The title of the curtain raiser given by society chairman Colin Dean at the June lecture meeting was 'The German Underground'. The subject was the astonishing efforts the Germans made to save their war-production facilities from destruction by allied bombing.
An early example of this German penchant for burrowing is in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands. The Germans occupied Jersey in July 1940, and in October 1941 Hitler decreed 'the permanent fortifying' of the island. Underground facilities were prepared for bombproof barracks and ammunition stores to supply an artillery complex, but were never completed for that role. There were, however, other structures on the islands that were completed, such as a gun emplacement on Guernsey with its underground stores and living quarters. Until allied invasion threatened, the islands were used by the military mainly for rest and recreation. Thereafter its underground facilities, with air-conditioning, central heating and bomb proofing, were readied for casualty reception. The installation is maintained as a museum.
The exact number of similar constructions in Germany itself will never be known. But it is estimated that over 40 000 bunkers of all kinds and sizes were built, and more that 9 000 labour camps supplied forced labour. Many of the underground facilities were former mining sites modified to provide war production. The massive underground Mittelwerk complex south of the Harz Mountains, near a town named Nordhausen in the Thuringen district of Germany, produced the vast majority of the V2 rockets used against London in the summer of 1944.
The V1, the 'Doodlebug', was also manufactured there, along with jet engines for the Me 262 and Ar 234 aircraft.
In 1945 production of the Taifun and Orkan anti-aircraft missiles was added. Labour was supplied by the Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps. In 1943 Mittelwerk was the largest petroleum storage area in all Germany.
The true purpose of one huge, unfinished, underground complex remains a mystery. It was also situated in the Thuringen district, south east of the town of Gotha. At the end of the war it was described by a British colonel as being: 'Over 50 feet underground, consisting of two and three stories several miles in length and extending like the spokes of a wheel. The purpose of the installations was to house the High Command after it was bombed out of Berlin'. Former concentration camp inmates described even more extensive installations in their post-war dispositions.
The main lecture of the evening, 'The Battle of Sidi Rezegh' was given by David Williams, currently PRO of South African Breweries and life-long student of the war in the western desert. British General Archibald Wavell broke the Italian Army's invasion of Egypt in the late months of 1940 and chased its defeated remnants over the border into Italian-held Cyrenaica. His small army of no more than 30 000 British and Commonwealth troops reached El Agheila on the border of Tripolitania, but were forced to halt there having outrun their supplies and their numerical strength. When that brilliant German field commander, General Erwin Rommel, arrived with his Afrika Korp in early 1941 to rescue Germany's Italian ally, Wavell's army had to retire all the way back to Egypt. It was also depleted by the British Government's decision to send troops to defend Greece. However, a garrison was left behind in the port city of Tobruk to withstand a 10-month siege.
The attempt to raise the siege of Tobruk, code-named Operation Crusader, began on 18 November 1941 when a rebuilt and massively reinforced British and Commonwealth army, now designated the 8th Army, once again advanced into Cyrenaica. Among the elements comprising the 8th Army was the South African 1st Division, the only all-volunteer contingent. However, at that point its training was less than adequate.
The Battle of Sidi Razegh was fought inland and south east of Tobruk at the foot of the escarpment of the Libyan Plateau. It was planned that the garrison at Tobruk should break out to join the relieving force, but this did not happen. Instead, the 8th Army commander, Lieutenant-General Arthur Cunningham allowed his armoured force to be split into three portions. Two of these were to deal with Rommel's counter attack. The other, 6th Royal Tanks, made for Tobruk but was decimated by accurate fire from the German 88mm guns.
Operation Crusader dragged on into early December with neither side being able to force a decision. Eventually Rommel was obliged by lack of reinforcements and supplies to pull back, although at one time his tanks had penetrated as far as Egypt. The siege of Tobruk was lifted, but the 8th Army had been badly mauled. One brigade of the South African Division had been wiped out.
The British C-in-C, General Claude Auchinleck relieved General Cunningham of his command and appointed General Neil Ritchie in his place. A line was eventually established west of Tobruk, the famous Gazala Line.
The centenary of the Peace of Vereeniging, and the end of the Anglo-Boer War was commemorated in Johannesburg by two events, both involving member of the society.
On Saturday, 1 June, a military parade and service of remembrance and reconciliation was held at the War Memorial adjacent to the Museum. The President's Guard was in attendance, along with the band of the Highland Brigade from Scotland. More than 50 wreaths were laid by representatives of the various countries that took part in the war and by descendants of participants on both sides. Plaques were unveiled commemorating all the South African war dead. Also unveiled were two bronze plaques from the Australian Government to remember their nationals who died in the war. Plans for completing the Peace Garden are going ahead, and fundraising continues.
On Sunday, 9 June, the society hosted a luncheon at the Rand Club to commemorate the end of the war. Although not well supported by our own members, sincere thanks are due to those who did come along, the final number attending reached 130, and the event was a great success. Dr Janice Farquharson spoke on the legacy of the war to military thinking, particularly as it affected WW1.
Special thanks are due to committee members, notably Marjorie Dean and our Deputy Chairman Lyn Miller for their efforts in organising this very special occasion.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
Contact number in Cape Town: John (Jochen) Mahncke (021) 797-5167
Contact number in Durban: Dr Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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