South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 423
May 2011

Contact: Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Bill Brady 031 561 5542
Society's web site address:

The AGM was chaired by vice chairman Dr. John Cooke. Bill Brady was re elected as chairman and Roy Bowman and Captain Brian Hoffman proposed and seconded to the committee.

The Darrell Hall Memorial talk was presented by fellow member Paul Kirk on "Jasper Maskelyne - the War Magician."

Jasper Maskelyne, was born in 1902 in England, a music hall conjurer, never fired a shot in battle, but his amazing feats played a key role in the Allied victory in Africa. Jasper Maskelyne was a British stage magician in the 1930s and 1940s. He was one of an established family of stage magicians, and could also trace his ancestry to the royal astronomer Nevil Maskelyne. He is most remembered, however, for the accounts of his work for British military intelligence during the Second World War, creating large-scale ruses, deception, and camouflage.

Maskelyne joined the Royal Engineers when the Second World War broke out, thinking that his skills could be used in camouflage. He convinced sceptical officers by creating the illusion of a German warship on the Thames using mirrors and a model. He was eventually deployed to the African theatre in the Western Desert, although he spent most of his time entertaining the troops. In January 1941, General Archibald Wavell created A Force for subterfuge and counterintelligence. Maskelyne was assigned to serve in it and gathered a group of 14 assistants, including an architect, art restorer, carpenter, chemist, electrical engineer, electrician, painter, and stage-set builder. It was nicknamed the Magic Gang. The Magic Gang built a number of illusions. They used painted canvas and plywood to make jeeps look like tanks with fake tank tracks and tanks look like trucks. They created illusions of armies and battleships. His largest illusion was to conceal Alexandria and the Suez Canal to misdirect German bombers. He built a mock up of the night-lights of Alexandria in a bay three miles away with fake buildings, and anti-aircraft batteries. To mask the Suez Canal he built a revolving cone of mirrors that created a wheel of a lighthouse spinning light nine miles, meant to dazzle and disorient enemy pilots so that their bombs would fall off-target. In 1942 he worked in Operation Bertram before the Battle of Alamein. His task was to make German Field Marshall think that the attack was coming from the south when British General Montgomery planned to attack from the north when British General Montgomery planned to attack from the north. In the north, 1,000 tanks were disguised as trucks. On the south, the Magic Gang created 2,000 fake tanks with convincing pyrotechnics. There was a fake railway line, fake radio conversations, and fake sounds of construction. They also built a fake water pipeline and made it look as if it would never be ready before attack.

The Magic Gang was disbanded after the battle and, although Winston Churchill praised his efforts, Maskelyne did not receive the appreciation he desired. Maskelyne tried to resume his stage career after the war without much success. He also published a book about his exploits, Magic: Top Secret in 1949. In 2002 The Guardian said: "Maskelyne received no official recognition. For a vain man this was intolerable. Very little verifiable evidence of Maskelyne's work during this period is documented, leading some researchers to believe that Maskelyne's claims are exaggerated or fabricated. He later moved to Kenya and founded a driving school. He died in 1973.

The standard Maskelyne account has been critically analysed by military historians and magicians and it is concluded that Maskelyne's wartime exploits have been heavily fictionalised.

The Main Talk was presented by guest speaker Prop Geldenhuys on "The Rhodesian War."
The Rhodesian War was a civil war in the former country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) fought from 1964 to 1979. The war and its subsequent settlement ultimately ended white minority rule under Ian Smith and resulted in the creation of the Republic of Zimbabwe under the leadership of Robert Mugabe. Despite the impact of economic and diplomatic sanctions, Rhodesia was able to develop and maintain a potent and professional military capability. The regular army was always a relatively small force, but by 1978-79 it consisted of some 10,800 regulars nominally supported by about 40,000 reservists, though by the last year of the war, perhaps as few as 15,000 were available for active service. While the regular army consisted of a professional core drawn from the white population, the majority of its complement was actually composed of black soldiers. The army reserves, in contrast, were largely white and, toward the end of the war, were increasingly being called up to deal with the growing insurgency. The regular army was supported by the para-military BSAP with a strength of about 8,000 to 11,000 men and supported by between 19,000 to 35,000 police reservists. The police reserves acted as type of home guard. The war saw the extensive operation of Rhodesian regulars as well as elite units such as the Selous Scouts and the Rhodesian SAS. The Rhodesian Army fought bitterly against the Black Nationalist. The Rhodesian Army also comprised mostly black regiments. As the war went on, the frequent call up of reservists was increasingly utilized to supplement the professional soldiers and the many volunteers from overseas. By 1978 all white males up to the age of 60 were subject to periodic call-up into the army; younger men up to 35 might expect to spend alternating blocks of six weeks in the army and at home

