South African Military History Society


It was nice to have our Chairlady, Lyn Miller, back with us, and fresh from her overseas holiday in Alaska. She opened the meeting and welcomed Tom Nichols, a member visiting from Arizona and our two new members, Brian Cox and Sven Zimmerman. As there was still no claimant for the raffled DVD we will hold a double "re-raffle" at next month's meeting.

Lyn then introduced Mr Theo Truter, who was to give the curtain-raising lecture. Mr Truter has been a professional flyer all his life and his talk "The Battle For Keren, Eritrea, February 1941" was based on a lecture tour in which he himself had taken part as a guest of the United Nations, whilst serving as a pilot in their employ in Eritrea.

His talk took the form of a "then and now" power point presentation and covered the campaign for the mountain stronghold of Keren (spelt Cheren in Italian) in north western Eritrea, over the period from 3 February to 27 March 1941.

This was a strategically important objective for the Allies as, other than Libya, Eritrea and Ethiopia were the last Italian possessions remaining in Africa. The allies launched their assault on Keren by sending in the South Africans from Somaliland, British and Indian forces from Khartoum and Port Sudan, and Kenyan troops from Abyssinia. The British and Indian forces from Khartoum, under General Heath, advanced on Agordat and Barentu and the Italians fell back on prepared positions outside Keren. There they dug in and established a commanding position overlooking the approaches which the Allies were using. Under the command of General Carmineo, they blocked the Dongolaas Pass and built a fort above it. To take this point the Allies commenced a heavy artillery bombardment on various strongholds, at the same time pushing slowly forward under heavy fire. This fire eventually forced the Allies to withdraw and re-form, bringing about a lull from 15 February to 15 March. The Allies used this lull to bring in supplies and reinforcements from Port Sudan. On 15 March the Allies launched a major assault, during the course of which it was found that the Pass was less seriously blocked than was supposed. The Italian commander, General Carmineo, was also killed by a sniper. This assault was repulsed and the Allies then resorted to subterfuge by hiding a large force in a nearby railway tunnel and then throwing them forward under cover of darkness. Taken completely by surprise, the Italian fort overlooking the pass was overrun and, although the Italians launched eight counter attacks, remained in Allied hands. This enabled the Allied engineers to clear the pass and forced the Italians to retire on Keren. This town fell shortly thereafter and its garrison fled to Asmara, which was also captured shortly afterwards by British and Indian troops.

Lyn thanked Mr Truter for a very interesting talk and then introduced Mr Hamish Paterson, the main speaker for the evening. Hamish is a former Chairman of our Society, a member of the National Committee and is at present the Curator of Artillery and Education Co-ordination at the Military Museum. The subject of his talk was "Japan's Longest Day - The Decision To Surrender".

Hamish took us back 800 years in to Japanese history to explain the mystique surrounding the Emperor and his position in Japanese culture, and how this would affect any Japanese surrender process. Working his way forward, Hamish showed how a series of events led to the Japanese adopting an innate sense of superiority to other races, which was rudely dashed by the arrival of the USA's Commodore Perry and his "Black Fleet". This led to the Emperor assuming direct rule and a massive programme of modernisation, which increased the prestige of the Emperor. In 1912 the Imperial family ran into a crisis when the strong Emperor Meiji died and was succeeded by a weak and indolent Yoshihito. The axis of power shifted from the Emperor to the Prime Minister and led to a period of "government by assassination" when Prime Ministers came and went. In 1926 Hirohito came to the throne and this gave his supporters the chance to stabilise the country by creating an "Emperor cult" to repress dissent and encourage martial spirit. This Emperor cult meant, amongst other things, that the Emperor was revered as a god who could do no wrong, was commander in chief of the armed forces and that pride in their Emperor produced a feeling of moral superiority in being Japanese.

As commander in chief, Hirohito spoke directly to his military leaders, bypassing his Cabinet, and this led to a series of military adventures in China and Manchuria which by being successful led to increased prestige for the Emperor and his inevitable acquiescence to further military actions. This led to further expansion in Asia and inevitably to World War 11. The experiences of this war, where the Allies came up against the Emperor cult in the form of Japanese troops fighting to the death rather than disgrace the Emperor by surrendering, played a large part in subsequent events. The successful American island hopping strategy brought US troops almost to the shores of the Japanese mainland with two results. Japanese propaganda concentrated on "a fight to the death" with no surrender, thus hoping to gain a negotiated peace without an occupation of Japan, and US policy concentrated on how to achieve Japan's unconditional surrender without the horrendous loss of life that an invasion would entail. Whilst Japan thus concentrated on a "die for the Emperor" campaign, the US developed the atomic bomb. Fire bomb raids by US aircraft had no apparent effect on the Japanese, who seemed unaware that they were starving and that their capacity to wage war was now negligible. Casualties on both sides were multiplying at an alarming rate and so the atomic bomb was unleashed. Until then the Japanese policy was to fight to the death whilst making peace overtures. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by Russia's entry in to the Pacific War, changed this dramatically. The Emperor himself then stepped in and instructed his government to surrender.

The rest of Hamish's talk was extremely interesting and amusing as he described farcical attempts by the Japanese government to put this instruction into effect without using the word "surrender" in any official communiques or compromising the Emperor's status. A failed coup, several suicides and at least one murder took place before a recording of the Emperor's capitulation speech was eventually broadcast and World War II came to an end.

It says much for US common sense that they realised the status of the Emperor and retained him as a figurehead and took no punitive action against him personally. Hamish closed by actually reading out the Emperor's speech, which exhorted the Japanese people to bow to the inevitable but to work hard to re-establish the position of their country in the future.

After a lengthy question period Ivor Little thanked Hamish for an excellent, amusing and enlightening lecture.

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8th September
CR Col C J Jacobs - The Lucy Ring - (Soviet name for German Spy Rudolf Roessler)
ML Paul Kilmartin - SA's last VC, Edwin Swales
13th October
CR Marjorie Dean - Trafalgar - the Making of a Hero
ML Terry Willson - The Order Book of Major Tottenham, 12th Lancers
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8th September
Talk 1 Gilbert Torlage - Missionaries in Zululand in Times of Conflict
Talk 2 Robin Smith - Gravestones and Memorials of the ILH
Talk 3 Dr. Mark Coghlan - The History of the Umvoti Mounted Rifles
13th October
DDH John Oliver - Battleship: The All Gun Dreadnought
MAIN Captain Brian Hoffman - The Battle of Trafalgar: The 200th Anniversary
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Cape Town

8th September
Col Ivan Bester - Namibia/Angola
13th October
Col Lionel Crook - The Fall of Tobruk, 1942
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SAMHSEC - Eastern Cape - Port Elizabeth:

8th September
PO Dave Whitehouse - The current state of anti-tank warfare
ML Edwin Pons - My experiences as a Chaplain with SA troops in WW2
13th October
PO Lyn Philips - Frontier Country Characters
ML Prof Pat Irwin - Battle of Trafalgar
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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

Ivor Little (Scribe) (012) 651-3647

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