NEWSLETTER No 378
The April meeting opened with the AGM conducted by Ken Gillings. Chairman Adrian van Schaik presented a brief and informal report on previous year's events and Treasurer Dave Mathews delivered a financial statement. The committee was re elected England bloc for 2007/8, but with an extra member Dr. John Cooke. Bill Brady was elected as the new Chairman of the Society.
The DDH talk "Gordon of Khartoum" was delivered by fellow member Dave Mathews;
In 1997 Princess Diana, the Princess of Wales died in a motor accident in Paris, there followed an outpouring of grief never before seen in living memory. This is nothing new of course, as the press created a similar situation more than a hundred years ago, in 1885, for the heroic Victorian hero, General Gordon. Gordon was never a favourite with many in government, particularly in the War Office and the Foreign Office. The Army had often despaired of Gordon but Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley had a different view and described Gordon as the most remarkable man he ever knew - a Christian hero.
Lord Northbrook, First Lord of the Admiralty, called him "an extraordinary man with enormous power over uncivilised people." With civilised people, however he was not always so successful. Prime Minister Disraeli was crisp and unequivocal in his appraisal of Gordon as a "lunatic." Sir Redvers Buller is remembered for saying that "Gordon is not worth the camels" needed to rescue him.
The death of Gordon, Governor-General of the Sudan, led to many unanswered questions. Where was his body? His head was last seen stuck on a spear in the camp of his conqueror, the Mahdi, and more than a hundred years later, what has happened to all the schools, boys clubs, stained glass windows and other memorials which bore his name so proudly after his martyrdom? Much remains a mystery, he was more than just an eminent Victorian. So was Gordon a martyr, or was he a misfit?
Charles George Gordon was born in London on 28th January 1833. His father was Major Henry William Gordon of the Royal Artillery. In 1848 Gordon entered the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich as a gentleman cadet. It was intended that he should follow his father into the Royal Artillery, however, due to his indiscipline; he was put back on his course and graduated in 1852 as a second Lieutenant in the Corps of Royal Engineers. In 1854 Gordon managed to persuade the War Office to post him to the Crimea, despite his parents efforts to keep him in England. Gordon was decorated for bravery by the French, and mentioned in despatches by the British for his bravery during the Crimea.
In 1874 Gordon once was appointed Lieutenant Governor. Then full Governor General of the Sudan. His chief job was to suppress the then burgeoning slave trade. This he did with enthusiasm. In 1884 the 'Mahdi' a Muslim fundamentalist leader, began a revolt in the Sudan against Anglo-Egyptian rule, the British Government needed someone to conduct an orderly withdrawal of British and Egyptian troops down the Nile. Gordon accepted this job and duly set out with orders to conduct an orderly evacuation of the troops. Gordon did not obey his orders; it is known from his journals that he felt that this could not be done safely given the shortage of suitable boats. So it was that the Mahdi besieged Gordon in Khartoum. The Government were implored by everyone, including the Queen, to send a relief mission.
Gladstone, the Prime Minister, was furious at Gordon for, apparently, disobeying orders. The relief column reached Khartoum two days after it fell to the Mahdi on 26th January 1885. Gordon was murdered at some point, no one is quite sure when. Some think he was killed along with the rest of the garrison, others think he was captured and executed in the camp of the Mahdi. There was a public outcry, led by the Queen, at what was seen as Gladstone's bungling. Copies of his journals, personal reminiscences, biographies and copies of his only book, a mystical treatment on Palestine, sold in their millions right up until the First World War. From time to time a book inspired by one or other of the political institutions appeared, putting the official point of view, but the effort was rather half hearted. Perhaps they hoped that in death, as in life, he will eventually go away. It has been suggested that this is the reason why Gordon's statue in London has been moved from its place of honour in Trafalgar Square to where it now stands, rather dejectedly, on the Victoria Embankment. Senior civil servants no longer had to pass it on their way from the clubs in St James's and Pall Mall to Whitehall and Downing Street.
