South African Military History 


Newsletter No. 15: December 2005
Nuusbrief Nr. 15: Desember 2005

It being the month of November the glorious dead of past wars and conflicts were remembered in a moving and brief ceremony led by Moth Chris McClanis. We will indeed remember them.

Chairman Malcolm Kinghorn welcomed all to a well attended meeting with more than 30 persons including 23 members being present. Apologies were received from Dennis Hibberd, Dave Whitehouse, Alan Bamford, Anne Irwin, Chris Papenfus and Jock Harris. A special guest who was warmly welcomed was Mrs. Elizabeth Nel who was on Churchill's wartime Staff at White Hall and whose husband, Frans, was one time Officer Commanding the Prince Alfred's Guards Regiment. She is a very spry individual and to meet one who had an intimate knowledge of the war effort and Britain's wartime Prime Minister all those years ago is very special.

The parking issue has yet to be resolved and Piet Hall advised that he would report in the event that things took a turn for a better.It would appear as if one's ego is being played out and it will be resolved hopefully sooner than later. Pat Irwin reported on the forthcoming Grahamstown trip planned for Saturday 10th December and which will replace our monthly meeting. Members will be required to sign off a declaration stating that they are proceeding at own risk on the excursion and this form, with joining instructions, will be circulated shortly. It is to be returned to The Scribe by the 30th November. The day trip programme is varied and most interesting. That City has a host military buildings round which the day will evolve. Included will be a digital display on The Battle of Grahamstown. Members should bring a basket for lunch which will be taken in The Botanical Gardens. A show of hands indicated that more than 20 members would be making the trip.

Members are reminded that subscriptions are due in January. Please enquire should require additional information be required . These monies are to be paid over directly to The Society in Johannesburg.

Other issues brought to the notice of meeting were that The Battle of Blaawberg is being commemorated on the 6th January and volunteers are required for the enactment. The Linton Grange Library has regular dispersal sales of old books and if so required we could have a selection on view and for sale at our meetings.

Chairman Malcolm reported on a quick survey done on the regular slot of "The Month in History ". He concluded that we would run the series through until our Annual General Meeting which is in March 2006 followed by then a series on "Gallantry Awards made to South Africans". The month, being November, recorded the following items of past history amongst others,
* 1843 - Nelson's Column completed - 38 years after The Battle of Trafalgar
* 1862 - Richard Gatling invented his machine gun of destruction
* 1899 - Winston Churchill captured on a derailed train by Boer Forces near Frere in KZN.
* 1920 - Bloody Sunday in Ireland - 13 killed by The IRA.
* 1941 - The destruction of the Fifth Brigade at Sidi Rezegh
* 1962 - The end of The Cuban Crisis
* 1989 - The Fall of The Berlin Wall.

The Curtain Raiser was delivered by Des Kopke on "The Battle of Amalinda " which was fought in 1818. Des, whose lineage is from the old German Settlers, has an intimate knowledge of the Border area which has a rich history of military conflict. Des described the scene of battle which field was only about five kms. from the present King William's Town enroute to the town of Alice. It was in essence a battle noted for its ferocity and the large number of warriors killed on both sides. If one leaves King William's town the field of action lies to your left and against a hillside that is now populated with rural homes and at the lee lies a river in which the pitched battle took place. Surrounding the area are large mounds of earth which are grassed over. They resemble ramparts but are in actual fact wormcasts created by the largest of earthworms which have been measured in length as much as three metres.

At that time, October 1818, three individuals within the Xhosa were prominent. There was the prophet, Ntsikana, Ndlambe who took care of the throne and his nephew, Ngqika, who was in line to the throne. The latter stole one of his uncle's wives, the uncle retaliates and steals his nephew's cattle and these issues give rise to the action. Ntsikana advises Ngqika not to retaliate any further but the advice is ignored and a young impi is led into a trap, set by Makana, where it is surrounded and slaughted by a mature Ndlambe impi. The young flee but are hindered in their desperation by the long reeds of the Mdizeni River. They are fallen upon and the reeds are set alight to flush out the wounded. In later years the German-sponsored Liefeldt Mission Station is established close to the field of battle and the incident becomes part of oral history. Des was fortunate to find correspondence relating to the battle from notes made by a German missionary who lived in Stutterheim for more than 50 years from 1850. The missionary, in his early travels and work amongst the tribes met warriors who taken part in that very battle and who were able to recount in detail the event.

