South African Military History Society


The Society evening of the 12th November began with a curtain raiser by Jennifer Copley who spoke about the Royal Air Force before and during WW I. From a humble beginning in 1818 when the British Government allocated a sum of £ 150 for the purchase of a balloon, via the man-lifting observation kites which were trailed behind Navy ships, to the small aircraft units struggling against adversity. Not only did they have to fight ignorance and adversity vis-a-vis the establishment, but they also had to overcome shortcomings of technical natures as well as a short supply in aircraft and equipment. Despite all this the RAF developed and grew into a first class fighting air power to be reckoned with adding glory to their name.

The main talk of the evening was a presentation of the Zeppelin aera by John Mahncke.

The inventor of Zeppelins, Graf Zeppelin, a retired Army General, began building dirigibles or airships from 1898, first in floating hangars on the Bodensee at Friedrichshafen, later in ground based hangars. They had a length of 128 m, were underpowered; leaking gas bags filled with hydrogen presented a continous fire hazard; rain, wind, fog and snow became their enemies, and they learnt to operate through trial and error, improving designs as they went along.

Until 1914 Zeppelin and his team lost five airships through crashes or accidental fire, and another seven were so badly damaged that they had to be broken up; out of a total of 18 airships built only six performed satisfactorily and carried passengers, goods and mail within German borders.

Zeppelins, however, came into their own during WW I when they were employed on reconnaissance duties on the eastern and western fronts by the Army in preference to the unreliable and still accident prone aircraft.

The Navy, which purchased the greatest number of Zeppelins, warmed to the idea of employing airships rather late, but they carried out the most number of bombing raids on Great Britain with London becoming the main target. The first raid was undertaken in January 1915 and from then on Zeppelins bombed cities until 1917 when raids all but stopped.

Airship crews numbered from 14 to 19 sailors/soldiers, on longer patrols there were up to 22 on board. They were all volunteers because their jobs were very hazardous. Navigation was mainly visual and in bad weather, fog or snow positional errors of up to 160 km occurred. Cruising altitudes were 1800 m at first, but improved anti airship guns and aircraft forced Zeppelins up higher, even above 4000 m when oxygen starvation, freezing cold and malfunctioning engines took their toll.

Zeppelins became more advanced as the war progressed, eventually showing a length of 225 m, a diameter of 25m, speed of 200 km p.h. and bomb carrying capacity of 8 tons. All these improvements did not help the Zeppelins, though, and at the end of WW I the Navy losses were 40% of crews and 53 out of 73 airships either destroyed by enemy action or accidents. The Army lost 26 ships out of 50.

From 1928 onwards a number of vastly improved Zeppelins were built, culminating in the largest ever designed, named Graf Zeppeling and Hindenburg. Especially these last two performed extremely well, circling the globe and establishing new records in safety, luxury and passenger carrying capacity. Sadly, the Hindenburg, after one year of safe flying, although still haunted by the hydrogen gas danger (Helium gas had been promised by the USA but never delivered) caught fire while landing at Lakehurst in May 1931 and was a total loss with many fatal casualties. This chapter closed the airship aera once and - so it appears - for all times.

The presentation ended with a fascinating video about airships in general and the disaster of the Hindeburg in particular.

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Special Notes: Our Society has a paid-up membership of 558; 436 in Johannesburg, 125 In Durban, 39 in Cape Town. 42 members who have not paid have been struck off the register.

The Committee has agreed to a small increase in subscription fees (below the inflation rate); individual membership is now R 30.- and family membership R 35.- per annum. This is mainly to cover the expected increase in printing our Journal.

Tours: The two-day Rustenburg Tour has been planned for l3th/l4th March 93.

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Future Meetings:


10th December. In the wake of HMS Dragon. Capt. I.Little

14th January. History of Armour up to 1940. Col. Jack Wall


10th December In recess

14th January Major Dennis Shiel-Small MC, will talk on the battle of Kohima.
Contact in Durban: Tania v.d.Watt, Tel.: 764 29 10


10th December Colonel Robert Gordon: The soldier and the man Jack Wilkinson

Cape Town contact: Paul Lange, Tel.: 617 441 after hours.

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Books: Versatile Genius. The Royal Engineers and their Maps. Compiled by Yvonne Garson. The book measures 300 x 235 mm, is thread-sewn in a soft cover imprinted in gold. 95 pp. Price: R 150.- Available from Frank R. Therold (Pty)Ltd., P.O. Box 241, Johannesburg.

Rustenburg at War. Upgraded 2nd edition. Author: L. Wulfsohn. 352 pages, 27 chapters, 96 photos, 12 maps, detailed references, index, and hard illustrated cover. Price: R 71.- including packing and registered postage. Order from: P.O. Box 52, Rustenburg 0300. Further information can be obtained from the Scribe at the tel. No. below.

John Mahncke (Scribe)
(011) 453 63 53

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