South African Military History 


Newsletter No 94 July 2012/Nuusbrief Nr 94 Julie 2012

The June meeting held in Grahamstown was attended by about 130 people, a record for SAMHSEC. There was no open house slot, in order to allow the main speaker adequate time. The curtain raiser titled ‘The extraordinary case of Mikhail Petrovich Devyataev’ was presented by Rick van Heerden, who has spoken to the Society on several previous occasions.

Mikhail Petrovich Devyataev 1917 – 2002 was a talented Russian fighter pilot flying a YAK7, the Russian equivalent of the Hurricane. On 13th July 1944 he was bounced by a flight of Fokker Wolfs, shot down and captured by the Germans. Sustaining significant injuries, he was provided with medical assistance and supplies by British POWs before being shipped off to Lodz and Konigsburg, from where he attempted to escape by building a tunnel.

Petrovich was then moved to Sachenhausen where, by assuming the identity of a teacher who had died previously, he managed to avoid being victimised as a pilot. In October 1944 1 500 of the Sachenhausen inmates were moved to the island site of Peenemunde where V1 and V2 ballistic missiles were being tested. There POWs were set to work under harsh conditions, which included having to clear fields of unexploded bombs and repairing bomb damage. Petrovich realised his chances of survival were limited and began to plan an escape by carefully observing what was happening on the airfield and managing, through the careless boasting of a Luftwaffe officer, to get to see some aircraft manuals. When he and nine others were taken to the airfield on 8th February 1945, they killed their guard with a crowbar. One of the prisoners then donned the guard’s uniform and ‘escorted’ the rest to the edge of the field where they came across a Heinkel 111 H22 (the type used to launch the V1 Flying Bomb). They boarded the plane, but even though Mikhail Petrovich was a fighter pilot, he struggled to get the plane moving. They eventually reached the end of the runway before finally being able to take off in full sight of Luftwaffe personnel going about their daily business!

Several prisoners had entered the cockpit to help Petrovich with the controls and when they got airborne they were ignored by the other aircraft around them. Petrovich stuck to the north coast of Germany as much as he could, along a distance of about 45 km. The aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire as it entered Soviet air space, but managed to land in Soviet-held territory. The escapees were welcomed, given food and looked after until being arrested by the NKVD (later to become the KGB) for interrogation, having committed the ‘crime’ of being taken prisoner. They provided important information about the German missile programme, especially about the V1 and V2. Nonetheless, five of them were relegated to penal battalions, given dangerous tasks such as clearing minefields, and all subsequently died.

Mikhail Petrovich spent a year in solitary confinement followed by hard labour. He was later released and became a manual worker until 1957, not being allowed to do any other work for he was still considered as an ‘enemy of the people’. At that time he was working on a site where Sergey Korolyov, Head of the Soviet Space Programme, noticed him because of his work at Peenemunde, and set in process his ‘rehabilitation’, after which he was feted, had his original military decorations restored to him and was given several other Soviet awards. He ended his career driving a hydrofoil on the Volga River. He died in 2002, aged 85. There is a Museum of Devyataev in his native Torbeyevo. Mikhail Petrovich’s story is one of remarkable resilience in the face of adversity.

The main lecture, simply titled ‘Olenka’ was delivered by Olenka de Sas Kropiwnicka. Now 89 years old, she was 16 when her homeland, Poland, was overrun by Nazi Germany in 1939. After managing to complete her schooling, she joined the Polish Resistance Movement and actively participated in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Captured, she was sent to Ravensbruck, and later, to Sachsenhausen concentration camps. Survivors of these camps were forced to take part in the 'Death Marches' westwards as the Red Army approached; thousands dying from exhaustion and starvation.

Olenka described these experiences in some detail, mentioning also the particular plight of the Jews. Starting with post-invasion conditions, she described the acute food shortages and her family’s constant struggle to obtain enough to eat. During this period she attended secret Polish schools, which were strictly forbidden, to obtain her matriculation, and then went to work for an aunt in Warsaw.

There she witnessed many street executions by the Nazis, these in many cases being individuals who had been randomly rounded up. In one incident, fifty young men were blindfolded, made to stand against a wall and shot. Flowers and candles would appear in the streets after such executions. 1943 saw the end of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw as the last of its occupants were sent to the extermination camps.

The Warsaw Uprising took place in 1944 when the Polish Home Army realised the German army was withdrawing to the west. They wished to liberate Warsaw, having received promises from the nearby Soviet army to come to their aid. The Russians did not do this; Stalin preferring to stand by while the largely non-communist Home Army was virtually annihilated by the Germans. The uprising lasted for 63 days, during which 90% of Warsaw was destroyed. It was also during this period that the South African Air Force had one of its finest hours. In tandem with the Royal Force, hundreds of missions were flown over heavily defended enemy territory to drop supplies of ammunition, arms and food to the beleaguered Poles. Known as ‘The Warsaw Airlift’ the great losses in men and aircraft earned the lasting gratitude of the Polish people.

