South African Military History Society

NEWSLETTER -- October 1997

Past meeting - Johannesburg
The exact circumstances of the death on 8th November 1944 of Major Walter Nowotny, one of Germany's top-scoring fighter pilots with 258 kills to his credit, have never been accurately determined. In his curtain raiser to the society's 11th September meeting committee member Heinrich Janzen reviewed the evidence.
Nowotny was born in Austria and joined the Luftwaffe on 1st October 1939 at the age of 18. He opened his score with three victories on 19th July 1941, was shot down into the Baltic and reached land three days and three nights later in a small dinghy paddling only with his hands. Within two years he was commanding a squadron, had 250 kills, and been awarded the highest decoration achievable by a German fighter pilot, the Iron Cross with oak leaves, swords and diamonds.
On 18th May 1944, Nowotny was appointed to command a unit formed to test Germany's first operational jet aircraft, the ME262 fighter, of which Hitler had great expectations despite the fact that it was still nowhere near operationally ready. By 8th October 1944, Nowotny's squadron, still only half ready, was based at Achmer/Hesepe in North Germany close to the Dutch border, where its job was to intercept the unending stream of US bombers and their fighter escorts on daylight raids into Germany.
There are varied accounts of what happened that day, but it is known that only two out of 30 aircraft were strike-ready when the order was received to intercept a bomber stream, and one of these was piloted by Nowotny, who scored his third and last victory in an ME262. The other aircraft, piloted by Lt Schall, shot down two Mustangs before both engines failed and he bailed out. Meanwhile, Nowotny reported to ground control that one of his engines had failed and his aircraft was on fire. An ME262 was then seen to dive out of the low cloud and explode.
So much is known. It seems clear that Nowotny was in a dog fight with the American Mustangs and was hit. What is not clear is whether he died while manoeuvring to escape the Mustangs on his tail, as depicted in the painting by Keith Ferris on display during Heinrich's talk, or whether he was the victim of the numerous inadequacies of an aircraft whose engines and equipment were not yet ready for operational use.

The main lecture of the evening was given by former society chairman B Kemsley Couldridge on that episode in the US Indian wars known in popular American history as The Massare at Little Big Horn, but to native Americans as The Battle of Greasy Grass.
The relentless expansion westward that followed the American civil war caused conflict with the plains Indians whose hunting grounds were crossed by the wagon trails, and whose way of life was being threatened by the extinction of the buffalo. The intervention of the US Army to protect the pioneers drove the Indian tribes to co-operate in the defence of what they regarded as their common interests. Clashes were numerous, one of which, the Fetterman Disaster of 1866, was the subject of a society lecture earlier this year by Hamish Paterson.
In June 1876, in the south of what is now the State of Montana, the US 7th Cavalry was operating against a loose combination of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian tribes. Part of the cavalry column under Lt-Col George Armstrong Custer was caught in an exposed position by a numerically superior force of Indians and massacred to a man. Four miles away a further 40 troopers were similarly caught and butchered. This was The Battle of The Little Big Horn, named after the hill on which it took place.
Custer, who had graduated bottom of his class at West Point, was promoted the youngest-ever brevit Maj-General during the Civil War. He was a controversial figure noted for his monumental risk-taking and his tendency to disregard any authority except his own. In 1867 he had been court martialled and suspended without pay and command for various offences, including absenting himself from his command and ordering deserters to be shot without trial. Recalled the following year, he salvaged his reputation at the so-called Battle of Washita, a massacre distinguished by the unbridled savagery committed against a Cheyenne camp in Oklahoma. However, he again fell into disgrace, and was allowed to resume command of the 7th Cavalry only on condition that he accepted the orders of his overall commander.
Custer was again exceeding his orders when his regiment, well ahead of the main army, stumbled on a large Indian encampment. Instead of taking up a defensive position when it became clear he was about to be attacked, he continued in an offensive posture, paying no heed to the route of a detachment from his command that had already made contact. In a final assault lasting only half an hour, Custer and his men were wiped out in an engagement know to popular mythology as "Custer's Last Stand", an heroic appellation that completely distorts the truth of what was in fact the result of stupidity, bungling and the all-to-familiar mistake of under-rating an enemy.
The Battle of Little Big Horn was a tactital victory for the Indians, but a strategic disaster. The US Government authorised Civil War veteran General Sheridan to impose military rule on the Indians and to disarm and dismount them. In the course of a number of campaigns they were deprived of their hunting grounds through sale or forteiture, and never against allowed to combine together to fight the US Army.

The lecture list for 1998 is now being compiled, and society members who have a subject on which they would like to give a talk are invited to contact Kemsley Couldridge on (011) 440-5686.

Commander W M Bisset, who gave the opening lecture on the history of the SA Navy at the society's 14th August meeting commemorating the 50th anniversary of the SA National Museum of Military History, wishes to disassociate himself from the comment made in the September newsletter that following the end of SA's participation in the Angolan war, the navy's "active role has decline, and under the new dispensation it faces an uncertain future". He points out that he did not say this, and does not agree with the statement.
The scribe acknowledges this fact and tenders an unqualified apology to Cdr Bisset for any embarrassment he may have been caused.

At 20h00 on 20th October the Friends of the Museum will hold a lecture evening on the subject of the Falklands War. Admission will cost R10 for society members and R15 for non-members. There will be a cash bar opening at 19h00.

The first issue of the South African Military Yearbook (1997) is now available. Compiled and published by the South African Military History Consultants (SAMHIC), the 1997 edition contains a comprehensive bibliography of SA military history, with about 1 200 sources being listed. This is complemented by two in-depth articles on military-historical writing in SA, and the history of warefare in this country. Also included is an illustrated overview of SA defence in 1996 and the first quarter of 1997. The local price is R30 and the overseas price R40, both including postage. Orders to SAMHIC, P.O. Box 1595, Silverton 0127, or phoned or faxed to (012) 83-2901.


9th October
CR John Murray The Battle of Flodden - 1513. - England v Scotland - a replay
ML Dimitri Friend The Unwomanly Face of War - Russian women in WW2

13th Nov
CR Colin Dean Chinese war strategies as expounded by Sun Tzu
ML Hamish Paterson The Battle of Leyte Gulf- October 1944
16th October
A visit to a military unit: to be announced
(Please note this is the third Thursday in October)
Cape Town
9th October
The SA Women's Services in WW2 -- A panel discussion chaired by Col. O E F Baker.

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

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

South African Military History Society /