South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 11 August 2011 was Major Helmoed Romer-Heitman whose topic was his annual strategic overview of the military and political situation in Africa. This year, instead of confining himself to Africa, he started with a review of the changing political/strategic situation in the world in 2011.

He introduced his illustrated talk by reminding us of President Bush's words of "a kinder, gentler world". This was before 9/11 and the attacks on the World Trade Centre - after these the 600-pound gorilla woke up! He showed slides of the most recent technological advances which enable a USAF B-1B bomber to spend 8 to 12 hours loitering at 40 000 feet above Afghanistan, providing almost instantaneous support of the troops on the ground. Thus aerial support is but a radio call away, guaranteeing the ground troops tailor-made support in the form of a variety of guided bombs - or a mixture of various types as the situation demands - all within the space of a few minutes from the time the call went out! As deploying and maintaining sophisticated bombers and their crews thousands of kilometres away from their support bases, aerial support is a highly taxing and prohibitively expensive endeavour. To offset the wear and tear and maintenance costs on sophisticated and prohibitively expensive aircraft as well as the need for highly-trained and skilled aircrew, the US Air Force has developed remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) - military jargon for remote radio-controlled airplanes, commonly known as drones. These drones, known as Predator drones, fly over Afghanistan and are remotely controlled via satellite link by skilled operators from Nevada while sitting in an air-conditioned "office" enabling them to control the plane and monitoring the ground situation in the greatest of comfort. The highly-sophisticated gadgetry enable them to see everything what is happening on the ground below the plane via high-resolution video cameras and firing missiles at ground targets in almost real-time, while communicating with the troops on the ground at the same time!

Aircraft optics are now so good that an Afghan guerrilla hiding behind a pick-up truck with an RPG-7 rocket launcher can be detected by an aircraft flying at 7 600m / 25 000 feet. Communications discipline amongst the Taliban is notoriously poor due to the fact that cell phones are extensively used to communicate, issue orders or direct operations. With the latest technology it is possible to eavesdrop on conversations on these phones and take appropriate action. The Taliban are aware of this and offset these shortcomings to their advantage by purposely issuing spurious orders or spreading false information knowing that their communications are constantly being monitored. Of late the Taliban are using more sophisticated weaponry and electronic gadgetry.

The international balance-of-power status quo, prevailing before the fall of Communism, dominated by the two major world powers, Russia and the USA, has long disappeared. There are now a number of other countries vying for superpower status, namely India, China, Brazil - in addition to the USA and Russia. They are all in the race together with Korea (especially if North and South can iron out their differences and get to bed with one another) and Indonesia following not far behind. Europe could be a contender if it could sort out its political peculiarities and differences. Pakistan is playing a spoiling game against India and vice versa.

The Chinese powerhouse - economically and militarily - are making their neighbours very uneasy and this could affect us here in South Africa. They regard the South China Seas as their own private pond and react strongly to any territorial ambitions from their maritime neighbours in the region. The discovery of oil in this area has increased regional tensions and all sorts of countries are now getting - or trying to get - involved. Combating piracy in the region is forcing nations relying on sea transport of raw materials and export products to take active measures to protect their shipping and crews in international waters. The Japanese have a squadron of aircraft based in the area monitoring their tankers and the Vietnamese are also involved. Further to the west, in South Asia, India is paranoid about China and is fixated on the idea that China is trying to "surround" it (hem it in) economically and militarily.

Our speaker noted that Europe, North and South America, Australasia and most of Asia were either developed or in the process of developing into "proper" economies. Only Africa had made little progress, for various reasons, e.g. corruption, incompetent leaders, etc. He explained why the Chinese were so interested in the "big black hole of Africa". Two reasons are oil and food. China has made huge progress in converting the poor into middle class, but some 3 to 400 million poor peasants remain - for whatever reason mostly uneducated. They are hard-working people and provide a huge labour force for infrastructure being constructed by Chinese companies in Africa. Large tracts of fertile land have been leased or purchased from the host country. Construction workers do not normally go back to China. They stay to work the land and provide a market for Chinese manufactures. China's big rival in Africa is India. They are interested in raw materials and trade but not colonisation. Others interested in Africa are the Europeans (looking for a prosperous Africa thus less illegal immigration to Europe), the US (interested in oil and other strategic raw materials) and Brazil (interested in trade and also investment).

The sale of African land to other countries is not popular among the African population. In Madagascar, land was sold to Saudi Arabia and this caused a coup d'etat.

Maj Heitman then went on to discuss international terrorism, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated in its methods. Recent terrorist attacks have followed this trend and have caused large numbers of casualties, at a level that only proper armed forces were able to inflict in the past. In earlier hijackings the aircraft always landed safely - the hi-jackers were as keen as the captive passengers to reach terra firma, but after 9/11 this took a ominous turn....! The use of poison gas in Japan and the train attacks in Spain and the UK are part of the new strategy. Our speaker noted that the leader cadres of these groups are well educated and often stem from the upper middle class of society. The 9/11 attacks originated in Afghanistan, were planned and coordinated in Hamburg and finally mounted in the USA. He warned that giving in to terrorist demands would only encourage them to strike again.

