South African Military History Society

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This month's meeting was opened by our Deputy Chairman Bob Smith who was standing in for our Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, who was away on a well-earned family holiday. Bob commenced the meeting by reminding those present of the Society's 40th Anniversary Dinner to be held at the Museum on Sunday 19 November. This will take the form of a three course Sunday Lunch Buffet at R100 per head, a price which includes wines. Places are limited and will be handled on a first-come first-served basis, and members wishing to attend what promises to be an excellent occasion should contact our Secretary at her number which appears on the letterhead of this newsletter.

Bob also gave advance notice of the Annual Ladysmith Swartkop Gun Run which is to take place in 2007. Anyone wishing to join a team for this event should contact Bob Smith on 082-926-3537.

Bob then introduced our first speaker for the evening, John Parkinson, who was standing in at short notice for Hamish Paterson who was ill in hospital. John is a retired businessman and well-known committee member and speaker in our Society with a special interest in nautical research. His subject for the talk he was about to give was "Some Arctic Activities: Vice Admiral Sir Henry Kellett".

Speaking from slides John gave us one of his usual extremely lucid and fascinating talks on a not very well known facet of naval history. In May 1845 Sir John Franklin commenced yet another search for the elusive North West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the top of North America, sailing from London in Her Majesty's Ships Erebus and Terror. His departure was watched by the crew of HMS Herald under the command Captain Henry Kellett.

Kellett was an Irishman who had entered the Royal Navy as a 15 year old midshipman and had made a career in hydrographic surveying under such famous surveyors as Edward Belcher and Francis Beaufort. He had obtained his first command in 1835 and had done a seven year surveying commission in this ship, HMS Starling, during which time he was promoted to Captain at age 36. After a two year period in the Hydrographic Office he was appointed to command HMS Herald and given the job of surveying the Pacific North West Coast of North America. He was fitting out for this expedition when Franklin sailed.

Three years later, in 1848, when nothing had been heard from Franklin, the Admiralty in London began to be concerned and several search and relief expeditions were organised to find him. The summer navigational season at that time lasted just three months in that part of the Arctic Sea - July, August and September and not even sledging journeys were attempted between November and March. Ships were usually iced in by the end of that season and laid over in the ice until the next season. Occasionally they were "nipped" (the hull crushed by closing ice floes) and had to be abandoned by their crews who then sledged to the mainland and, if they were lucky, got back alive to civilisation. HMS Investigator was lost in this manner whilst searching for Franklin in 1853.

Kellett, working just south of the Bering Sea, was the obvious man to be brought in to the search as well. Unfortunately HMS Herald was a converted frigate and not ice-strengthened and so could only work in the far North for a very limited period. However in the early summer of 1848 Kellett was ordered north through the Bering Strait to see if members of Franklin's expedition had in fact penetrated right across from East to West and come out above Alaska. Arriving at Chamisso Island, a recognised food depot, Kellett found no trace of Franklin and waited there for HMS Plover to rendezvous with him. Unfortunately she was a slow sailer and by the time she arrived Kellett had to withdraw to the South and HMS Plover spent the winter in the Russian harbour of Emma Harbour whilst HMS Herald continued with her surveying duties.

In 1849 both ships moved north to Chamisso Island again. From here Kellet sent out exploratory parties as far East as the Hudson bay Company depot Fort McPherson on the Mackenzie River and north to the edge of the ice field where they discovered and named Herald Island but in neither case was there any sign of Franklin. The Plover then wintered over at Chamisso whist Kellett went back to his surveying. From Chamisso Plover sent a sledge team south to the Russian settlement of Michaelovski to follow up rumours amongst the local population of strangers in the vicinity but heard nothing new. In 1850 Kellett was back at Chamisso again where they repeated their earlier search towards the north and met with HMS Investigator which together with HMS Enterprise was conducting another independent search for Franklin. With the coming of winter Kellett returned home to Chatham in the UK where he spent the next seven months on his survey records.

In February 1852 he was appointed to the command of HMS Resolute. She formed part of a five ship squadron under the command of Captain Sir Edward Belcher which had been formed to once again carry out a search for the Franklin expedition. Approaching the north coast of Canada from the East, Belcher took his squadron amongst the northern Canadian islands and sounds where the ships spread out for individual searches, Kellet ending up at Dealy Island where he was iced in for the winter. During this period one of his sledge parties found messages from HMS Investigator which had been trapped and destroyed by ice in Mercy Bay. As soon as possible in 1853 Kellett sent out a search party to assist the survivors of HMS Investigator. They found them and brought them back to Dealy Island, Investigator being so badly damaged that she had to be abandoned.

