South African Military History Society


The title of the curtain raiser at the society meeting on 12 February was 'The Little Warship That Will Not Die'. Captain Ivor C Little related the long and varied life story of a small, wooden minesweeper that emigrated from Britain to South Africa, and has undergone a bewildering series of changes both as a warship and a civilian vessel.

The little ship came to South Africa under the terms of the Simon's Town Agreement. She was launched in 1954 as HMS Dunkerton, one of the early Coniston-class minesweepers. These were remarkably successful ships, owing to the simplicity of their design and operational capabilities. They were later known as the 'Ton-class', being named after British coastal towns whose names ended in 'ton'. They became one of the largest classes of ships in the Royal Navy, and were widely copied by other seafaring nations. Their description as the 'Mini-Minors' of the warship world would not be inappropriate. The Dunkerton was one of 10 of her class acquired by the SA Navy. She arrived in Durban in November 1955 where her name was changed to SAS Pretoria. In the 1970s she was converted from a minesweeper to a coastal patrol vessel and refitted, but went into reserve later in the decade. Out of the reserve in 1982 the Pretoria served in the Training Squadron for the next three years. After that, she embarked on her eventful civilian career.

She was bought by a Cape Town businessman in December 1987 and laid up as a static museum ship in Hout Bay. The venture failed, and late in the 1990s the ship was bought by another businessman, Garry van der Merwe, and converted as a private yacht. Despite being de-militarised and modernised, and her name changed to Madiba, she proved unsuccessful in this role. Under the same owner she was subsequently converted into a diving support ship for salvage work.

When this source of income dried up, De Beers chartered the Madiba as a survey vessel for their marine diamond operations. That included a spell as mother ship to an automated underwater vehicle (AUV), or fully automatic submarine valued at around $16 million. In this capacity she achieved success. But it was a period in her life fraught with technical problems, which eventually resulted in the AUV being removed. She then reverted to her survey role off the Namibian Coast until her charter expired. After that the Madiba was again employed as a diving support ship.

Now still very much alive, the old lady lies at her own allocated berth marked with a blue and white monument plaque detailing her chequered career. She is now the last of the 'Ton-class' still afloat and in daily operational use.

The Crimean War was the subject of the main lecture given by Dr Walter Murton. His talk was illustrated with pictures taken recently of the ground over which the war was fought, and, uniquely, interspersed with short sound bites from letters and reports written by personalities of the period.

The origins of the war lay in Russian ambitions to gain territory in the Black Sea area at the expense of the crumbling Turkish Empire, and the determination of Britain and France to prevent the Russians obtaining a naval foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. The spark that ignited the conflict, however, was a dispute between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church over which should hold the keys to the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem.

France and Britain landed troops first at Varna, in present-day Bulgaria. Whereupon the Russians withdrew and the allies were left to cope with the cholera and malaria widespread among their troops. It was then decided that Russian ambitions in the Black Sea area could be curbed more effectively by destroying the heavily fortified naval base of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula.

British and French forces landed on the west coast of the Crimea about 70km north of Sevastopol, and proceeded to march south. Serious opposition was first encountered at the River Alma where a battle was fought, and the Russian defenders routed. The Russians then decided to divide their forces into two parts, one being left to defend Sevastopol, the other marching eastward to positions on the flank of the allied advance. The allies skirted to the east of Sevastopol so as to establish a supply depot at the southern port of Balaclava, and to be in a position to attack the town and dockyards on the south bank of the inlet intersecting the Sevastopol position.

What followed was one of the most controversial episodes in British military history. It was soon obvious that the system of command was hopelessly faulty; that the supplies available to the troops were inadequate, especially for coping with the harsher features of a Crimean winter; and that facilities for dealing with the wounded and disease-stricken soldiery were virtually non-existent. Reports from the front, especially those of The Times correspondent William Howard Russell, proved so damning that Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen was forced to resign. The influence of Florence Nightingale, who was struggling to improve the inhuman conditions existing at the British military hospital at Scrutari, at the junction of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus, led to considerable short-term improvement and to longer-term reform of the entire British military medical system.

Two major battles were fought and won before the allies, including Turkish and Sardinian forces, could eventually engage the southern defences of Sevastopol. The first, the Battle of Balaclava, featured the famous Charge of the Light Brigade. The second was the Battle of Inkerman. Both were launched by the Russian forces on the allies' eastern flanks, and both mainly involved British troops. By the time the attack on Sevastopol went in the British could field only one of the four infantry columns that took part. The allies supplied the rest.

Members are reminded that the last opportunity to cast their votes for the award of the Felix Memorial Prize for the best main lecture of 2003, and the George Barrell Prize for the best curtain raiser, will be at the 11 March lecture meeting.


This serves as advanced warning that the 38th AGM of the Society will take place at 20h00 in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the SA National Museum of Military History on Thursday 8th April.

The Agenda will include:

  1. Minutes of the previous Annual General Meeting;
  2. Chairman's Report;
  3. Statement of Accounts;
  4. Matters arising;
  5. Approval of such report, accounts and minutes;
  6. Appointments of officers and Auditors;
  7. General.

Guided Tour of SAAF Museum.

On Saturday afternoon 13 March from 2pm. Meet at the SAAF Museum in Pretoria, picnic lunch may be brought and eaten at the Museum grounds from midday. Directions, if needed, and further details, from committee member Bob Smith on (011) 482-5222.

"Strange" subscriptions and "Lost" members:

The Treasurer would like the following members to contact her at the Society's offices (see letterhead) because she is currently unable to identify them and cannot allocate their payments correctly:
R140 directly deposited by "Charl" at Craighall on 19 January
R120 directly deposited at Northmead on 21 January
R120 directly deposited at Northgate on 28 January - called "single membership"
R140 directly deposited at Margate on 6 February

Thank you to all who have renewed their subscriptions already - both Johannesburg and Durban have more 'paid-ups' now than are owing...

Mr H.V. Nagel, last known address Valhalla - your post is being returned as unknown.
Dr & Mrs Kletz, last known address Germiston - present address unknown.
Mr & Mrs M R Johnstone, were at Church St, Farnham, Bucks.- present address unknown.



11 March:
CR John Murray - Field Marshal Lord Slim of Burma: 'Uncle Bill'
ML Martin Ayres - The Hundred Years War - Part I
8 April
CR Annual General Meeting
ML Marius Whittle - Maj-General Fuller and Capt. Liddell-Hart:'The Terrible Twins'


11 March
DDH Bill Brady - The Rescue and Fall of Mussolini
ML Gen. Albie Gotze - My Role as a Fighter Pilot at Arnhem: 1944

Cape Town

11 March
Guy Ellis - 'Serve to Save' The SA Air Force at Sea (Crash Boats)

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

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