South African Military 
History Society


March 2008

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

Fellow member John Oliver presented the DDH talk entitled "Aircraft Carriers."
Only a few years after the Wright Brothers first demonstrated flight, float planes were developed and went to sea to be used as scouts. They were carried on ships and handled by cranes into and out of the water. It worked, but was dependent on good visibility and a calm sea which weren't always available. The best solution was to take the aerodrome to sea by putting it on a ship. In pure tonnage terms the Americans have built more than 85% of all carriers; most of the developments have been Royal Navy.

Up until the mid sixty's only 4 countries had built carriers (GB, USA, France and Japan) two countries had started but not finished ships (Germany and Italy). Flying operations were common to all navies. Aircraft with wings folded were brought up to deck level on the lift, manhandled aft, wings unfolded and engine run up. The ship would turn into the wind and increase to full speed for take off!

Japan's remarkable Mitsubishi Zero proved most successful at the start of World War 11. However, the pilot had no armour protection and the fuel tanks were not self sealing. Japanese pilots used parachutes for training and not for operations by choice. To die in service of the Emperor brought more honour to one's family than to be shot down and survive. Each pilot thought of himself as an air samurai warrior to whom one on one fighting was an art form. Matched against the Zero was the Grumman Wildcat. It was outclassed in every respect, but the Wildcat did have virtues. It was solidly built, with good pilot armour, self sealing fuel tanks and 6x 0.5" Browning machine guns. Japanese and Royal Navy practice was to store and re fuel their planes down below, US practice was to do it all on the flight deck and mass the aircraft at the stern ready to scramble.

The first American air strike against the Japanese Mainland occurred on the 18th April 1942. A squadron of B25 Mitchell bombers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle took off from the new carrier Hornet to complete a mainly ineffective raid but highly successful morale booster for the Americans.

John produced many illustrations of various navy carriers and aircraft of America, Japan, and Britain, describing their contribution and performance in many theatres of operations.

Piston engines had reached the development limit in fighter/bombers by 1945. Jet aircraft with swept wings gave higher performance but raised take off and landing speeds which were now too fast for existing carriers and a whole new flying system had to be devised. Jets could not take off under their own power because they required too long a run. Every take off was now by catapult. Carriers now had an angled deck complete with landing wires which were required to pull a flying aircraft bodily from the sky, not merely stop a plane.

It was also an acknowledgment that the Royal Navy was now a regional force and mainly equipped with American aircraft.

In the late 1950's the new class of US Forrestals became the carriers of a global navy. (79 000 tons and 90 aircraft). These ships formed the nucleus of a task force also comprising several heavy cruisers and a hunter killer submarine. Another ten years on in the late 70's we have the nuclear powered ships. Nimitz; Dwight D Eisenhower; Carl Vinson and Theodore Roosevelt) 94 000 tons and 89 aircraft.

To the future the US Navy is looking at a possible small carrier type to fight pirates, terrorists and to wage anti submarine warfare. This is a 3 000 ton, 45 knot trimaran with a basic 40 man crew and a weapons suite that includes a 57mm gun and missile interceptors.

* * * * * * *

The main talk entitled: The Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, June 1967 was given by our member Adrian van Schaik. When did this war begin? In a sense, it started with the Balfour declaration of 1917 by the British and Britain's Mandate of Palestine in 1923. There had been anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem in 1920, and more serious ones in 1929 and 1936. There was an Arab revolt in 1936 - 1939 against British control, and during this time Orde Wingate trained Palmach units of the Jewish Haganah in active pre-emptive hit-and-run tactics.

By the end of World War II, it was clear that a compromise between the Arabs and Zionists was impossible. In May 1947, the British withdrew; the first Arab Israeli war broke out, ending with the Armistice of June 1949, with Israel holding Eilat but not Jerusalem.

By 1956, Egypt had received an enormous amount of military weaponry from the USSR, and in July Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain and France invaded Egypt, while Israel attacked across the Sinai on 29 October. By 5 November the Israelis had taken Sharm el Sheikh and were at the Canal. This destruction of the Egyptian forces was a remarkable achievement, but the Israelis had to withdraw from the Sinai which was now "policed" by a United Nations force. The attacks on Kibbutzes were much reduced and Israel's southern boundary was stabilized.

In 1967 Nasser began making speeches threatening Israel. The USSR had supplied Egypt with literally thousands of T-54 tanks and hundreds of MIG jet fighters. Nasser formed a military pact with Syria and Jordan for unified command. The Egyptians blocked the Tiran Straits and Eilat. Syria was disrupting the water of the Jordan tributaries in the Golan Heights. The Syrians increased the shelling of Israeli villages. Then Nasser demanded that the UN remove its "peace-keeping" force from the Sinai. U Thant immediately agreed. On 25 May 1967, Egypt, Jordan and Syria deployed their armies on the borders of Israel. Nasser made speeches saying the time has come for a general assault on the Zionists; the aim is the total destruction of Israel. It was obvious that Israel must act, and on 4 June, Moyshe Dayan (minister of defence) was given the order to go to war. The war against the Arab states began in the morning of 5 June 1967.

But this war did not just happen; it was a carefully planned response to a major threat. It was a direct pre-emptive strike with the aim of destroying the enemy's ability to make war. It consisted of four separate but interlinked campaigns. The four separate attacks were:

The campaign in the Sinai was possible because the air strike totally destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground. This attack was timed for the bases to be hit after the pilots had finished breakfast and were on their way to "work". The Israeli planes attacked in ordered waves, 7 minutes over the target, back to base, 10 minutes turnaround on the ground, then renew the attack: thanks to the highly skilled ground crews. By midday, more than 250 Egyptian planes had been destroyed on the ground, over 100 pilots killed. The Air War had been won; the Israelis had complete mastery of the air. The second attack across the Sinai could now go forward with air support. The total destruction of the Egyptian forces was now inevitable.

Attack Number 3 was different in character. Whereas the Sinai campaign had been based on armour, Attack No. 3 was aimed at taking Jerusalem, and was fought on the West Bank of the Jordan River by Israeli infantry without tanks, to prevent damage to the holy places of Jerusalem. On the second day, 6 June, the fighting was hand to hand, fierce FIBUA. By 7 June, Jerusalem was taken and then began the drive to the Jordan River. On 8 June, the Jordanians at Helbron were taken from the rear. The Jordanian air force of Hawker Hunters was annihilated. The West Bank campaign was over.

We saw the famous picture of the three victorious Israeli soldiers at the Wailing Wall, and a picture of the same three men at the same place 30 years later. The total air supremacy of the Israeli Air Force had brought overwhelming victory in the Sinai and on the West Bank. The armour and infantry were redeployed to the Northern Front.

Attack Four, the Golan Heights, could begin. The Syrians had built a formidable defensive system of trenches and concrete bunkers. However, in two days, 9 and 10 June, the combined Israeli force of air, armour and infantry completely overran the Syrians, driving them out. They then advanced up the road to within 20 miles of Damascus, taking Quneitra. This remarkable performance was possible because the Israeli spy, Elie Cohen, had supplied to the Israeli high Command complete details of the Syrian defensive positions on the Golan. For this, Cohen paid with his life.

The cease fire came on 10 June 1967; the 6-Day War was over. The Israelis had been outnumbered by at least 2 to 1 in tanks and aircraft. Yet they had inflicted about 10 000 killed on the Arab armies, at the cost of less than 500 dead (mainly in the Sinai). They had achieved their aim of getting secure frontiers and area for maneuver.

The tactical lessons were clear: