It was a most interesting change to listen to the personal experiences of a technical soldier during World War two and afterwards. Lt.Cdr Robert Sharpe's talk proved how vital technical expertise and engagement were for frontline units, and how decisive its support in sometimes desperate situations. After finishing High School he joined the Special Service Battalion in 1934, the strictest Regiment of all, followed by service in the S.A. Air Force where he completed a technical apprenticeship. In 1937 he was selected to attend the College of Science in London and to familiarise himself with the latest technical developments in Great Britain which was then re-arming.
At the outbreak of WW II he was summoned to SA House in London where Maj.Gen. van der Spuy arranged for him to be taken on a tour of London Air Defences and coastal artillery batteries, getting acquainted with the Predictor and optical equipment. The Predictor was an intricate mechanical computer with which AA guns were directed to fire at moving aircraft. He then returned to South Africa and soon afterwards left for active service in East Africa. It was a time when the word improvisation was written in capital letters, especially in the extreme climatic conditions of Mombasa. The tropical air condensed optical identifying telescopes and made them unusable. It was our speaker's innovation, (or is it invention?) that replaced the engraved cross in the optics by laboriously fitting them with threads from spider webs!
He then moved to Somaliland, Ethiopia and the Western Desert, where he and his specialized mechanical unit was busier than ever, i.e. preparing and using Italian equipment in the defence of the harbour of Kismayo. Three months later he was back in Egypt, west of Alexandria, uncomfortably close to the German Afrika Korps, re-building and looking after a workshop near Mersa Matruh. The buildings needed attention, and again improvisation was the key word when servicing Predictors, which were sent to him from practically all over!, because he and his team were the experts. A move to Libya followed, where they got busy with gun dial sights, often attacked by Stuka bombers and Panzer gun fire, and became familiar with the Gazala line, Tobruk and Bir Hacheim, ending up at El Alamein. It was there that the heaviest tank battle of the Desert War was fought, forcing the Africa Korps to evacuate from the continent.
In 1942 he was sent back to South Africa to arrange and run extensive courses at Ottery, to train people in anti-aircraft instrument optics and other technology in preparation for the Italian Campaign. And, at last, he was commissioned! He was appointed Technical Officer at AA Training Centre on Robben Island and was one of the few scientists who served in the SA Army, SAAF, SA Corps of Marines and SA Navy. He resigned from the PF to begin his civilian career but remained in the SAN Reserve serving in SAS UNITIE. The SA TSC has been described as the outstanding success of the war.
Lt.Cdr. Sharpe's fluid and concise presentation ended with some personal reminiscences, humorous and touching, followed with a question and answer session, enjoyed by all.
PLEASE NOTE: There will be NO Newsletter for May as the Scribe will be out of the country. The May Talk will be covered in the June Newsletter. Please retain the Lecture Programme below as reference.
Tony Gordon will take a short tour of the Maitland Military cemetery on Saturday afternoon 27 March 2004. We will meet inside the cemetery at Gate 10 at 2.30 pm (14:30). Anybody wishing to come, please phone Tony at 021-671-4500. If any members have their own Military graves to be included please tell Tony. Note the cemetery is busy on a Saturday afternoon so sharing cars would be an advantage!
All Visitors welcome. Tea and biscuits will be served.
Jochen (John) Mahncke (Vice-Chairman/Scribe) (021) 797-5167