South African Military History Society

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The September meeting was opened by the Chairman, Bob Smith, who welcomed all present and in particular the immediate Past Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, who is convalescing from a serious illness. He also paid tribute to Ms Susanne Blendulf, the Journal Editor, who is in the final stages of pregnancy and displayed the "baby shower" present the Society had bought for her.

Bob then did the usual notices about forthcoming meetings and tours. Members' attention is drawn in particular to the tour of Sammy Marks House and Diamond Hill battlefield, also known as Donkerhoek, on Saturday, 18 October. For further details of this tour please contact Bob Smith on 011-760-1660 (O), 011-675-0836 (H) or 082-858-66l6(C).

Bob then introduced the curtain raiser speaker, Mr Robin Gardiner. Robin was born in Burma and, after being educated in Edinburgh, Scotland, has served in various countries in the mining and metallurgical industries. He is currently resident in Johannesburg and has a particular interest in British and Burmese history.

Appropriately enough for one born in Burma, Robin's talk was entitled "The Special Operation Executive (SOE) in Burma, 1943 to 1945". This was based on the memoirs of his father, who was head of the Burma Section of the SOE. Ritchie Gardiner had lived with and worked among the Karen people in the teak forests around Torangoo in Burma for many years, before moving to Rangoon. There he lived until March 1942 when the Japanese invasion necessitated an escape to Calcutta. Shortly afterwards he returned to Burma and was part of the British retreat northward to Assam in India. Appointed head of the SOE Burma Section, he was based in Calcutta until May 1945, when he moved back to Rangoon with its re-capture from the Japanese.

The SOE was a clandestine organisation whose purpose was subversion and sabotage against the enemy. It was initially a mixture of a black propaganda and sabotage operations under political control. As the war progressed, the organisation gradually took on a more military role, but its operations took place under a cloak of secrecy that has been lifted only partially, and little is known of these Burma operations.

Burma itself is a country about which little is known, even today. Originally peopled by migrant groups from China and Thailand, it was conquered by the British in the 19th Century, becoming relatively prosperous. There was always a problem with insurgency and in the 1930s an independent leader by the name of Aung San came to prominence and gained Japanese support. He formed the Burmese Independence Army and played a devious double game of balancing Burmese independence with support for the Japanese from 1942 onwards, as the Japanese advanced north through Burma, until stopped at the Indian border.

Against this background, the Burma Section of the SOE, known as Force 136, carried out secret operations behind the Japanese lines. A typical operation would consist of the parachuting of a stick of four operatives into Japanese occupied territory. This group would seek out and destroy Japanese supply dumps and installations, either directly or by calling in an air strike.

They also garnered support from local tribesmen, in particular the Karens and Padaungs, who became actively involved around the Sittang River near Rangoon.

Although distrusted by many senior officers of the Regular Forces, Force 136 prospered and by early 1945 had over 70 officers and 12 000 guerrillas under arms behind Japanese lines.

In March 1945 Aung San decided to change sides and the Burma Independence Army became the Burma National Army and thereafter fought on the side of the Allies. Force 136 acted as their liaison with the Burmese Government-in-Exile, with the changeover and then became heavily involved in the British 14th Army push southwards to re-capture Rangoon.

Under the name of Operation Character, Force 136 was used to cut off the Japanese retreat on Rangoon and force them southeast towards the coast at Moulmein. There they remained trapped until VJ Day. In the whole Burma campaign the SOE's force 136 provided 80% of the required intelligence on every movement and had achieved a kill ratio of 75 to 1 against the Japanese. Burma became independent in 1948 but became a military dictatorship in 1962, a state of affairs that still exists today. Aung was assassinated in 1947 but his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyn was elected president in 1990. She was promptly placed under house arrest and although awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, is still under that restriction.

Bob thanked Robin for his excellent and well-illustrated talk and then introduced the main speaker of the evening. This was John Parkinson, our own well-known naval historian and committee member. John's particular field of interest is the British Royal Navy in Eastern Waters and thus the subject of his talk was "HMS Durban - South Africa and World War II". Using a power point display and original photographs, maps and diaries culled from his research, John then gave us a fascinating account of the life of this ship.