After being captured, Olenka and her family were dragged through the streets by German and Ukrainian soldiers, who could do as they wished with their prisoners: many women were raped and fingers were cut off in order to take rings. Olenka was one of those moved to Germany finding herself, after innumerable privations, in Ravensbruck concentration camp. En route she was often locked up in crowded cattle trucks for days on end without food, fresh air or sanitation. Once at Ravensbruck the prisoners were treated to unspeakable cruelties and humiliation by their mainly female SS guards, Olenka, on some occasions barely escaping death. Disease, starvation, lice-infested summer clothing, and freezing cold compounded the problem and many did not survive the winter. Religion played a significant role in surviving.

From Ravensbruck, where the inmates were used for manual labour, as slave labour in factories for German war production, and as guinea pigs for medical experiments, Olenka was sent to Sachsenhausen, a particularly brutal camp where summary executions were a daily occurrence. Here she was again put to work in a factory and witnessed the crematoriums at work.

As the Soviet army advanced from the east, the concentration camp inmates as well as all POWs were force-marched westwards in what became known as ‘The Death Marches’. Deprived of almost all sustenance and physically exhausted, tens of thousands died along the way. On 3rd May 1945 the German guards started disappearing, leaving the prisoners alone in a valley. Olenka and her friends started climbing a hill and from the top saw the village below covered with white flags. In the following days they met up with American and British soldiers and the ordeal for many, but not all, was over. Many still died from their prolonged deprivation or from eating food which their bodies could no longer process.

In all this Olenka recalls occasional kindnesses from individual SS guards (when their compatriots weren’t looking) and on the Death March, from a German soldier whom she credits with saving her life when she was ready to give up. Hard as it is to believe in these circumstances, Olenka is firmly of the view that forgiveness is not only an important part of healing, but that it also sets the spirit free from hatred which can destroy one. Her own process of healing began, she says, when she and some companions saw one of their former SS guards in the street, a woman who had shown them a little kindness, and they chose not to report her presence, as the allied authorities required them to do. Having spoken for an hour and fifteen minutes without so much as a note, Olenka was given a spontaneous standing ovation. There was hardly a dry eye in the audience.

Having survived, Olenka eventually found her way to South Africa where she has lived and raised her family since 1951. In 2010, she published a book on these experiences titled Olenka: Forgiveness sets your spirit free. For anyone interested in obtaining it, the cost is R150, and it is available from or cellphone 082 633 3448.

Prior to the meeting, 17 members visited the following sites of interest in Grahamstown: the Bible Monument, where they were addressed by Ds Strauss de Jager; the historical signal square at the aerodrome (formerly 44 Air School), where John Stevens and Pat Irwin gave an explanation; and the Anglo Boer War trenches dug by St. Andrew’s College boys in 1901.

Future meetings and excursions

SAMHSEC’s next meeting will be on 9th July 2012 at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be by Andre Crozier on ‘The Gane Brothers’. The main lecture will be by Barry Irwin on ‘Cyber Warfare’. The screening of the ‘World at War’ series will be Inside the Reich: Germany (1940–1944) at 18h30 preceding the main meeting at 19h30.
The field trip to the Queenstown area is planned for the weekend of the 10th-12th August. Details are to be sent out shortly. Pat Irwin can be contacted for further information.

Matters of general interest

In Memoriam

It is with sadness that we record the passing of SAMHSEC founding member Mike Duncan, our medals expert, on 4th June 2012. SAMHSEC’s condolences have been extended to Christine and her family.

Members’ activities

24 members and five guests participated in the recent tour to the Cory Library at Rhodes University, Botha’s Post, sites in the Fort Beaufort area, the site of the 1852 Waterkloof campaign, the Gwanga battlefield and the Mfengu Milkwood tree. Fleur Way-Jones, one of our guests, has written the following note relating to the Rev Joseph Williams (1780 – 1818), whose grave was visited:

As the first missionary in the Eastern Cape, Williams, from the London Missionary Society, established a settlement on the Kat River near present day Fort Beaufort with his family, Jan Tsatsu, his interpreter, Khoi converts from Bethelsdorp and some Xhosa converts. Williams’ communication with Chief Ngqika, at times friendly and at other times not, served to delay any British military action in the Fort Beaufort area. His mission lasted only three years as he died of a fever in 1818. Mrs Williams and young two sons moved to Bethelsdorp, where she remarried, and continued mission work with her husband, Rev Adam Robson. She died in Port Elizabeth in 1876.

John Stevens recently visited some sites of military historical interest in the USA. Stephen Bowker has visited the Voortrekker Monument and Museum in Pretoria and Pat Irwin has given a lecture to the Grahamstown Friends of the Library on the ‘Battle of Grahamstown, 22nd April 1819’.

