South African Military 
History Society


June 2005

Society's website address: -

PAST EVENTS: The Society's May meeting started with further discussions on the Annual Battlefield Tour which will take place over the first weekend of June - the 4/5th June - when the Society will tour the Siege Battlefields of Ladysmith. A party of about 55 are expected to attend, including a number of members from Johannesburg. Full details about the tour were distributed with the May 2005 newsletter.

In the DDH lecture entitled The Devil of a Gentleman, Professor Philip Everitt regaled us with the tale of the swashbuckling latter-day pirate, Count Felix von Luckner, nicknamed "The Sea Devil". The Sea Devil's presence and exploits were first encountered by the British in December 1916 when the officers of the auxiliary cruiser Avenger superficially searched a full-rigged three-masted clipper ship spuriously flying the Norwegian flag. It appeared to be carrying a load of timber from Norway to Iceland. The captain of the clipper, von Luckner, hospitably received the unsuspecting officers on board. In June 1917, possibly in an unconnected incident, the Avenger was torpedoed and sunk. The next encounter, probably involving von Luckner, was the capture by a U-boat crew, of the American clipper Pass of Balmaha, sailing to Archangel with a cargo of cotton. The hold of this ship, renamed Seeadler (Sea Eagle) was converted into a prison area with special quarters aft to house captured ships captains. She was armed with two 8cm guns as well as machine guns, rifles and grenades. She left port in December 1916 under the command of von Luckner and headed into the Atlantic Ocean on her marauding course. She sank some dozen ships carrying a variety of goods such as coal, saltpetre, grain, chicken and pigs, and ran along the South American coast on her way to round the Horn and sail into the Pacific Ocean. Off the Falklands Islands, von Luckner held a memorial service where the German ships Scharnhorst and Gneisnau and others were sunk by a superior British force on 14 December 1914 in what is known as the naval Battle of the Falkland Islands.

In June and July 1917, the Seeadler sank three USA ships before reaching Mopelia Island where it was swept into rocks and wrecked. The crew and 46 prisoners were marooned. Salvaging much from the wreck, von Luckner set up a tent city that he ruled as the "Sea Devil King" of the South Seas, viceroy of the last German colony with the Imperial ensign flying from the highest palm tree. About 3 weeks later von Luckner and some of the crew set sail in the ship's 6m boat to capture a ship and return for the rest of the crew. This journey took them to the Cook Islands and eventually to Fiji, where they were captured. The great distances that he sailed from his homeport until he eventually reached Fiji were demonstrated with excellent maps, which helped us all to understand the extent of his remarkable journeys. Following his capture, von Luckner and his crew were taken as prisoners of war to New Zealand, from where they escaped but were later recaptured. After the end of the 1st World War, von Luckner was repatriated to Germany and retired in 1922.

In about 1921 he became a freemason, and thereafter he toured widely as a celebrity, and was made an honorary citizen of many American cities. He was regarded as a gentleman pirate who never caused a single death. During World War II Hitler tried to use von Luckner for political propaganda, but he refused to give up his freemasonry and his honorary citizenships. After the war he was settled in Sweden where he died in 1966.

At the end of his talk, Philip Everitt pondered on the following questions about von Luckner:
Was he a rogue, a liar, or a charlatan? Was he a gentleman? And was he a Nazi or a German patriot? Whichever, he certainly remained A Devil of a Gentleman!!

The MAIN talk of the evening was given by John Parkinson, a member of the Society from Johannesburg, who had travelled down especially to speak to us on the subject of Vice-Admiral Nagumo in the Indian Ocean: April 1942. The talk started with a summary of events prior to April 1942 and this included a description of Nagumo's rise to prominence and how he, as C. in C. of the newly formed Japanese 1st Air Fleet, commanded the carrier borne attack on the USA bases in Hawaii on Sunday 7 December 1941 - the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour that brought the USA into the war. About 40 minutes after that attack, Japanese forces commenced their attack on Malaya and the British responded by sending Admiral Sir Tom Phillips from his base at Singapore to attack enemy forces in the vicinity of Kota Bharu. Two days later Phillips and many British sailors lost their lives as the heavy ships Pow and Repulse were sunk by a Japanese Navy land based air attack.. After this events developed rapidly as the Japanese secured positions ashore in the Bismarck Archipelago, captured the Dutch base at Kendari, on 15 February 1942 they forced the surrender of Singapore and four days later Nagumo carried out a devastating attack on Darwin.

But the US Navy had not been idle and responded to the aggressive demands of Admiral King, soon to be USA Chief of Naval Operations, with a series of co-ordinated but small attacks on Japanese positions in the Gilberts, on Japanese shipping, shore targets in the Marshalls, and all leading to American carrier based aircraft attacking the Japanese occupied American possession of Wake Island on 24 February 1942. The Japanese regarded Wake as an important part of their outer defence perimeter and the airfield on Wake was regarded as strategic to both sides. This was followed by an attack on Marcus Island, just 1000 miles from Tokyo and all these attacks were planned to let Japan know that US Navy attacks on Japanese positions, both in Japan and in occupied territories could and would take place. Our speaker emphasised that the soil of Japan was regarded as sacred and that great dishonour would fall on the Japanese Navy if so much as one bomb were to fall on the sacrosanct land of Japan.

