South African Military History Society



April 2003

PAST EVENTS:With our Chairman giving a talk to the Society in Johannesburg, our Vice Chairman Bill Brady chaired the March meeting. The initial introductions included the announcement by past Chairman Ken Gillings of the details of the 2003 Battlefield Tour to the Thukela Heights on 16/17 August 2003 and more details are included on page 4 of this newsletter.

The DDH was given by Brian Kennedy and covered the distinguished 150-year history of The Fighting 69th, from its inception as a regiment in November 1851 when men of Irish birth or descent were mustered into the New York Militia. Its first involvement took place in 1858 when A Company was given the task of guarding a quarantine hospital on Staten Island, which had been established to combat an outbreak of yellow fever. The company commander Captain Michael Corcoran received high praise for its performance. In 1860 when the Prince of Wales visited New York, the now Lt. Col. Michael Corcoran refused to parade the 69th in his honour. For his insubordination he was placed in custody. The New York Irish ladies reacted to this by presenting the 69th with a regimental standard depicting a golden sunburst (the oldest Celtic symbol) on a field of green. In April 1861 the Confederates fired the first shots of the American Civil War on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln called on militia units to volunteer for three months of federal service. Corcoran, from prison, urged the 69th to volunteer. Released from prison, Colonel Corcoran led the 1000 strong Regiment out of New York and sailed for Chesapeake Bay. By 23 May, when the Union army crossed the Potomac and fortified Arlington Heights to protect Washington, 350 new recruits under Captain Thomas Meagher had joined the 69th. The Federal Army was defeated at the 1st Battle of Bull Run on 21 July 1861, in which the 69th served in the brigade commanded by Colonel (later General) Sherman. The unit suffered heavy losses with Colonel Corcoran its C.O. wounded and captured and Lt. James Haggerty, 2 I.C., killed. Their 90-day enlistment being complete, the 69th was disbanded.

On the recruitment of the new regiment, the 69th New York Volunteers, more than 500 men of the previous unit re-enlisted for 3 years, with 5 of their officers being offered permanent commissions. In addition, an Irish brigade for Federal services was raised - the 63rd and 88th New York. Meagher was appointed Brigadier-General and placed in command. Early in 1862 the new Brigade joined the Army of the Potomac. In all the battles of this army the 69th acquired a reputation as a gallant and hard-fighting unit. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia referred to them as "that fighting 69th". In the Battle at Antietam Creek, in fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the 69th lost 196 men. In November 1862, the Union Army under the Federal Commander, Ambrose Burnside, planned to approach Richmond, the Confederate capital. Lee fortified Marye's Heights to defend the city. In December, Burnside crossed the Rappahannock River and attacked Marye's Heights. In this action, the Irish Brigade with Burnside displayed great courage and suffered heavy casualties. Of its 1300 men, only 545 survived. The Army of the Potomac had to re-cross the Rappahannock River, having failed to reach Richmond. At the Battle of Gettysburg on 1,2 and 3 July 1863, the 69th was heavily engaged on the second day and was reduced to 2 companies.

During the next 2 years, the 69th played a part in all the battles of the Army of the Potomac and won further battle honours. After the war the 69th, which had suffered the highest casualties of any New York unit, was mustered out of Federal service in June 1865. Although called up again for service in the Spanish-American War of 1893 and the Mexican border Campaign of 1916, the 69th saw no action in either. After its return the 69th, in an army reorganisation, became the 165th Infantry attached to the 42nd Division, which was later to be commanded by Major Douglas McArthur. In July 1917 the regiment's numbers were increased to 2000 and then in August to 3500 - still mostly Irish Catholics. In Belgium the Regiment took part in those campaigns and battles that its battle honours celebrate. Before returning home it served with the Army of occupation of the Rhine.

