South African Military History 


Newsletter No 56 May 2009/Nuusbrief Nr 56 Mei 2009

The 13 April 2009 meeting opened with the first of Richard Tomlinson's series on South African Fortifications. In this introductory presentation, Richard made the point that many fortifications in South Africa are blockhouses. The term appears to have been first used to describe the smaller coastal batteries built during King Henry VIII's defence of the English coasts in the 1530s and 1540s, as distinct from larger "castles". The term is encountered in South Africa in the early nineteenth century when it was used to describe three masonry towers built by the British on the slopes of Table Mountain to protect Cape Town and two prefabricated wooden towers which were shipped to Algoa Bay to safeguard a landing place in what later became Port Elizabeth. In this series, a "masonry blockhouse" is defined as a structure of mortared stonework or concrete, one to three stories in height, with a roof of timber and corrugated iron or concrete, with rifle ports, windows and doors protected by loopholed steel plates and with or without steel machicouli galleries. The latter were cantilevered out from the walls at two diagonally opposite corners to allow flanking fire along the walls in case of attack.

Mike Duncan's curtain raiser was on the Jersey War Tunnels, with emphasis on the German Underground Hospital. The German military occupation of the Channel Islands lasted from 30 June 1940 to 9 May 1945. These were the only portions of Britain to be occupied by German forces during WW2. As part of the Atlantic Wall, the Germans constructed fortifications on the islands, including the underground hospital in Jersey. Planned as a bombproof artillery barracks and ammunition store, the complex was never completed, being converted into a hospital in the weeks leading up to D-Day. The work was done by forced labourers from France, including refugees from Spain and Morocco, and East European POWs. The complex has been restored as a museum of the German Occupation of Jersey and includes reconstruction of many of the areas within the Hospital - the operating theatre, doctors' and nurses' quarters, wards, offices, stores - and several unfinished tunnels.

The main lecture by Barry de Klerk was on the Naming of Ships. Ship names can offer insight into the psychology of a navy. Barry started with USS Barry, named after a naval officer from the US War of Independence. The current USS Barry is an Arleigh Burke class destroyer. The class has interesting names, including Burke himself, a very effective destroyer leader in WW2. Another is named after John Paul Jones, who, in his fight with HMS Serapis, was invited to surrender and famously replied that he had not yet begun to fight. Other names include USS Winston Churchill, USS Chaffee and USS Chung Hoon, named after a US admiral.

Naming ships after people can honour heroes, but sometimes names have been used to reward politicians. Aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS John C Stennis were named after politicians sympathetic towards naval spending. US carriers are at present named after presidents, appropriate when USS George Bush is named after a former naval aviator. As a former submariner, Jimmy Carter had the third Sea Wolf class submarine named after him.

Sometimes the name given to a ship gives an idea of how that navy views it. The Trident class SSBNs were given state names, traditionally used for battleships, while the SSN 688 Los Angeles class is named after cities, traditionally cruiser names, so one can imagine that they were seen as the successors to battleships and cruisers respectively.

The Royal Navy often used letters to start a sequence of names, like Daring and Diamond, but gets a bit strange when another in this class, then the largest destroyers in the Royal Navy, is HMS Dainty. Invincible, Inflexible, Illustrious and Indomitable were a more credible sequence.

Nicknames could also be fun - the Nelson class battleships were nicknamed the Cherry Tree class because they had been cut down by Washington - the Washington Treaty having limited them to less than 35000 tons, smaller and slower than they would have been otherwise. The Furious class became Spurious, Uproarious and Outrageous.

Soviet warship names were often unknown in the west, but now we know old friends by new names. For example, what the West called the Typhoon class of SSBN, the Soviets called Akula (Shark), and what the West called the Akula class is now known as Bars.

Due to political changes, once appropriate names become unfashionable. SAN strike craft named after Ministers of Defence, now have names like Job Maseko and Adam Kok. The Russian Navy has a battle cruiser Peter the Great, not a name that a ship would have had in Soviet times.

It has been said that when a ship is ordered it is called a Corvette, when in commission it is a Frigate, when deployed the press call it a battleship and, should it be lost, it will be termed a Patrol Boat.

Sixteen members and guests have indicated their attendance of SAMHSEC's Lower Albany tour from 15 to 17 May 2009. The tour includes the Albany Museum, Bathurst, 43 Air School, the Fish River mouth, Southwell, Lombaard's Post and Theophilus. Other persons wishing to attend all or part of the tour should contact Malcolm as soon as possible.

SAMHSEC's annual Grahamstown meeting is on 13 June 2009. Alan Bamford is coordinating a tour of the area between Sidbury and Grahamstown for the morning. Attendance by as many PE members as possible would be appreciated. Alan's willingness to arrange the morning programme is greatly appreciated.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on Monday 11 May 2009 at the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club. The meeting will open with the second in Richard Tomlinson's series on South African Fortifications. The curtain raiser will be on Food with Military Connections by Anne Irwin. The main lecture will be From Barbarossa to Kursk: the Eastern Front from 1941-1943 by Rick van Heerden.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

South African Military History Society /