South African Military History Society

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The Chairman, Malcolm King opened the meeting with the notices and statistics. David Scholtz gave a short presentation on the arrangements for the outing to Val for Boer 'n' Brit Day, 14 May - the Dundee Diehards will be there in various traditional uniforms which is always a treat for the rest of us. There will also be a short stop en route to visit the Concentration Camp Cemetery in Heidelberg.

In the series of WWI commemoration films presented by the Majestic, on Sunday 17 April at 5.30pm for 6.00pm [cost R100 including a scrumptious tea], Nicky's Family will be shown in the auditorium. It concerns a man who manages to take hundreds of orphans from Czechoslovakia to Britain without his own family knowing anything about it. The next film in the WWI series after that will be shown on Sunday 22 May - details to be announced.

The curtain-raiser of the evening was given by Colin Harris, a popular lecturer. It was titled simply The Prince Imperial. Following the debacle of Isandhlwana in January 1897, on 1st June Col Sir Evelyn Wood and Maj Redvers Buller were riding out to find additional water for 10 000 troops currently embarking on a new invasion of Zululand when an officer riding a lathered horse approached them. The officer bore the horrific news that Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Prince Imperial and pretender to the French throne as Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte IV, had been killed in a Zulu ambush. A series of solemn regimental/military ceremonials followed stretching from Northern Natal to Cape Town until HMS Orantes bearing the coffin departed for Plymouth. From there it went on to Chislehurst in Kent where, watched by 40 000 mourners, Queen Victoria and most of the British Royal Family, the body was laid to rest.

The Prince Imperial, in exile with his mother the Empress Eugenie, had been allowed to have a two-year stint at the Royal Military Academy which would have prepared him militarily had he ever succeeded to the throne of France. Great patriotic fervour had been sparked off in Britain after the Battle of Isandhlwana and huge recruitment took place to augment the forces in South Africa. Thus the young man's volunteering was given leading attention in both England and France. Despite the Government's disapproval, Queen Victoria and her son, the Duke of Cambridge - who was C-in-C of the Army - gave their support to his going to South Africa as a self-funded "Observer".

Despite his non-combatant status, he somehow managed to weasel his way into joining a couple of scouting patrols, even coming under fire on one occasion. On the day of his death, he had manipulated a reason to go into supposedly safe country with a very small escort and it appears he had some influence as to when and where the patrol rested. This patrol was ambushed as it mounted up to leave a "deserted" kraal and the Prince was thrown from his horse. He went down fighting bravely.

Blame could easily be laid on several very senior shoulders but barring the cashiering of Lt Carey, who was on the patrol, no one else was castigated. However, in hindsight, the Prince was known to be impetuous and a little arrogant.

The main lecture was given by Gil Jacobs, who has an impressive background in astronomy and military history, on The American Atomic Bombs of World War II. He first explained the structure of an atom - it consists of a nucleus with electrons orbiting it. This nucleus is made up of protons and neutrons. Protons are positively charged, electrons are negatively charged and neutrons have no charge. The number of protons in the nucleus is called the atomic number. The number of protons plus neutrons is the mass number of the element. Gil continued that 97.3% of naturally occurring uranium has the isotope known as U-238 because it has 92 protons and 146 neutrons giving it a mass number of 238 - hence its name. The remaining 0.7% of uranium has a different isotope known as U-235 (only 143 neutrons) and this is the isotope of uranium that can be used in atomic bombs. The separation of U-235 from U-238 is a very slow, difficult and expensive process. Pu-239 is the isotope of plutonium that can be used in atomic bombs but it does not occur naturally so has to be made in nuclear reactors.

Energy is stored when positively charge protons are forced together. It follows that if a uranium or plutonium nucleus could be split into two more or less equal halves a great deal of energy would be released. This release of energy can be compared to when a compressed spring expands. This splitting is called nuclear fission and was first achieved and explained in 1938. The splitting can continue and is called a chain reaction. A controlled reaction was first achieved by Enrico Fermi in Chicago, USA on 2 December, 1942.

Physicists then realized that an atomic bomb was a possibility. None more so than Leo Szilard, who as a refugee from Nazi Germany, recognised the very real threat that it could be developed there first. He persuaded Einstein to support him in convincing President Roosevelt to initiate the building of atomic bombs.

After a slow start the Americans launched the Manhattan Project which eventually became a massive undertaking rivaling the American car industry. The enrichment of uranium and the manufacture of plutonium were done at Oakridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington whilst the bombs were designed and built at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The whole project was spurred on by the British who lacked the resources for development but placed their considerable knowledge and very able scientists at the Americans' disposal.

In September 1942, Gen. Leslie Groves was appointed the military head of the Manhattan Project. He was a brilliant military engineer and an outstanding administrator. Groves appointed Robert Oppenheimer as scientific head of the Project - this was not well regarded, as he was not a Nobel laureate unlike many of his staff, and there were doubts about his administrative abilities. His detractors were to be proved wrong.

Two kinds of bomb were developed at Los Alamos. The simpler was the uranium bomb also called the gun bomb. It was not tested because the designers were convinced that its relatively simple design would work and they only had enough uranium to make one bomb anyway.

As the plutonium bomb was far more complicated it was decided that a test was essential and this took place on 16 July 1945. The explosion was more powerful than anticipated and complete success was reported to President Truman who was attending the Potsdam Conference. As Germany had surrendered to the Allies, many scientists thought the bomb would not be used and were relieved.

President Roosevelt had died in April 1945. His successor Harry S. Truman - who had been totally unaware of the atomic bombs - had to be briefed by his staff. America had been planning to invade the Japanese home islands in 1946 but Truman had informed that this would cost up to a million American casualties and even more for Japan. As a result, Truman had decided to use the bomb to save lives and also to shorten the war as Americans were tired of the war and their economy was suffering.

On 6 August 1945, a B29 called the Enola Gay, commanded by Col. Paul Tibbets, took off from Tinian Island. In its bomb bay was "Little Boy" - a uranium gun bomb. The bomb was dropped and exploded over Hiroshima at about 20 000 ft. Instantly, 70 000 people died in an explosion that was the equivalent of 13 000 tons of TNT. Japan did not surrender.

Three days later, on 9 August 1945 another B29, Bock's Car, commanded by Maj. Charles Sweeney took off carrying the plutonium bomb "Fat Man". The original target was Kokura but weather conditions forced the drop on the secondary target, Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on 2 September 1945.

In total, 120 000 people died instantly in the attacks, 160 000 were injured and 250 000 were dead by the end of 1945. The ensuing arms race between USA and USSR resulted in life on Earth being threatened with extinction. Einstein deeply regretted the part he had played.

Pat Henning

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This 50th AGM of the Society will take place in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the SA National Museum of Military History at 20h00 on Thursday 14th April 2016. Only paid-up members will be eligible to vote at the AGM.

Following the resignations of Colin and Marjorie Dean there are vacancies on the committee. Any member interested in joining the committee, please contact Joan at letterhead address. Nominations may also be made at the A.G.M.

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KZN in Durban:

Cape Town:

SAMHSEC in Port Elizabeth:

CR = curtain raiser; ML = main lecture; DDH = Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture;

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For Cape Town details contact Johan van den Berg 021-939-7923
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676
For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828

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