The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 9 No 3 - June 1993

(incorporating Museum Review)

The Story of the Capture of the Enigma Cypher Machine from U11O

by David Balme


This account of the capture of the Enigma Cypher Machine from U110 on 9 May 1941 and its subsequent use was put to, must surely convince everyone that as Britain has only about fifty destroyers and frigates and still depends on the artery of the North Atlantic for her very existence, her vital defence is her nuclear deterrent.

Without nuclear submarines on constant patrol, submerged in unknown and undetectable positions in the world's oceans, every day of the year, Britain would be very vulnerable. With her nuclear deterrent nobody would dare attack her.

Anybody who believes that without the nuclear deterrent Britain would spend more on conventional weapons is living in a fool's paradise. In 1941 the Royal Navy had nearly 400 escort vessels against 100 U-boats. Today, the few additional destroyers which could be built for the cost of the Trident Submarines would leave an indefensible gap against 370 Russian submarines.


Winston Churchill wrote: 'The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.'

In the spring of 1941 it seemed that Churchill's worst fears might be realised and only the fortuitous capture of the Enigma Cypher Machine from U110 on 9 May 1941 saved Britain from losing the Battle of the Atlantic. (She already had the German army and air force enigma but never their naval one which was extra secure).

Two defensive battles saved Britain from losing the war. The first of these was the Battle of Britain, which was won by the RAF in 1940. As a result of this battle, Hitler decided not to invade Britain. There is little doubt that a German invasion would have been successful and would have led to Britain's total defeat in spite of brave words uttered for continuing the war from Canada..

The second battle was the Battle of the Atlantic which was fought from 1939 to 1945. Britain's defeat was averted in 1941 and the battle was won in May 1943 when forty U-boats were sunk in one month and Dönitz withdrew his U-boats from the North Atlantic.

John Winton in his Ultra at Sea writes: ... . the retreat from the North Atlantic of U-boats in May 1943 in which the Enigma played a vital part, was a strategic victory as important as the Battle of Midway in the west and Stalingrad in the east.

Thus, with the Battles of Britain and the Atlantic won, Britain once again ruled the air and seas surrounding her. She was able to transport and land the Allied armies who then won the war. The war was won by the Army, first from Alamein through Africa and Italy, and then from Normandy through to Berlin.

In that first victorious campaign of the war from Alamein, the Enigma played a vital part in placing British submarines and aircraft in the correct position, week after week, to sink the enemy convoys going from Italy to North Africa. Rommel said in his memoirs that it was not only the Eighth Army which defeated him, but even more his lack of supplies, ammunition, fuel, etc.

The Germans recognised that the Atlantic was the vital artery for Britain to supply her troops with food, (she had let her agriculture decline between wars, so she could only grow about one-third of her food), fuel (she had coal but no oil), raw materials for her factories, etc. If the Germans could cut that line, they would win the war.

Dönitz was the key German figure in the Battle of the Atlantic. He had served in U-boats in the First World War and had been responsible for building up clandestinely the German U-boat service between the wars. In the thirties he advised Hitler that to defeat Britain, Germany would need 300 U-boats. Dönitz then commanded the U-boats throughout the Second World War.

Fortunately, Germany started the war with only 100 U-boats. This meant roughly thirty to forty U-boats on patrol, thirty proceeding to and from patrol and thirty on maintenance and training.

If anyone needs to be convinced how vital the nuclear deterrent is for Britain today, a few figures are interesting:

The Battle of the Atlantic was a 'tonnage' war. Could the U-boats sink ships faster than Britain could replace them? Fortunately, a high proportion of British ships' crews were rescued after sinking, but in 1941 she just could not replace ships fast enough. Her yards were building war ships, particularly corvettes which were rather like very large fishing trawlers built for escort work and it was in fact a corvette which depth-charged U110 to the surface.

Once the USA entered the war, the war was bound to end in an Allied victory in the long run. They began building 'Liberty' ships as cargo vessels of about 8 000 tons of a standard simple design. The record was a 'Liberty' ship built in three weeks. Thus, in 1943, the Allies were building ships faster than they were being sunk.

