Natal Naval Volunteers (1885 – 1904)
"The Natal Naval Volunteers (NNV) was established in 1885 as a coastal artillery unit tasked with defending the port of Durban. This unit was too small and poorly equipped to serve its intended purpose, but it nevertheless remained in existence and in 1899 it was called out on active service for the first time. War with the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State had been threatening for some time and the Anglo-Boer War finally broke out in October, 1899. Boer commandos from both Republics invaded Natal from the north and west.
All the Natal volunteer regiments, including the NNV, were called up for active service. The confused situation in the early stage of the war led to the NNV being split into two parts, with both attached to elements of the hastily assembled British Naval Brigade, which was made up of men and guns from Royal Navy ships in South African waters. One part of the Naval Brigade, including 73 men from the NNV, ended up in Ladysmith and it was besieged there from early November 1899 until the end of February 1900. The second part of the Naval Brigade, including 52 men from the NNV, took part in the operations to relieve the Siege of Ladysmith.
Guns of the besieged Naval Brigade remained in service throughout the siege and kept the Boer commandos out of easy reach of Ladysmith. The NNV were armed with one 9-pounder and two 3-pounder Hotchkiss guns and played a small part in the Naval Brigade's activities. Only once did the Boers attempt a frontal assault on the British lines and that was at the Battle of Wagon Hill on 6 January 1900. Men of the NNV, including the Hotchkiss detachment, were engaged at both Wagon Hill and further east at Caesar's Camp. In his dispatch after the siege was lifted, the British Commander in Ladysmith, General Sir George White, wrote:
"The Natal Naval Volunteers have proved themselves worthy comrades of the land forces of the colony."
The force assembled to relieve the Siege of Ladysmith was under the command of General Sir Redvers Buller. The NNV in the relief force were armed with two 9-pounders and their first task was to build two outposts at Colenso, Fort Wylie and Fort Nicholson. After being shelled by the Boers on 3 November 1899, the NNV were ordered to evacuate Fort Wylie, spike their guns and leave their ammunition. This order was disobeyed and the men and all their equipment returned to Estcourt. Thereafter, they were based at Frere as part of the Naval Brigade and they took part in shelling the Boer lines north of the Tugela River.
After the defeat of the British at the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899, the NNV moved westwards with Buller's army, which was to cross the Tugela River at Potgieter's Drift. Since the Boers were not entrenched close to the river in this area, the crossing was not contested, but the river itself caused problems. Effecting river crossings was the preserve of the Royal Engineers but at Potgieter's Drift they failed in this duty and it fell to a detachment from the Naval Brigade under Lieutenant Chiazzari of the NNV to rescue the situation. The events were described by W K-L Dickson in his book, 'The Biograph in battle: Its story in the South African War', as follows;
"January 16th …… Our soldiers looked wretchedly wet and bedraggled as they wound their way over and around the kopjes. We could see them slowly approach the river and test the crossing, two men going up to their middles and wading round to make sure there were no entanglements for their feet. Then the troopers followed one by one, while others tried to engineer the ferry, which they ultimately abandoned to our naval men, the handy boys, who are signalled for from the valley. Soon a party of thirteen was made up under the command of Lieutenant Chiazzari, with Chief Gunner Instructor Baldwin assisting. They managed quickly to repair the ferry and sent the troops across, toiling all evening and throughout the night until dawn. General Buller sent word to Captain Jones next morning that his men were worth their weight in gold. Baldwin's account of this feat is most entertaining. I abbreviate it somewhat for convenience sake: "We got orders to repair and handle the ferry just as it was getting dark, so we nipped down the hill and were soon at work, the Colonel of the Engineers passing it over to us. Lieutenant Chiazzari took the ferry while I remained on this side, and soon had things going in good shape. It is a wonder what a bit of rope will do with plenty of willing chaps. We were six from [HMS] Terrible and seven Natal Volunteers, including Lieutenant Chiazzari …… Before dawn we had taken nearly all over at a rate of 126 horses and three wagons in forty-two minutes, and this we repeated for two nights."
In addition to the gratitude of General Buller, Lieutenant Chiazzari was thanked by Major-General N G Lyttelton and was mentioned in despatches.
In spite of the successful river crossing, the British went on to loose the Battle of Spioenkop and, later, the Battle of Vaalkrans, and they again retreated to their former positions near Colenso.
The climactic battles to relieve the Siege of Ladysmith were fought along the Tugela Heights, east of Colenso, over the period 12 to 28 February 1900. Following their success at Potgieter's Drift, Lieutenant Chiazzari and men of the Naval Brigade were again called upon to repair and operate a ferry, this one at Colenso, after the town had been taken by Major-General A F Hart's brigade on 21 February. The ferry was operating within three and one half hours and Chiazzari again received a General's thanks and a mention in despatches.
The commander of the Naval Brigade in the relief force, Captain E P Jones RN of HMS Forte, reported to Rear-Admiral R H Harris as follows:
"Lieutenant N W Chiazzari, Natal Naval Vols., has been most useful, especially in getting into working order and working the punts across the river, both at Potgieter's and at Colenso, by which all the troops crossed."
Source: Brett Hendey