South African Military History 


Newsletter No 79/Nuusbrief Nr 79 April 2011

SAMHSEC's 14 March 2011 meeting in Port Elizabeth opened with the last in Mike Duncan's series on medals awarded to Port Elizabeth men. Brig J.H. Burger volunteered for service in the SA Artillery in January 1940 having served in the Active Citizen Force prior to this. He was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant and and served in East Africa and the Western Desert. He was present at Sidi Rezegh and El Alamein. For efficient service during this time, he was awarded the MBE. After attending the Staff Course in Palestine, he was promoted to Major and transferred to HQ 6 SA Armd Div to prepare for the invasion of Italy. For his service in Italy he was awarded the OBE. After the war, he joined the Permanent Force and attended courses in the UK and the USA, where he qualified as a paratrooper. He held various posts in South Africa, including OC Eastern Province Command. He organised the Republic Day Parade in Pretoria in 1966 to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the RSA. Brig Burger died of a heart attack during the parade. His medals are the Southern Cross Medal, OBE, MBE, PF Long Service Medal, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star (8th Army Clasp), Italy Star, Defence Medal, War Medal (Mentioned in Despatches Clasp), Africa Service Medal and the Efficiency Medal. (Scribe's note: Mike's series is to be followed by members' presentations on the military service of family members. Anyone interested in doing such a presentation is invited to approach the Scribe).

The AGM confirmed that SAMHSEC is to maintain course and speed. The 2010 committee was re-elected in toto, not surprising as there were no other nominations. Some committee members will continue to perform more than one function. Other members are encouraged to make themselves available for committee service. A lady (or two or more) on the committee would be particularly welcome in what has been and continues to be an entirely male affair.

The main lecture by Rick van Heerden was The Fall of France in 1940 part 2. While the BEF and some of Gamelin's best divisions were holding Army Group B in the Gembloux gap, the main German thrust came through the Ardennes forest in Luxembourg. von Rundstedt's Army Group A crossed the Meuse at Dinant, Monthermé and Sedan, north of the Maginot Line. Despite evidence of a possible large-scale attack in this area, these sectors were thinly held and only partially fortified. Guderian's XIX Corps arrived at Sedan on the morning of 13 May. The Luftwaffe mounted an intensive aerial bombardment on the French positions, which were held by under-equipped and poorly trained reservists of the 55th and 71st Inf Divs, whose morale collapsed. The 1st Panzer Div, spearheaded by the infantry of the Grossdeutschland Regiment, established a bridgehead across the Meuse, with tanks lagging behind. Only the following morning did French light tanks manage a poorly co-ordinated counterattack at Bulson, by which time the German tanks had arrived.

Throughout the campaign, the French were disorganised, slow to respond and weighed down by centralised command. By contrast German mission tactics demanded local initiative and immediate action. Over the next two days Guderian consolidated his bridgehead. Allied bombers attempted to destroy bridges, suffering severe losses in the process. The slow and outdated Fairey Battles were particularly vulnerable, while German Panzer Divs were well supplied with anti-aircraft weapons and the Luftwaffe ever-present. The Germans looked as if they might be threatening the rear of the Maginot Line or Paris. Guderian's goal was actually to cut off the Allied forces in Belgium. On 14 May the 1st and 2nd Panzer Divs wheeled west while the Grossdeutschland Regiment and 10th Panzer Div covered the left flank. von Rundstedt's armour commander, von Kleist, was wary of a French counter-attack from the south and tried to restrain Guderian. Fear of a French counter-attack from the south became a source of concern, even paranoia, to Hitler and others and led to several "halt-orders".

The 3rd Armoured Div (DCR) took days to deploy at Sedan, with confusion whether tanks should be deployed at intervals along a defensive line or concentrated for counterattack. An extended tank battle developed around the town of Stonne. The Char B proved invulnerable to German anti-tank guns and one rampaged through a German armoured column with impunity, but French tank superiority was not transformed into operational success. Further north at Monthermé, the French 102nd Fortress Div successfully held off Reinhardt's 6th and 8th Panzer Divs for two days, but eventually had to withdraw. Rommel's 7th Panzer Div surged across the Meuse at Dinant and bypassed the French 1st Armd Div at Flavion, leaving the 5th Panzer Div to meet the threat. The ensuing tank battle highlighted the inadequacy of French tactics. Using radios, which the French lacked, German tanks could co-operate with each other, thus negating the French superior firepower and armour.

By 15 May Panzer Group Kleist had torn a hole 100 kilometres wide in the French line and was sweeping westwards. Once the breakthrough had been achieved, the French lacked reserves to stem the flow. The 2nd DCR had been ordered north and then back again. It was directly in the path of the German thrust, but its units were dispersed, with tanks separated from fuel carriers and still on railway trucks. On the 17th a hastily formed 4th DCR under de Gaulle counterattacked from Laon without concerted support, but surprised the 1st Panzer Div HQ at Montcornet. Fearful of the unprotected flank, Hitler and von Rundstedt ordered Guderian to pause. However, the order still allowed reconnaissance and Guderian put himself beyond reach of his superiors by switching to telephone communications!

A combined Allied counter-attack with pincers from north and south never materialised as a result of poor overall co-ordination and mis-communication. On 21May an Allied column did disrupt infantry of the 7th Panzer and elements of the SS Totenkopff Div at Arras. British Mark II Matildas were halted only when Rommel turned AA guns (including 88's) on them. By 24 May German tanks had reached Calais on the English Channel, cutting off 250 000 Allied troops in Belgium. A further highly controversial halt-order from von Rundstedt and Hitler allowed an evacuation by sea from Dunkirk. Arguably, had the BEF not escaped, Britain would have sued for peace.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on 11 April 2011 at the usual venue. The curtain raiser by Mike Duncan will be on Major Allister Miller. The main lecture by Lawrie Wilmot will be World War 2: the secret war, focusing on 6 inventions which influenced the course of the war. The World at War episode will be Barbarossa - June to December 1941.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

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