South African Military History 


Newsletter No 78 March/Nuusbrief Nr 78 Maart 2011

SAMHSEC's 14 February 2011 meeting in Port Elizabeth opened with Mike Duncan's series on medals awarded to Port Elizabeth men. C.F. Bridgwood served in the Anglo-Boer War as a corporal in the South Staffordshire Regiment. On cessation of hostilities, he bought his discharge. At the outbreak of WW1, he served with Kaffrarian Rifles in German South West Africa. He then joined the Permanent Force as an instructor with the rank of WO1 and was seconded to Prince Alfred's Guard. On retiring from the PF, he joined PAG and served as RSM for five years before being commissioned as the Quartermaster in 1936. On account of his age, he did not go on active service with the Regiment, but served in the PE Drill Hall for the duration of WW2 before finally retiring. His medal group is Queen's South Africa medal with 6 clasps, King's South Africa medal with 2 two clasps, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal, WW2 War Medal, Africa Service Medal, Permanent Forces of the Empire Beyond the Seas Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal. The clasps on his QSA medal are, however, suspect because no QSA can have both the Cape Colony and Natal clasps, the South Staffordshire Regiment did not qualify for all the clasps on the medal and the rivets on the clasps are not original. (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 curtain raiser by Ian Copley was The Story of a Piece of Shrapnel. During the Angolan conflict, a shell fired from a Soviet tank penetrated a South African armoured vehicle, wounding the driver in the face. When casevaced, the driver was ambulant and, apart from his facial injury, which included the loss of an eye, could not remember his force number. At 1 Military Hospital, investigations showed a large piece of metal embedded in his face extending into the temporal lobe of the brain. A wide exposure was needed to remove the palm-sized object and close the defect. As the metal had been hot, the surrounding tissues did not survive. Several debridements were needed, resulting in the inside of the brain being visible through the facial defect. A remarkable thing was seen on the next CT: the temporal lobe had rotated and presented a smooth surface to the exterior allowing a split skin graft to be placed directly onto the brain, which was a procedure not previously described. A prosthesis unit could then make a combined closure mould, including an artificial eye, held in place by spectacles with perfect skin match. About this time, General Geldenhuys' ADC visited the neurosurgery unit and took the piece of shrapnel away with him. When Ian's patient was presented with his campaign medal, he was also presented with the piece of shrapnel, gold-plated and mounted on a wooden shield. So far as Ian knows, this is the only piece of military debris so honoured!

The main lecture by Rick van Heerden was The Fall of France in 1940 part 1, with part 2 to follow in March. In WW1 the French Army held off the Germans for four years. In 1940, it had a considerable reputation, but was defeated in six weeks. What happened?
The French had paid dearly for victory in WW1. The inter-war period had seen ongoing internal political strife and a succession of governments. It has been argued that the French nation was divided and demoralized in 1940 and that this was the cause of defeat. French and German forces in 1940 were fairly evenly matched and, in some areas, the French had a marked superiority. French military doctrine tended to be conservative, but the German High Command was divided on doctrinal issues.

The German plan of attack was initially modest, aiming only to secure the Belgian coast as a springboard for attacks on England. Von Manstein is credited with the idea of a feint into Belgium to draw in the bulk of French and British forces, while the main attack, spearheaded by concentrated German armour, would penetrate through Luxembourg and the Ardennes and advance to the coast to cut off the Allied armies in Belgium.

Although the possibility of a German thrust through the Ardennes had not been discounted, the French Commander-in-Chief, Gamelin, was confident that the attack would come through Belgium, along the lines of the Schlieffen Plan of 1914. Gamelin planned to move into Belgium to occupy a defensive line along the Dyle River and southwards, while his mobile reserve moved to Breda in the north to link up with the Dutch Army, thus establishing a continuous line of defence from the Dutch coast to the Swiss border. Gamelin's motives were political as well as military: he wanted the Belgians and Dutch to feel that they had a stake in a combined effort against the Germans.

In the event, the Dutch were cut off by German airborne units and retired northwards to Rotterdam. The Belgians barely delayed the German advance long enough to allow the French and British time to occupy the Dyle Line. Prioux's 2nd and 3rd French Light Armoured units, deployed in a screening role, encountered Hoepner's 4th and 5th Panzer Divisions at the battles of Hannut and the Gembloux Gap in the first major tank battles of WW2. German tanks, especially the Panzer I's and II's, were under-gunned and under-armoured and their tactics were inconsistent. The French SOMUA tank performed well, but the French tanks lacked radios and the one-man turrets were a problem. Both sides suffered serious losses and, although stopped, the Germans accomplished their mission to tie down the Allied forces in Belgium while penetration was achieved further south at Sedan and Meziéres. Moreover, Gamelin's mobile reserve had been wasted in a futile expedition into Holland and Prioux's armour was no longer in any state to influence the main German thrust further south.

The Chairman's & Treasurer's 2010 reports and nominations received for the 2011 SAMHSEC committee are attached. Other members are encouraged to make themselves available for committee service, particularly in vacant portfolios. SAMHSEC needs new blood on the committee and willing horses should not be flogged to death. A lady (or two or more) on the committee would add charm to what has to date been a entirely male affair.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on 14 March 2011 at the usual venue. Following the AGM, the main lecture will be The Fall of France in 1940 Part 2 by Rick van Heerden. The World at War episode will be "Alone in Britain May 1940 - June 1941.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

South African Military History Society /