South African Military History 


Newsletter / Nuusbrief 103 April 2013

The open house series on 11th March was by Pat Irwin on Jimmy, the Corps of Signals badge used in most commonwealth countries. Pat traced the origin of the badge and the possible reasons for its name. The evolution of the form and shape of the badge was shown both on slides and with some real examples.

The Annual General Meeting was held in lieu of the curtain raiser. The 2012 committee was re-elected for 2013/14:

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn
Secretary: Richard Keyter
Treasurer and venue coordinator Dennis Hibberd
Speaker Coordinator: Andre Crozier
Field trips co-ordinator: Ian Pringle
Social co-ordinator: Stephen Bowker
Coordinator for country members John Stevens
Scribes: Anne and Pat Irwin
The following decisions were taken: SAMHSEC is to continue with 12 meetings per year consisting of three presentations, namely a 5 minute presentation on any military history related subject, a 15 minute curtain raiser and a 40 minute main lecture. A speaker requiring more time should reserve more than one slot. The ‘World at War’ series before meetings in Port Elizabeth is to continue as are the weekend field trips in May and August. The June meeting will be held in Grahamstown on the second Saturday of the month with a field trip in the morning. The November meeting will be on the second Saturday of that month with a Port Elizabeth field trip in the morning followed by an end of year lunch function and a meeting in the afternoon. The December meeting will be a film evening.

The main lecture, illustrated with slides and titled A dependant’s tale – daughter of a SAAF pilot, 1946 – 1969 was by Barbara Kinghorn (née Vanston). Barbara submitted the following summary: Everyone has a unique story to tell. Mine is also generic, for there were many like me: Military Dependants, whose fathers returned from active service in the Second World War and chose to stay in the Union Defence Force as career pilots in the South African Air Force. Military Dependants are the spouses and children of military members who enjoy benefits, privileges and rights, such as health care and housing assistance. Our family depended on my father, Thomas Ramsay Vanston.

Tommy Vanston was born in Dundalk, Eire in 1919 and immigrated with his parents and elder sister to South Africa when he was three years old. He was educated at Graeme College and matriculated in Vereeniging. At the outbreak of WWII, he ‘ran away to war’ and, after several attempts, was released from his post as a Key Man, a trainee metallurgist, to join up and train as a pilot. Flying Mosquito aircraft, he saw duty in North Africa and Italy. His post-war career was unusual in that having been a much respected flying instructor and jet pilot in his prime, he converted to C-130s and was a transport pilot for the latter part of his flying career. In the early 1960s, he was the OC of 6 Squadron in Port Elizabeth (see 6 Squadron’s “Pasop” badge on the Harvard, right). For a time he was also Acting Officer Commanding, Swartkops Air Force Base in Pretoria. He took early retirement and died in 1979.

My tale begins at the Witbank swimming pool, where my father and his best friend, Plum, a farmer from the Karoo, were taking time out from their pilot training. Having spied two beautiful local girls, family legend has it that my father decided he would marry the one with the gorgeous legs and Plum married the other, Bobbie, my mother’s cousin, after whom I am named. My parents were married in 1945 when my father returned from Italy, and they were living in Pretoria when I was born in 1946.

Sometime in 1947, my father was transferred as a flying instructor to Central Flying School (CFS), Dunnottar, a small town half way between Springs and Nigel on the East Rand. Military housing was scarce, so we were privileged to have as our home a ‘Bungalow’: a long brick building with about six or seven separate rooms, each with one door to the outside. It had no running water, no kitchen, no bathroom, no lawn, no garden, no garage, no address and no inter-leading doors, until the night my Dad bashed an opening in the wall between my room and theirs, because I had a bad attack of croup and they had to keep going outside in order to reach me next door. After that, he did the same to all the inside walls and my mother made white K-sheeting curtains for each doorway. My Dad also erected a split-pole fence outside to demarcate our patch of Highveld grass and afford us some privacy as about four families in bungalows shared one ablution block.

In 1948/1949 my father volunteered for and participated in the Berlin Airlift. My mother was pregnant at the time, so while he was away she went to stay with Plum and Bobbie on their farm in Aberdeen. That’s why my brother was born in Graaff-Reinet, and it’s possible that his cerebral palsy was the result of rather misguided interventions to hasten his birth.

I was five when I started school in Sub-Nigel. Mrs Berry (mother of erstwhile TV presenter Dorianne Berry) owned it and taught in one of the two grey corrugated iron buildings. Mrs Tatham taught me and many other children of various ages in the other, which may explain why I did two grades in one year, so that I was only seven in Standard Two. We were transported there and back every day in a military vehicle; sometimes a Ford troop carrier truck, but mostly in a closed sort of panel van. During this time, my father was bitterly disappointed that he wasn’t included in the South African contingent in the United Nations’ operation known as the Korean War. I have vivid childhood memories of two young pilots, George Hammond Krohn and Flash Biden, who did go, and didn’t come back.

