South African Military 
History Society


April 2009

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

The DDH talk was presented by fellow member Ian Sutherland named First World War scuttling of the German High Seas fleet at Scapa Flow. Was this the nadir of dishonour and low cunning, or a noble action in the face of defeat? Was the demise of the German High Seas Fleet a blessing in disguise for the Allies? Through her geographical position, Britain dominated the North Sea; and this fact, together with the superiority of her Grand Fleet, meant that she could implement a policy of 'wide blockade' and wait until the High Seas Fleet ventured out to challenge this mastery, which was not likely to happen given the disparity in numbers and the Kaiser's caution. While this was undoubtedly the correct strategy, the Royal Navy's unadventurous role attracted much criticism in later years and even at the time was hard to justify in the face of the army's great exertions on the Western Front. Nevertheless, morale was high compared with that of the High Seas Fleet, where the situation was very serious indeed. Aware of the superiority in size and numbers of the British warships, the German crews were deeply pessimistic about the outcome of any large-scale action. Confined to their cramped quarters on board ship, subject to fierce discipline without much sport or entertainment, given very poor food rations, and seeing all the best young officers taken away for U-Boat service, the sailors became daily more distrustful and bitter against the leaders. This gloom and frustration was merely deepened by the news that Germany's allies were collapsing on all sides and that the government had asked for an armistice on October 4, 1918. It seemed that the war at sea was at last over for Germany. In fact, Scheer and Hipper were planning upon one final sortie, which was to redeem the navy's reputation arid perhaps affect the Armistice terms. This scheme was quickly abandoned after the Wilhelmshaven mutinies on October 29. The German challenge to the Royal Navy's supremacy had ended. However, amore humiliating event was to follow. Throughout October, the Allies had been discussing the demands they would present to the Central Powers as conditions for granting an armistice. Beatty and the Admiralty, naturally crestfallen at the receding chances of a great naval battle, pressed for the complete surrender of the German navy; but Lloyd George, influenced by the army and by the French and American governments, refused this demand out .of fear that it might provoke Berlin into continuing the war to gain better terms. Eventually, the Supreme War Council decided that the enemy vessels should be interned in a .neutral harbour until the peace terms were settled. During the Armistice negotiations with Germany between November 8 and 11 it was agreed that this force should include ten battleships, six battle, cruisers, eight light cruisers, 50 destroyers and all the U-Boats. While this decision appalled the British admirals, it was even more shocking to the Germans themselves, even the revolutionary sailors at Wilhelmshaven were chilled by the, terms.

Neutral countries, perhaps understandably, declined to allow the High Seas Fleet to be interned in their harbours and thus the Allies decided on November 13 that the surface ships should be interned in Scapa Flow. The greatest naval force in the world sailed-from Rosyth early on the morning of the, 31st. The British were determined to put on as spectacular a display of might: 90,000 men in 370 warships flying as many white ensigns as they could. The Americans were represented by the 6th Battle Squadron and the French sent an armoured cruiser and .two destroyers.

While the pride of the German fleet rusted at Scapa, Allied politicians and admirals argued what to do with the warships. The British and Americans pressed for their destruction but this was opposed by France and Italy who wanted them distributed as war reparations. At 1120 hours on June 21 1919, German admiral Reuter gave the fateful order to scuttle. By noon many ships were beginning to list, and all the German warships broke out the Imperial ensign. Only at this stage did the British realise that something was amiss and at 1320 the message 'German battleships sinking' was flashed to the admiralty but it was too late to do anything but watch.

A private salvage firm was given the contract to raise them for scrap, a task which was still being carried out at the start of the Second World War. Seven warships (three battleships and four light cruisers) were too deep to be salvaged. They are still there, a hidden and almost forgotten memorial to the dramatic end of the German High Seas Fleet-

The Main Talk was presented by fellow member Charles Whiteing entitled Flyers of the First World War Recruiting posters for the Royal Flying Corps portrayed war in the air as an era when Knights rode forth into battle, winning honour and glory through their deeds and bravery. The promise these recruiting posters projected was close to reality as experienced by this new band of First World War aviators. Their lot was to be far better than the average soldier standing in a mud soaked trench, waiting to go "over the top" to be machine gunned, left dying on the barbed wire, or at the end of a bayonet. These new elite units flew high above the mud and mass death beneath them, their achievements glorified far beyond any of their comrades in the trenches below. Among those who answered the call to service was the Frenchman Georges Guynemer, a 19 year old, who in the summer of 1914 had watched some of these exotic flying machines landing on local beaches. He was the son of a former army officer, and had attempted to join up. However being too frail for either the cavalry or the infantry, but was accepted as a student mechanic in his country's newest military arm, the Flying Service.