Earlier in the war, the problem was whether or not Britain could hold out until some event brought the USA into the war. This event was Pearl Harbour in December 1941. In early 1941, however, Britain had her back to the wall, as everyone who served in the Atlantic realised, with ships being torpedoed day after day. The capture of the Enigma Cypher Machine from U110 occurred at just the right moment and saved Britain from losing the Battle of the Atlantic in that year of 1941. At that time, Britain did not have spare destroyers to form a striking force to sink the U-boats, whose exact position was then learnt from the Enigma, but it enabled the Submarine Tracking Room in the Admiralty to route the convoys away from the U-boats. The figures of ships sunk in 1941 show that this saved Britain:

April 1941British shipping losses were688 000 tons.
May 511 000 tons.
June(Enigma becoming operational)432 000 tons.
July 121 000 tons.
August 80 000 tons.
September 202 000 tons.
October 156 000 tons.
November 62 000 tons.
December 45 000 tons.

Then, in January 1942, the Germans changed their enigma machine by adding another wheel which made it very difficult for many months during 1942. However, the enigma settings from U110 had carried Britain through the vital time before the USA entered the war. In December 1942, the German cyphers were again broken.

U110 was captured on 9 May 1941. The Enigma was delivered by HMS Bulldog to Scapa Flow about six days later and was in use by about the end of May. The immediate result of its use was the sinking of about fifteen German supply ships stationed around the North and South Atlantic for refuelling U-boats and armed raiders such as the Prinz Eugen which had sailed from Norway with the Bismarck in mid-May 1941.

In addition to the Enigma machine, many other code and cypher books were found in the U110. There were also some vital charts hitherto unknown to the British. The most important of these were the special grid charts used for positioning U-boats throughout the Atlantic and charts showing all the German mine-fields and swept channels which Britain then used for various raids, especially the St Nazaire operation.

In addition to the Enigma, another vital element in the Battle of the Atlantic was air power. This was important to both sides. Long-range aircraft patrols around the convoys kept U-boats submerged and prevented them from getting into an attacking position easily. German long-range aircraft sighted and reported back the positions of our convoys.

On both sides, however, air support was a problem, especially in the first two years of the war. Goring persuaded Hitler that he could bomb Britain into defeat. Therefore Dönitz could not get enough aircraft. In just the same way, Bomber Harris persuaded Churchill that the RAF could bomb Germany into defeat. If Britain had bombed Berlin with 800 aircraft instead of 1 000, the additional 200 long-range aircraft, if allocated to Coastal Command, could have made all the difference to the Atlantic campaign.

Illustrating the importance of air cover, the figures for October 1941, a month in which the Enigma was working, were as follows: 32 ships were sunk of which 14 were sunk in the 'air gap' 600 miles from the UK, 12 ships were sunk 400-600 miles from UK where air cover was intermittent and NO ships at all were sunk within 400 miles of areas where air patrols were active. The capture of U110 and the Enigma machine was the greatest kept secret of the war. It was expunged from the official Naval records and only a few persons in the Allied war effort were informed that the German Navy cyphers were being broken. The information obtained was, of course, given to all necessary commands, but the source was kept camouflaged. In fact, even after the war when Captain Roskill, the official Naval war historian, came to write the history of the war at sea, he found no mention of it in the records.

Dan van der Vat writes in The Atlantic Campaign:
'In Volume I of his official history, The War at Sea published in 1954, Captain Stephen Roskill gives the OB318 clash two lines: "In the North Atlantic convoy OB318 was intercepted early in May and lost five ships, but its escort retaliated by sinking U110."

Between the publications of Volumes II and III of his account in 1956 and 1961 respectively, Roskill found out more and decided to write a separate book on the plundering of U110, entitled The Secret Capture, to fill out the record. Describing the scene when the Bulldog reached Scapa Flow and handed over two packing cases containing the material from U110 to Naval Intelligence officers who had come from London to collect it, Roskill quotes one of them as saying: "What! This. . .? And this ...? We've waited a long time for one of these!"

That is as close to revealing that "one of these" was a Naval Enigma machine. That evening, of the 9th May 1941 the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, signalled Baker-Cresswell: "Hearty congratulations. The petals of your flower are of rare beauty". When David Balme, who led the boarding-party from HMS Bulldog, went to Buckingham Palace to receive the Distinguished Service Cross he had earned in the action, His Majesty King George VI remarked, according to Roskill, that the operation was the most important single event in the whole war at sea.

