South African Military History Society

Tel (+27)(0)10-237-0676 Fax (+27)(0)86-617-8002


The year opened with Jan-Willem Hoorweg's curtain-raiser "Unravelling the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley - my recent visit to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center"

On February 17, 1864, the H.L. Hunley became the first successful combat submarine in the world with the sinking of the USS Housatonic outside the harbour of Charleston, South Carolina. After completing her mission, she mysteriously vanished and remained lost for over a century.
The (American) National Underwater and Marine Agency finally found the Hunley in 1995 close to the wreck of the Housatonic. The Hunley Commission and the Friends of the Hunley raised the necessary funds and, with the help of the US Navy, finally recovered the Hunley on August 8, 2000. She was then delivered to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, a high-tech lab specially designed to conserve the vessel and unlock her many mysteries. It is named after Warren F. Lasch, who was Chairman of the Friends of the Hunley during the Hunley's recovery.

Jan-Willem described the four-foot diameter (1.22m) metal cylinder within which 7 of the crew sat on a bench hand-cranking the propellor shaft while the eighth steered. There were ballast tanks at each end of the boat, flooded with valves or pumped dry by hand pumps. There were weights bolted to the underside of the boat, that could be released from inside the sub in case of an emergency - the Hunley was discovered with these weights still attached. Two small watertight hatches atop two conning towers equipped with small portholes, one forward and one aft, assisted with entrance and exit.

As armament, a towed floating explosive was initially considered. The submarine would dive underneath an enemy ship, surface beyond her, and draw the towed explosive charge against the hull. This however became far too dangerous because of the line fouling up the screw. A spar torpedo hereafter became the armament. A copper cylinder containing 135 pounds (61 kg) of black powder was attached to the 22 foot (6.7 m) long wooden spar. There is evidence the torpedo on the Hunley was set off electrically, by pushing against the hull, exploding on contact.

The attack on the Housatonic, a 1 200-ton wooden hulled steam-powered sloop of war with 12 cannons, stationed at the entrance to Charleston harbour, approximately 5 miles (8km) offshore was a success, resulting in the sinking of the Union ship with the loss of five of her crewmen. The Confederate troops in Charleston received a signal of a successful attack, and lit a fire to guide the Hunley home, but she never returned.

He described the recovery of the submarine and its subsequent conservation - which is ongoing - at the Lasch Centre. Their website is at

One of the more interesting aspects was the identification and facial reconstruction of the 8 crew members - four of whom were found to be from Europe according to dental DNA analyses. Some of their descendants attended their interment in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina. Colour guards from all five branches of US military wearing modern uniforms were alongside 6000 re-enactors and 4000 civilians wearing period clothing. All were buried with full Confederate honours, under the 2nd Confederate national flag, known as the Stainless Banner.

The most popular theory about her sinking is that the torpedo explosion crippled Hunley and incapacitated her crew. The submarine was possibly as close as 20 feet from the explosion and the concussion effects could have caused massive lung and brain injuries to the crew. The spar was attached at a downward angle, so the Hunley was actually quite close to the explosion. The concussion theory is further strengthened by the fact that the crew were found sitting at their stations; no attempt seemed to have been made to exit the damaged or sinking submarine. In addition, water could have rushed in. Although the Hunley was found with a number of large holes, this was found to have been caused by underwater currents and the hostile environment.

Jan-Willem mentioned four alternative causes - trapped by tides; a collision; a lucky shot from small arms fire from the Housatonic's deck; a leak from a pipe filling the ballast tank. His latest communication with the Friends of the Hunley added that "dirty air" might have contributed - carbon dioxide in a closed environment was not recognised as potentially deadly at that time.

Plans are underway for a world class maritime museum, which will house the Hunley, as well as Union and Confederate artefacts, together with other important naval collections.

The full version of his lecture is on the Society's web-site at:

* * * * * * *

The main lecture was delivered by Errol Back-Cunningham whose summary follows:

The lecture on Operation Ironclad: The Battle for Madagascar 1942 (events leading up to and including the defeat of Vichy and Japanese Forces in the Indian Ocean) narrated the timeline from the Japanese entry into WWII and the threats they posed to Allied strategic supply lines in the Western Indian Ocean.

Risk and threat analysis discussed probability and consequences if Japanese naval, air and military forces established a presence on Madagascar. It also discussed attempts made to persuade Vichy France forces on the island to switch allegiance to Free France, and finally, the military action that was taken when they would not.

Allied task force 121 invaded the northern part of the island in early May 1942 and after 3 days of intense fighting secured the deep water harbour of Diego Suarez, the airport and city of Antsirane. This victory effectively ended Operation Ironclad which was then replaced by Operation Stream Line Jane to secure the remainder of the island. The lecture also included late May 1942 Japanese naval attempts to become involved via submarines that attacked various Allied assets including the battleship HMS Ramillies. The conclusion of hostilities on Madagascar only ended in November 1942 on the eve of the Allied invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch.

* * * * * * *

According to the Society's constitution, formal notice of the AGM has to appear in the newsletter at least once before the meeting:


This serves as notice that the 54th AGM of the Society will take place in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History at 20h00 on Thursday 2nd April 2019.

Please note this will be on the FIRST Thursday of the month to avoid the Easter weekend!

* * * * * * *

Payments received for 2020

Thank you to all members who have already renewed for 2020.
The account statement shows that on 9 Jan somebody paid for a family membership without giving a name - so this payment cannot be credited.
The line reads: 9 Jan Subs OB Pmnt 2018. Please check if this could be yours?

* * * * * * *

Committee members needed -
if there are enough of us it becomes fun!

* * * * * * *


CR = curtain raiser ML = main lecture
DDH = Darrell Dickon Hall Memorial lecture MS = member's slot


Lectures are held in the JC Lemmer Auditorium of the Ditsong Museum of Military History, next to the Zoo starting at 8pm.
Parking is secure. Tea/Coffee & biscuits are served afterwards at R10/member. Visitors fee R30.00 per person.

Thursday 13th February (Back to second Thursdays)

Thursday 12th March

KZN in Durban:

Thursday 6th February


Thursday 6th February 2020

SAMHSEC in Port Elizabeth:

at 19h30 at the EP Veteran Car Club Cunningham Road

Monday 10th February 2020

* * * * * * *

Branch contact details

For Cape Town details contact Carl Burger 082 333 2706
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676
For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Roy Bowman 031 564 4669

* * * * * * *

* NOTE* Fast mirror and backup site      BOOKMARK FOR REFERENCE     Main site * NOTE*

South African Military History Society /