South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 13 June 2013 was member Mr. Ian van Oordt whose subject was aspects of the Battle of Blaauwberg. He introduced his talk by reminding us of the importance of this battle which took place on 7 January 1806. This battle was the most important battle to be fought on South African soil, one which changed South Africa's history drastically.

A brief summary of the events leading up to the battle and the battle itself will set the scene for Mr. van Oordt's talk. The first British occupation of the Cape occurred in 1795 and ended with the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, when ownership of the colony was returned to the Batavian Republic, a reluctant ally of France.

But, by 1803, France and Britain were once again at war. Both countries had business interests in the East and the safety of their trading fleets was of great importance. The major shipping route to the east ran round the Cape and was of great strategic value.

The British were determined to seize the Cape and, in July 1805, a fleet commanded by Admiral Sir Home Popham, carrying a force of 7000 troops under Maj Gen Sir David Baird, left Cork in Ireland for the Cape. The journey was a long one, via Salvador in Brazil, and reached the Cape only on 31 December 1805. Their arrival was no surprise to the colonists as a French privateer had brought the news a while earlier.

The Governor of the Cape, Lt Gen Janssens, was a capable and brave soldier who was determined to defend the Cape. He called up all available able-bodied men. On 4 January 1806 the British fleet entered Table Bay and the signal cannons announced this from hill to hill across the colony, reaching Swellendam some 8 hours later.

Gale force winds and rough seas forced the British to take shelter between Robben Island and Bloubergstrand, where they anchored to ride out the storm. Sir David Baird had served in the Cape during the first British occupation of 1795 to 1803 and was not about to assault the castle which was well defended.

Janssens had rallied some 2,000 men, which included Batavian Marines, mounted burghers, the 5th Waldeck Regiment (German and Hungarian mercenaries), French sailors and marines from two French ships anchored in Table Bay, mounted troops from Genadendal (Kaapse Pandoeren, a forerunner of the Cape Corps) and some Malay and other local Coloured people from the Cape. The Malays manned an artillery battery.

Col von Prophalow was left in command of Cape Town and Janssens marched his force along the Papendorp (now Woodstock) beach via Paardeneiland to the military outpost of Rietvlei (now Table View). Gunfire from the British warships forced him to move inland to the plain east of Kleinberg.

Gen Janssens could not prevent the landing as this was protected by the guns of the British warships and, by 7 January, the British force of some 6,700 men was on shore with their guns and supplies.

Baird sent a part of his army under Gen Beresford, to take Saldanha Bay and, on 6 January 1806, the sea had calmed sufficiently to allow a landing at Losperds Bay (present-day Melkbosstrand). The landing was not opposed except by the heavy sea, as a number of ships stood ready to bombard any troops formed up to oppose the landing. One of the boats from the British ship Charlotte hit a reef near the beach and capsized with the loss of all aboard. By 7 January the British force with its horses, guns and supplies was on land. Janssens had taken up a position on Blaauwberg farm east of Blaauwberg Hill across the track to Cape Town.

On 8 January, the British, organized into two brigades, followed by 800 sailors dragging 2 howitzers and 6 field guns, advanced through the waist-high scrub and soft sand towards the wagon trail leading to Cape Town.

When they reached the saddle of Blaauwberg Hill, they saw the Batavians lined up in battle formation on the plain below. The battle that followed was short and fierce, lasting only 22 minutes. The 24th Regiment drove the mounted burghers off Kleinberg after a short but heavy bombardment. The British closed and heavy gunfire from howitzers and field guns was directed on the Waldeckers. The Highland Brigade mounted a bayonet charge against the Batavian line. Panic set in and the only real resistance offered was by the Malay artillery and the Kaapse Pandoeren.

A retreat was ordered but the British, short of water and wearied by the heat and the long sea voyage, did not follow up. At this point Janssens could have mounted a counterattack as he was unaware of the exhausted state of the British, but did not do so. Justinius Keer turned his farm Blaauwbergsvlei into a makeshift hospital for the 700 wounded of both sides. He was later paid compensation for damage to his property and thanked by the British governor.

Janssens with 1,500 men retreated to the Tygerberg and then Stellenbosch to re-provision his men before moving deeper into the Hottentots Holland Mountains.

