The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

The Search for the May Jackson - Screw Gun Extraordinaire

It was last seen in the Police Military Museum in the Old Boma in Lusaka in 1962-64 prior to Zambian Independence. The Boma has been demolished and the location of the contents are at present unknown.


A new 2.5 Inch Rifled Muzzle Loading Seven Pounder Mountain Gun was brought into service with the Royal Artillery in 1880. The gun was designed by Col. C B Le Mesurier RA so that the muzzle and breech, together 5 ft 9 inches long, could be separated for transit (hence 'the screw gun'). Each battery mule carried a load of 200-226lbs. One beast carried the muzzle (198.323lbs), one the breech (200lbs), one the carriage, one the two wheels, and a fifth the axle, coupling block, trunnion guard, elevating gear (a wedge & screw) and two storage boxes. Others carried ammunition and tools. The weapon could be carried in the same way by camels. It replaced a short barrelled seven pounder. The new gun was made of steel and rifled with 8 grooves with progressive curves. The trunnion ring was wrought iron. The wheels could be fastened to a hook at the back of the carriage to prevent recoil (the 'spade' presumably, a common device before recoil springs came in). The projectiles were fired by a gun charge of 6 ounces of black powder. Shells actually weighed 7.6lbs and contained a quarter pound powder charge. Shrapnel rounds containing 100 large and 11 small bullets with a 220 grain charge also weighed 7.6lbs. Case shot weighed 6.7lbs and contained 159 bullets. Star shells were also supplied. Projectiles came in cases of eight. Muzzle velocity was 1436ft per second and maximum range 4000 yards or 3,400 yards for shrapnel with time fuse.('The British Army, Sampson Low, Arston & Co 1899 reprinted as Scarlet into Khaki by Greenhill Books 1988 p130-1; Weapons & Equipment of the Victorian Soldier, Donald Featherstone, Blandford Press 1978 pp101-4).

The Royal Artillery had adopted breech loading guns in the 1860 but reverted to muzzle loaders in the 1870s until 1885 when field and horse batteries were again equipped with breech loaders. It was not until 1903 that the 7 pdr RBL was replaced in the regular mountain batteries of the Royal Garrison Artillery and the Indian Mountain Artillery by a new 10 pounder breech loading gun.

May Jackson was therefore only just over ten years out of date when she was sent north although by 1914 the 10 pdr was itself in process of replacement by the 12.75 gun firing a 12.5lb shell up to 5,600 yards (Allied Artillery of World War I Ian V Hogg, the Crowood Press 1998 p31). Mountain batteries RGA in India consisted of British gunners and Indian drivers. 10 Mountain Battery RGA in Natal had locally enlisted coloured muleteers. Indian mountain batteries each consisted of 50 per cent Sikhs and 50 per cent Punjabi Mussulmen.

The 'screw gun' lacked the elevation to make it an ideal mountain gun and the punch for conventional warfare. Carried by porters across the roadless plains and forests of tropical Africa against tribesmen with no artillery or long range weapons of their own it could breach most mud walls and wooden stockades and break up concentrations of warriors. Kipling made the 'Screw Gun' famous as the weapon of the mountain gunners but it also saw much service with the West African Frontier Force, the King's African Rifles and their predecessor units.

Seven pounders (perhaps the pre-1880 pattern) came to Rhodesia with the Pioneer Column in 1890. and remained in the British South Africa Company's armoury seeing action in the Matabele War in 1893. Two of these together with a twelve and a half pounder were lost in the Jameson Raid (Elizabeth Longford 'Jameson's Raid' 2nd Edition Weidenfelt & Nicolson 1982 p46 Jameson had three guns)

In the Regiment, (Covos Day Books 2000) at page 38, Reginald Hamley states that two guns belonging to 10 Mountain Battery RA were captured by the Boers at Majuba in 1881, subsequently recaptured and brought to Rhodesia, probably with the Matabele and Relief Force. It is true that a section (2 guns) of 10 Mountain Battery was sent up during the Matabele Rebellion of 1896, but not as part of Herbert Plumer's MRF which was a specially raised unit of mounted riflemen with Maxim machine guns but no artillery of its own. Another two seven- pounders were embarked at Cape Town to join Alderson's Mounted Infantry Battalion from Aldershot which landed at Beira in time to play its part in the suppression of the Mashona Rebellion. These two guns were originally sent with one officer, two NCOs and only four gunners who were to train settlers in their use. However Alderson shanghaied another eight Royal Artillerymen from the Garth Castle, a troopship bound for Mauritius. From the same source Alderson obtained a company of Sappers and a half company of the York and Lancaster Regiment including Sergeant F A Hodson. Colin Harding, a settler, returning from a break in England also attached himself to Alderson's command.

It is also true that Colley's force in 1881 included two 7 pounders and two 9 pounder guns.which were in action at Ingogo (Schuinshoogte) where two ammunition limbers fell into Boer hands.but no guns were taken up Majuba and none of these four guns were captured by the Boers. The 7 pounders had been in store in Durban, so were presumably the pre 1880 pattern and they were manned by infantrymen of the 60th Rifles. (Majuba 1881 Ian Castle Osprey Campaign Series) 10 Mountain Battery was not in South Africa at the time.

Seven pounders came to British Central Africa (Nyasaland) with the Indian Contingent of the Central African Rifles and were used with great effect in the suppression of the 'Ngoni Rebellion' of 1898 in North-Eastern Rhodesia.