Arising from this battle it was then Makana who was encouraged to attack Grahamstown a year later and on this occasion he would amass more than 10,000 warriors. That in itself, "The Battle of Grahamstown " is another turning point in Frontier history.

The Main Lecture was delivered by Jan Sieben on the role played by "The Swordfish" aircraft in the last war and more so its protection of shipping convoys. He showed a video produced by Yorkshire Television on the last flight of this remarkable aircraft as it made its way across the green English countryside to its point of origin and manufacture. Viewed with the presentation was commentary from a number of individuals who had actually been involved in some way with the aircraft during the war years by having flown it and or been involved in its manufacture. It was a touching story that related much of how life was then both in the air, on the sea and in the factory of its assembly.

The year 1942 was the blackest one for the Allied merchant shipping as the threat of German U Boats took its toll and the vital sea lanes on the North Atlantic and to Russia were severely strained. Allied convoys were under attack. The Shell Company suffered badly and as the delivery of fuel was vital to the war effort a plan had to be made. A Mr. John Lamb was instructed to develop on his plan to convert existing tankers into mini-aircraft carriers and this could be done by erecting a flight deck on the deck of the carrier. This he accomplished by gathering together nine tankers, with great logistical expertise and guile, and the first was converted in five months at Tyneside. The ship lost its stack, accommodation was put below deck, the aircrews were accommodated along with the actual crew and the guns were installed below the flight deck. In the end not much in the way of carrier tonnage was lost. The Swordfish aircraft were secured on the deck, which in length was 440 feet in total of which the flight deck was 300 feet. The first of these MAC ships was the Rapana. (Merchant Aircraft Carriers). Once having been fitted out the Rapana was ready to assume convoy duty and to provide protection that convoys had never had before. The Swordfish was equipped with two depth charges and four small bombs and or alternatively eight rockets of great destructive power. It was a match for the ever present U Boat threat. These rockets could penetrate right through the shell of a submarine.

Prior to having an aircraft that could land and take off from a boat the Allied forces had only the use of a the Hurricane which was catapulted off the deck. Once in the air it had to reach terra firma after its sortie, failing which it would land in the sea with the possible loss of the pilot. That was not an option and with these new so called mini-carriers the Allies were in a far stronger position to defend convoys which were being escorted to Murmansk and elsewhere by frigates and destroyers. In the event a U Boat was sighted it was only an issue of correcting course for the prevailing winds and the armed Swordfish could be launched. Once having completed its engagement the aircraft could swing back and land on the deck. The tail wheel would be caught by a trip rope and in the event it perhaps overshot its mark what resembled to all intents a tennis net caught the aircraft to prevent it from plunging into the sea.

Three regular flights were carried out during each day, at dawn, noon and dusk. The Swordfish would be launched and it would complete a few circuits of the convoy as it progressed to Halifax, the Clyde, Novia Scotia and elsewhere. Allied losses became less and though the fiery losses of shipping at sea continued the attacks became more sporadic as the Allied forces gained in strength, numbers and resources.

Jan's lecture was most enlighting as he related to the gathering the little known attributes of an aircraft that had a big heart and that had played a huge part in ensuring the continued viability of the Allied war effort and the protection of the convoys.

Next Meeting

As previously intimated this will the day trip to Grahamstown on the 10th December. We meet at Fort Selwyn at 9,00 am and there after we are in the good hands of Pat Irwin. Please return your declaration slips to The Scribe. It's important that the legal formalities are taken care of before the commencement of the tour.

Ian Pringle,
Scribe / Secretary.
0836366623 and or fax 041-3688798.
Home phone 041-3688798

South African Military History Society /