The British force then marched on Cape Town. In Cape Town von Prophalow met Baird and on 10 January signed the treaty of capitulation at Papendorp (now Woodstock), near Fort Knokke. A tree growing at the house where the surrender was signed is still in existence and is a national monument, together with the Post Office Tree at Mossel Bay and the Fingo Tree near Peddie. The British took Cape Town and its defences without firing a shot.

Janssens saw that further resistance was futile and, after negotiations with Gen Beresford in which liberal terms were offered, a formal treaty of capitulation was signed on 18 January 1806. The terms allowed all local citizens who had fought with the Batavians to return home, all private property was to be respected and all property belonging to the Batavian Republic was to be surrendered. Religious freedom was guaranteed and the colonists were guaranteed all of their former rights and privileges.

British casualties were 15 killed, 189 wounded and 8 missing. The Batavian losses were 347 killed, wounded and missing. Gen Janssens, the Batavian officials and professional soldiers were to be returned to Holland at British expense. Sir David Baird and Sir Home Popham had a deep respect for one another and relations and cooperation between them were good. When Gen Janssens boarded the Bellona for his return to Holland, he was seen off by both Gen Baird and Adm Popham and he was accorded all military honours due to a governor.

The Cape was now a British possession, eventually became a colony and the South Africa we know resulted from this. These events changed our history completely.

The story of the battle of Blaauwberg has been well documented in the years since 1806, in books, paintings and maps produced both in South Africa and Britain. Our speaker pointed out that these do not always tell the same story. He showed us a slide of the painting of the battle by Frederici, now in the Houses of Parliament. This painting differs from a similar one in the William Fehr collection as it shows smoke on the top of Kleinberg and is thought to be a more accurate pictorial record of the battle.

Mr van Oordt pointed out that, with the rapid growth of Table View and nearby suburbs, it was fortunate that the Blaauwberg battlefield had been preserved and that most of the alien wattle which covered it, had been removed. The area was proclaimed a National Monument in 1996.

He praised the research work done on the battle by Maj Tony Gordon, Dr Dan Sleigh and Maj Willem Steenkamp and explained that, while the books are reasonably united in their story of what happened, the maps differ in their interpretation of the exact site of the battle. This needs to be further researched to establish the precise location. There is no memorial on the battlefield and the graves of the fallen have yet to be found. It is thought that they were buried where they died.

He also made special mention of the splendid work being done by the Friends of Blaauwberg Conservation Area (FoBCA) under the chairmanship of Roy Fuller-Gee, as well as the proactive cooperation and assistance being provided by the conservation specialists of the relevant local authority, the City of Cape Town.

Our speaker then discussed the various battlefield maps, including those by Capt Read (Feb-April 1806, Capt Henry Long (Feb 1809), Long and Read's map in the Western Cape Archives (Sept 1806), Capt Henry Smart (Feb 1809) in the Library of Parliament and a Royal Engineers map in the Library of Heber Castle Military Museum dated 1900. Of particular interest is the position of the roads and tracks shown. Read's second map shows the position of the Batavian troops when they started to retreat.

Mr van Oordt showed us a slide of an aerial photograph taken in 1938 of the area which shows the roads and tracks in the area at that time. Some of these were in existence back in 1806 and were shown on many of the maps. From these it could be estimated that the battle took place about 800 metres north of where it is placed in most of the maps.

Mr van Oordt then discussed the sand dune formations in the area and concluded that the battle could not have been fought in the place normally accepted as the battlefield in the past. The sand dunes were very steep-sided and this has not been taken into consideration when identifying the site of the battle.

Our speaker praised Gen Janssen's choice of battlefield and good use made of the narrow gap between the sand dunes where he chose to make his stand, rather like the gap between the sea and the Quattara depression at El Alamein during the Second World War. He noted that this was the best possible place to defend Cape Town. Wagons could be moved down the road relatively easily as the ground under the road was stone.

Mr van Oordt then discussed the artillery used in the battle and passed round a hollow 5.5 inch common shell, excavated on the site, for members to examine. He listed the number of officers and men required to man the guns. A remarkable feat was performed by twenty sailors who hauled a field gun 200 metres through the soft sand in 15 minutes.

The length of the front was only 871 metres. He discussed attempts made by Mr Gary Thompson to ascertain what lay beneath the battlefield, using a metal detector at a time when the whole area was covered by Port Jackson trees. Slides were shown of unspent bullets found. To date no proper archeological work has been done on the site.

