The December meeting started off on a festive note, courtesy of the Russian embassy which provided a high quality sound and photographic slide show of various aspects of Russian life, both past and present, to greet members as they arrived in the auditorium. The Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, then opened the meeting with the usual notices and by thanking all those who attended or who were involved in arranging the Society's Gala Luncheon last month. This was a resounding success and those who had not attended missed a really enjoyable function. This was borne out by the many letters of appreciation received. He had also received a letter of congratulations to our Society on reaching its 40th birthday from Mr Jeremy Swanson in Ottowa in Canada and read this out to the meeting. Other news of import is that our annual subscription fee will remain unchanged in 2007.
Flip then introduced the Curtain Raiser Speaker, Mr Terry Willson, who is well known to our members and a frequent lecturer in historical circles. Terry was born in Barbados and came to South Africa at an early age. He obtained his BA, LlB and then entered Nestlé's, in which firm he has risen to Senior Management. He has had a lifelong interest in military history, with a special interest in historical weapons. The subject of his talk was "The Natal Volunteers 1854-1912".
This covered the entire development and history of the Military Volunteer Forces of the Crown Colony of Natal, from their inception in 1854 until their incorporation as militia into the Active Citizen Force of South Africa, two years after Union.
Using some first class slides, Terry explained how the movement owed its origins to various pressures, which came to a head at the time of the Crimean War. At that time the new priorities of Britain's reduced army, coupled with economic circumstances, necessitated that its colonies, including Natal, should assume a greater responsibility for their own defence against internal and external threats, both actual and perceived. In the case of Natal, this threat was the powerful Zulu nation situated on its border. This led to the promulgation of the Ordinance of 1854, which empowered the colonists to raise volunteer units which would be armed by the government for service within the borders of Natal.
Apart from providing the colony with a first line of defence, the volunteer movement also formed a social outlet and a focal point for the surge of British jingoism which characterised the second half of the 19th century. In many respects these volunteer regiments assumed the form of exclusive clubs, with both officers and men being elected to membership and office.
Terry then showed us the evolution of the volunteer movement over the next 58 years and how they were shaped by various Acts and Ordinances and by the events of the Zulu War, Boer War and Bambata Rebellion. During this period the movement changed from a loose conglomeration of small volunteer units into a highly organised militia force that was fully capable of independent operations. In addition to the historical and organisational background of the Natal Volunteers, Terry also covered the uniforms and weapons used by the various regiments comprising the Volunteers and had brought along a representative display of rifles that were actually used by these men.
He was thanked by Flip for an excellent and interesting curtain raiser, after which Flip then introduced the next speaker. This was Mr Andre Sharashkin whose topic was "The Russian Front In World War II".
Andre Sharashkin was born near Vladivostock in Siberia and after obtaining his degree in Moscow joined the Russian Foreign Service. In addition to Head Office postings in Moscow, he has had three African postings, namely Guinea, Madagascar and, since 2004, South Africa. He is currently serving in the Russian embassy in Pretoria.
Using a computer presentation of a high standard not before encountered at one of our Society lectures and which included original film clips and sound bites, Andre then took us through World War II as seen from the Russian perspective. This was a novel approach, which was sometimes at variance with former Western ideas but which illustrated what the Russian people suffered, and helped to explain the vengeance wreaked upon Germany by Russia. Thirty million Russians lost their lives in "The Great Patriotic War", as World War II is known in Russia, and every single Russian family lost at least one family member as a casualty during this campaign.
Starting with the rise of Fascism and Nazi-ism in Europe, Andre depicted the rise of Hitler and Germany against this background and Germany's subsequent annexations of adjacent territories. The Munich Agreement and then the sudden invasion of Poland leading to the outbreak of war with Britain and France, were all shown visually. We were also shown the signing of the "Non-Aggression Pact" between Hitler and Stalin and scenes of the German blitzkrieg. Operation Barbarossa, the armoured invasion of Soviet Russia, then followed. The German advance was rapid and in one month the Germans took one and a half million Russian prisoners, few of whom would survive the war. The greater majority of Russian troops defending the border lost their lives in that early fighting but in so doing they were able to buy time for the Russians to mobilise their forces and industry. Civilians were swept up into the war effort and, by a massive effort, 1 553 Soviet armament factories were moved away beyond the Ural Mountains. There they set up business, in many cases in open fields, and were producing armaments before the surrounding factory buildings were completed or roofed, producing 93% of the aircraft and 89% of the tanks thereafter used by the Russian forces, although 70% of the heavy lorries to be used subsequently came by sea from the Allies.