In Owen Sound Ontario, the 20 year old William "Billy" Bishop was awaiting dismissal from Canada's Royal Military College. He was considered their worst student and a rebellious brawler. However, as Canada was entering the war, all was forgiven and he was transferred to England and commissioned as lieutenant in the cavalry. It was here that he saw his first military aircraft taking off, and had decided; "The only way to fight this war was up there in everlasting sunshine, above the mud and the mist."

In Strasbourg in Germany, the 18 year old Ernst Udet had wanted to be an artist, but his dominant father had persuaded him to follow a more masculine pursuit and he joined the Aero Club of Munich. He later wrote a letter to his father saying; "You have often accused me of cowardice but you are wrong as I'm leaving for the front tomorrow. If I die, my frivolous life will have met a worthy end."

Around the world this summer, thousands of men were being swept up by the currents of war. A British citizen working on a telephone project in Constantinople had been arrested by the Turkish authorities as an alien, had endured five months of maltreatment before being repatriated to England. The result was that Edward "Mick" Mannock was unfit for duty. However, his hatred of the Turks obsessed him, and he pestered the recruiting offices of all arms of the services, until he was finally accepted into the RFC.

Victor Chapman, was an American living in England, and had heard Londoners singing the French "Marseillaise" in the streets. He told his millionaire father he wanted to fight "for the most noble of all causes" and enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, and within weeks was digging trenches for the defence of Paris.

Eastwards into Europe, a German cavalry officer was overdue from a patrol into Russian occupied Poland. He had been hiding from a force of Cossack horsemen, and as they moved away, Lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen was able to gallop safely across the border and return to his unit. Mannock, Chapman, Richthofen, and the other players from this aerial combat arena, were destined for immortality for their part they were to play in this new form of warfare.

Manfred von Richthofen, having joined the German Air Service from the cavalry; was designated a knight of the order Pour le` Merite by Kaiser Wilhelm 2nd for heroism in the sky. Although the term "knight" was used for the best pilots, the term "ace" was designated for their numerical achievement in confirmed victories.

However despite their many shared characteristics, these pilots of the First World War were a diverse group of personalities.
Mick Mannock with his pathological hatred of Germans; would close on his victim and as he described "send the German vermin to hell in flames."

In contrast, his fellow countryman Albert Ball said he felt "rotten" when his gunnery completed its work. At the age of 20 he wrote, "I am really beginning to feel like a murderer and shall be pleased when I have finished."
He did not live to see his 21st birthday.

The German Ernst Udet admitted that he was so nervous during his first flights; he was unable to fire his guns.
On the other hand, Billy Bishop flew with such joyful disregard that a comrade described him as being "incapable of fear." The high profile Manfred von Richthofen was a precise tactician and showed total contempt for aerobatics which he regarded as showing off. He would fly in close formation, dropping high out of the sun and killing with one straight pass. His brother Lothar was described as an incurable aerobat firing at anything in the sky. The women in the lives of both Immelmann and Richthofen seemed to be their mothers, with Guynemer`s closest confidante his sister.

Boelcke loved the ladies and was once reprimanded for taking German nurses for a joyride in the delicious squeeze of his Fokker`s cockpit. By and large they could be described as a fairly modest group, the exception being France's Renee Fonck. Although the top scoring Allied pilot with 75 confirmed kills; he hardly hada friend in the air service because of his tendency to brag about his achievements. As in any branch of the military, individuality is frowned on. However, their individual quirks manifested themselves on their aircraft which carried them into battle.

Charles`s grandfather Frank Whiteing served in the RFC in German East Africa. Among his memorabilia displayed at the meeting was a program of the 1953 reunion of the campaign in Cape Town where the German officer commanding General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was the guest of honour.

Both talks were followed by a most lively question and answer session.

Professor Philip Everitt presented a comprehensive vote of thanks to both speakers for sharing their knowledge and well prepared talks.

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THIRD THURSDAY - 9 April2009 19.00 for 19.30

Usual Venue: Murray Theatre, Civil Engineering Building, Howard College Campus, UKZN
The DDH will be presented by Paul Kilmartin who will talk on the founding of the most prestigious of all British Empire awards for gallantry, the Victoria Cross.
The Main Talk will be presented by John Parkinson on Allied Naval Operations in Japanese Waters.
John, as he has done on several occasions, is travelling from Johannesburg at his own expense to address our meeting.

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Subscription Fees

For 2009 are now due R175 per single and R185 per family.

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Will take place prior to main meeting. Please submit any nominations for chairman and committee members to Ken Gillings.

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South African Military History Society /