When the ice started to break up in the summer of 1853 the search for Franklin continued, involving mammoth sledging journeys and the establishment of a depot on Dealy Island. By September the ice had closed in again and the ships battened down for another winter in the ice. By this time Belcher had apparently had enough and in April 1854 despite the protestations of his captains ordered the expeditions ships to be abandoned. Kellett and his men sledged across to Beechey Island where they embarked in the store ship North Star for passage back to England. At the subsequent court martial into the loss of these ships Henry Kellett was completely exonerated and went on to achieve flag rank, being knighted and retiring in 1871 as a vice admiral as commander in chief of the China Station. Belcher was never employed again. Kellett's ship HMS Resolute was recovered intact from the ice by an American whaler, refitted by the US Navy and presented back to Britain in 1856. When she was broken up in 1879 a desk was made from her timber and was presented to the US President. It is still in the Oval Office today. One of Kellett's men, Robert McClure, was awarded a prize for being the first person to traverse the North West passage by virtue of his sledging activities. The final evidence of Franklin's ill fated expedition was eventually found in 1859 by Francis McClintock in the Fox.

Bob thanked John for an extremely interesting and well-researched talk and then introduced the main speaker of the evening. This was Paul Kilmartin, a member of our Society since 1990 and Chairman of the Natal branch for over seven years. Paul is a retired computer technician and a keen amateur historian with a particular interest in the First World War and Air VC's. The topic of his lecture was "South Africa's Last VC - Edwin Swales VC, DFC, SAAF". By means of a very competent Powerpoint presentation Paul gave a fascinating summary of the life of a truly remarkable man. Living in Durban his interest was aroused by the name of the road named Edwin Swales VC Drive which was built at the end of World War II. His enquiries as to "Who was Edwin Swales and how and when did he win his Victoria Cross?" drew a complete blank amongst his fellow Durbanites and Paul decided to research this for himself. This was not difficult as there are many friends and former colleagues of Swales still alive today who could help with this research.

Edwin Swales was one of twin boys born on the 3rd July 1915 in Etonville in Natal. He attended Durban Boys High School and although a good all round sportsman was neither a good scholar nor a sports star. He failed his Matric at first attempt and after repeating that year at school joined Barclays Bank. He also enlisted in the Citizen Force for four years with the Natal Mounted Rifles (NMR), rising to the rank of Warrant Officer 2nd Class. At the outbreak of war in 1939 he re-enlisted with the NMR and went with that regiment as part of the 2nd Infantry Brigade to Mombasa to take part in the East African campaign against the Italians. With the winding down of that campaign the NMR were sent to Mersa Matruh in Egypt where they were occupied in building a defensive line south from El Alamein in November 1941. This was not to Swales' liking and he volunteered for, and was one of fifteen accepted for, the South African Air Force (SAAF). He was sent back to the Union for training in February 1942 and posted to Lyttelton as a pupil pilot where he kicked his heels doing nothing until posted to No 4 Air School at Benoni where he was taught to fly on Tiger Moths. A transfer to Kimberley followed and after training on Oxfords, Swales obtained his wings on 26 January 1943 and received his commission as a lieutenant. The SAAF then appointed his class to be instructors for the next intake but after a near mutiny about this decision seconded them to the RAF on the 21st August. A few days later, on the 27th, they were shipped north by sea via Uruguay to Britain, leaving Montevideo on the 5th November 1943 and arriving at their final destination, Little Rissington in the Cotswolds on the 1st December 1943. There he and his fellow South Africans did a conversion to heavy bombers on Halifaxes with the intention of moving on to Lancasters.

At the end of May 1944 Swales and others formed a Lancaster crew whereupon Swales as pilot immediately volunteered them for pathfinder duties. This was approved and he and his crew moved to 582 Squadron at Little Staughton in Bedfordshire. They were to do 43 missions together and in their first ten missions lost only one crew member, a Flight Engineer who was badly injured in a crash landing. Swales became quite well known in Bomber Command. On 10th October 1944 he took part in a 1000 bomber raid and after crash landing in France made his way back to Little Staughton and took off again on another raid the following day. He played rugby for the SAAF as a loose head prop in a "test match" against the RNZAF and had his portrait painted for propaganda purposes as a representative pilot from one of Britain's dominions. In November 1944 he was promoted to captain and on the 23rd December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge took part in a precision bombing raid on the marshalling yards of Cologne. It was a clear day with heavy flak and the leader's plane was shot down, as was the following plane. Swales immediately took over as leader and ensured that the raid was carried out successfully, receiving an immediate DFC for this action. He was also appointed a Master Bomber and a leader for future raids.