In 1953 my Dad went overseas to ‘see the Queen’ in London and marched in the rainy Parade on her Coronation Day. Afterwards we went to the bioscope in Springs to watch the news film of the event and were convinced that we had seen my father in that vast display of Commonwealth soldiery.

We children were dimly aware of what our Dads actually did at CFS, but I basked in reflected glory when our family went to live in Pretoria. Whenever school was interrupted by the ear-splitting whine of Vampire jets passing overhead, my class would rush out to see ‘Barbara’s Father’ disappearing over the horizon leaving a deafening noise in his wake. The crowning glory was when my class was even allowed to go and see the Vampires in their hangar at Swartkops Air Force Base one Saturday morning. Somehow my father’s being a Flying Cheetah, flying Sabre jets did not mean much when I progressed to high school, where I was very unhappy for two and a half years. It really was like a dream come true therefore, when we moved to Port Elizabeth: I escaped all that and went to Collegiate, where one of my teachers had a profound influence on my life.

‘Ma’ Kinghorn, my Science teacher, was also our neighbour at Eastern Province Command. Thanks to her encouragement, I successfully applied for an American Field Service Scholarship and after matriculating, I was an exchange student in the United States, living as a member of my ‘American Family’, for a senior high school year, 1964/65. For the first time I was able to take Art as a school subject and my teacher, Mr Brooks B. Darrow, persuaded me that my true calling was to be an Art Teacher.

I spent four happy years as a Beeldende Kunste-student at Tukkies being mildly rebellious and getting a rise out of my poor Dad, who worried that my shortened skirts and theatrical exploits could spoil his career. But it turns out that in spite of my best efforts at being determinedly un-Military, I am in fact a stereotypical Military Brat.

‘Military Brat’ is not a derogatory term in the USA, where it is used affectionately and respectfully to describe mature, self-reliant, responsible children of serving military personnel. The results of many studies confirm that Military Brats are shaped by frequent moves, pervasive military culture, the absence of a parent due to deployments, authoritarian family dynamics, strong patriarchal authority, stress caused by the threat of parental loss in war, inculcation into a warrior code of honour and service, frequent exposure to patriotic ideas and symbols and experience of free medical care (until the end of full-time studies) – all of which were part of my upbringing. Military Brats also have a strong affinity for service-related careers, such as nursing, the military and teaching...OR...the opposite. These Brats typically avoid direct subservience to authority figures and favour creative and artistic professions that offer more independence. So my antipathy towards Matters Military is not unusual: It had been predicted.

Furthermore, I exhibit other well-documented typical Military Brat characteristics: I have a desire to move or do something radically new every few years, I have been burdened with perfectionist tendencies, a warped sense of duty, and an unrealistically stringent work ethic.

So when I married ‘Ma’ Kinghorn’s son and continued my life of Dependancy in 1969, I knew exactly what to expect of him as a fellow Military Dependant, and the prospect of married life as a Soldaat se Vrou was not unknown territory – but that’s another story, to be told in August 2014.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe

The next meeting will be at 19h30 on 8th April at the usual venue. The curtain raiser will be by Ian Copley on The mystery of Lt Pilkington and the main lecture entitled His Majesty’s Schooner ‘Pickle’ will be delivered by John Stevens. The meeting will be preceded by the screening at 18h30 of the next episode in the ‘World at War’ series, The Bomb (February to September 1945).

Members are reminded too of the May field trip which will be from the 17th – 19th May. It will include sites related to Smuts’ and Kritzinger’s 1901 invasion of the Cape, Scheepers’ activities in 1901 and other points of interest along the way. Places to be visited include Klipplaat, Willowmore and Uniondale. All are welcome. Contact Malcolm Kinghorn for details (

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang

New members
We welcome Tony Lombard as a new member to the Society and trust it will be an enjoyable experience for him.

Individual members’ activities

Pat Irwin and John Stephens mounted a small exhibition on military history at the annual Hobbies Fair held during the National Science Festival in Grahamstown. The role of the SA Military History Society as well as military museums in encouraging an interest in the subject was also highlighted. Thanks to Joan Marsh for copies of the Society’s Journals which were on display.

