South African Military History 

South African Military History Society Eastern Cape Branch
Suid Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging Oos Kaap Tak

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. Speakers. Curtain Raiser- EOKA - By Brian Klopper Main Lecture - The Battle of Deville Wood by Ian Uys Ian Pringle Scribe / Secretary. Chairman Malcolm Kinghorn welcomed a rather sparse gathering to our meeting. Our loyal Grahamstown contingent was not present and it is believed something of an unbelievable nature was taking place in The City of Saints that begged their attendance! A number of additional apologies were noted from otherwise loyal members and one can only believe that we had a serious clash of events taking place on Thursday 14th. Malcolm stated that our average attendance at meetings over the last two years was 32 which was a very healthy. We have gained four additional members this last month and our membership stands at 50 in total. We welcome Peter Gordon and Barry De Klerk together Ian and Jenny Copley who have a long association with the Society.

Further announcements included that Lt.Col. Thinus Van Rensburg (ret ) is the new curator of the PE- SAAF Museum and that Mike Duncan has edited the 150th Anniversary booklet of the PAG regiment. The cost is a very reasonable R10 and your copy may be obtained from Mike. Signed copies fetch R1000!

Following the Tour to the Komgha and Kentani area of the old Transkei it has been learnt that a gun carriage from the 9th Frontier War of 1877 has been discovered. If anyone is visiting the area please contact Malcolm on 0823316223. We need at least a photograph of this alleged discovery. The October meeting has two very good speakers and will deal with interesting subjects. Bill Mills will do the Curtain Raiser on the Italian POW Chapel at Scapa Flow. Mrs Elizabeth Nel will deliver the Main Lecture on Churchill's Staff in World War Two. She is our oldest member and was on the great man's staff. I have heard her personally speak on the subject and this is real living military history. May I suggest that you make every effort to attend? I can say that I am on first name terms with Churchill's secretary!

There are a number of forthcoming events. The RAF Service will be held at St. Cuthbert's Church on Sunday 17th at 11, 00 are. The PAG will be celebrating their 150th anniversary and will march from the Drill Hall at 10,00am on Sunday 17th to their Memorial in St. George's Park. This memorial has been recently restored and will be handed over to the Regiment on this occasion.

The Tour to Komgha, King William's Town and Kentani.
This area is relatively unknown to enthusiasts but there is much to be seen. The tour group spent a full weekend in the area which was the scene of action during the 9th Frontier War. There are a number of memorials and grave sites which fall under the ambit of the Amathole local authority. This government body is conscious of its obligations and has taken positive steps to preserve and encourage visitors to the region. Places of interest included Nonquases Pool; the old jail in Komgha, Fort Warden, various old military buildings in King William's Town and well kept cemeteries in both towns. The group stayed in Kei Mouth and enjoyed the ride over the Kei River on the local pont. What was not enjoyable was the state of the roads on the other side of the river in Transkei! Richard Tomlinson has compiled a small album of the tour and the photographs cover the detail of the route. In order to enjoy the benefits of being a member of the Society one should join a tour group. It's a lot of fun and there is much fellowship. Views, points of interest, yarns and legends are related round meals and the camp fire. We do have monthly meetings with two speakers but there is a bigger world beyond the confines of the PAG Drill Hall !

Gallantry Awards.-. Lt.Gerard Ross "Toys "Norton, VC and MM.
Mike Duncan delivered a short and illuminating address on this legendary soldier who was also a brilliant sportsman. Educated at Selborne College in East London he gained his Victoria Cross at Monte Gridolfo in Italy on the 31st August, 1944. It was one of the strong points on the Gothic Line. Prior to this Norton saw action in North Africa where he gained the Military Medal. At Monte Gridolfo a fearless Norton took on two machine gun posts and wiped them out. He then killed or took the remainder of the enemy prisoner. He was under continual fire at the time but still went on to clear the cellar and upper floor of a neighbouring house. That completed, now weak and wounded, he continued to lead his platoon up the valley to capture the remaining enemy positions. He was indeed deserving of this award.

Curtain Raiser - Veld and Flanders - by Malcolm Kinghorn.

John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields", along with Rupert Brookes' "The Soldier" and Lawrence Binyon's "For the fallen", are probably the most quoted poems of the First World War. It is not well known is that the author served in South Africa in 1900.

John McCrae was born in Canada in 1872. McCrae was active in the reserves from an early age. At the start of the Boer War, he was a doctor in his home town of Guelph, Ontario and a lieutenant in the local reserve forces artillery unit.

