NEWSLETTER NO. 311
PAST EVENTS: The annual Battlefield Tour took place over the last weekend in February and at a time to mark the 120th anniversary of the famous Battle of Majuba. Despite the damp and misty weather, just over 60 members and friends (from both Durban and Johannesburg) based themselves at Majuba Lodge in Newcastle and enjoyed an exceptional tour. Ken Gillings, our tour "Commander in Chief", twice had to make alternative plans at a moments notice due to weather conditions, but despite that all the tour objectives except one were met. The "one" was the final climb up Majuba mountain on the Sunday morning, which we had to cancel due to rain and low cloud covering the plateau and battlefield site. (See the end of this newsletter.) Even that was not a major problem, as Ken was able to describe the battle as we all gathered around a plaster model of Majuba in the Interpretation Centre, with a full view of the real thing through the nearest window.
Some members arrived on the Friday evening to watch the candlelight procession going up the mountain, but the main party arrived in the mists of the Saturday morning. The first stop was at Lang's Nek, then on to O'Neill's Cottage and finally to Schuinshoogte. At the Cottage, Ken Gillings gave us a full historical background on the causes of the Transvaal War of Independence, and at both battlefields he gave us a vivid description of the battles and how the Boers won these two important victories against the British. After a picnic lunch we then watched a realistic re-enactment of the battle on the slopes of Majuba. That evening we had a most convivial dinner at Majuba Lodge, where we were joined by representatives of the SANDF from the Drakensberg Commando and the Reserve Forces Council.
On the Sunday morning we visited the site of General Colley's camp and the graveyard at Mount Prospect. At Colley's grave, after prayers conducted in English and Afrikaans by the Rev. Ernest Pugsley, the British Consul, David Pearce laid a wreath on behalf of the British Government and our Chairman Paul Kilmartin laid a wreath on behalf of the Society. Then David Pearce gave a moving address as we stood surrounded by the graves of those who died 120 years ago and made the point that "every military grave, every battle and every war is a diplomatic defeat". Then we moved on to Majuba itself where Ken Gillings gave us a memorable summary on the battle and using the model to good effect. He was supported by a talk on "General Joubert" by Charles Whiteing and two combined talks by Paul Kilmartin on "The Political Impact in Britain of the Majuba Defeat" and on "General Sir Ian Hamilton" who as a Lieutenant was to become the most famous British soldier to fight at Majuba. Despite the weather it proved to be one of the most successful of the Society's annual Battlefield Tours and with journalist Jill Gowans in the party, we received good publicity with a splendid half page writeup in the Sunday Tribune of 4 March.
The advertised programme for our March meeting had to be modified slightly in that our planned pre-DDH speaker, Allanah Pugh-Jones, a schoolgirl from Crawford College who had won a recent Young Historians Speaking Competition, was unable to attend due to an unforeseen school commitment. Hopefully, she will be able to give her talk to us at our May meeting. However, we had two very interesting visitors: Frank Bullen from Johannesburg, who many of you will remember from a talk he gave to us last year and Lt Col Ray Lotter of the Southern Natal Historical Society. As a result of a recent visit by our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, our Vice Chairman, Bill Brady and Charles Whiteing to one of their monthly meetings in Uvongo, the Southern Natal Historical Society have as a Society, together with some of their members, joined the KZN Branch of the SA Military History Society. Ths is very much in line with our aim to spread the interest in military history to a wider audience and Ray Lotter's visit to us was most welcome.
Our DDH talk was titled "Sidi Rezegh - a Personal Reminiscence" and was given by fellow-member, Phil Everitt. The personal reminiscence was from the diary of Phillip Everitt who was the uncle of our speaker and who had been a signaller with the 1st SA Brigade until he was killed in action at El Alamein. Using computer generated slide projections as illustrations, our speaker very cleverly matched the words written
in his uncle's personal diary with the official history of the battle.