As early as 14 February 1942, it was agreed that the Japanese navy should attack the British Eastern Fleet and their bases in Ceylon and that Operation "C", as it was to be known, was scheduled for 1 April 1942 with 2 additional fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, added to enhance his fleet. At the same time Admiral Sir James Somerville, who had replaced Admiral Phillips, arrived in Cape Town aboard the carrier Formidable together with the old and unmodernised battleship Resolution, en route to Ceylon and the Indian Ocean. A sister ship to the Formidable, the Indomitable was being used to ferry Hurricane fighter aircraft from the Middle East to the Far East and specifically to reinforce the RAF in Ceylon. On 10 March US carrier based aircraft carried out their most successful raid against Japanese shipping and shore positions in New Guinea - which caused great uncertainty in Japan - but elsewhere Japan had success in forcing all Dutch forces to surrender all their East Indies possessions. But on 11 March the Japanese intercepted American wireless signals and 2 carriers were diverted from Nagumo to search an area 350 miles N.E of Tokyo. Nothing was found but it delayed Nagumo's attack on the British fleet by a crucial 5 days, from 1 April to 5 April 1942.

By the end of March both British and American intelligence knew that Japan had either 5 or 6 of their carriers poised to attack in East Indian waters, but the British only had 8 RAF Catalina aircraft to cover the whole region. Also, as John Parkinson made so clear, Somerville had not received any reports on how earlier Japanese Naval attacks had developed (including at Pearl Harbour) which was highlighted by his comment that the use of dive bombers was a "novel aspect of attack" - remarkable at that stage of the war. Somerville, now on board HMS Warspite, resolved to take his fleet of 2 modern carriers, 1 modernised battleship and 4 unmodernised battleships (battleships were regarded as the all important Capital Ships of the fleet at that time) out on exercises, but this only highlighted the poor endurance, slow speeds and the various stages of disrepair of his unmodernised battleships.

Our speaker then described in detail the various strategies and actions undertaken by Admirals Somerville and Nagumo, which included the air reconnaissance searches, the Japanese attack on Colombo - the capital of Ceylon - and well known to all members of the Society through a recent DDH - the sinking of heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall on the 5th April when they were on their way to rendezvous with Somerville and his fleet. At noon on that day Somerville and Warspite were just 90 miles away from that action, and although both sides spent the rest of the day searching for each other, no sitings were made, despite reconnaissance aircraft being at one stage just 80 miles away from the British fleet. John, with a great depth of detail, ended his fascinating talk by summarising the following key aspects; Nagumo had no knowledge of Port "T", the secret navy refuelling base in the Maldives; Somerville, due to the limited intelligence information made available to him, had no idea of the great strength that Nagumo had under his command; he quoted one senior British officer who wrote that it was "astonishing that the enemy never found us" but our speaker emphasised that the 5 days delay in Nagumo's attack, caused by the so-called "pin prick" attacks carried out by the US Navy, saved the British Eastern Fleet from close to annihilation.

Lt. Colonel Ray Lotter gave a witty vote of thanks to both speakers for their most unusual talks and particularly to John Parkinson for making the effort of coming from Johannesburg to provide his talk on a rarely reviewed operation.


On 12 February 2004. Dr GUS ALLEN gave us a fascinating MAIN talk on the background to the Spanish Armada, and following many requests from members we are delighted that GUS will be returning to give the June 2005 MAIN talk on THE SPANISH ARMADA - THE NAVAL BATTLES. These battles have been the stuff of legends and represent one of the great events in naval military history. We are sure that we will be in for many surprises as we learn what really happened during these remarkable naval battles that stopped the Spanish invasion attempt on Britain in 1588.

At the last meeting, reference was made that the 30 April 2005 marked the 60th anniversary of the death of Adolf Hitler. To this day there are still questions and queries about his death and to mark this 60th anniversary BILL BRADY will give a DDH talk entitled THE DEATH of ADOLF HITLER


Many of our members will remember a marvellous DDH talk given to the Society on 13 February 2003 by Ray Lock, called I WATCHED THE SINKING OF THE BISMARCK. Ray was on deck of HMS Dorsetshire, the ship that fired the last 2 torpedoes that sunk the Bismarck, and was able to watch the torpedoes in the water and the final sinking of the Bismarck. He was later on board when the Dorsetshire was sunk by a Japanese air attack off the coast of Ceylon. Ray has now written a book entitled BISMARCK, DORSETSHIRE and MEMORIES and it comes strongly recommended as a very personal and unusual war history by a local Durban man. This is relevant to the write up on our MAIN speakers talk last month, and the book is available from Adams and Exclusive Books.


We regret that there was an error in the last newsletter regarding the Society meeting in Pietermaritzburg. It is NOT being held in October - as in that month we are having a special meeting to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar - and for that reason the Pietermaritzburg meeting will be in September 2005. We apologise for this mistake and ask all members to please make a note in their diaries that the Society meeting in Pietermaritzburg will be held on 8th September 2005. The full program is published below.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES : July 2005 - September 2005

14 July 05
DDH Maj. Gen. Chris le Roux - History of the South African Parachute Regiment
MAIN Lt. Col Clive Wilsworth - South African Artillery
11 Aug 05
DDH Prof. Mike Laing - The Chemistry that made the Atom Bomb Work
MAIN Bill Brady - The End of World War 2 in the Pacific: Aug '45
8 Sep 05
Gilbert Tolage - Missionaries in Zululand in Times of Conflict
Robin Smith - Gravestones and Memorials of the ILH
Dr. Mark Coglan - The History of the Umvoti Mounted Rifles

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