South African Military History Society

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The May meeting of the Society was, as usual, opened promptly at 8:00pm by the Chairlady, Marjorie Dean, who welcomed the 86 people present. Marjorie followed her by-now established procedure of listing famous military events which occurred in the month of May and then gave out the usual monthly notices.

On completion of these notices, Marjorie then introduced the first speaker of the evening. This was Mr Chris Ash, who spoke on "Dr Jameson and the Matabele War".

Chris was born in the Shetland Islands and, after service in the British Army with Lovett's Scouts and the Gordon Highlanders, currently resides in Johannesburg and is a keen amateur military historian.

Using a Power Point presentation, ably operated by his wife, Chris commenced his talk, which was set in the Rhodesia of 1893. It was three years after the arrival in Rhodesia of the Pioneer Column and Zimbabwe, as we now know it, was divided into two segments, Mashonaland and Matabeleland, the former also being known as Rhodesia, with its capital at Fort Salisbury and with two other major settlements - Fort Charter and Fort Victoria.

The administrator of Mashonaland was an enigmatic man named Dr Leander Starr Jameson, Cecil Rhodes' right-hand man and good friend. Matabeleland was ruled over by Chief Lobengula. The two territories were separated by an ambiguous border line which both Lobengula and Jameson respected but which Lobengula's subjects, the Matabele, frequently crossed on minor raids and intrusions against their tribal enemies, the Mashona. Jameson and Rhodes chose to ignore these incursions until matters started to escalate. A series of cable thefts in December 1892 and later around Fort Victoria led to other raids until, on 11 June 1893, a 70-strong Matabele impi fell on the Mashona Kraal of Bere, about 10 miles from Fort Victoria, plundering, murdering, driving off cattle and capturing womenfolk.

The Chief Magistrate of Fort Victoria, a Captain Lendy, rode out at the head of a three-man patrol and scattered this impi, which left the captured women behind in its flight. Lendy and Jameson treated this raid as a purely inter-tribal dispute but on 9 July the Matabele returned, when 3 500 warriors raided farms and kraals around Fort Victoria. The slaughter was terrible and the Mashona took refuge at the Fort, from where the Matabele demanded that they be turned over. Lendy informed Jameson (in Salisbury) of the situation, who in turn contacted Rhodes in South Africa. Rhodes told Jameson to take charge and negotiate with Lobengula. Jameson accordingly set off for Fort Victoria, where he arrived on 17 July. He arrived to find 400 Mashonas killed and Fort Victoria in a state of siege. He had only 7 troopers at his disposal so he formed the white settlers into a 400-strong volunteer unit.

With this force to back him up, he called a meeting with the Matabele raiders and gave them an hour to clear off. Four hours later he sent out Captain Lendy with 40 men who, in a short sharp and decisive action, killed 12 Matabele and drove the rest off. It was following this action that Jameson, in consultation with Rhodes, decided that the only way to ensure the safety of the settlers was to invade and pacify Matabeleland.

This invasion would be led by Major Patrick Forbes and would be done by three columns, a Salisbury Force; the Victoria Rangers and a Southern Force. The latter played no part in the ensuing action but the Salisbury and Victoria Forces entered Matabeleland on 5 October 1893 and rendezvoused at Iron Mine Hill on 16 October. The Matabele missed their opportunity of dealing with each column individually, or catching the Rhodesians crossing the Shangani River, and instead attempted a night attack on the combined force, which was in laager. In what became known as the Battle of Shangani the Matabele General, Mjaan, assembled 6 000 warriors for an attack on the laager. Unfortunately for Mjaan, his night attack was delayed by false alarms and only took place at daybreak. Unfortunately too, his attack blundered into a Mashona camp, which raised the alarm. The Rhodesians reacted immediately and with rifle and Maxim machine gun fire shattered the attacking Matabele by 08h30.

Forbes followed up on this victory by heading for Lobengula's capital of Bulawayo and by 1 November was 25 miles from it. Here he was caught by 7 000 warriors who attacked in the traditional "bulls' horns" frontal assault. This was the opening of the Battle of Bembesa. Unable to bring all their fire to bear from makeshift laagers, the Rhodesians advanced out into the open, pushing forward in line and firing on the move. In 40 minutes it was all over and the Matabele had broken and fled, with the loss of 500 men. The Rhodesian losses were three. Lobengula fled, Bulawayo was taken and effectively the war was over. However, Lobengula was still loose and a Major Wilson was assigned to track him down and capture him.

