South African Military History Society


Past meeting - Johannesburg
The invasion of Normandy, which began on 6th June 1944, was the largest and most complicated military combined operations in history. Despite the weather, the initial landings where accomplished successfully, and in the British case on almost the exact spot from which William the Conqueror had launched his invasion of England in 1066.
The curtain raiser at the 12th June meeting, given by Mr Flip Hoorweg, dealt with two small, little-known details in the vast overall canvas of D-Day. These were the landings of US forces on the Iles St Marcouf, six kilometres off the coast of the Cherbourg Pensinsula, and at Pointe du Hoc on the Normandy coast on the flank of the Omaha beachhead.
The Iles St Marcouf were judged to be ideal sites for observation and artillery that could threaten the landings on the Utah beachhead, but they were found to be unoccupied although heavily mined. The 132 men of the cavalry detachments that went ashore on the Iles St Marcouf two hours before the main landings lost two killed and 17 wounded to mines and the artillery fire directed on them later in the day.
Pointe du Hoc, also known as Pointe du Hoe, is situated just outside the village of St Pierre du Mont. A battery of six 155mm guns was believed to be located there, on a rocky promontory whose sheer cliffs rise 30 metres above the sea. The object of the operation was to neutralise these. The assault was carried out by three companies of the 2nd Battalion US Rangers, units modelled on the the British Commandos. The force contained about 225 men, with another 130 in reserve. The operation was to be completed within 30 minutes, and be preceded by extensive bombing and naval gunfire. However, it took 45 minutes for the Rangers to land and organize at the foot of the cliffs, by which time the supporting fire had lifted allowing the defenders to filter back. More supporting fire was needed before the cliffs could be scaled by a combination of grapnels, ropes and rope-ladders, and even ladders borrowed from the London Fire Brigade.
What happened after the Rangers achieved their objectives is unclear. Some reports state that the guns had been withdrawn and mounted inland. Others indicate that they were found unmanned and unguarded and quickly destroyed. One report suggests they were never there in the first place, while another has it that the battery was a fake and instead of guns there were only six large wooden poles protruding from the casemates.

The phenomenal growth of Britain's Royal Air Force in the decade beginning 1935 was the subject of the main lecture of the evening.
The speaker was David Ransom, and the detail and illustration were both lavish.
The fledgling RAF barely survived the revulsion from all things military that dominated British public opinion in the decade following the end of WW1, and by 1929 its main equipment was still wooden biplanes. The shock realization in 1922 that the French had built a substantial air armada led to a rapid increase in squadron numbers, but it was not until Hitler began rearming Germany in the mid 1930s that the many schemes for massive expansion were launched. They involved drawing up plans, building bases, training personnel, providing aircraft and developing armaments.
Belated as these schemes were, they had by 1939 provided Britain with an air force that was fit to go to war, just. From a total of 52 airfields available at end-1934, the number had risen to 138 by end-1939 in addition to the civil airfields taken over. A further 540 were added between 1939 and 1944.
From a manpower strength of 30 000 in 1934, the numbers of men and women in the RAF had risen to a peak of 1 171 421 by October 1944. This expansion involved a massive programme of training, both basic and in the various trades required. The problem of training large numbers of aircrew in a crowded and vulnerable country subject to inclement weather was solved by the Empire Training Scheme, which eventually produced 138 000 aircrew.
In 1935 RAF aircraft were of the canvas-covered biplane type with top speeds around 200 mph and ranges of a few hundred miles. A decade later the monoplane was standard, the jet engine had arrived, top speeds had more than doubled and ranges exceeded 1 000 miles.
Among fighter planes the Hurricane and Spitfire were ready in time to play their historical role in the Battle of Britain.
The first metal-clad, monoplane bomber, the Blenhiem, arrived in 1936. Successive years saw the Battle and the Whitley enter service, with the Hampden arriving in 1938.
Until the end of that year, however, biplanes still provided the bulk of Bomber Command's aircraft. During the war the Wellington, Manchester, Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster came into service, and, in the all-purpose category, the Mosquito. In addition, the RAF flew a variety of US aircraft, including the ultra-long-range Liberator, which did valuable work in the closing stages of the Battle of the Atlantic.
The development of armament and bombs was equally rapid and varied. In the late 1930s the largest bombs were of the 250lb variety. By the end of the war the 20 000lb Grand Slam had come into service.
The role of the fighter aircraft as an interceptor changed to that of bomber escort and ground attack, and their armament developed from machine guns, to cannon, to the 60lb rocket used by the Hawker Typhoon in Normandy.
Altogether the development of the RAF in the decade from 1935 was both rapid and effective, and made a vital contribution to the eventual allied victory.

The Society event to celebrate the Museum's 50th anniversary is to be held on 14th August. The cash bar will open at 17h30 and the first talk will begin at 18h00.
Speakers will be Deputy Defence Minister Ronnie Kasrils on the MK;
the head of the SA Navy Museum, Cdr M Bisset, on the Navy's 75th anniversary;
and Society committee member Heinrich Janzen on the re-dedication of the War Memorial in 1947.
A finger supper, including a glass of wine, will be served from 19h00 to 20h00.
The all-in charge is R45 a head, with all profits to go to the Museum.

On Wednesday 25th June The Friends of the Museum will hold an evening on "From Chosin to Hungnam" (The carrier war off Korea), with video clips and explanations. The cash bar will open at 19h00 and the presentation will begin at 20h00. Donations of R10 for members and R15 for guests will go towards Museum projects.

The Society's Cape Town branch is working on a project to identify, clear, and if possible restore, the numerous fortifications and gun emplacements around Cape Town, up the west coast and around the peninsula. Some of these date back 250-300 years.
Guided tours are being arranged, and any member interested in visiting these sites should contact Cdr G de Vries on (021) 54-7648. Any Johannesburg member visiting Cape Town is welcome to contact the branch Chairman Maj Tony Gordon on (021) 61-4500 or Deputy Chairman John Mahncke on (021) 797-5167.
Members are, of course, welcome at any meeting of the CT branch.

Kimberley's 2nd Annual SA War Expo '97 will be held from 8th-11th October.
The programme will include lectures, historical tours, military displays, video films, pipe bands and numerous ceremonies.
One-day, three-day, five- and seven-day tours can be arranged.
These will include local battlefields, including Modder River and Magersfontein. There will also be tours available to the ground covered by the Highland Brigade, the Canadians, and the Australians and New Zealanders, the Boer retreat and the siege and relief of Kimberley. Those interested should contact organisers Steve Lunderstadt on 083 2656436 or 0531-814006, or Owen Coetzee on 0531-31434.


10th July
CR John Murray The Irish Guards - The Fighting Micks
ML Marjorie Dean When Billie met Jamie - The War in Ireland, 1690-91
14th August
Museum's 50th anniversary. Programme as above
10th July Rev E Pugsley The history of Padres
Bill Brady The Fall of France - 1940
Cape Town
10th July Maj H R Heitman Some examples of the use of surprise by the SA forces in Angola

George Barrell (Chairman/Scribe) (011) 791-2581

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

South African Military History Society /