South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 13 September 2012 was Major Helmoed Römer-Heitman, who covered three topics on the evening. The first of these was an introduction to German special operations in Africa during WW2. This is a little-known subject with British operations by the Long Range Desert Group, the Special Air Service (SAS) and Popski's Private Army being more well-known.

The German operations were carried out by the Abwehr (Military Intelligence), the Brandenburgers (Army Special Operations force), by KG 200[1] and other Luftwaffe units and paratroopers. Brandenburgers were deployed to Eritrea in January 1941, where they carried out operations in support of the Italians, withdrawing to Libya when the Italians surrendered.

Small Brandenburger teams were deployed to Libya to support the Afrika Korps but were confined to overt reconnaissance missions by Rommel, who was not much in favour of covert operations - at least until the SAS attacked his supposed Headquarters at Cyrene in November 1941. They were then given a freer hand. One operation saw six Brandenburgers infiltrate Siwa oasis where they managed to steal a LRDG code book which they were able to use for a few days to good effect until the loss was discovered.

Sonderkommando Dora[2] was a scientific research group which conducted a military-geographical study of the Sahara desert in 1942 and evaluated several vehicle types in desert conditions. The primary task was to establish whether the French could threaten the Afrika Korps from Chad. The force was led by Lt Dr Otto Schulz-Kampfhenkel, a friend of Goering's, which helped them to get quite an amount of air support! They operated from two sites at oases deep in the Sahara and penetrated as far south as the Tibetsi mountains. They completed their work in December 1942 and most of their members returned to Germany, they completed their reports and maps and formed a Forschungsstaffel[3] (research group) which carried out cartographic work in Dalmatia, Finland and the Pripet marshes in Russia. After the war, some of its members taught the Americans the art of preparing maps from aerial photographs.

Another Operation Dora was supposed to have been undertaken by the Brandenburgers in June 1942, to reconnoitre routes southwards from Libya into the French West African colonies to check on the feasibility of the French attacking into Libya or, conversely, the Germans moving south. Whether this operation actually happened is not certain.

The last Operation Dora was mounted by Greece-based KG 200 from late 1943 into 1944 to place weather teams into North Africa and to insert raiding and sabotage units into French sub-Saharan Africa, to monitor shipping movements in French West Africa and shipping through the straits of Gibraltar. Not much documentation is available but these operations continued until October 1944 and agents continued to report from Algeria until the end of the war.

Sonderkommando Blaich was run by a Cameroon-based German banana planter who used his own aircraft on reconnaissance missions until the end of the war in North Africa, after which he commanded a night ground attack wing in Yugoslavia against the partisans!

A somewhat eccentric Hungarian, Ladislaus Almasy, led Operation Salam. He had spent many years living in Egypt, exploring the desert with British friends and pioneering the use of vehicles and aircraft in the desert. In WW2, he was posted to the Afrika Korps, where he was involved in various Abwehr operations. In July 1941 he took a number of patrols on a reconnaissance of the desert south of the front lines. His main operation was in April/June 1942, when he infiltrated two agents into Egypt in a 3 000 km/1 875 miles' trip using sketch maps that he had made pre-war. The route ran via the Jalu and Khufra oases, the Gif el Kebir and the Chargo oasis to Asyut in Egypt. They bluffed their past British posts and refuelled and replenished water supplies at British depots. The agents were soon captured but Almasy and his party managed to reach the German lines. He was later transferred to Turkey and worked for MI6 after the war, returning to Egypt subsequently.

Kampfgruppe von Koenen was a Brandenburg force commanded by Lt Von Koenen, who grew up in Namibia (South West Africa). His company consisted of men who had lived in Africa. They were sent to Tunisia in October 1942 and carried out a number of sabotage raids to delay the Allied advance. He was also involved in a number of rather hair-raising operations against the Americans and most of his unit eventually escaped to Sicily in some engineer assault boats they had found - some of the very few Germans to escape from Tunisia after the surrender there. Even their wounded escaped, being flown out by air!

Late arrivals in Tunisia included the Parachute Regiment Barenthin, cobbled together from a number of battalions and commanded by Oberst Barenthin. Not really Special Forces, they acted as a fire brigade in Tunisia. One of the battalions was the Parachute Engineer Battalion Witzig, commanded by Major Witzig who had captured Fort Eben Emael in Belgium in 1940. This concentrated on demolitions, mine-laying and night raids on allied rear areas. Many of Witzig's men escaped to Sicily after the German surrender.