It is a pity, the World is in need of new heroes, and Charles George Gordon had the stuff in him to make several.
The main talk entitled "European Battlefields Revisited' was a power point presentation by fellow member Charles Whiteing on the Military History tour that he and Bill Brady embarked on to Western Europe in June 2006. We were treated to truly wonderful scenes of places of interest and events visited by Charles and Bill during their momentous and industrious trip. A "then and now" theme was adopted to provide a fascinating story. From Charles de Gaulle airport they headed towards Normandy in a hired car. Avoiding main freeways and motoring through pristine countryside, stopping at small villages of wartime significance, the travellers reached Falaise. Next day it was on to St. Mere Eglise, which in summertime has a figure of an American paratrooper in his parachute hanging from the church steeple. It depicts the situation that Private John Steele found himself in on parachuting into France in the early hours of D-Day. His was released by his comrades the next day, and on his return to the town after the war, was given honorary citizenship. This action was highlighted in the film the "Longest Day", the title of which was coined by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
The following day 6th June was the 62nd anniversary of the Normandy landings and was celebrated in the company of many veterans. One them, an ex American paratrooper remarked that when he first visited France, he did not require a. passport; a lovely wry sense of humour, albeit tainted with his memories of lost comrades. The next few days were spent touring the five landing beaches code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. This included visiting the massive bunkers and concrete emplacements of Hiller's Atlantic Wall (Atlantik Festung), and talking to many more veterans who were visiting the area. The excellent museums in the area are and complete with original artifacts, exhibits and dioramas. The American cemetery above Omaha Beach (as seen in "Saving Private Ryan") is awesome with immaculate manicured graves. Throughout the area we encountered classic wartime vehicles driven by men in the original D-Day uniforms. In fact on entering the town of Arromanches (Gold Beach) we were held up by a convoy of American lorries and Jeeps. This was followed by a memorable visit to the famous "Pegasus Bridge," so - named after the logo of the glider troops. Led by Major John Howard, they succeeded in securing the bridge over the Caen Canal in the early hours of D-Day. The Cafe Gondree on the opposite side of the canal was the first liberated house in France. Today it is run by the daughter of the original owners, Mme Arletta Gondree. Besides being a restaurant, it is also a small museum, frequently visited by bemedalled veteran glider troops resplendent in their maroon blazers and berets.
The German war cemetery at Le Cambe was visited and Bill was delighted to find the grave of the famous Panzer commander Michael Wittmann on whom he is researching a talk.
En route from Normandy to Belgium, Compiegne, the site of the Armistice that ended World War I and the battle between Germany and France in 1940, was visited. The locations known collectively as the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and Luxembourg proved most interesting. This was Germany's last major campaign in the west, and included the infamous killing of 55 captured American soldiers by the SS near the town of Malmedy where there's a memorial to the event.
Although he was not directly involved in the incident, the SS troops belonged to a Battle Group led by Obersturmbannfuhrer Jochem Peiper, who was tried as a war criminal after the war. Our military history tourists stayed overnight in the town of Stavelot, that had been badly damaged during the battle as was the beautiful cathedral, which is still under reconstruction. Whilst driving into the town of La Gleize, an incredible sight was witnessed. With its long 88mm cannon pointing straight at you is the last King Tiger tank of Peiper`s Battle Group.
Travelling through Germany towards Stuttgart, the famous German Grand Prix track at Hockenheim was passed. Friends arranged a visit to the family museum of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in the neighbouring town of Herrlingen, and his grave in the local cemetery. The museum contains his uniforms, medals, his famous "Desert Fox" goggles, and the telegram from Hitler to Rommel`s wife Lucie, giving his condolences on his death which he had ordered. Next, a fascinating visit to the roadside monument on Erwin Rommel Singel (German name of the road) where his staff car had stopped, and he had taken poison after being implicated in the plot to kill Hitler on the 20 July 1944. The incident is inscribed on a Panzer tank hatch on the monument.
