South African Military History Society

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The February meeting was opened by National Chairman Bob Smith, when he welcomed the large audience present. This included Doreen Mantle Smith from the United Kingdom and Brian Gordon from Plettenberg Bay, and a good sprinkling of younger people, a good sign for the future.

Bob continued by reporting back on the successful Anglo-Boer War Conference held in January in Ladysmith. There were the usual notices about forthcoming events and lectures, before Marjorie Dean briefly took the chair to appeal for information on Doreen Dunning and a former Captain Frank Stevenson of the SA Corps of Signals. Information is being sought on both for articles in the Journal. It should come as no surprise, considering the depth of knowledge in the Society, that information on Doreen Dunning was immediately forthcoming from a member of the audience! We look forward to any information on Captain Stevenson.

Bob then introduced the "curtain raiser" speaker for the evening. This was Jan-Willem Hoorweg, born in Den Haag, Holland in 1962 and educated in Bloemfontein and Johannesburg. Jan-Willem spent eleven years as a musician in the SA Police and National Defence Force bands and, in addition to being an accomplished musician and music teacher, is an executive with a leading recording company as well as a keen sportsman and athlete. A member of the Society in his own right, he is also the son of the late Flip Hoorweg, the immediate Past National Chairman. He now had the difficult job of presenting the curtain raiser his father was preparing at the time of his death. Flip was determined to deliver that lecture so Jan-Willem had decided to finish and deliver it as a tribute to his father's wish.

Jan-Willem's talk was entitled "The Battle of Suomussalmi during the Finnish War with Russia in 1939-40." Using his father's notes as a base, Jan-Willem started with the events of September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Russia promptly followed suit, the two countries having agreed to this in a pact of August 1939. This was followed quickly by a Russian invasion of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, to secure Russia's Baltic frontier. Not satisfied with this, and feeling that the city of Leningrad was threatened by a German-orientated Finland, the Russians then demanded that Finland cede part of her Eastern territory to Russia, particularly the Rybachi Peninsula and the Karelian Isthmus. These Finnish areas could be used to threaten Leningrad. Much to the surprise of the Soviets, Finland refused, preferring to pit her 150 000 men against Russia's 1,2 million at the time.

The Russian forces had been severely weakened by political purges and subsequent incompetence, while the Finns were motivated in the defence of their homeland and held a string of powerful border fortifications. The Russian army was also woefully short of modern equipment, while the Finns had modern weapons; were well trained; well led and knew the ground and climate. The initial Russian invasion caught the Finns off guard, but they recovered rapidly and, in what became known as the Battle of Suomussalmi in December 1939, the Finnish Army, under the leadership of General Hjalmar Siilasvuo, soon began hammering the Russians.

Taking advantage of the trackless, heavy forested wilderness that they knew well, they instituted a series of encircling movements that confined the Russians to small groups in fixed positions, in which they were decimated by snow-camouflaged Finnish ski-troops and snipers. In temperatures of -40 Fahrenheit, the ill-prepared and uncamouflaged Russian troops, tanks and artillery stood little chance.

Jan-Willem showed us, with the aid of maps, how these encircling operations, called "mottis", by the Finns, slowly devoured the Soviet forces piecemeal and forced the survivors into a demoralised retreat. It rapidly became a massacre as the inexperienced, frozen and starving Russians were cut off and destroyed by the Finns. By the time the remnants got back to Russia they had suffered 27 500 men lost and 2 100 captured. By contrast, the Finnish losses were 900 dead and 1 770 wounded.

Sad to relate, the Battle of Suomussalmi had only a marginal effect. It was a great victory for Finland but in the long term overwhelming Soviet military power prevailed and Finland sued for peace.

After a brief question time, Bob thanked Jan-Willem for his interesting and carefully researched talk and then introduced the main speaker for the evening. This was Raymond Herron, all the way from Natal.

In addition to being the proprietor of the Spioen Kop Lodge, Raymond is an extremely well known Battlefield Tour Guide in Natal. He was born in Zambia and later settled in South Africa. His subject, naturally enough, was "Spioen Kop" and Raymond then proceeded to entertain those present with the story of that battle, the most famous but also probably the most futile battle of the South African War of 1899/1902.

Using a series of outstanding slides and his practised guide technique, Raymond first gave the background to the War. Starting with the roots of the Afrikaner Nation and leading up to the founding of the two Boer Republics via the Great Trek, Raymond arrived at the Transvaal Gold Rush, which led inevitably to a confrontation between President Kruger and the British over the "Uitlander" vote question. The Jameson raid and the lead-up to the War followed. Raymond then proceeded to give a vivid description of both the battle and topography of Spioen Kop. Describing the fog, or mist, of war which literally occurred, and influenced the disastrous British choice of positions, the heat later in the day which induced a raging thirst in the combatants, and a calamitous choice of British leadership, we were ably led through the pandemonium.

The contrast between the bumbling and confusion of the British leadership and Louis Botha's rallying of the Boer troops brought home the effect this had on the battle, which resulted in a Boer victory. This was of little consequence as the British simply regrouped and tried again elsewhere, with no territorial gain for either side, hence Raymond's term "a futile battle". However, the battle was famous in another respect in that three later-to-be-famous characters took part in it - Louis Botha, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi.

After a short question period, both speakers were thanked by Ivor Little, after which Bob Smith's wife Joyce presented Flip Hoorweg's widow, Hilde, with a bouquet as a welcome back to the Society's meetings after her recent bereavement. The meeting then adjourned for tea.

Ivor Little,

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For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
For Cape Town details contact Ray Hattingh: 021-592-1279 or 531-6781
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469

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