South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 10 June 2010 was Mr Alan Mountain, a member of the branch and well-known author, whose topic was "The Sinking of HMT Birkenhead". This was another of our speaker's fascinating audio-visual talks which kept the audience spellbound from start to finish.

Mr Mountain started his talk by explaining why the Birkenhead was in Cape waters in February 1852. She was on her second voyage carrying troops to the Cape where they were badly needed in the Eighth Frontier War being waged against the amaXhosa. This war lasted from late 1850 to March 1853.

The amaXhosa were led by Chief Magoma, the originator of guerilla war in South Africa and the "right-hand" son of Ngqika, king of the Rharabe division of the Xhosa nation. He was acting as regent for his younger brother Sandile, first son of the "left hand" son of the Royal House - this somewhat complex and confusing custom in Xhosa tradition was explained to us by the speaker in some detail.

Chief Maqoma was implacably opposed to his father's cession of the land between the Fish and Keiskamma rivers to the Cape Colony and was totally committed to recovering lost amaXhosa ancestral lands. So as to consolidate his position, he founded a new chiefdom on the banks of the Kat River in 1822. But in 1829, the Colonial Government established the Kat River Settlement north of Fort Beaufort and east of Fort Armstrong on the eastern side of the Kat River. This was fertile land on were settled landless Khoekhoen (Hottentots) and Cape Coloured people were settled to act as a buffer between the amaXhosa and the farms of the European settlers, particularly the recently arrived 1820 English settlers.

This land was appropriated from Chief Maqoma, raising his ire even further. In 1834, this led to the Sixth Frontier War, which lasted for a year with heavy losses on both sides and resulted in a vast increase in acrimony along the eastern Frontier. Maqoma lost the war but remained the most powerful Rharhabe chief and a fragile peace prevailed for the next twelve years.

In 1840 Sandile came of age and assumed the de jure chieftainship of the Rharhabe, the de facto power still lay in Maqoma's hands. In 1840, Sandile surrendered to the imposition of colonial rule over the Rharhabe people and British Kaffraria was born. Maqoma objected to this arrangement and refused to accept it. When diplomacy and accommodation failed, the War of Malanjeni or the Eighth Frontier War started. Maqoma launched a very effective guerrilla war in the forested mountains and valleys along the Fish River and in the dense acacia thickets in the Waterkloof mountains. The British sustained heavy losses in Maqoma's ambushes and his unconventional guerrilla tactics. Major-general Sir Harry Smith, military commander and governor of the Cape Colony, was sorely pressed to ward off defeat and requested urgent troop reinforcements. This was the reason why HMT Birkenhead sailed for the Cape in February 1852.

Birkenhead was built as a frigate by the William Laird Shipyard at Birkenhead, Liverpool. She was an iron-hulled, three-masted, brigantine-rigged paddle steamer, armed with two 270 degree swivel guns. In the 1840's, John Laird, son of the founder who inherited his genius, was a leader in ship design and construction and his innovative ideas were way ahead of his time. He favoured iron hulls over wooden ships and steam power over sail power. His largest customer, the Royal Navy, had many traditionalists in its upper echelons and Laird had to toe the line. Birkenhead was built as a frigate but was converted into a troopship in 1847 even though a similar vessel (HMS Nemesis) had been successfully used in the First Opium War.

Mr Mountain discussed the changes that were made to Birkenhead during the conversion and then went on to speak about her second voyage to Cape Town which was relatively uneventful. After a brief stay in Simon's Town, she set sail for Port Elizabeth on the 26th February 1852.

Our speaker next discussed what went wrong on the fateful night of 26 February 1852. Before leaving Simon's Bay, the Master Commanding the Birkenhead instructed the sailing Master Mr William Brodie as follows - "...once clear of the blinders surrounding the harbour in Simon's Bay, to sail south by east until clear of Cape Hangklip and a good departure from Cape Point lighthouse. And from there to sail SSE by half east".

We will never know where the point of good departure was but, with the assistance of Rear-Admiral Arne Soderlund SAN (Rtd) and Captain Bob Harrison SAN, a professional yachtsman, the ship's possible course was reconstructed, based on the Master Commander's instruction to give Cape Hangklip a berth of four miles (6.4 km) and Danger Point a berth of seven miles (11.2 km). Our speaker showed us pictures of what the course would have been. Leaving Simon's Bay at 1800 and with a speed of seven knots, the course change would have been made between 2030 and 2100. Both Commander and sailing Master retired to bed after 2200, so both would have been present for the course change.

It is unlikely that the Birkenhead would have been set on a wrong course with two such experienced officers present. Why then did the ship hit the rock? Bad weather was ruled out. The sea was dead calm and the night rainless, peaceful and clear. The effect of the long offshore swell was considered minimal. Was the compass faulty? The Birkenhead had been supplied with a new standard compass by the Portsmouth Dockyard which had been checked on 15 April 1851. The helmsman, however, reported that the compass had appeared sluggish at the time when the ship struck the rock. The compass should have been swung at Simon's Bay but, in view of the urgent need for the troops to reach the Eastern Cape as fast as possible, this was not done.

