South African Military History Society

Durban Branch November 1998 News Sheet No.285

PAST EVENTS: It was a case of "go down to the sea in ships" or rather "go down to the sea in ships that go down" at the start of our October meeting. We had fellow-member, James Porteous giving us a short history of one of the most controversial class of submarines ever to be commissioned by the Royal Navy, namely, "The K-Class Submarines". With the benefit of hindsight we were able to condemn them as a foolhardy venture, but to the armchair strategists of the British Admiralty in 1915, they must have seemed to be the answer to their prayers. They had just been shocked into reality by the performance of the German U-boats and the ominous threat of this new weapon demanded immediate attention.
In concept, the idea was ingenious, brilliant and far ahead of its time. What other submarine could achieve a surface speed of 24 knots? And keep ahead of a Battle Fleet? But in the hard, practical world of naval warfare, it was a disaster. In order to achieve its high speed it was necessary to install steam turbines with oil fired boilers. These required large air intakes and exhaust funnels, which had to be lowered and stowed away before the vessel could submerge. Furthermore, in addition to the fore and aft torpedo tubes, it was armed with twin revolving torpedo tubes mounted amidships. All these had to be provided with waterproof hatches and seals.
To quote one critic at the time, "...too many damned holes!" Any vent left open could have disastrous consequences. In addition, to incorporate all these features, the length to beam ratio was so great that they became almost impossible to handle especially in high-speed combat operations. Finally, their envisaged role as high speed submersible scouts for the Battle Fleet was totally wrong as was found in the Battle of May Island when two flotillas of K-Class submarines operating with battle cruisers engaged in night exercises, were involved in multiple collisions. K4 was sunk by K6 and K17 was sunk by a cruiser.
At the subsequent Board of Inquiry, it was revealed that the disaster had been caused by a jammed helm on K22, which was actually K13 renamed, after she had drowned most of her crew on her maiden voyage!
There were more vessels lost in normal sea-going accidents and in the final tally none of them was due to enemy action. Ultimately they were withdrawn from service and replaced with the infamous M-Class submarines, but that is another story.
All in all, it was a most intriguing talk and our speaker is to be congratulated on an excellent debut.