It had been intended that the capture of the Enigma was never going to be divulged, but when the Blunt/Philby spy ring was broken in the 1950s, it was found that information of the Enigma had been given to the Russians as the spies had been working in British Intelligence and another spy, Cairncross, had worked at Bletchley.

As Britain's allies, the Russians had been given information relative to their theatre of war, but the source had remained camouflaged, as it was to other recipients. It is interesting to note that the information which Blunt/Philby gave to the Russians on the enigma did not leak out to the Germans. Subsequently, the records were released under the normal thirty-year rule and are now available from the Government Archives at Kew to anyone of any nationality.

In 1981 the German Sunday paper, Bild am Sonntag, ran a serial on the Battle of the Atlantic. The editor interviewed David Balme, the Boarding Officer, and Dönitz. When Dönitz was told how the British captured the Enigma from U110 and had used it, he would not believe it, forty years after the event. Dönitz died still not believing it.

Historians writing today state that the enigma probably shortened the war by two years. As things turned out, that is probably a fair assessment, but in May 1941, Britain was losing the war in the Atlantic and North Africa. The enigma from U110 saved her from defeat in that crucial time before the USA joined her.

The capture of the U110 was a brilliantly conceived operation by Joe Baker-Cresswell, commanding the 3rd Escort Group from HMS Bulldog. Not only did he immediately decide to board, but he also had to prevent the over-enthusiastic destroyer Broadway from ramming and sinking the U-boat.

German newspaper reports of the first few years stated that every destroyer had been instructed to capture a U-boat and its enigma machine, but in fact no such directive had ever been given by the Admiralty and no practice at boarding or even launching a seaboat had ever been carried out. There was no time for exercises such as this. On 9 May 1941, having decided to launch the seaboat, Baker-Cresswell told Balme, the Gunnery Control Officer who was then directing the firing of the guns at U110, to take a boarding-party and see what he could find.

No account of the boarding of U110 would be complete without refuting the perennial accusation that the boarding-party shot Kapitan Lemp when he tried to swim back and board the U-boat. Lemp was never seen and no shot was fired by any member of the boarding-party. This misinformation was probably picked up from a book on the Battle of the Atlantic by an author who never interviewed either Baker-Cresswell or Balme.

In one serial, Bild am Sonntag printed this accusation, but when contacted, they immediately sent the editor to London to interview Balme and, in the next week's serial, they agreed that they had made a mistake and that ' . . . it was certain that Lemp died in some other way.'

More recently, in early 1988, through the Submarine Museum in Gosport and the German U-boat Association, Herr Georg Hogel, who had been a Petty Officer Telegraphist in both U30 and the U110, said that Lemp was in the water with him and then just disappeared and was certainly not shot.

Balme and his boarding-party spent six hours on board U110 collecting every conceivable book, chart, radio set and, of course, the priceless Enigma. During these six hours U110 gradually sank deeper in the water and, with depth-charges exploding all around her, it was a miracle that the scuttling charges were never set off.

One of the leading war historians, the late Ronald Lewin CBE, writes in his book Ultra goes to War

'On 9th May U-Boat 110, Kapitän Julius Lemp, attacked a convoy. By a remarkable effort the convoy's escort commander, Captain Baker-Cresswell, successfully counter-attacked and organised a boarding-party which recovered intact her Enigma with all its precious papers. The circumstances of this "pinch" were so fraught with the possibility of failure, and its consequences so crucial, that this was one of those exceptional occasions when history holds its breath.

U110 attacked the outward-bound convoy OB318 at a point south of Greenland. The counter-attack by Baker-Cresswell with his destroyer Bulldog drove the U-boat to surface. Kapitän Leutnant Julius Lemp had a fine record in the U-boat war, but now - against all probability - he committed a double error. He gave the order to abandon ship, having set the proper explosive charges: but the detonators failed to work, the U-boat remained afloat, and he had broken the rigid rule of the German - and indeed the British - Navy by leaving aboard all his marked charts, his codebooks, his cypher documents - and his Enigma. It is thought that when he realised what had happened, Lemp committed suicide by allowing himself to drown.

Bulldog hove to about a hundred yards from U110 and launched a boarding-party which, in a whaler rowed by five sailors, lurched over the difficult northern seas. In charge was a twenty-year old sub-lieutenant, a regular officer of the Royal Navy called David Balme.