. The Rhodesian Army was, considering the arms embargo, well-equipped. The Rhodesian Air Force operated a variety of equipment and carried out numerous roles, with air power providing the Rhodesians with a significant advantage over their enemy. When the arms embargo was introduced, the RhAF was suddenly lacking spare parts from external suppliers and was forced to find alternative means of keeping their aircraft flying. The RhAF was also relatively well equipped and used a large proportion of equipment which was obsolete, such as the vintage Dakota transport aircraft and the early British jet-fighter the de Havilland Vampire. It also used more modern types of aircraft like the Hawker Hunter and Canberra bombers, the as well as Alouette 111 helicopters. At the beginning of the war much of Rhodesia's military hardware was of British origin but during the course of the conflict new equipment such as armoured cars were procured from the South Africans. Several captured Soviet Bloc tanks were provided to Rhodesia by the South Africans, though only in the last year of the war. The Rhodesians also produced some of their own armoured vehicles. The means with which the Rhodesians procured weaponry meant that the arms embargoes had little effect on the Rhodesian war effort. During the course of the war most white citizens carried personal weapons, and it was not unusual to see white housewives carrying sub machine guns.

The Rhodesian government divided the nation into eight geographical operational areas: North West Border (Operation Ranger), Eastern Border (Operation Thrasher), North East Border (Operation Hurricane), South East Border (Operation Repulse), Midlands (Operation Grapple), Kariba (Operation Splinter), Matabeleland (Operation Tangent). The fighting was largely rural, with both movements attempting to secure peasant support and to recruit fighters while harassing the administration and the white civilians. Unlike the town-dwellers, rural whites faced danger and many were killed but in 1979 there were still 6,000 white farmers. They were vulnerable every time they left the homestead. ZANLA was the armed wing of ZANU. The organization also had strong links with Mozambique's independence movement FRELIMO. ZANLA, in the end, was present on a more or less permanent basis in over half the country, as evidenced by the location of the demobilisation bases at the end of the war, which were in every province. In addition, they were fighting a civil war against ZIPRA, despite the formation of a joint front by their political parties after 1978. It was ZANLA's intention to occupy the ground, supplant the administration in rural areas, and then mount the final conventional campaign. ZANLA concentrated on the politicisation of the rural areas using force, persuasion, ties of kinship and collaboration with spirit mediums. ZANLA tried to paralyse the Rhodesian effort and economy by planting Soviet anti-tank land mines on the roads. From 1972 to 1980 there were 2,504 vehicle detonations of land mines (mainly Soviet TM46s). In response, the Rhodesians co-operated with the South Africans to develop a range of mine protected vehicles. They began by replacing air in tyres with water which absorbed some of the blast and reduced the heat of the explosion. Initially, they protected the bodies with steel deflector plates, sandbags and mine conveyor belting. Later, purpose built vehicles with V shaped blast hulls dispersed the blast and deaths in such vehicles became unusual events.

ZIPRA was responsible for two attacks on civilian Air Rhodesia Viscount airplanes using Sam 7 surface to air missiles. Ten out of the eighteen civilians on board who survived the first crash were subsequently killed by the ZIPRA militants. In his memoirs, Story of My Life (1985), Nkomo expressed regret for the shooting down of both planes, claiming ZIPRA intelligence believed the plane was carrying General Walls and his aides.

The vote of thanks was presented by Captain Brian Hoffman who thanked both speakers for their excellent and well prepared presentations.

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Thursday 12th May 2011 - 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 fellow member Roy Bowman on "The Tokyo Raid."
The Main Talk will be presented by fellow member Anthony Elworthy on "My father, Lord Elworthy."

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9th June:
DDH - "Letters from the front"
by Charles Whiteing.
Main Talk - "Cecil Rhodes's role in Southern African military history" by Maj Gen Chris le Roux.

14th July:
DDH - "Military Incidents"
by Marjory Dean.
Main Talk -. "Afghanistan - Axis of Terror" by Peter Williams.

11th August:
DDH - "The Thukela; Spionkop Revisited"
by Mikhail Peppas.
Main Talk - "The Raid on Surprise Hill by the 2nd Bn, The Rifle Brigade" by Robin Smith

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Branch Battlefield Tour.

The weekend of Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th August 2011 has been finalised for the annual Branch Battlefield Tour. As requested by a recent show of hands, this year we'll be focusing on the two battles at Colenso and the manner in which the tactics changed on both sides - especially the British. At this stage, we have the following presenters: Ken Gillings, Maj Gen Chris le Roux (tbc), Prof Philip Everitt and Roy Bowman. Further details will follow in subsequent newsletters.

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