An edited excerpt from the welcoming address by Major General Gert Opperman (retired), Managing Director of the Heritage Foundation, at the annual commemoration service at the Voortrekker Monument on 3 June 2012:

“May we pause for a moment to think of all the people of Southern Africa who were affected negatively by the regional and local conflicts in Southern Africa? If called upon to do so, the Heritage Foundation would be willing to play a leading role in initiatives to help us to heal the wounds of conflict, and to move towards a better future for all in our part of the continent…

The fact that we, as members of the old Union Defence Force, the past South African Defence Force and the South African National Defence Force can this year together celebrate the centenary of the Defence Force in South Africa, 1912-2012 is equally significant. I invite you all to visit the exhibition in our art gallery, situated in the main office complex, before leaving the site today. There are very valuable works of art on display, representing the last 100 years of military involvement in South Africa.

We had hoped to be able to place the remains of the Ebo Four in their niches today, but unfortunately things did not run as planned, and approved beforehand, during our recent visit to Angola. Without dwelling on the subject, it gives me pleasure to be able to announce that the Angolan Government has formally approved the return of the Ebo Project Team to Angola on Tuesday, 5 June, to exhume the remains and to bring them back with us to South Africa on 14 June. If all goes well, a separate service will be held at this venue early in July this year, during which their remains will be put into the niches.

Another special feature of the event is the unveiling of the special Wall containing plaques with the names of more than 260 members of the SADF who received the highest decorations and medals for bravery during the period 1952 – 2004. These decorations and medals include the Honoris Crux Gold, the Honoris Crux Silver, the Honoris Crux, the Van Riebeeck Decoration and Medal and the Louw Wepener Decoration and Medal. All these decorations and medals have since been discontinued and replaced by a new range.

These heroes have all distinguished themselves in virtually unthinkable situations, and since they are nowhere else remembered as a group, it was decided to erect this Wall in their honour. A number of them died in service, and many more since, but we are honoured to have a number of them with us today... We also have a very special privilege today to present one of our ex-soldiers with a [Pro Patria] medal which is still outstanding to him. Second Lt. GM (Don) Wessels was severely injured on 7 February 1988 during deployment in Angola. Despite many aggravating circumstances, he was eventually successfully evacuated to 1 Military Hospital, where both his eyes had to be removed and his hands amputated at the wrists.

I would like to end by thanking everybody involved in the preparations for and presentation of today’s event, especially those who have contributed so magnificently to the building of this new amphitheatre, without which it would not have been possible to accommodate the more than 1 300 guests present. The timely completion of the new Wall with 280 niches for ex members and civilian employees of the Defence Force, at the back of the amphitheatre, is also a major achievement. This coincides with the completion of a new phase containing an additional more than 1000 niches in the established Garden of Remembrance."

Some notable anniversaries in July

Erratum, Newsletter 93: The date for the Battle of Waterloo should be 1815, not 1842.

Websites of interest

1812 – 1815 – 2012

Waterloo battalion ‘gets the axe’: Cameron nukes Duke's Regiment
The Sun 18 June 2012
Why the War of 1812 still matters
BBC News 18 June 2012 Joan Soley

Queen unveils RAF Bomber Command Memorial
BBC News 28 June 2012

Manhattan Project sites expected to become new national park
Los Angeles Times 15 June 2012 Richard Simon,0,3106544.story

Photos illustrate effects of WWII internment camps
San Francisco Chronicle 11 May 2012 Patricia Yollin

Lady Be Good Wikipedia

Falklands War
This being the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, there are a number of interesting websites. Two of these are:
SAS role in the conflict
BBC News 4 May 2012 Peter Jackson
Never forget: 30 years since Falklands freed
The Sun 15 June 2012

Naval interest

HMS Providence
Thanks to Malcolm Kinghorn

The USS Iowa, one of the last of the great WW II battleships has recently been decommissioned for the last time and found her final resting place in Los Angeles. Simply entering ‘USS Iowa’ on the web, takes one to a wide range of recent and fascinating websites.

Books of military historical interest
For those interested in African military affairs, two books have recently appeared on the market:

Williams Paul D 2011 War & conflict in Africa Cambridge Polity Press
This is a foundational framework for understanding the causes and processes of armed conflict in Africa over the last 20 years. Wide in scope and incisive in analysis, this book challenges much of the received wisdom on the topic.

Reno William 2011 Warfare in independent Africa Cambridge Cambridge University Press
Ranging from anti-colonial insurgents to ethno-regional warlords, this is a useful guide to the chaotic and sometimes confusing field of study that constitutes armed conflict in Africa. One of the strengths of the book is that it recognises the alternative politics and values that make Africa what it is.

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn: -
Scribes: Anne and Pat Irwin
Correspondence to:
Society’s Web address: 

South African Military History Society /