South African Military History Society

Durban Branch March 1999 News Sheet No.288

On 11 February 1999 our 2 speakers, Paul Kilmartin and Garth Benneworth, provided thoroughly researched and excellently presented talks to a large and attentive audience. Our chairman, Paul Kilmartin gave the DDH talk on Captain Edwin Swales VC, DFC (3 July 1915-24 February 1945), starting with some information and statistics about the 32 VC's won in the air during World War II. These included the posthumous VC awarded to Captain Swales. Swales was one of twin brothers born to Olive and Harry Swales, at Inanda, Natal. After Harry had died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 (the "Spanish Flu") the family moved to Durban where Edwin attended Durban Boy's High School. His school career was marked by an enthusiastic participation in sport, an interest which he continued after leaving school and joining Barclays Bank. He excelled at rugby, cricket and squash. A 5-year period in the Natal Mounted Rifles before he returned to Barclays Bank.
The day after the outbreak of World War II he re-joined the NMR, which in readiness for overseas service became part of the 2nd South African Brigade in the 1st Infantry Division. Swales saw service against the Italian forces in East Africa and German forces in North Africa, until the Brigade withdrew to the El Alamein defensive line. At this time Captain Addison, one of his senior officers, wrote that Swales was much respected and outstandingly courageous.
When the Brigade was sent back to South Africa, Swales stayed on and volunteered for a transfer to the South African Air Force. He was accepted and in February 1942 he began his training at No.75 Air School at Lyttleton, followed by further training at Benoni, (where he was described as an outstanding pupil and of influential character) and at Kimberley. In June 1943, after 16 months training, he received his wings and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. By November 1943, on secondment to the Royal Air Force but still a member of the SAAF, he undertook further training on Wellington and Lancaster bombers and in night flying. After 1 tour, he was asked to join the elite Pathfinder Squadron and made his first operational flight with them in July 1944.
Described as "modest" and "retiring", Swales gave his mother the impression that his life was like a holiday. A colleagues letter to his own mother, passed on to Olive Swales, described Swales remarkable exploits, including a forced landing in Belgium, with engines out of action following a raid on Duisberg. Swales joined his friend Squadron Leader Palmer as a Pathfinder "Master Bomber" i.e. the first pilot to find the target and to drop flares and/or bombs onto the main target area. In an important daylight raid on the railway marshalling yards at Cologne in October 1944, Palmer, as Master Bomber, was killed and awarded a posthumous VC. Swales, leading the main force was awarded the DFC. On 23 February 1945, Swales was the Master Bomber for a raid of Pforzheim, the main target being a vital railway junction. The Lancaster bomber piloted by Swales was hit by an enemy fighter and crippled. Swales, nevertheless, marked the target and issued the necessary instructions to the bombers following him. On the difficult homeward journey, Swales ordered his crew to bail out. He was killed when his plane crashed to the ground near Valenciennes, in Belgium. Swales was awarded a posthumous VC in recognition of his courage, devotion to duty and regard for the lives of his crew.

Our main speaker, Garth Benneworth, generously paid his own airfare from Cape Town to give his talk, originally planned for March. His subject was The Battle of Driefontein, fought on the 10 March 1900, on the western front during the Anglo-Boer War. In October 1899 Kimberley was besieged by Boer forces. To raise the siege the British despatched 10,000 troops, under Lieutenant General Lord Methuen, who were initially to follow the railway line towards Bloemfontein. Actions took place at Belmont, Graspan, and Modder River and, on 11 December, at Magersfontein. The British were consolidating their forces while reinforcements were brought in. Field Marshal Lord Roberts was to outflank the Boers at Magersfontein and then capture Bloemfontein. The Boers retreated to Paardeberg where 4,000 Boers, under General Piet Cronje, surrendered. Roberts, with heavy battle casualties and his army plagued by enteric (typhoid), reorganised his army and after an action at Poplar Grove, entered Bloemfontein on 13 March 1900.
Garth Benneworth took us through, in great and fascinating detail, the action 3 days earlier, on 10 March, when the Boers under General Koos de la Rey, were attempting to hold back the British. Garth compiled the battle story from maps, written accounts and a meticulous examination of the terrain. In this remote and relatively undisturbed area, he not only found graves and the remains of gun emplacements, but also spent cartridges and shell cases that marked the British and Boer positions. His excellent slides revealed fairly flat countryside with low hills providing limited cover.
The British infantry, led by Lieutenant General Kelly-Kenny, came under heavy fire from the Boer Creusot and Krupp guns and their one-pounders ("Pom-Poms", imported from Britain before the war!) all operated by the gunners of the Z.A.R.P.(Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek Politie - South African Republic Police). There was also one of the British guns captured from General Buller at Calenso. The British infantry divisions were supported by 2 batteries (12 guns). These gunners obviously fired on the Boer gun positions, as evidenced by shrapnel found on the site, but could not take them out. A fierce British bayonet assault against the Z.A.R.P. was the occasion for a desperate fight with very few prisoners taken, in this attempt to cut off the Boer retreat.
In the advance of the British, close combat is indicated by the plentiful .303 Lee Metford, Martini-Henry and Mauser cartridges strewn about. The remoteness of the area has saved these sites and the numerous graves, from the attention of souvenir hunters - and the War Graves Commission!. In The Battle of Driefontein the Boers suffered exceptionally heavy casualties, even heavier than those suffered by the British, which in the Anglo-Boer war was an exception.

Dave Matthews gave a warm vote of thanks to both speakers for an excellent evening of historical research.

Due to Garth Benneworth agreeing to move his talk forward from our March to our February meeting, there have been changes to our program for the next meeting on 11 March 1999. The good news is that we will be having 3 speakers instead of 2!!, as follows :
Thursday 11 March 1999.
DDH: GEORGE NEL O'Neill's Cottage
DAVE MATTHEWS The Baffle of Flodden - 1513
PAUL KILMARTIN The History of the Irish Guards

We look forward to seeing you all at the March meeting.

Also, please do not forget that the Battlefields Tour is scheduled for the weekend of 8/9 May - just 2 months after our next meeting. We have to limit our numbers to 60 and we are filling up fast. We hope to close our list by March.

For further information or to book, please ring Paul Kilmartin on 561-2905 (H) or 268-7400 (0) or 082-449-7227 (Cell).

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

South African Military History Society /