South African Military History Society

Durban Branch December 1997 News Sheet No 275


Armistice Day '97 was commemorated at the Old Fort Shellhole and not at the Warriors' Gate as advertised. Notwithstanding this change of venue and the inclement weather, our Branch was well represented with our Vice-Chairman, Paul Kilmartin giving us a moving and thought-provoking history of how Armistice Day came into being after the 1914/18 War. Starting off with the events leading up to the surrender of Germany at 11h00 on the 11/11/1918, he went on to describe how the bodies of five unidentified soldiers killed during the War were exhumed and reburied in Britain, France, Belgium and the United States as the "Unknown Soldiers" to represent the many millions killed during that war. He then traced how the ceremony had evolved over the years through to present times when there has been a resurgence of the sentiment of remembrance. The service ended with the customary two minutes silence.

Fellow member, Bill Brady gave the DDH Memorial talk at our usual second Thursday evening meeting (apologies for the incorrect date) and he covered the story of his "Hometown V.C.". Pilot Officer Kenneth Campbell who hailed from our speaker's home town, Salticoats on the West coast of Scotland, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross nearly a year after being killed in action. Apparently, our speaker had boasted about this achievement at a recent dinner party with our Vice-Chairman, but unfortunately he managed to get all his facts wrong. Needless to say in the subsequent argument, our speaker was challenged to investigate the whole matter fully and when the true facts emerged it made a fascinating story. Apparently, P/O Kenneth Campbell was the sole survivor of an ill-fated flight of Beaufort torpedo bombers that had been detailed to attack the German battleship, "Gneisenau" in the French port of Brest. Nothing daunted by the deadly hail of "flak", he pressed home his torpedo attack at point blank range and succeeded in putting the battleship out of action for over nine months, thereby swinging the balance of power in the Battle of the Atlantic at a time when Britain was standing alone against the might of the German onslaught. Unfortunately, his aircraft was shot down immediately afterwards with no survivors and as there were no British witnesses, it took almost a year for the British authorities to get confirmation by the French Resistance of this incredible act of bravery. It is significant that the German Navy mounted a Guard of Honour for their funeral as a mark of respect. It was a most intriguing story and we were grateful that our speaker had shared his research with us.

The main talk for the evening was given by Neil Lee, who came down from Johannesburg to give us his illustrated lecture on "The Bayeux Tapestry - A Pictorial History of the Norman Invasion of England in 1066". He first gave us some facts and figures on the tapestry. The "Tapestry" which is not strictly a tapestry is 70m long by 50cm high and includes 75 embroidered scenes covering the period 1064-1066 A.D. He then described some of the events leading up to the period covered by the tapestry. He started with the ascent of Edward the Confessor to the English throne in 1042 when Edward returned to England after 35 years in Normandy. Unfortunately, Edward was childless and this was the cause of the conflict. Also mentioned were the three pretenders to the English throne, namely, Harold Godwinson, son of the Earl of Wessex who was married to Edward's sister; Harold Hardrada, King of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy. Then our speaker, by means of slides of the Bayeux Tapestry started on the history as depicted in the tapestry. It begins with King Edward sending Harold Godwinson to Normandy to tell William that he had been nominated as his successor, but Harold was captured by Count Guy of Pontiers as he landed in Normandy and was held to ransom. William came to Harold's rescue and on his arrival in Bayeux, Harold swore an oath of fealty and became William's vassal. Harold then returned to England, but before dying, the ailing King Edward nominated Harold as his successor to the English throne and the Wittan (English parliament) accepted it. The tapestry then shows Harold's coronation, but dominating the scene is Halley's Comet which was taken as an portent of disaster. This disaster was forthcoming in William's preparations to invade England. Boats were built and loaded with arms and armour together with provisions and horses. But the winds were not favourable and William had to wait for six weeks before he could do anything.

However, the winds were favourable for Harold Hardrada and he invaded the north of England, capturing York. King Harold rushed his army to this area and in a bloody battle at Stamford Bridge thwarted Harold Hardrada's claim. Unfortunately, it was at this stage that William, Duke of Normandy chose to invade the south of England at Pevensey. Harold returned post-haste, but William had been able to consolidate his position and provoked the exhausted Harold and his army into battle. On the 14th October 1066, Harold met William outside Hastings in one of the most decisive battles in English history.

Our speaker then showed us slides of the battle as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry including the one where William takes off his helmet to scotch the rumour that he had been killed. It also shows the shield-wall formation of the English house-carls which held the mounted Norman knights at bay for the whole day until they foolishly broke ranks to pursue a fake withdrawal by the Normans. It also shows Harold's fatal wound with an arrow in the eye and his final slaying by a Norman knight.

The Tapestry ends at that stage, but our speaker said it was felt that an additional scene showing William's coronation as King William I of England was missing and had probably disappeared at some stage in the past.

After a lengthy and very informative question time, fellow-member, Dr Angus Allen conveyed this Branch's thanks to our speaker for a most unique presentation which had succeeded in bringing ancient history to life.


Nov. 11th:
Armistice Day Service at the Warriors' Gate on the corner of Old Fort Road and NMR Avenue at 10h40. Please make a special effort to attend as last time we were outnumbered by the MOTHS.
Dec. 11th :
Annual Dinner - This year it will be held at the Westville Country Club at a cost of R60.00(Sixty Rand) per head.
Jan 8th
DDH To be announced.
MAIN : To be announced.
Feb l2th
:"Gettysburg Today" - Talk by fellow member, Marge Zucchini on her recent visit to the States.
MAIN:"Antecedents of the British Army"-Talk by Mervyn Mitton.

SEASONS_GREETINGS: Merry Christmas and a happy 1998 to all Branch Members

The venue for all meetings will be the 1st Floor lecture theatre, Dept. of Civil Engineering, University of Natal, Durban, which is housed in the building on the right of the Memorial Tower Building (opposite the entrance to the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre), commencing at 19h30 on the second Thursday in the month. Please bring your own refreshments and glass. VISITORS AND INTERESTED PERSONS ARE WELCOME TO ATTEND. Charge R2,00 - Students and Scholars free.
Tania van der Watt (Mrs)
Secretary: Durban Branch
Box 870 Hillcrest 3650
Telephone: (031) 764 2970

South African Military History Society /