The ship was, however, closer to the land than the seven miles as instructed. Just before the ship struck, the Officer of the Watch had been worried about the distance to the shore and had checked the course, advising the helmsman to steer a quarter point to windward of the course, ie further out to sea. The ship was off-course as she should have been further out to sea.

The course set should have taken the ship well out to sea away from Danger Point and Quoin Point and the course being steered was correct. Could there have been a compass fault? Both the Officer of the Watch and the helmsman were concerned about the nearness to the coastline and the compass had been sluggish, so there is a distinct possibility that it was faulty. The officers were competent but the court-martial could find no plausible reason and the officers were blamed, being the easiest scapegoats.

Had there been sabotage to prevent the ship from reaching Algoa Bay? We will never know.

Was the Birkenhead carrying gold? She certainly was. It was reported at the court-martial that 120 boxes of specie (gold and/or silver) were included in the cargo being carried - as the manifest had been lost exact details were not known. Royal Navy divers were sent out from England and a number of unsuccessful attempts at salvage were made. Subsequently other attempts were made with the same results. In 1958, Tromp van Diggelen, the well-known body builder, spent two years diving and recovered a few coins, probably belonging to crew or passengers. Further attempts were made between 1983 and 1988 with similar results.

There was a local rumour that some of the specie washed ashore and was found by a local farmer, who quickly became a prosperous landowner! A local "bywoner" had in fact suddenly become very wealthy and a major land owner. True or not?

Mr Mountain then gave us his opinion of what happened. The Birkenhead was one of the first ships to have a fully integrated system of bulkheads but these were pierced to provide access and passageways for the troops.

This surely would have been the case with the bulkheads in the front third of the ship. The ship sank by the bow and the front third broke away, sinking immediately. Many people drowned at this stage. The rest of the ship, including the engines, boiler, magazine, etc., made up the front section of the remaining part of the ship, with the rear portion made up of the poop deck on which the surviving troops and crew were gathered at the orders of the Master. The ship balanced on the reef for some ten minutes or so and the front part broke off and sank. All commentators agree that the gold was stored in the rear portion in a secure storage. This final portion of the ship then sank and the container in which the gold was stored went to the bottom. With the passage of time and the action of the sea and the strong currents, the container was eventually washed ashore to be found, in whole or in part, by the lucky "bywoner" or "bywoners". There are apparently wealthy families in the area whose sudden acquisition of wealth in the late 19th century cannot really be explained!!

During the course of his talk, our speaker showed us a very well-produced documentary video describing the ship, its ill-fated journey to the Cape and reconstructing what might have taken place on the sinking Birkenhead. The documentary was produced by Mr Alan Mountain and will be commercially available. Any members interested in obtaining a copy can contact Mr Mountain or through either the Chairman, Secretary or the Treasurer.

Our Branch Secretary, Ray Hattingh, then thanked our speaker for a most interesting presentation which gave us new information on this tragedy off the Cape coast. The customary gift was then presented.



Two new members joined the branch during the last month - we welcome Mr M C Clark and Mr N K Patterson and hope to see them at our monthly lectures.

Subscriptions are still trickling in. If you have not yet paid, please do so as soon as possible. Thanks to all who have paid.



At the previous meeting fellow-member Glenn von Zeil introduced a memoir recently published on the experiences of an ancestor of his during the Anglo-Boer War and handed out an information sheet containing some background to the book, as well as contact details. For the benefit of our members who were not present at the June meeting, the information is incorporated at the end of the newsletter (as well as non-members who receive a complimentary copy).

Well-known author and one-time member of this branch, Mr Ian Uys, has offered two of his books related to maritime disasters/shipwrecks around South Africa's coastline, as well as incidents of South African historical interest, at a special rate to members of the branch. The two books are:

- Survivors of Africa's Oceans (1993), 184 pp., Paperback. The book deals with shipping disasters and incidents dating back to Portuguese and Dutch seafarers, the Waratah incident, WWI (Mendi), WWII (Laconia, Nova Scotia & Llanduff Castle), postwar (Klipfontein) and more recently, the Oceanos incident. Normal retail price: R220,00. Price for branch members: R190,00

- Oceanos: Survivor's Stories (2010), 184 pp., Paperback. The book recounts the reminiscences and personal experiences of the survivors and the story of the amazing sea rescue performed by the brave crews of the South African Air Force, under the intrepid leadership of this month's speaker, Brigadier-general Dick Lord (whose responsibilities at the time also included taking charge and directing sea rescue operations by the S.A.A.F.). This book nicely complements the subject of his talk at our next meeting. Normal retail price: R195,00. Price for branch members: R165,00

(As we have only ten copies of each, members wanting a copy are urged to book it beforehand with the chairman, Johan van den Berg, who will handle the sales on behalf of Fortress Publishers. Tel: 021-939-7923 - Cell: 082-579-0386 - Email:

Members who have copies of Gen Lord's book which forms the subject of this month's talk, are urged to bring it along if they want it autographed. The author will probably also have copies on sale (RRP: R250,00)