HMSAS Southern Floe

The UK Branch of the South African legion recently held a remembrance parade at Portsmouth where the men of SAS President Kruger and HMT Mendi were commemorated. Notably absent was any mention of the men serving on HMSAS Southern Floe which sank with all hands bar one after striking a mine in the Mediterranean on 11th February 1941. Pat Irwin wrote to Brian Klopper, a fellow member and head of the SA Legion in Port Elizabeth, expressing concern at this presumed oversight. Brian fully concurred and has undertaken to inform the UK Branch of the Legion, requesting them to include the Southern Floe in any future commemorations.

Anglo-Boer War weekend, Richmond, Karoo

A conference to commemorate the 111th anniversary of the Anglo-Boer War will be held in the Karoo town of Richmond from 30th May – 1st June 2013. The programme includes a number of lectures by eminent authorities on the war as well as tours to places of interest, a re-enactment and the opportunity to socialise with people of similar interests. For more information, including the relatively inexpensive costs, contact John Donaldson at 081 270 8827 or

Pat Irwin is intending to attend. Please contact him if you are interested in joining him.

Erfenis Stigting / Heritage Foundation

This organisation is doing sterling work in conserving some of our most threatened heritage sites and repairing the damage done to others. Among these are a number of sites of military historical importance such as the equestrian statue of General De la Rey in Lichtenburg. For further details contact

Great Trek Anniversary: Military encounters of the Voortrekkers 1

Although this year marks the 175th anniversary of the start of the Great Trek, the first Trekkers (as distinct from hunters, traders and explorers) crossed the Orange River as early as 1835. For the next nine months we will feature, in chronological order, the major military encounters in which the Voortrekkers were involved between 1836 and 1848. Militarily, they had a mixed record. They had some spectacular victories and some major losses, the latter in most, but not all, cases when they were surprised or caught off guard. This month we briefly recount four quasi-military actions in the very early stages of the Trek. From what little is known of the encounter which led to the annihilation of ‘Lang’ Hans van Rensburg’s Party (10 men, 9 women and 30 children with nine wagons) on or about 4th August 1836, is that after their separating from the Trichardt Group, they were attacked and all killed, possibly for their livestock. It is conjectured that they had either neglected to, or not had time to, pull their wagons into a laager, a central feature of what future military successes the Trekkers had. Shangana oral tradition says that before they ran out of ammunition, cattle were driven in amongst the wagons to break up attempts at defence. By comparison, sometime in late 1836, the Trichardt Party consisting of only eight men, seven women and 34 children were able to repulse a BaVenda attack by forming a small laager. A further conjecture on the van Rensburg group is that they had been lured into a sense of complacency by the initial hospitality offered to them and were thus caught completely off guard. The truth of the event is likely to remain a permanent mystery as is the actual site of the battle which has not been determined. Louis Trichardt in his subsequent search for the group and the establishment of their deaths, was shown some of the items which he recognised as belonging to the van Rensburgs at the homestead of Soshangane (aka Sakala), like Mzilikazi a refugee from Shaka’s wrath, occupying the middle reaches of the Limpopo River and founder of the amaShangana tribe in modern day Mozambique.

Another incident is that of a hunting party of ten led by Stephanus Erasmus, whose camp was attacked and overrun without warning by one of Mzilikazi’s amabuto on the banks of the Vaal sometime in August 1836. It appears that they too had not formed a laager and only a handful, including Erasmus and one of his three sons, managed to escape to warn the Liebenberg, Steyn and Botha camps, further upstream, of the approach of the amaNdebele army. The Liebenberg Group apparently failed to heed the warning and the party of 24 men, women and children were wiped out, except for two small children who were carried off as captives and later died of fever. The Botha and Steyn groups by contrast, rapidly formed a laager and on 25th August, 50 armed men and their families were able to beat off some 1 000 amaNdebele warriors in a six-hour battle, with the loss of only one man, in what became known as ‘The battle of the Vaal’. When news of these events filtered through to the Trekkers led by Sarel Cilliers and A H (Hendrik) Potgieter in the area south of the Vaal, it is probable that a reassessment of the precautions which were needed, based on experience in the Eastern Cape Frontier wars, took place and was put into practice at the Battle of Vegkop – the subject of the May SAMHSEC Newsletter.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang


C130 Hercules gradually being replaced
BBC News UK 4 March 2013

Spitfire returns to sky at RAF Coningsby
BBC News UK 13 December 2012


What do UK's military scientists do on the frontline?
BBC News Science and Environment 5 January 2013

Cold War

Georgia divided over Stalin 'local hero' status in Gori
BBC News Europe Bethany Bell 5 March 3013

Naval history

USS Monitor sailors laid to rest at Arlington cemetery
BBC News 8 March 2013

World War II

Nazi prisoners bugged by Germans
BBC News 18 January 2013 Mario Cacciottolo

Germans who fought for Britain in World War II
BBC News 1 May 2010

The Germans who took up arms against Hitler
BBC News 30 April 2010 Mario Cacciottolo

