South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on Thursday 14 July 2011 was fellow-member and distinguished military historian, Alan Mountain, who enthralled us with another of his outstanding audio-visual presentations. His topic was the destruction of the Zulu kingdom in 1879.

Mr Mountain introduced his talk with a résumé of the early history of the Zulu kingdom, which he had covered in an earlier lecture to our Society. Dingane was assassinated in 1840 and was succeeded by Mpanda ka Senzangekhona, who reigned until 1872. During his long reign, Mpanda dealt successfully with civil war, pressures on his borders and attempts by traders, missionaries and neighbouring governments to undermine his authority and to bring about changes in his kingdom. However, he was largely successful in retaining the kingdom's essential autonomy and self-sufficiency because it was supported by a stable social order and was protected by a strong political system backed by a large and well-disciplined army.

Mpanda was succeeded by his son Cetshwayo, a Zulu nationalist who wanted to reassert Shaka's military might and Zulu imperial authority. His autonomous kingdom was one of two obstacles preventing Great Britain from implementing the creation of a confederation of South African states. This was the brainchild of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Carnarvon. The other was the Transvaal's opposition to incorporation into the Confederation. This was solved by the incorporation of the bankrupt Transvaal republic by the Colony of Natal.

Lord Carnarvon selected Sir Bartle Frere, who had served with distinction in India, to implement his policy and stay on as the first governor general. In March 1877 he sailed for South Africa, where he was to serve as Governor of the Cape Colony, High Commissioner for South Africa and Commander in Chief of the British forces stationed there.

Frere was a devout Christian who believed in the eradication of barbarous institutions, improvement of living standards through good administration and economic prosperity. Blacks who entered the labour market would earn wages which would be spent on European manufactured goods, which would benefit them and the white colonists and the home government as well.

For confederation to work Frere was convinced that Zulu power had to be neutralised. He made a concerted effort to convince the British government that the Zulu kingdom was a barbaric state which threatened the stability of Southern Africa and, in this; he was strongly supported by the white settlers, officials and missionaries.

Since only a war could break the power of the Zulu kingdom, he set about to foment one. Aided by Sir Theophilus Shepstone, new Administrator of the Transvaal, and Sir Henry Bulwer, Lieutenant Governor of Natal, Frere drew up an ultimatum which he knew Cetshwayo would never accept.

Frere's demands were that the Zulu standing army be disbanded immediately; young warriors no longer be required to obtain the King's permission to marry; a British resident to be stationed in Zululand to maintain law and order; the King be required to obtain the Resident's permission before going to war; fines to be paid in cattle by the king for any border infractions perpetrated by any Zulus; missionaries be re-admitted to continue their missionary work and the King's right to exercise the death penalty, be curtailed. This ultimatum was handed to the King's emissaries under a tree in the banks of the Thukela River on 10 December 1878.

Frere's preparations for war were completed one day after issuing his ultimatum to Cetshwayo. He had been assured by the British Army that the forces to hand were more than adequate for the war with the Zulus and Shepstone had convinced him that the war would encourage dissident Zulus to revolt. This and military defeat would destroy the Zulu kingdom. The British army was soon to discover how wrong they were!

The British General Officer Commanding was General Lord Chelmsford, an Old Etonian who had served in the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and in Abyssinia, but who had a somewhat comatose approach to his profession.

The Zulu army was highly mobile and outnumbered the British forces, whose progress was constrained by the speed of the ox-wagons which carried their stores and equipment. Cetshwayo wanted to fight the British in the open but they preferred to fight from defensive positions.

Chelmsford decided to invade Zululand with five different columns. The right-hand column under Col Pearson crossed the Lower Drift of the Thukela River. No 2 Column under Col Durnford crossed at Middle Drift. No 3 Column under Col Glynn crossed the Mzinyathi River at Rorke's Drift. No 4 Column under Col Wood crossed the Mzinyathi River at Landman's Drift and the northern or No 5 column under Col Rowlands entered Zululand from a point nearest to its borders with the Transvaal and Swaziland. It was hoped that Col Rowlands and his column would encourage the Boer Commandos and the Swazi (the Zulu's ancient enemy) to join them.

