Newsletter No. 26: November 2006
Nuusbrief Nr. 26 November 2006
South African Military History Society Eastern Cape Branch Suid Afrikaanse Kryshistoriese Vereniging Oos - Kaap tak We had a very good attendance at our October meeting with our Grahamstown friends very much to the fore! The good news, as reported by Chairman Malcolm Kinghorn, is that the parking issue has been resolved and we once again have access to secured parking at the rear of the Drill Hall. The entrance is opposite Pagdens attorneys in Prospect Hill. We are sure that this arrangement will encourage attendance not only at our meetings but enable us to linger and enjoy good fellowship in the Mess. A number of apologies were noted.
The Speaker's Roster is open for 2007 and both January slots need to be filled. Any volunteers? Chairman Malcolm congratulated Barry and Yoland Irwin on the arrival of a daughter and it's a first grandchild for Pat and Anne Irwin. The Irwin's have taken family membership to heart!
The question of the supposed old gun carriage, dating to the 1870's, and that is alleged to be lying in the Kentani District of the Transkei was raised. Anyone going that way? Malcolm has the co-ordinates. Chairman Malcolm requested that members complete the questionnaire on anticipated tours that we have in mind for 2007. There is a feeling that we should visit the areas of Boer War activity in the Graaff- Reinet area and perhaps venture into the Stormberg area. Please return these at our next meeting. Malcolm drew the meeting's attention to our Main Lecture in November which will be delivered by well known author Ian Uys. The subject is Delville Wood ,an appropriate subject as we remember the glorious dead in November, the Battle is one that is remembered with pride in our history.
South African Gallantry Awards - by Mike Duncan
Mike 's presentation was on Adolf Gysbert Malan known to all as " Sailor Malan " and our country's most distinguished fighter pilot of the World War Two. Born in Wellington, he trained as a seaman on the General Botha before joining the RAF in the Depression years. He was posted to 74 Squadron and at the outbreak of War accounted for five enemy aircraft in the first week of hostilities and was awarded a DFC. By 1941 he had became Wing Commander at Biggin Hill and earned a DSO - which was followed a month later by a Bar to this award. He took part in numerous sorties and suffered wounds when he engaged three Messerschmitt over Calais. He saw action over the Normandy beaches at the time of the Allied landings. He retired in 1945 having shot down 35 enemy aircraft and became private secretary to Harry Oppenheimer. He later became well known as Leader of The Torch Commando which was opposed to certain government changes to the Constitution. His war time experiences did not contribute to his good health and he died a young man aged 52 years in 1962.
Curtain Raiser - The Italian Chapel in the Orkney Islands by W.D. (Bill) Mills
Billy presented a slide presentation on this chapel and the story behind it is quite fascinating. It relates to when Domenico Chiocchetti left his homeland for North Africa to fight with Mussolini's army. He could hardly have guessed that he was set upon a path which would eventually make him a folk hero in the eyes of the war-hardened island people of Orkney. More than fifty years after his capture and ultimate incarceration in a British prisoner of war camp the legacy left by Domenico, the miracle that is the Italian chapel of Lambholm, captivates visitors to the Orkney Islands.
The Orkney Islands are blessed with a natural beauty, but the ravages of the weather in this part of the world has left its own mark upon the landscape... Domenico and his fellow prisoners were taken to Lambholm, and accommodated in a bleak group of 'Nissen' huts (an oval corrugated iron construction, offering some shelter from the winds which ravage these islands, but little in the way of warmth). At its peak "Camp 60", as it was named, housed some 200 Italian prisoners.
The Italians made the most of their surroundings.
They laid concrete pathways between their huts, and planted flowers and shrubs by the verge, transforming the bleak appearance of the camp. While not readily available, materials were obtained by the prisoners from the works they were helping to put into place on what was to become known as "the Churchill Barriers".
Until the Second World War, there had been four channels into the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow, all thought to be impregnable.
Early in 1939 however, a German U-Boat found a gap in the defences at Holm Sound during an exceptionally high tide. The U-Boat torpedoed and sank the British battleship Royal Oak, killing over 800 crew.
A harsh lesson had been learned, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that the Scapa Flow anchorage should be abandoned until such time as it was once again made a secure and safe haven for the Royal Navy. Engineers set to the enormous task of sealing all the entrances to Scapa Flow, deciding that the only way it could be done was to construct barriers of stone and concrete on the sea bed from each of the small islands surrounding the anchorage. The task was to take several years, the total length of the barriers being over one and a half miles and in places to a depth of fifty-nine feet.
