South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 427
September 2011

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

The Darrell Hall Memorial talk was presented by fellow member Mikhail Peppas on "The Thukela; Revisited."
When the Anglo-Boer War broke out on 11 October 1899, the Boers laid siege to Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking. Britain meanwhile transported thousands of troops both from the United Kingdom itself and from elsewhere in the Empire and by the time the siege of Ladysmith had been lifted, had a huge numeric superiority. The Colony of Natal was bisected from east to west by the Tugela River which rose in the Drakensberg (to the west) and flowed into the Indian Ocean to the east. The colony was bisected from north to south by the railway line that linked Durban and Johannesburg and crossed the river at Colenso. The main Boer force under the command of General Piet Joubert invaded the Colony of Natal. Ranged against them, the British had 13,000 men under the command of Lieutenant General Sir George White in Ladysmith. White set about defending his position at Ladysmith (some 20 km north of the Tugela River. By the 2nd November 1899, the 118 day siege of Ladysmith began.

On the day that the encirclement of Ladysmith was completed, reinforcements headed by General Sir Redvers Buller arrived in Cape Town. By the middle of December, British and Empire troops were pouring into the Colony and Buller moved his headquarters northwards to Frere. Buller's first attempt to relieve White was the Battle of Colenso (15th December 1899). From the British point of view, the battle was a fiasco. On the western flank the British forces suffered considerable losses when the Irish Brigade were trapped in a loop in the river 3 km upstream from Colenso. Seven Victoria Crosses were awarded for gallantry during the battle. Reinforcements continued to pour into Natal and with the arrival of Sir Charles Warren's division, Buller had 28,000 men under his command. The next battle was fought at iNthabamnyama (20th to 22nd January 1900) followed by Spioenkop (24th January 1900) and Vaalkrans (5th to 7th February 1900). Buller tried to force a bridgehead across the Tugela River. The final great battle (the Thukela Heights - 12th to 28th February 1900) resulted in the Relief of Ladysmith. Buller made his formal entry into the town on the 3rd March 1900.

