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Reports 2020

Report January 8th 2020 Boer War

What connects Kipling, Ghandi, Kitchener, Lily Langtree, Baden-Powell, Cecil Rhodes, and Churchill ? 

All were involved with the Boer War 1899-1902, which was the subject of a talk given by John Yabsley to Gordano Probus. South African history and politics are complex, but John guided us through them with clarity.  In 1652 the Dutch East India company wanted a resupply base for its ships midway to Indonesia’s spice trade and they picked the Cape of Good Hope. The farmers (Boers) established themselves in the vicinity but were dependent upon slave labour from the indigenous people. The Dutch East India company went bankrupt in 1795. The British now had the dominant navy. In 1820, after the Napoleonic wars, British unemployed were encouraged to settle at the Cape pushing the Boers northwards. In 1870 diamonds were discovered in the Dutch Orange Free State and entrepreneurs like Cecil Rhodes (he of De Beers fame) wanted access and pressured British government to displace the Boers further by force. 1881 the first Boer war, lasting three months, took place but was inconclusive and skirmishes continued over the following years.  Gold was discovered in Transvaal in 1886, a gold rush ensued, which further increased the drive for a British Empire extension. The Jameson Raid was an abortive attempt to overthrow President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal Republic in December 1895. The second Boer war started in October 1899, but the British were under prepared and underestimated the Boers strength (now rearmed by Kruger), which left them under seige in several towns. Reinforcements were sent to enable the British to gain the upper hand. There was much bloodshed and disease and the first use of “concentration camps” for some 28,000 Boer women and children. Boer men reverted to successful guerilla tactics under their “Kommandos”, a tactic later adopted by the British Army. After an extremely interesting and well delivered talk, Chairman Chris Parsons, gave a vote of thanks and members responded enthusiastically.

Report February 12th - Colditz Castle

To most of us Colditz conjures up the historic escape film, or the board game devised by escapee Capt P.R.Reid MBE MC.   David Ray of The Colditz Society gave Gordano Probus the benefit of his decades of study as to details of the history of the castle, the escapes and records from many of those involved.  He has met and spoken with many of the captives and their German guards, most of whom are now deceased. Airey Neave, the first Englishman to escape from Colditz was one of them. He became a barrister, politician and shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who was assassinated in 1979.     This year, the 16th April 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the freeing of Allied officers by the US forces. 

The castle's origins go back to the 12th C. and after a series of fires, owners and rebuilds had uses such as a hunting lodge, workhouse, sanitorium, mental institution and hospital. The Nazis gained power in 1933. They converted the castle into a political prison for communists, homosexuals, Jews or anyone they considered undesirable. In 1939 with the start of World War 2 Polish Officer prisoners were housed there and very soon after the castle was converted into Colditz - Oflag IV-C, a high security POW prison for Allied Officers who were considered security or escape risks.  

Many attempts were made to escape. Successful ones were called “Home Runs” of which there were 12 British and 12 French. Most involved bribing guards, making keys, finding new and old routes, dressing in replica German uniforms or even as a woman. The most extreme escape attempt was to build a glider, the Colditz Cock, that was built and kept in a remote area of the castle's attic during the winter of 1944-45. The glider was never flown as the US rescuers arrived before an attempt could be made. Would it have flown and been successful ? The glider plans survived and a remote controlled replica was built and launched from the castle using heavy concrete weights, pulleys and ropes to provide the initial acceleration, and it successfully landed in a park outside the castle.

The surprise of the talk was when David produced the original keys to the gates of Colditz castle given to him by the former German camp security officer, Reinhold Eggers.   David gave us a fantastic talk, without notes or visuals, which was much appreciated by all of us.  He was thanked by Chairman, Chris Parsons, and given warm applause.