Only once before had he been involved in a boarding operation, and that was before the war, in the calm waters of the eastern Mediterranean, against one of the ships carrying illegal immigrants to Palestine. His first problem was to get aboard: it is not easy to bring a row-boat alongside a bulbous submarine amid ice-cold waves off Greenland. Somehow the whaler was eased on to the curve of the craft, and Balme set off, alone, revolver in hand, along the U-boat's wet and slippery spine. As he clambered down the conning-tower's ladder the atmosphere inside the deserted U-boat was eerie.

On shipboard there is usually sound: at the least, a background of steady humming from the generators. But as Balme got down into the periscope control-chamber, the heart of the vessel, there was total silence: silence and a darkness fitfully broken by the blue lamps of the U-boat's emergency lighting. Only from the outside could sounds be heard - the explosions of depth-charges as the convoy's escort drove off further U-boat attacks.

These too increased the tension, for Balme could never be sure that the shock waves from these explosions would not detonate the destructive charges inside the U110.

Nevertheless, he explored inside the hull and found shelves of codebooks, while a signaller entered the communications compartment and unscrewed what was obviously a cypher machine.

History must now have been breathing very slowly indeed, for the next step was to form a human chain up the conning-tower ladder and along the deck of the U-boat to the whaler. By this chain the documents and the Enigma were passed from hand-to-hand - with the strong possibility that any or all of them might have been dropped into the sea had a sailor slipped or a sudden large wave broken over the wallowing U-boat. Instead, after three or four hours of ferrying between Bulldog and U110 all the cypher material, charts and many other pieces of equipment were safely transferred.

After being taken in tow U110 - perhaps fortunately - sank, and Bulldog, having first made for Iceland and collected a load of prisoners, returned rapidly to Scapa Flow. Immense pains were taken to ensure that the prisoners saw no evidence of a "pinch": thanks to this precaution, wireless security and the disappearance of U110, Dönitz and his staff never in fact, had any suspicion about what had happened. When Bulldog reached Scotland (having sent to the Admiralty a cautiously non-committal signal about her success) she was joined by Lieutenant Allen Bacon, RNVR, who worked in special liaison between the Navy Section at Bletchley and the Operational Intelligence Centre. (On 25 June he would take part in the "pinch" of Lauenberg.) Bacon spent many hours examining the captured papers in the captain's cabin of Bulldog. His verdict:
"This is what we have been looking for." Every page was carefully photographed - the risk of losing the originals in air transit to London being too great. And then, finally, the intact treasure-trove arrived at Bletchley.

Later in the year sub-lieutenant Balme, RN, received from the King a well-deserved Distinguished Service Cross.

Here was the breakthrough. When a U-boat sailed on operations it carried the daily settings for its Enigma to cover the period of its cruise - normally about three months. The settings required from U110 were valid up to the end of June. With great speed the cryptanalysts in Hut 8 now penetrated Hydra, which in 1941 was the general purpose cypher used for ships in the North Sea and the Baltic; for mine-sweepers, patrol-craft etc off the French and Norwegian coast; and, at that time, for all U-boats. At last the sieve was leaking. Nor did the benefits of the "pinch" run out at the end of June. Experience gained during those two months of working with known settings enabled Bletchley to continue to read Hydra, with occasional gaps, until the end of the war, as well as to penetrate in due course the "big ship" cypher Neptune and the two Naval cyphers employed for the Mediterranean, Sud and Medusa. History is written in terms of Trafalgars and Jutlands, but by any standard the seizure of U110 should rate as a major victory at sea.'

A fitting end to this saga is the following letter written by Joe Baker-Cresswell, now aged 88, to David Balme at Christmas, 1988:
'The whole beauty of our exploit was the providential timing of it. The situation was just about desperate at the time and if losses in the Atlantic had gone on increasing at the same rate as in the beginning of 1941 we would probably have had to sue for peace. Churchill says it was the only thing he was really worried about and I remember thinking at the time that we could not go on. In fact, I think that my remark on the Bulldog's bridge: "By God! We'll do a Magdeburg!" was as epoch-making as some of Churchill's sayings! Because, if we hadn't done a Magdeburg, our losses would have been insupportable. Later it didn't matter so much because the Americans were in it and ships and aircraft were being turned out faster than they were being destroyed. Long after we are dead and gone, it will be written up again and the true lesson will be learnt.

