South African Military History Society

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The Chairman, Ivor Little, opened the October meeting with the usual notices. He also took the opportunity of thanking Past Chairman Bob Smith for the well-organised visit to the South African Air Force Museum at Swartkops, Pretoria, last month. A large group of members availed themselves of this chance to join in a conducted tour of the SAAF Museum and enjoyed the three hour guided tour very much.

Ivor then introduced the curtain raiser speaker, Emile Coetzee. Emile is a post graduate student at the University of Johannesburg where he is doing his Masters Degree in history. The subject of his talk was "El Wak or Bust", the title being taken from a ditty written by a serving servicemen at the time of this World War II action.

The battle of El Wak in Italian Somaliland took place on 16 December 1939 and was the first time that South African soldiers in East Africa encountered the enemy. Although largely forgotten today, it was a milestone at the time when Allied victories were few and the Union Defence Force was still untried.

There are two El Waks, one on either side of the Kenyan/Somalia border, also known as the Northern Frontier, and it was the task of the South Africans and Gold Coast troops in Kenya to invade Italian Somaliland and take Italian El Wak. This settlement consisted of a mud-walled fort surrounded by a few straw huts and garrisoned by Italian troops, supported by local Banda tribesmen.

The plan of attack was that the Allied forces would advance on El Wak in two columns, one under the command of British General Dickenson and the other under the command of South African Brigadier General Dan Pienaar. The route led across a hot, rocky desert landscape with small patches of thick bush. Pienaar's column had to take the nearby settlement of Bura Haja and block the road to Berbera. His force consisted of the Royal Natal Carbineers and Transvaal Scottish and the objective was easily taken with little or no resistance. Dickenson's column which comprised the Gold Coast Regiment, the Duke of Edinburgh's Own Rifles and some armoured cars and tanks simultaneously swept into El Wak. The battle would have been no more than a skirmish if it were not for the high number of Italian and Banda casualties (102 killed). The Allied casualties numbered two dead and four wounded in a straightforward direct attack on the fort, which was captured within half and hour. All Allied troops concerned then withdrew back to Fort Wajir in Kenya to analyse the action and plan the ultimately successful further advance. This being South Africa's first action of the War, many problems came to light and Emile highlighted these for us.

The troops were all "green" and had just undergone a very rushed training programme. Apart from a few senior officers, such as Pienaar, who had seen action in the First World War, there was no real battle experience available to draw on. Another problem was ill discipline. The troop transport drivers paid little attention to the orders given and the motorised columns bunched up, got lost and in general caused major problems along the route of advance. Intelligence was also poor. Cooperation with the SAAF proved sporadic and no aerial reconnaissance was carried out. The Italian tribal Banda levies proved doughty opponents and the plan of attack was in part based on intelligence extracted from captured Banda soldiers. Needless to say, it proved faulty. Relations between Dickenson (with Indian Army experience) and Pienaar (an East African veteran) were also strained and at one stage General Smuts had to intervene to scotch a rather strange plan of Dickenson, based on his Indian training. These problems were addressed, plus other minor problems relating to uniforms and pay. Discipline and training were improved and, with the victory of El Wak behind them, the South African forces moved on with confidence to a most successful campaign in the Italian colonies.

This brought Emile's most interesting and well-delivered talk to a close. It was followed by a brief question period, and, while the next speaker was preparing himself, the draw for the winner of a jumbo DVD set, donated by member Jan-Willem Hoorweg, was done. This prize, on "Battles BC", was won by ticket 45, David Scholtz, drawn from the hat by Joyce Smith.

The next and main speaker for the evening was by then ready and itching to start. This was none other than the Chairman of the Durban branch, the well-known historian and tour guide, Ken Gillings, whose subject was "The Zulu Civil War, 1883-1888."

After the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Zululand was divided up into areas ruled by 13 "kinglets". Some were ruled by insignificant chiefs, many of whom had assisted the British during the War. One, however, was given to one of Zululand's most remarkable personalities, Zibhebhu kaMapita, inkosi (chief) of the Mandlakazi tribe.

Zibhebhu was King Cetshwayo's second cousin. He had supported the acceptance of the terms of the British ultimatum to King Cetshwayo, but had loyally supported him during the War. The remnants of King Cetshwayo's Usuthu faction of the Zulu Royal House had been placed under the authority of the Mandlakazi. These included Ndabuko, Siwedu (the King's brother) and his son, Prince Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo. Fearing that King Cetshwayo would eventually be restored to his position of power, Zibhebhu constantly humiliated Prince Dinuzulu, and reportedly tampered with the King's isigodlo (harem).

