The biplane was already obsolete when WW2 broke out. Yet British military thinking - which is notorious for having turned being unprepared for war into an art form - clung to the concept of the biplane long after it was regarded as being out of date, and with surprisingly successful results. In the curtain raiser to the September society meeting speaker Geoff Hardy explained how this came about.
The biplane has many natural advantages. It is highly manoeuvrable, yet stable. In aerobatics, and short-takeoff and landing capabilities, it remains unsurpassed. So it was natural enough that service planners should be reluctant to dispense with such virtues. At the outbreak of war, Britain was operating at least two biplanes that proved remarkably successful in their fields.
The first of these was the famous Swordfish torpedo carrier that remained in service with the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm until the end of the war. The 'Stringbag', as it was affectionately known, first flew in 1934. It was fabric covered, had an open cockpit with a crew of three, and carried the standard 18in torpedo. Its 690hp radial engine gave it a maximum speed of 139mph (about 222kph).
On October 21 1940 a force of 21 Swordfish flown from the carrier Illustrious changed the entire balance of naval power in the Mediterranean when they sank, or badly damaged, three battleships, and various other craft, in the Italian naval base of Taranto. Only 11 were carrying torpedoes, the rest had bombs and flares. This remarkable aircraft made an equally important contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic in June 1941 when one of an attacking flight from the carrier Ark Royal secured a torpedo hit on the stern of the mighty German battleship Bismark. This left her crippled and at the mercy of the big guns of the Rodney and King George V.
The second of the British biplanes that proved an outstanding success was the Gloster Gladiator. This was the last British biplane fighter. The land version was still counted on the strength of RAF Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain, although it never took part in the action. It was robust and highly manoeuvrable. The sea version was powered by a Bristol Mercury 840hp radial engine that gave a top speed of 253mph (about 400kph). In the autumn of 1940, when the desert battles in North Africa began, the effective air defence force on the strategically vital island of Malta was four Sea Gladiators, one of which was damaged at the outset. But the other three, operating under the affectionate labels of Faith, Hope and Charity, and lovingly nursed by their ground crews, were able to hold off the faint-hearted attacks of Italian aircraft until relieved by more modern fighters.
When people talk about the Battle of El Alamein they usually have in mind the fighting that raged between 23 October and 4 November 1942 which led to the defeat of the Axis forces and their eventual expulsion from North Africa. In fact there were three battles fought at El Alamein, and in the first of these the 1st South African Division played a crucial role. This was the subject of the evening's main lecture given by Colonel C J Jacobs.
In May and June 1942 the Axis armies under the German General Erwin Rommel broke through the 8th Army's defence line at Gazala, west of Tobruk, and sent the remnants of the allied forces in full retreat to a previously selected position in the neigbourhood of the tiny coastal railway halt of El Alamein, less than 100km from Alexandria. A combined force of about 25 000 men under South African General JHB Klopper, and including the 2nd South African Division, was left to surrender Tobruk.
Having escaped the fate of its compatriots, the 1st South African Division arrived at El Alamein on 21 June. It was just in time to help repel Axis efforts to overrun the position while its occupants were still disorganised and demoralised. During July the division played a crucial role in what is now called the 1st Battle of Alamein. Throughout the month the tired yet triumphant Axis forces launched repeated attacks on the still thinly held defences at El Alamein in an attempt to break through and isolate the position as they had done at Gazala.
As the allied infantry dug in, however, and with the support of adequate artillery and anti-tank guns, the Axis attacks were held. When the German 90th Division tried to penetrate the El Alamein line and envelop the South Africans to the south, they were met with a heavy artillery bombardment from the South African positions. The arrival of the 1st British Armoured Division, which deployed on the Ruweisat Ridge, ended Rommel's best chance of breaking through to Cairo. But for South Africans' sustained resistance the road would have been open.
Over that precarious month of July, during that 1st Battle of El Alamein, the 8th Army lost 12 700 officers and men killed, wounded or missing in action. South African losses totalled 433. This low figure is misleading, however. The vital contribution the South Africans made was to be part of a team effort that held Rommel at bay. During the most decisive phases of the fighting it was they who bore the brunt. Without their contribution the hastily constructed El Alamein position could have fallen and the whole battle been lost. Thus they avenged the humiliation of Tobruk.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581For Durban details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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