South African Military 
History Society


April 2010

Contact: Mike Laing 031 205 1951
Bill Brady 031-561-5542

Due to Col. Steve Bekker being unable to present his talk as a result of a family illness, Prof. Mike Laing kindly stepped in, offering to present one of his entertaining quiz shows. Unfortunately, Mike took ill and was hospitalised. Fellow member James Trinder then offered to present Mikes "Who is he?" slide quiz show.

A most enjoyable session ensued with James showing a variety of slides that had the audience guessing and debating who was in the picture, the dates and the occasion.

The person was Japanese General Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya. In less than 3 months [December 1941 to February 1942] his army of 30000 men defeated a British army of 100 000 and captured Malaya and Singapore.

Slides were shown of him with his chief of staff Suzuki and Staff Officer Sugita who led Percival and the surrender group. Colonel Wild carried the white flag. Sugita had studied in USA, knew English, and was at the final surrender. The last picture was of Col Tsuji, chief Planner who wrote the book from which the pictures were taken. Yamashita was hanged for war crimes in 1946 by Douglas MacArthur.

The main talk was presented by fellow member Lt. Col. Dr. Graeme Fuller. This was a power point presentation on the Society's tour to the Battlefields of the Western Desert in May last year. He began by thanking Ken Gillings for his excellent organization and planning and confirmed Ken's earlier comments about the Royal British Legion's Battlefield Guide, Colonel Mike Bradley, who was knowledgeable, highly professional and willing to adopt a flexible approach and to learn from us about the South African experience of War in the desert.

The actual sequence of the tour was presented in outline, using Col Fuller's own photographs, supplemented by explanatory maps and diagrams. An unscheduled request stop at the Heliopolis military cemetery in the suburbs of Cairo was followed by a brief tour of the city, including visits to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, also the site of President Anwar Sadat's tomb, opposite the scene of his assassination. The group also saw early Coptic Christian sites and then headed for the Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza, on the outskirts of the city. After checking into a very smart hotel near the west bank of the Nile, there was time to explore the area on foot before a tour meeting. Next day they drove to El Alamein and visited the impressive German and Italian war memorials before arriving in time for a swim in the Mediterranean at a nearby resort hotel popular with Italians. Next morning they paid an emotionally charged visit to the Commonwealth Cemetery at El Alamein. A MOTH ceremony was conducted and members placed poppies and crosses on several graves and at the South African memorial. Most tour members had either a personal or a regimental connection of some sort. This format and experience was repeated later at the two major Commonwealth War Grave sites around Tobruk and subsequently also at Sollum and on each occasion the tour group felt humbled by the sacrifices made on our behalf by the previous generation and was impressed by the care being taken to preserve their memory with dignity.

A visit was also paid to the small museum at Alamein, surrounded by various types of decaying military hardware. Then the group saw the railway station at Alamein, carefully preserved as it looked in 1941. They then went out into the desert to see the start lines of the famous battle and some of the defences which had been constructed by the South African 2nd Division, after which Springbok Road had been named (and a large Springbok emblem erected). That afternoon they arrived at another seaside resort at Mersa Matruh and enjoyed a fine buffet dinner.

Next day the group headed west in some haste, passing through Sollum, with a view of the Halfaya pass to the south (now again a military zone) and then up a steep pass near the sea to the Libyan border, which proved a bizarre cross cultural experience lasting four hours or more. The way in which the local people are treated (particularly females) was quite horrifying. Rampant petty bureaucracy and bribery were the dominating impressions. With a new bus and local guides the group then drove to Bardia (Al Bayda) in its picturesque cliff top setting and saw the scenes of the only military successes achieved by the SA 2nd Division before they were captured at Tobruk a few months later.

