South African Military History Society


The light cruiser HMS Durban was the first of her six-ship D class. Her first commission, which began on 1 November 1921, was the subject of the curtain raiser at the 10 October lecture meeting given by guest speaker John Parkinson.

The ship was launched at Scotts Yard, Greenock, on 29 May 1919. With a tonnage of 4,850, she mounted six 6" guns and three 4" AA guns. She was also equipped with four torpedo mountings, each with three 21" tubes. Her designed speed was 29 knots, which was never achieved in service. She had a compliment of 418, of which 31 were officers, and was an advanced ship for her time.

Durban's first commission took her to Gibraltar and Malta, then through the Suez Canal to Aden and Colombo. Here there was a change in commanding officer from Captain Reinold to Captain Ballard. Also at Colombo the Maltese mess men were replaced by Chinese, as was customary, and the discovery was made that the Wardroom whisky stocks had been depleted by syringe and replaced by coloured water. On arrival at Singapore on Boxing Day 1921 a huge crate of wardroom stationary was delivered. It turned out that the lieutenant responsible for ordering had mistaken quires for reams. His name was Stephen King-Hall, and he later achieved fame in politics.

The ship arrived at Hong Kong on 4 January 1922, but was subsequently ordered to Singapore to escort HMS Renown, which had aboard the Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor), on a state visit to Japan. His arrival was met with a great flurry of 21-gun salutes and much ceremonial. This was repeated when the two ships went on to Hong Kong. The final leg of the voyage to Japan was made through heavy weather, which caused considerable discomfort on the mess decks as Durban, attempting to keep station with the much-larger Renown, shipped large quantities of seawater.

After the royal visit to Japan Durban returned to Hong Kong for docking and a bottom scrape, during which time there was another change of command and Captain Basil Washington took over. What followed was summer in the cooler latitudes of Wei Hai Wei, and cruises to Japan and Korea. Following another bottom scrape in Hong Kong and more cruising Durban provided medical help for victims of the great earthquake that struck Japan on 1 September 1923. The ship ended her first commission and was paid off on 14th February 1924, prior to being re-commissioned for further service on the China Station.

The main lecture of the evening was given by committee member Flip Hoorweg on the Hurtgen Battles of 1944-45. By early September 1944 the German Army in Western Europe was in disarray and had abandoned most of France and Belgium. The first US troops had crossed the German border, although there was still a hard core of well-trained and battle-hardened troops, which could be easily reinforced. There was still great determination among the German forces to defend their Fatherland. The country over which the Americans were trying to advance greatly favoured the defenders. Also, they were dangerously extending their supply lines, whereas the Germans were shortening theirs.

On entering Germany the US First Army soon discovered that German resistance was growing dramatically, Between its troops and the River Rhine were the strong border fortifications of the hilly and forested Eifel region. Initially the Americans were unaware of the importance of the dams on the river Rur in controlling the water levels of all streams feeding into the Rhine. But when they did realise the dams' significance they found their way barred by the Hurtgen forests with their densely packed, towering fir trees. It was here that some of the most bitterly contested and protracted battles in US history were fought.

The Germans held all the advantages. Their engineers had artfully sited more than 3 000 pillboxes, dugouts and observation posts to exploit the nature of the terrain. This was replete with such obstacles as streams, hills, gorges, forests and other natural features. The German troops also had the advantage of the higher ground, giving them an excellent view of their enemy's movements. The fighting lasted from 14 September 1944 until interrupted by the Battle of the Bulge in late December and early January. It began again at the end of January 1945 and ended only on 8 February with the capture of the dams and the occupation, for the second and last time, of the strategic town of Schmidt.

It had all started on a small scale with only one US division. But it gradually increased in scope until each side had ten divisions involved. The Americans lost 24 000 dead, wounded and missing, and 9 000 disabled by various causes. It was the third largest loss in the war in Western Europe. German casualties are estimated at 28 000 from all causes.

In retrospect it seems clear that the Hurtgen forests could have been contained rather than assaulted, allowing for flank movements and fewer casualties. The only conclusion was that these were unnecessary battles.

Those military historians who have been left pondering the fate of the monument on the Brixton Ridge to the Irish soldiers who fought for the Boer cause in the Anglo-Boer War, may now rest assured. It has found a new home in Orania. The monument had fallen on hard times in recent years, and the site was in an advanced state of dilapidation. So when the site was required for development sympathisers decided to remove it to a safer location. It has been re-erected on a ridge, and the building of an earth mound and other finishings are going ahead. Visitors are welcome.



14 November
CR George Barrell - Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: A German Guerrilla Genius in Africa.
ML Walter Murton - The Four Battles of the Greek/Persian Conflict: 5th Century B.C.
12 December
CR Bob Smith - A Soldier's Life: General Sir Ian Hamilton.
ML Hamish Paterson - Charleston to Camden, South Carolina, 1780.


14 November
DDH Professor Mike Laing - Patton Lights the Torch.
ML Gilbert Torlage - The Private War between Generals Sir Redvers Buller and Sir Charles Warren.
14 November
CR George Barrell - Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: A German Guerrilla Genius in Africa
ML Walter Murton - The Four Battles of the Greek/Persian Conflict: 5th Century B.C.

Cape Town

14 November
Major Helmoed Roemer-Heitmann - Annual African Security Overview.

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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