Sonderkommando Wimmer was commanded by SS-Untersturmführer[4] Franz Wimmer-Lamquet. He had been an Abwehr agent in East Africa as a teenager, was interned and repatriated to Germany in 1940. He was then sent to Iraq and Syria and returned to Germany with a number of Iraqi volunteers. He commanded a school for agents, trained the Iraqis and took these to North Africa in 1942 with some volunteers from the French North African colonies. Adding to this force some Mauritanian, Moroccan and Tuareg troops with some Italians, he formed the Arabische Sicherungsverbände zbV.[5] This unit operated in small groups to conduct commando operations against Allied lines of communication until the surrender. Some of his men continued to fight, this time against the French! He was transferred back to Germany and ended up in the hands of the NKVD who tortured him to the state of partial paralysis. Released by the Russians in 1955, he then worked for German Intelligence.

Oberleutnant Dieter Kruger Haye was sent to Tunisia commanding Tunis Feldersatz-Batallion T2,[6] a replacement unit which in fact fought as a normal unit. At one stage he commanded his unit with some Italian assault guns and a few aircraft, carrying out a number of operations with considerable success. He even launched sabotage raids behind Allied lines, using Fieseler Fi 156 Storch STOL [7] liaison aircraft to get there! He survived the war even after these hair-raising escapades and, after the war, emigrated to South Africa. He became a well-known sculptor in wood and died in Cape Town in 1991.

[1] Kampfgeschwader (Bomber Squadron) 200 was the German Luftwaffe's special operations wing that carried out long-distance reconnaissance flights, tested new aircraft designs (when a special Erprobungskommando [evaluation unit] unit was not used), and operated captured aircraft, amongst others, for clandestine operations.
[2] Special Command D ("Dora" for D - the English military equivalent would be "Delta").
[3] A Staffel is normally used in the context of being the German equivalent of an air force squadron.
[4] SS/Waffen-SS rank, the equivalent British rank being Second-Lieutenant.
[5] Arabische Sicherungsverbände zbV: Eng. translation, "special-purpose Arab Security Units".
[6] Feldersatz-Batallion: Eng. translation, "Field Replacement Battalion".
[7] STOL: Short Take-off and Landing.

Major Heitman's second topic for the evening was the current African military and political situation. Of all the countries in West Africa, Mali is the worst off, with the country effectively split in two with Moslem fundamentalists trying to set up a fundamentalist state in the northern half. More fighting is inevitable. In the Horn of Africa, Somalia is a failed state with African Union troops invading to try and bolster the "government". The Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur are all problem areas with incipient wars bubbling under the surface. No change in this situation since last year.

In Central Africa the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Burundi are all trouble areas. The eastern DRC is in a state of insurgency especially now with the discovery of gas, oil and other minerals. West Africa is relatively stable with the exception of Mali and Nigeria. The latter is suffering from the rise of Moslem fundamentalism in the north - trying to introduce a sharia state. There are also separatists waging a low-level insurgency in the oil-rich south-west of Nigeria. Madagascar is also not too stable. In essence, Africa has few big wars but a lot of little conflicts - ongoing or incipient.

The main problems facing Africa are piracy, drug smuggling, poaching and illegal fishing. Piracy is rife in West Africa and along the Horn of Africa.

In West Africa, ships are captured by pirates and their cargo is off-loaded at sea and transferred to other vessels. This applies especially to cargoes of oil. The navies of the various West African countries are currently expanding. Nigeria and Ghana have big building programmes to provide the ships needed to protect the oil and gas rigs and fishing areas and to combat pirates. Smaller programmes are in place in Cameroon, Gambia, Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast. The ships are largely corvettes and offshore patrol vessels (OPVs). Fish is an important part of the West African diet so illegal fishing by EU member nations especially is a serious problem, as serious as piracy. Both are being combated by the countries along the Gulf of Guinea.

In East Africa, piracy and illegal fishing are serious problems all along the coast from Somalia, past Kenya, Tanzania to Moçambique. Madagascar is a problem area with illegal fishing and piracy moving in navies here are small and unable to cope with the expanding pirate fleets. There are expansion programmes but money is scarce. Kenya is busy with a building programme and their army has invaded Somaliland to try and eliminate the pirates' staging and supply bases on land.

Piracy involves the taking of ships, the holding of hostages for ransom and the transfer of cargoes. The Seychelles are the latest target and there are rumours that the pirates have set up bases in some of the many islands offshore. The pirates are well-equipped with modern radar, communications and navigation equipment and it is thought that the gangs are controlled from the Persian Gulf area. Piracy has become a big and profitable business, hard to stop because of the lack of employment on land.

The EU, the US, India, Japan, China and Iran all have naval forces in the area but, with some 8 million square kilometres to cover, a lot more ships are needed. South Africa has a frigate in the Moçambique Channel. There are also legal problems - where can the pirates be tried? Jailing them is no use. The prisons are as good as hotels to the pirates, who usually ask for asylum at the end of their sentences and many countries are naive enough to grant this.

