South African Military History Society


The Chairman and Committee would like to extend cordial NEW YEAR'S GREETINGS to all members.

You will receive statements for your subscriptions and it would be appreciated if you could forward your remittances timeously. The amount requested is small, considering that you receive two Journals per annum, as well as your monthly Newsletter, and have the opportunity to attend one evening meeting per month at the Museum enjoying a wide ranging lecture programme.

Col Jack Clayton opened our evening of 9th December with a short overview of the Battle of the Atlantic, supplemented by excellent visual maps. The battle opened with the sinking of the ATHENIA on 3 Sept. 1939 by a U-Boat. Initially, the German U-Boats gained the upper hand with operations around the British Isles. They added attacks on convoys in the N.W. approaches and heavy losses of ships were recorded. From March 41 countermeasures and the growing power of RAF coastal command forced U-Boats away from the Isles.

They roamed along the West African coast, and in early 42 started to operate off the US East coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean as well, and Allied losses soared. The tide turned following fierce battles between the Wolf packs and the convoy escorts, special hunter/killer groups and stepped up air cover from Aug 42 to May 43 which left the U-Boats battered. Up till then the ratio of lost U-Boats to destroyed Allied ships had been in favour of the Germans, now they had lost 60 boats compared to only 84 ships. In 43/44 this rose to 60 boats vs 42 ships. The U-Boats countered by sinking ships off the African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope. However, after the invasion of Europe in 44, losses of U-Boats increased due to sea- and air-superiority of the Allies, rendering them ineffective. A last-ditch attempt by Admiral Doenitz, the CIC of U-Boats, to use almost obselete VII-C boats to "tie up enemy aircraft at sea which might otherwise bomb German cities", failed miserably. German historians seem to agree that the 5-year Battle of the Atlantic can be considered the third decisive defeat of German forces during WW II, after Alamein and Stalingrad.

Our main speaker of the evening was Hamish Paterson, who took it upon himself to de-lionize Napoleon (if only just a bit) by introducing us to the battle of Aspern-Essling (May 1809).

The Austrians had gone to war in 1809 hoping to regain territory lost in previous wars with the French, and also to avenge their defeat at Austerlitz in 1805. Archduke Charles, one of their better military leaders, had reformed the Austrian army since then, although his efforts had been obstructed by the Emperor Francis who felt that his throne was threatened. One had the puzzling picture of a Monarch with territorial ambitions doing his utmost to undermine all efforts to succeed.

The Austrian army, having been outfought at Ebensberg and Eckmuehl by Napoleon escaped, still intact, over the bridges at Regensburg. Davout's III (French) Corps pursued the main army, but they managed to elude pursuit in the Bohemian mountains, there to re-group, while Archduke Charles gained time to muster the Bohemian Landwehr.

Expecting that an occupation of Vienna would bring Emperor Charles to terms, Napoleon decided to strike for the capital, intending to cross the Danube to force the Austrians to battle. However, the garrison had already evacuated Vienna and had taken up positions on the north bank of the Danube, with the Austrian main army under Charles in striking distance, of which facts Napoleon was unaware.

After constructing bridges at Kaisers-Ebersdorf, French cavalry crossed to the north of the river followed by massed French forces on the morning of 21 May. At noon the Austrians attacked and furious fighting continued all through the day, with Aspern changing hands a few times, and with cavalry fighting it out with each other in the centre. Three attacks on Essling by the valiant Austrians were repulsed.

Next morning Napoleon launched another attack on the Austrian centre, but his forces were massacred by the Austrian artillery. Despite this the French made progress and the Austrian lines began to waver. In this crisis Archduke Charles seized the colours of the Zach Infantry Regiment and led his men forward. The French ran low on ammunition and despite renewed cavalry charges the impetus was last. The French withdrew to the original bridgehead during the night of 22/23 May, abandoning their positions an the north banks of the Danube.

It was the first time that an army under Napoleon's command retreated from a battlefield defeated, and for 36 hours afterwards the great Corse remained mazed.

Kemsley Couldridge, as a member of the Napoleonic Society, thanked Hamish for his well illustrated and researched presentation.

* * *

Forthcoming lectures:

13th January 1994
The Battle of Hastings - Louis Wildenboer

Tipu Ali (Sultan) - Ian B. Simmonds

The list of lectures for 1994 is almost complete. However, there are still a few curtain raiser spots vacant. Any member wishing to contribute with a serious or lighthearted story is very welcome. Please contact the Scribe.


(Chairman & Scribe) (011) 453 63 53

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