At the beginning of 1883, Cetshwayo returned to Zululand, rebuilding his Ondini home close by the previous one. The King's return saw the entire region in a state of chaos, but because he had been stripped of his powers, he was unable to use what influence remained to restore order. Furthermore, Zibhebhu was no longer the King's loyal subject; he had become his most bitter enemy. The result of this division of Zululand was inevitable; in 1883, a vicious civil war broke out, and the first major clash took place in the Msebe River valley between Nongoma and Mkhuze on the 30th March 1883. The Royalist amabutho (comprising the emGazini, the Buthelezi and the Usuthu) suffered a humiliating defeat with heavy losses. On the 21st July 1883, Zibhebhu attacked Ondini. The casualties included many prominent personalities such as the victor of Isandlwana, Inkosi Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, King Cetshwayo's youngest son (Prince Nyoniyentaba) and at least three 'amagogo' (widows of King Mpande kaSenzangakhona). The King barely escaped with his life, and took refuge in Eshowe where he died on 8th February 1884. The chieftainship of the Usuthu passed to Prince Dinuzulu.

Matters in Zululand became chaotic, and the Boers from the area made the most of them by offering to support Dinuzulu in his struggle against Zibhebhu. On 21st May 1884, at Zaalflaager, near Hlobane, they poured a bottle of castor oil over Prince Dinuzulu's head, and anointed him as king of the Zulus. This action was ridiculed by Zibhebhu but the New Republicans offered to assist Dinuzulu in return for land.

Urged on by Ndabuko, 100 Boers under Louis Botha, Lucas Meyer and some Germans from the Luneburg area, led by Adolph Schiel, advanced on Zibhebhu, joined by some 1 000 Usuthu warriors. They followed the course of the Mkuze River, aware that Zibhebhu had taken up a position in the Mkuze River gorge, where it passes through the Lebombo mountains. The scene was set for the Battle of the Ghost Mountain!

Zibhebhu had concealed his Mandlakazi warriors between the slopes of eTshaneni peak and the Mkuze River. Higher up, near the summit, on the southern slope and hidden from view, he had concealed those members of his tribe who had been unable to bear arms. On the north bank, he had hidden his women, children and cattle in the gorge, protected by a spur in the mountains. They were guarded by another section of his force. It was a brilliantly selected position which not only provided cover for his warriors, but also provided him with an escape route via the Mkuze gorge and onto the Makathini flats, should a retreat become necessary.

The Usuthu army approached the Mandlakazi ambush on the 5th June 1884, with the Boers and Germans in the rear. As they approached Zibhebhu's trap, a Mandlakazi warrior fired a shot prematurely, giving away their position. This shot almost certainly saved the Boers, because Zibhebhu had ordered his warriors to fire at the horses, effectively immobilising them.

Instantly, the Usuthu moved into its traditional horn formation, but discovered that the topography prevented the encircling movement from taking place. As the right horn swept forward, it met the full onslaught of Zibhebhu's army near the base of eTshaneni on the right. A fierce and bloody battle ensued but it soon became clear that the Mandlakazi had gained the upper hand. Buoyed by their success, the Mandlakazi redoubled their efforts, and the Usuthu turned and fled.

The Boers, mounted on their horses, checked both the Usuthu retreat and the Mandlakazi attack, as the latter left the cover of the dense bush, and they forced the Mandlakazi to turn and seek shelter in the bush on the slopes of eTshaneni. Taking note of this development, the Usuthu then turned and pursued the Mandlakazi up the slopes of eTshaneni, resulting in their line of retreat being cut off.

They turned the Mandlakazi retreat into a rout, inflicting a devastating defeat on Zibhebhu. As the attack continued, the abaQulusi, allies of the Usuthu, crossed the Mkuze River and stormed the ridge where the women, children and cattle had been concealed. They attacked with great ferocity, scattering the defending force, and capturing the cattle - the Mandlakazi wealth.

The battle lasted little more than an hour. Mopping up then commenced, and the Usuthu showed no mercy. Fleeing Mandlakazi warriors were either drowned in the river, or stabbed and shot as they fled. Amongst the dead were no fewer than six of Zibhebhu's brothers and many members of his family. Zibhebhu, mounted on his horse, watched the carnage from a high vantage point with his two White advisors, Darke and Eckersley. As the Usuthu turned towards him, he turned his horse and fled, taking refuge in the Eshowe district for 4 years before the British allowed him to return to his home at Bangonomo.

In return for their assistance, the Boers were granted huge tracts of land which they later welded into the short-lived Nieuwe Republiek, with Lucas Meyer as its first and only President.

