South African Military History 


Newsletter No 90 March 2012/Nuusbrief Nr 90 Maart 2012

The series on family member’s military service was presented by Alec Grant who described that of his father, Harold Stuart Grant. He covered the background to the family and Harold’s early life in Wakkerstoom. Harold left school at a young age to earn his way, and later moved as a young bachelor to Johannesburg. He played rugby for Diggers first team and joined Barclays Bank Dominium Colonial and Overseas as a clerk. When war broke out he had been seconded to the Lourenço Marques Branch of the Bank and could not obtain approval to join up. When permission eventually came through he joined the Pretoria Regiment, part of the 6th Armoured Division. Barclays Head Office was in Pretoria and many of their staff were already in the Regiment. Alec discussed the important role played by Colonel Morony in this regard.

Harold did not discuss the war and would only give brief answers if questioned, preferring to recall amusing and general occurrences. He remembered the Italian civilians with respect and the City of Florence made a deep impression on him. Harold was eventually among those embroiled in battle at the River Po. He was guarding a German prisoner when they were hit by shrapnel and he was wounded in the foot. He spent the last stages of the war in hospital and was flown back to South Africa, just avoiding the difficulties caused in returning the Division to South Africa.

Reintegration into civilian life at Barclays was not easy for the 800 or so returning Barclays’ servicemen. Fortunately the Bank had the foresight to utilize Colonel Morony for this task, which ultimately led to many of them reaching senior executive positions.

The curtain raiser, by Alan Montgomery, focused on the Battle of Algoa Bay in 1799. The political background to the event was the French Revolutionary wars in which Britain and France were at loggerheads; the recent British occupation of the Cape which Britain now had to defend; and the ‘rebellions’ of both Boers in Graaff-Reinet and ‘Hottentots’ in the broader eastern Cape. There was some indication that the Dutch and French may have wanted to support the Graaff-Reinet ‘rebels’ with arms and ammunition.

Against this background, two Royal Navy ships, the sloop HMS Rattlesnake (18 guns) and the transporter, HMT Camel (guns unknown but possibly only 2 or 4) were in Algoa Bay. They had brought stores, arms and ammunition to support the British troops who had marched up from Cape Town. By the 20th September, most of the stores, including two 6-pdr cannons had been unloaded. Late that afternoon, a ship flying the Danish flag entered the Bay, but after being challenged, revealed her true identity as the 48-gun French frigate La Preneuse. She had been sent from Mauritius as a fast raider to prey on British shipping on the south-east coast of Africa. In the ensuing encounter in which broadsides were exchanged, the Rattlesnake was completely outgunned, yet conducted herself in the best fighting traditions of the Royal Navy. On shore, all the guns available, including the two 6- pdrs recently unloaded, were taken to the beach and hasty fortifications were built in an attempt to deceive the French as to the strength of the defences. The exchange of fire between the ships lasted until about 03h00 the next morning, at which point the La Preneuse slipped her anchor, raised sail and made off before a favourable wind. Although the shots from the shore guns fell well short of the La Preneuse, their existence and participation may have influenced her decision to break off the action. The casualties suffered by the French are unknown, but the British lost only three men killed and several wounded. Both Royal Navy ships were damaged and had to return to Simon’s Town for repairs.

The sequel to these events is that when news of the battle reached Simon’s Town, two 50- gun warships were sent in pursuit of the raider which, after a running fight at sea, was eventually cornered in Mauritius on 11th December. Unable to escape or fight her way out, her captain hauled down his colours and ran her aground, the British subsequently burning the ship.

The main lecture on the military origins of the Volkswagen Beetle was delivered by John Lemon. Ferdinand Porsche was born on 3rd September 1875 in Maffersdorf in Northern Bohemia. The young Porsche was interested in two new innovations, electricity and the motor car, and despite his father’s opposition (he wanted him to join the family tinsmithing business) Ferdinand left home in 1894 to work in Vienna. While there he sneaked into lectures at Vienna University before being ‘found out’ and expelled. Many years later he was awarded an honorary doctorate in engineering from the very same institution!

