By late 1944 the German Wehrmacht was finding it increasingly difficult to find able-bodied men to fill its much-depleted ranks. Young boys, older men, the wounded and the sick, were all needed to make up the numbers following the appalling losses on two main battlefronts. One category of the sick was those suffering from chronic gastric troubles. Years of nervous tension, bad food and hard living had produced large numbers of stomach sufferers whom the Wehrmacht could no longer afford to ignore. It was decided to concentrate these unfortunates into special "stomach" battalions.
When the allies were advancing into Belgium and the southern Netherlands in September 1944 the Germans entrusted the defence of Walcheren island and the South Beveland isthmus to the newly formed 70th Division, which was made up entirely of these stomach battalions. Here, in the rich garden country of Zeeland, were the white bread, milk, eggs and vegetables these stomach sufferers required to sustain their health. The 70th Infantry soon acquired their nickname of the "White Bread" division, and as they awaited the attack of the advancing allies their attention must have been equally divided between the threat of their oncoming enemies and their own internal disorders.
As a fortress island, Walcheren commanded the entrance to the West Scheldt, the only sea approach to Antwerp, the port desperately needed to supply the British and Canadian armies heading for the good tank country of lower Germany. All but the small eastern portion of Walcheren was below sea level, protected by dykes in the usual Dutch fashion. The higher-lying parts had numerous bunkers and gun emplacements. The White Bread Division manned the infantry defences, and because there was no escape route from the island once the causeway joining it to the mainland had been destroyed, this was their "moment of truth", their last stand.
To subdue the defenders of Walcheren it was decided to breach the dykes by aerial bombing, thus flooding the lower part of the island. The exiled Dutch authorities were consulted and decided that water was preferable to Germans. The bombing was to be followed by an amphibious attack comprising troops of the 2nd Canadian Corps reinforced by a Commando brigade.
Under their commander, Lieutenant-General Wilhelm Daser, the convalescents of 70th Infantry Division acquitted themselves well. But the outcome was inevitable, and within eight days the Germans were forced to surrender. Around 10 000 stomach sufferers were subsequently marched off to prison cages and, presumably, an end to their diet of noodles, white bread and milk.
In May 2000 society committee member Lynne Miller presented a collection of lantern slides taken from the British side in the Anglo-Boer War. In the main lecture slot on 12 July Pierre du Toit presented a similar collection of lantern slides, this time from the Boer side.
Du Toit became interested in researching his family tree when he set out to identify his father's grandfather. Appalled at his family's ignorance in such matters he decided to trace his own grandfather, who had died before he was born. The search revealed some intriguing facts, along with a collection of slides covering the period of the first and second Anglo-Boer Wars.
Grandfather Mike was born in Hopetown in the Cape Colony, where he attended his father's school before going on to SACS (Bishops) in Cape Town. There he qualified as a land surveyor. In 1889, when he was 21
years old, he emigrated to the Transvaal and obtained a position with the Surveyor General. He was called up for the Jameson Raid in 1895-96 and seems to have enjoyed military life because in 1897 he joined the Staatsartillerie as a second lieutenant. He saw service with the Bunu expedition in Swaziland and in numerous other local campaigns. When the second Anglo-Boer War broke out in October 1899 he was dispatched to the Natal front, and was badly wounded in the leg at the Battle of Talana. The decision to amputate his leg was only averted at the last moment, and after two weeks in the Scandinavian Mission he was shipped back to hospital in Pretoria. There he was one of the first patients on whom Roentgen rays (X-rays) were used to facilitate the
removal of shrapnel from his leg.
He was taken prisoner when the British captured Pretoria in June 1900. Still unable to walk, he was paroled and allowed to spend the rest of the war in Gordon's Bay, having to make the gruelling trip by cart every week to report at the castle in Cape Town.
The slides come from a series grandfather Mike collected when he was trying to make a living by lecturing in the lean years after the war. Appropriately, among the first to be shown was one of a hospital train arriving in Pretoria. Others feature shots of Pretoria during the period, including the British annexation of the Transvaal in April 1877; the siege of Pretoria in the first Anglo-Boer War; the opening of the Delagoa Bay railway line in 1895; British troops entering Pretoria in June 1900; and a large number of the various military and civilian personalities prominent over the period.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
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