Poaching has become big business all over Africa. Most African borders are extremely weakly protected. Our own border is like a sieve and the government appears reluctant to do anything about it. Rhino horns fetch approximately R90 000 each and helicopter-borne poachers shot a rhino in a private game reserve next to a residential area and 4km from Defence Headquarters recently.

The other major problem in all parts of Africa is drug smuggling. Africa and South Africa in particular, are now important conduits for the movement of heroin from Afghanistan to Europe and North America and of cocaine from South America to Europe and North America. This trade is worth billions and the drug smugglers are using criminal gangs and insurgents all over Africa to protect their trade. They are arming and equipping the gangs with modern weapons and communication equipment, far more sophisticated than the weapons and equipment used by the armies and police forces facing them. Government officials and politicians are being bought and this is a serious and growing problem in Africa.

The final topic discussed by Major Heitman was the recently finalised Defence Review 2012 for the SA National Defence Force (SANDF). The draft of this Review is available for scrutiny on the internet [8] and Major Heitman referred to some of the salient points.

The review started with a careful estimation of what defence capability the country needs, what force levels are needed to provide that capability and the equipment required.

In the past, reviews have looked at the budget and the force levels it could provide and these always left too little money for equipment and the people required to operate and maintain the equipment. As a result the Defence Force is in trouble - there are, amongst others, insufficiently trained people to maintain aircraft or to fly them. The army has no money for training, maintenance or equipment. The troops are not adequately trained and there are insufficient aircraft for transport needs.

The 2012 review looked at the capabilities required. The first is to deter and prevent conflict in and on the borders of South Africa - we need to be able to deter aggression by sea, air and land, to help to protect neighbours and be able to deploy and sustain forces either on our own or in cooperation with our neighbours.

We need to protect assets and interests outside South Africa - water schemes (Highlands Water Scheme), power stations (Cahora Bassa), ports, rail and road communications, shipping routes around our coasts and the oil supplies needed by the country. This requires the ability to deploy forces quickly, the provision of air support and suitable ground, air and naval forces, including an escort and mine countermeasures capability.

We need to be able to defend the country and its borders using high mobility, high tempo operations by joint forces. This requires the provision of air superiority and airspace control where needed, a deep precision strike capability, mechanised forces with air support, rear area protection forces, naval forces and a viable, secure industrial base.

The second main task is to safeguard South Africa and its land, sea and airspace borders. This will require border patrol, reconnaissance, surveillance and reaction forces fully equipped with appropriate sensors, vehicles, aircraft and helicopters. It also requires airspace surveillance, monitoring and control and interceptor aircraft. Finally, it requires coastal and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) surveillance (i.e. coastal waters), monitoring and control, patrol aircraft and ships.

We need to safeguard critical infrastructure so we need a home guard-type force and mobile reaction forces properly equipped. The armed forces need to be able to support the Police and to ensure information security.

South Africa is part of Africa and is therefore involved in the efforts to provide regional and continental peace and security, by promoting our strategic influence and contributing to peace and stability. To achieve this, we need to have good intelligence collecting and processing capability, forces for immediate action and for follow-up, logistic support for these forces and the capability to move these forces by road, rail, sea and air as required.

Further tasks include the provision of hydrographic survey and search-and-rescue capability, VIP flights, fisheries protection, support for marine research, anti-poaching patrols, disaster aid and emergency relief operations and maintenance of essential services. As the Defence Force has been starved of funds for a long time, the need for accelerated acquisition of equipment is vital and the Review set these out in some detail.

The immediate acquisition priorities are to extend Special Forces capability (by providing equipment, vehicles and weapons and providing these items for urban counter-terrorism units) and to improve the level of border protection with more and improved vehicles, sensors and communications.

The short term acquisition priorities are in the air (supply of static, mobile and airborne surveillance/tracking radars for both low and high level operation and turboprop interceptor aircraft), at sea (off shore patrol vessels, inshore patrol vessels, maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft, more helicopters on the ships, shoreline patrols and shore-based sensors). We need to improve our ability to respond to crises, by supplying equipment, vehicles and weapons for parachute and air landed units, expanding our medium airlift capability and establishing a heavy/strategic airlift capability, establishing an in-flight refueling capability for fighters and transport/EW[9]/airborne command aircraft and an increase in the number of helicopters.

The medium term acquisition priorities would include infantry combat vehicles for at least two mechanized battalions, replacement of Mamba and Casspir APCs, replacement of Mfezi ambulances and other specialized vehicles, replacement of existing APCs with reconfigured Ratels and purchase of some MRAP standard vehicles. The logistic vehicle fleet needs updating at unit, formation and rear-area levels. The artillery needs a long range 105mm gun to supplement its G-5 and G-6 weapons, as well as fuses for precision fires.

The Gripen, Hawk and Rooivalk fleet needs BVR missiles, precision air to ground missiles and stand-off weapons, long range anti tank/bunker missiles, light air to ground missiles and, for Rooivalk, self-defence air to air missiles. The air transport capability needs expansion to enable the movement and support of a parachute or air-landed battalion. Heavy lift helicopters are required to support all forms of operations.

