South African Military 
History Society


April 2008

Contact: Mike Laing 031-205-1951
Bill Brady 031-561-5542

Former chairman Paul Kilmartin presented the DDH on Field Marshal French v General Smith-Dorrien. French left school to join the RN at 14 years, serving for 4 years as a Cadet and Midshipman. He transferred to the army and was commissioned into the 8th Hussars on his 22nd birthday and then on to the 19th Hussars. He became a 100% CAVALRMAN. His whole military thinking and planning centred on what he once called "The superlative weapon of the British Army." He served in EGYPT, the SUDAN and most importantly in SOUTH AFRICA. He rose quickly through the ranks and by 1899 he was promoted to Major-General at the age of 47 years. Early in South Africa he served as CO the Cavalry Division and was involved in a wide number of battles before returning to England with his military reputation greatly enhanced In 1902 was appointed CO of the Aldershot Command, which included the 1st Army Corp. Between 1902 and 1914 the role for the Cavalry was debated and argued over, based on the lessons learned from the Anglo-Boer War. By all accounts, French and Smith-Dorrien had a good relationship up to 1907 when French handed over the Aldershot Command to Smith-Dorrien.

French was appointed as CIGS in 1911 and in 1913 promoted to FIELD-MARSHAL. He was appointed the GOC BEF in August 1914 until his replacement in December 1915 after his handling of The Battle of LOOS. He retired in 1921. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was born in 1858 and educated at HARROW. In 1876 he was commissioned into the 95th Foot, later the 2/SHERWOOD FORRESTORS and just as French was a CAVALRYMAN, so Smith-Dorrien was an INFANTRYMAN through and through.

His first overseas service was in South Africa and he found fame in being just 1 of 5 officers to escape from the field at ISANDLWANA. Successfully holding off 20 Zulus with his pistol and rescuing a number of wounded soldiers as he crossed the Buffalo River. He was recommended for the VC, but the paper work did not go through the proper channels and it was not awarded. In 1882 he was posted to EGYPT. He fought at OMDURMAN in September 1898 and appointed to the rank of Lt. Colonel.

He arrived in Durban in December 1899, during BLACK WEEK, and in February 1900 and promoted to Major-General, becoming one of the youngest Generals in the British Army.

Smith-Dorrien was a highly intelligent man, who thought deeply about military tactics. He took great interest in the well-being and safety of his troops and this showed at PAARDEBERG (20 February 1900) when he queried orders to carry out an attack on an entrenched Boer position across open ground. He persuaded his seniors to change the order and later successfully carried out the attack with small losses.

Smith-Dorrien took command of Aldershot from 1907 until 1914. He was then appointed to command the 2nd Corps of the BEF - much against the wished of French. After a series of confrontations with French he resigned in May 1915, eventually retiring in 1923.

Smith-Dorrien was completely different to French and the Aldershot appointment gave him the chance to implement many of his ideas for modernisation of the Army.

When French learned of the changes being made by Smith-Dorrien, he felt that this reflected badly on his own time at Aldershot. French later published his book "1914" in which he heavily criticised Smith- Dorrien. After publication Smith-Dorrien attempted to put out a "corrected" version but was ordered by the then Secretary of State for War, that he would not be allowed to reply for fear of the damage it would do to the army. The book "1914" did massive damage to the reputation of Sir John French and confirmed Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien as a brilliant British general, both in the 1st World War and in earlier campaigns - when French's aim in writing the book was to achieve exactly the opposite.

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Guest speaker John Parkinson gave the Main Talk: The Life Story of Our Ship, HMS Durban. John took us from birth in May 1919 when she was launched by Mrs. Louis Botha, to her final valuable contribution to the D-day landings in Normandy in June 1944. It was a busy 25-year life for this cruiser of 4850 tons, and six 6inch guns, with a design speed of 29 knots. We followed the ship's log, illustrated with photographs and route maps.

November 1921, first commission, steamed via Suez to the China Station to become a "policeman on the beat'.
October 1926, returned to Davenport; almost immediately recommissioned.
November 1926, sailed for the Far East via Durban [finally!]. [The Gunnery Officer was Lt. Agnew, who returned to Durban in 1947 as captain of the "Vanguard"]. En route she spent a "very pleasant" week in Simonstown.
From 13 to 23 December, 1926 she was berthed at Maydon Wharf. There were many activities: dinner at the Marine Hotel, a dance in the City Hall, a March Past, and a cricket match. Captain Coleridge unveiled a plaque in the Old Fort Chapel, outside of which the ship's bell hangs today. "Durban" sailed, and spent Christmas Day off the south coast of Madagascar.
May 1928, after 18 months in the China seas, she sailed for Honolulu and thence to Canada. In Vancouver, Prince George [who visited South Africa in 1934, become Duke of Kent, and died in an air crash in 1942] joined the ship.

"Durban" now served in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in South American waters. In February 1933 she was in the Falkland Islands to celebrate their centenary as a colony. Between 1934 and 1936 she served with the Mediterranean fleet; then returned to Portsmouth where she was placed on Reserve. War clouds threatened; she was recommissioned and on 30 August 1939 she sailed. On 12 September she picked up her first convoy, from Freetown to Cape Town. By 20 September her first duty of the war had been successfully accomplished. She then headed for the Far East. In September 1940, she sailed from Hong Kong to aid a British ship, 'Marie Moller', that had been apprehended by the Japanese. The commander, Captain John Eccles, was Japanese speaking. He sent a note in Japanese to the officer involved, who was so delighted that he immediately released the boat.

