South African Military History Society

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The March meeting was opened by National Chairman, Bob Smith, who welcomed all present and then commenced proceedings. All present were asked to stand in silence for one minute in memory of Professor Johan Barnard, a former National Chairman, who had passed away from pneumonia the previous Friday. This sad news was passed on to the Society by Nick Kinsey, also a former National Chairman.

The successful outcome of the court action for wrongful arrest by staff members of the Military Museum was announced and brought a round of applause from the audience. Bob also reminded those present to vote for the best lectures and curtain raisers of the past year as the results of this competition were to be announced at April's AGM.

Members were once again encouraged to join the International Society of Military Music and were then reminded of our own Society's next up-coming historical tour that will be to the headquarters of the Light Horse Regiment on Saturday, 16 May. Further details will be circulated in the near future.

Bob then introduced the curtain-raiser speaker, who just happened to be your scribe, Ivor Little, whose subject was titled "Project Dobbin".

Ivor commenced by giving a bit of background to this South African Navy project, which actually had two origins. The first was the requirement for the South African Military Academy in Saldanha to be provided with a sea-going training ship for the practical training of midshipmen. This requirement was known as "Project Stinkblaar" and was fulfilled by the provision of Harbour Defence Motor Launch 1204 to the Academy in March 1971. She was at that time the last of a class of eleven 75-foot wooden launches and served the Academy well until 1974 when she was finally retired, because of a waterlogged keel.

During this period of the 1970s, South Africa was experiencing a period of intense international isolation and our only friend in Africa was Malawi. The President of Malawi, Dr Hastings Banda, proved a staunch ally and in return South Africa rendered certain favours, such as the construction of his new capital, Lilongwe, and military support and advice. Among the latter was the provision of a navy for use on Lake Malawi and, in 1974, the Malawian government approved the purchase from Armscor in South Africa of a fast patrol boat for use on the Lake.

The acquisition project was christened "Project Dobbin" and under this name work commenced immediately on the new ship at Dorman van der Bijl Shipyard at Bay Head in Durban.

Using plans of a 33m patrol boat produced by Brooke Marine of Lowestoft in the United Kingdom, the local naval architects shortened the proposed hull to 27m in length and proceeded to produce a small warship which would be simple to run and easy to maintain. The result was a ship of all-welded mild steel, with a round bilge hull of 5,33 metres beam (width) and a draft (depth) of only 1,7 metres.

She was of 80 tons, fully air-conditioned and, because of a pronounced wave-deflecting knuckle on the hull forrard, her twin Burmeister and Wayne engines could push her along at 20 knots. Coupled with her armament of a hand-operated 40mm Bofors gun forrard and a single 2mm mounting aft, this made her a formidable warship in African lake terms.

Using a Power Point production, very capably operated by Colin Dean, Ivor then showed how, when completed, the ship was to be sailed to Beira, then up the Pungue River as far as possible; by land across to Shire Lake and then down the Shire River to Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi, where a naval base was to be constructed. In readiness for this voyage, a crew was sent down from Malawi for training at SAS Flamingo, the Air/Sea Rescue Launch station at Langebaan on the west coast.

Unfortunately, these plans came to naught with the Flower Power Revolution in Portugal in 1974 and the subsequent loss of access to Malawi through a now independent and anti-South African Mozambique.

Work was stopped on "Project Dobbin" and her Malawian crew flown home. The redundant ship was then offered to the Military Academy under "Project Stinkblaar", as a replacement for HDML 1204. This offer was accepted, the ship was completed, ran trials and was accepted into the South African Navy as Patrol Boat 1558, or more commonly P58. A scratch crew was put together by the Military Academy and this crew took delivery officially in January 1976. Three attempts were made to get the ship from Durban to Saldanha. The first was abandoned because of ferocious weather conditions, which the little ship designed for a lake could not cape with; the second because of a faulty steering mechanism and the third was successful. During the course of this third voyage, P58 took part in a naval exercise in Algoa Bay, with SAS Donkin and SAS Oosterland, the only naval operation she would ever participate in.

On arrival in Saldanha she was transferred to SAS Flamingo for berthing and maintenance, as part of their fleet of air/sea rescue launches, or "crash boats", being used by the Academy from there for training cruises.

The shortening of her original hull from 33metres to 27 metres made her inherently unstable for offshore work, except when fully loaded with fuel and water, and this default gave rise to a few hair-raising incidents when underway at speed. In 1977 she was replaced by the SAS Shirley Tomlinson, a catamaran-type launch, as the Academy training ship.

Returned to the Navy, she was sent up to Walvis Bay for patrol duties there, before being returned as unsuitable for offshore work. She was then assigned to the gunnery school as a range-clearance vessel in False Bay, before being found unsuitable for this as well and was laid up at Simons' Town. In 1986 she came up for disposal and, there being no buyers, she was stripped and towed to Walvis Bay where, on 15 September 1988, 90 miles west of Walvis Bay she was sunk as a target for Operation "Magersfontein".

Bob thanked Ivor for his talk and, after a few questions were answered, introduced the next speaker, who was Mr Robin Smith, who had come up from Durban to speak to us.

A graduate of Hilton College, with a life-long interest in military history, Robin has made a hobby of "collecting battlefields" and, more latterly, of participating in the restoration of battlefield monuments.

The subject of his talk was "The Shenandoah Valley - Spring 1862", scene of a series of battlefields which he had recently visited, or "collected".

Using easily the most impressive illustrations and maps that we have yet encountered in a Power Point presentation, Robin then took us step-by-step through this crucial campaign of the US Civil War.

In March 1862 a Union Army, the largest force ever assembled on the North American continent, prepared to descend on Richmond, the Confederate capital. Standing between them and the city was a vastly outnumbered Confederate Army, under the command of Major General T J "Stonewall" Jackson. Jackson, a professional soldier; West Point graduate and West Virginian, had acquired his nickname at the Battle of Bull Run where he had held firm in the face of the enemy assault. Facing him was George B McClellan, General-in-Chief of the Union Army. Known as "The Young Napoleon", McClellan intended taking Richmond from the east and to this end decided to advance up the Virginia Peninsular from Chesapeake Bay.

Close to Richmond is the Shenandoah Valley, a natural corridor of great beauty and agricultural bounty through Virginia, and because of its road and rail connections, a vital logistical line. Federal troops moving up this valley could cut the rail links to Eastern Virginia and threaten the flank of any Confederate Army north of the Rappahannock River.

Using his excellent maps and illustrations, Robin showed how this did indeed happen as McClellan's subordinates saw this opportunity and followed it up. Starting in February, the Union forces probed south down the valley in weather ranging from bitter cold snowstorms to intense heat. Suffering the same conditions, Jackson and his generals moved to intercept them and a series of ding-dong battles commenced up and down the valley, each described in detail by Robin, and ultimately the Confederate forces under Jackson proved superior.

The troops involved marched hundreds of miles and by the time the campaign was over, at the end of June 1862, casualties were numbered in the thousands. However, Richmond had been saved and the Confederate Army could battle on for a few more years.

After a brief question period, Bob Smith called upon John Parkinson to thank both speakers, which John did before presenting Robin with the by now traditional bottle of wine.

This done, the raffle was drawn by Marjorie Dean. Two consolation prizes were given out before the set of eight DVDs on the Vietnam War were awarded to the buyer of ticket number 10, Colin Harris. The DVDs were the gift of Jan Willem Hoorweg, who was also asked to pass on the best wishes of all present to his father, past president Flip Hoorweg, who was at that time in hospital.

Bob reminded all present of the up-coming AGM and then adjourned the meeting for tea.

Ivor C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

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