With this appointment came promotion to major in February 1945 but the paper work for this promotion had not yet come through by 23rd February 1945. Swales and his crew had had a party to celebrate his medal the night before and also had a number of group photographs taken that day before preparing to go on leave. They were then approached to stand in for another crew whose pilot had come down with 'flu and so cancelled their leave to take part in the mission as pathfinder. During the course of the mission they were attacked by a German Messerschmidt fighter. In the ensuing fight their tail gunners gun jammed and the Lancaster had two engines and its controls destroyed. Swales kept the plane aloft until they were over the Allied lines and long enough for his crew to bale out before it plunged in to the ground west of Valenciennes taking him with it. For this act of personal bravery he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on the 24th April 1945. He was buried at Fosses US Military Cemetery in Belgium and later re-interred at Leopoldsburg Military Cemetery, also in Belgium, where his grave is tended by the Belgian Korean War Veterans Association.

His twin brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident in Durban some time before, leaving his mother Olive, a widow with no children. As Edwin's mother she became a celebrity in her own right, receiving her son's medals and citation and fulfilling a host of ceremonial duties for the SAAF which included twice meeting the British royal family before she died at the age of 89. In addition to the road in Durban Edwin Swales had a large number of buildings and institutions named in his honour and his old school, Durban Boys High has a Swales House and celebrates Swales Day on the 23rd February of every year. A replica set of his medals is on display at our own Military Museum.

Paul was thanked for an outstanding talk by Lyn Miller and Bob then closed the meeting for tea.

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Life member Margaret Rush asks you to consider this appeal for help with Poppy Day Collection to assist SA Legion:

We'd be very grateful if you'd be prepared to spend an hour - or more! - helping with the Poppy Day collection on Saturday 11 November 2006. Shifts run from 8h30 to 1pm and take place at Balfour Park, Killarney, Bryanston and maybe Benmore and Sandton. Ivan Feinstein and his charming band of octogenarian veterans will spoil you and be very grateful! Contact Ivan, from the end of September, at 011-485-5024.

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Member Brian Culross would like to start a World War I members circle - would interested members please contact him at or 083-649-6164

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Malcolm Kinghorn mentions that Shield Tours will present an Eastern Cape Frontier Wars Battlefield Tour from 20 to 22 October 2006 at R580 per person per day, including return transport from Port Elizabeth, accommodation and meals. Contact Jock Harris on 082-381-0235.

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Stewart Stiles, a former national Chairman of the Society, writes:
"I was privileged to be present at the official opening of a new museum near Ulundi/Melmoth yesterday and thought that the SAMHS members would be interested to hear about it in the newsletter.

The Museum is housed on the premises of the Mtonjaneni Lodge which can provide accommodation for visits to the Museum and battlefield sites in the area. It houses a very significant collection of Zulu artifacts and items from the Anglo-Zulu War battlefields. This collection of battlefield relics from all Anglo Zulu War battlefields is, in my opinion, unsurpassed anywhere in the world. For example, there is a collection of items from Isandlwana that is unique in its content, quality and the scale of the collection - rifles, edged weapons, numerous badges, buttons, cartridge cases and camp equipment (the number of items displayed probably goes into thousands!). I have not seen anything as comprehensive as this collection before. If you are interested in the Anglo Zulu War, its battles, weapons etc this is most definitely a place to visit.

The museum was officially opened by Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi with David Rattray of Fugitives Drift Lodge as guest speaker.

The curator is Mr Tim van der Berg. Contact details are: Tel 035-450-0904/5, Fax 035-450-0906, Cell 072-223-7837, e-mail There is a web-site:"

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12th October
CR Huffy Pott - The Battle of Berg-en-Dal
ML John Murray - The French Foreign Legion
9th November
CR John Cramp - The evolution of the Victoria Cross
ML John Parkinson - Early Steam-Navigation of the Yangtse Gorges
14th December
CR Terry Willson - The Natal Volunteers, 1854 to 1912
ML Andre Sharashkin - The Russian Front of the Second World War
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12th October
DDH Brian Kennedy - The Curragh Mutiny, 1914
MAIN Paul Kilmartin - The Battle of the Somme: Day 1 - 1 July, 1916.
9th November
DDH Charles Whiteing - Lawrence of Arabia and the First World War
MAIN Ganes Pillay - The role of Indians at the Siege of Ladysmith
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Cape Town

12th October
Colonel Lionel Crook - The final Battle of El Alamein in October 1942
A Talk on the South African involvement.
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:

12th October
CR Bill Mills - The Italian POW Chapel at Scapa Flow
ML Elizabeth Nel - On Churchill's staff
9th November
CR Brian Klopper - EOKA
ML Ian Uys - Delville Wood
14th December
CR Mike Duncan - SANLC WW1 Medals
ML Barry Irwin - Operation Mincemeat (The Man who never was)
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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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