Cetshwayo did not panic easily and his agents enabled him to identify the British invasion routes. After consulting his chief advisor, Inkosi Mnyamane ka Gqengalele, Cetshwayo divided his army into three divisions. One was sent to Rorke's Drift, one to the Lower Thukela and the third was retained at his capital Ulundi.

By dawn on 12 January 1879 Cetshwayo had not complied with the ultimatum and the central column crossed the Mnzinyathi River at Rorke's Drift and the Anglo Zulu War began.

Eight days later the column reached a sphinx-like hill named Isandhlwana and set up a temporary camp at the foot of this hill. The hill would protect the camp from attack from the rear and to the north there was a broad open valley bordered by a gently sloping rise known as the Nyoni Ridge. From the ridge the valley sloped gradually downwards to the east, punctuated by a low conical hill and other elevated areas such as inTusi which provided excellent places for piquets.

Cetshwayo now sent a force of some 25 000 warriors to intercept the British force. It was commanded by Ntshingwayo ka Mahole Khosa and waited in a deep valley hidden from Isandhlwana by the Mabaso heights some ten to twelve kilometres north of the British camp.

Lord Chelmsford had no idea where the Zulus were until he learnt that some had been seen to the south east. They had been sent there as a diversion to attract the British forces' attention. Lord Chelmsford then sent a force of 150 colonial volunteers and more than 1 000 members of the Natal Native Contingent commanded by Major Dartnell. They were to search the foothills where the Zulus had been seen.

After engaging in a number of skirmishes with different Zulu groups, Major Dartnell encountered a large group of warriors whom he presumed were the advance guard of the main Zulu army. Expecting trouble he sent a note to Chelmsford calling for urgent reinforcements. Chelmsford received the note at 01:30 in the morning and moved out with some 1 100 men at dawn. He ordered Col Durnford commanding at Rorke's Drift to reinforce the camp at Isandhlwana.

Col Puleine was left in command at Isandhlwana and was ordered to remain on the defensive. Col Durnford arrived there in the middle of the morning and left again at 11:30 with some 200 men to intercept a group of Zulus seen moving eastwards, where Chelmsford was looking for the main Zulu army.

At midday Capt George Shepstone's patrol discovered the main Zulu army waiting in a deep valley hidden from Isandhlwana by the Mabaso Heights. After firing a few shots the horrified patrol raced back to the camp to raise the alarm. The Zulu army now advanced in their double envelopment fighting formation - izimpondo zenkomo ("horns of a beast") - a "chest" with enveloping horns to the left and the right. Col Pulleine ordered six British companies supported by companies of the NNC and Shepstone's Native Horse to forward positions to meet the enemy. Col Durnford provided defensive cover on the eastern or right-hand flank from his advanced position.

Despite their large numbers, the "chest" of the Zulu army was halted by concentrated British rifle fire. Spurred on by their commander Khosana ka Mavundlana, who was shot dead, they began to overrun the British positions. Col Durnford slowed the advance but was forced to fall back when his ammunition began to run out. Col Pulleine then pulled his force back and this encouraged the Zulus who released a volley of throwing spears and advanced. With the British line broken, hand-to-hand fighting took place. A few British managed to escape down the donga-interlaced "fugitives trail" to safety in Natal. Others were captured and killed.

At the height of the battle a partial eclipse of the sun cast its shadow over the bloody battlefield - the battle ended at 15:00, with 1 357 British soldiers and an unknown number of Native auxiliaries killed. The Zulus lost some 3 000 warriors. This was one of the bloodiest defeats in British Colonial history that sent shockwaves through the empire. For King Cetshwayo, there "were not enough tears to mourn the dead".

Although he was only some twelve miles/19km from Isandhlwana, Lord Chelmsford was not aware of the battle, although at 13:00 gunfire was heard from the camp. It was almost dusk when he and his men returned to the camp where they spent an uneasy night watched by Zulu warriors on Inyoni Ridge and nearby Itusi and the conical hill. A red glow in the sky over Rorke's Drift some twelve miles/19km away raised fears that the Zulus had destroyed the small garrison there and were invading Natal.

Striking camp before dawn and leaving their dead unburied, Chelmsford and his force were relieved to find that Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead had successfully defended their camp for some twelve hours of attack by Dabulamanzi's 3 500 warriors. Their gallantry earned them 12 Victoria Crosses (Lt Chard and Lt Bromhead were amongst the recipients) and 5 Distinguished Conduct Medals. One of the VCs was won by Corporal Schiess, a member of the transport section of the 2nd/3rd Natal Native Contingent - and the only Swiss ever to win a VC.