That breathing space we were given in 1941 when Rodger Winn in the Submarine Tracking Room was so clever with diverting convoys, that we never got near a U-boat, was absolutely vital in the war. It is nice to think of the hundreds of ships and lives we saved, let alone the country.'

The Boarding of U110

I have been asked by several people to write for the first time about my feelings during the boarding of U110.

Life in HMS Bulldog was the happiest time of the war for me. We had a fine captain, a good crew and just a handful of delightful and efficient officers. In May 1941, not only were we short of ships, but also desperately short of officers and men. In the wardroom we had as watchkeepers on this convoy a lieutenant aged 22, myself aged 20, and a RNVR sub-lieutenant. So it was a very tiring life. Four hours on watch, eight hours off, but during those eight hours we had to do our other duties. For instance, in May 1941, I was the navigator in charge of the ship's office and as we were one officer short, I was also doing gunnery control.

The most tiring time of all was at night (for in the winter months, night was sixteen hours out of twenty-four). We had forty to fifty merchant ships and eight to ten escort vessels and we would all zig-zag night and day at a speed of only eight knots. On the bridge was an officer of the watch, a signal man and two lookouts.

More often than not, during the day, we were attacked by U-boats with two or three ships being sunk every day. On 9 May 1941 we were attacked at noon. I had been on watch from 04:00 until 08:00 and after a bath and breakfast, I was on the bridge. It was a sunny day, with a moderate wind but the usual big Atlantic swell.

Suddenly at noon, two ships were hit by torpedoes and we went to action stations. We turned the convoy 45deg away from the attack and Bulldog went full speed to the likely position of the U-boat.

The corvette Aubretia on the side of the attack gained contact with the U-boat and attacked with depth-charges. The U-boat surfaced 400 yards from us and we opened fire with every gun.

In those days we did not have sophisticated control systems and my job, as gunnery control officer, was to call up the three 4.7 in guns on my telephone headset, give them a bearing and range and tell them to open fire independently.

The noise was deafening, especially from our Lewis machine guns which were being fired from the bridge over our heads by anyone who could pick them up. However, it was undoubtedly the noise of all the shells and bullets hitting the U-boat which caused the German crew to panic, all jumping overboard as fast as they could without successfully scuttling the U-boat. Thus the order went out: 'AWAY ARMED BOARDING PARTY' The captain ordered me to take the boarding-party and get what I could out of the U-boat.

The gunner's mate issued revolvers and ammunition to me and the crew of the seaboat. We were eight men and the seaboat was the traditional 27 ft (8,2 m) wooden whaler, pointed at both ends, with the extraordinary arrangement of three men rowing on one side and only two on the other side.

We embarked in the whaler and were slowly lowered away, until we were about 6 ft (1,8 m) off the sea. This was always the critical moment because the boat had to be dropped the last 6 ft on to the crest of a wave. This was done by a quick release mechanism. Following the order 'OUT PINS', two sailors took out the pins holding the release mechanism which held the weight of the boat.

The first lieutenant on deck then watched the rollers and, as the destroyer rose up on a roller, he shouted 'SLIP'. My leading seaman then pulled a rope and happily, on this occasion, the boat dropped right on the crest of a wave. It did not always happen like that. An old friend of mine (now Lord Mottistone) was in a destroyer's seaboat on a similar occasion and he told me that only the stern of his boat dropped so the boat gradually filled with water from the Atlantic swell.

However, we were happily alright and we got out the oars and began rowing over to the U-boat. As speed was essential, I steered the boat to the nearest side of the U-boat which was to windward with the rollers breaking against the hull.

A submarine in the calm sea is a difficult ship to board as it is so bulbous. But in a rough sea it is even more difficult. My bowman jumped onto the U-boat with the painter and I walked up to the bow over the oarsmen, and so aboard and then got my revolver out of its holster.

I felt sure that there would be somebody on board, but there certainly appeared to be nobody in the conning-tower. When I got there, I had, of course, to put my revolver away and use both hands to climb up the ladder outside the conning-tower. That was the first and easiest stage. There were no Germans on deck or in the conning-tower and surprisingly the watertight hatch was closed.