We come now to The Tale of the "Atlantis".
In November 11, 1940 , "Atlantis" captures the Blue Funnel ship "Automedon", and got the ship's codes and other documentation. On 31 January 1941, "Atlantis" captures "Speybank", and then sails her to France to be converted to a mine-laying raider , "Doggerbank". A year later, 13 March 1942, "Durban" sights a Blue Line ship off Cape Agulhas which answered that she was "Levernbank" bound for Durban. In fact this was the German "Doggerbank" laying mines. Their Lordships were displeased. A combined Air/Naval Ops Room was duly set up on 1 July 1942. In February 1941 "Durban" was busy escorting the "Queens", bringing 5000 Australian troops to Malaya. On 16 November, 1941, "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" arrived in Cape Town en route to their tragic death. On 2 December, the two ships arrived at Naval Base "Sultan" in the Johore Strait where "Durban" also was at anchor. At 0340 hours on Sunday 7 December the air raid alarm sounded. The Pacific War had started. The ship's surgeon observed a flight of aircraft approaching and the leader dropped three red Vary lights, the correct British Recognition signal. Suddenly bombs rained down. The recognition codes had been supplied by a traitor, a British officer, Lieutenant Patrick Heenan. He was shot on 13 February 1942 at Singapore Harbour. At 1700 hrs on 8 December 1941, "POW" and "Repulse" sailed to their doom. On 19 December "Durban" acted as escort to the ships carrying their survivors through the Sunda Strait; then it was back to Padang for Christmas. On 5 January, 1942, she carried senior officers south to Batavia to set up ABDA. She the returned to Singapore escorting "Sussex" bringing 52 crated Hurricane fighters---too late. On 12 January in the Banka Strait, a tropical rainstorm saved the ships from Japanese bombers. 11 February, bombed: two killed.

On 12 February, she was one of the last four major ships to sail from Singapore before the surrender on 15 Feb. 12 Feb, bombed, 3 direct hits; six killed. 13 February, arrived in Batavia and on 14 February, the ship's Royal Marines escort 135 Australian deserters. 16 February, sail for Colombo carrying American Admiral Hart; and then sail for Durban. 9 March, arrive in harbour for repairs. Wrecked B turret is removed and replaced by C turret. She then sailed to New York for permanent repairs, and finally arrived back in Portsmouth, 25 June, 1942. Here she was fitted with Radar. She left to escort Convoy W.S.23 , arriving Durban 5 November, 1942. 1943 was a year of arduous escort duties. In July she was in Simonstown dry dock. Her age was now beginning to tell. She was ordered home, and in November 1943 she was laid up in Portsmouth.

26 March, 1944, she was designated a Corncob blockship for the Mulberry Harbour in Normandy. On Friday 9June, 1944 "HMS Durban" was scuttled to become part of the Gooseberry breakwater off Sword Beach, to make a calm sea for the British 3rd Infantry Division that landed there.

Phil Everitt thanked the speakers for two such excellent and different presentations. Paul's in-depth study of this catastrophic squabble showed how it seemed to hinge upon money and envy. He thanked John for coming down from Johannesburg so that we could meet "Durban" again, this time as a ship and not solely as a 25-year old part of a breakwater off the coast of France.

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Date Error
Last month's newsletter was incorrectly dated February and should have been March. Apologies

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The AGM will be conducted at the April meeting. Any members wishing to serve on the committee are invited to come forward.

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Gunners Association
The project the Society and the Gunners' Association embarked on several years ago is nearing completion and King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu has agreed to attend the unveiling of the guns at the Old Fort on Monday 1st September 2008 - 135 years to the day after the same guns fired a salute to his great, great, great Grandfather, King Cetshwayo kaMpande. If anyone is interested in attending, please could they let Ken Gillings have their contact details.

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THURSDAY - 10 April 19.00 for 19.30

Usual Venue: Murray Theatre, Civil Engineering Building, Howard College Campus, UKZN

DDH: Former chairman Ken Gillings will deal with some updated information about the role of both the Boer and British artillery during the Battle of Spioenkop (24th January 1900) and the introduction of indirect fire by the Boers.

MAIN TALK: Fellow member Robin Taylor will describe the air war in Korea with particular reference to the F-86 Sabre versus the Mig 15. The Korean War gave the Warsaw Pact and NATO opportunities to introduce 'state of the art' first line all weather fighters with proven performance, serviceability and durability under adverse operating conditions.

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Battlefield Tour will take place on 9th / 10th August 2008.

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Annual Dinner
To celebrate KZN society's 40th anniversary this year the annual Xmas dinner will be combined with this event and coordinated by Charles Whiteing. The committee has decided to present those attending with a commemorative set of glasses engraved with the SAMHS logo. The date and venue has still to be established, and will probably be on a Friday during September or October.

Munich 1938
September is the 70th anniversary of this momentous meeting. Any member who wishes to present or nominate someone to present a brief ten minute talk at the September meeting, please contact either Bill Brady or Ken Gillings. Paul Kilmartin will deliver a talk on Churchill's response to the House of Commons at the October meeting.

Speakers in General
Due to additional meetings being held, any member or guest is invited to come forward and propose a talk for future meetings.

Anniversaries - at this time in history.
1883 Karl Marx died.
1917 Tsar Nicholas abdicates.
1938 Germany annexes Austria.
1964 Jack Ruby found guilty of murdering Lee Harvey Oswald.

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South African Military History Society /