South African Military History Society


The curtain raiser at the society's 8th July lecture meeting was entitled "Naval Disasters of the 20th Century" and given by society member Flip Hoorweg . Naval blunders and disasters generally have a finality not achieved on land. They can be the consequence of political decisions that turn out to be wrong. The admiral in command can blunder during a battle or a fleet manoeuvre. A captain can run his ship into a collision, or on the rocks. There may be technical problems with machinery, or equipment that malfunctions. Communications can break down and signals be misunderstood.

Life at sea has never been easy. The elements frequently play a role in causing disasters, as do other circumstances over which the man on the spot has no control. In days gone by disease was always a bigger killer than enemy action. Personality clashes, vanity, and simple lack of luck, can make a disaster out of an otherwise sound decision. The reverse is also true. A measure of luck can produce a successful outcome from a decision that might otherwise have been disastrous. War on both land and sea is a complex activity in which human ability can be stretched to breaking point.

As one among the many naval blunders of 20th century there was the 1905 Battle of Tsushima in the straits between Japan and Korea. In a single engagement the Japanese destroyed a Russian fleet that had sailed 18 000 miles from the Baltic and was in no condition to fight by the time it approached its destination at Vladivostok.The whole expedition was ill-conceived and incompetently carried out.

In 1914 the escape of the German battle cruiser Goeben, through inadequate communications and ineffective British leadership, resulted, according to Winston Churchill, in more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of one ship.

When considering the luck factor the names of Blucher and Hood come to mind. In 1915 the German armed merchant cruiser Blucher capsized with a loss of 900 men. In 1940 its namesake suffered the same fate when 1 000 men were lost. Rear-Admiral Horace Hood, who carried a name famous in the annals of the Royal Navy, died along with 1 000 others when his flagship, Invincible blew up and sank at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. A quarter of a century later the giant British battle cruiser Hood was sunk in her running battle with the German super battleship Bismark.

Also in 1941 two German destroyers were sunk at night with just five bombs by a German bomber as a result of insufficient and conflicting communications between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegmarine - combined with utter confusion and panic. An official inquiry ordered by Hitler concluded it had been an administrative error. But it had cost the lives of 578 seamen.

An allied exercise in preparation for the D-day landings in 1944 killed 946 American soldiers when two tank landing crafts were sunk by German E- boats. A collection of small errors made by many people combined into a disaster which had to be hushed up for fear of the damage it might do to Anglo-American relations.

The main lecture of the evening was given by society committee member John Murray on the weapon that for so long, and so effectively, dominated medieval warfare in Europe, the English longbow. Although the history of the bow is as long as warfare itself, it always played a relatively subsidiary role until the domination of the battlefield by the heavily-armoured, undisciplined horseman of the medieval period restricted the role of the infantry to specialists such as pikemen and archers. There was little scope for the latter either unless their weapons were powerful enough to pierce armour at a distance sufficient to ensure their own survival. This was the achievement of the long bow.

The skill and discipline of its users, coupled with its range and rate of delivery, raised the comparatively poor and underpopulated Plantagenet Kingdom of England, and its adjoining principality, Wales, from minor, peripheral entities on the European scene, to major military status. For 200 years the arrow storm was a phenomenon to be feared by England's feudal enemies. It is possible that German archers used some form of the long bow to repulse the Romans on the Rhine in AD354 , and certainly it was used to devastating effect by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In the following two centuries the bow was used in England and Wales by both the peasantry and the nobility mainly for hunting, and it was not until the 14th and 15th centuries that it once again came into its own as a weapon of war. Great strength and a lifetime of training were required to use the long bow effectively, and it ensured a greater element of freedom from oppression for its users than the more autocratic authorities elsewhere in Europe were willing to concede. In other words, a bowman became a skilled, specialised warrior in an age when war was regarded largely as the preserve of the wealthy and aristocratic. The law prescribed appropriate bow-weights for youths of various ages because the weapon was of little use without special training.

The war bow itself was about six feet long and shaped like a letter D in cross section with the flat part facing the target. The average pull was about 100 pounds, although this was often exceeded. The favourite wood used for the bow was yew, much of which had to be imported. The arrows were made from a variety of woods, and were about three feet long. The individual bowman was a marksman, but his great effectiveness in war lay in his ability to hold his ground in a solid phalanx and keep the air filled with arrows in an impenetrable rain against which an advancing enemy could not penetrate.

In this role the long bow was an infinitely more potent weapon than its contemporary, the slow-loading crossbow, which it was so often ranged against. Under successive English monarchs, and especially Edward III and Henry V, archers ensured victory in innumerable battles and skirmishes in western Europe, of which the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt are only the best remembered. The muskets used by the British Army at Waterloo, 330 years after the Battle of Bosworth that ended the Wars of the Roses and the primacy of the long bow, were unable to sustain the same rate of fire. It is little wonder that right up until the introduction of the breach-loading rifle, British generals continued to plead for a return to the long bow and its tactical use in battle.



12 August
Colin Dean Early Submarines and Torpedoes
Dr Jane Carruthers Anglo-Boer War Artists - Melton Prior
9 Sept
Marjorie Dean The Battle for Atlanta - 1854
Prof G Cuthbertson The Pro-Boer Movement in the Anglo-Boer War


12th August
Bill Brady Fl.-Lt K Campbell VC - Reportback
Fiona Barbour The Siege of Kimberley

Cape Town

12th August
Frank Bullen All the Queen's Men


The Society outing to the Seminar on the Battle of Nooitgedacht has been arranged for Saturday August 28th, at the Nutbush Boma in the Hekpoort Valley. We have secured a very special discounted rate of R100 plus VAT per person (i.e. R114), without a battlefield visit, or R150 per person plus VAT (i.e. R171), with a visit to the battlefield. This is almost half the usual rate for a full day out, an excellent programme of lectures and ample nourishment.

This battlefield visit is a rare opportunity, as the site is on private land and we have been allowed access as a society because we have approved guides.

The day's activities will run from 08h30 to 16h00, and will consist of lectures by the Rustenburg Military History Study Group, including Lionel Wulfson, John Pennefather, Peet Coetzee, and Paul Otterman, some of whom are members of our society. The programme for the day will include:

Teas and coffees with scones, and a full lunch are included, along with transport to the battlefield if required. A bar is available, and lectures will be given in the conference room.

It has been suggested that participants assemble at the Museum at 07h45 (prompt!!), where cars can be securely parked, and that we organise ourselves so that we don't take too many cars. Maps will be given out with directions to the Nutbush Boma.

Confirmation of your attendance and payment must be sent by August 12th. Those who have already booked will be phoned to confirm. Payment can be made at the Society meeting on August 12th at tea-time. Cheques for the amounts of R114 or R171 (or multiples thereof as necessary) should be made payable to the SA Military History Society and if not handed in at the meeting should be posted to P.O. Box 59227, Kengray, 2100.

For more information contact Marjorie Dean on (011) 878-1454.

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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