South African Military History Society


To celebrate the beginning of the festive season a planer and drinks party will be held before the society's next meeting on 14th December. Starting time will be 1 9h00. Snacks will be served and there will be a cash bar at the Museum. The meeting will begin as usual at 20h00. The part played by mail in the age-old efforts of the fighting man to protect himself from his enemies was the subject of the curtain raiser at the society's meeting on 9th November.

Veteran committee member Dr. Felix Machanik explained, with the help of a mail shirt and coif, and other artifacts, how mail, which is body armour composed of interlinking wire rings, came to be used as a convenient means of combining protection with flexibility. He made the firm point that mail, which is derived from the French "maille", should never be prefixed by the word "chain".

Mail probably dates from the 5th century BC. It could be made to cover the entire body, including the head and the legs if required. The complete outfit might include a breast plate, and would be rounded off by a shield and, at a later date, a helmet -- although the coif, which covered the head and neck like a Balaclava, offered considerable protection. It might carry a feather or other means of identification or decoration.

Mail was worn over padded cotton or wool cloth, and the combination was usually sufficient to deflect anything except sharp metal weapons. Arrows fired at close range could penetrate mail, as could the firearms which eventually rendered it obsolete.

Mail was both time-consuming and expensive to manufacture, and was therefore rarely worn by the common soldier. A single shirt might consist of several thousand rings. The variety of rings was explained.

It was also heavy and cumbersome, but still allowed considerably more room for movement than plate armour.

The title of the main talk of the evening was "Operation Pedestal: the Malta convoy of August 1942" and it was given by committee member and vice-chairman George Barrell.

Malta was captured from the French in 1800 by a British Fleet commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson who regarded it as a valuable bastion against French expansion in the Middle East and, ultimately, India. This is more or less what it remained until 1940, when the surrender of France coincided with the entry of Italy into World War Two, and Malta became a vital base for British aircraft and submarines operating against Axis supply lines to North Africa.

When the German Luftwaffe arrived in the Mediterranean theatre in 1941, and joined with the Italian airforce and navy in putting the island under seige, the problems of supplying Malta grew progressively more difficult. By June 1942 the situation became desperate when two convoys, one from Gibraltar, the other from Alexandria, were able to provide only temporary relief.

The island was within weeks of having to surrender when Operation Pedestal was launched in mid-August 1942. It comprised 13 fast merchant ships plus the American tanker Ohio, a strongly built vessel designed with the possibility of the US having to fight a war in the Pacific and the fastest of its kind in the world.

With a British crew under Merchant Navy Captain Dudley Mason -- later to be awarded the George Cross -- and supplemented with naval and army personnel to man its considerable anti-aircraft armament, the Ohio carried the fuel oil and kerosene essential to the survival of Malta in its role as a submarine base, and to provide power and lighting for its military and air force installations.

The convoy's naval escort, commanded by a South African, Admiral Sir Neville Syfret, consisted of two 16-inch' gun battleships, Nelson and Rodney, no less than three aircraft carriers, the elderly Eagle and the brand new Indomitable and Victorious, plus nine 6-inch gun cruisers and more than 20 destroyers.

The capital ships and their escorts were to leave the convoy when it approached the "Narrows" between Sicily and the African coast at Cape Bon, where there was insufficient room for them to manoeuvre, and the merchant ships and Ohio were to complete the remaining 500 or so miles to Malta escorted by four cruisers and nine destroyers. Submarines and aircraft based on Malta were also to provide support.

With ample time to prepare, the Axis assembled a force of about 540 aircraft, 280 of which were bombers and torpedo bombers; 18 Italian submarines and three German U-boats; 19 Italian E-boats and four German. In addition, an Italian cruiser squadron was to account for what remained of the convoy on its last leg to Malta, but this plan never materialised.

The first attack was by a German U-boat on the carrier Eagle, which sank within eight minutes taking nearly one-third of the fleet's air cover with it. Shortly afterwards the air attacks began, but only one of the merchant ships had been hit by the time the capital ships turned for Gibraltar and left the convoy to continue through the Narrows.

In the ensuing dusk, night and following morning a combination of submarine, F-boat and air attacks succeeded in scattering the convoy and sinking all but four of the merchant ships, plus two cruisers with two others badly damaged. The Ohio was torpedoed, and hit several times by bombs, one exploding in her engine room. A German Stuka dive-bomber crashed on her deck. Twice her crew were taken off for fear she would sink under them.

The rest of the story centred on the determined efforts to tow the crippled tanker the last few remaining miles to Malta. This WaS eventually accomplished after repeated setbacks and in constant danger from Axis aircraft and E-boats, and, on the last stretch, Malta's own minefields. When the derelict was finally manoeuvred into Grand Harbour, to a tumultous welcome, only a few inches of freeboard remained.

The Ohio settled on the bottom of the harbour as the last gallon of her 14 000-ton cargo was pumped out and Malta's survival had been ensured for another few months. As it happened, that was all that was required to lift the seige and change the whole strategic situation in the Mediterranean.

NOTICE: To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the ill-fated Jameson Raid on 2nd January 1896, Mr Robert Milne is organising a visit to the site west of Johannesburg. Those wishing to take part should contact Mr Milne on (011) 674-3876.



14th Dec
CR - H R Pell - The immobilisation of the French fleet, 1940
ML - Hamish Paterson - The Battle of Colin,1757

11th January
CR - Capt. J H Spier - A teenager in the Battle of Britain
ML - Ian Knight - Incidents in the Zulu War
(Ian Knight is the well-known author. If he is not in the country on this date, Dr. Felix Machanik will talk on the Jameson Raid)


14th Dec
The annual dinner. Those wishing to attend should please contact Ken Gillings on (031 )-224261 (0) or (031) 862233 (H)

18th January
Major Keith Archibald - The history of military volunteering in Natal

Cape Town

14th December
No meeting

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R45 for individual membership - R52 for family membership

(Please do not pay in advance - Invoices will be sent out in due course)

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SPECIAL NOTICE: As this is the Christmas season, there will be no newsletter for January. Members are therefore requested to keep this copy for reference to our January talks and date of meeting.

The society's chairman and committee members wish all society members and their families the compliments of the season and a prosperous New Year.

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George Barrell

(011) 787-1524

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