South African Military History Society

JUNE 1992 NEWSLETTER

The curtain-raiser on the Society evening of 14th May was a short discourse by Mr. Ian Uys about his recent book: "The Honoris Crux." During his research he discovered many interesting facts not only of military but also of human interest told to him by the recipients of the medal of which just over 200 were awarded. His book covers the years from 1961, when the first terrorist attacks began,to the sinking of the Oceanos. During his formidable research Mr. Uys was even interrogated by military intelligence interested in the sources of his information.The book is a worthyaddition to the military history literature in South Africa.

The main speaker of the evening was Mr. John Keene who presented his talk about the manufacture of war gases in South Africa.

The early beginnings of gas warfare date back to WW I, when on 22 April 1915, German troops released 150 tons of liquid chlorine from 6.000 cylinders spread along a four mile front at Ypres. A unfavourable wind spread vaporized liquid chlorine towards the allied trenches with disastrnus results.

The use of gas was contrary to the 1899 agreement of the first Hague Peace Conference which had outlawed the use of poison gas, and to which 33 countries had subscribed.

In tit-for-tat moves the allies retaliated and from then on the gases became more sophisticated and as a result more lethal, not only killing thousands of soldiers on both sides but inflicting permanent damage to thousands more who had survived the gassing.

Churchill, at the beginning of WW II, fearing that Germany had a stockpile of gases, and having no moral objection to using gas as a weapon, insisted on stepped-up production in Britain and elsewhere. As a result of contacts between the British Ministry of Supply and the Union Defence Force, Brigadier Henry Cotton of the GA Engineer Corps asked Major William Bleloch, an eminent chemical engineer, to undertake a feasibility study about gas manufacture in South Africa.

This task was quickly accomplished; most raw materials were available in this country. A pilot plant to produce mustard gas, the most deadly one, was erected at Modderfontein on the East Rand. This establishment became the 99 Technical Works Company of the SA Engineering Corps.

To change to full gas production, the Government purchased a site on the farm Klipfontein No.19 and Col. Bleloch commissioned a plant to produce mustard gas at a rate of 10 tons per day. However, this capacity was not sufficient to the British principals and a second factory was erected at Firgrove on the False Bay coast.

Once full production had commenced at all plants, the 99 Techn. Works Coy was disbanded and all operations placed on a civilian basis, with Co. Bleloch remaining as General Manager, albeit describing the production of gas as a foul and thankless task and very hazardous.

Luckily no fatalities occurred but a great number of injuries were recorded. In the end gas was not used during WW II by either side, although its use had been contemplated on various occasions and humanity came perhaps very close to danger point, but Churchill as well as Hitler (who had been one of gas' WW I temporary casualties) desisted.

After the war the local factories turned their production capacities to the manufacture of DDT for which there was a great demand to prevent the outbreak of typhoid in the war ravaged countries.

It remained to Col. Bleloch and his team to organize the destruction of the bulk stockpile of gas. Most of it was burned but some of it was apparently dumped by careless members of the British principals into the sea near Port Elizabeth resulting in burn cases among trawlermen.

The tremendous work of Col. Bleloch and his 2000 workers was never rewarded, presumably due to the fact that the production of gas had an odious smell about it in more ways than one. On the contrary, his British principals treated him in cavalier fashion, leaving all responsibility to him.

Dr. Walter Murton, on behalf of members thanked the speaker for his extremely well researched and fascinating presentation.

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Future Meetings:

JOHANNESBURG:
11th June. Prof.Ian Copley: Silkaatsnek.

CAPE TOWN:
11th June. Mr. H. Sage: The rise of Japanese military power 1853 to WW II.
For further information telephone 617 441 (after hours)

DURBAN:
11th June. Prof. R. Wood: An overview of the strategy of the Rhodesian Forces during the bush war.
For further information telephone 7642970

9th July. Mr. A. Hall: The Boston Tea Party and all that, now.

13th Aug. Evening outing to 8th Armoured Division HQ at Lords Grounds.

10th Sept. Mr. G. Oram: A guest of Mussolini and Hitler.

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JOHANNESBURG: Weekend tour to Ladysmith. - Further details will be issued during next Lecture evening.

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Lest we forget.

After the fall of Addis Ababa in April 1941, the South African 1st Brigade moved towards Amba Alagi from the south, where the Duke of Aosta with his Italian units made his last stand.

Fighting at an altitude of 9000 feet in rain and bitter cold, the South Africans first had to take the Komboltcha Pass. They did this with only a loss of 10 soldiers killed, while inflicting heavy losses on the enemy and capturing a large variety of weapons.

Despite Amba Alagi being a heavily defended natural fortress with mined approaches and dangerous mountain terrain, it took the South Africans only five days to capture their sector on the southern approaches. The Duke of Aosta sued for an armistice on 16th May 1941, thereby effectively ending the Abyssinian campaign.

John Mahncke (011) 453 63 53


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