Accommodation in Libya was at a motel between Bardia and Tobruk, much more basic than the Egyptian experience and totally alcohol free. The only option was Beck's alcohol free beer, which soon ran out. Tobruk itself was again a most moving experience and after the graveside ceremonies at Tobruk war cemetery and the Knightsbridge Acroma cemetery, they then moved into 4x4 vehicles driven by local guides and visited Fig Tree, site of the RDLI HQ in 1942. The site of General Klopper's Divisional HQ was difficult to confirm. They then visited the Free French gravesite commemorating Bir Hakeim before heading into the desert to the Ras El Medawar site defended by Umvoti Mounted Rifles and to Knightsbridge itself, where a stop was made for lunch. The next destination was Sidi Rezegh, near which the SA 5th Brigade was attacked and almost destroyed. The famous tomb is still essentially unchanged. The former airfield control tower was also pointed out and numerous gun emplacements and other defences were seen. On the following day the group re-entered Egypt, taking just as long to pass through the border and visited the cemetery at Sollum, where a group from the 6th Battery, 2nd Field regiment (NFA) were found buried together. A brief stop at Sidi Barrani resulted in the theft of Norman Edwards's wallet and some high drama involving locals and tourist police. Then back to Mersa Matruh for the night and on the following day a brief request stop at Alamein cemetery and then along the coast to Alexandria for lunch, back to Cairo for dinner next to the Nile and finally to the airport.

Ronnie and Bev Napier and David Scholtz later went on to Benghazi and Col. Fuller showed photographs of Ronnie at his father's grave there. Graeme then presented slides of the leaders of the South African war effort, starting with Generals Smuts and van Ryneveld and including all others of General and Brigadier rank with some of their backgrounds and subsequent achievements or misfortunes. Reference was also made top some of the senior Medical Corps personnel and finally Orders of Battle and a statistical account of South Africa's involvement in World War 11. We were then privileged to see a collection of photographs taken by Sue Westgate, a professional photographer who accompanied her husband Lt. Col Tex Westgate on the tour. Sue generously made copies of her material available to all tour participants and allowed them to be shown to the society members in Durban. A wonderful mixture of majestic scenery and candid camera shots of everyday life in Egypt and in Libya was enjoyed by all present.

Prof. Philip Everitt delivered the vote of thanks to our speakers for an extra-ordinary evening.

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The April meeting will be preceded by a brief Annual General Meeting. Members are requested to submit nominations to Dr. John Cooke for Chairman, Vice Chairman, Scribe and Committee Members. John's e-mail address is

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Thursday 8th April 2010 - 19h00 for 19h30. Venue: Murray Theatre, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.

The Darrell Hall (DDH) Memorial Lecture will be presented by former chairman Paul Kilmartin on 'The Life & Career of the First VC of the Anglo-Boer War'.

The Main Talk will be presented by fellow member Robin Smith on 'Langverwacht - de Wet's last fling'.

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MAY 2010: DDH - 'We protected Durban from the Japanese' by Aubrey Short.
Main Talk - 'The Battle for Le Pont du Hoc, Normandy 1944' by Charles Whiteing.
JUNE 2010: DDH - 'D-Day - I was there' by Eric Colmer.
Main Talk - 'Normandy then and now; a Power-Point Presentation' by Bill Brady.
JULY 2010: DDH - 'A Bridge called Pegasus' by Charles Whiteing.
Main Talk - 'The Role of Indian Troops During the Anglo-Boer War' by Ganes Pillay.

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Some Anniversaries - at this time in history.
1900 - Bloemfontein occupied by British forces and Gen Sir Redvers Buller makes his official entry into Ladysmith.
1911 - Birth of Ronald Reagan
1917 - Abdication of Tsar Nicholas of Russia
1926 - First commercial fight between London and Cape Town
1936 - Maiden Fight of Spitfire
1938- Germany annexes Austria
1941 - British Commando Raid on Lofoten in Norway
1945 - Allies cross the Rhine
1946 - Winston Churchill makes his "Iron Curtain" speech
1953 - Death of Stalin
1966 - John Lennon states that Beatles are more popular than Jesus
1968 - Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam
1985 - Gorbachev takes over in the Soviet Union
1990 - Margaret Thatcher introduces Poll Tax

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South African Military History Society /