HMS Durban was a D-class light cruiser built by Scott's Yard at Greenock in Scotland in 1919. She was christened Durban by Mrs Annie Botha, wife of General Louis Botha, and enjoyed a leisurely post-World Ward I fitting out, before being commissioned in 1921.

Her first commission was on the China Station, which she reached via Suez. For the next three years she performed all the usual "showing the flag" duties of the time, paying off in 1924 in Hong Kong. She was promptly re-commissioned and remained on the China Station until 1926 when she returned to Devonport in England.

After re-fitting she returned to the Far East, this time via the Cape, with a special call scheduled at her name port of Durban. There they received an overwhelming welcome and participated in march-pasts, civic receptions, sports matches and even beach parties. It must have been a thoroughly exhausted ship's company that finally left Durban for the onward passage to China, which at this stage was in a state of turmoil. Serving on the China Station until 1928, Durban then moved via Honolulu and Vancouver to New York. Refitting there, she was then assigned to the West Indies Station and, in 1933, was in the Falkland Islands. In 1934 she moved to the Mediterranean and, in 1936, was finally placed in reserve.

With the outbreak of World War II the Royal Navy perforce had to bring home its newer and bigger ships on colonial station and, to fill the gaps thus caused, Durban was one of the older ships brought out of reserve, re-commissioning on 31 July 1929.

She was promptly placed on convoy escort duty and when war broke out was on her way around the Cape with a convoy for India and the Middle East, the main threat being surface raiders. From India she made her way east again to her old stomping grounds on the China coast and from then until 1941 was involved in escort duties and sporadic hunts for elusive German surface raiders. On 8 December 1941 she was lying at anchor in Singapore when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbour and the Malay Peninsular, and Durban was subjected to her first air raid.

Later that same day, the Prince of Wales and Repulse sortied from Singapore in a disastrous attempt to intercept Japanese forces landing north of Singapore, but Durban remained behind. A day or two later, she was given the unhappy job of escorting the survivors of that sortie as they were evacuated in the liner Erinpura through the Sunda Straits to Ceylon.

Christmas 1941 was spent in Padang, where after Durban became heavily involved in escorting ships to and fro in the vicinity of Singapore, as the Japanese pushed remorseless south down the Malay Peninsular. Life became a hectic round of voyages via the Sunda and Banka Straits, often under air attack, until she was eventually ordered back to Singapore to assist in evacuating key personnel. Running the gauntlet of Japanese air attacks, Durban joined other ships at Singapore for a last frantic evacuation, Durban, being the last ship to depart, picking up two more refugee-laden ships on the way out. Enduring heavy air attacks, once more Durban and her charges made their way to Batavia and from there she crossed alone to Colombo.

She was by now in a badly damaged state and in need of a refit and so was sent on from Colombo to Durban, where she spent two days in circumstances vastly different from those pertaining in 1926. From Durban she was passed on to Simon's Town and her captain, Cazelet, "incurred their Lordship's displeasure" when he unexpectedly disturbed the German raider Doggersbank laying mines off Cape Agulhas and was hoodwinked by the German into believing that she was an innocent British merchantman.

From Simon's Town Durban crossed to New York for her long-delayed refit and then to Portsmouth for upgrading of her aerial defences and the installation of radar.

So equipped, she embarked upon a full-time career as a convey escort in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans and on anti-submarine patrols in the empty reaches of the South West Atlantic.

By 1943, the ship was feeling her age and was withdrawn from service and ultimately used as a sunken breakwater off Sword Beach, during the D-Day invasion of France. An ignoble end to a fine career.

After a short question time, John was thanked by Committee Member Malcolm King for a most interesting and well-illustrated talk.

Bob then called upon Flip Hoorweg to draw the winning ticket in our DVD raffle ("Heroes of World War II") and this was won by Tim Waudby with ticket #16.

The meeting then adjourned for tea and tabnabs in the lobby.

Ivor C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

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