Instead of serving as a medical officer, he joined the artillery component of the second Canadian contingent raised for service in South Africa. He disembarked in Cape Town on 18 February 1900 as the commander of the right section of D Battery of the Royal Canadian Field Artillery (RCFA).

McCrae's battery's first deployment was on 6 March as part of the force sent to re-establish British control over the Northern Cape. The aim was accomplished without opposition and the force returned to Carnarvon on 14 April. Boredom and frustration followed while deployed as railway guards at Victoria Road Station until 23 June and as garrison troops at Bloemfontein from 23 June to 11 July. The battery moved to Hammanskraal from 13 to 22 July and then followed the British advance towards Mocambique, reaching Lydenburg on 7 September and its furthest point east, close to Crocodile Poort, by 22 September. By the end of its South African service in November 1900, D battery had spent only 44 days on active campaigning, 31 of which were the Karoo Expedition. On only 11 occasions had the guns been in action and then only for brief periods.

At the start of the First World War, McCrae volunteered as a medical officer. He wrote the lines for which he is best remembered in about 20 minutes. He did not consider the poem to be noteworthy and was reluctantly persuaded to submit it for publication. It was published by Punch in December 1915 and gained instant acclaim. It placed the poppy into Great War iconography and inspired countless "replies" from other poets. It appeared on recruiting posters, Victory Bond advertisements and election bill boards. McCrae was amused by the fame he gained from the poem and would probably not have predicted its longevity. McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis in January 1918 and is buried in the Flanders Fields with which he is so memorably associated.

The Main Lecture - Battleships - by Barry De Klerk
Barry has a passion for battleships despite being born and bred in Cradock. During the course of his lecture to the gathering he displayed a large number of slides which he described in detail the development of these ships over the last 150 years. It was most interesting. He began in 1860 with detail on the British boat, HMS Warrior, which put all its rivals into another lower class. Boats were no longer wooden but now ironclad and this type of defence found itself being perpetuated in the American Civil War. Then followed HMS Jupiter of the Royal Magestic Class which was the time that Britain had double the fleet of its nearest adversary. By 1906 with the completion of the Dreadnaught on command of the Sir John Fisher the boats built were faster, had bigger guns and were better armed. HMS Elizabeth was built in 1916 in one year and one day. Times were certainly changing and by 1918 HMS Hood was the newly built flagship of the British Navy. Barry also took us through a number of sea battles and included those fought between the Japanese and Russians and the Battle of Jutland. He dealt with The Washington Treaty which limited the size and armourment of new boats built after World War One and how certain countries flaunted and bent the rules in order to achieve their own ends.

We heard of ships called King George with its ten 14" guns, Rodney, Bismarck, the Tirpitz and the Yamato class of the Japanese fleet. There were too the deadly German pocket battleships and the Iowa class of the United States fleet. The biggest battleship in this sector was the USS New Jersey which with its 16" guns could fire at a target from 40,000 yards. Barry also dealt with the various theatres of war and this included the battles fought in the Mediterranean and in the Pacific. The latter scene was dominated by aircraft carriers. Barry brought us up to the modern day where in Iraq the US Fleet has smaller vessels but which are missile carriers rather than heavily armed battleships. The design of new boats resembles that of a digital design with clean and compact cut lines. These boats are very sophisticated and are designed to resemble a fishing trawler on the radar screen. In all it was a presentation that covered in essence very vividly the progress that battleships have made, their significance and eventual transformation of what is on the water today.

Devil's Wood by Ian Uys (Fortress Books, R99 )
This book by our well known member was reviewed in The Herald by George Byron. The book is described as highly readable and is a companion book to his three previous books. Ian is an acknowledged authority on The Battle of Delville Wood. One of the most poignant pictures in the book is a snapshot of the Kirkman family taken in 1904. All three boys took part in Delville Wood. One was killed, one taken prisoner and the other was badly wounded. The book also includes an account with the last known survivor of that memorable battle. Ian is our guest speaker in November. That he would have with him copies of his book and that members be able to obtain a signed copy would be indeed fortuitous. Our November meeting should not therefore be missed!

Next Meeting - Thursday 12th October, 19.30 hours, at the usual venue of The Prince Alfred's Guard's Drill Hall, Central, in Port Elizabeth.
Curtain Raiser - The Italian POW Chapel at Scapa Flow - Billy Mills
Main Lecture - Churchill's Staff - Mrs Elizabeth Nel.

Ian Pringle
Scribe / Secretary.

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