Between 1902 and 1929 he worked for various companies including Lohner where he designed two notable cars including in 1904, a petrol/electric vehicle. His fame spread and for 17 years he worked for Daimler Motoren (Mercedes Benz) and designed many classics including the Mercedes SS. After a stormy time at Mercedes he left and eventually formed his own company. Two projects for a small car fell through, but eventually after a meeting with Hitler his dream of a ‘Peoples Car’ became a reality. Three sets of prototypes were built and extensively tested, and in 1938 the final definitive shape we have come to know as the Beetle was born.

Although a factory had already been built by the time World War II broke out in September 1939, only a few Beetles had been produced. The factory was then converted to produce a range of military vehicles, the best known of which was the military version of the Beetle, the Kübelwagen. Developmental testing by the Wehrmacht had begun as early as November 1938 and full scale production started in February 1940, as soon as the original factory at Wolfsburg had become operational. Other than variants such as the Schwimmwagen, no major changes took place until production ended in 1945. Only small modifications were implemented, mostly eliminating unnecessary parts and reinforcing some which had proved unequal to the tasks required. The Kübelwagen was for the Germans what the jeep was for the Allies and proved very capable at negotiating its way over rough terrain, its light weight and self-locking differential to a large extent compensating for its lack of 4x4 capabilities.

A classic four-seater Kübelwagen in North Africa in 1942

The factory was extensively bombed during the war as it also produced parts for Junkers JU 88 bombers as well as the V-1 flying bomb, and by the end of the war 65% of it had been destroyed. By the time production ceased in May 1945, over 50 000 Kübelwagen vehicles had been produced. It had proven itself to be surprisingly useful, reliable, and durable, as were to be its peace time successors.

Detachments of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers moved in, but the future of the factory hung in the balance as the British, American, French and Russians turned down offers of the factory on the basis that the Beetle was ugly, noisy, did not meet the fundamental requirements of a motor vehicle and had no commercial future. Despite this condemnation some enthusiastic British Officers, under the leadership of Army Major Ivan Hirst, started to rebuild the factory and assemble, under extremely difficult circumstances, a few Beetles for the Control Commission for Germany. After an order for 20 000 had been received, Volkswagen never looked back.

The appointment of Heinz Nordhoff from 1st January 1948 was a turning point and, until his death in 1968, he set the scene for the Beetle to become the biggest selling single model in the history of the motor vehicle with 21 528 464 sold, a record which very likely will never be beaten. Nearly 10 000 000 of those went to America.

Future meetings and excursions

SAMHSEC’s next meeting will be on 14th March 2012 at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The family member’s slot will be a short video on the Grey High School Memorial Service held on 11/11/ 2011, presented by Ian Pringle. The curtain raiser will be replaced by the AGM. The main lecture will be by Donna Cilliers on Military Mascots and Pets. The Chairman’s Report and the financial statements are being sent out as a separate attachment. The warning order on the May field trip has already been distributed.

Matters of general interest

War graves

Further to the article on war graves in Newsletter 89, the Quarterly Report of the South African Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is available. If you are interested, we can send you an e-mail copy separately. Contact Pat at

RMS Titanic anniversary

The Ship Society has produced a calendar to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15th 1912. The price is R36.25 incl p&p. If you are interested in further details, contact Pauline Brueton at

Members’ activities

Andre Crozier recently visited the National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold and Smuts House at Irene. He will tell us more about this in the next Newsletter. Stephen Bowker visited the concentration camp site at Norval’s Pont and Barry Irwin was part of a CSIR study tour of the USA looking at cyber warfare. Please let the scribes know what interesting activities of a military historical nature you have been involved in.

East Cape Branch of the Genealogical Society of South Africa

We have received the GSSA Chronicles for February 2012. If anyone would like a copy, e- mail Pat at

Websites of interest

World War I

German soldiers preserved in World War I shelter discovered after nearly 100 years

The Telegraph 10/2/2012

German WW I bunker discovered in France

Spiegel Online International 27/10/2011

For photo gallery:,1518,794103,00.html

How Germany lost the WWI arms race

By Saul David ‘Bullets, Boots and Bandages’ BBC News Magazine 16/2/2012

Last WW I veteran in UK dies at 110

CNN 8/2/2012

World War II

19th February was the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Darwin, Australia.