Mr van Oordt showed us a series of excellent colour slides of various points on the battlefield and a slide of Sir Home Popham's chart showing the position of each of the 63 ships in the fleet. It also showed the landing beach in Losperds Bay used on 6 January 1806. He pointed out the position of the reef on which one of the Charlotte's boats landed and overturned in the rough surf with the loss of 37 lives. Most sailors could not swim in those days.

Mr Alan Mountain thanked the speaker for an interesting talk and congratulated him on his pioneering work before presenting him with the customary gift.


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Eye of the Firestorm: Strength lies in Mobility

Author: Roland de Vries; ISBN: 978-0-9921912-5-2; Paperback, 744 pages; Price: R 295,00

This book belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in the Border War, as well as military professionals wanting to know how warfare was practiced by the SADF.

For his battlefield exploits and tactical astuteness, Roland de Vries has rightfully been called the "Rommel of the SADF." In this forthright, warts-and-all but compassionate autobiography - crammed with fascinating military detail, yet unashamedly emotional - he recounts the fascinating story of the transformation of a small, colonial army into, pound-for-pound, the best fighting force on the planet. After assimilating the principles of such diverse military geniuses as Napoleon, Sun Tzu, Heinz Guderian and Boer general, Christiaan de Wet, he and a band of daring young commanders tossed aside military textbooks and developed their own doctrine of Mobile Warfare, South African-style.

De Vries's career bracketed the 22-year Border War and is irrevocably interwoven with the machine he helped create - the incomparable Ratel Infantry Combat Vehicle - and his beloved regiment, the renowned 61 Mech, as they are channelled through the funnel of history towards a final, climactic showdown against overwhelming odds in the mud and dust of southern Angola near a nondescript village called Cuito Cuanavale...

Die SAW in die Grensoorlog 1966-1989 / The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989
Afrikaans & English Editions

Author: Leopold Scholtz; ISBN: 9780624054085; Price (incl. VAT): R 350.00; Format: Soft cover, 544pp

Die SAW in die Grensoorlog 1966-1989 / The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989 offers the first comprehensive analysis of the South African Defence Force's role in the Border War in Namibia and Angola since the end of this conflict in 1989. It investigates the causes of the Border War and follows its progress and escalation in the 1980s. It also considers the broader international context against which this conflict took place.

The author brings vital new information to light gained from documents which have since been declassified. This includes documents from the State Security Council, the department of foreign affairs, the SADF itself, as well as from the Cuban and Soviet governments. It sheds light on the objectives of the National Party government in both Angola and the former Southwest Africa, the SADF?s strategy in the war and its cross-border operations in Angola.

To sketch as complete a picture as possible of individual operations, the author not only interviewed several high-ranking SADF officers, but also included information from the Cuban archives and testimonies of Cuban and Russian officers. All the major operations and battles are discussed, including Savannah, Reindeer, Sceptic, Protea and Moduler, as well as the battles of Cassinga and Cuito Cuanavale.

Where a battle had no clear winner, the author asks what the aim was of each of the parties involved and whether they succeeded in achieving that goal. In this way, he offers fresh perspectives on long-running and often controversial debates, for instance on who won the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. In the last chapter, the author looks at the objectives of all the parties involved in the war and whether they achieved them. In the process he tries to answer the all-important question: Who won the Border War?

Special Branch War
Slaughter in the Rhodesian Bush, Southern Matabeleland, 1976-1980

Author: Ed Bird; ISBN: 978-1-920143-74-9; Hardback, 320 pp., 100 colour & b/w images, maps; Price: R350.00

A litany of incidental slaughter ...

This searing account primarily covers Ed Bird's Special Branch (SB) service in the Beitbridge area of southern Matabeleland, 1976-1980, encompassing Operations Repulse and Tangent of the bitter Rhodesian 'bush war'. Joining the British South Africa Police (BSAP) in 1964, Bird cut his teeth on Selous Scout 'pseudo' operations during Operation Hurricane in 1974-1976, so was well equipped to deal with the insidious escalation of the ZANLA and ZIPRA campaigns in the south of the country. A meticulous recorder, Bird implemented and maintained the Beitbridge SB incident log, and it is this diary of terror and death upon which Bird's account hangs, interspersed with detailed accounts of firefights, ambushes, landmine blasts, ZANLA executions, traitors and assassinations, SB 'dirty tricks' and 'turning' terrorists. Although first and foremost an intelligence-gatherer, Bird thrived on combat and against all protocol inveigled his way onto Fire Force operations and as an airmobile MAG machine-gunner on converted Police Reserve Air Wing aircraft. Highly decorated for gallantry but overlooked for promotion, Bird?' BSAP career became victim to spurious political expedience.