Our speaker gave an overview of recent terrorist attacks during the past two decades. He reflected on the case of the US Navy destroyer USS Cole [which] had been extremely badly damaged while docked at the port of Aden to refuel in October 2000. The destroyer was so badly damaged internally that logic dictated that it be scrapped, but it was only national pride that resulted in her being repaired. Terrorism and banditry in Africa have reached new levels of sophistication - in imitation of foreign military advisors, some terrorists have "repackaged" their image and status as so-called "Technical Advisors"! These self-styled "Advisors" vary in appearance and attire but, despite their sometimes comic opera appearance, are well capable of conducting military operations and act with deadly efficiency in combat situations.

Maj Heitman then discussed the urban battlefield and noted that fighting in any city is messy, difficult and complex. He showed pictures of Gaza, Georgia and Iran and explained that it was very difficult to attack a target without killing or wounding innocent bystanders or neighbours of the enemy. So too, with everyone dressed the same, it is easy to drop a bomb or fire a missile at the wrong house. In this type of modern warfare, a bad press must be avoided. Also, in primitive townships with open sewers and other health hazards, soldiers risk serious illness or death.

Maj Heitman showed us photographs of the latest audiovisual battlefield aids which transmit pictures of the areas around the battlefield. Other devices enable a ground controller and the pilot of an aircraft to view the target and effectively interact to decide which type of munitions (bomb(s) or missile) should be used to destroy the target. This also helps to avoid "Blue on Blue" attacks on own troops, also known as "friendly fire" errors.

Our speaker then noted that the distinction between terrorism and large-scale crime was becoming increasingly blurred, especially in Africa. Bandits, rustlers, poachers and drug smugglers are another very serious threat in Africa. Illegal mining, logging and fishing activities are robbing countries in Africa of their rich maritime, mineral and natural resources and the taxes levied on the exploitation of these invariably gets channeled into other "pockets" rather than contribute towards raising the living and health standards of the inhabitants of the country in question.

One of the worst areas for concern is international drug smuggling, with huge quantities of cocaine being smuggled from Columbia to Guinea-Bissau in Africa and from there to North Africa for onward transmission to the USA or Europe. Money is spent extremely freely and airstrips are built for Boeing 727s which fly the drugs in to Africa. The money involved is on such a lavish scale that sometimes these aircraft are often viewed as expandable and destroyed after the flight! Glass-fibre submarines are also used in these operations. The drug trade is worth billions so the best and most up-to-date technology is readily available.

Major Heitman mentioned the short-sighted, but ostensibly well-meant pleas of people such as arms deal activist Terry Crawford-Browne's plea for countries to scrap their armed forces! He pointed out that, as an example, a country such as Costa Rica, which had none, had been forced to obtain help from the Americans to combat the drug smugglers. Our speaker also reminded the audience of the well-known proponent of enlightened absolutism and Prussian King, Frederick the Great, who once said that "every country will have an army - if not its own, it will have a foreign army on its soil"!

Next our speaker discussed the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where a South African battalion is currently serving with the assistance of two companies of Namibian and Zambian troops. Other South African troops are serving in Eritrea.

In North Africa, the Egyptian and Tunisian military are supporting the nation and not the government, whereas in Libya the army is supporting Gadaffi. Maj Heitman pointed out tribal loyalties played a part in this.

The South African Navy is now carrying out anti-piracy patrols in the Mozambique Channel. In Nigeria the fishing industry, which is very important to the economy, is suffering greatly because of piracy. The Seychelles, Madagascar and Comores are under-populated and under policed (with small and inefficient armed forces) and are a new area in which piracy is spreading. Off Tanzania there is an upsurge of piracy. In all areas pirates are becoming bolder and are now sinking ships and killing crews. Inflatable rubber boats are used and when these are overloaded they often sink - to the surprise of the pirates.

The last ten years in Burundi and Rwanda have been mostly peaceful. The South African contingent there has done a good job of peacekeeping and its unit structure, organization and standard operating procedures have been good.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Indian contingent and the South African battalion have served for ten years. Because of the size of the country, many problems have not yet been resolved.

South Africa also has a battalion in Darfur. The vehicles used by our troops are soft-skinned and do not offer [protection] against ambushes or landmines. The bad guys here are the Sudanese Liberation Army who are well-armed and pretty violent towards the civilian populace. Maj Heitman pointed out that some of the bad guys are extremely well-trained and have officers who were trained at the US War College. The Sudan and the new South Sudan are potential trouble areas as are Ethiopia and Eritrea and the non-country of Somalia, main home of the pirates.