The opportunity was taken to visit the new Mercedes Benz museum in Stuttgart, which has displays of some of its first models to today's modern cars. Some of the vehicles on display include the "Pope Mobile" and the Mercedes coupé which was a gift to Lady Di, but she was forced to return it, as it was seen as unpatriotic by the British establishment.
The town of Dachau and its infamous concentration camp was visited next. This was described as a most powerful and disturbing experience. The inscription over the main gate, "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Freedom through Labour) could hardly be more of a misnomer. The camp is as it was, including the crematoria, gas chambers etc. A large church bell is located within the camp, and at 1445 starts chiming for ten minutes. It serves as a chilling reminder to everyone, including the neighbouring town of Dachau of what once happened there. Next stop was the Obersalzberg and Eagles Nest, the heart of the Third Reich. The entire area had been taken over by the Nazi elite, with Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Speer, and Bormann having homes there. It was a mountain nucleus comprising SS barracks, guesthouses, staff quarters, a youth centre, underground tunnels and bunkers. The RAF had bombed Hitler's own house, the Berghof in April 1945, and the German authorities, later removed the ruins to prevent it becoming a Nazi shrine. Martin Bormann had given Hitler a teahouse as a 50th birthday present on behalf of the German people and the Nazi Party. The "Kelsteinhaus' (also known as Eagles Nest) is reached by entering a stone-lined 124 foot tunnel straight into the side of the mountain. From there an elegant brass-lined elevator takes visitors another 407 feet up through the heart of the mountain within 41 seconds and opens into the restaurant itself.
The view of the snow-capped mountains is spectacular, and gives one a strange sense of destiny standing where Hitler entertained visitors including Mussolini; the area was later visited by General Eisenhower after the war. The Eagles Nest remained unscathed from Allied bombing and was saved from being destroyed after the war by the intervention of the District President and can be seen as an historical monument in its original form. The second last day of the trip, included a visit to the Maginot Line and the First World War battlefield memorial at Verdun.
This memorable experience concluded after 2 weeks, on the arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport.
Lt. Col. M Adrain thanked both speakers for their thorough research and excellent power point presentations that re captured bygone historical periods in a most graphic manner. He mentioned to the members that this has whetted his own appetite for a further tour.
Please note that the 2nd Thursday in August is a public holiday, but as the auditorium at the University is fully booked for all Thursdays in August, your committee has decided to hold the meeting on our normal 2nd Thursday, despite it being a public holiday. Please make a note in your diary that the August meeting will be held, as normal, on 10 August 2007.
Another important date for your diaries!! It has now been confirmed by Ken Gillings, that the Battlefield Tour will take place on the last weekend of September 2007 - the 29th & 30th September. Day 1 will concentrate on the Battle of Elandslaagte and on the Sunday we will merge with the Ladysmith Historical Society to visit the location of the Battle of Brakfontein, which is the ridge between the Twin Peaks and Kranskloof in the Vaalkrans area. A full itinerary will be published in the next newsletter - but in the meantime, please put this date in your diary as our Battlefield Tours are a highlight of the Military History Society year. Any members or guests wishing to play the roles of the various commanders are requested to contact vice chairman Ken Gillings.
This proved to be a great success and we look forward to next year's event.
We are now well into 2007 and a small number of members have yet to pay their subscriptions. It is easy to overlook an annual payment of this kind, so please check your bank accounts to ensure that payment has been made. If not PLEASE send your subscription to Joan Marsh in Johannesburg without delay, or directly into the Society Account at FNB Bank, Park Meadows Branch, A/c 50391928346, Branch code, 25-66-55, Name: South African Military History Society.
We have heard about the orders by Warren to Dundonald about the cavalry advance on Acton Homes and how this action actually precipitated the attack on Spionkop.
Phil will give his usual revisionist description of the unknown man, which will be most interesting.
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