South African Military History Society

KWAZULU-NATAL BRANCH Branch August 1999 News Sheet No. 293

PAST EVENTS: The July meeting was the Societies annual visit to an operational military base. This year we visited the Naval Base on Salisbury island in Durban harbour, where 38 members were warmly welcomed by Captain Chris Dooner - the former acting Commanding Officer of the Naval Base, and by two members of SAS INKONKINI, Lt.Commander Barry Crossley and W.O. Vic Atherton. The three formal presentations were given in the Harry Escombe Room of SAS INKONKINI and although all three were different, there was a strong emphasis on the important and supportive links between Permanent and Part Time Forces.

Lt.Commander Barry Crossley gave the first talk. His introduction was an overview of the Unit, which proudly is the oldest volunteer Naval Unit in the world. SAS INKONKINI was established on 30 April 1885, a date that is commemorated every year. Originally known as the Natal Naval Volunteer, the Unit had many prominent Durban citizens as members. Harry Escombe was the first to sign on and when the first uniforms were delivered, he confirmed his number 1 status by paying, in full, the bill for 500 pounds. We then heard of the Unit's role in the Anglo Boer War. They saw action in Ladysmith during the siege and also participated in General Buller's attempts to relieve the town. The Unit also helped the DLI to build Fort Wylie, opposite Colenso, which played an important role in both the defense and the Boer occupation of the north bank of the river. Lt.Commander Crossley ended his fascinating talk with a number of true and humorous excerpts from many of the dairies that were kept by members during that war almost 100 years ago. He also emphasised that many of the members of the Unit at the start of the 20th century were former regular personnel who went on to serve as volunteers, and this is a tradition that is continued to this day, particularly as the present day SADF downsizes.

The second talk was given by an ex Royal Navy veteran, W.O.Vic Atherton, the father of the Springbok and Natal lock forward, Steve Atherton. He described with enthusiasm and in great detail the various items of memorabilia that were on display in the Harry Escombe room. They included a full range of all the flags under which members of the Unit had served since its inception, the plaque celebrating the date of the sinking of U-boat U 714, and various plaques commemorating the participation of the Unit in joint operations with visiting ships of various navies, the most recent being the Royal Navy. The Unit also plays host to the Naval Association of South Africa and as it was granted the Freedom of the City of Durban on the 5 July 1966, we were shown the scroll properly mounted on the wall of our meeting room. We were also shown Sir Harry Escombe's cane, the original bell from the Camarvon Castle (which engaged a German raider) and a plaque sadly commemorating the members of the South African Naval Force aboard HMS Dorsetshire, HMS Cornwall and HMS Hermes who died in action when their ships were attacked by the Japanese. W.O.Vic Atherton ended with the proud claim that SAS INKONKINI has to its battle honours, including the Anglo Boer War and the Bhambatha Uprising of 1906.
(Just days after our visit, we read of the senseless killing of Vic Atherton's youngest son, in an as yet unsolved incident in Kloof. The whole Society extends their heartfelt sympathy to Vic Atherton and his whole family.)

Our third speaker was Captain Chris Dooner. After dealing with the role played by the Permanent Force members of the Navy, he then gave a fascinating background history of Salisbury Island and the role it has played in the history of both Port Natal and Durban. He told us that there is a theory that the first to step ashore on the island were the Phoenicians. They were followed by many others, including Vasco Da Gama, Frances Farewell and Lt. James King. The 20th century started unhappily when, due to an outbreak of bubonic plague, the island was used as a hospital. Between the two world wars the island became a popular picnic and recreation area, as well as being the location for the new Flying Boat Base. During the 2nd World War the base became extremely active. This was due to the high number of wartime shipping incidents off the eastern coast of South Africa. Figures quoted included 21 ships being sunk in June and July 1942 and 28 sightings of German U-boats in just a single month - October 1942. Captain Dooner ended his historical coverage with an explanation of how the names of the Base had changed from Naval Command East, to SAS Scorpion and (in this actual month) to the Naval Base Durban.

The whole party then left the comfort of the Harry Escombe Room, split into small groups and were taken aboard the SAS Rene Sethren (formerly the SAS Oswald Pirow). This ship was originally of Israeli design to operate in the calmer waters of the Mediterranean Sea, but had to be modified for the rougher waters around South Africa. We were given a thorough tour by experts, and every question and query was given a detailed answer. We were shown all aspects, from the extensive armament, the engines, the living quarters (and we now know why they are called "quarters"), the galley, the navigation systems and much more. As we left the Captain's bridge we could not quite imagine what it must be like to serve on this small but powerful ship as it patrols the heavy seas off the South African shores.

We were then invited into the bar, to enjoy the hospitality of our hosts. There we found more plaques, photographs and other interesting displays on the walls and our hosts were kept busy answering more questions from our members. Eventually the evening had to come to a close and after our Chairman had given a warm vote of thanks to Captain Chris Dooner and his colleagues, the length of the applause by all the members emphasised just how much everyone had enjoyed this unusual and entertaining evening.

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

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