South African Military History Society

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The Chairlady, Marjorie Dean, started the March meeting promptly at eight pm by welcoming the 86 members present. She then gave a brief resum‚ of major battles which had occurred in the month of March.

Among those present was Evelyn Mushi who has been a great help to our branch in the past in arranging for the after-meeting refreshments. She will be getting married shortly and Marjorie presented her with a wedding present on behalf of the Society. This was graciously accepted by Evelyn. Marjorie then also thanked Margaret and Peter Rush who so kindly donate their time and effort to hold a monthly book sale after the meetings. The proceeds go to the Museum Library and the latest donation was R1 200. She then drew the attention of those present to the film "Die Veraaiers", currently on circuit - a graphic and accurate picture of a glossed-over section of the Anglo-Boer War.

It was then time to introduce the first speaker of the evening. This was Ann Bourdin, a keen battlefield explorer who has spoken to the Society previously. This time she had broken away from her usual battlefield theme to talk about "How Germany Lost the War in 1941". All conflicts have turning points, a theme much loved by historians, and World War II was no exception. Some historians claim Dunkerque as the turning point, others the Battle of Britain or El Alamein - the list is endless. However, Ann had a different turning point in mind, a turning point brought about by personality clashes which resulted in a critical delay, which cost Hitler the war. This was a novel approach and needed to be backed up by some solid facts, which Ann provided.

For years Germany's professional army had been under the control of a social class known as "the Junkers", as had much of the rest of its social structure. With the fall of the Kaiser and royal family and the rise of Adolph Hitler, this aristocratic group lost political control of Germany. It remained in control of the Armed Forces where the expertise of its members was invaluable. It was the one aspect of German life over which Hitler did not have total control.

Starting in 1934, he chipped away at the Army's influence and by 1935 he had intimidated his Junker generals sufficiently to induce them to use the Swastika as a national symbol and to swear an oath of allegiance to him personally. In return he promised them re-armament and re-introduced conscription. In 1937, he carried out a putsch of the German top brass and in 1938 instituted a supreme command, known as the OKW, which Hitler controlled personally.

There were a few feeble protests about this but all was forgiven in 1939 when Hitler proceeded with his expansionist policies. The string of unbroken military victories brought honour and prestige to the generals, who were only too willing to pocket their pride and follow Hitler. All was well until the German invasion of Russia which Hitler, and thus his generals, confidently expected to be a "walk-over". The Russian armed forces had been decimated by Stalin's 1930s purges and the country itself seemed weak after a series of failed "Five-year Plans" and harvests.

On 22 June 1941, Hitler launched his troops against a surprised Russia. Three army groups crossed the border and were known respectively as the North, Centre and Southern groups. Their commanders were: in the North, Leeb; in the Centre, Bock and in the South, von Runstedt. There were also four independent Armoured Groups under Kleist, Guderian, Hoth and Hoepner.

Using the same blitzkrieg tactics used in France, the groups pushed deep into Russia, aiming for Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. By 20 July a line had been reached more than halfway to these cities. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no end to the opposing Russian manpower; the roads were shocking and there was no infrastructure on which to draw. The lengthy logistical chain could not cope and on 8 August the advance had slowed almost to a halt. The generals called a conference with Hitler, at which they hoped to get more freedom of action and improved logistical support. In order to maintain control Hitler cleverly circumvented this plan by interviewing each general separately, invoking professional rivalry and differences. He then took further charge and announced that the Centre, under Bock, was to remain static while the North and South Groups would encircle Moscow.

This did not suit his commanders at all. Bock would be denied the glory of taking Moscow, although Leeb would get Leningrad and von Runstedt, Odessa. They were also extremely worried about the problem of logistics. Hitler was unmoved and called them pusillanimous and un-cooperative. In return they stalled his plan by dithering and arguing and sending messages to Hitler about various aspects of his plan. This went on for a vital 19 days - 19 days of perfect campaigning weather wasted in a personality clash between the Junker generals, who wanted to do their own professional thing, and the commander Hitler, who despised them and wanted things done his way.

This, according to Ann, was the turning point of the Russian campaign. Those wasted 19 days of arguing lost Germany the Russian Campaign and thus, ultimately, the War. Had Bock been allowed to continue his Central thrust he would certainly have taken Moscow, but Hitler told him to halt. Conversely, if the generals had whole-heartedly accepted Hitler's plan, Leeb could have taken Leningrad before winter set in. In Ann's mind there was no doubt that this was the turning point of World War II.

The talk was followed by a lively question period to which Marjorie put an end by introducing the next speaker. This was Robin Smith, a keen US Civil War researcher who has previously spoken to the Society. On this occasion the subject of his talk was "John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry". Robin commenced by giving the background to this raid and the importance of slavery to the Southern states of the USA. He then detailed the growing swell of abhorrence throughout the North of that system.

In 1854 the states of Kansas and Nebraska were formed and taken in to the Union. Nominally a state where slavery would be legal, Kansas was settled by people known as "abolitionists" who were determined to make it a free state and others just as determined to maintain its status as a slave state. Matters were taken further when Missouri, a slave state, sent over raiders known as the "Border Ruffians" to intimidate and harass the abolitionists. This included the sacking of the abolitionist town of Lawrence. Northern zealots were furious at this, among them one named John Brown.

Brown was a man of action and a fervent abolitionist who sincerely believed that the institution of slavery could only be ended by violence. He had gathered a small group, known as the Pottawatomic Rifles, who supported his idea and, in retaliation for the attack on Lawrence, they murdered five pro-slavery men near Pottawatomic Creek.