Lord Chelmsford left the survivors of his Central column to secure Rorke's Drift and rode on to Pietermaritzburg to alert the colonial authorities, advise them of the disaster and prepare the colonial capital and Durban against a possible invasion and to plan a second invasion of Zululand.

The Zulu victory was welcomed by the people of the Transvaal and the entire confederation policy was threatened. The Natal colonists became uneasy about the long-term impact of the war with their Zulu neighbours. Bishop Colenso publicly questioned the British army's conduct of the war from the pulpit, in which some 5 000 people had perished.

Lord Chelmsford sent an urgent request to the secretary of state for War for more troops, weapons and equipment and, between 20 February and 15 April 1879, no less than 19 ships brought out reinforcements and supplies.

Chelmsford's first priority was to relieve Col Pulleine's column which was besieged in Eshowe. After getting his troops across the Thukela River on a pont attached to the Ultimatum Tree, Col Pulleine dug his force in and established a laager at Gingindlovu some seven kilometres from the low hills at Nyezana on 1 April 1879.

At 06:00 on the following morning a Zulu force of some 10 000 to 12 000 warriors led by Somopho attacked the laager. British fire-power, supplemented by two nine-pounders, two Gatling guns and two 24-pounder rocket tubes, prevented the Zulus from advancing closer than 30 metres from the British lines.

At about 06:45, mounted troops under Major Barrow left the laager and, by 07:20, all Zulus hiding in the bushes or injured and unable to escape had been killed. About 1 100 Zulus died and British casualties were 13 dead and 48 injured. On the following morning, Chelmsford sent a flying column to relieve Eshowe. Eshowe was evacuated a day later. Before returning to the Thukela River, Chelmsford raided the Ikhanda (military household) of the commander of the Zulu army which had attacked Rorke's Drift, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande.

Volunteers and Natal Native Horse burnt the huts watched by the Zulus who fired on them from the crest of a nearby hill. When the British withdrew, the Zulus in turn burnt Fort Eshowe to the ground.

After the disaster at Isandhlwana Lord Chelmsford ordered Col Wood and the Left column to remain in the north, to engage the enemy wherever possible and encourage the local Boers and Zulu dissidents to join forces with him.

Prior to the second invasion three important events took place:

- Early on 9 March 1879, a convoy of supplies was ambushed at Myers Drift on the banks of the flooded Ntombi River. A grim battle ensued on both banks of the river and 62 British soldiers, 19 civilian drivers and an unknown number of Zulus were killed.
- The rebel chief Mbilini and the abaQulusi people who lived on the Hlobane plateau were rustling cattle from their neighbours and the British, so Col Wood decided to deprive them of their homes. The larger force under Col Buller would ascend the mountain from the east and a smaller force under Maj Russell would climb the lower and smaller mountain plateau - Ntendeka - in the west, and cross the Devil's Pass to the higher Hlobane plateau. The Devil's Pass proved to be impracticable for the force under Maj Russell and forced them to turn back. Meanwhile, Col Buller was reconnoitering, whilst moving most of his force along the higher plateau and leaving a small rearguard on the eastern feature. This was done despite low clouds and thunderstorms. This enabled the Zulus to rout Buller's rearguard, recover their cattle and force the British to withdraw in disarray across Devil's Pass and down Ntendeka. Ninety-four British troops were killed and many wounded. Wood's irregulars were so demoralised that they deserted.
- While Col Wood was trying to extract his force from Hlobane, he was informed that a Zulu army of some 20 000 had been seen passing some few miles south of the mountain. Instead of attacking the disorganised British columns, they chose to attack the British camp on the west/east crest of the Khambula ridge early in the afternoon of the next day. Despite Cetshwayo's explicit orders that an entrenched British force was NOT to be attacked, the young warriors of the inGobamakwesi led by isiCwelecwele did just that. At about 19:30, sensing that the Zulu were about to retreat, Col Wood turned his cavalry loose. The Zulu retreat turned into a rout and no prisoners were taken. British losses were some 29 killed and 45 injured, while Zulu losses were some 2 000 Zulu warriors killed.