The main talk for the evening was yet another maiden effort. Long standing fellow-member, Dave Matthews gave us a talk on the little known "Siege of Okiep" which took place towards the end of the Anglo-Boer War. Using overhead projections and colour slides as illustrations, our speaker started off with a brief history of the copper mining town of Okiep and its environs. He then went on to describe how, with the intensification of the guerilla warfare by the Boers after the defeat of their conventional forces by the British in July 1900, no region in Southern Africa could be regarded as being secure.
In January 1901 Col. Shelton was ordered to Namaqualand to organize its defence against a possible Boer attack. It was a Herculean task - this vast tract of barren, waterless stony desert is some 17 500 sq. miles in extent and stretches from the Orange River in the north to Vanrhynsdorp in the south. It is bounded in the west by the Atlantic Ocean and in the east by the waterless Bushmanland. Okiep was the main mining town in the area and it was connected to Port Nolloth in the north-west by some 90 miles of narrow-gauge railway line*. The town itself was overlooked by surrounding hills and high ground and consequently extremely difficult to defend. Notwithstanding, Col. Shelton with the aid of a Major Dean of the Cape Copper Company, built a comprehensive set of defence works comprising an outer chain of blockhouses which completely encircled the town. His artillery was mounted on Fort Shelton which was also his HQ. His inner defence line was a barbed wire entanglement, which also surrounded the town and encompassed the waterworks, mines and most of the houses. He also set up blockhouses at Springbokfontein, Nababeep and Concordia.
A Town Guard was formed in the latter and was under the command of a Capt. Phillips with 5 Officers and 215 NCO's and men. He also set up blockhouses at strategic points to protect his vital railway line to Port Nolloth. Finally he founded the Shelton's Border Scouts and, although they did engage the Boers on several occasions, their role was to be purely defensive.
This situation prevailed for most of 1901, but with ever increasing Boer incursions, until on 26 January 1902 a Boer Commando isolated Garies in the east. Then a week later intelligence indicated that Gen. Smuts' commandos had linked up in the vicinity and now numbered some 3 000 men.
Springbokfontein was the first to be attacked and, although the settlement was protected by 3 blockhouses and barbed-wire entanglements, it was soon overrun. The Boers had found some dynamite in a disused mine and with the expertise of two expatriate Irishmen (Lang and Gallagher) turned them into very effective hand grenades which were used to attack the blockhouses. On the strength of this attack, Shelton wanted to withdraw his men from Nababeep and Concordia as a matter of urgency.
While the garrison from the former needed no second bidding, Capt. Phillips at Concordia refused to evacuate saying that neither his men nor the residents were prepared to leave their homes. Shelton eventually agreed, but exhorted him not to let the Boers capture any military supplies.
However, when Capt. Phillips was finally confronted with the Boers, he surrendered without a single shot being fired! Unfortunately he did not destroy his supplies and the Boers were able to capture 150 rifles plus 50 000 rounds of ammunition and a large quantity of dynamite. The Siege began in earnest on 8 April with heavy attacks on the three southern blockhouses.
General Smuts who was in charge of the Boer commandos used dynamite bombs to great effect against the blockhouses and managed to capture all of them without too much trouble.
Col. Shelton, realizing that there was more shock than damage caused by these dynamite bombs, re-assured his men accordingly. The secret was to maintain a withering rifle fire at the enemy and keep the attackers out of throwing distance.
On the 10th April, Smuts offered "safe conduct" out of Okiep to the non-combatants, but after the Concordia debacle, they scornfully rejected it. They wanted to be in their own homes with their menfolk.
Meanwhile, a Col. Cooper with a substantial relief force had been dispatched from Cape Town to Port Nolloth, arriving there on the 12th. They set off immediately by train and travelled as far as they could go. Although the tracks had been torn up in places, the bridges and viaducts that had been guarded by blockhouses were still intact. They first encountered the enemy at a place called Klipfontein which was about 45 miles out of Okiep, but the Boers had withdrawn to some higher ground that commanded the railway line. On the 14th, Col. Cooper managed to clear the Boers out of the area by the use of a shrapnel bombardment that caused heavy casualties.
At that stage he signalled to Shelton by means of heliograph that he would be in Okiep within two days, but it was not to be. His relief force was again held up at Steinkopf and it was not until the end of April that the Boers pulled out and retreated towards Okiep.
Back in Okiep, the Boers had captured the Shelton Blockhouse after its garrison had run out of ammunition and a dynamite bomb had collapsed its roof. However, Fort Shelton managed to hold out. Further attacks continued on the 13th, but were repelled by concentrated artillery fire. Bitter fighting continued unceasingly, but the defence held.
Then on the 25th April, General Smuts had to leave the Siege and make his way by special pass through the British lines, as he was required to attend the Peace Conference at Vereeniging. Maritz, who had taken over from Smuts, tried to send a rail wagon packed with dynamite and driven by an unmanned steam locomotive along the railway line into Okiep. Fortunately for the defenders it was derailed by the barbed-wire entanglements and overturned. It caught fire and burned with a brilliant light for rest of the night.
The relief column finally arrived in Okiep at noon on 4th May when Col. Cooper, who was the senior officer, took over from Col. Shelton. Shortly afterwards, the dispirited Boer commandos withdrew from Springfontein and Nababeep and by the 5th May the area was cleared.
Ten days later the Peace Conference started in Vereeniging culminating in peace being signed on 31st May 1902.
*After the usual question time, the comment was made that the Port Nolloth to Okiep railway line had originally been surveyed by a forebear of the late Major Darrell Hall and, because he liked the country so much, the Hall family emigrated from Cornwall and settled in South Africa during the late 1800's.
Our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin took it upon himself io express the thanks of the meeting to both our speakers for these most intriguing and informative talks.

ANGLO-BOER WAR CENTENARY: Former Chairman Ken Gillings gave a brief update on the preparations for the A-BWlOO which was due to get going in little over a year's time. A publicity brochure comprising 12 pages of detailed programming of all the proposed events had been finalized and would be distributed at the World Travel Fair in London in November this year. It is hoped it will attract thousands.
ANGLO-ZULU WAR LECTURE: David Rattray will give a talk on the Anglo-Zulu War on Thursday, 19th November 1998 at 19h00 in the TB Davis Lecture Theatre at UND. Cheese and wine. Cost R45.

ANGLO-ZULU WAR TOUR: The British Cultural and Heritage Association are organizing a three-day bus tour to celebrate the 120th Anniversary of the Battle of Isandlwana from 2lst to 23 January 1999. Contact Mrs C Newton for details on (031)2026174. Cost: R1 170.

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 21 3983

South African Military History Society /