NAVAL TRANSPORT SERVICE IN THE ZULU WAR
By Tom Hyde
In the majority of the books written on the Zulu War there is some brief mention of the Naval Brigade which served ashore, primarily with the coastal columns; first under Colonel Pearson and later under General Crealock. But for another group of the Royal Navy there is almost nothing written – these were the officers of the Naval Transport Service.
In December, 1878 war with the Zulus was becoming a certainty. Additional forces had been dispatched from England to Natal to bolster Lord Chelmsford’s forces that were preparing to invade Zululand.
The entrance to the harbor at Durban in the 1870’s was blocked by a sandbar, making it too shallow for shipping other than small coastal steamers and tugs. The larger merchant ships, passenger ships, and Men-of-War, were forced to anchor in the roadstead outside the harbor and unload their passengers and cargo onto tugs, or lighters which were then towed to the wharf inside the harbor, for unloading.
On the 4th of January, 1879, in anticipation of the impending arrival of several merchant ships, Rear-Admiral Francis Sullivan (recently promoted), commanding the Cape of Good Hope and West Coast of Africa squadron, appointed Lieutenant Harold G. Bird, HMS Tenedos, as temporary Transport Officer at Durban. Bird, along with two petty officers, was to supervise the landing of troops and supplies. This Sullivan had done to avoid any future delays. The appointment was timely, for on the same day that Lieutenant Bird was appointed, the “Walmer Castle” arrived at Durban with the 99th Regiment. A couple of days later the “Asiatic” arrived with the remainder of the 99th. On the 16th of January the “Dunrobin Castle” and the “Teuton” arrived at Durban with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Regiment.
When the news of the defeat of the British forces at Isandlwana reached England, reinforcements were called up to be sent to South Africa. The Admiralty was responsible for providing for the transport of the reinforcements as well as their horses, wagons and supplies. In addition to the battalions of infantry, there were also cavalry, engineers, army hospital corps and artillery to be transported to Natal, along with their wagons, artillery, ammunition, tents, clothing and food supplies.
On the 18th of February the question was asked in the House of Lords regarding whether any preparations had been made for the disembarkation of troops and supplies when they arrived in Durban. In response, their Lords were told that a staff of naval officers was about to leave for South Africa, charged with the landing of troops and supplies, and that other hired transports would leave shortly afterwards.
All the arrangements for acquiring transports for the reinforcements being sent to Natal fell under the Director of Transports for the Admiralty, Vice-admiral William Robert Mends. Mends was a man who took his position seriously and was prepared for such an emergency. He had instituted a system whereby he kept a record of the capabilities of merchant steamers, thus being aware of what each ship was best suited for. One ship that was suited for the transportation of troops might not be acceptable at all for transporting horses. Mends kept his records up-to-date, and merchant ships were subjected to inspection to insure their readiness.
Within 10 days of the news of the defeat of British troops at Isandlwana Vice-Admiral Mends had the first ship on its way (20 February), and by the 1st of March there were a total of 21 ships loaded with troops and supplies and sailing for South Africa. A month's rations, to be landed with the troops, had been put on board each ship, as well as about 6,000 tons of cargo. Mends later received a letter from Admiral Sir Alexander Milne (father of Lieutenant A. B. Milne) congratulating him on the speed with which the hired transports had been gotten ready and the reinforcements dispatched to South Africa.
The ships that were contracted by the navy as hired transports for the immediate reinforcements, as well as those sent out later in April and in May, were given Admiralty designations.
#1 - “Florence”
#2 - “Manora”
#3 - “City of Venice”
#4 - “Russia”
#5 - “China”
#6 - “Olympus”
#7 - “Palmyra”
#8 - “France”
#9 - “Clyde”
#11 - “City of Paris
#12 - “England”
#17 - “Andean”
#19 - “Ontario”
#24 - “Spain”
The hired merchant ships were inspected before being accepted for the transport of troops. Captain Brownlow, Surveyor of Shipping and Captain Guy O. Twiss inspected the transports at Chatham, and then went to Liverpool to inspect additional transports before those ships were sent to southern English ports for the embarkation of the reinforcements and their supplies.
Captain Twiss, along with 2 Lieutenants (Crawford Caffin and Frederick S. Pelly) and a Paymaster (William B. Ramsey) were assigned for Naval Transport Service in South Africa (seconded to “Boadicea” which was the new flag ship for the Cape of Good Hope). Surgeon James H. Martin and Commander Edward H. M. Davis were later added, and on the 20th of February Twiss and his staff boarded the “Pretoria” which was the first ship to sail for Natal with reinforcements.
Arrangements were made by the Admiralty with the shipping companies that had regular routes to Durban to make available their small tugs, and lighters for the landing of troops and supplies there.
On March 7 HMS Shah, under the command of Captain Richard Bradshaw, landed a Naval Brigade at Durban. On the same day Rear-Admiral Sullivan assigned Captain Bradshaw and Lieutenant Alexander M. Gardiner, both of the “Shah”, as temporary transport officers at Durban, pending the arrival of the transport officers from England. Sullivan was to later write that Bradshaw had set up a system for disembarking troops that would facilitate Captain Twiss when he took over upon his arrival.
