South African Military History Society


The importance of code breaking to the conduct and outcome of WW2 was the subject of the curtain raiser to the Society lecture on 11 December. In a talk entitled 'If the Germans had known the Allies had Cracked Enigma', Society member Avram Pelunsky asked to what extent the knowledge gained through breaking the German code contributed to the allied victory.

The use of codes in conveying secret information or instruction dates back centuries. So does the art of breaking them. Experience derived from WW1 set Nazi Germany on a search for an unbreakable coding method. In 1926 the German Navy investigated the Enigma system, already in use for commercial purposes, and decided to use it, with suitable modifications. The army followed shortly afterwards, along with various German government and Nazi organisations after 1933. The essentials of the Enigma system were a keyboard similar to that of a typewriter, through which the message was sent via a series of wheels bearing numbers whose setting were selected in accordance with instructions read from a code book. The scrambled message could then be transmitted by radio or telephone line to distant machine that would reverse the process and reproduce the original message. Various refinements were later added.

The Germans regarded the system as unbreakable. But by 1939 the Poles, with French help, had devised a system for reading Enigma's encrypted messages. They passed this knowledge to the British, who used it as the basis of their wartime code breaking work at Bletchley Park. Meanwhile the Germans were reading British naval codes, so each side had an insight into what the other was doing. The question then is, what difference did it make?

It probably made little difference from a tactical point of view. For instance, the Germans knew the sailing dates of British convoys, but the British could read the orders sent to the U-boats and were thus able to avoid their concentrations. Even during the period when a fourth wheel was added to the Enigma machines used by the German Navy, and shipping losses increased because the messages could not be read, the Battle of the Atlantic was going in the Allies' favour. The reason was the improvement in their weapons and techniques.

On the battlefield, Enigma decrypts often arrived too late to influence events. Fighting the war in North Africa, General Montgomery disdained the use of Ultra intercepts, and thus failed to avail himself of opportunities. From the strategic point of view, however, being able read Engima was extremely valuable for the allies. The fact that right until the end of the war the Germans continued to believe that Enigma was unbreakable, enabled a reasonably accurate picture to be formed of what was going on and how events were developing. It certainly helped to shorten the war.

The main lecture of the evening was given by Hamish Paterson. It was entitled 'Kings versus Kingmaker', and was the third in his series on England's medieval Wars of the Roses, as immortalised (if not always accurately) in the plays of William Shakespeare. The titanic struggle between the aristocratic houses of Lancaster and York began when Henry Bolingbroke, who traced his line through Edward III's third son John of Gaunt, seized the crown from the king's grandson, Richard II. Henry's grandson, Henry VI, the third king of the Lancastrian line, was incompetent and mentally unstable. This revived the claim to the throne of the Duke of York, whose ancestry went through Edward III's second son, Lionel of Clarence. The Duke was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 but his son Edward, Earl of March, claimed the inheritance. After the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Towton in 1461, he ascended the throne as Edward IV, despite Henry VI being still alive, a refugee in Scotland along with his queen, Margaret of Anjou and his son Edward of Lancaster.

The architect of this victory of the Yorkists was Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who is know to English history as Warwick the Kingmaker. After Towton Warwick broke the remaining Lancastrian resistance in the north and arranged a truce with Scotland in December 1463. The redoubtable Margaret of Anjou then left for France with her infant son Edward of Lancaster.

Edward IV shocked his supporters by marrying Elizabeth Grey, nee Woodville, a commoner, a mother of two children, and the widow of a knight who had been killed fighting the Lancastrian cause. Warwick was in France at the time negotiating a treaty with the French king. Having put Edward on the throne he felt himself betrayed, especially as Edward was favouring an alliance with the Burgundians in opposition to the French. Warwick had planned to marry Edward's brothers to his own daughters, and he was much embittered by the casual treatment he subsequently received at Edward's hands. This all contributed to a decision to rebel against the king, and the rapidly developing court party led by Elizabeth's relatives. Instead he took up the cause of Edward's brother George, Duke of Clarence who married to his daughter Isobel.

Warwick and his followers captured the king, but the support was weak and Edward was soon freed. Warwick had to flee to France, where he plotted with Margaret of Anjou to make her son Edward of Lancaster king. He was eventually killed fighting the Lancastrian cause at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471. Edward of Lancaster was killed a month later at the Battle of Tewkesbury.

Henry VI had been captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was murdered immediately after Tewkesbury on the orders of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who eventually came to the throne as Richard III. The Wars of the Roses ended only when Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

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As is customary, there will be no newsletter in January.
We wish all our members a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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11 December
CR Allan Sinclair - The Art of the Museum: Part 2
ML George Barrell - Russo-British Rivalry in 19th Century Afghanistan
15 January:
(Will members please note that 15 January is the third Thursday of the month)
CR Dennis Culligan - World War II Recollections
ML Flip Hoorweg - The Exploits of Kampfgruppe Peiper


9 December
Annual Dinner

Cape Town

In recess

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

For KZN details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
For Cape Town details contact John Mahncke (021) 797-5167


The South African National Museum of Military History (The War Museum) in Saxonwold, Johannesburg, with the assistance of the SA Military History Society, is holding a special exhibition in December to mark the centenary of powered flight. The Wright brothers first took "The Flyer" into the air at Kitty Hawke on December 17th 1903, and the anniversary is being marked worldwide.

Titled "Aircraft at War-100", the exhibition will run from December 8th 2003 to January 9th 2004, and will feature aircraft paintings on loan from the Ron Belling Gallery of Port Elizabeth. Ron Belling, who died in 1998, is recognised as one of the world's best aviation artists. Also on show will be a special selection of outstanding photographs by the late Herman Potgieter, international award-winning SA aviation photographer.

The Museum will mark out an Aviation Trail, taking visitors past some of the rare and fascinating exhibits in its collections marking the evolution of military aviation in South Africa. Visitors will also be able to see the Museum's collection of rare and unique aircraft, including the recently acquired Impala Mark II.

There will be interactive flight simulators, an aviation store selling all kinds of memorabilia and books, as well as toys and games for children. Admission to the Museum is just R10 for adults, R5 for children and Senior Citizens, and the exhibition will be open every day except Christmas Day.

This will be the place to be in December!

In conjunction with the opening of the exhibition will be the launch of "In Southern Skies", a superb new coffee table book on the history of early aviation in South Africa by Pretoria author, John William Illsley. The lavishly illustrated, large format book tells the story of aviation in South Africa between 1816 and 1940, from its humble beginnings to the aeroplanes used in World War II. The book includes more than 800 images over 361 pages to convey the excitement of the pioneers who took to the air In Southern Skies, and is a "must have" for anyone interested in the history of flight in South Africa.

In Southern Skies is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and is available from leading booksellers at R398,00.

For more information on "AIRCRAFT AT WAR 100", call Allan Sinclair, Aviation Curator at the SANMMH at (011) 646-5513.

For more information on "IN SOUTHERN SKIES", call Tanya White of Jonathan Ball Publishers at (021) 423-3911.

If possible the gates to the Zoo will be opened, which has proven to be a good crowd-enhancer and should increase the attendance at the Museum. Any Society members able and willing to help man the gates during the exhibition - for a few hours at a time - please contact Marjorie Dean to volunteer.

Marjorie Dean
Tel/Fax: (011) 678-1454

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