South African Military History Society


The Chairlady, Lyn Miller, opened the February meeting by welcoming all present and introducing the first speaker, Mrs Angela Embleton, a well-known journalist, who presented the curtain raiser for the evening, entitled "We Learnt To Fly By The Seat Of Our Pants - The Diary of an SA Pilot in WWI".

Mrs Embleton based her presentation on the unpublished reminiscences and personal diary entries of her uncle, Mr Elton (Tony) Bowman and illustrated her talk with some evocative photographs of South African aviators of the time and the 'planes in which they flew.

Tony Bowman was born in Johannesburg in 1899 and attended Johannesburg Boys High School. Whilst at the latter school, Tony came to hear of the Royal Flying Corps' (RFC) recruiting drive being conducted by Major Alistair Miller in 1916, and the following year volunteered for that service himself. After undergoing a stringent, but by modern terms incredibly primitive, medical exam Tony was accepted in to the RFC but told to wait until the following year when he would be 18 and have passed his matric.

It was thus the 25th of January 1918 before Tony boarded the troop train at Park Station with other cadets and set off for Durban. There they transhipped to the RMS "Walmer Castle" and joined up with a bunch of older veterans for passage to India. There was a brief bit of excitement when these veterans, previously other rankers but now officer candidates, objected to their allotted accommodation below decks with the troops and so Tony and the other cadets found themselves allocated space on the open promenade deck, sleeping with a rug and a Macintosh.

The "Walmer Castle" took 10 days to reach Bombay and on arrival Tony and his fellow cadets were housed at a military camp at Devlali for a month before joining yet another transport, in this case the "Royal George", for passage to Egypt. The ship berthed at Port Tewfik at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal where from the deck of the ship the cadets got their first glimpse of military aircraft doing aerobatics - a really thrilling sight for young aspirant pilots.

Egypt had been chosen for air force training (as from the 1st of April the RFC had become the Royal Air Force (RAF)) because it was British and its clear sunny weather, and the cadets were moved from Port Tewfik to Aboukir where they had another three-week wait. From there it was off again by train to Cairo and then Heliopolis, their ultimate destination. There they joined up with 300 other young flyers all billeted in the Palace Hotel, a stripped down Victorian hotel which was their base for basic training.

There they suffered all the usual indignities and misery of basic training and learnt to send and receive Morse code messages, understand the basics of the Gnome aircraft engine, propeller swinging, map reading, photo interpretation, and the theory of gunnery and cross country flying. They also learnt how to cope with the heat, flies and an exasperating local population. At the end of three months, during which time they had still not seen a 'plane, they were promoted to the School of Aeronautics. There they learnt to rig the masses of wires in the aircraft of the time, repair aircraft engines and fire and maintain machine guns, including how to clear blockages in the air with one hand. They also learnt how to "box" the compass and did more map reading. At the end of this course Tony came top in his class with an average of 94.2% and in the middle of July 1918 was sent on flying training. They were issued with RAF uniforms and flying kit and started learning to fly on various training aircraft. The day started at 03h15, to get the best flying conditions, and ended in the late afternoon when they had to clean and wash down their machines.

Tony did his first solo on 10 August in a De Havilland 6 (DH 6) but had several attempts at achieving the perfect "three point" (wheels and tailskid at the same time) landing before fully mastering the technique. In those days they had to be one with the machine, feeling the 'planes every movement and quite literally flying by the seat of their pants. He then moved on to the Avro 504 but over confidence led to a crash landing and his being dropped from the scout stream and being sent on a course to fly two-seater planes instead. This was at Abuseur and there he flew the Bristol RE8, affectionately known as the "Harry Tate". This was a cow of a machine and notoriously difficult to fly. A large number of student pilots were killed by its propensity to go in to a flat spin and this terrified Tony. He eventually mastered the plane and on 9 November 1918 was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the RAF. The war ended two days later but Tony volunteered to remain in the RAF and stationed in Cairo. In March 1919 the Egyptians and Bedouins combined in rebellion against the British and at last Tony found himself in action. He flew as observer with a more experienced pilot in an RE8 and their job was to drop supplies packed in biscuit boxes and hessian to the small pockets of British troops cut off in places like Wadi Natrun and El Faiyum on the Nile Delta. On one of these trips they came across a band of the enemy attempting to demolish a bridge and promptly strafed them with the Lewis gun. The rebels returned fire, peppering the 'plane with old nails and bullets and causing a number of large tears in the fabric.

