The curtain raiser at the society's 12 August lecture meeting was given by Deputy Chairman Flip Hoorweg. It was entitled 'Nathan Bedford Forrest - Forerunner of Christiaan de Wet?' and set out to compare the remarkable military career of this charismatic Confederate soldier with South Africa's most outstanding Anglo-Boer War commando leader.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was born in 1812 in Bedford County, Tennessee. After dealing in cattle and horses he became a slave trader in the town of Memphis. On the outbreak of the American Civil War, and without formal military training, he enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army. He later raised and equipped a cavalry battalion at his own expense, and was appointed its Lieutenant Colonel. In 1862 he led his forces in defence of Fort Donaldson, and participated in the Battle of Shiloh.
Forrest led a series of successful raids behind Union lines in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi. In July 1862 he completely outfoxed the Unionists at Murfreesboro, an important supply centre on the railway line south of Nashville. By using clever tactics, he was able to storm and burn the place, demand unconditional surrender from its garrison, and capture many supplies. The Unionists had more men and guns and were protected by entrenched positions. But they surrendered anyway, unaware that Forrest was bluffing.
In 1864, as Major General in command of all the cavalry of Tennessee, Forrest counted among his victories the capture of Fort Pillow and the Battle of Brice's Crossroads, which is often considered the perfect battle. However, the triumph at Fort Pillow was marred when some of his men murdered black soldiers after they had surrendered. At Brice's Crossroads Forrest outflanked General Sturgis on both sides, and a bridge across a creek became a roadblock for the retreating army. The Unionists were utterly defeated and Forrest had destroyed a force twice his size.
By this time the name of Nathan Forrest caused dismay and fear wherever he operated. General Sherman ordered that he be followed to the death, which did not prevent his promotion to Lieutenant General in 1865. He had proved himself a master tactician.
The same must be said for South Africa's own hardy fighter Christiaan de Wet. He also lacked formal military training, yet achieved remarkable successes against far superior numbers. His victories at Waterval Drift; Kitchener's Kopje; Poplar Grove; Roodewal Station; DeWetsdorp; Sannah's Post and Reddersburg were also mounted actions marked by daring, opportunism and a sound appreciation of the tactical possibilities. Both leaders showed themselves full of cunning, daring and enterprise.
In peace, however, their fortunes diverged. Forrest created the Ku Klux Klan, but his importance declined rapidly. On the other hand De Wet ended the Anglo-Boer War as Hoofkommandant of the Orange Free State, and at the Peace of Vereeniging signed as its Acting President.
Society member John Parkinson gave the main lecture of the evening. His account of the exploits of Japanese Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and his fleet was a reminder of how close the Royal Navy came to disaster in the Indian Ocean in early 1942.
Britain's naval resources were already severely stretched when Nagumo and his six aircraft carriers launched their attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and brought the US into the war. This weakness increased a few days later when the battleship Prince of Wales and its accompanying battle cruiser Repulse were sunk by land-based Japanese aircraft in the Gulf of Siam. Nagumo followed up his triumph at Pearl Harbour with attacks in the Bismark Archipelago in the south Pacific and the bombing of Darwin in northern Australia. He then stood ready for the planned foray against British interests in the Indian Ocean.
To protect these, the Royal Navy had assembled a fleet consisting of two aircraft carriers; four obsolete 'R'-class battleships, one modernised battleship and accompanying destroyers. The carriers were modern ones, but their aircraft were outdated and their crews lacked training. The four old battleships were powerful but slow, and had the added disadvantage that they required frequent maintenance available only in port. To solve this problem, and provide ready fuel supplies for this scratch fleet, a temporary base had been established on an island at the southern end of the Maldive chain of atolls west of India. The small, obsolete carrier Hermes, based at Trincomalee in Ceylon, must also be included in the tally of Britain's naval strength in the area. In overall command was Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville, renowned for his exploits as commander of H Force, based at Gibraltar, from where he had destroyed the French fleet in Oran and taken part in the destruction of the Bismark.
Nagumo's execution of 'Plan C', the Japanese Navy's intrusion into the Indian Ocean, was delayed by the US Navy's 'light scale' attacks in the Pacific which gave the Japanese recurrent jitters. On the other hand, faulty intelligence led Somerville to believe Nagumo had only two carriers instead of the five, modern and with highly trained crews, available to him. Subsequently the two fleets manoeuvred south of Ceylon seeking one another in vain. Nagumo's aircraft bombed Colombo and Trincomalee, sank the Hermes and two heavy cruisers, the Cornwall and the Dorsetshire, but missed the main British fleet, although at one time the two forces were less than 150km apart.
This was fortunate for the Royal Navy, for the allies, and for Somerville, who, on learning what he was really up against, withdrew to the east African coast. But it was unlucky for Nagumo, who, through no fault of his own, missed what would have been one of the most spectacular naval victories of the war.
Malcolm Kinghorn is starting a Branch of the Society in Port Elizabeth. Please would all interested parties contact him at (041) 373-4469 or 082-331-6223 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581For KZN details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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