South African Military History Society


It seems no human activity breeds more stupidity and incompetence than war. In the curtain raiser at the 14th November society meeting, committee member Martin Ayres delivered another of his amusing expositions of military commanders down the ages who have contrived to lose battles, waste lives and destroy nations through idiotic, idiosyncratic, and even lunatic, behaviour.

Some generals have made their name in history by neglecting their duty of overall command and taking part in the fight instead. For example, during the French Religious Wars of the 17th century the commanders of both the Catholic and Protestant armies were captured by their opponents because they chose to lead cavalry charges.

Then there were those who, through personal animosity, lost battles by refusing to support their fellow commanders, as did Russian generals Samsonov and Rennenkampf at the battles of Tannanberg and the Masurian Lakes in 1914. Others had bouts of pure insanity such as WW1 Greek C-in-C General Hajianestis who spent most of his time in bed because he believed his legs were so brittle they would shatter if he stood on them, and who often lay perfectly still because he thought he was dead; and Prussian Field Marshal Blucher who once confided in Wellington that he was pregnant with an elephant by a French soldier.

Cowardice, conservativism, sloth and age have all contributed to the long list of history's military blunders. British general Sackville at Minden in 1759 refused to obey four separate orders to attack with his cavalry. The defeat of the French in the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt were the result of their commanders clinging to inappropriate tactics, as was the collapse of their army in the face of Hitler's Blitzkrieg in 1940.

At the Battle of the Crater during the American Civil War, two divisional commanders spent their time drinking rum in a cellar, leaving their troops to fight on without orders or leadership. General von Pennavaire, the great Prussian cavalry commander was 80 years old as the Battle of Colin in 1757 and had acquired the nickname "anvil" because he had been beaten so often. At the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 there were 13 British general with more than 70 years service and 163 with between 50 and 60 years.

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The Battle of Matapan, which was the subject of society member Hamish Paterson's main lecture, was fought south of Crete in March 1941 and marked the early end of the Italian Navy's ambitions of acquiring naval supremacy in the Mediterranean.

The British victory was to a major extent due to the superiority of its air support as represented by HMS Formidable, one of the Royal Navy's virtually brand-new, and immensely powerfully built, aircraft carriers. The Italians had put their faith in their land-based aircraft, which were anyway deficient in both numbers and in suitability for their role. Thus the British had better reconnaissance capability and were able to contribute to confusion among the Italian ships by launching air attacks on them.

The Fleet Air Arm had disabled a major proportion of the Italian fleet in its brilliantly successful raid on the naval base of Taranato in November 1940, so that when the British began to send convoys of troops to Greece in the winter of 1941 the Italian response was both reluctant, and weaker than it might have been. This was despite the German promise of air support, which was anyway not kept. Moreover, the Italians ships were desperately short of fuel, and had not been trained in fighting at night.

The RN had no heavy cruisers in the Mediterranean, and their light cruisers were inferior in speed to the Italian. However, they did have three old, slow battleships -- the Barham, and the recently modernised Warspite and Valiant. The Luftwaffe claimed to have sunk these last two, but they were still very much afloat when the British Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham decided to put to sea with his battleships, his carrier, and an escort of nine destroyers, in response to air reconnaissance reports that Italian cruisers had been sighted north of Crete. As soon as the ltalians became aware they had been spotted, these cruisers were ordered to join the main Italian force -- which included the Vittorio Veneto, a fast, new battleship -- close to the island of Gavdhos, south of Crete.

Cunningham's slow progress was unexpectedly helped by a force of British six-inch gun cruisers that had been covering a convoy, and which were sighted by the Italian cruisers. As the Italian cruiser force was obviously stronger, the British decided to lure them towards Cunningham's fleet, which was still about 100km away. At this stage the Italian Admiral Iachino decided his ships should head for home, wherupon Cunnigham ordered an attack by torpedo bombers from HMS Formidable in the hope of slowing them down.

The Vittorio Veneto was hit and stopped, but succeeded in getting under way again at a reduced 20 knots. Subsequent attacks from Formidable, supplemented by RAF aircraft from Crete, failed to secure any more hits on the Vittorio, but did disable the cruiser Pola. When Iachino discovered this he ordered the cruisers Fiume and Zara, with destroyer escorts, to Pola's assistance, but that night this force unknowingly crossed the path of the British battleships and within minutes the cruisers and one destroyer were dead in the water.

After a gallant attempt to torpedo the Warspite, the other Italian destroyers escaped into the night. The Italian cruisers were sunk and the battle ended with the British fleet in vain pursuit of the Vittorio and her escorts.

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It is with deep regret that we note the death of Major Darrell D Hall, an ex-national chairman of the SA Military History Society. Major Hall was heir to a considerable family military tradition. After Michaelhouse he joined the Royal Artillery in 1946 and subsequently served in Germany, Norway, North Africa, Cyprus and the Far East. As a paratrooper he took part in the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, and later commanded a battery in Borneo. On leaving the army he went into the family business in SA. He was a society member for many years and did memorable work in furthering the military history of this country. The National Chairman, the head committee, and all members of the SA Military History Society send Darrell's widow, Sue, and all the Hall family, sincere and heartfelt condolences on their sad bereavment.

It is with equal regret that we learn of the death of Maj. Gen. Neil Webster, who combined a distinguished military and business career with a life-membership of the society. He joined the Benoni District Rifle Association in 1935 as a private and was commissioned in 1940. With his regiment, the Transvaal Scottish, he served in North Africa and was wounded at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh and later at El Alamein. After the war he continued his army career in various senior staff appointments and had the distinction of being the first part-time officer to be promoted to Major General. He was chairman of the Defence Force Veterans Association, and had a very successful business career as a director of companies. All at the SA Military History Society offer their sincere condolences to his family and relatives.

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Society chairman Kemsley Couldridge wishes to remind all members that offers for lectures and curtain raisers, both from themselves and non-members, will be warmly welcomed. Please contact (011) 440-1524.

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12th Dec
CR - Felix Machanik - Lt. Ccl. J P H Crowe, South Africa's first V.C.
ML - George Barrell - The Indian Mutiny - 1857

NOTE 3rd THURSDAY - 16th Jan
CR - Prof. Ian Copley - Three newly discovered forts in the Hartbeestport area
ML - Heinrich Janzen - Monte Casino - Italy 1944
(Please note that 16th January is the third Thursday of the month)

13th Feb
CR - Rev. N R Campbell - Did the Boers have chaplains?
ML - Hamish Paterson - The Fetterman Disaster of 1866, in the American Indian wars


12th Dec
Annual dinner to be held at the Langoustine,Durban North, 19h00 for 19h30.

NOTE 3rd THURSDAY 16th Jan
Col. Roy Jackson - History of the Imperial Light Horse Regiment

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George Barrell

(011) 791-2581

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