Brown had a long-term plan to invade the South and free the slaves and in this he had the support of a leading Negro leader of the abolitionist movement by name of Frederick Douglass. With Douglass' tacit support and a growing anti-slavery feeling, Brown started pushing his ideas and, gathering a larger band of like-minded followers together, he set up a base in North Elba, New York, on a farm house he bought there and then criss-crossed the Eastern states, pushing his cause and raising funds.

In May 1858 he organised a conference in Chatham, Ontario (Canada) where he revealed a plan to attack Harper's Ferry in Virginia and that he was now ready to go to war with slavery. At this stage, one of his followers, a disillusioned Hugh Forbes, revealed Brown's plan to the government. Brown was forced to placate his backers by postponing his proposed attack on Virginia and, returning to Kansas, he carried out a raid across the border into Missouri, freeing the slaves of two planters and sending them to Canada.

After this success he now decided that the time was ripe for his proposed attack on Harper's Ferry. This is a small town in West Virginia, situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, 60 miles from Washington, D.C. It was the site of the US Armoury which, by 1859, was the largest weapon's factory in the South. Brown's plan was to capture this armoury and with its weapons arm the hundred of rebel slaves he expected to flock to his cause when news of the "invasion" got about. The Armoury was a complex of buildings along the town's main street, Potomac Street. There were forging and machine shops; a fire-house; an arsenal and, on an island in the Shenandoah, a factory producing 10 000 rifles per year.

Brown had placed an undercover agent, by name of John E Cook, in Harper's Ferry beforehand and now moved his band to Kennedy Farm, outside the town, where more recruits arrived. The plan was then finalised.

On Sunday night, 16 October 1859, 19 men set off for Harper's Ferry, leaving three at Kennedy Farm as a rear guard. On the way into town, two men cut the telegraph lines into town. The others crossed the bridge across the Potomac and captured the night watchman. This left the way open for the capture of the Armoury. Brown went off to seize the rifle factory and others captured the plantation "Beallair"; freed a few slaves and brought the captives back to town. A train then entered town but was warned by the by-then escaped night-watchman. The driver raised the alarm, and thus the town, whose citizens armed themselves and started fighting back. By 1100 on Monday, 17 October, a general battle was raging in Harpers' Ferry. Brown and his men retreated into the firehouse.

John then went through the details of the battle, which grew in intensity as the day progressed, as more militia and armed citizens arrived on the scene. Brown made several attempts at negotiating but the irate citizens would have none of it and his emissaries were either killed or captured. Any of his men outside the firehouse were swiftly rounded up or killed. By evening he and his men were holding 12 militia companies and hundreds of civilians at bay. At 2300 a company of 90 US Marines arrived, under the command of Lt Israel Green. Also present from Washington were Colonel Robert E Lee and Lieutenant J E B Stuart. At daybreak Stuart approached the firehouse and delivered an ultimatum to Brown from Lee. This Brown declined to accept and Green and a dozen marines stormed the firehouse. One marine was killed in the assault; all the abolitionists except Brown and a man named Aaron Stevens were killed. These two were taken away to prison and the remainder of the plotters were rounded up, except for five who were never caught.

Brown's war of liberation had been a fiasco. One week later he and his remaining six followers were placed on trial in Charlestown, Virginia. The trial was a national sensation and, coupled with the attack, raised the level of argument about the pros and cons of slavery to acrimony and abuse and the feelings generated, particularly in the South, escalated into secession and the ensuing Civil War.

Brown and his six received the death penalty for treason and murder, but his memory endures today in the words of the song "John Brown's body lies a'mouldering in the Grave", sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".

There were no questions at the conclusion of this clear and entertaining talk, so Marjorie called upon committee member Malcolm King to thank both speakers. This was done with aplomb and the meeting then adjourned.

Ivor Little

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This serves as notice that the 47th AGM of the Society will take place in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the SA National Museum of Military History at 20h00 on Thursday 11th April 2013.

The Agenda will include:

  1. Minutes of the previous Annual General Meeting;
  2. Chairman's Report for 2012;
  3. Statement of Accounts for 2012;
  4. Matters arising;
  5. Approval of such minutes, report and accounts;
  6. Presentation of prizes for 2012 lectures;
  7. Election of Chairman;
  8. Election of Committee members;
  9. General.

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Subscriptions and Membership

Technically, any member who has not renewed by paying subscriptions by 31 March ceases to be a member and is not eligible to vote at the AGM.

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Forthcoming Lectures


11th April:
Annual General Meeting
ML: Pierre du Toit SMS Konigsberg

9th May:
CR: Chris Ash Dr. Jameson & the Matabele War
ML: Colin Harris The Battle of Taranto

KZN in Durban:

11th April:
DDH Capt Brian Hoffmann Trench Raids on the Western Front
Main Gerhard Buchner Gen Ignatius Ferreira (1844-1900) - my Father

9th May:
DDH Dr Richard Wood Fireforce
Main Charles Whiteing Operation Mincemeat

Cape Town:

11th April:
The Western Front: A Family Odyssey by Dr James Tunnicliffe

Dr Tunnicliffe will present an illustrated talk on the results of his research into the military career of his great-uncle who participated in the "Great War" of 1914-1918.


8th April:
CR Ian Copley The Mystery of Lt Pilkington
Main John Stevens HM Schooner Pickle
World at War screened before meeting - The Bomb (February to September 1945).

Members are reminded too of the May field trip which will be from the 17th to 19th May.

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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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