Afrikaans & English Editions

Author: Al J Venter; ISBN: 978 0 7993 5185 9; Binding: Paperback, 700pp, colour & b/w images, maps; Price: R295.00 Publication date: July 2013

"We know what happened in the past, and can only speculate what the future may hold. But what we do know is that there will definitely still be conflict on the African continent.

So begins Al J Venter's most recent book, Guerrilla wars. Venter, who has achieved fame as war correspondent, documentary film maker and author, has more than 40 books under his belt, including Africa at war, Challenge: South Africa in the African revolutionary context, The Chopper Boys: Helicopter Warfare in Africa, The Zambezi Salient and War in Angola.

In Guerrilla Wars he asks the question, among others: Are circumstances in Asia still applicable to Africa? This can only be speculated on, but he is of the opinion that ostensibly it can, for conflict in all its forms is exactly that. In each fight there is always a winner and a loser, whether it?s in Africa, the Middle East or in Asia. Venter quotes the former founder-commander of the Selous Scouts, the late Lt-Col Ron Reid-Daly, who said: ?The West thinks it is fit for addressing Africa?s problems ? but the fact is, they haven?t even started.?

This book gives an overview of the various conflicts that have raged in Africa since 1960. Venter starts the first chapter with the statement: ?In a sense the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya was just as important as many of the guerrilla wars that followed shortly afterwards towards the south of this capricious continent.? In the following chapters he discusses, among others, Mike Hoare?s mercenary war in the Congo, the bush war in Western Africa, the background of the war in Mozambique, the Rhodesian exhaustive war, Puma helicopter operations, the gunfire helicopter operations with Koevoet, covert communications during South Africa?s Border War, the continuous battle for survival in the Congo and Executive Outcomes: the mercenary soldier syndrome.

Guerrilla wars is divided into five sections and covers 30 chapters, in which major events are discussed. It's a well-produced book, richly illustrated with photographs, of which some have never been published before.



There is a saying which purports that "the first casualty of war is truth". Of all the wars of the 20th Century, World War Two reigns supreme over the 300-odd conflicts of the period, where the historical truth in many instances are being manipulated, propagandised, obfuscated or simply mis-interpreted as a matter of policy or political expediency, disinformation, personal bias or simply ignorance. Operation "Citadel" (Battle of Kursk, July 5th-17th, 1943) is entrenched in history as being the "greatest tank battle in history" and that literally thousands of tanks participated in the pivotal battle at Prokhorovka between the 12-14th of July, 1943. But was that really the case? Our speaker is of the opinion that the accepted "official" historical view is seriously flawed for these very reasons and will challenge it on the basis of the findings of a number of in-depth studies undertaken by Russian, German, English and American historical researchers and authors in the recent past.

15 AUGUST 2013*: "DAAR KOM DIE CSS ALABAMA" by Willem Steenkamp

If there is one song almost all Capetonians know, it is "Daar Kom Die Alibama" (There comes the Alibama), and they might know vaguely that it is connected with an American warship of former times. But there is a lot more to the story of Confederate States Ship Alabama and why and how she used Cape Town as her temporary home port for a short while - and a number of interesting questions that are never asked or answered. For example, why did the American Civil War break out in the first place? How is Fort Wynyard connected with that story? And what was actor Clark Gable's connection? ...And then there is that famous song. Was it composed by some anonymous Cape Town street musician? The answer to that question is a surprise although a cryptic clue to its real origin is to be found in its strangely mismatched verses. Willem Steenkamp's talk coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Alabama's visit to Cape Town and its entry into local folklore.

Willem Steenkamp is indeed a man of many talents and in his varied and colourful career he accomplished all of the following: Journalist, soldier, author, historian, playwright, ex-member of the President's Council during the turbulent 1980s, tour guide (amongst others) and raconteur extraordinaire. It is in his role as historian and storyteller that society members know him best for his flair of bringing history to life, as if it was a sitcom written for TV. He is currently working on a trilogy recording the military history of the Cape, of which the first volume was published recently, and respectively being reviewed and received most positively by historians and the reading public.

* Please note that the August meeting is taking place on the THIRD THURSDAY OF THE MONTH due to the previous weekend being a long-weekend.

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

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /