South African Military History Society

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The meeting was as usual opened by the Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, who commenced by welcoming the guest speaker, Mr John Cramp, his wife Doris and our Committee Member Mr Hamish Paterson who is recovering from a spell in hospital. Flip then gave out the usual notices regarding coming events and was followed by Mrs Marjorie Dean who reminded members that there were still tickets available for our 40th Birthday Luncheon, to be held on Sunday 19 November, 2006.

The curtain-raising lecture for the evening was entitled "The Evolution Of The Victoria Cross" and was delivered by John Cramp. John was born and educated in England and started his career with British Thompson, Houston, before moving into the oil and petro-chemical industry. He served in managerial positions in several countries including the United Kingdom, finishing his career in Mossel Bay and retiring in South Africa. In addition to being a member of various service and social clubs, he is a keen amateur historian and avid reader, particularly with regard to the period of "The Scramble For Africa". Having served briefly in the British Army, he also has a pervading interest in military history and is a Natal battlefield tour guide.

The subject of John's talk, "The Evolution Of The Victoria Cross", was the on-going development of the medal itself, not the hackneyed subject of its winners, and John took us down a fascinating byway of history. Until the 19th Century there was no medal for bravery which could be awarded to enlisted men, although there were mechanisms in place to reward outstanding acts of bravery by officers. As enlisted men became better educated, so their social standing amongst the general populace improved until ultimately, after the Crimean War, in which many of these men had performed remarkable deeds of valour, the question of a bravery award was raised in the British Parliament. This was the idea of a retired Royal Navy captain by the name of Scobal, a Member of Parliament at the time, and he followed it up with the then Secretary for Defence, the 5th Duke of Newcastle. The latter drew up a Warrant to introduce such a medal, to be known as the "Victoria Cross" in honour of the reigning sovereign.

Hancock's of Albermarle Street were given the job of producing the medal and they struck three prototypes, which were submitted to Queen Victoria for approval. She and the Prince Consort, Prince Albert, gave the matter a lot of thought and the design they chose is the one still in use today. Albert also introduced a change to the design - the small clasp attaching the medal to its ribbon is in the form of a "V". The medal, which is inscribed "For Valour", is one of only two British medals which carry an inscription. The other is the George Cross, which is inscribed "For Gallantry". Hancock's still manufacture the medal today, using metal from two Chinese cannons captured from the Russians by the British at Sebastopol in the Crimea. There is still enough metal left to cut a further 85 medals, the last cut being made in 1959 when 50 ounces were removed to manufacture 12 medals. Under the instructions of Newcastle, the first medals were awarded in 1857 when, on 26 June in Hyde Park, 62 medals were distributed. The next Secretary for Defence, Lord Panmer, was adamant that the medal should only be awarded to living recipients and this ruling stood for 50 years. Although the medal honours individual acts of bravery, a group such as a regiment or ship's company can also be honoured by a process whereby one officer and one enlisted man can be voted for by ballot to receive the award on its behalf. It may also be awarded to civilians, provided that at the time of the event they are serving under the command of a British commanding officer, and there are a number of instances of this happening in India and one at Rorke's Drift. In 1907, King Edward VII authorised the award to be given posthumously to seven deserving recipients and in 1913 this was formally written into the Warrant. Only once has someone accidentally lost his medal, and in that case, the owner, a man called Hitch, had to pay 24/- for a replacement to be issued!

Since the time of King George V, the reigning monarch has always awarded the Victoria Cross personally. It takes precedence over all other British medals and is only awarded at the discretion of the Crown. There was a clause in the original warrant that any misconduct or criminal act by the recipient would result in the medal being rescinded and the wearer's name being struck off "the roll" (an ordinary leather bound note book originally issued by Her Majesty's Stationary Office), but in 1920 this was done away with. The original ribbon was red for the Army and blue for the Navy but, with the advent of the Royal Air Force, in 1929 the ribbon was changed to crimson - a common colour for all three services. Today women can win the medal and its award does not discriminate in matters of sex, creed or background. It also carries a pension. For 100 years it was stuck at 10 pound per annum before Prime Minister MacMillan upgraded it to 700 pounds per annum. The pension is currently inflation-linked and stands at 1 495 pounds per year. Remarkably, there are 15 people still drawing this pension, 10 of them survivors from World War II. 1 355 medals have been awarded since 1857, 295 posthumously. Most of these medals were won in either France or Belgium, closely followed by South Africa and, since 1913, one in three of these has been awarded posthumously. 32 Victoria Crosses have been sold with prices ranging from 18 000 to 235 250 pounds each.

Flip thanked John for a most interesting and informative talk and then introduced the main speaker for the evening. John Parkinson is well known to our Society both as a committee member, our attendance officer and a speaker of note on maritime subjects.

Tonight was no exception. Speaking on the obscure subject of "The First Steam Powered Ascents Through the Yangtse Gorges: 1898 and 1900" John brought this subject alive by his obvious enthusiasm and deep research. Using slides of the original Admiralty charts of the period and builders' drawings of the ships involved, John showed how the British Royal Navy and commercial interests pushed up the River Yangtse in China from the China Sea, in the vicinity of Shanghai, to the port of Chunking, which is 1 352 nautical miles from the sea.

Following the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858, which gave the British access to the Chinese interior, the British gunboat HMS Dove pushed up to Hankow, 636 miles from the open sea later that same year. In 1861 the paddle steamer HMS Coromandel pushed even further up, reaching Yochow at the entrance to Tung Ting Lake. Over the next few years the river above that point was carefully surveyed, because it is at that point that the river cuts its way through a series of three magnificent gorges caused by its passage through a transverse series of mountain ranges. The volume of water and its seasonal rise and fall is almost unimaginable, both also being affected by freshets and natural obstructions in the channel. The surveyors were unable to come to a unanimous decision as to whether or not steam navigation were possible through these gorges, but it was a fact that Chinese junks were being hauled through these rapids by sheer manpower, and the venture was thus theoretically possible.

In 1869 HMS Opossum, under the command of Lieutenant John Stokes, reached Ichang, 33 miles below the first (Kung-ling) gorge. Using photographs and maps, John pointed out the obvious hazards involved in traversing this gorge and it is not surprising that the officers of HMS Opposum baulked at the prospect! However an English entrepreneur by the name of Archibald Little was commercially active in the Yangtse Valley and, after doing the trip by junk in 1883, he decided that steam navigation through the Gorges was feasible and commercially viable. With the aid of English backers, Little had a stern paddle wheel steamer built at Paisley in Scotland and shipped out for assembly in Shanghai in 1887. This little ship was of 498 gross registered tons and only 175 feet long. Named Kuling, she was capable of 12 knots and would burn the local high quality coal.

Little had chosen a bad time politically to commence his venture. Apart from the natural resistance to change by the local junk masters and people who depended on the river traffic for a living, the local tax authorities took a dim view of foreigners evading the tax regulations in place for local craft and the regime deplored the chance of foreigners penetrating so far inland. Little managed to cut his losses by selling the Kuling at a good profit to the Chinese Customs in 1889. They, in turn, sold her on to the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company, for whom she served until 1930.

As a result of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, the political situation swung in favour of foreign trade with Chunking, by now declared a Treaty Port, and Little tried again. Without financial backing he was forced to resume on a small scale - in this case with a 55-foot wooden twin-screw steam launch capable of only 9 knots and named Leechuen. Using Chinese river pilots, Little and his crew (which included his wife) made a successful transit through the first gorge (Kung-ling) and joined a queue of 320 junks waiting for suitable water conditions to ascend the Hsing-lung Rapid. Here Little lightened the Leechuan and, using 300 trackers hauling on ropes ashore, ascended the rapid in 12 minutes. The Leechuan eventually reached Chunking in 1898 after fouling her propeller with a rope, bending two propeller blades and striking a rock, the latter incident involving running repairs. However, she had proved that it could be done.

Financial backing was now no longer a problem and Little placed an order with Denny and Company in Dumbarton, Scotland, for a side paddle steamer capable of carrying 160 tons of cargo and 134 passengers in three classes. To be named Pioneer, she was capable of 14 knots; a high speed for the times, and in 1900 was shipped out and assembled in Shanghai for service on the Yangtse. At this time the British considered the Yangtse Valley to be in their "Zone of Influence" and to reinforce this idea two shallow draft river gunboats, originally built for Nile service, were shipped out to Shanghai. These were HM Ships Woodcock and Woodlark and in 1900 these two ships were in position at the first gorge.

Using slides, photos and diagrammes, John then showed how a combination of human brute strength (400 haulers), wire ropes, capstans, steam power and good seamanship hauled these two ships through the gorges. Basically they were completely unsuitable for the job and the Woodcock, in particular, proved underpowered. In the course of events the Woodlark was badly damaged and holed by striking the bank, but was repaired and carried on with both ships arriving safely in Chunking. What was significant, however, was that the Woodlark, with slightly more power than her sister, became the first ship to reach Chungking totally under her own power and without the use of trackers hauling ashore. In that same year the Pioneer, under the command of Captain Samuel Plant, also did an unaided trip up to Chungking and the steamer route up to the Chinese hinterland was now firmly established.

The Boxer Rebellion proved a major interruption to this trade and the British Admiralty requisitioned the Pioneer as HMS Kinsha. In this role she was armed with a Maxim gun and her crew was reinforced by a Royal Navy detachment. After serving as an evacuation vessel for foreign residents along the river, she was subsequently based at Chunking as a guard ship until the rebellion collapsed. However, her value on the river, as compared to the other two Nile gunboats, had not been missed by the Admiralty and the Admiralty purchased her at a useful profit to Archibald Little. She then served as the flagship of the Yangtse Patrol for a further 20 years.

Using ever more powerful ships, the trade to Chungking up the Yangtse has flourished in the wake of these early attempts. Today the Chinese are busy constructing massive dams and locks in the vicinity of the gorges which, in addition to providing hydro-electricity and downstream flood control, will facilitate the safe passage of ocean-going ships all the way up to Chunking, 1 352 nautical miles from the open sea. John was then subjected to a series of "curved ball" questions, the answers to which served to illustrate his obvious knowledge of his subject, before being thanked for a most interesting and entertaining talk by Ivor Little. (No relation to Archibald!) The meeting then adjourned for tea.

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14th December
CR Terry Willson - The Natal Volunteers, 1854 to 1912
ML Andre Sharashkin - The Russian Front of the Second World War
18th January 2007 - THIRD THURSDAY!
CR Flip Hoorweg - Julius Caesar and the Battle of Alesia 52 BCE
ML Frank Diffenthal - We were Volunteers - Angola 1975
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14th December
The Annual Dinner - Westville Country Club - 19h00 for 19h30
Cost: R75 per person - Please reserve your place with Ken Gillings
18th January 2007 - THIRD THURSDAY!
DDH Ian Sutherland - Scapa Flow
MAIN Ken Gillings - The Anglo-Boer War: the Aftermath
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Cape Town

9th November
Francois de Wet - Tragedy at Kufra
An illustrated talk on the disappearance of three SAAF Blenheims in North Africa in 1942 in which his uncle, Major de Wet, was lost.
In recess
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SAMHSEC - Eastern Cape - Port Elizabeth:

14th December
CR Mike Duncan - SANLC WW1 Medals
ML Barry Irwin - Operation Mincemeat (The Man who never was)
For January details contact Malcolm Kinghorn - see end of newsletter for details
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The Scribe would like to take this opportunity to thank our readers for their comments (both favourable and otherwise) and enquiries through the past year, and to wish you all a very merry and happy Festive Season. This last is echoed by the rest of the Committee.

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For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Mike Laing (031) 205-1951
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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