NEWSLETTER NO. 340
Two Second World War veterans, Rod Campbell and Stan Taylor, both of whom served at the Battle of Alamein, gave the DDH talk with Professor Mike Laing acting as their chairman and interviewer. After giving an introduction, by showing maps that placed the locations of the battles in North Africa and then showing photographs of the leading personalities, Mike first introduced Rod Campbell who had served in the 1st Field Company of the South African Engineers. Rod treated us to a flood of detailed reminiscences, lightened with humour. He volunteered in 1939, spent some time in Abyssinia and was then moved to North Africa. His pride in his achievements and the ingenuity of the Engineers was evident. Their role included the laying of mines and the hazardous lifting of enemy mines. After seeing action at Taib el Essim, Rod moved with his unit to Tmim, and then to Gazalla where they dug in. There he saw the Polish gunners lifting their guns to fire their 25 pounders at an Italian warplane. In the race back to Tobruk in June 1942 the unit encountered German forces, notably the Afrika Corps, in the desert. Moving back to Alamein, where the Alamein "Box" had been established, the Engineers cleared mines in preparation for the major attack of 23 October 1942, so that the British tanks could come through. Rod Campbell remembered especially the tremendous noise and the flashing lights from the artillery barrage once the great Battle of Alamein was joined. After Alamein, Rod returned to South Africa where he re-trained in the Armoured Division and later saw active service in Italy.
Our second DDH speaker was Stan Taylor, an ex-nosegunner serving in the RAF in Wellingtons, who explained how he proceeded to Egypt by a roundabout route from Gibraltar to west of Alexandria. The main task of the RAF, once in North Africa, was to engage in nightly runs to bomb Tobruk to cripple the Afrika Corps supply line stretching to Alam Halfa. He particularly remembered the German anti-aircraft gun "Eric" with which they had to contend. During the main Battle of Alamein in October 1942, the RAF Wellingtons undertook two nightly sorties, during which time they had a good aerial view of the terrain. Stan Taylor's most vivid memory of the battle focused on the bright flashing lights and the deafening and unforgettable noise and sight of the guns, which were both visible and audible from inside the aircraft. In the confusion of battle, Stan mentioned an unfortunate instance of "friendly fire" which took place when the RAF bombed the 2nd New Zealand Division that had moved up so fast and suddenly that they had occupied the area where the Germans had just been. General Montgomery, maligned by some, visited Stan's squadron. His speech, which was forthright and positive, so inspired Stan that he obtained a copy of it, and then he read it to us. In April 1943, having been very ill, he was sent back to South Africa, where he later became an instructor.
The third DDH speaker was unable to affend, as his wife was ill. Jeff Kark of the 4th South African Armoured Cars Regiment took part in the North African campaign as one of the "Desert Rats". He intended to tell us about his action at Alamein and his view of the guns as they lightened the sky. He was also going to tell about his vivid memory of his stay in Alexandra, where he smoked a hookah and drank pink gins. What a pity that the real meaning behind the story remained untold, but all present wished his wife a speedy recovery.
It was a very special and personal DDH and something we will remember for a long time.
A man with a fascinating war record and a distinguished career in South African politics gave the MAIN talk of the evening. Senator Eric Winchester spoke to us on the subject of The Warsaw Uprising: My Role and Involvement, so he was the third of our October speakers of whom we could say, they "were there". Eric joined the army in 1940 at the age of 17, having lied about his age, and was posted to East Africa. As he was seeing no action he tried to join the RAF but was turned down due to his poor eyesight. After 2 years in East Africa he returned to South Africa where he eventually did join the RAF and as a member of 31 Squadron he was posted to Cairo. He mentioned with some humour that his eyesight was not regarded a good enough to train as a pilot but good enough to be an air gunner!
