South African Military History Society

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The October meeting was very well attended, despite the threat of inclement weather. The Chairlady, Marjorie Dean, opened the meeting with the usual notices. Members were reminded of the visit to Rustenburg on 13 October and past chairman Bob Smith came forward to give details of this tour and to remind members of the bargain cruise to St Helena in January. Booking for this cruise has now closed.

Other notices of interest included the Society's co-operation with the Heritage Foundation in the restoration of O'Neill's cottage in Natal and the recent erection of a monument to those killed in the Viscount crash in the then Rhodesia in the Bush War. The monument is situated at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria and was erected by the Flame Lily Association.

Members were also reminded of the monthly book sales, to which second-hand books of a military nature can be donated for augmenting the Museum's funds.

Marjorie then introduced the curtain-raising speaker for the evening. This was none other than her husband, Colin Dean, a former Chairman and regular speaker at the Society's meetings. The topic of his talk was "Operation Gauntlet - Fuel from the Arctic".

Operation Gauntlet was the code name given to the Allied invasion of Spitsbergen in 1941. Spitsbergen Island is part of Svalbard Archipelago, a group of island within the Arctic Circle and north of Norway, to which country the island belongs. It possesses vast seams of coal which have been mined since the early 1900s, the venture having been started by John Longyear and after whom the island's principle town, Longyearbyen, is named.

The island achieved military importance in 1940 after the German invasion of Norway, when it offered a potential haven for German naval forces astride the Arctic route to Murmansk and Archangel from the Atlantic. Britain and Russia agreed that the use of this strategic island should be denied to Germany and at the end of 1941 a British naval task force (Force K) arrived at Spitsbergen from Scapa Flow. They found a co-operative local population and no German forces. A Norwegian officer, Lt Tamber, was installed as the Allied representative and Force K, together with 70 Norwegian volunteers and a laden Norwegian collier, returned to Scapa Flow. On the way back, they detoured to Bear Island where they destroyed the weather station there and evacuated its Norwegian personnel.

The force returned to Spitsbergen on 26 August 1941. This time it was accompanied by a Canadian infantry battalion and a number of Allied support units. The operation went without a hitch and the island was rapidly occupied. The entire civilian population of over 2 000 men, women and children was evacuated to Archangel in the USSR, after which the Allied force methodically set about destroying the coal mines, fuel stocks and anything else which could be of value to the enemy. A motley collection of ships in the harbour was also captured and on 3 September the force departed, leaving the island with only a small group of allied soldiers to maintain a weather station, but otherwise of no use to the Germans.

In mid 1943, the Germans staged an invasion of Spitsbergen but withdrew after installing a weather station on nearby Hopen Island. The British accordingly strengthened the garrison on Spitsbergen but Hopen Island remained in German hands until after the war. Spitsbergen is once again a peaceful and productive coal mining area.

At the conclusion of this most interesting and well-illustrated talk, Marjorie announced the winner of this month's raffle - a four-DVD set entitled "Soldiers of the Red Army" which had been donated by Jan-Willem Hoorweg. The winner was the holder of ticket number 36, Mr. Stanton.

Because of unforseen circumstances, the main speaker for the evening was not in attendance. Marjorie called for a volunteer speaker and Bob Smith came to the rescue with an exceedingly humorous take on the situation of the Boer prisoners of war on St Helena during the Boer War.

The prisoners, of whom the most important was General Piet Cronje, were housed at Deadwood Camp and were well treated by Governor Shendale and his staff, as well as by the local population. Bob kept us chuckling as he described the attempts at escape and relations between the guards and their captors. There were also the usual instigators and ne'er-do-wells who were weeded out and placed in a separate camp. There were also the inevitable deaths in captivity and these unfortunate souls are buried in a well-maintained cemetery, which is today looked after by the South African Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Interestingly enough, there is still one resident of the island who can remember the Boers and this is the giant tortoise named Jonathon, still actively wandering around!

The original subject for the main lecture of the evening was "An update on the SA Navy" and as at the close of Bob's talk there were still a few minutes left to the normal "closing time", Marjorie called on past Chairman Ivor Little to use this time for a brief talk on the original subject.

Contrary to a widely-held belief, based on misleading articles in the press, the South African Navy is in good shape and things are not much different from Defence Minister Erasmus' tenure in the early 1950s, when the Nationalist Government embarked on a policy of "Afrikanerising" the SA Navy, with the same sort of bad press. Ultimately things settled down until the late 1990s and a similar upheaval, because of "correct representation". Ivor defined the parlous state of the SA Navy before the "Arms Deal", which has now revitalised the Navy. He also explained why the ships are used in groups of three. He touched on the high level of training in Germany when the ships were acquired, resulting in personnel losses because of poaching and head-hunting by private industry, and how and why ships are rotated for refit. He finished by outlining the Navy's plans for the 30-year period ahead and present-day deployment on anti-piracy patrols and in support of peace-keeping operations.

This brought the evening to a close and after all three speakers had been thanked by committee member David Scholtz, Marjorie announced tea and biscuits in the hall.

Ivor Little,


4th November 2012 - ZONDERWATER SERVICE

The President of the Zonderwater Block ex-POWs Association, Dr Emilio Coccia, advises that the Annual Remembrance Service commemorating Italian Prisoners of War who died in SouthAfrica during World War II, will be held on Sunday 4th November from 09h30 at the Italian Military Cemetery, Zonderwater. This service is open to the public and the site museum will be open after the Mass. More details from Dr Coccia tel 012 667 2640 or fax 012 667 3279.

11th November 2012 - POPPY DAY RUN

Martin Coetzee advises that the Hell's Angels Johannesburg and Benoni Legion will be gathering at 46 Brigade HQ's soccer field in Kensington (Corner Allum and Northumberland Rds) for the start of their POPPY DAY RUN to Benoni where the wreath laying ceremony is planned for 11h00. Registration from 08h00, cost R50, departure scheduled for 09h30. Many activities have been included - more details from

Request for help - WWII

Luca Villa, an Italian researcher, writes asking if anybody has knowledge of a South African (presumably an escaped POW) who together with an Indian POW escapee known as Sad - from New Delhi - joined Italian partisans in the Appenines after 8 September 1943. They were on the Gothic Line front near Bologna. His e-mail is


For Cape Town details contact Ray Hattingh 021-592-1279 (am)
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676


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