The worst moment of the boarding of the U110 was going down the last vertical ladder from the lower conning-tower to the control-room. Going down bottom-first, I felt a very vulnerable target to any German still down below. I needed both hands, so my revolver was back in its holster, but on arrival in the control-room, I got it out.

The most eerie feeling was the complete silence except for an ominous hissing sound which was either from the batteries or a leak in the hull. The secondary lighting gave a rather dim ghostly effect.

The U-boat had a 15deg list to port and there was a plopping noise as she rolled against the Atlantic swell. This swell eventually broke up our whaler and we were then supplied with a motorboat from the destroyer Broadway.

I walked forward and aft through the two watertight doors out of the control-room and decided that the Germans really had abandoned ship. I called my sailors down and told the signal-man to semaphore back to Bulldog that she was deserted.

Speed in searching the U-boat was now essential, as I felt sure that the scuttling-charges would go off sooner or later, especially as there were continuous explosions around us from depth-charge attacks on other U-boats. This was a most unpleasant and frightening noise.

We formed a human chain up the two ladders and began passing up books, charts, and wireless equipment.

The great thing was for all the boarding-party to be kept busy, passing out the treasures including the Enigma cypher machine which was found in the wireless-office. It was unscrewed from the table and so began its fateful journey up the conning-tower, into the motor-boat to the Bulldog. Thence to Iceland, then to Scapa Flow and from there to Bletchley.

Time was marching on. We boarded U110 at about 12:30 and were glad to receive sandwiches from Bulldog during the afternoon.

Throughout these hours our escort vessels were attacking U-boats with depth-charges and my fear was that their explosions, which felt very close, would set off the detonating charges.

Having got most of the books, charts and moveable wireless and other instruments out of the U-boat, I now thought I should have an engineer to try to get the engines working. So I semaphored Bulldog for an ERA and in due course, our engineer officer came over with a few stokers, as they were still called. But, with everything written in German and nobody ever having served in a submarine, we decided we would do more harm than good by turning the cocks to get her under way.

Meanwhile, on deck, Bulldog came in close, and we tried to secure a towing wire. The first one parted and then Bulldog had to leave to investigate and attack a reported U-boat contact.

This was indeed a desolate and awful moment. There was I, with my boarding-party, aboard U110, in the middle of the Atlantic, alone with no ships in sight with the wind and sea gradually increasing.

This must have been about 16:00. There were no more books or moveable gear we could collect, so I battened down the watertight hatches and we waited. Happily, the Bulldog returned and we set about securing a tow. The boat which had been left with us, went over to the Bulldog and brought back our Chief Bosun's mate, who was a great help. We eventually managed to secure a tow across. The tow held and thus at about 18:30 we evacuated the U-boat and returned to the Bulldog after having spent six hours in U110.

Thus ended an unforgettable day which had far-reaching consequences. After thirty years of secrecy, the story of this Enigma has recently been raised in books, articles and correspondence in newspapers at home and abroad, but never yet has it been officially acclaimed.


Great Britain, as an island nation, is still today far more vulnerable to submarines than any other country in the world and for this reason she must always keep her independent nuclear deterrent.

Enemy submarines nearly defeated her twice: in April 1917 and in May 1941. On both occasions, Germany had about 150 submarines with thirty to forty on patrol at any one time. It is therefore illuminating to look at the world's submarine fleet today in 1989:

Great Britain30
West Germany24
Other countries:less than 20

Some of the Russian submarines may well be obsolete, but Jane's Fighting Ships states that the Russian ALFA class, with its combination of a very high speed of 45 knots submerged and a great diving depth, presents severe problems for the current generation of anti-submarine weapons.

In 1941 Britain had 400 escort vessels (destroyers, sloops, corvettes, etc) Today she has fifty destroyers and frigates (and some Hunter Killer submarines). Her conventional ships are quite inadequate to meet this submarine threat. The majority of the British people have a gut feeling that they need their independent nuclear deterrent.

Great Britain, with its small population, can never compete in conventional forces and is the one country which should have a nuclear deterrent, even if the USA and Russia abolish theirs. She must never pool hers in any disarmament talks, certainly not in the foreseeable future, while this disparity in the world's submarine fleet exists.

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