Wilson's force took the name of Shangani Patrol. On 3 December 1893 this force of 150 men bumped into a superior Matabele force, while divided in two by a flooded river crossing. Wilson and his men fought a gallant and desperate action and, after sending three men across the river, Wilson's half fought to the last man. Those on the other side of the river also came under attack and fought their way back to Bulawayo. This signalled the end of hostilities. Lobengula died soon after and a united Rhodesia would go on to flourish and become present-day Zimbabwe.

Jameson went on to play a further role in Southern African history and became the model for Rudyard Kipling's poem "If".

At the conclusion of this talk there was a spirited question period and then Marjorie introduced the next speaker. This was a well-known member and previous speaker, Colin Harris, and as a keen amateur military historian he had chosen as his subject "Operation Judgement - The Battle of Taranto".

In October 1940, with the defeat of France and the entry of Italy on the side of Germany in World War II, Britain had lost control of the Mediterranean Sea. In order to prevent an invasion of Malta, an island of great strategic importance to the Allies, it was imperative that the British Mediterranean Fleet should try to neutralise the Italian Navy. Admiral A B Cunningham decided that his biggest threat as Commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet was the large Italian fleet based at Taranto, on the heel of Italy. He thus decided to attack this fleet by catching it in port and destroying it by gunfire. However, there was already in existence a staff plan of attacking Taranto by air and Cunningham had the aircraft carriers Eagle and Illustrious in his fleet. Egged on by Rear Admiral Lumley Lister, an experienced flyer on his staff, Cunningham opted for the air option.

Known as "Operation Judgment" the plan was to do a night attack on Taranto, and this was put into place on 21 October 1940. Cunningham brought his fleet within 350 miles of Taranto, without any reaction from the Italians. Because of previous bomb damage, HMS Eagle had withdrawn, but Lister, in Illustrious, launched his 25 Fairey Swordfish TSR-2 obsolete and lumbering bi-planes against the target. They went off in two waves. The first became separated in cloud and one 'plane arrived 15 minutes before the rest. This alerted the defences and when the first wave arrived they flew into an inferno of gunfire.

Colin then explained, using excellent maps and diagrams, how each individual plane carried out its part of the attack, which was a model of aggressive courage under fire. Sixteen aircraft returned, having sunk three battleships and two fleet tenders. The remainder of the Italian fleet was moved to Naples and presented no further threat for the duration of the war. The strategic situation in the Mediterranean was decisively altered in favour of the Allies. However, of even greater significance was the note taken by Japan of this bold air strike and 7 December 1941 was to see a dramatic replay of "Operation Judgment" when the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbour.

At the conclusion of this most interesting talk, Marjorie called upon deputy chairman and our attendance officer, John Parkinson, to thank both speakers and then adjourned the meeting for refreshments and the bi-monthly Rush book sale in the foyer.

Ivor Little

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Raffle in Johannesburg - bring your wallets along!

Committee member Jan-Willem Hoorweg has generously donated a special boxed set of a DVD and book entitled "Spitfire" which will be raffled at the next Johannesburg lecture evening. Tickets will cost R20 each or R50 for 3. The draw will be made between the two lectures on the evening.

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Forthcoming Lectures


13th June:
CR: Col. C.J.Jacobs South Africa's participation in the North African Campaign 1940-43
ML: Terry Willson The 1922 Rebellion: Capt. Fulford & the Boksburg Incident

11th July:
CR: Marius Whittle British Command & Control during The Battle of Goose Green
ML: Dr. Arnold van Dyk The Diary of Lt. Col. Harry Scobell of the Scotch Greys

KZN in Durban:

13th June:
DDH Maj. Gen. Chris le Roux The Paratroopers in Operation Meebos
Main Joyce Peet The History of Submarines - Their Disasters and Rescues

11th July:
DDH Ian Sutherland COWRA
Main Chris "Bulldog" Ash Dr Jim and the Matabele War

Cape Town:

13th June:
Ian van Oordt Battle of Blaauwberg 1806


Annual Grahamstown Day: Saturday 8th June
 09h15: meet at the Grahamstown Golf Club for departure at 0945 to what was Piet Retief's farm Burntkraal, now in the military training area.
 14h00 to 16h00: Two lectures:
Curtain raiser: Riana Henning on 'n Psigobiografiese persoonlikheidsbeskrywing van Generaal Christiaan de Wet.
Main lecture: Fred Oelschig on 6 South African Infantry Battalion, Grahamstown. (Fred was the former Officer Commanding Grahamstown military base)

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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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