DVD:- ANGOLA: van Konflik tot Hoop ('n Besoek aan die Bosoorlog slagvelde van die jare 1975 tot 1988 - en die Angola van vandag). Produced and marketed by Mr Cloete Breytenbach (guest speaker at the August meeting). The DVD is a copy of the original marketed at R200,00 per copy, but now available in a budget packaging for only R85,00



THURSDAY, 8 JULY 2010: Standby! - South African Air Force Search and Rescue Missions and Operations during Peacetime
Our speaker will be fellow-member, Brig Gen Dick Lord, well-known author of books on his experiences in the S.A.A.F. during the protracted Border/Angolan War of 1967 to 1989. Gen Lord will recount his experiences on post-Border War air rescue missions as described in a previous book, called Fire, Flood and Ice, which has recently been re-issued - fully revised and expanded - under the title STANDBY! Gen Lord will present an illustrated talk on the topic, which also includes some of the new additions to his previous book, such as the remarkable rescue of all 581 people from the ill-fated liner Oceanos, for which the author was mentioned in dispatches for his role as commander of the rescue operation. Also new are accounts of S.A.A.F. rescues during the devastating floods of 2000 in Mozambique, as well as the S.A.A.F.'s crucial role in assisting the IEC during the national elections of 1994.

THURSDAY, 12 AUGUST 2010: UNITA, Angola and the Media - A Personal Retrospective by Cloete Breytenbach
Our speaker will be will be the well-known photographer/photo-journalist, Cloete Breytenbach, who had the unforgettable experience of spending long periods of time in the bush deep inside Angola, documenting the Angolan War from the perspective of one of the three main contenders for political control in the war-ravaged country, UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola - National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). This inevitably also led to getting to know one of the most perplexing and enigmatic personalities in the Angolan Civil War - Dr Jonas Savimbi - on a personal basis. Not only his brother, Col Jan Breytenbach of 32 Batallion/Recce fame, but also Mr Cloete Breytenbach contributed to the South African literature on the Border War / Angolan War by way of a little-known history of the Angolan War, as well a photographic record of his time spent in the bush, called Savimbi's Angola (1979 - alas, long out of print and much sought after by collectors of SA's Border War literature). The two Breytenbach brothers mentioned, recently undertook a "trip down memory lane" to revisit some the Angolan battlefields of yesteryear - the memories of which are captured on an Afrikaans-language Video Disc (DVD) currently on sale (available from the speaker and selected outlets).

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279 (office hours)



A grandson of a nurse, who was the only recorded female nurse shot in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, met a granddaughter of the British soldier who was implicated in the infamous shooting. She was quite unaware of this dramatic event in the life of her ancestor until the two respective grandchildren became acquainted via the Internet. The incident was commemorated over dinner more than a century later on 8 July 2006, in Helston, Cornwall.

The nurse's grandson followed the paper trail of her assailant on three continents, discovering yet another unique event in that tragic war. Astonishingly, he had married a Boer girl a year before the unfortunate tragedy.

The soldier, a military scout, postponed their honeymoon and elected to continue harassing the kinfolk of his wife for more than a year. When peace was finally brokered, he collected his spoils of war - a Boer bride - from a concentration camp and returned to Britain.

The seriously wounded nurse forgave her attacker for his indiscretion in firing at an innocent at the scene of the incident in a small, rural hospital in the Orange River Colony. Her simple gravestone reads; 'Forgive and Forget'- a statement she lived by. She outlived him and all their contemporaries by several score years, never bowing to pressure from peers and many of her people to condemn the man. She was truly a remarkable woman for all time.

This book is based on verifiable facts, but with components of fiction and friction introduced by the main character. It honours the remarkable life of the main character - a man who lived many lives under at least four different names as an adventurer, cowboy, military scout, soldier, author, genealogist and historian. As an ardent nationalist he might have considered himself a reincarnation (mab darogan) of a great national hero of Wales adored in his youth.

Caught up in the class struggle at the height of the British Empire, he created his own myths in order to escape his plebeian birth. This only exacerbated the problems he had with a military establishment that granted officer ranks on the basis of title and property, not necessarily on competence/ability. The characters of his own novels define his personality. Different names are engraved on two tombstones on his grave, but none acknowledge his original family name. Significantly, the inner turmoil of his nationality in life is epitomised by a large, granite Celtic Cross threatening to smash a regulation British military tombstone of pristine white marble in death.

Characters that appear in this story are real and but products of their times. Any condemnation of some is through the eyes of their contemporaries. Some have been accorded cult status in history, but may not escape the scorn of modern political correctness.

This is the tale of the author's odyssey of discovery and of those who crossed and double-crossed the tracks of the principal characters.

A.L. von Zeil

April 2010

BATTLE SCARS AND DRAGON TRACKS Private publication due end April 2010; ISBN Number -13 978-0-620-46322-5; ISBN Number -10 0-620-46322-5; Enquiries:


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279 (office hours)

South African Military History Society /