Briefly, Sidi Rezegh was the opening battle of North African Campaign's "Operation Crusader". The main objective was to push the Axis forces under Rommel back from near the Egyptian border and then link up with the British and Polish defenders at the beleaguered port of Tobruk. The immediate aim was to destroy the enemy armour. General Cunningham, newly arrived after his successful campaign against the Italians in East Africa had two Army Corps available, namely the 13th and 30th. The latter included the 7th Armoured Division and the 1st and 5th SA Brigades. The 30th Corps was to sweep up from the desert in the south and capture Sidi Rezegh while the 13th Corps was to mop up the enemy units trapped behind the 30th Corps attack. The British 7th Armoured Division nearly reached Sidi Rezegh, but the Germans under Rommel checked their advance, counter-attacked, split the Allied forces and drove through to the Egyptian frontier.The situation was confused and Cunningham wanted to fall back, but Auchinleck who was in overall command replaced him with Ritchie. The British and South African units fought desperately over a wide area and eventually managed to link up and finally open a corridor to Tobruk. However, Rommel who had extended his own supply lines too far was forced to withdraw and the British were able to capture Gazala and Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast. Although the British claimed that they had won the battle, they did not have the reinforcements to exploit the situation, whereas Rommel was getting both men and material from the Italian mainland. The tragedy was that the New Zealand Armoured Brigade's tanks that could probably have destroyed the German armour were kept in reserve and never used in the battle because they came under a separate command.
Our speaker's uncle who was a signaller was attached to the 5th South African Brigade which had been placed on the left flank to counter any German encircling movement, was isolated when Rommel cut through the centre. He mentions of how they went into battle under the cover of heavy rain which left the enemy with no air reconnaissance, but how the weather subsequently cleared, allowing German dive bombers easy targets. And of how he thought they were winning until German tanks appeared in their rear and overran their HQ while he had gone forward to repair a broken telephone line. He covers the massive tank battles which raged in front of them while they were in slit trenches under constant bombardment. His simple avoidance tactic of stopping his vehicle dead in its tracks which caused a Luftwaffe aircraft to overshoot during a strafing attack and how he hid in a slit trench with the German tanks a few yards away add a personal touch to his narrative. And finally how he met up with some British tanks and eventually managed to join up with what was left of his own brigade by driving straight through the extended German lines while under heavy fire. All these observations add credence to this amazing but confusing series of events. What is so remarkable is that at the time of writing, our speaker's uncle did not have the benefit of an official history to draw on and they are definitely his own experiences.
While the Allies regarded this battle as a victory, his comments written 6 months later, show a distinct bitterness to what he regards as a debacle and how the South African commander was made the scapegoat while in fact they were under British command. At best this was a very confusing battle and it is hoped that our speaker will clarify it when he gives a fuller account of the battle in a talk to be given later on this year.
The main talk of the evening was given by Brigadier Jim Parker, who before he retired from the British Army had 10 tours of duty in Northern Ireland. His talk on The Northern Ireland Conflict was a personal perspective and was given on the basis of confidentiality to those who attended the meeting.
Subsequent to the Battlefield Tour, a number of members have suggested that we plan a one-day trip back to Majuba, in order to climb the mountain and have Ken Gillings describe the battle on the actual battlefield. This would enable us to complete the one missing element from the official 2001 tour. No dates have been suggested at this stage, but if any member is interested in considering this second trip, please ring PAUL KILMARTIN on 561-2905 (H), 268-7400 (O) or 082-449-7227, so that we can assess the member's views on this suggestion.
THE SOCIETY'S NEXT MEETING:
THURSDAY 19 APRIL 2001
PLEASE NOTE: Due to the second Thursday in April falling the day before GOOD FRIDAY, your committee has decided to change the date of the April meeting to the THIRD Thursday in the month. We will, therefore, meet on the 19 April 2001. Please make a note in your diaries!!The April meeting will be another" first" for the Society, with 2 speakers talking to us on the same main subject. April will be ISANDLWANA month and should attract all our members and friends who feel they know this battle well. Ron Locke (an author, a battlefield guide and a long time member of the Society) and Peter Quantrill (a retired Ghurkha officer) have worked together and using original source documents have re-looked at the Battle of Isandlwana and the role of Lord Chelmsford in particular. They started their research with no previous views or opinions, and as a result they feel that they have found new evidence about the battle and the way it was conducted, which may challenge the views generally held by historians.
The first part of the evening will be an introduction of the battle by Ron Locke and the showing of a professional video, which they have made to illustrate their findings. The second part will be a presentation by Peter Quantrill entitled "Isandlwana - The Cover Up" which will focus on their findings on the role and actions of Lord Chelmsford. The third part of the evening will be a question and answer session, led initially by three Society experts in Dr. Ingrid Machin, Ken Gillings and Professor Mike Laing. When they have concluded their questions the session will be open to all members.
This has the making of a very special evening and we will be getting an advance preview of the contents of the book our two speakers will be publishing on this subject early in 2002.
For any members who have not yet paid their subs for 2001, this is a gentle reminder to do so as they are now overdue!!. Rates are R 90.00 single, R 99.00 family.
FUTURE SOCIETY DATES : May to July 2001
SEE YOU ALL ON 19 APRIL!!!
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 201 3983