In May 1919 Tony submitted his resignation in order to return home and in July was shipped home from Port Said to Marseilles and then on to Calais and Blandford in England where he was demobbed. He took the opportunity to spend a few days in London at the South African Officers Club in Grosvenor Square where amongst others he met Beecham Proctor VC.

In September 1919 Tony he sailed for home from Southampton to Cape Town on a 20-day voyage in the RMS "Carisbrooke Castle" to embark on civilian life for the first time.

The main lecture of the evening was then delivered by Mr Robin Smith of the KwaZulu-Natal Branch. Dealing with the US Civil War, it was lavishly illustrated by power point computerisation and entitled "The Struggle for Chattanooga".

Chattanooga in Tennessee was a key point and its capture by the Union would sever the Confederacy's east-west rail link and open a gateway into the heartland of the Deep South.

General Braxton Bragg's Confederate Army had captured Chattanooga in July 1862 and advanced into Tennessee and Kentucky. But Bragg badly bungled things at the battles of Perryville and Stones River and was defeated by Major General William Rosecrans' Union Army whilst retreating southwards. Bragg's subordinate generals were highly dissatisfied with his leadership and asked the Confederate President, Jefferson F Davis, to replace him but Davis declined and the result was internecine conflict within the army of Tennessee's officer corps, as Bragg retreated southwards.

In June and July of 1863 the Union Army forced Bragg to withdraw from middle Tennessee and Chattanooga itself. Occupying Chattanooga, the Federals advanced into Georgia. Heavily reinforced from Mississippi and with two divisions from Robert E Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, Bragg advanced to meet them along the banks of the Chickamauga Creek. The result was a rout of the Union Army that sent Rosecrans back into Chattanooga.

Chickamauga was a great victory of the Confederates but Bragg was not convinced of his success, citing his huge casualty toll. His subordinates wanted to actively pursue the enemy but Bragg would only occupy Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain in the vicinity, in order to besiege Chattanooga, which these points overlooked.

Major General Ulysses S Grant had captured Vicksburg on 4 July 1863 and learned there that Rosecrans was in trouble in Chattanooga. The Secretary of War gave him command of all the territory from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River and Grant decided to replace Rosecrans with Thomas, with orders to "Hold Chattanooga at all hazards".

All Union supplies for Chattanooga had to be brought in from Nashville, Tennessee, and in ordinary times there were four routes in or out. All these were now closed by the Confederates. The only route was up the Sequatchie River and over Walden's Ridge and was steep, barren and inhospitable. The troops in Chattanooga were without sufficient shoes or winter clothing and their fuel was exhausted.

It was decided to reinforce the beleaguered Union army with two corps from Meade's Army in Virginia. Leaving Virginia on 23 September, by 2 October nearly 20 000 men, with artillery and their horses and ammunition, had arrived at the bridgehead. There they stopped, only 26 miles away, until a supply route could be opened.

Grant was not only concerned with the prompt opening of a supply line, but also wanted to take the offensive against the enemy. A little road led from Mead's force to Brown's Ferry, and on the opposite side of the river was a valley that led to Kelley's Ferry - which could easily be reached from Bridgeport (near Chattanooga) by steamboat. The plan was for a force from Hooker's army to cross the river at Bridgeport and march up to Brown's Ferry. Meanwhile another force from Thomas' army would advance overland, and yet another would float noiselessly downriver in pontoon boats to spearhead the crossing at Brown's Ferry. They would hold this position while the engineers constructed a pontoon bridge and the reinforcements crossed to the south bank. Brigadier William Hazen's men succeeded in doing this and the "cracker (supply) line" was open.

