South African Military History 


Newsletter No 54 Febuary 2009/Nuusbrief Nr 54 Maart 2009

As Pat Irwin was unable to present his series on historically significant guns in South Africa, the 9 February 2009 meeting opened with a presentation by Malcolm Kinghorn on the most frequently contested place on earth. This is Adrianople, now Edirne in European Turkey, where 15 sieges or battles have been recorded, the first in AD 323 and the last in July 1913. It lies on only extensive plain in the south eastern tip of Europe. On the other side of the plain, 190 kms away, is Constantinople, now Istanbul. The 2 cities together dominate movement in either direction from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and from Europe to Asia Minor. As Constantinople was impregnable to attack from seaward, invaders of or from southern Europe were compelled to cross the plain to its rear. Adrianople/Edirne is at the European end of a land bridge between Asia Minor and Europe and thus fought over whenever there was a flow of military force either east-west or west-east.

Stephen Bowker's curtain raiser was on his recent visit to the site of the Battle of Blood River, fought on the Ncome River on 16 December 1838. Stephen traced the background to the battle from the Trekker migration into Zulu territory, the murder of Retief's party on 6 February 1838 to the Blaaukrantz Massacre on 17 February 1838. Andries Pretorius was elected as military leader of a punitive raid on the Zulus on 26 November 1838. A Covenant with God was made at Danskraal on 9 December 1838 that a church would be built and the day always observed as a Sabbath should the Trekkers be victorious over the Zulu army.

On 15 December, after the Trekkers crossed the Buffalo River, scouts reported a large Zulu force approaching. As site for an overnight camp, Pretorius chose an area next to the Ncome River, which provided rear protection. The area provided no cover for an attacking force. The ox wagons were drawn into a protective circle or laager and two cannon were positioned.

During the first phase of the battle on 16 December, the Zulu repeatedly and unsuccessfully attacked the laager. After two hours and four waves of attack, Pretorius led horsemen out of the laager to engage the Zulus. The Zulus withstood the assault for some time, but rapid losses forced them to scatter. The Trekkers pursued their fleeing enemies for three hours. About 3,000 Zulus were reported to have been killed and three Trekkers were wounded.

In 1971 a laager of 64 life sized ox wagons cast in bronze was erected on the battlefield. Today two complexes mark the battle site: the Ncome Monument and Museum Complex east of the Ncome River, and the Blood River Monument and Museum Complex to the west. The main lecture was by John Parkinson on HIJMS Wakamiya and HIJMS Hosho: Early Imperial Japanese Naval Air Power.

The British collier Lethington was confiscated by Japan for attempting to run the Japanese blockade of Vladivostok in February 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War. Renamed the Wakamiya Maru, she was used as an airplane tender during Japanese Naval exercises in 1913. After Japan had declared war on the Central Powers in August 1914, Japanese forces, aided by British land and sea forces, attacked the German enclave of Tsingtao in China. The Japanese fleet deployed included the Wakamiya Maru and 4 seaplanes. The aircraft were used to reconnoitre and bomb German positions. An important contribution of the aerial recconnaissance was early confirmation that the German cruiser Emden was no longer in port. The bombing did little damage. This IJN aerial activity preceded that of the RN. A Fleet Flying Corps, centred on the renamed Wakamiya, was established in September 1916. Aerial activities included reconnaissance, submarine search and night flying. It was soon realised that use of a seaplane tender required calm conditions and that aircraft carriers would be needed to operate aircraft in rougher conditions. The Wakamiya was fitted with a 20 metre flight deck and reclassified as an aircraft carrier in 1920. She was de-commisioned in 1931.

Development of the IJN air capability was helped by semi-official British support. A Central Training School for the Naval Air Service was established 40 miles NE of Tokyo in 1921. An early benefit to Britain was the appreciable number of British aircraft acquired by Japan. The development of Japanese built Naval aircraft relied heavily on British support. An example is the hiring by Mitshubishi of a British Sopworth designer after the latter company ceased trading. Another is that the maiden flight of the Misubishi Navy Type 10 fighter was piloted by a Briton.

The HIJMS Hosho, commissioned in December 1922, was the first purpose built aircraft carrier to enter service. The first such ships in the RN and USN were commissioned in 1923 and 1934 respectively. Aircraft flying off the Hosho were involved in the Shangai Incident in 1932. However, by the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941, she was too small to operate modern aircraft and was obsolete. She was, however, still used as a training carrier and was part of the Japanese fleet in the Battle of Midway. After the war, she was used as repatriatriation transport before being scrapped in 1946.

Following their first use of Naval air power at Tsingtao in 1914, the IJN moved rapidly and in an impressively coordinated manner to develop their air arm in respect of ships, aircraft and manpower.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on Monday 9 March 2009 at the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club. The AGM will be held in lieue of a curtain raiser. The main lecture will be on the Ambush at Kalkheuwel Pass, June 3 1900 by Ian Copley.

The Southern African Arms and Collectors Association (Eastern Cape) will be holding an informal meeting at 19h00 on Tuesday 03 March, at the MOTH Club, 52 King Edward Street, Newton Park. Anyone interested in historical or other collectable firearms and ammunition is welcome to attend.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

South African Military History Society /