At this stage Brian Kennedy described the careers of some remarkable men of the 69th (165th) including Colonel W.J. Donovan, Father Francis P. Duffy, Regimental Chaplain and the poet Joyce Kilmer. In World War 2, F Company of the 27th Division, made up of many men of the 165th, took part in the assault on the Gilbert Islands and in July 1944 in the fighting for Saipan in the Marianas where the Regimental commander Col. Kelly was killed. In April 1945 F Company received the Distinguished Unit Citation for their conduct in the fight for Okinawa. Our speaker brought his most interesting talk to a close with the Regiment celebrating its 150th anniversary on 12 October 2001.

Major John Buchan's talk on The History of Flying Boats was the main talk of the evening and took us into the fascinating world of flying boats, both military and civilian. In the absence of hardened airstrips to serve overseas traffic, the British in particular made use of flying boats even before World War 2. On their international routes they used C Class Empire flying boats. In this service Durban played an important role as the South African terminus from Cairo via the Nile, Lake Victoria and the East Coast. Durban was also the major maintenance centre on the Horseshoe Route, which extended from Durban to Cairo, across to India, Burma, Malaysia, North Australia, Sydney and eventually across to Auckland in new Zealand.

The first flying boats on Durban bay were 2 American Curtis S type design, which arrived in South Africa in 1914. When, in World War 1 the armed German cruiser Konigsberg raided shipping along the East Coast, the Royal Navy chartered a Curtis flying boat to find the lair of the raider. During his talk, John Buchan showed us overhead projector pictures and a video clip of flying boats as they developed. However, the war driven pace of technological development in aircraft design and the spread of airfield facilities led eventually to the eclipse of the great era of the flying boat.
In November 1933, between the world wars, the 3-engined Calcutta, built by Short Bros, completed a survey trip to consider the practicality of an air route for the transfer of passengers and mail. The R.A.F. brought out specifications for what became the Sunderland flying boat, to be used in World War 2 for aerial reconnaissance. Subsidised by the British government, the Empire airmail system was developed, the airmail rate being the same as sea mail, but a great deal faster. Sir Eric Geddes was prominent in this project. Bigger and faster Sunderlands were built until a Sunderland had the capability to carry 2000 lbs of freight. By 1939 there were some forty Sunderlands in service. Marks II, III, IV and from 1944 Mark V were developed. The Sunderlands were eventually retired from British service in 1959, although the Ansett Flying Service in Australia continued to use them until 1974, and they were in other overseas service for another six years. They were then returned to Britain and in the 1990's taken to the USA. Meanwhile the American Catalina had been developed from about 1936 and built in great numbers. Catalinas, used at one time from Perth to Ceylon, were able to remain airborne for about 30 hours. During World War 2 the Horseshoe Route was disrupted and a new route was developed from Khartoum across to Cameroon to West Africa. From Britain the flying boats flew around the western bulge of Africa to Lagos, Nigeria and on to the Congo River. The Free French supported the British in French West Africa and contained the Vichy French as they attempted to gain the upper hand there. On 22 May 1937 a C Class Empire flying boat, the Cambria, a long-range aircraft, was in Durban bay. It could undertake transatlantic flights. The Boeing 314, the largest and most luxurious flying boat came into use on very long flights and was capable of flying across the Pacific Ocean.

In the early post war years, flying boats again came to the rescue of B.O.A.C for their route to South Africa. The Springbok service, run in joint partnership between B.O.A.C. and S.A.A. flew to and from the UK and South Africa. S.A.A. introduced DC4 Skymasters on their route, while B.O.A.C. introduced the Solent, built by Short Bros, which was the civilian development of the Sunderland Mark IV. The South African terminus was at the Vaal Dam. In the early days, the journey from South Africa to the UK was advertised as taking less than a week. Overnight stops were organised to add extra appeal to the route and, for example, a stop was set up at the Victoria Falls. The full post war route was Lake Victoria, Kampala, The Nile River at Luxor, Alexandria, Augusta in Sicily and on to the UK.

In 1957 Shackeltons came into service for coastal patrol off the South African coast, replacing the Sunderland flying boats, which were sent to Nathan's, a local scrap dealer. With that move South African flying boats passed into history.

The Reverend Ernest Pugsley proposed a vote of thanks to both our speakers, for providing the Society with well- researched talks with excellent content on two interesting and unusual subjects.