But all this was leading up to Warsaw, and what Eric referred to as the most important event of his life. The Warsaw Uprising has been described as one of the most controversial tragedies of the 2nd World War. Encouraged by the Russians, the Polish Army attacked German forces on 1 August 1944 in the expectation that they would receive help from the Russian Army who were positioned across the Vistula River. Not only did the Russian forces offer no assistance (they stopped their own army advance, grounded their air force and stopped all artillery fire) but they also refused to allow allied air forces, flying to assist the Polish uprising, from using Russian controlled airfields. This deliberate policy by Stalin led to a massive slaughter of the Polish Army and the residents of Warsaw and was described by our speaker as a massive betrayal. In London, Winston Churchill was determined to help Poland, and he ordered the RAF to fly supply missions to Warsaw and so indirectly ordered our speaker to take off as part of a Liberator force on the evening of 13 August 1944. The plan was to arrive over Warsaw at night by crossing into Yugoslavia at sunset. The plane lost height due to icing on the wing, but their first scare was when a German night fighter flew beneath them without seeing them. They went down to 2000 ft and then to 500 ft where at a speed of just 140 mph they were sitting ducks and were fired on by both German and Russian guns as they followed the route of the river into Warsaw. The supplies were to dropped in the main square, but with 2 engines shot out and a fire in the under carriage, the plane crashed landed but by a miracle they missed all surrounding buildings and trees. Eric Winchester had already been wounded in the head and arm, but he and the crew managed to get through the hatch and tried to run for cover. As they did so enemy machine gun fire opened up and as they took cover they watched a passing Liberator crashing under heavy anti aircraft fire and as he told us, he has never watched a firework display again to this day. Inevitably the crew was captured and when that happened, Eric told us he felt at his most useless and humble. He was taken to a bunker where he met a wounded colleague and friend, but when he went to get water for him a German sentry struck him with a rifle butt. The friend was driven off in an ambulance and Eric never saw him again. We were then given the detail of life as a prisoner of war, threatened with death by German guards as he was moved out of Warsaw before finally arriving by train in Frankfurt. There he was held in solitary confinement for 3 weeks prior to his interrogation and being sent to a POW camp in Eastern Germany. By now the war was close to its end and when Russian forces released him he was kept as a Russian prisoner. Eventually he took the opportunity to escape into the local woods and after 3 days he was through the wood and with food given to him by Russian soldiers and help from a German family he finally crossed the River Elbe and was put into an American camp. He was finally released and taken to a German airfield run by the Americans to start his journey home. It was exactly 9 months since he took off for his unsuccessful flight to Warsaw and as he told a hushed audience, he has never forgotten anything that happened in that critical nine months of his life. Eric's description of events was immensely moving.
But what about his friend and colleague, who had been refused water before being driven away in an ambulance in August 1944? Once he returned home Eric started his search for details and this was fuelled when he attended a memorial service in Johannesburg in 1950 for all South Africans lost in the war, only to find that his friends name was not mentioned. His campaign to find out what happencd and where, if he had died, he was buried became an obsession that lasted 54 years. During that time he visited Poland, and returned to Warsaw, he went through many cemeteries looking for the name of his friend. At Krakow, he reached a cemetery just as it was closing but with the help of the taxi driver he was allowed to go round all 120 graves. There he found a gravestone with the same name, but the wrong squadron and the wrong date - but what he did find were 60 graves from his own squadron, people he knew and it made him ask a very personal question - why was he allowed to survive? He wrote many letters to the Red Cross and visited their HQ in Geneva, but they could not help as he was not a relative. Also, and worst of all, his friend had been lost helping what was referred to as the Polish Underground and because they were not included in the Geneva Convention, they were declared an illegal organisation. Despite that Eric Winchester did not give up; he knew that he just had to find out what happened to his friend and finally he was given the information that he had been searching for. In 1999, the Polish Red Cross finally found the grave at Lodz, and our speaker's 54-year search was over.
Our Vice Chairman, Bill Brady, gave an especially warm vote of thanks to all three of our speakers and echoed the feeling of all members when he said that he not only thanked them, but that he "saluted" them as well.
Following his fascinating talk on the 2003 Battlefield Tour, COLONEL GRAEME FULLER returns to his subject for the main talk for November, entitled MEDICAL SERVICES DURING THE NATAL CAMPAIGN. This talk will cover the work of the Natal Volunteer Medical Corps, the Royal Army Medical Corps, the Natal Indian Bearer Corps, the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps and other Volunteers. Also covered will be the development of evacuation routes, hospital trains, hospital ships and military hospitals along the lines of communication together with the Transvaal and Orange Free State Medical Services and the Concentration Camp Hospitals. The talk will end with a summary of statistics, together with conclusions about the medical aspects of the campaign.
