NEWSLETTER NO. 350
PAST EVENTS: With our Chairman away, giving the MAIN talk to the Society meeting in Johannesburg, the September meeting was chaired by our Vice Chairman, Bill Brady. As part of his introductory comments, Bill confirmed that the Annual Dinner will be held this year in Umhlanga Rocks, and that the date and venue has now been confirmed for the 2005 Annual Battlefield Tour. Reference is made to both of these issues on page 2 of this newsletter. Ken Gillings then provided an update on the amazing progress being made in the joint venture between the Gunners Association and the South African Military History Society on the refurbishment of the historic guns in Old Fort and this was followed by an update from Brian Norris on the substantial amount raised by "the 3 ladies and their quilt" for the gun restoration fund. We look forward to ongoing reports as this important project reaches its conclusion.
It is worth commenting on the milestone we have reached this month, as this, the October 2004 newsletter, is the 350th newsletter published by the KwaZulu-Natal Branch of the Society.
Graham Harvey, in his DDH talk I Was There - Italy 1944, related with some humour, his experiences as a very young private in the South Africa 1st Armoured Car Reconnaissance Regiment, during the Italian campaign. After waiting in South Africa for over a year before being sent to North Africa, this unit finally arrived in Egypt to reinforce the 1st Division, which in the meantime had been sent back to South Africa. Some of the men of the 1st Armoured Car Regiment were then trained for artillery, some to be in an armoured tank regiment, while Graham Harvey and others were assigned to the Corps of Signallers.
The signallers eventually joined the 6th South Africa Division in B Company of the Royal Durban Light Infantry Regiment. This regiment was to form a heavy support group to the infantry in the 12th brigade, with two companies working with 4.2" mortars and B Company with Mark VIII Vickers machine guns.
Graham Harvey's first experience of war was at Cassino when he saw the Poles, who were to be the main force in the attack on Monte Cairo, digging graves in preparation for the expected losses of men in the battle. As the R.D.L.I. approached Florence, Ossie Dawson, the Company Commander (and later a Springbok cricketer) took Graham to a ridge near Imprunetta to which he was to lay a telephone cable from their position in the valley. After he and Herbie Mileham had rolled out the cable and tested the telephone they received no response from B Company HQ. By this time B Company had joined Mileham on the ridge.
On the Arno River at Empoli, No. 4 Platoon was stationed on the top floor of a vermouth-bottling warehouse. Some of the men filled jerry cans with vermouth and sold them to the officers at an inflated price. This game was stopped when an officer found a dead rat in his jerry can. In the attack on the German defensive line (The Gothic Line) south of Bologna, B Company was in support of the main attack on Monte Sole, one of the key positions. The US bombers were to bomb the top of Monte Sole, the Thunderbolts would strafe the defences at a lower level and the artillery would create a smoke screen. The Thunderbolts strafed the allied forces instead of the Germans and the smoke screen did not appear. Eventually the attackers, climbing up goat tracks, reached the top where the Cape Town Highlanders established themselves.
Our speaker ended his entertaining talk on his personal experiences in Italy 1944, with some transparencies of cartoons of that time.
In the MAIN talk of our evening dedicated to the war in Italy, Major Keith Archibald gave a fascinating and detailed talk entitled The Italian Campaign, 1944 - 1945, with particular emphasis on the role played by South African forces in this important and rarely discussed theatre in World War 2.
Our speaker started by outlining the historical and political background to Hitler's rise to power; Italy's position in the 1930s, leading to her declaration of war against Britain and France on 10 June 1940; and the discussions at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. The decision to invade and so target Italy, made at the Trident Conference in May 1943, involved the planned elimination of the threat of Italy by the Allies and the containing of as many German Divisions as possible in Italy, using British and colonial as well as USA forces.
By February 1943 in South Africa, General George Brink was instrumental in forming a very strong armoured division, the 6th South Africa Armoured Division. Thorough training commenced in South Africa, continued in Egypt and later in Italy. The total strength of this Division was about 20,000 men, of whom 3,500 had served in the 8th Army in North Africa. The GOC was Major General Everand Poole, formerly of the 2nd South Africa Infantry Brigade. The Armoured and Motorised Infantry Brigades were supported by artillery, reconnaissance units, engineers, signallers and others. Inter-service, inter-arm and international cooperation was important, involving Air Forces, Artillery/Armour/Infantry operations and British (24th Guards Brigade), American, Brazilian and Indian forces. The total force was versatile and well trained, with a good balance between infantry, armour and artillery.