 26th February 2020 - Lunch with our Ladies at The Grove, Weston College

Some 20 members of Gordano Probus Club and their ladies enjoyed  lunch at The Grove restaurant, which is part of Weston College. We had a choice of three options for each of the three courses which was followed by coffee all nicely prepared, presented and served by 1st and 3rd year catering students of the college. As senior persons it is so warming to see young persons in action setting out on their first steps towards their chosen careers.  The atmosphere was friendly and relaxing, and we felt that we had been given special attention which made it a memorable occasion. At the end of the meal our Chairman, Chris Parsons, gave a vote of thanks to all of the gathered staff and our members responded enthusiastically. You can visit their website below for your next Weston supe Mare meal .

Report - March 4th Visit to the Underfall Yard

Members of Gordano Probus visited the Underfall Yard at Bristol Docks to learn about the history and current use of those facilities. When the Floating Harbour was built in the early 1800s it was necessary to improve the docks handling efficiency for ships and prevent ships settling on their bottoms when the tide was low.  Ships had to be built strong enough for this (probably the origin of “shipshape and Bristol fashion”). Maintaining a steady water level and controlling the flow of the Avon and allowing passage of vessels up to Bath necessitated the manual digging out of the New Cut and the Feeder canal. The excess water in the harbour flows out into the New Cut through automatically controlled sluices.  A low level feed pipe from the harbour floor through a separate sluice serves to remove settling silt by a design devised by I.K.Brunel.  Industrialisation demanded power for cranes, lock gates, swing bridges, etc. A steam driven hydraulic powerhouse was built to pipe pressurised water at 750psi all around the dock to where needed. To smooth the demands a hydraulic accumulator raises an 80 Ton weighted drum. Later steam was replaced with electric motors. An engineering workshop was needed to service, modify and repair whatever was required for the docks to function.  Most components are large and need a range of large machine tools and a travelling crane to manoeuvre the work pieces. Many of these date back to 1880 and were powered via a steam boiler, engine and lineshaft and flat belt arrangement that can still operate today. Electricity replaced steam. Small boat building still goes on commercially on part of the site.  To get boats out of the harbour there is a 'Heave-up Slip'.  A cradle, mounted on rails that angle down into the water, travels out to meet the boat which then drives into the cradle and is secured to it.  The cradle with boat is hauled up the slope by a powered chain winch system and the boat can be worked on.

After our wet but interesting tour we retired to The Cottage for lunch.

This venue is a must for anyone interested in dock history and associated engineering.  For detail go to their website

Report 11th March -Two farmers and a Lancaster bomber 

We must never forget the role of the men of Bomber Command in WW2 which left over 55,500 airmen dead, some 44% of those who served.  Alan Bateman gave Gordano Probus an excellent account of a tribute called “Two Farmers and a Lancaster”. Farmers Fred and Harold Panton lost their pilot brother, Christopher aged 19, when his Halifax bomber was shot down in a raid over Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944. This raid was a disaster. 700 planes took part, 106 were lost and 545 men killed, the worst single night for the RAF, more than the Battle of Britain. The brothers pledged themselves to make a fitting memorial to their brother and his RAF colleagues. When an opportunity to buy a late built Lancaster bomber arose they were determined to acquire it. The plane had seen service with the French Airforce around the world and passed through several owners.  It took some time to finally get possession of it, even then for a six figure sum. There are only two fit-to-fly Lancasters in the world, the most notable that of The Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) operating from RAF Coningsby. Their farm in Lincolnshire was part of a WW2 airfield where the brothers built a hanger to house the Lancaster. In 1988 they opened the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre. The Control Tower was renovated to display its wartime operational condition and a memorial chapel has been built. There is even a NAAFI. The plane is being restored to its original condition, colours and marking (NX611). The R-R Merlin engines have been rebuilt and the plane has been certified to be able to give “taxy” runs to the public. Restoration work continues slowly with the ultimate aim of achieving an airworthy certificate and having a second UK flying Lancaster. The speaker has experienced a taxy trip and been researching this for 7 years. Much more detail will be found on the website  The museum is located East Kirkby, Spilsby, PE23 4DE  The speaker was warmly thanked by Chris Parsons and members applauded enthusiastically.