Our speaker then described the second invasion, during which the Prince Imperial of France, Louis Napoleon, was killed. He and an escort of six cavalrymen had ridden out in front of their column to make sketches. They stopped for coffee and were ambushed by a Zulu scouting party, during which Prince Louis was killed. The Prince's death caused a greater furore than the massacre at Isandhlwana back in England, both publicly and politically. Prime Minister Disraeli lamented in the House of Commons on the remarkable Zulus who "convert our bishops, defeat our generals and put an end to a great European dynasty"!

As the British forces advanced into Zululand, they followed a scorched earth policy, burning huts and crops and destroying food stocks. Cetshwayo attempted to negotiate but Chelmsford replied by offering unacceptable terms. He wanted to inflict a final defeat on the Zulus before the arrival of his successor, Sir Garnet Wolseley, who was en route on the high seas. Despite the victories at Gingindlovu and Khambula, the war seemed no nearer to conclusion.

On 27 June, Cetshwayo made one final attempt to negotiate by sending emissaries with two enormous elephant tusks and 150 head of cattle, captured at Isandhlwana. Chelmsford accepted the cattle but refused the tusks and said that his earlier terms could not be changed. The deadline for acceptance was now 3 July. When no reply was received, the British drove the 150 head of cattle back over the Umfolozi River.

The British Second Division crossed the Umfolozi River and advanced on Cetshwayo's capital, Ulundi. On a reasonably flat area on the opposite side of the river, the British formed their traditional defensive battle formation, the hollow square. The square then marched to a favourable position which the cavalry had reconnoitered the previous day, some 21/2 kilometres west of Ulundi. Mounted troops under Col Buller then rode out and provoked the Zulus into an attack. They were drawn nearer to the square. At 09:35, Chelmsford ordered the 17th Lancers to attack from the rear of the square and, shortly thereafter, Col Buller's mounted men of the Flying Column and Natal Mounted Volunteers pursued the fleeing Zulus who had been repulsed by fire from the square. Again no quarter was given. British losses were 13 dead and 60 wounded while up to 1 500 Zulus died.

Our speaker concluded his presentation with a photograph of Ulundi nine months after the battle. All that remained of King Cetshwayo's capital was the lines of Zulu dead and burnt stubble. The people, the cattle, their impressive military barracks, their homes and their hope had all gone. The Anglo-Zulu War was over - but yet there was no peace in Zululand.

Major Gordon thanked Mr Mountain for another enthralling, superbly researched and deeply moving lecture and presented him with the customary gift.



We welcome Mr R P K Muller who joined the Society recently. We hope to see him at our monthly lectures.

On a sadder note, we note the passing of one of our Rosedale members, Mr Dennis Fenn, who passed away last week after a short illness. Our condolences go to his widow and family. Members will remember him as the SA Legion member who used to sell books at some of our talks.

The Treasurer thanks all those members who have paid their subscriptions. Renewal advices have been posted to members who are still outstanding.





Maj Römer-Heitman's annual strategic review of the military and political situation in Africa is always well-received and this year it should be no exception, especially in view of the events in North Africa at the beginning of this year, which have unfolded with such rapidity in a matter of months. Of particular interest, amongst other issues, will again be his analysis of the piracy problem in the Indian Ocean that is slowly but surely creeping southwards - exactly as he predicted in 2010! From the attendance figures of his previous talks it is easy to predict that it will be no different this year - bear in mind that we have only limited parking and seating available, please arrive early, so as to avoid disappointment.


Our speaker is well-known in aviation circles and is currently also the chairman of the Friends of the SAAF Museum locally. Being an avid aviation enthusiast since an early age, he is well-read and very knowledgeable on aviation history and aircraft types. As September will also be the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, it is only appropriate that we decided to choose this particular topic to coincide with the anniversary, being presented by a speaker who is without a doubt well-qualified to do justice to such a complex and contentious subject. He also intimated that it will be a tale with a twist in the tail!


Our speaker will be addressing a little-known topic that will be of great interest to members and visitors alike - it deals the clandestine side of operations during South Africa's Border War and the conflict in Angola. Rear Adm (JG) Arne Soderlund is currently researching this subject in depth as co-author of a forthcoming book dealing with the maritime special operations during the conflict in question.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)


Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)


South African Military History Society /