NEWSLETTER NO. 353
PAST EVENTS: The Society's January 2005 meeting scored a "coup" when, for the first time in its existence, not only was it addressed by a husband and wife team, but a husband and wife team from overseas, and we had the privilege of listening to a world famous military historian, Dr. Stephen Badsey. It was in many ways, a milestone in the Society's history. Dr Stephen Badsey is one of the best known and most prolific of British military historians. His topic for the evening was The Normandy Battlefield of 1944, which he delivered as the Society's MAIN lecture.
Dr Badsey has authored or contributed to more than sixty books and articles about warfare, making a particular study on the history of war reporting and of media representations of warfare. His most recent works include contributions to the new 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, three volumes in the Battle Zone Normandy series of historical guide books, and chief editorship of the volume The Falklands Conflict: Twenty Years on. As a Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, he appears and advises frequently on British television about warfare and history, as well as on the radio and in the press. The evening provided the largest audience in the Society's history with over 90 present, and 5 new members (with others promised) joined the Society on the evening.
Mrs Phylomena Badsey gave the Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture, which preceded her husband's address.
The DDH was based on our speaker's research for her doctorial dissertation on The Life of Vera Brittain. Born in 1893, Vera Brittain experienced, at first hand, the 1st World War as a young woman who was a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse in Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps. She was closely involved in the horrors of war through the experiences, in battle, of her brother, her fiancÚ and two close male friends. As a result she became a convinced pacifist and this informed much of her future writing with many of her 29 books having pacifist and feminist themes. The most successful was The Testament of Youth, published in 1933 and based on her World War diary. Women readers regarded this book as a mirror of their own experiences in the war and although it was one of many books published on the war at that time, it was one of the most successful. On the outbreak of war in August 1914, Vera Brittain left Oxford University, to become a VAD nurse, receiving her training in Buxton and then London. One of her patients was to be her brother, who was wounded in the Battle of the Somme, in which he was awarded the MC. From September 1916 to May 1917, Vera Brittain was posted to Malta, where she was told that her brother's close friend Victor Richardson had been blinded. She then requested posting to the Western Front and spent time at Etaples, the British base where the hospital in which she was working was attached.
During this time she engaged in correspondence with her brother and 3 of his friends, which later lead to the publication of another successful book, Letters from a Lost Generation. All 4 of the men she corresponded with were killed in the war, with her fiancÚ and her brother's friend, Roland Leighton, being killed on the Western Front 4 months after their engagement. In the 1920's Vera Brittain married Professor George Catlin and moved for a time to the USA where her son and daughter were born. Her daughter later became a well-known British parliamentarian, Dame Shirley Williams. When she returned to London in the 1930's her pacifist views earned her, along with Winston Churchill, a place in Germany's "black book". As a pacifist she supported Canon Richard Sheppard, known for his Peace Pledge Union and later, lent her authority to the Nuclear Disarmament movement.
In 1960, Vera and her husband were invited to Natal University as an author and journalist. During her visit she visited the Vrouemonument in Bloemfontein. As an admirer of Emily Hobhouse, who is buried there, Vera regarded the monument as encapsulating her view of the sufferings of women and children in war. She was in South Africa at the time of Sharpeville and wrote widely on that subject. She died in 1970 after an eventful and fully recorded life. The MAIN talk of the evening, given by Dr. Stephen Badsey, was carefully entitled The Battlefields of Normandy and unusually concentrated more on the "battlefields" than the "battles". Dr Badsey's association with the Battle of Normandy goes back more than twenty years, and includes several books and articles, as well as being a frequent visitor to the battlefield as a tour guide. He was guest historian during the 50th commemoration of the battle in 1994 aboard the cruise liner Queen Elizabeth 2, which was chartered by Normandy veterans, and for the 2004 commemoration he acted as a commentator for British television on both BBC and ITN News. We were listening to an expert on his subject.
The talk started with dates, statistics and an unusual opinion on the German performance on D-Day. The Battle of Normandy lasted 11 weeks, from D-Day on 6 June 1944 to either 22 August (at the breakthrough at Falaise) or as some historians prefer 3 days later, to 25 August (at the liberation of Paris). Taking those 11 weeks, we were told that the casualty rate of approximately 9,000 per day (dead and wounded) including French civilians, was of a greater intensity per day, than the 2 British battles in the 20th century that are normally regarded as the worst of "killing" battles - The Somme and 3rd Ypres (Passchendaele). It was a sobering announcement, but at the same time it was emphasised that Normandy was an overwhelming and outstanding victory for the allied forces. We were then told that when he took a group of Ghurkha officers to Utah and Omaha beaches, they could not understand why the German ground forces did not charge the allied forces that were in difficulty on the beaches, and as Dr. Badsey told us, that comment gave him an active soldiers perspective he had not heard before. The talk was illustrated with a large number of personal photographs of the battlefields taken from both the air and at ground level. Done in this way he concentrated on the problems of fighting a long battle of this kind, where both the weather and the ground over which the soldiers fought each created a number of difficult problems. Showing a map of the area and a series of compelling photographs the nature of the Normandy countryside was emphasised. The Bocage separated small square fields from one another with high and very dense hedgerows (which also ran alongside the narrow country lanes) and created what Dr Badsey described as a higher equivalent of a natural trench system. It created what was literally a blind countryside - and a defenders paradise. This was further emphasised by photographs of the very old farmhouses and chateau that were designed and built against invaders of much earlier generations. With walls over 1m thick and with large and strong cellars they were easy to defend and allied "mopping up" often took days rather than hours. Also on the architectural side, the church spires, that were used as outlook points were discussed and interesting photographs were shown of the French towns that were saved with their ancient architecture left in tact (e.g. Bayeux) in comparison with the towns that were flattened (e.g. St. Lo) and now live with the dreadful rebuilt architecture of the 1950's.