South Africa was called upon at short notice to provide two companies for the elections in the Comores. These were sent within 72 hours by the operations staff under Rear Admiral Phillip Scholtz. Special forces also accompanied Pres Zuma as bodyguards on his visit to Libya.

Maj Heitman explained that peacekeeping operations can be very scary and very messy when things go wrong and the peacekeepers are not properly armed to defend themselves adequately.

He then discussed South Africa's status as a regional power and the choices facing the country. We are not living in an era of one thousand years of peace! If we want stability and foreign investment we need to find more money to provide the personnel to meet our commitments, which now include border patrol which the Police were totally unable to provide and which are now the Army's responsibility.

He explained that the need for personnel to be rotated, attend promotion courses and other training courses, go on leave and enjoy family life, etc., necessitated having greater numbers of troops under arms than we do currently have. The same applies to equipment and weapons. He noted that the SAAF has problems of size and inadequate budget. It needs more money for fuel to enable its pilots to fly at least 100 hours per annum (NATO allows for 240 flying hours per annum and the SAAF budget only allows for 46 hours!!). As a result pilots become demotivated and disillusioned and are resigning. The budget is, as in all branches of the SANDF, not adequate and is being wasted to keep a far too large force of generals and colonels in employment.

We have some excellent people. Maj Heitman noted that the ship procurement project led by Rear Adm (JG) Kammerman was extremely efficient and included supplies of spare parts as aresult of for foresight and proper planning. Unfortunately increases in personnel costs will swallow a bigger and bigger percentage of the Defence Budget in future unless the amounts provided are increased and/or an effort is made to right size senior (and expensive) ranks.

Maj Heitman pointed out that, unless its numbers and budget are not increased, the SANDF will soon no longer be a real defence force. Money is needed for training at all levels, for the purchase of spares and ammunition, the updating of vehicles and provision of replacements for the Ratel Armoured Personnel Carrier, other combat vehicles and weaponry. We have some very professional people in the SANDF and we must keep these but this will be difficult unless proper and realistic budgeting are not provided for.

A number of questions were asked by members of the audience. In response to one, Maj Heitman noted that two of our three submarines were operational, one on patrol in the Mozambique Channel, the other on training exercises. The third is on a planned refit programme. This compares very well with the Canadians (four submarines, none operational) and Australia (six submarines, none operational). Their building programmes were both heavily over budget and behind schedule.

Another member of the audience queried who was controlling piracy on the East Coast of Africa. Our speaker noted that pirates were attacking ships over a huge area covering the Gulf, Red Sea, Indian Ocean - right down to Tanzania and as faraway as the Seychelles and the Comores. This required the supply of pirate boats, good communication and intelligence, all these beyond the capabilities of Somali pirates. It is thought that someone in the UAE is at the helm of the piracy efforts and there is even a rumour the control is exercised from New York! Certainly the use of sophisticated communications equipment and radar is lending credence to these theories. Finally, the convoy system has been proposed to shipowners, but they are loath to accept this.

The Treasurer, Bob Buser, thanked our speaker for another excellent talk and complimented him on a thought-provoking and informative lecture - as well as very entertaining, and presented him with the customary gift.



It is our sad duty to report that the wife of fellow-member, Mr Hugh Munro, has recently passed away after a long sickbed. On behalf of our members we would like to offer our sincere condolences to Mr Munro, the children and family members, with their sad loss.

We welcome Mr Ian van Oordt who joined our Branch recently and look forward to welcoming him at future meetings.

We thank those members who have paid their subscriptions recently and urge those who have not yet paid to please do so as soon as possible.





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.

10 NOVEMBER 2011: FOR KAISER AND HITLER: FROM MILITARY AVIATOR TO HIGH COMMAND - The Memoirs of Luftwaffe General Alfred Mahncke 1910-1945 by Jochen (John) Mancke

Life-member John (Jochen) Mahncke is no stranger to society members; having been Chairman of the Gauteng Branch before moving to Cape Town where he subsequently acted as Vice-Chairman and Scribe of the Cape Town Branch for many years, he has been a highly popular and respected member with members of both branches throughout the years of his tireless involvement. Well-known for his articles in the SAMHS Journal and his numerous talks relating to early German aviation as well as aspects of his father's life, it is as translator/compiler of his late father's memoirs of the same title as in the subject heading, that Mr Mahncke has risen to new prominence as author of a book that was published to international acclaim and recognition. As is the case with many non-fiction books, especially on historical topics, a lot of information invariably is left unsaid, for brevity's sake. Such is the case with his father's memoirs. His lecture will be structured so as to elucidate his father's military career from pre-WWI up and to WWII, as told in his book. For members that have had the foresight to purchase a copy in the recent past few months - and have read it - the lecture will surely prove to be as informative and enjoyable as the book has been.


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


Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)


South African Military History Society /