The first great military resistance the Germans encountered was at Leningrad (now St Petersburg). The city was besieged for 900 days, during which 1 200 000 civilians perished, and the damage to the city was so severe that it took 40 years to restore the city to its former glory. In 1941 the German forces were only 41 kms from Moscow but there they were held - in fact the Soviet Army staged a huge parade in Red Square in that November. Stalin brought in his reserves from Siberia and placed Marshall Zhukov in charge of an offensive which was launched in December 1941. The German army was pushed back 340 kms and during this push by the Russians they captured three truckloads of German medals which were to have been distributed to the victorious German troops during the victory celebrations in Red Square, after the fall of Moscow. The Russians retaliated by minting a special medal to be awarded to all who participated in the siege of Moscow. A guerrilla campaign to be waged by partisans was launched in the summer of 1942 at the same time as the Germans besieged Stalingrad. This was a strategically important city as it guarded the oil supply from the Caspian Sea area and the fighting for the city was vicious in the extreme, being mainly street fighting and house-to-house combat. By February 1943 the Germans were militarily exhausted and, encircled by Soviet forces, surrendered, 93 000 of them going into captivity. Russia now went on to the full offensive and this included the Battle of Kursk which involved 1 200 tanks and was the largest tank battle of World War II.
By the end of 1943 the Germans were in full retreat and drained, having lost 5,2 million combatants in Russia. In 1944 the last invaders were pushed out of Russia and the Russian campaign to liberate Eastern Europe began, during the course of which the Russians lost another one million troops and started uncovering evidence of the Holocaust as they came across various concentration camps. By April 1945 the Soviet forces under Zhukov were 165 kms from Berlin and launched their final offensive, capturing Berlin and hoisting the Red Flag over the remains of the Reichstag. On the 8th May the Germans signed an unconditional surrender and the war in Europe was over, to be followed by the Nuremburg trials.
Andre then showed some fascinating footage of the victory celebrations in Moscow. There were dazzling fireworks and a victory parade on Red Square, led by Marshall Zhukov mounted on a white charger. Captured German standards were paraded and then piled unceremoniously in a heap on the Square. They were intended to be paraded on Red Square and so they were. The 9th of May was proclaimed a public holiday and is still celebrated as such today.
We were shown emotional scenes of soldiers returning home and a coloured slide of the Russian Order of Victory, the highest decoration that can be bestowed on a Russian citizen, and slides of the various monuments erected to the fallen of the "Great Patriotic War".
Andre acknowledged the efforts of the United Nations in their Alliance with Soviet Russia during the War, particularly the part played by Churchill and Roosevelt and the efforts of those who served in the Allied Arctic Convoys. Russia had acknowledged this debt by presenting the same medals as they had given their own veterans to surviving members of these Allied convoys. In fact on the 60th anniversary of these convoys last year, 17 surviving South African convoy veterans were decorated by the Russians in Simon's Town, and one who had taken part in a number of these convoys was flown to Russia in May 2005 and personally decorated by President Putin. Andre also highlighted South Africa's contribution by supplying blood, clothing and money to the USSR during this campaign, particularly to relieve the suffering of those in the areas previously occupied by the Germans. However, it must never be forgotten that 70% of the German armed forces were deployed against the USSR and that 70% of the losses inflicted on the Germans were incurred in the Russian campaign.
After a most interesting question period, an emotional Flip thanked Mr Sharashkin for an excellent presentation and presented him with a Society tie. Flip himself had been a young boy under German occupation and had followed the advance of the Red Army across Europe by means of a bedroom map, and this talk had brought back many memories.
Flip then invited those present to view Terry Willson's collection of weapons and to attend the book sale which would be held together with tea after the meeting.
The West Australian Branch of the South African Military Veterans Organisation of Australia (SAMVOA) is in the process of erecting glass display cabinets in the local Returned Services League in which it is intended to display South African military memorabilia. It would welcome any spare, duplicate or unwanted South African World War I and II artefacts to place on display.
For further information contact Mr Garth A Pienaar at Australia (08)-9464-1010/Fax (08) 9464-1011 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
December 2006 Journal will be posted to those who do not collect it at the January lecture meeting.
SAMHSEC - Eastern Cape - Port Elizabeth:
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) 660-3243
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