The War continued to simmer and the British eventually deployed troops in volatile areas of Zululand. The most significant engagement occurred at Ceza Mountain on the 2nd June 1888 where Capt Pennefather's force of 140 men of the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, 66 Nongqayi (Zululand Native Police) and warriors from Inkosi Mnyamana Buthelezi (who had by then switched loyalty) was attacked by the Usuthu, resulting in the death of two Dragoons.

The Civil War culminated in the defeat of the Mandlakazi by the Usuthu at kwaNongoma on the 23rd June 1888 - within a few hundred metres of the incredulous and hopelessly outnumbered police in the nearby earth-walled fort.

The final action was fought on the 2nd July 1888 at Hlopekhulu, resulting in the death of one British officer, two mounted Basutho, three Nongqayi, forty Eshowe Levies and fifteen of Inkosi Mnyamana Buthelezi's men to the loss of between 200 and 300 Usuthu.

King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo was arrested and tried for High Treason. He was sent to St Helena but returned to South Africa on the 5th January 1898, having been relegated to the position of Paramount Chief of the Usuthu clan by the British administration. He became unwillingly and unwittingly implicated in the 1906 Poll Tax ('Bhambatha') Rebellion, imprisoned and released after Union by his old friend General Louis Botha. He died on the 18th October 1913 and was buried 'with his fathers' - the ancient kings of Zululand - in the eMakhosini Valley.

Zibhebhu died in 1905 and was buried near his homestead at Bangonomo. He was probably the most able Zulu military strategist since King Shaka kaSenzangakhona and was described as Zululand's 'Master of the Ambush'.

At the conclusion of this excellent talk, Ivor called on David Scholtz to thank both speakers, after which the gathering adjourned for tea.

Ivor Little
Chairman and Scribe.

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Change in bank account details:

The Society's bank account is at FNB. They have closed the branch at which the account was held (Park Meadows) and moved the account to Eastgate. The new branch code is 257705. This number will be needed by anyone depositing late subscriptions monies into the account. For easy reference, the current account number is 50391928346 and it is in the name SA Military History Society.

Joan Marsh

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Secretary/Treasurer Life member Dr Taffy Shearing advises that a new book about the WWII adventures of a member of the Transvaal Scottish is about to appear. While book reviews are normally included in the Society's Journals, WWII veterans are fading fast and this particular publication might be of special interest to members:

Review of From Jo'burg to Dresden by EB 'Dick' Dickinson, Privately published.

From Jo'burg to Dresden, the World War II diary of one of South Africa's remaining few, 'Dick' Dickinson, 92, brings a distant past to life. He was an honours student at Wits University when he decided to 'join up'. He chose the 2nd Transvaal Scottish because he liked bagpipes! Members of the 2TS were forbidden to wear underpants with their kilts, but they soon got used to it. In camp he noted with shock the nakedness and indignity of his fried egg thrown on top of the plate of mealie meal porridge.

With 10,000 other South African troops he sailed for North Africa, and began the war digging trenches in the desert a thousand miles from home. In the sand and the flies he was struck by the unreality of it all. Surely he was not at war and liable to die at any time?

The events of the day, the jokes, the tragedies, the rumours of war from a private's point of view are discussed with wit and humour by this talented writer. Friends and enemies come to life, but their stories had to be secretly recorded after he was captured at Tobruk in 1942. POWs were forbidden to keep diaries, but he kept writing secretly in camp in Italy and Germany.

He was a postal worker for the Third Reich when he stumbled on the extraordinary myth that Dresden would never be bombed. Thousands of refugees poured into the city, believing it was safe. He lived though the bombings, described the aftermath, the dying days of the war and the peace and freedom that finally came.

Many of his companions in the text and photographs have been identified through the nominal roll of the 2nd Transvaal Scottish Battalion, which has been included. Text boxes, mainly from The Saga of the Transvaal Scottish Regiment edited by Carel Birkby, and other photographs, have been used to amplify events. The prosaic explanation for the military genius of Gen Erwin Rommel in 1941/42 is included. This book is a must for 2nd World War buffs and family historians.

From Joburg to Dresden, edited by Taffy and David Shearing is privately printed. It is in B5 format, black and white using Garamond 11 point for the text and 10 point for the text boxes. There are 171 pages which are indexed. ISBN 978-0-620-48624-8. The price is R220 plus R30 postage and packing.

The book is obtainable from Dick Dickinson, 151 Santos Haven, 6506 Mossel Bay or Taffy and David Shearing, 131 Santos Haven, 6506 Mossel Bay or davidtaffy@

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For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
For Cape Town details contact Ray Hattingh 021-592-1279(am)
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010 237 0676

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