South African Military 
History Society


July 2008

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

Due to Prof Mike Laing being indisposed for the last meeting, at the last moment we managed to coerce a visiting author to speak about his newly released book.

The evening's DDH talk was, therefore, presented by our guest speaker, the internationally renowned military historian, publisher and author Al J Venter who was visiting Durban from Cape Town. He most kindly agreed to speak to us about his research into his latest publication entitled "How South Africa Built Six Atom Bombs And Then Abandoned its Nuclear Weapons Programme" (Ashanti Publishing ISBN Number 978 09814 0984 9).

Al described how his book has become a definitive account of how the South African Government was able to secretly develop and test atom bombs. This objective was achieved within six years - roughly half the time that it took Pakistan to test its first nuclear weapon. More salient, it did so with only a fraction of the number of scientists, technicians and specialists involved in other nuclear programmes, such as those of India, Pakistan and North Korea. For instance, there were never more than a half a dozen nuclear physicists involved in the actual 'weaponisation' of the South African bombs.

The same analogy holds for the medium range intercontinental missile programme that South Africa launched with strong Israeli help. Before it was abruptly terminated by Washington, Pretoria managed to launch two of its RSA-2 missiles into the South Indian Ocean; both landed within a few metres of their designated target. With Israeli involvement, this co-operation dated back to the early 1970s and there was also a plan in the works for a satellite launch.

Al Venter made the point that if a small country like South Africa could achieve all this - using only the limited human resources drawn from its five or six million whites - then it is extremely likely that other countries, radical or political groups - will ultimately be able to do the same. Al-Qaeda has already signalled its intention in a series of web-based nuclear weapons with examples shown in Al's book!

It is also significant that Dr Mohammed El Baradei, head of Vienna's International Atomic Energy Agency, told the world in 2007 that it was of grave concern that there were currently more than 30 countries involved in nuclear matters, quite a few of them clandestinely.

The number and intensity of questions asked after Al's talk bore witness to the coup we had struck in obtaining this erudite and entertaining speaker to present the Darrell Hall Memorial lecture.

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The evening's main talk was presented by Guest speaker Dr. Bill Bizley called The Sinking of U-197 - A flashpoint in German and South African Surveillance Politics, 1942/3.

Considering the amount of damage done by the three successive German 'gruppen' off our coast in 1942/1943, the sinking of only two of them must temper any judgement we make on our own local success. But one success was particularly striking -- the destruction of U 197 by a Catalina off St Lucia on 20th August 1943. High Frequency Direction Finding (HF-DF, 'huff duff') was a fiercely kept secret from all ordinary military and civil South African intelligence, so as not to alert the enemy to the fact that their "Enigma" code had been broken by "Ultra." The 'Enigma', was an electro-mechanical coding machine that had been developed from what had been not much more than a toy in the 1920s. 'Ultra' was the amazing code-breaking device that Alan Turing designed for installation at Bletchley Park, to perform a feat of decrypting that, to the end of the war, the users of 'Enigma' did not think was possible. The battle that evolved between them was truly amazing.

Prime Minister Smuts was persuaded by the Director General of War Supplies, Dr H J van der Byl, to start a system of High Frequency surveillance not, at first, to target enemy shipping, but to locate the sources of illegal radio transmission. The Ossewa Brandwag was unquestionably getting information through to the chief German agent in Lourenco Marques.

Since the Royal Navy was the primary consultant for setting up South African Huff Duff, it was inevitable that they would request that it would also be put to naval use.

Mr. E T Price, chief engineer of Escom, teamed up with Mr. M J Milne, from the engineering department of the GPO to amalgamate into one group, the Price-Milne organisation. They scored at least one major success, the demise of U-197.

Each German vessel used two cyphers in daily communication, the Algemeine (general) code and the Offizieren (Officers') code. Ultra's' great project was to crack the Offizieren Code, which, in its first version was called 'Hydra', and then, from 1942 on, was replaced with 'Triton.'

In 1941 convoys were losing up to 50% of ships on a single Atlantic crossing. This was where the war could be won or lost. The turning-point came with the capture of U110 off Newfoundland on May 8th 1941. An intact Enigma machine and the Offizieren codebook fell into the hands of the British crew, who sent it straight to Bletchley as soon as they got back to port.

Bletchley began to reveal U-boat displacements with such frequency that it had to be careful not to give its own game away. For instance, when it had located a U-boat attack, a lone RAF reconnaissance aircraft would be sent to the area, to make it seem as if the coming air attack by a whole squadron was the result of a single fortunate sortie. Statistically, the figures speak for themselves: convoy losses of 300,000 tons in the terrible months of May and June, 1941, fell to 50,000 tons in November and December.

Admiral Doenitz ended the war believing that Offizieren Code had never been cracked - in fact his Memoirs of some twenty years later show that he was still not convinced.

The American entrance into the battle between 'Ultra' and 'Enigma' relates directly to the sinking of U-197. In 1943 the American success with 'Ultra' led to a dangerous decision - one which considerably aggrieved their British allies. They decided, early to use their high-powered 'computers' as an offensive and not just a continually defensive weapon. They decided to bring the naval war to a fast conclusion by deliberately hunting U-boat supply boats. The new target would be not U-boats so much as the U-cruisers, the 'milch cows," that supplied fuel and replacement torpedoes to individual U-boats. From mid-May 1943 onwards, US Navy escort carriers made ten successful strikes. As a result U-boat command was so jittery that Doenitz ordered most of the Atlantic fleet back to base.