The main talk was presented by fellow member Robin Smith entitled "The Raid on Surprise Hill by 2nd Bn. The Rifle Brigade."
On the night of 10th December 1899 the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade launched an attack on a troublesome Boer gun on Surprise Hill, to the north of Ladysmith. This followed a successful foray by the Colonial troops, the Imperial Light Horse, Natal Carbineers and the Border Mounted Rifles on three Boer guns on Gun Hill three nights previously. In 1899 the Colony of Natal's borders were very different from the provincial borders of today. The districts of Vryheid and Utrecht, which had constituted the New Republic, merged with the Transvaal in 1881 which became the South African Republic.
These borders meant that the defence of the northern portion of Natal was problematic. Newcastle and the territory north of Dundee could easily be cut off by Boer forces advancing from the Orange Free State to the west and the Transvaal to the east. In Dundee, Major General Sir William Penn Symons, boasting that he had no plan for the defence of Dundee, made no attempt to fortify the town. A frontal attack on the Boers who occupied Talana Hill in the early morning of 20th October 1899 was successful. The Boers retreated but Penn Symons was mortally wounded and his force suffered 500 casualties, most of them wounded or captured. The remaining 4000 artillery, cavalry and infantry had no alternative but to retire back into Ladysmith. The march took three days, not a man was lost, and these men were a welcome reinforcement for Lieutenant General Sir George White's Ladysmith garrison. Even more valuable were the 18 guns that came too. Ladysmith was cut off and surrounded by the Boer armies of the South African Republic and that of the Orange Free State.
Sir George White, the British commander of the Natal Field Force, had resolved to deny this important strategic town and rail junction to the Boers. Every part of the town was soon within range of Boer artillery. That there were not more casualties was the result of the civilian population digging themselves into shelters and caves along the high banks of the Klip River. The soldiers dug trenches and built sangars and were sheltered behind stone walls. The 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade on King's Post, in an exposed position and vulnerable to artillery fire from the hills to the west, north and south, built bomb-proof shelters and covered pits against shrapnel. Nevertheless, they had to seek rapid shelter when a shell was fired. A Krupp 12cm howitzer weighed close to a ton and was drawn by a team of twelve mules. To succeed in dragging it up the reverse slope of Surprise Hill was a considerable feat. The reverse slope of the hill is considerably less steep than the front but nevertheless it took considerable resource and ingenuity to get it up onto the fairly flat but very rocky summit. It was done without the British realising, until it opened fire, that there was even a gun on Surprise Hill.
Several redoubts were built out of the rock existing on the hilltop and the gun may have fired from at least two positions. The provision of ammunition was a serious difficulty. Each round weighed 35 pounds and would have to be brought from Modderspruit Station and carried up to the hilltop. Possibly local black people were employed for this laborious task. This clearly explains why the gun fired only intermittently even though it could easily hit any target in Ladysmith. White at first was dead set against any actions involving raids outside the defence lines against the Boer besiegers. A number of British officers advocated aggressive action against Boer gun positions. The commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Metcalfe, proposed to White that he attack the guns on Surprise Hill, a steep hill to the north west of Ladysmith. The Krupp howitzer outranged all of the British field guns in Ladysmith, except for their 4.7 inch Naval gun for which there was very little ammunition. The force marched slowly so as to avoid the searchlight and halted in dead ground when the moon broke through the clouds. The railway line to Harrismith, which crossed the valley in front of their objective, was their first serious obstacle. By the time they were half way up, any idea of not being heard seemed out of the question, as the noise of the constant clatter of men slipping and stumbling sounded terrific to their ears. Only very near the top was there a challenge from a Boer sentry - "Wer da?" repeated twice and followed by a shot from his rifle. Metcalfe, as had been pre-arranged, shouted out "Fix bayonets!" and the Riflemen gave wild cheer and charged over the crest.
The gun was not in the emplacement which caused a little stir with the attackers until it was discovered a few yards away covered by a tarpaulin. Lieutenant Digby-Jones (R.E) and Major Wing (R.A.) set to work to place gun cotton charges in the barrel. The charges laid, the attackers waited for the explosion but evidently the first fuse was faulty. A second fuse was laid and this time the gun exploded with a huge roar. A further charge with a long fuse was laid so as to explode when once the Boers had returned to the emplacement. The order to retire was given and the retirement down the hill commenced. The men were in a jocular mood after what seemed to have been a totally successful [raid]. Laughing and joking they made their way towards Ladysmith and the safety of their camp. The Boers had been completely outwitted and the "good old Rifle Brigade" had triumphed. In fact, the Boers had been aroused and numbers of them had taken positions from both sides and were waiting to open fire on the retiring British. 15 men were killed or died of wounds, 31 were wounded and 6 were listed as captured

Fellow member Lt. Col. Dr Graeme Fuller presented a most comprehensive vote of thanks to both speakers for delivering two splendid renditions.

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Thursday 8th September 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 Chairman Bill Brady on "Mediterranean Naval Strategy, 1940-1943."

The Main Talk will be presented by guest speaker and Johannesburg Branch member, Alan Mantle on "The Suez Crisis."

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FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: October - December 2011.

13th October 2011
DDH - My Family in the Military 1799-1995 by Brian Thomas.
Main Talk - The Disputed Territory as a Cause of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 by Anthony Coleman

10th November 2011.
DDH - Delville Wood 2011 and the 3rd Battle of the Aisne 1918 by Lt Col Graeme Fuller
Main Talk - The Attack on Pearl Harbour (NB- 70th anniversary) by Capt (SAN) Brian Hoffman

8th December 2011
DDH - The Battle of el Alamein - I was there by Gordon Manton
followed by our Annual Cocktail function.

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South African Military History Society /