The usual pattern of a curtain-raiser and a main talk was abandoned at the 9th March meeting. Instead, there were two talks of roughly equal length.
The first, given by retiring Society Chairman John Mahnke, was based on his own experiences as one of the 30 000 or so German high-school students conscripted for the Luftwaffe's anti-aircraft defences in February 1943.
The status of the so-called "Luftwaffenhelfer" was ambiguous, as their uniforms gave them a political rather than a military identity, which meant they were not covered by the Geneva Convention.
This anomaly was not officially corrected even when the batteries they were manning were being overrun by advancing allied forces, although when that happened their battery commanders usually either sent them home or turned them into regular soldiers.
Their legal status was equally confused. In part they belonged to the Hitler-Youth and were subject to its regulations. They were also responsible to the Luftwaffe. Finally, they were still the responsibility of their schools and their parents. The wrangling for control never ceased, and the only beneficiaries were those Luftwaffenhelfers who played one party against another, often successfully.
John described the feeling among the first intake, in which he was included, as being one of elation at being released from the yoke of school and teachers. Few understood the consequences of an interrupted education. In the early days arrangements were made to continue classes, with teachers visiting the batteries regularly. But as the military situation worsened, and the burden of duties increased, these eventually ceased. The boys then assumed the role of full-time military personnel until called up for the regular armed forces.
Transport to John's first battery was by inglorious tramcar. Food was ample, but average, and the quality deteriorated the longer the war lasted. There were no sweets to relieve the emotional pressure, and beer and cigarettes were forbidden, although certainly indulged in.
Duties rapidly grew to service on the guns and associated equipment, and action became more frequent and prolonged as the western allies' bombing campaign increased in intensity. Leave was seldom taken, and from the game of playing soldiers the boys soon graduated to battle-hardened gunners. Many Luftwaffenhelfers were killed in action, and some were even executed when captured by the advancing Russians and Poles. John's service ended when he came of age to join the army as a Panzergrenadier.
Also now ending is his service with the Military History Society, which has included two years as chairman and many more as committee member. He and his wife are leaving Johannesburg to join their family in Cape Town. The Society, which ironically consists of John's old military enemies, wishes all the very best for their future.
The second talk, The 95th (Rifle) Regiment of Foot - From Inception to Waterloo, was given by Hamish Paterson on behalf of Kemsley Couldridge.
The Rifle Brigade has always occupied a unique status in the British Army, second only to the Brigade of Guards. One of its chief distinguishing features was the fact that at a time when the line infantry wore red tunics, theirs were green. Hence the name Green Jackets.
The concept of rifling in the barrel of a musket originated from when hunters discovered that they could kill more effectively, and at greater range, by biting, or chewing, their musket balls. It was deduced, correctly, that this helped impart spin to the ball, and it was this spin that made it so much more effective.
A primitive form of rifling was soon transferred to the musket barrel itself, and during the European wars of the 18th century the use of the rifled musket gradually increased as a weapon for light infantry and skirmishers. When used by an expert marksman the rifle was accurate up to 500 yards, compared with a maximum of 100 yards for a smooth-bore musket. Light infantry were used with moderate success by the British army in the American War of Independence. But it was not until 1795 and the French Revolutionary Wars, when the famous Grand Old Duke of York was Commander-in-Chief, that an experimental rifle corps was formed.
Members were drawn from various regiments, and it was later gazetted as the 95th regiment of foot. Its weapon was the Baker rifle, which was 10 inches shorter than the standard "Brown Bess" musket. Built into the stock was a compartment to hold the greased linen patches which enabled the ball to be thrust home without hammering, or damaging the rifling.
The rifle's deficiency in length was compensated for by a longer bayonet, although this was of the sword variety and the rifle could not be fired when it was fixed. However, riflemen were seldom called upon to fight in the line, so the bayonet was used more as an implement than a weapon. The choice of green for the uniform emphasized the role of the rifleman as a sniper and marksman. Other items of equipment, such as the leather buttons and black leather carrying straps complemented the camouflage effect. The style of the uniform was based on that of the light cavalry rather than the infantry. Officers wore a pelisse and a dolman. They also carried a cavalry sword and originally wore a Tarlton helmet and a barrel sash as did certain hussar regiments.
The rifleman's training was based on the concept that alone among the British Army's infantrymen, he was expected to use his initiative and intelligence and act on his own when the circumstances demanded. He was required to be literate, and was not subject to the same brutal treatment as the ordinary soldier.
The Society's thanks are due to Dan Robinson for providing two superb examples of a Baker Rifle and a Brown Bess, which added much to the talk.
There will be vacancies on the Society's committee at the AGM on 20th April. Will members who have recommendations for the committee please have them ready.
To celebrate VE Day, Trafalgar's Central Hotels is offering 14-day, fully escorted tours of battle sights and museums from London through Normandy, Belgium, Holland and north Germany. Cost per person is R5 180. For details contact society member Mike Hessen on (011) 333-7114
20th April Annual General Meeting
G Barrell - The Roman Invasion of Britain
Ken Gillings - The Battle of Mome Gorge in the Bambatha Rebellion - 10th June 1906
20th April - Bill Brady - Stalingrad
13th April - W Jaamolowicz - The Role of the Polish armed forces in WWll
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