George M James
SOUTH AFRICAN INGENUITY WITH ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNS
1915, The March on German South-West Africa.
It should be well-known that Jannie Smuts, the South African Premier and former Boer War general, became part of the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917. This Cabinet was based in London. It was during this time that Imperial German Gotha Raids (heavier than air bombers) as well as airships, the Zeppelins, started hitting London from above in the first serious blitz. Genuine panic ensued. An answer was needed, and Smuts came out with the “Smuts Report” on air defence. From this would come the Royal Air Force the next year, created on April Fool’s Day, 1918. The South African Air Force would follow a few years later, the oldest Commonwealth Air Force. Smuts also recommended batteries of artillery firing into sectors where and when the aircraft had to cross. I believe that that came from personal experience two years earlier during the German South-West Africa invasion.
I describe what happened in Code Name Moonlight, GMJ 29. There is an exciting and unknown military historical link between South Africa and anti-aircraft defence. Some say that the South Africans started the concept against heavier than air aircraft but decide for yourself after reading below. The Union of South Africa attacked and invaded German South-West Africa, a neighbouring country, in 1915 (the Afrikaner Rebellion was due to this among other reasons). They soon encountered a few prowling German aircraft. Having no Air Force themselves and no real idea what to do with aircraft except aerial reconnaissance (this was a new branch of warfare), the topic was discussed intensely among the soldiers.
In the end, the artillerymen used two converted two 15-pounder breech-loading cannon as anti-aircraft guns. The two guns had extremely high angles of fire, between 60 and 71 degrees. As far as they were concerned, if the enemy can be seen, he can be shot and what is more, should be shot. As history will show, they shot nothing down but the idea of using mobile artillery against flying aircraft was formed and undoubtedly remembered by Smuts two years later when facing the much more serious Gotha bombers.
One of the originally converted guns became known, no one can quite remember why, as “Skinny Liz.” (It might have been called after a General Skinner or his wife). This gun is available for scrutiny at the Air Defence School at Kimberley in the Northern Cape Province, still home to the Anti-Aircraft Regiment. The other gun was standing at the officer’s mess at Fort Wynyard for decades, an example of local ingenuity and military history. Where it is today, I do not know.
The artillerists involved were men from the 2nd Battery, South African Mounted Rifles. It is fascinating that the guns were converted in 1914 before the German South-West invasion took place. It is said by contemporary reports that the weapons were in no way easy to transport. The new chassis weighed many hundreds of pounds and had steel wheels – a standard artillery feature at the time, drawn by horses. But, and this is important in a military history assessment, their early conversion meant that they were thinking of using them in dual roles, ground attack and air defence and that was in 1914 when few had even seen an aircraft flying, that alone makes this story thought-provoking. It means that Field Marshall Erwin Rommel was not the first to use his towed 88mm cannon as anti-aircraft defence as well as ground support weapons during the dash through France, 1940. Also, the mere fact that he had armour-piercing shells and the usual anti-personnel ones issued, says it all. As we found out to our cost, during the Desert War in North Africa, World War II, Rommel would use his excellent 88mm cannon to shoot out Allied tanks at great distances. He never believed in tank on tank engagements as did Heinz Guderian, the father of Blitzkrieg. Well, even this can be debated. “If speed is armour” then why did Guderian add tons of armour onto the excellent Czech tanks taken over after the Munich betrayal of 1938? Another discussion for another day but in several GMJ books.
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