Major Archibald then covered some of the critical battles and advances that were needed to drive the German forces back. Advancing from Cassino, the Allied army followed the Inferno Track on foot to Atima. At Caserta, the 24th Guards Brigade joined them prior to the advance on Rome. The axis of advance was from Cassino to Rome along Route 6 through the Liri valley. Passing through Rome on 6 June 1944 (the famous D-Day of the Normandy landings), the South Africa Armoured Division crossed over the Ponte Milvio and headed up along the west bank of the River Tiber. A major stand was made by the Germans between Lake Bolsena and Bagno Regio, the German positions being around Celleno, 20 kms south of Bagno Regio. The South Africans (SSB tanks and ILH/ Kimberley Regiment under Colonel Brits) were opposed by a German Brigade of the 35th Infantry Division (which they dislodged), the artillery of the 7/64 battery and the 4/22 Field Regiment - driving them all northwards in the first and last tank battle.
Fighting against strong German resistance, the 24th Guards Brigade took up the attack, supported by the Pretoria Regiment (tanks) and MMR/SAAF. The Royal Natal Carbineers attacked and took Civita with A and C Companies and B Company took Bagno Regio. The ILH/Kimberley Regiment cleared the Chiusi railway station at the end of the N and S Italian grids, and the Cape Town Highlanders were to secure the town of Chiusi and objectives beyond the town. However, part of the force, opposed by Panzer units of the Hermann Goering Division, became trapped in buildings and many, under Major Bartlett, were forced to surrender. The 6th South Africa Armoured Division reached Florence and crossed the River Arno in company with the 4/13 Frontier Force Rifles. The South Africa engineers repaired the blocked Appenine tunnel in record time and continued along the Setta river valley. Further fighting ensued, South Africans taking Monte Vigesse, Monte Stanco, Monte Pezza and Monte Salvaro.
Throughout the 1944 - 1945 winter, continuous patrolling replaced heavy battle engagements until the 16 April 1945 breakthrough around Monte Sole, Caprara and Abelle, when South African forces pursued the Germans through Bologna and across the River Po. The actions culminated in the building of the Springbok bridge, at 305 metres the longest Bailey bridge ever constructed; a fitting finale to the heroic efforts of South African forces in the Italian Campaign.
The evening ended with a warm vote of thanks by committee member Charles Whiteing, who thanked both our speakers for focusing our attention on a theatre of the 2nd World War, which should be better known.
THURSDAY - 14 OCTOBER 2004
The MAIN talk for the October meeting will be entitled THE DAM BUSTER RAID - 16/17 MAY 1943 and will be given by CHARLES WHITEING. Operation Chastise, as it was officially known, took place on the night of 16 May 1943 when just 19 Lancasters of 617 Squadron took part in one of the most famous raids of the war. The talk will give an insight into the research of the Barnes Wallis "Bouncing Bomb," as it became known, the selection of the targets, and whether the raid and its consequences had any real effect on the overall war effort. The question of whether or not the raid was an elaborate PR exercise will also be raised without detracting in any way from the fact that 8 aircraft were lost during the raid, resulting in the death of some very brave and experienced aircrews. The raid culminated with Wing Commander Guy Gibson being awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Society is delighted that COLONEL PAT ACUTT has agreed to give the DDH talk in October. COLONEL ACUTT, formerly the Officer Commanding The Natal Mounted Rifles and now the Senior Staff Officer Reserve Division - KwaZulu-Natal Office, will give a talk entitled THE RESERVE FORCES and this comes at a most appropriate time after our recent Base Visit to 19 Field Engineer Regiment. Should be a talk not to be missed.
The committee have finalised overall plans for the Annual Battlefield Tour for 2005. We will be visiting the SIEGE BATTLEFIELDS of LADYSMITH over the weekend of 28 / 29 May 2005 and more detailed plans will be released as soon as they have been finalised.
PLEASE PUT THIS DATE IN YOUR DIARY - NOW!!!!
The Annual Dinner will be held in a private room in the Cotton Fields restaurant in Umhlanga Rocks, on 9 December - the 2nd Thursday of the month. After many visits to Westville and Durban and then to Kloof last year, the decision has been made to visit the north coast. Please ring Bill Brady on 031-561-5542 to ensure your place at the tables!!
PLEASE PUT THIS DATE IN YOUR DIARY - NOW!!!!
FUTURE SOCIETY DATES : October - December 2004
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001