In the Indian Ocean, U 197 fatally gave its position away whilst attempting to find a meeting-place with her sister vessels. The message was intercepted by the Price-Milne organisation resulting in the destruction of U.197. The very notion of a rendezvous had to be abandoned. So the Indian Ocean flotilla slipped away to the Atlantic, and from thence back home to theatres of war that were becoming less and less propitious for their enterprise..

On the international and local scale, the debt owed to the handful of ex-Eskom and Post Office radio technicians who sat it out on the Peninsula or on Harrison Flats, not only helped sink a U-boat but convinced the German Kriegsmarine that they would have to quit the Indian Ocean.

Vice chairman Dr. John Cooke thanked both speakers for two such excellent and different presentations. Al's in-depth study of this potential catastrophe for the region showed how it all seemed to hinge upon the collapse of the USSR. He thanked Bill for highlighting the Ultra - Enigma saga and how this impacted on South African surveillance and convoy protection.

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THURSDAY - 10 July 2008 19.00 for 19.30
Usual Venue: Murray Theatre, Civil Engineering Building, Howard College Campus, UKZN
DDH: Mr. Ken Parry-Hughes will share his experiences with us that took place in France between 1944 and 1946.

MAIN TALK: Guest speaker Mr Peter Williams will talk on his experiences with 32 Battalion.

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FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: August to October 2008

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

1. Saturday morning: Depart Durban 07h30, RV at Ultra City at 09h00 for departure 09h30. ETA Blood River at 11h30. DVD presentation in the Interpretation Centre on the Battlefield, followed by discussion at the Voortrekker laager site. Picnic lunch at Blood River, after which we proceed to the Ncome Museum across the river. Time permitting, we'll view the battlefield from the Zulu commanders' position on Intaba kaNdlela (Ndlela's Hill) across the Mathambo plain. Cost: R20 pp entry fee.

2. Saturday afternoon (+- 16h00) we stop on the right bank of the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River for preliminary discussion on the next day's battlefield tour. ETA Lodge 17h30.

3. Sunday morning: Proceed to site of Maj Gen Sir William Penn Symons's camp for phase 1, followed by retracing of the route through the town of Dundee taken by the British troops en route to Talana. Phase 2: Stop overlooking the Steenkoolspruit for briefing on the British assembly point. Phase 3: Proceed to Talana Battlefield for final phases of the Battle. Climb Talana Hill to view the Battlefield from the Boer perspective, followed by lunch on the battlefield and tour of the museum. Cost: R15 pp entry fee. Please arrange your own accommodation for the tour. Special Rates have been negotiated with several lodges and B&Bs in the Dundee area and the details are as follows:

1. Fellow Member, Elizabeth Durham, owns and runs Chez Nous - a very fine B&B in Dundee. She has offered members a major discounted rate for Dinner (three courses), Bed and Breakfast at R405.00 per person. Her contact details are , telephone 034 212 1014. Please refer to the SAMHS tour;
2. Battlefields Country Lodge is situated 8 km from Dundee. They have offered a simple dinner and a DBB rate of R395 per person sharing. Contact details: telephone 034 218 1641. Please refer to the SAMHS tour. Mark your enquiry for the attention of Raymond;
3. The Royal Country Inn is a charming old hotel (originally the Royal Hotel). It is situated below the traffic circle in the town. The owners have offered the following special B & B rate. Contact details: .Tel: 034 212 2147 Dinner is about R120 per person:
Single Rate: R390.00 pppn B&B (En suite with DSTV)
Double Twin Rate: R275.00 pppn B&B (En suite with DSTV)
Family Room Rate: R240.00 pppn B&B - 3 pax sharing (En suite with DSTV)
Family Room Rate: R215.00 pppn B&B - 4 pax sharing (En suite with DSTV)
A Family Room consists of two separate bedrooms, linked by an interleading door, sharing a bathroom.
Please refer to the SAMHS tour.

4. Lennox B & B is owned and run by former Rugby Springbok Dirk Froneman and his wife Salome. It is situated on a farm about 8 km from Dundee on a gravel road off the Dundee/Nquthu road. Salome's food is legendary. They have offered the Society a Bed & Breakfast rate of R346. Dinner starts from about R100 but self-catering is permitted in the annexe.

5. Zulu Wings is situated on a farm about 15 km from Dundee on the Nquthu road. They are fully booked for the night of the 9th August, but can offer accommodation if anyone would like to spend the next night there. Contact Vanessa de Villiers on 034 212 5976 or 083 283 8162.

6. Penny Farthing is run by Foy Vermaak and is situated on the Biggarsberg along the Dundee/Helpmekaar road. At the time of going to print, his rates were not available. His e-mail address is

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To celebrate this occasion the society has arranged a buffet lunch to be held at the Durban Country Club on 21st September this year. The cost will be R85,00 per person and includes wine and a commemorative set of glasses engraved with the SAMHS logo.

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Col Jan Breytenbach
The Winston Churchill Shellhole, Westville, has staged a bit of a coup. They have managed to book the legendary Col Jan Breytenbach (of 32 Battalion fame) to give a talk at Flame Lily Park, Queensburgh, on Friday 1st August 2008. Time: 19h00. Cost: R25.00 per person.

Col Breytenbach will have copies of his books available. Dress: smart / casual. Refreshments on sale. Refreshments will be on sale. A social function is being held for Col Breytenbach before the talk. If you would like to attend, please phone Peter Williams on 0832534546.

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