South African Military 
History Society


August 2009

Contact: Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Bill Brady 031-561-5542

Mike Laing returned after 3 grizzly months in hospital and 2 months recuperating at home. Back to form he opened the meeting by presenting a short and most interesting slide show on "Who Are They?" The first looked easy, however, it was not Monty in his TACHQ in Normandy, but who were the two dogs? The black and white terrier was Hitler and the floppy-eared Spaniel was Rommel. Behind them was the infamous cage of canaries whose constant loud noise drove visitors crazy. The next image was from May 8, 1945, taken at the German surrender in the West, showing Ike, Tedder, Butcher, Bedell Smith, Morgan, and Suslaparoff. But someone is missing. A second picture from a different angle [not published] shows that it is Lt. Kay Summersby, Ike's lady chauffeur. Mike promises more "Who Are They?" in the future.

The DDH talk was presented by fellow member Brian Kennedy entitled John Phillip Holland - the father of the submarine. On 5th September 1914 the German unterseeboot SM U 21 sank the British light cruiser Pathfinder of the Firth of Forth. On 22 September the SM U-9, a submarine of only 450 tons with a crew of twenty-six men sank three cruisers, HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy off the Hook of Holland sending 36 000 tons of shipping and 1460 unfortunate sailors to Davy Jones' Locker in the space of 75 minutes. The era of submarine warfare had begun.

The inventor of the modern submarine, who had died only a month before, would have been delighted because this was the reason he had designed and built the very first successful submarine. He was John Phillip Holland, born on 24 February 1841 in Liscannor, Co. Clare, on the West coast of Ireland. As a young boy he went to primary school in Liscannor and then to the Irish Christian Brothers' school in Ennistymon. His father retired when he was 12 and the family moved to Limerick where he attended the Christian Brothers' secondary school in Sexton Street. At seventeen he decided to join the community of the Irish Christian Brothers and arrived at the novitiate and became Brother Philip. He was trained as a teacher and sent to the North Monastery in the city of Cork where he met a Brother Dominick Burke, a noted science teacher and founder of vocational training in Ireland. Burke was demonstrating the powers of electricity in underwater propulsion at the time. This would have an effect on Holland's thinking later in life. He fell ill in 1860 and the following year had to leave the Brothers due to ill-health. He taught in several schools around Ireland and retained his interest in things mechanical and developed his first submarine design in 1869. In 1873 set sail for Boston, Massachusetts to where his mother and brother, Alfred, had emigrated after his father's death.

Holland took a job as a draftsman in New York City and formed the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company together with Army Lieutenant Edmond Zalinski's Pneumatic Gun Company. Zalinski began promoting the idea of a submarine armed with a pneumatic gun. This led to the construction of the "Zalinski boat" in 1885 and 1886. However the boat collapsed on the stocks at launch and was never repaired for lack of funding.

In February 1893 a young lawyer named Elihu B Frost indicated his willingness to back Holland financially with his submarine experiments. The next month the US Congress voted $200,000 to cover another competition for a submarine torpedo boat. Frost met with Holland and agreed to lend him the money needed to prepare his bid. They formed the Holland Torpedo Boat Company. Holland again won the competition and the prize money.

The Holland VI was launched in Elizabethport, New Jersey in May 1897. He designed an improved type 7 submarine and the specifications and drawings were forwarded to the Navy in November 1899. After several trials and improvements the Navy bought the Holland VI. Subsequently a further six were ordered in August.

On 12 August 1914 he died of pneumonia. He was 73 year of age. Unfortunately he did not live to see his ideas successfully put into practice in war. He is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Totowa, New Jersey.

The Main Talk was presented by Professor Philip Everitt on the Role of Intelligence in the Desert War
Phil described the role of intelligence in the war in North Africa from the entry of Italy into the war until El Alamein.
The sources of intelligence discussed on the British side, were high level decryption by the Govt Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park (Enigma), photo reconnaissance (PR), and "Y" or (the decryption of low grade field messages). On the German side Rommel relied heavily on "Y" from his skilled radio intercept company, supplemented by POW interrogation and especially his "good source" - deciphered messages from the US Military attaché in Cairo, Lt Col Bonner Frank Fellers.

At the outbreak, the British were reading most Italian messages and were able to warn Wavell of Italy's impending entry into the war, and the limited scale of the Italian invasion of Egypt. Italy changed all Naval codes, but a brief period of code breaking led to the sinking or capture of a significant part of the Italian submarine fleet and the successful attack on Taranto. Later intelligence gained from POWs, captured documents, censorship, sigint and PR, played a major part in Wavell's "Compass" counter offensive, the capture of Tobruk and the destruction or capture of the major portion of Italian field army.