The following site provides an interesting perspective:

WW II not yet over: Remains of Japanese WWII soldier who died at Russian camp returned to son

The Mainichi Daily News 4/2/2012

With the Falklands currently in the news, the following article gives some perspective:

Falkland Islands: What are the competing claims?

Vanessa Barford, BBC News Magazine 16/2/2012

Charlie Chaplin and MI5

British spies stumped by Charlie Chaplin

News 24 2012-02-16

The Matchstick Fleet

For those with even a remote interest in naval history, or an interest in military modelling, the following site is fascinating. The creator, now 79, has been doing this since he was 17.

The following video puts flesh on the bones:

Books of military historical interest

Shillington Kevin 2011 Luka Jantjie: Resistance hero of the South African frontier

Wits University Press Johannesburg. ISBN 978-1-86814-549-2

While focusing on the biography of Luka Jantjie, a prominent Batlhaping leader in the late 19th century, this book is also very much a military history of the northern Cape. Covering the second half of the century, it focuses on the political, military and commercial conflict over land, labour and resources between the Cape Government and colonial settlers on the one hand and Griqua, Batlhapin and Batlharo polities on the other, with the Transvalers playing an opportunistic role. Based on solid archival work and field investigations, it provides accessible accounts of inter alia the 1858 OFS-Batlhaping War, the 1878 Griqua Uprising, several other minor conflicts and the 1897 Langeberg War. This latter conflict, in which several well known Cape regiments, including First City, PAG, Cape Town Highlanders and the ‘Dukes’ took part, is covered in some detail, including the battles and battlefields. Well illustrated, this book is a significant contribution to South African military history.

Storey William Kelleher 2008 Guns, race, and power in colonial South Africa
Cambridge Cambridge University Press ISBN 978-0-521-88509-6

This book is best summed up as a social history of firearms in southern Africa. It provides an account and analysis of the impact of firearms on our society as well as the undertones of their possession and use up to the end of the 19th century. It also examines the social, political and ecological roles as well as the commercial value of firearms in the history of South Africa. The book takes a polemical approach and many of the ideas expressed may be contested. Written from a distance (California) the book unfortunately contains a considerable number of misunderstandings of southern African society and events and has numerous errors of detail. Despite this, it is a broadly useful overview.

New books on the market We have received notice of several new or recently published books this month. Two which might be of particular interest are:

Geldenhuys, Jannie 2012 We were there: Winning the war for southern Africa. Pretoria Kraal Uitgewers. Compiled by General Jannie Geldenhuys, with 62 contributors, this is a collection of firsthand accounts by those of all ranks who participated in the conflict in Angola including the controversial Battle of Cuito Carnavale. It is well illustrated and is available in both hard and soft cover as well as a de luxe limited edition.

Die Afrikaanse uitgawe is in 2011 deur dieselfde uitgewers gepubliseer as Ons was daar: Wenners van die oorlog om suider-Afrika.

Volker Walter 2012 Piet Retief Commando: The Story of a Border Commando 1880 – 2007 While focusing on the Piet Retief Commando, this well researched, and well illustrated book, also covers a wide area of South African military history. A limited number will be published. The book and further details are available from the author. Contact Walter Volker on 082-851-6166 or Walter Volker has also published material on the South African Corps of Signals.

There is a wide range of books on South African military history available at the War Store in Saxonwold. The contact details are: 011 646 9956.

SAMHSEC Google Group Invitation

SAMHS Eastern Cape is moving its distribution list to Google Groups. The Group will be used as the primary means of distributing newsletters and other material. This will be the primary form of communication from the April Newsletter. Thank you to members who have already responded to the invitation sent on 13th February.

A reminder e-mail has been sent out for those who have not yet accepted the invitation to join the Group. Alternatively you can go to and click "Apply for Group Membership".

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn:

Scribes: Anne, Pat and Barry Irwin

Correspondence to:

Society’s Web address:

South African Military History Society /