NEWSLETTER NO. 332
The DDH was given by guest speaker Ray Locke, who although he finished his World War II career as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, spoke to us about two amazing events that happened to him during his time as an Able Seaman. The talk was entitled I Watched the Sinking of The Bismarck and started with an amusing explanation of how, in 1939, a very young Master Ray Locke signed on to join the SAAF at the age of 16 years as a student pilot, and when he heard nothing after a few weeks, how he travelled to Simonstown and joined the Royal Navy. He convinced everyone that at 16 years he was almost 18 years of age!!.
After completing his initial training he was drafted to HMS Dorsetshire, a "County" Class cruiser and he joined the ship as it sailed off to protect convoys in African waters. It was the start of an amazing wartime experience for our speaker and he started with an explanation of how they were escorting a convoy off the coast of West Africa and going north, when he heard a change in the tone of the engines and the Dorsetshire sailed north and away from the convoy. Although at the time the crew did not know it, the Dorsetshire was sailing towards the great sea battle that saw the sinking of the Bismarck. On their way the dramatic news was received of the sinking of HMS Hood. We then heard in detail how the battle developed, with the Bismarck and the Prince Eugen sailing into the North Atlantic from Norway, the search and eventual finding of both ships and how the Royal Navy gave chase. The tactics used and the mistakes made before a shot was fired were also described and how, in parallel, the Dorsetshire approached from the south with Able Seaman Ray Locke on board. Importantly he was not just "on board" he was "on deck" as he was part of the crew handling P1 4 inch anti-aircraft guns, positioned in the front on the port side, and this gave him a grandstand view as one of the great naval battles of World War II unfolded.
On arrival in the area, the Dorsetshire came under the command of Admiral Tovey on HMS King George V, with instructions to fire from the south with the KGV and HMS Rodney to concentrate their fire from the north when the battle started. What was not known was that torpedoes fired from Swordfish aircraft operating from the Ark Royal had damaged the rudder of the Bismarck in an attack the previous evening. The following morning the Rodney suffered damage as she closed in on the Bismarck but accurate shelling from all ships also damaged the Bismarck and eventually the Dorsetshire fired 3 fatal torpedoes - all were direct hits - and the Bismarck sank within 10 minutes. Ray Locke saw the torpedoes fired, watched their approach and saw them hit their target and described it all with wonderful clarity.
With the battle over, the Dorsetshire went to the UK for a major refit and returned to Simonstown, arriving in December 1941 to hear the news of the attack on Pearl Harbour. She then sailed to Colombo (in what was Ceylon) and together with HMS Cornwall sailed from there to join the Eastern Fleet. When 500 miles south west of Colombo, 70 Japanese dive-bombers attacked both ships and both were sunk within 12 minutes of the start of the action. The combined casualties were around 500 killed, 500 wounded and 400 unhurt. Ray Locke was one of those wounded with shrapnel and shot wounds and the survivors were in the water or on rafts for 32 hours before the Royal Navy picked them up. With no medical facilities of any kind and only one qualified doctor it took a further 3 weeks before they returned to Durban for hospital treatment. Our speaker was in hospital for 8 months before returning to sea, gaining his commission and seeing more naval action in the Mediterranean.
Ray Locke gave us all the sort of talk that could only be given by someone who "was there". He spoke with very few notes and his command of the detail was as impressive as the eloquent and personal way he described these great events.
The newly changed main talk was given by Bill Brady and was entitled Barbarossa - The German Invasion of Russia, which our speaker described as the critical issue of World War II. This was the moment Hitler launched a War on two fronts, which resulted in an unprecedented struggle of titanic proportions that in terms of casualties, suffering and the size of defeat was not matched by any other theatre of operations in the war. The attack was delayed by 5 important weeks and when launched on 22 June 1941, caught the Russian army by surprise, and led to substantial and early gains on all fronts. Before going into battle details our speaker took the opportunity to explain some new thinking regarding the reasons for this attack, based on the new information made available from Russian archives following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The conventional view has always been that Barbarossa was strategically a massive mistake by Hitler as he attempted to bring a defeated Soviet Union into a new and expanded German Empire. However new documents claim that it was the Soviet Union who were preparing an attack, not just on Germany but on the whole of Europe, and that Hitler's strike was a pre-emptive one to forestall the imminent Soviet invasion of Europe, which was part of Stalin's plan for the communist control of all Europe.