When General Sir Ian Hamilton, as Inspector-General of Overseas Forces, inspected the BSAP in 1912 he found 3x7pdr 3" RML (was this the pre-1880 short barreled gun?), 4x7pdr 2.5" RML and one 75mm Quick Firing gun (presumably the 12 and a half pounder. Quick firing meant having a modern recoil system, a recuperator, and firing fixed ammunition, ie with the gun charge in a brass cartridge case issued in one piece with the shell) all in the care of 15 members of the Depot Staff trained as gunners (report in CO417/418 National Archives, Kew). He would not have mentioned anything which was obviously of no more than ornamental value. Sillitoe in 'Cloak without Dagger' talks of May Jackson squatting muzzle up on a parade ground with a plaque describing former glories but then says it reached Broken Hill covered in grease which suggests it had come out of store as it would surely not have been heavily greased for a rail journey of about 48hrs. Would Sillitoe have visited the Depot at Salisbury since he passed out of recruit training in 1908? Colonel Edwards, the Chief Commandant of Rhodesian Forces, would have wanted the most serviceable 7pdr sent to the Front with, one would hope the best available crew. 1709 Hadath, 1710 Hennessy and 1711 Horton appear to have all joined the BSAP in August 1913. Hopkins (1684 May? '13) who may have known them quite well said (NRJ p32) all three were ex Royal Dragoons. Since about half of the BSAP recruits of the period seem to have been former members of the mounted branches of the Regular Army and the Royal Dragoons were one of the only two British cavalry regiments stationed in South Africa at the time the regiment may have been specially well represented among recruits joining the BSAP in the last couple of years before World War I. 1762 B J Thomas, later the last British RSM of the NRP and first of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment was definitely ex-Royal Dragoons, but why choose them as gunners rather than former Horse and Field artillerymen. The fourth member of the crew 1866 John Farrar can only have joined the BSAP in July or August 1914 so perhaps he was a former regular gunner. We should not forget the six British South Africa Native Police who acted as ammunition numbers. Was one of these 4267 Kavuli who was mentioned in despatches?

A single screw gun in India would have been served by sergeant, a corporal, a bombardier and up to 13 gunners (there were 82 gunners in a six gun battery and about 180 drivers (10 Mountain Battery in 1899 had an establishment of 147 gunners for six guns!) and if separated from the rest of its battery would now doubt have been commanded by one of the 5 officers of the battery (Scarlet into Khaki p52.) The BSAP sent a newly promoted corporal and 9 men to operate hundreds of miles from their base under officers from another corps, albeit one closely connected with their own..

Lieutenant Percy Sillitoe having been ordered from his civil police duties at Lusaka to assemble 600 porters at Broken Hill, meet Horton's train there and and lead the whole caravan to Abercorn, there reverted to infantry duty. Horton and his crew were unable to reach Kasakalawe in time to engage the lakeborn raiders there on 19 November 1914 and May Jackson does not appear to have fired a shot in anger for more than six months. Her fame came at Saisi on 28 June and during the subsequent siege from 25 July until 3 August, putting a German gun out of action with a direct hit on its muzzle. She presumably remained at Saisi until the garrison was withdrawn on 29 October Abercorn. When Brig-Gen Edward Northey arrived on his preliminary inspection of his front and forces in March 1916. May Jackson was in post with a company of NRP at Zombe nine miles away.

When 'A' (Special Reserve) Company BSAP left Livingstone for the Northern Front in August 1915 it took the BSAP's 12 and a half pounder, (which appears to have been the twin of that taken by the Boers in the Jameson Raid). This gun under the veteran No.75 Sub-Inspector Charles Henry Chalmers had been sent from Salisbury with BSAP reinforcements on 8 July 1915 when the South African rebel Maritz was believed likely to try to break through from South West Africa. The gun was detrained at Kashitu 50 miles north of Broken Hill presumably so as to be able to make use of the wagon road cut through to Kasama by the Northern Rhodesia Rifles Mobile Column at the end of 1914. They had followed in the tracks Quincy's traction engine which had finally bogged down seven days march north of Chansa. Chalmers went down with enteric in January 1916 but recovered and did not return to Salisbury until 17 Nov 1917. He appears as Battery Sergeant-Major in the 1909 photo of BSAP NCOs opposite page 32 of 'Right of the Line'.

When Lt Col R E Murray DCM BSAP organised his Column for the advance on the German border fort of Namema, May Jackson was to be left at Abercorn and only the 12 and a half pdr and two newly arrived modern German 75mm mountain guns captured in SWA and manned by 5th Battery South African Mounted Riflemen were to accompany his Reserve Force. However Captain Langham claims to have seen May Jackson in action against Namema. She may well have been brought up between 23 May and 2 June 1916. Langham mentions the 12 and a half pounder but not the SAMR guns.

In any event May Jackson and the other BSAP gun did not accompany the advance further into German East Africa and by November 1918 had been backloaded from Abercorn to Kasama. The attempt to render them useless was probably made on the orders of Hector Croad who was intent on leaving nothing in Kasama that would be of use to the enemy.

I must have been mistaken in saying that 600 rounds of ammunition accompanied May Jackson to the Front. I cannot now find anything to gainsay Sillitoe's mention of 200 rounds. I must have confused the number of rounds with the number of porters. We don't know how many rounds May Jackson fired during the campaign. We know the Germans fired 40 into Abercorn on 8 September 1914 and 80 into Fife on 6 December.1915 and 216 enemy shells were reported to have been fired into Saisi (NA CO417/576). May Jackson can not have had many left from her 200 and, perhaps, at some stage she was re-supplied.

Of her crew John Farrar was invalided back to Salisbury on 17 March 1916. The other three all became machine gunners, saw the campaign through and were all awarded th Meritorious Service Medal. Jack Horton finished the War as an Acting Company Sergeant-Major in the Rhodesia Native Regiment. Edwin Hedath was a corporal when commissioned as a Temporary Second Lieutenant and John Hennessey became a sergeant.

From Rob Burrett

South African Military History Society /