South African Military History 


Newsletter No 69 June /Nuusbrief Nr 69 Junie 2010

SAMHSEC's 10 May 2010 meeting opened with the second in Mike Duncan's series on medals awarded to Port Elizabeth men. Trooper Michael Saunders, HC was the first man in Prince Alfred's Guard to be decorated for bravery since WW2 when he was awarded the Honoris Crux in 1976. His troop of 4 armoured cars was on a road block in the vicinity of the Ruacana hydro-electric project when an armoured car on the other side of the road caught fire. Ignoring an order by an NCO for all to retire to a safe distance, Trooper Saunders ran to the burning vehicle and, despite intense heat, went in and out of the car unloading ammunition. When all the ammunition and radios had been taken out, Saunders ran to his own vehicle and drove to the burning one, coupled the two together and towed the damaged one a safe distance away. He then grabbed a spanner, crawled under the burning vehicle and drained its petrol tank, digging a hurried trench to enable the volatile fuel to flow away.

The curtain raiser by Ian Copley was on High Velocity Cranial Tangential Gunshot Wounds (GSW). Glancing wounds of the cranium were first noted by a civil surgeon, Sir George Makins, in the SA War 1899-1902 and his book Surgical Experiences in South Africa was published in 1913. He had little to go on other than direct clinical observation of glancing head wounds, occasional operative findings and almost never had the benefit of a post-mortem report. He was, of course, lacking the benefit of CT brain scanning. Indeed, X-rays had only been discovered some 7 years previously, although field X-ray machines were available by the time of the SA War, mainly useful for treating fractures and locating foreign bodies such as bullets or shrapnel.

During the Angolan conflict, the speaker was a member of the SA Medical Service and responsible for the establishment of a neurosurgical unit at the newly opened 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria, where the first operation to be performed was a neurosurgical one. Shortly thereafter a CT machine was installed and tried out on a neurosurgical patient. Attention to tangential wounds (since these are the only GSW in the head to survive) was drawn when a soldier returning to base after being AWOL, was fired at by a sentry with a Bren-gun. He sustained an abrasion to the scalp, was knocked out for 30 minutes and only reported sick on the next morning and had a dressing applied. He was otherwise well, but three days later suffered an epileptic attack and was evacuated to 1 Mil Hosp. The brain scan showed contusion of the cerebral cortex without fracture of the skull. Subsequently, 27 cases were collected over the next six years.

A classification of four types of 'glancing' injury inflicted by bullets and shrapnel travelling more than the speed of sound was made. The force exerted (sonic boom) at right angles to the trajectory has a force of the order of 70 kg/cm² for a fraction of a second. This caused brain damage with or without fractures and in-driven bone, without passing through the cranial cavity. Brain damage could also be inflicted by remote trajectory through the face and neck or similarly to the spinal cord. Subsequently the classification was published in the British Journal of Neurosurgery in 1991.

The main lecture by Brian Klopper was on the Battle of Đien Biên Phu, the climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War between the French Union's French Far East Expeditionary Corps and Viet Minh communist revolutionaries. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that influenced negotiations over the future of Indochina at Geneva. The battle is regarded by some as the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle.

As a result of blunders in the French decision-making process, the French launched an operation using forces based at Đien Biên Phu, deep in the hills of northwestern Vietnam, to cut off Viet Minh supply lines through the neighbouring Kingdom of Laos, a French ally, and tactically draw the Viet Minh into a major confrontation that would cripple them. Instead, the Viet Minh, under Senior General Vơ Nguyên Giáp, surrounded and besieged the French, who were unaware of the Viet Minh's possession of heavy artillery, including anti-aircraft guns, and, more importantly, their ability to move these weapons through extremely difficult terrain to the mountain crests overlooking the French positions. The Viet Minh occupied the highlands around Đien Biên Phu and were able to accurately bombard French positions at will. Tenacious fighting on the ground ensued, reminiscent of the trench warfare of WW1. The French repeatedly repulsed Viet Minh assaults on their positions. Supplies and reinforcements were delivered by air, although, as outlying French positions fell and anti-aircraft fire took its toll, less and less of those supplies reached them. After a two-month siege, the garrison was overrun and most of the French force surrendered, only a few successfully escaping to Laos.

Alec Grant is welcomed as a SAMHSEC member.

Early warning is given of SAMHSEC's tour to Kingwilliamstown, East London and places between from 13 to 15 August 2010. Richard Tomlinson's availability to coordinate the tour is recognised with appreciation.

SAMHSEC's annual meeting in Grahamstown is on 5 June 2010. There is to be a visit to Salem between 1000 and 1200 in the morning. Guests are welcome to attend. There are no costs to members or guests for the visit. Local experts have been arranged to discuss the history of Salem, including the sieges during the Sixth and Seventh Frontier Wars. Meet in front of the Methodist Church at 1000. Members from PE with seats to offer are requested to advise the Scribe (me!) how many seats they have available. I have 6 seats on offer in my bus. After leaving Salem, members are free to move to Grahamstown in their own time and picnic in the Rhodes University Education Department grounds as we did last year. Chairman's (also me!) comment: I trust that as many Port Elizabeth members as possible will attend the Grahamstown meeting, which is a monument to the fact that it is further from PE to Grahamstown than from Grahamstown to PE. I also look forward to the company of as many as possible of our members from Alexandria, Kenton-on-Sea and Port Alfred. Pat Irwin's coordination of the Salem visit is greatly appreciated.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1400 on Saturday 5 June 2010 at the Education Department of Rhodes University in Grahamstown. The curtain raiser will be by Rick van Heerden on the Sherman Tank. The main lecture will be by Malcolm Hacksley on War Poetry by South Africans.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

South African Military History Society /