South African Military History Society

June Newsletter

May Meeting

In the introduction to his address on 'The Convoy System and the Two Battles of the Atlantic (1914/18 and 1939/45)' on Thursday evening, 10th May 1984, Mr IT Greig quoted Sir Walter Raleigh who, when confined to the Tower of London early in the Seventeenth Century, had written: 'There are two ways in which England may be afflicted. The one by invasion ... the other by the impeachment of our trades.' He then explained that, from the beginning of the Thirteenth Century through until the end of the wars with France in 1815, the standard method of protecting Britain's seaborne trade had been by sailing ships in convoy, firstly by groups of armed merchantmen supporting each other and later by providing convoys of merchant ships with armed escorts, both for protection against enemy vessels and armed privateers. He also referred to the comment of Sir Julian Corbett to the effect that trade protection and security from invasion both depended on sea power.

Mr Greig then proceeded to show how, in the two World Wars, through insufficient attention to trade protection, Britain had nearly been defeated even though she was the dominant naval power and under no serious risk of invasion. He pointed out that, whilst at the outbreak of the First World War the Admiralty had been prompt in introducing the convoy system for troop transports, storeships and other special ships and that, whilst the Grand Fleet never left harbour without an extensive screen of escorting destroyers, it was not until May 1917 that any attempt had been made to protect the bulk of Britain's extensive merchant shipping through the traditional means of convoy and escort. This curious paradox was explained by the obsession for offensive rather than defensive action by the Royal Navy, the notion that Britain had nothing to fear from a weaker naval power which resorted to commerce raiding, and a failure to recognise the possibilities of the submarine as a commerce raider, or that Germany would resort to the sinking of merchantmen without warning by submarines. Appalling shipping losses followed, and Britain was hard pressed to cope with the U-Boat menace. In fact, in October 1916, Lord Balfour, the then First Lord of the Admiralty, had written to the effect that the losses of merchant ships and neutral merchant ships might by the summer of 1917 have had such a serious effect upon the import of food and other necessaries into allied countries, as to force Britain into accepting peace terms which the military position on the Continent would not justify. Even in 1917 the Admiralty had remained opposed to the introduction of an extensive convoy system in view of all the practical difficulties involved in the assembling and moving of large numbers of ships. The truth of the matter, however, was that the Admiralty was still focussed too exclusively on battle and too little on the protection of shipping. However as a result of the unrestricted U-Boat warfare by Germany and the consequent appalling shipping losses, a change of strategy was forced upon the Admiralty and, following the introduction of the convoy system for all merchant shipping in May 1917, the tide turned in favour of the Allies.

In the Second World War, Britain had to contend with an intensive and relentless U-Boat campaign, and the invasion of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France providing bases in France on the Bay of Biscay coast, swung the balance sharply in Germany's favour. In addition, the morale of the U-Boat crews, who were the elite of the German Navy, was very high, whilst the U-Boat had been developed into a craft most perfectly suited to its task. Despite the convoy system, which had been introduced at the outbreak of the war, Britain suffered very heavy shipping losses mainly owing to the shortage of suitable escort vessels and the wastage of effort on hunting patrols which the U-Boats managed successfully to evade. However, by virtue of the improved type and number of escort vessels, extensive air cover which took some time to introduce and develop, improved scientific anti-submarine devices, and very rigid convoy discipline, the Battle of the Atlantic was finally won in May 1943.

Mr Greig was well qualified to speak on his subject both by virtue of his extensive study of naval history, and having served in the South African Naval Forces and the Royal Navy from July 1940 until March 1946, and ending his service with the rank of Acting Lieutenant Commander.

Mr Greig was thanked by Captain Ivor Little on behalf of the Society.

Before Mr Greig's talk, the Chairman, Maj Darrell Hall, presented a short slide programme which dealt with the Ceremony of Changing the Guard at the Horse Guards in London.

A highlight of the evening was the presentation of the Roderick G Murchison Memorial Prize for 1983 to Mr Will Carr. Presented annually, this award goes to the author of the best article in the year in the Military History Journal. The article by Mr Carr, entitled 'Masada', appeared in the June 1983 issue (Vol 6 No 1). The presentation was made by Mrs Helen Murchison who congratulated Mr Carr warmly on his excellent article.

Eastern Transvaal Trip, 5 and 6 May 1984

This was a great success. In the course of the week-end, visits were made to the battlefields of Diamond Hill, Bergendal, Helvetia, Badfontein (or Rietfontein), and Elandspruit; and to the Concentration Camp Cemetery at Balmoral and the Middelburg Cemetery. The main speaker was Mr Nick Kinsey, assisted by Professor Johan Barnard at Diamond Hill, and Maj Darrell Hall at Bergendal.

Members used their own cars and made their own hotel bookings - at the Hotel Malaga and Ye Wayside Inn, Waterval Onder - so the organising of the tour was very simple.

The trip seems to have been enjoyed as much for the pleasant week-end it provided in the country, as for the historical interest of the battlefields. We will have more like it. There will be a slide show of the trip at a SPECIAL MEETING on 5 July 1984 at the Museum. NOTE: The normal July meeting will be on 12 July.

Next meetings

Johannesburg: Mr Kobus Esterhuysen will speak on 'The Post Office Militant' on Thursday 14 June 1984. Venue - SA National Museum of Military History.

Durban: Maj Darrell Hall will give a slide talk entitled 'Mafeking Revisited' on 7 June 1984. Contact Mrs Tanla van der Watt (Tel: 031-742970) for venue details.

Cape Town: Contact Mr Paul Lange (Te: 021-617441) for details.


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