Post WW II pictures
Jon Ossher has sent us the following fascinating site

He downed 21 Nazi planes but WW2 ace’s medals sold to pay care home fees
The Sun 27 February 2013

John Wilpers, WWII veteran and Tojo captor, dies at 93
BBC News US & Canada / The New York Times 4 March 2013

Russia marks 70 years since Battle of Stalingrad
BBC News Europe 2 February 2013

Stalingrad, then and now in pictures

When Ian Fleming picked my grandfather to steal Nazi secrets
BBC News Justin Rowlatt 6 March 2013

World War Tatt-two: etchings of battles and heroes
The Sun 7 November 2013

Hitler assassination plotter Von Kleist dies
BBC News 13 March 2013

Anglo-Boer War

Franco Cilliers has sent in two fascinating links relating to Gideon Scheepers. Our 'bikers' (Dennis, Alwyn and Miggie et al.) and those contemplating the May Field trip will find them particularly interesting.

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmateriaal van krygsgeskiedkundige belang

Robson Linda 2011 The Royal Engineers and settlement planning in the Cape Colony 1806-1872: Approach, methodology and impact. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Pretoria.

The subject of this doctoral thesis is likely to attract the interest of a number of military historians in South Africa and abroad, given the historical impact on the country of that remarkable Corps of 19th century talent. What promises from the title however, to be a significant contribution to the role and legacy of the Royal Engineers in the Cape is a major disappointment.

The document talks of the need for ‘scholarly study’ in the field but falls far short of it. For a PhD, it is overly descriptive with very little of the critical engagement and incisive analysis which one might reasonably expect from work at this level. Leaving aside methodological problems, there is minimal theoretical underpinning and the work is in general theoretically weak. It is sometimes conceptually confused and uses terminology inconsistently: in this context it would have been a good idea to have had someone with military understanding to have looked over it. There are many sweeping and unsubstantiated statements which beg explanation and, regrettably, much ‘politically correct’ nonsense.

Also of concern are the resources used. While superficially impressive, there are many questions. Where, for example, is reference to Coetzee’s 1995 monumental work on the fortifications of the Eastern Cape – which is focused on the Royal Engineers? Why is Stretch’s very problematic 1876 account the only one referenced for the Battle of Grahamstown? What is the relevance of the reference to Lenin’s 1917 (not 1999!) article on capitalism? Finally one might comment on the lack of careful proofreading and language editing. On the positive side, this work does provide a stepping stone for a more thorough study in the future. It also brings together some of the scattered and disparate sources of information on the Royal Engineers in South Africa. Other than that, there is little to be learned from this thesis.

Kraal Uitgewers has very recently published a new book compiled and edited by General Jannie Geldenhuys.  It is entitled How the Soviets and Cubans Lost the War in Southern Africa and will be marketed primarily as a companion to the book We were There - Winning the War for Southern Africa which was published during the course of last year. The Afrikaans version is not yet obtainable, but is in the pipeline. The book is obtainable at the Kraal Uitgewers' offices at Solidariteit/ Afriforum in Centurion. Interested persons can call 012-644-4329 to order their copies.

Anglo-Boer War video: 1 hour 20 minutes video. Published 27th January 2013.
This production is from a distinctly British perspective. While the commentary is often dodgy with ample doses of self-righteousness, a patronising tone and some interesting omissions, it contains interesting footage relating to the war and is well worth watching, if only to remind ourselves that there are other views of what that brutal conflict was about.

Members are invited to send in to the scribes, short reviews of, or comments on, books, DVDs or any other interesting resources they have come across.

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn:
Secretary: Richard Keyter:
Scribes (Newsletter): Anne and Pat Irwin:
Society’s Web address


The 8th-9th March was the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads. It was an inconclusive engagement between the American Confederate Navy and the American Union navy but one that changed the face of naval warfare overnight. On Saturday 8th March, the Confederate ironcvlad CSS Virginia sank two Union Navy heavy frigates and forced three more to run aground before the tide ebbed and she had to withdraw. She had taken several full broadsides from the prid on the Union navy without sustaining any substantial damage. The following day the Union ironclad USS Monitor, smaller with fewer guns, but more heavily armoured and mounting a rotating turret appeared on the scene. The two ironclads then slugged it out for four hours until an undeclared stalemet was reached. Neither had seriously damaged the other, but given the performance ofthe ironclads, all wooden warships were now rendered obsolete. A matter of only four decades later the great "Dreadnoughts" were dominating the seas.

South African Military History Society /