The true miracle of Lambholm came about through a fortunate set of circumstances. The prisoners, who had already demonstrated their willingness to work hard not only on the barriers but to improve their own living conditions, longed for one thing - a chapel. A new camp commandant arrived, Major T P Buckland, who was happy to listen to the plea of the Italian padre, Father Gioachino Giacobazzi. Major Buckland made available two Nissen huts to the prisoners, one to be used as a school and the other as a chapel.
This small band turned an ugly corrugated iron hut into a thing of consummate beauty. They hid the rough iron behind a plaster-board covering, and moulded in concrete an altar and holy water stoop. At the rear of the altar reaching up to the roof was Domenico Chiocchetti's masterpiece, a portrait of the Madonna and child based on a picture carried by Domenico throughout the war. The portrait was buttressed by two windows of painted glass, one representing St Francis of Assisi, the other St Catherine of Siena.
Over time further refinements were made to the chapel, both interior and exterior. Work was still on-going when the prisoners were released in the spring of 1945; Domenico remained behind however to complete the font. Such were the fortunes of war, the chapel was in actual use for just a very short time, but nevertheless those Orcadians who had watched the amazing developments at Camp 60 were moved to promise that they would care for the chapel when Domenico eventually departed.
In 1960, Domenico Chiocchetti returned to Orkney and for three weeks carried out preservation work on the chapel, assisted by Orcadian Stanley Hall. On completion, a service was held at which Domenico was first to receive Holy Communion. Part of the service was broadcast by Italian National radio, to the great pride of the people of Domenico's home town of Moena.
Before he left Orkney in 1960, Domenico wrote an open letter to the people of Orkney. In it, he said "The chapel is yours, for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality. I shall remember always, and my children shall learn from me to love you." Domenico Chiocchetti, and his many colleagues from Camp 60, had left behind a work of art cherished to this day by the people of Orkney, proving that even in the darkest days of war, the goodness of mankind can and does shine through.
Today the "Italian Chapel" stands proudly alongside the statue of St George on the hilltop at Lambholm, a lasting testimony of the faith and artistry of the Italians who created them. These are all that remain to remind Orcadians of the occupants of Camp 60, other than the Churchill Barriers themselves.
Main Lecture - My experiences as Churchill's Wartime Secretary - Elizabeth Nel.
Elizabeth Nel (nee Layton) is history personified. It was indeed a great privilege to hear directly from this lady, still hale and hearty, of the great man himself and of her time as his personal secretary during the darkest days of the Second World War. For the first time in our existence a speaker was granted a standing ovation at the conclusion of a talk and it was certainly well deserved.
Pat Irwin paid great tribute to her and stated that to hear and simply listen to her story was what military history was all about. We were indeed blessed with her presence.
Elizabeth was born in England but grew up in Canada. At the outbreak of war she returned to London to involve herself in the war effort. She was invited to join the staff at No.10 Downing Street and was immediately warned that Churchill had little patience with his clerical staff. He was demanding and staff had to be on hand at all times, many irregular, to attend to his needs.
He awoke late, stayed in bed until lunch whilst attending to urgent Black Box matters, then dressed and worked till 17,00 hrs, took a nap, dinner followed at 20,00 hrs and then he worked through until the early hours. At any one time a secretary was at his side prepared to take any notes! It was a demanding life but she enjoyed it immensely. Pearl Harbour was to follow and the United States entered the War. She was party to the gatherings where Churchill met the US President and she also accompanied him to Yalta. At this meeting a banquet was held. Toasts were drunk to the various dignitaries and to the countries represented. Churchill then rose and proposed a toast to her - she was the only lady present. She was quite taken aback and more so when a Russian lifted the flowers out of bowl and presented them to her! She related the amusing story of the house cat that used to lie at the foot of the great man's bed. On one occasion it attacked Churchill's protruding toes whilst he was on an important call to the Commander of the British Forces. The poor General, on the other side of the line, had no clue as to why he was being roundly berated!
Churchill was always concerned about the welfare of his forces and lived under great tension. The war efforts were conducted from rooms situated not far from No. 10 which were well protected against the bombing raids.
Elizabeth had no notes and spoke very lucidly about the four years she spent on Churchill's staff. Her experiences were many and varied and it is hoped that she has noted them - they are priceless. They relate to the time when the Western World faced the might of Hitler and the gradual yet significant change as hostilities continued and the tide turned in the favour of Britain and her Allied Forces.
Next Meeting - Thursday 9th November at 19.30 hours, at the usual venue of The Prince Alfred's Guard's Drill Hall, Central, in Port Elizabeth.
Curtain Raiser- EOKA - By Brian Klopper
Main Lecture - The Battle of Deville Wood by Ian Uys
Scribe / Secretary.
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