Hooker got his men on the road that morning before dawn and by 5 o'clock that evening was in touch with Hazen's force. Grant now turned his attention to the remainder of his command. Major General Sherman was ordered to move to Chattanooga with his whole force and go north of the river. They would cross upstream and attack Bragg's northern flank on Missionary Ridge. Hooker's troops were to drive the Confederates off Lookout Mountain's northern slopes and Thomas was to mass his men, so that they could cooperate with Sherman or strike a blow of their own.

On 23 November, Thomas put two army corps in line and they moved forward and swept over Orchard Knob, driving Bragg's skirmishers back to the foot of the Ridge. Next morning Sherman crossed the river to the north but Hooker, on the west side of Lookout Mountain, was in action first. The Federals cleared the western slope of the big mountain and swung around to the northern slope. During the night the Confederate troops left the summit of Lookout Mountain and at dawn a federal party reached the topmost crag on the summit and unfurled the biggest flag they had.

On the morning of 25 November, Sherman's men began to advance, but the Confederate position (General Cleburne) was just too strong. Grant sent word for Hooker to march south along the eastern foot of Lookout Mountain and Thomas got new orders to carry the rifle pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge. Instead of carefully re-forming their ranks at the foot of the Ridge and awaiting further orders, the Federal men moved on to storm Missionary Ridge itself. The ascent was not as steep as it looked and on top of the Ridge the Confederate commander, William Hardee, saw the advance and sent word to Cleburne for help. Cleburne responded but before he could get to the centre the Confederate line had been hopelessly broken and the Confederates had lost the battle, the mountain barrier to the Deep South and all chances of recovering Tennessee.

Grant then had also to relieve Burnside, besieged in Knoxville by Longstreet, but when Sherman arrived there he found Burnside's army safe, since Longstreet's assault had failed. Grant was promoted Lieutenant General on 8 March 1864 and over the next year led the Union armies to victory. On 9 April 1865, at Appomattox Court House, the Civil War effectively ended with the surrender of Robert E Lee.

Mr Smith closed with a short resume of the further careers of the main protagonists and after a short question period was thanked by Mrs Marjorie Dean, who had also visited the battle site at Chattanooga and who commented most favourably upon Bob's presentation and photographs.

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It is with sadness that we note the passing away on Sunday 20 February of Col "Ossie" Baker, Honorary Life Member of the Cape Town Branch, whose contribution to the Society stretched over many years. Sympathy is extended to Mrs Helen Baker and family.

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10 March
CR Susanne Blendulf - Women's Territorial Service, East Africa 1939-45.
ML Stuart Sterzel - The Battle of Cuito Cuannevale, Angola 1987.
14 April
Annual General Meeting
ML Frank Bullen -No Scarlet, No Bearskin


10 March
DDH Dave Matthews - The Diary of a Military Photographer - Durban 1899.
MAIN Frank Bullen - No Scarlet - No Bearskin. A Guardsman in Battledress.
14 April
Lt. Col. Graeme Fuller - Organiser BASE VISIT to 1 Medical Battalion Group

Cape Town

10 March
Dr. Dan Sleigh - Xenophon's march of the ten thousand.
14th April
Annual General Meeting
Major H Roemer-Heitman - An Update on the Military/Political Situation on the African Continent

Eastern Cape - Port Elizabeth:

10 March
CR Prof Pat Irwin - The North African Campaign
ML Jimmy Mullins - Gazala Gallop to El Alamein
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Please would the person who paid R150 to Hamish Paterson at the December 2004 meeting contact him (011-646-5513) or Joan Marsh (011-648-2087) to arrange for it to be correctly credited?

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Ivor Little (Scribe) (012) 651-3647

For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
For Cape Town details contact John Mahncke (021) 797-5167
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn (041) 373-4469

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