South African Military History Society


The torpedo revolutionised 20th century naval warfare. In particular, it transformed the submarine from a maritime novelty into the most potent sea-going weapon of all time. As used by the German U-boats the torpedo all but decided the outcome of World War 2, and might well have done just that had its effectiveness not been severely limited by its technical shortcomings.

In the curtain raiser to the society meeting of 13th August, speaker Colin Dean explained what these shortcomings were, their consequences , and why American torpedoes suffered from similar problems.

Up to December 1942, half way through the war, Germany's principal U-boat weapon represented no improvements at all on what had been around at the end of WW1. U-boat ace Gunther Prian, the man who nevertheless torpedoed and sank the British battleship Royal Oak at anchor in Scapa Flow, said the U-boats "to all intents and purposes were without a weapon". Bureaucratic inertia was the main cause of the problem, and when they complained the U-boat captains were frequently dismissed with the jibe that they were simply not "up to the standards demanded by their job".

The main problems were the detonators the Germans were using. These were of two types, the magnetic MZ, to be set off by the target's own magnetic field, and the AZ, designed to explode on contact. The problem with the MZ was that its was too easily distracted by proximity to the north magnetic pole, and by iron deposit below the sea bed. Such influences were especially prevalent in northern waters. The trouble with the AZ torpedo was that the blades of the propellers in the nose were too short and didn't trigger properly unless the target was struck at right angles. This problem was only solved when the Germans copied what the British had done to make their torpedoes work, which they were able to do when they captured intact the crippled British mine-laying submarine HMS Seal in May 1940.

The Germans also had trouble with running and aiming their torpedoes, mainly because they had not been tested in wartime conditions before being issued to their U-boats. It took them until January 1942 to rectify the problem that caused their torpedoes to run too deep. It is just as well for the Allied cause that as much as one-third of German torpedoes fired in the first half of the war were duds, otherwise the outcome of the Battle of Atlantic might have been altogether different.

In the Pacific the Americans also had trouble with their torpedoes, mainly due to the challenge of gearing up for war. Pre-war torpedo manufacture and development had been carried out by an Government-run establishment noted for its arrogance and bureaucratic inertia, the Newport Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island, on the east coast. When the US went to war manufacture increased massively. But the product suffered from the pre-war lack of testing, and its detonators were as unsatisfactory as the Germans'. At one time it was estimated that half of all US torpedoes were duds. Moreover, so miserly were the Americans over their torpedoes that their submarine captains were urged to be sparing with them, and were at one stage actually congratulated for not firing them.

The main lecture of the evening, Canada Goes to War, the story of Canadian participation in the Anglo-Boer War, was given by distinguished guest speaker Professor Carmen Miller, professor of history and dean, Faculty of Arts, at McGill-Queen's University, Montreal, Canada. He lecture was based on his own book Painting the Map Red, recently published in paperback, and his paper presented to the UNISA congress on the South African War earlier in August.

There were numerous reasons why Canadians, mostly those of British descent, chose to take part in a war half a world away against a people with whom they had no quarrel. In fact they had much in common with the Boers, as pioneers in opening up their countries to development. On the personal level, blood ties with the British were probably the most important motive for the men who volunteered to serve, although a thirst for adventure and the attractions of good and assured pay also played an important part. But at the level of government the reasons were more complex. At that time Canada felt itself in need of British protection against the perceived dangers of US claims on its territorial sovereignty, particularly in the Yukon region bordering the US territory of Alaska, where gold had recently been discovered. Neither the French- nor the English-speaking sections of Canada's population relished the prospects of conflict with USA over border claims.

However, while strengthening Canadian nationalism, the war did widen the division between British and French Canadians and launched the 20th century French-Canadian nationalist movement. It also stimulated military reform and served as a dress rehearsal for WW1.

In terms of numbers the Canadian contribution to the forces fighting the Boers was minimal. It was divided into nine units, recruited at different times over the 32 months of the conflict. The best known were the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment and Strathcona's Horse and Foot. The remaining contingents were all mounted. Artillery was added to the second contingent. The Canadian Constabulary, which involved Baden-Powell, arrived later. Some 300 Canadians joined British irregular units, and a hospital unit with 16 nurses was sent out. Discipline was often a problem. The troops disliked their officers aping the British, and were concerned at the harsh treatment meted out to British troops by their officers.

There were numerous Canadian involvements in the fighting, including Witpoort, where a Canadian counterattack saved the day, and Paardeberg, where their participation was exaggerated by the British, probably for political reasons. Nevertheless, four Victoria Crosses were won at Liliefontein in a well-executed, dangerous, rear-guard action.

If Canada's military participation in the Anglo-Boer War was marginal, the domestic political consequences were another matter altogether. The division between English- and French-speaking Canadians was deepened, with the French speakers showing growing resentment at the apparent increase in the power of the Federal Government. This partly explained the conflict over conscription which developed during WW1. Canadian historians have tended to neglect their country's role in the Anglo Boer War partly due to the distaste felt at having joined a campagin to crush Afrikaaner nationalism. On the more positive side, participation in the war helped Canadians' perception of themselves, living as they did in a country only recently united, as being a fully-independent and sovereign nation. It also established their army as a truly national force, and its units still bear with pride the battle honours they won in the first war they fought as a united nation. Paardeberg Day is still celebrated in Canada.

The meeting was also addressed by Steve Lunderstedt on his plans for this year's Anglo-Boer War Expo and battlefields tours programme. For full details, Steve can be phoned or faxed on 0531-814006, or contacted on his cellphone number 083-732-3189.


10 Sept
CR G Barrell The Yom Kippur War - October 1973
ML W Murton Unsung Heroes

8 Oct
CR L Wildenboer The Making of the Atomic Bomb
ML H Paterson The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The October lectures include some new research on the subject based on recently published material.

10 Sept
Prof Mike Laing Zukhov and Khalkin Gol
Pat Budd Arnhem

Cape Town:
10 Sept
The Dolomite War 1915-1918. The War between Italy and Austria

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

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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