The 16th of March saw the arrival of the hired transport “Pretoria” with the Naval Transport Officers under Captain Twiss. Also arriving that day was the “Edinburgh Castle“ which carried on board a steam-tug and 3 large lighters, dispatched from England, and capable of transporting troops and horses over the bar into the harbor at Durban.
Hired transports en route to Durban had to stop at the Cape to take on coal. Half of the hired transports were ordered to stop at Cape Town and the others at Simon’s Bay to facilitate the coaling and avoid delays.
The hired transport “City of Venice” arrived at Durban on 30 March 1879. Upon discharging the troops and supplies she became the flag ship for the Naval Transport Service. The “City of Venice” remained as flag ship of the transport service until after the Battle of Ulundi.
The transport officers served first at Durban, and later at Port Durnford, after that location was opened for the landing of supplies. At Durban the Naval Transport Officers were responsible for the anchorage of the ships as they arrived. The military would choose the order in which reinforcements would be landed, and the transport officers would then arrange for the disembarking of the troops and horses, as well as the unloading of supplies. The tugs and lighters were dispatched to bring them from the roadstead into the harbor where they could be landed at the wharf down at “The Point” about 2 miles south of Durban.
On the 16th of April Commodore Richards, who had now replaced Rear-Admiral Sullivan, reported to Admiralty that since the arrival of the naval transport officers on March 16th, a total of 8,312 troops and 2,000 horses had been landed at Durban without incident.
Captain Twiss left Durban on the 29th of June, and arrived at Port Durnford on the 30th where he supervised the landing of 18 tons of supplies ashore by lighter. Twiss managed the transport of supplies from the sea, while the transport duties ashore, at Port Durnford, were under the command of Commodore Richards. Twiss also transported Sir Garnet Wolseley from HMS Shah to a lighter for transport to the beach at Port Durnford, but had to take him back aboard the tug “Koodoo” after an aborted attempt caused by rough seas, and then returned Wolsely back to the “Shah.”
On the 28th of July the Naval Transport Service received additional help with the temporary assignment to that group of Lieutenant Reginald P. Cochran, HMS Boadicea.
As the Naval Brigade was being withdrawn from the coast, Captain Twiss was ordered to Port Durnford to take over the landing operations there.
The Naval Transport Service continued serving at Durban after all the Naval Brigade had returned their ships. As troops were withdrawn from Natal, when Sir Garnet Wolseley started downsizing the forces in South Africa, the Naval Transport facilitated the re-embarkation of the troops, horses, and equipment.
After the capture of Cetewayo he was delivered to Port Durnford where he was taken on board the hired transport “Natal” which was under the naval command of Commander Caffin (recently promoted). On September 15, 1879 Caffin personally escorted Cetewayo ashore at Cape Town to be turned over to the authorities there to begin his captivity.
By the end of the year all the Naval Transport Officers were no longer needed and had left South Africa.
Captain Twiss, Commander Caffin and Paymaster Ramsey were each “Mentioned in Dispatches”; as were Captain Bradshaw and Lieutenant Gardiner.
For their service in Natal during the Zulu War the Naval Transport Officers received the South Africa Medal. Captain Guy O. Twiss – South Africa Medal with clasp “1879”; Commander Edward H. M. Davis – South Africa Medal with clasp “1877-8-9“ (Davis had previously served on HMS Active during the wars at the Cape in 1877 & 78); Commander Crawford Caffin – South Africa Medal with clasp “1879”; Lieutenant F. Pelly – not on the medal roll, but entitled to South Africa Medal without clasp; Staff Surgeon James H. Martin – South Africa Medal with clasp “1879”; and Paymaster William B. Ramsey – South Africa Medal, without clasp.
Those officers who performed temporary duty as Naval Transport also received the South Africa Medal. Lieutenant Harold Godfrey Bird received the South Africa Medal without clasp; Captain Richard Bradshaw- South Africa Medal, without clasp; Lieutenant Alexander Milne Gardiner – South Africa Medal without clasp; and Lieutenant Reginald Cochran – South Africa Medal with clasp “1877-8-9” (Cochran had also previously served on HMS Active during the wars at the Cape in 1877 & 78).
It is a certainty that the Naval Transport performed great service during the Zulu War by its preparedness in obtaining hired transports, which eliminated any delays and thus getting the reinforcements to South Africa in the quickest time possible. They also provided for an orderly disembarkation of reinforcements at Durban which had not seen such large numbers of ships before. The Naval Transport Service officers’ contribution to the war, without the loss of men or supplies, is a tribute to their skill and resourcefulness.
1878-79 [C.2374] [C.2454] Further correspondence respecting the affairs of South Africa (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1879).
Glasgow Herald, 1879
“Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, volume 243”
Life of Admiral Sir William Robert Mends, G.C.B., by Bowen Stilon Mends
The London Times, 1879
The Royal Navy, A history from the earliest times to the present, Volume 7, by Sir Will Laird Clowes
The Royal Navy List 20 December, 1879
The Royal Navy List January, 1883