Lt. Col. CLIVE WILSWORTH will be our guest speaker at the April meeting and will be giving the main talk on THE BATTLE of BAKENLAAGTE. During the guerrilla stage of the Anglo-Boer War, Lt Col G.E. Benson had been launching highly effective night raids in the Eastern Transvaal. This created havoc for the Boers, but they found an opportunity to deal with Benson's column on 30 October 1901 when it was stretched to the limit in the vicinity of present-day Leandra/Trichardt. Benson outspanned at Bakenlaagte and set up camp. He ordered his vulnerable rearguard to retreat to rising ground, where his two guns were deployed (on what is known as Gun Hill). He was totally unaware that General Louis Botha was in the vicinity until the inevitable occurred. As Benson and his rearguard were falling back on Gun Hill, Botha's 800 burghers came charging from several directions through the mist, and overwhelmed the British detachments on Gun Hill. They then dismounted and charged across the open veldt and up the hill in Benson's direction. Within minutes, Benson's 178 men had been overrun and he was struck by a ricochet bullet and mortally wounded. 161 men were killed or wounded, while 100 Boers were killed in their suicidal rush of the British position. This action virtually paralysed the British in the Eastern Transvaal.

Our speaker has been described by Ken Gillings as "one of the best officers it has been my privilege to serve under", and we look forward to welcoming the Colonel to our April meeting for an account of this important Anglo-Boer War battle.

The DDH will be a talk by Professor PHILIP EVERITT on BAGGED BUT CHEERFUL. A POW at TOBRUK and this talk will be a family forerunner to his main talk on the FALL of TOBRUK, which he will be giving at the June meeting.

see below for News of the BATTLEFIELD TOUR 2003


THE AGM - The APRIL Meeting
The AGM will take place at the April meeting to elect the committee for 2003/2004.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES : April 2003 - July 2003

8 May 2003
DDH European Battlefields Photographed - Ian Sutherland
MAIN The Run-Up to The Battle of The Somme - Paul Kilmartin
12 June 2003
DDH Teddington Lock. An Unusual Military Connection - Dave Matthews
MAIN The Fall of Tobruk - June 1942 - Professor Philip Everitt
10 July 2003
DDH Custer's Last Stand. The Battle of Little Bighorn - Lt. Col Ray Lotter
MAIN The Death of the Desert Fox - Charles Whiteing


Date:16/17 August 2003


Program : Visits, in sequence, to
Day l
Hussar Hill
Monte Cristo

Day 2
Colenso Koppies
Wynne Hill
Harts Hill
Pieters Hill

Meeting place - Day 1 - will be as usual at the Escourt Ultra City on the N.3., at a time to be advised

Overnight on Day 1 is being planned and quotations are being obtained from a number of hotels and B&B locations in the area. As soon as they are available we will give the details to members.

Speakers: As usual our past Chairman Ken Gillings will be responsible for the planning of the trip and will be our main guide. However he will be supported by a further (at present) 8 speakers and these include:

Paul Kilmartin, Bill Brady, Derek Petersen, Dr. Ingrid Machin, Charles Whiteing, Major Tony Gordon (from SAMH Society Cape Town, whose father fought in the baftle) John Murray (from SAMH Johannesburg, who will concentrate on the role of the Irish regiments on the Thukela Heights, prior to the formation of the Irish Guards on 1 April 1900) and guest speaker Gilbert Torlage.

We hope that more speakers will be added to this list. If any member feels that he or she would like to speak on any matter relating to this important battle, and its outcome, please ring Ken Gillings on 083-654-5880.

Departure: Again, as usual, we will aim to close after lunch so that all members can be on the road by 2.30 pm on the Sunday.

This tour could prove to be one of the best Battlefield Tours in recent years and we hope that it will be well supported by members and friends of the Society. A list, for those who wish to join the Battlefield Tour party for 2003, will be started at the April meeting and more information will be given in the next newsletter.

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001
Telephone: 031-201-3983

South African Military History Society /