This fascinating comparison of the "old"' and "new" historical theories was also tied into a later discussion with what chance, if any, Hitler would have had in negotiating a peace with Stalin even if he captured Moscow and his other objectives. Bill then returned to the military events as they developed in the massive clash of the 2 armies, and he did this by the excellent use of a full range of computer and photographic slides and graphics together with some highly relevant video clips that highlighted, in particular, the problems experienced by the Germans in the depth of the Soviet winter. In June 1941 the largest and most powerful German army ever assembled opened the greatest land battle in history with a massive 3-pronged thrust towards Leningrad (with Army Group North), Moscow (with Army Group Centre) and the Ukraine and Crimea (with Army Group South). The initial German success was impressive as the Luftwaffe gained air superiority and with the Red Army in full retreat, the Soviet losses in aircraft, vehicles, field guns and army prisoners were given in their substantial detail. The speed of advance caused concern for the German generals but they were faced with a more important issue - the relative importance of Moscow and Kiev. When just 350 kms short of the capital, Hitler ordered the transfer of Army Group Centre from their drive on Moscow to Kiev, which was 1000 km south of their current position. It was a critical decision, for although Kiev was taken with the Soviets losing heavily (including for example over 650,000 prisoners), the German armies were now on the outskirts of Leningrad and with the assault on Moscow now ordered to continue, ominous problems had arisen for the Germans.
The arrival of the Soviet T34 Tank (which outgunned and outmatched the German equivalent), together with heavy rains grounding the Luftwaffe and tuming the roads to mud, and with supplies unable to get through to help repair serious engine wear, the German advance slowed to snails pace. In addition German losses were now higher than in all previous campaigns combined and the realisation that replacements were in short supply came at a time when intelligence identified that the original estimate of 200 Soviet divisions had been changed to a range of 350 - 400 divisions. Then came the winter weather, with the heavy snow bringing the temperature down to - 40 C, which caused machine guns to freeze, oil to turn to sludge, batteries to die, engines that would not turn over, etc, etc, and much worse the soldiers were wearing dark green summer uniforms which not only did not provide any warmth but stood out against the winter snow. By this time the German supply system had broken down completely and the offensive came to a halt, as the soldiers did not have the working equipment or supplies to survive let alone fight. One of the video clips showed this disaster in graphic detail. It was almost possible to feel the frostbite.
It was at this time that the Soviets, now under the command of General Zhukov, introduced their well-equipped and winter trained Siberian troops, who attacked along a 1000 km front in order to encircle and then crush the vulnerable Wehrmacht forces. This caught the Germans by surprise, and with ground and positions lost Hitler took personal control and sacked a total of 35 corps and divisional commanders for not holding firm. Although badly mauled the German army managed to re-establish a defensive position as the Soviet attack ran out of initial steam, but it meant that not one of Hitler's prime objectives (Leningrad, Moscow or the Crimea) would ever be reached due mainly to a gross underestimation of Soviet manpower and resources and a serious overconfidence based on his earlier success in Europe. The next phase of the Soviet attack drove the Wehrmacht firmly back towards their own country, back to their own capital city, Berlin, and to what Bill Brady described as "the total destruction of German military power".
We all had a vivid view of the reality of the dreadful conditions that the German army had to face through the excellent video clips that were shown, and with that in mind our speaker ended with a thoughtful review of "why" Barbarossa had occurred, and then more interestingly "why" Barbarossa had failed. The options and alternatives were given in a detailed review and all the various alternatives mentioned through the main talk were carefully summarised to bring an absorbing presentation to a thoughtful conclusion.
Lt. Commander Colin Lawton gave a warm vote of thanks to both our speakers, on behalf of a near full house of members, for what he described as a very special and fascinating evening.
THURSDAY 13 MARCH 2003
With the change in the main talk at the last meeting, the main talk at the March meeting will be the one originally announced for February. It will be on a specialist subject given by a member who is very much a specialist on his subject. The talk by MAJOR JOHN BUCHAN will be entitled THE HISTORY of FLYING BOATS and will show the development of Flying Boats and their use in the 1st World War, through their use in the Empire Postal Service and how this opened up many of the world's air routes, to their vital role in the 2nd World War.
The military role of Flying Boats in Southern Africa and Durban in particular will also be covered. This talk will provide a strong link with the excellent DDH talk given in February, as it was a Flying Boat that first spotted the Bismarck.
The DDH will be a talk on THE HISTORY of THE 69th INFANTRY REGIMENT 1851-2003. by BRIAN KENNEDY. This regiment is the New York Army National Guard, the most famous Infantry regiment in the U.S. Army, and will be a first talk of its kind to the Society.
The decision has been taken to tour the 8 "hills" that make up THE BATTLE of THE THUKELA HEIGHTS and THE RELIEF OF LADYSMITH. The date will be the weekend of the 16/17 August 2003 and more details will be given at future meetings and newsletters.
The Society web site address has changed to http://rapidttp.co.za/milhist/ - (it used to be a rapidttp.com address ) - and is well worth a visit
The AGM will take place at the April meeting. If any members would like to be considered for the committee or they know of other members who would be important additions to the committee, please contact Dr. INGRID MACHIN on 031-201-3983. We hope there will be an election for all posts on the committee this year.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001