If it is November it means that is Patton time, and this years DDH will be no exception. PROFESSOR MIKE LAING (who else?) will give us on another of his variations on a theme, this one entitled WHAT COST PATTON THE 3rd ARMY?
ARMISTICE DAY - Tuesday 11 November at 10.3Oam
The Society's Annual ARMISTICE DAY Ceremony with the MOTH's will be held for the first time this year at WARRIORS GATE. The Ceremony will start at 10.3Oam, with a talk on an aspect of The Armistice and Remembrance by our Chairman PAUL KILMARTIN. This will end in time for the 2-minute silence at 1100 Hours. All are welcome and drinks will be available.
THE 1-DAY TOUR to THE BATTLE of WILLOW GRANGE!
Sunday 23 November 2003
We are delighted to report that, at present, at least 40 members will be attending this 1-day tour. Please PTO for details and if you wish to attend please ring PAUL KILMARTIN on 031- 561-2905 to confirm.
THE ANNUAL DINNER - Thursday 11 December 2003
It looks as though the Society Annual Dinner will be a sell out this year. It is being held at THE HUNGRY DUCK Restaurant in Clifton Road, GILLETTS. The cost will be R50 per head - much cheaper than of late - and despite the wine list being of excellent value we have negotiated a 7.5% discount on all wines for the evening. The maximum number of seats available is 60 and as in recent years we are asking for payment by the close of the November meeting so that we can be sure of the confirmed numbers attending for catering purposes. Please ring BILL BRADY on 031-561-5542 to book and to send payment.
The Battle of Willow Grange Battlefield Tour
Will take place on Sunday 23rd November 2003 (the l04th anniversary of the battle).
The Willow Grange battlefield is located in pristine country, very close to Mooi River, and unlike most of the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields has not become overgrown with trees and bush and in many respects it is very much the open grass fields that existed 104 years ago at the time of the battle. During this tour, one will be able to enjoy the historical aspect and at the same time enjoy the beautiful surroundings. The route to the Boer's gun position passes along the abandoned Natal Government Railways track for several kilometres over privately owned land. This is the track used by the armoured train and Buller's main line of communication. This is a trip not to be missed as the old railway cuttings and the old stone bridges are very exciting for train buffs. Ron Gold will lead the convoy of vehicles. The last vehicle must close all the farm gates. The view of the Drakensberg from the Boer's gun position takes your breath away so bring your camera.
9:30 Sunday 23rd November: Meet at the Wimpy Restaurant in the Engen One Stop garage at Mooi River.
9:35 Depart for Brynbella Hill in convoy. We will visit the graves of the men who fell in the Battle of Willow Grange at the base of Brynbella Hill and then proceed in convoy to the 'old stone wall' (now a national monument). There we will park our cars (a car guard will be provided) and Dereck Petersen will describe the main features of the battlefield and the rout taken by the British troops to attack the Boers on Brynbella Hill on the night of the 22nd November 1899. We will walk alongside the old stone wall towards Misty Kop to the position where the West Yorks and the East Surreys attacked each other in the dark, bayoneting and shooting several men.
We will proceed in convoy to the crest of Brynbella Hill by 4x4, microbus or bakkie. Those who have these vehicles are asked to help transport those who have cars. Car guards will guard the cars. There is a short walk from the Boer's gun position to the crest of Brynbella Hill. There is a splendid view of the Beacon Hill and the route take by Colonel Kitchener's men on the night of the battle. Dereck Petersen will give a detailed description of the events leading up to the battle, the battle that took place in the early hours of the 23rd of November 1899 and the aftermath of the battle. Ron Gold will describe Colonel Kitchener's retreat from the crest of Brynbella Hill.
It is recommended that each person bring along food and drink for a picnic lunch. The view is so good from the top of the hill that this will be a good opportunity to have a relaxed lunch and enjoy nature. We will return to the parked cars. Please tip the car guards before departing for the Boer War museum at Weston School. Ron Gold will explain the position of the British camp at Mooi River.
Recommended items to bring along:
A good sun-hat, sun block, good walking shoes or boots, drinks for tea and a good hamper of food & drink for a picnic lunch and some warm clothing in case the weather gets cold.
Optional items to bring with: Binoculars and a camera
Things not to bring: Cooking equipment - as the lighting of fires is not permitted at the request of the farmer owning the land.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001