South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 532


The Chairman, welcomed members & guests to the first meeting for 2022. The members were reminded that the 2022 membership fees were now due, at R280 for single and R300 for family members.

Announcements included concerned health issues with two of the members including Dave Ransome and Ian Sutherland; both with cardiac issues respectively and that they would be in our thoughts and prayers on their road to recovery.

The DDH talk today was presented by fellow member Roy Bowman titled "The Comrades Marathon and the challenges facing the founders of this world-famous race."

On Empire Day, the 21st May 1921, thirty-four official and four unofficial scantily clad men stood abreast outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall in Commercial Road, awaiting the starters pistol to launch them on an epic fifty-four mile to Durban: the official first Comrades Marathon race. The only section of the road that was tarred was the final couple of miles on entering Durban. Bill Rowan won the race at a time of 8.59 hours. Of the initial group of runners who commenced, only sixteen completed the race. The Marathon has since its inception one hundred years ago, now draws international entrants from USA, Russia, UK, Zimbabwe, India, Brazil, Australia, Botswana, Swaziland, including the host country, South Africa. The concept of the race emanated from Vic Clapham (1886-1962), who had emigrated with his parents from the UK to the Cape Colony in 1899. Clapham served with the 8th South African Infantry Regiment during the First World War, serving in what was then German East Africa. He participated in the 2 700-mile route march in pursuit of the German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander German forces in that theatre. Clapham contracted among others malaria, blackwater fever, dysentery, and was hospitalised in Dar es Salaam. He returned to South Africa in 1917 and was medically discharged from the army.

It was at this stage that he had the idea of creating a form on living memorial as a tribute to his fallen comrades that would embody the spirit of fortitude, endurance, and the suffering they had underwent.

The concept of a "Comrades Marathon" was born which he initially broached with the League of Nations which dismissed it out of hand. However, he finally received approval for the event to be in 1921, with the League wanting official endorsement, and sponsored it with an amount of one Pound, which was only a loan and had to be repaid. The ever-resourceful Clapham commenced his campaign to advertise and market the race. This included a letter published in the Natal Witness outlying the details and requesting sponsorship and the donation of prizes from local commercial businesses. This was done by mail or on foot as Clapham had no car. Vic`s son Eric recalls how runners would descend on their home before a race where they enjoyed tea, biscuits, and milk; scrounged by Vic from local businesses. Eric`s brother Douglas; would on the morning of the race cycle around Pietermaritzburg at 04h30 to rouse the respective entrants. They all signed the notebook Douglas had with him to confirm they had been wakened. At home mother would be frying steaks over the coal stove in the kitchen ensuring that each runner would enjoy a massive steak topped with a couple of eggs for breakfast.

From 1941 to 1945 the race had been cancelled due to World War 2, followed by further cancellations in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic. The Comrades Marathon of today is an ultramarathon of 89 km run in KZN between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The direction of the race alternates each year between an "up" run of 87km starting in Durban, and the "down" run of 90.18 km starting in Pietermaritzburg.

The constitution and the aim of the Comrades Marathon is to 'CELEBRATE MANKINDS SPIRIT OVER ADVERSITY" and is a tribute to Vic Clapham`s fortitude, perseverance, and passion, as much as it`s a memorial to the South African servicemen and women who has served in all wars.

The Chairman then announced the interval and the monthly raffle draw.

The Main Talk was delivered by Professor Phil Everitt titled "British Post War Aircraft Industry with Special Reference to the V-Bomber Fleet."

By the end of WW2, Britain was "bankrupt" with many aircraft manufacturers having teams of exceptionally talented designers employed to defeat the AXIS powers. In the post war period, several innovative aircraft were produced including the English Electric Canberra, the Lightening, the Blackburn Harrier, the SR53, Hovercraft, Fairey Rotordyne, the de Havilland Comet, /Nimrod, Hawker Siddley Harrier Jump jet, BAC TRS2, and the V-Bombers; the subject of the talk.

With the refusal of the USA to share their atom bomb technology, the British government proceeded with their own nuclear deterrent policy together with the appropriate delivery systems which heralded the advent of the V Bomber and remained their primary quick response strategic force for about 20 years. The downing of the American U2 in 1960, changed the focus of the V-bombers from an ultra-high-level flight to that of low level beneath radar. This had the effect of structural problems in the Valiant as with the Victor bombers which were converted to tankers for in flight fuelling applications. As such, the mighty delta winged Vulcan remained the only type in service.

The only time any of the V Bombers dropped a nuclear bomb was the Valiant which drop tested Britain`s first A bomb in 1956, and the hydrogen bomb in 1957. The Valiant was used in 1956 to bomb Egyptian positions during the Suez crisis. The Falklands War saw Vulcan`s conducting "Black Raids" on Port Stanley airfield. This involved the most ambitious aerial refuelling operation in history involving a fleet of Victor tankers refuelling each other and the Vulcan bombers to cover an incredible distance of 3800 miles (6100 km) from Ascension Island to Port Stanley. (This operation was visually supported by a video screened during the talk). These raids, however, highlighted the use of aircraft that had reached the end of their service life and were due for scrapping the following year. Although only partially successful form a military point of view; the respective raids by these impressive aircraft were of immense propaganda value and proved a fitting swansong to the RAF`s V Bomber force.

Committee member Dr Graeme Fuller delivered the Vote of Thanks to the two speakers for their well-researched, well-illustrated talks.

The Chairman thanked all attendees and advised them of the next meeting at the same venue, at 14h30 on 12 February 2022.

Charles Whiteing
15th January 2022

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South African Military History Society /