At this stage Rommel arrived and the British began to rely heavily on Enigma decrypts from Bletchley Park, despite the drawback the fact that most of the traffic was from the German Air Force Enigma. This meant that army movements and intentions had to be inferred to a large extent from the Air Force messages. During Rommel's swift advance to the Egyptian frontier, the British were also handicapped by the fact that he exceeded his orders! However the first British Y intercept unit was dispatched to Greece and allowed for timeous staged withdrawals and contributed to the major losses inflicted on German airborne troops during the invasion of Crete and revealed the limited extent of German involvement in Iraq.

Rommel was by now beginning to make extensive use of his excellent 621 radio intercept company under the command of Lt later Capt Seebohm. Utilizing the poor radio security of the British, along with POW interrogations, captured documents, and radio direction finding they managed to establish the entire British order of battle and the positions of many of the units

At this stage breaking of the Italian C38M port operations code and successes by British Y as well as a greatly expanded Enigma reading capability at Bletchley enabled the British and Auchinleck, the new commander to cause major disruption of Axis supply convoys and the retreat of Rommel back to his starting point at El Ageila although their own stretched LOC prevented full advantage from being taken. In addition to his intercept company Rommel began to make extensive use of long and detailed messages sent from the US Military Attaché, Col Fellers to Washington. These were in the "black code", compromised months earlier by the Italians and available to the Germans also. These gave full details of British strengths, positions, movements, armament weaknesses, and even the relationships between the British and colonial forces. Rommel made extensive use of these messages which were on his desk the morning after they were transmitted and they were instrumental in his very successful attacks at Gazala, Tobruk and the Egyptian border, as well as the destruction of a crucial Malta convoy and the SAS attack on the Axis airfields and even revealed the British decision to stand at Alamein. Finally however Enigma decrypts revealed an American source of the leaks to the Germans and Fellers was recalled just after the fall of Tobruk.

Rommel suffered a further major blow when during attack by the Australians and South Africans at El Alamein on 10 July 1942, the Australians overran his 621 wireless intercept company and Seebohm was captured and died of wounds. This led to realization of faults and major tightening of radio security by the Allies. By now Allied strength was increasing day by day, capabilities at Bletchley had increased vastly with the daily number of decrypts increasing by a factor of 600. British Y had reached high levels of efficiency in the desert, and Rommel never really stood a chance against the new commanders Alexander and Montgomery.

From the British side some of the drawbacks experienced by Wavell and especially Auchinleck were that Churchill always had Enigma information before him and relied heavily on it without the additional benefit of battlefield and Y intelligence which sometimes led to conflicting conclusions. In addition the source of Enigma intelligence was not allowed to be disclosed to some of his commanders such as Gen Cunningham, so that they were not always aware of its real authenticity and value.

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THURSDAY 13 August 2009 - 19.00 for 19.30

Usual Venue: Murray Theatre, Civil Engineering Building, Howard College Campus, UKZN

The DDH will be presented by fellow member Dr Deena Padayachee on "The French under siege: Alesia, Sedan and Dien Bien Phu."
The Main Talk will be presented by Brig Gen Albie Gotze on "Operation Downfall-The US planned invasion of Japan, WW2."

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FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: September - November 2009

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Annual Base Visit

84 Signal Unit on 27th August 2009 at 19h3O. Organiser: Lt. Col Graeme Fuller. Please contact Graeme on 0826595213 or e-mail to provide the CO with numbers. 84 Signals Unit is situated in Lords Ground military base, Old Fort Road, Durban.

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Battlefield Tour - 9th to 11th October 2009

This year's tour will be to eNtombe (12th March 1879), Hlobane (28th March 1879) and Khambule (29th March 1879) in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, over the weekend of the 9th to 11th October 2009.
Due to the vast distances involved and the remoteness of Hlobane, we have suggested a departure on Friday 9th October 2009 and have negotiated a special rate with Oxford Lodge, Vryheid, at R500 per room sharing (R250 pp) / R380 per person single accommodation on a B & B basis (dinner for own account at one of the nearby restaurants).
MEMBERS ARE REQUESTED TO MAKE THEIR OWN BOOKINGS DIRECTLY WITH THE LODGE. The contact details are 034 980 9280 or via e-mail on Please ask for Heidi or Juanita and refer to the SA Military History Society Tour - Ken Gillings.
If you wish to join the tour on Saturday 10th October 2009, we intend leaving the lodge at 08h00. Please bear in mind that the travelling time to Vryheid from Durban is between 3 1/2 and 4 hours! You will still qualify for the special rate if you only stay for one night.
NOTE: We intend transporting members to the summit of Hlobane by 4x4 vehicles. If you have a 4x4 available, please indicate by e-mailing Ken on . An application form will be circulated at the next two meetings. The cost will be R30 per person for members and R50 per person for non-members.

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