But before they reached these Normandy obstacles, the allies had to land and Dr. Badsey showed maps of the D-Day beaches and highlighted how far the advance went by the number of days from 6 June 1944. His comments on D-Day emphasised how the Germans had a triple loss of intelligence - getting nothing from air and naval intelligence and then no general intelligence, in that they believed that the invasion would focus on the Calais region. The allies expected that the Germans would have at least 24 hours notice, when in fact they had no notice at all and as a result the allies were not met on the beaches in the strength they expected. Two other important factors were highlighted; firstly the allies landed in bad weather (which took the Germans by surprise) and secondly the Germans were certain that the landings would take place at high tide, but the allies went in at low tide, or at worst when the tide was turning. Another point of interest concerned the geology of the Normandy region, in that the coastal area is flat before the Bocage region is reached and consequently once the allies had consolidated their landings and then captured the main east-west lateral main road, the Germans had lost the battle. This approach to military history was most unusual and gave us all a new perspective on one of the most important battles of the 20th century. Having set this scene in detail, Dr. Badsey, provided a high level summary of the move to the closure in Paris on the 25 August. In particular he covered the events at St Mere-Eglise and the region behind Utah Beach; the strong defence at Caen and the long hold up that caused the allies; and the breakout at Falaise. Regarding Falaise the German strategy was discussed, in that the German high command wanted to withdraw to a new defensive position behind the River Seine but were over-ruled by Hitler and then forced to fight a losing battle on ground not of their choice. As part of this summary, our speaker explained the tactics of German Group B once they realised that Normandy was the main invasion point and explained how it took the allies over 2 months, with heavy losses, to overwhelm this force. Despite that, the plan called for Paris to be liberated on D+90 days, but despite many unexpected delays, it was achieved in a remarkable D+77 days.
Ken Gillings, who was responsible for persuading the Badseys to give up their holiday time to speak to us, gave the warm vote of thanks and our large audience gave a long and enthusiastic round of applause to our guest speakers.
THURSDAY - 10 FEBRUARY 2005
THE FEBRUARY 2005 MEETING WILL BE DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF MAJOR EDWIN SWALES, VC, DFC, SAAF, IN THE 60th ANNIVERSARY MONTH OF HIS DEATH ON 23 FEBRUARY 1945. THE TALKS WILL BE VIDEOED BY DURBAN HIGH SCHOOL, AND PLACED IN THEIR ARCHIVE.
On this special occasion instead of the usual 2, there will be 3 speakers, each giving a different aspect of the man we are honouring.
The MAIN talk will be given by our Chairman, PAUL KILMARTIN, who has spent a great deal of time researching the life and career of EDWIN SWALES and his talk will be entitled THE 60th ANNIVERSARY of the DEATH OF EDWIN SWLAES. He will cover SWALES' early life at DHS, his sport, his time in the NMR and his move to the SAAF and his remarkable career as a pilot with Bomber Command. His last flight, and his death will be covered, as will the way his Mother, Mrs Olive Swales was honoured after his death.
A guest speaker PIETER ZEEMAN, who has a remarkable story to tell, will give the DDH. When the Germans invaded Holland in 1940, PIETER was captured and sent to Germany to do forced labour. He was in the German town of Pforzheim on the night of the 23 February 1945 when SWALES led the raid that caused his death. A very special edition in our series of "I was there". In 2002 a member of the SWALES family sold his relatives miniature medals and the silver model Lancaster awarded to Mrs Swales, by auction in England. The third speaker will be fellow member DAVID BENNETT, an Old Boy of DHS, who will describe what was done to get these important heirlooms returned to South Africa and specifically to Durban High School.
Subscriptions for 2005 are now due. Membership has been increased by R10, to R130 per year
for Single membership, and R150 for Family Membership (for a maximum of 2 members of the same
family). Please send your subscription ASAP to Joan Marsh in Johannesburg, or directly into
the Society Account at FNB Bank, Park Meadows Branch, A/c 50391928346, Branch code, 25-66-55,
Name: South African Military History Society.
We apologise for the small errors in last month's newsletter. The above is now CORRECT!!
South African Military History Society / email@example.com