

Military Personalities

Richard III re-buried

Robert Hardman Mail Online 27th March 2015

West Point 1915: The class the stars fell on

Anzio landings veteran dies days before 70th anniversary
Nick Squires The Telegraph 21st January 2014

Last surviving Dambusters pilot, 95, sells medals to pay for upkeep of memorial to bomber crews
Paul Harris and Martin Robinson Mail Online 2nd March 2015

World War I

The schoolboy sailors who died at Gallipoli
BBC News 23rdMarch 2015

World War II

MI5 feared crop circles were being used to guide Nazi bombers
Lucy Crossley Mail Online 21st January 2015

How the Nazis Bombed Thousands of Germans – for target practice
Ted Thornhill Constantine Report /Daily Mail 11th March 2015

U-1206 – The Only Sub to be Sunk By a Dump on the Toilet
War History Online 20th March 2015

Suspected Nazi hide-out found deep in Argentine jungle 23rd March 2015

Seders in Uniform: How American Troops Celebrated Passover During WWII
Marjorie Ingall Tablet 27th March 2015


The Sting of Drone Warfare: An alternative point of view
Kathy Kelly teleSUR [RSN] 21st February 2015

The F-35 saga. A little satire.
[For background, see Newsletter118 p 10]


How Arthur Conan Doyle's brutal scifi story became a horrific reality
Esther Inglis-Arkellio9 We come from the future16th March 2015

Captain WE Johns and Biggles

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundige belang


Great War Forum

Also go to 'Long Long Trail' at: Lives of the First World War


Redharvest:A salute to South Africa’s ‘munition factories’of the Great War. In this paper Matthew Marwick, a master at Maritzburg College examines the disproportionate contribution of just 17 South African white boys’ schools, to the First World War. This very interesting and informative paper is due to be published in the SA Military History Journal in two parts this year.

Matthew has however generously agreed to make it available to any SAMHSEC members who wish to read it now. If you would like a copy, contact Pat Irwin who will e-mail it to you.


Payton Philip 2015 Australia in the Great War Sydney Robert Hale Ltd
A compelling history of Australia and its people during the global conflict of 1914–1918

Beecroft Arthur 2015 Gallipoli: A Soldier's Story London Robert Hale Ltd
This book is a moving personal memoir of one soldier’s experience of Gallipoli. Arthur Beecroft wrote a detailed memoir of his experiences which was found by his grand-daughter years later. Now, reproduced almost exactly as it was written nearly a century ago, Beecroft’s vivid narrative takes the reader right into the heart of the Gallipoli campaign.

Du Toit Renier & Claasen Ronnie (Red) 2014 Rooiplaas! 1 Valskermbataljon Kaapstad
Naledi Uitgewers. Sien beskrywing en besonderhede by


Try these out. Ideally they go together, but the second one can be worked without the first one.
Nukes ready to fly
You will need to enlarge this to get the full import of it.

You can apply this to any part of the world by dragging the marker.

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 Richard Tomlinson, Malcolm Kinghorn, Barry Irwin, Michael Irwin,Ian Pringleand Peter Duffel-Canham.

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn:
Secretary: Franco Cilliers:
Scribes (Newsletter): Anne and Pat Irwin:


Fort Bourtange, a star fort in the Netherlands, is part of the village of Bourtange. It was built in 1593 by William I, Prince of Orange also known as William the Silent, and progenitor of the Dutch royal family. Its original purpose was to control the only road between Germany and the city of Groningen, which was controlled by the Spaniards during the time of the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648). After experiencing its final battle in 1672, the Fort continued to serve in the defensive network on the German border until 1851. It is today an historical museum.

Opinions expressed in this newsletter do not necessarily reflect the views of, or endorsement by, the South African Military History Society, the East Cape Branch of the Society, or the Scribes.

South African Military History Society /