The Navy needs a second combat support ship to supplement SAS Drakensberg, which will need replacement in due course. A depot ship to support ships deployed in a distant location, e.g. the Moçambique Channel. This must be able to support aircraft and helicopters. SAS Protea needs to be replaced and modern hydrographic survey equipment must be bought.

The longer term acquisition priorities include the provision of sufficient capacity to land a reinforced battalion and to bring up follow-on forces. We also need railway repair equipment and specialised rolling stock to keep railways operating - this also includes the provision and training of railway engineer units. Air defence needs include additional short range systems (Starstreak), mobile systems to defend airbases and other installations and mechanised systems to defend mobile units. Our main battle tank is an essential element in our mechanised force and needs replacement. This could be a local design or be surplus tanks from another army adapted by local industry.

The artillery needs updates and modernisation of its G-5, G-6 artillery and Bateleur rocket artillery systems and upgraded and modernised target acquisition and command systems. The ammunition needs updating. New and upgraded mine/IED [10] detection and clearing equipment and tactical earth-moving and bridging equipment is needed for the Engineers. The Oryx helicopters will need replacing. The replacement could be built in South Africa depending upon quantity. This programme could be combined with a Rooivalk replacement and/or expansion scheme.

Communication, command and control systems need to be updated to allow for multi-national operations and distant deployments and defence against interference with computer systems (hacking). Finally, consideration must be given to replacing field support equipment (water purification, field hospital and field workshops) and the rejuvenation of the workshops, magazines, air depots, mobilisation stores, gun and vehicle parks and dockyard facilities at Simon's Town and Salisbury Island in Durban Harbour. Ammunition stocks must be re-stocked to support present and possible future operations and training.

This is what is required but the jackpot question is: Do we have the money to do this? The current situation is NO. We do not have the technically-trained personnel and there is no money to buy or maintain equipment or train people. Our air transport assets are insufficient. There are too many senior ranks and we should maybe consider de-ranking, but the budget needs to be increased, the increase spent on training, maintenance, operations and the purchase of new equipment and not on personnel.

The Chairman thanked our speaker for a most interesting and informative talk and presented him with the customary gift.


[9] Electronic warfare

[10] IED - Improvised Explosive Device: An improvised explosive device, also known as a roadside bomb, is a homemade bomb constructed and deployed in ways other than in conventional military action. It may be constructed of conventional military explosives, such as an artillery round, commercial or home-made explosives, attached to a detonating mechanism, normally fired manually or electronically.


SUBSCRIPTIONS: Just a reminder that some subscriptions are still outstanding. If you are in doubt whether you have paid for 2012, please liaise with the honorary treasurer (he never is in doubt).


by Dr. Anne Samson

Mention the Great or First World War and most people instantly think of the Western Front. For South Africans, it's not much different with thoughts generally turning to Delville Wood. If East Africa is mentioned, thoughts often turn to Ethiopia (WW2) rather than World War 1 and if they do turn to World War 1, it is of 1916 when the South African forces under General Jan Smuts faced the Germans under General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. There was far more to the war in East Africa than what happened in 1916 and the two lead protagonists, Smuts and Lettow-Vorbeck's paths crossed on a number of occasions before, during and after the war. This presentation will shed some light on the nature of the war in East Africa, on land, water and in the air, and those who led it through from its start on 8 August 1914 to its end on 25 November 1918.

Anne Samson completed her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2004, the outcome of which was published by IB Tauris in 2006 as Britain, South Africa and the East Africa Campaign: The Union comes of age. Anne has written a number of chapters and papers related to the East Africa campaign and South Africa's involvement in Africa. Her most recent book, World War I in Africa: The Forgotten Conflict Among The European Powers is due out in 2012 (IB Tauris). She works as an independent historian and is currently, in 2012, collaborating with the Great War in East Africa Association on various events. In her other life, she works in Education in the Lifelong Learning Sector in the UK and with state primary school education in Tanzania. She currently lives in the UK but spends as much time in Africa as possible.

by Willem Steenkamp

Maj Willem Steenkamp is well-known as military historian. He started his professional career as a journalist and was for many years the correspondent on military matters for a local newspaper, which gave him the insight and developed the necessary skills to become the author of note which he is today. He will share thoughts on his latest book, Assegais, Drums & Dragoons: A Military and Social History of the Cape with members of the audience, as well as some of the interesting discoveries he made about the development and role of the ordinary infantry soldier at the Cape between 1510 and 1806. But it also has a personal side - the most startling discovery he made concerns his own ancestors and heritage. He came to the conclusion that the real history of the Cape is indeed very different to what the established historiography to this day reflects.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

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