South African Military History 


Newsletter No 64 January/Nuusbrief Nr 64 Januarie 2010

The 14 Dec 09 meeting started with Richard Tomlinson's eighth talk in his series on British fortifications of the Anglo-Boer War. His subject was the Aliwal Hexagonal pattern. Two examples of this design have survived in Aliwal North, one ruined and roofless and the other complete and used as a garden store. They were a regular hexagon in plan, 2 storeys high with a flattish 'umbrella' roof of wood and corrugated iron, a continuous observation opening between the parapet and roof eaves at the upper level as per the Standard Pattern, ground floor entrance and 4 closely-spaced loopholes per wall all round, placed high up around the lower storey and requiring removable wooden banquettes for access. The entrance, elevated loopholes and absence of angle galleries or bastions for flanking fire indicate that these buildings were more for show than for defence and probably planned as guard-houses in this garrison town. A pretty design, beautifully built, but not serious defensive structures.

The curtain raiser by Ken Stewart was on the military service of his great great great grandfather, Robert Hart, from 1795 to 1830. On 1 March 1795, Robert Hart was the 175th to sign on in the newly formed 98th Argylshire Regiment of Foot. The Regiment was ordered to the Cape of Good Hope in 1795 and participated in the Battle of Muizenberg. After the Dutch surrender, the Regiment was stationed in the Cape Town Castle. The Regiment was involved in the surrender of a Dutch fleet in Saldanha Bay. The unit was sent where there were threats of insurrection, including Stellenbosch, Paarl, Tulbach and Swellendam. Renamed the 91st Regiment of Foot in 1798, it was dispatched to Algoa Bay in 1799, from where it proceeded to Graaff Reinett to supress the insurrection there. Back in Algoa Bay, the 91st helped to build Fort Frederick. It was part of the garrison during the Battle of Algoa Bay on 20 September 1799. The 91st saw action in skirmishes near the Sundays River and the Bushmans River. The Regiment was sent to India from 1801 to 1803, after which it returned to England. By 1804, Hart was maried and a sergeant major. In 1806 Robert Hart returned to the Cape as Adjutant & Ensign of the Cape Corps under Colonel Graham. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1810. Hart contributed to the selection of the site of Grahamstown. He built one of the first houses there and established a market garden. After going on half-pay in 1817, Hart took over the government farm at what is now Somerset East. After the farm closed in 1825, Hart settled in the district. He gave refuge to many a victim of the frontier wars, among them Ken's great great grandfather, James Stewart, who fled the Xhosa invasion of the colony in December 1834 and later married one of Hart's daughters. Robert Hart had 35 years of military service: 12 in the 91st/98th Regiment, 11 1/2 in the Cape Corps and 11 1/2 on half-pay.

Fred Nel then presented a slide show on the tour in which he and his wife, Brenda, participated to Egypt and Libya in May/June 2009 (Scribe's note: the tour was covered in the SAMHS KZN Branch Dec 09 newsletter, which was distibuted to SAMHSEC members, so won't be covered in detail again). Fred commented on the immaculate condition of the cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The impressive El Alamein museum emphasized the Egyptian role in the battle. One photograph was of the South African Memorial in the El Alamein cemetery with its inscription: "South Africans outspanned and fought here during their trek from Italian Somaliland to Germany 1939-1945". Another was taken at the remains of the Sidi Rezegh airstrip control tower of 3 tour particpants whose fathers were in the battle: Ken Gillings' father G.B. Gillings, SA Signals Corps, escaped, Brenda Nel's father R.J. de Beer, SA Irish, was captured and Norman Thompson's father N.J.P. Thompson, SA Engineer Corps, was killed.

The main lecture by Pat Irwin was on Thaba Bosiu - Moshoeshoe's mountain stronghold. In the 1870s there were three well known mountain strongholds in South Africa, all considered impregnable: Sekukuni's Mountain in the Transvaal, Morosi's Mountain in South Basutoland, and, the best known of all, Thaba Bosiu, (the Mountain at Night) the fortress of Moshoeshoe, near Maseru. The active history of the fortress can not be separated from Moshoeshoe himself, a remarkable personality, astute diplomat, and founder of the Basotho nation.

The two first named fell in 1879, stormed by the British with auxiliary help, but Thaba Bosiu was held against all comers from 1824 to 1898, when it was dismantled after civil unrest, by order of the then government of Basutoland. Up to the death of Moshoeshoe in 1870, it was the nerve centre and focus of the whole life of the Basotho.

Thaba Bosiu lies hidden in the valley of the Little Caledon or Phuthiatsana River and is dwarfed and overshadowed by the surrounding plateaux so that at first sight it looks almost insignificant. Of very irregular shape and between 100 and 130 metre above the surrounding area, it stands quite isolated from the hills which almost encircle it. The summit is ringed with sheer cliffs from six to 12 metres high, pierced by only six passes. They are all steep and narrow and ideal for launching the showers of rocks which constituted the main weapon of the defenders. In addition, as the Basotho acquired firearms, only two could not be covered by flanking fire from the defence. As there is very little dead ground around the foot to give cover to an attacking force, it presented a most formidable obstacle before the days of modern artillery. The top is flat and has good grazing and a supply of water from perennial springs. Moshoeshoe and his small Bakwena clan first occupied the mountain in 1824. He was then about thirty eight years of age.

The mountain fortress has withstood eight attacks/sieges from a range of enemies, from the Amangwane (the Battle of the Pots) in 1827, the Koranna, and the Ndebele under Mzilikazi, to the British under Cathcart in 1852, and repeated attacks by Orange Free State commandos during the OFS-Basotho Wars from 1865 to 1868. It was the latter who made the most determined attacks and came closest to overwhelming the defences, but in the end they too failed.

Members might find the new website of interest.

SAMHS fellow member Capt Ivor C Little (SAN) (Rtd)'s recently published autobiography Above Board And Under Cover, a voyage through sometimes murky waters can be ordered online from or or fax 086 505 2478.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on Monday 11 January 2010 at the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. After Richard Tomlinson's series on British Fortifications of the Anglo-Boer War, the curtain raiser will be on Operation Packer by Jock Harris. The main lecture will be by Fred Oelschig on The Unita Contribution to the Results of Operations Modular, Hooper and Packer.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

South African Military History Society /