South African Military History 


Newsletter / Nuusbrief 107 August/ Augustus 2013

In the open house series, Ian Pringle recounted a moving love story from the Anglo Boer War about Lt. Arthur William Swanston of the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, who hailed from Berwick-upon-Tweed in Scotland. He was heroically killed in 1900 trying to save the life of a fellow soldier while involved in skirmish with members of the Heidelberg Commando in the Chrissiemeer District of the eastern Transvaal. What is touching about this story is the way in which for the next 65 years his one-time fiancée in Scotland arranged for flowers to be placed on his grave.

The lady concerned, with the assistance of the local postmaster in Chrissiesmeer, used to send out annually a bouquet of either pink or blue heather wrapped in a beautiful ribbon and these would be placed on the grave. During all this time the staff from the local post office cared for the grave and regularly painted the surrounding fence. When the fiancée was in her early eighties she wrote to say that through advancing age she would no longer be able to honour the grave and after this the flowers arrived only once more. That was in about 1965 and in her last letter she thanked the postmaster and all those who had served previously in the position for attending so kindly to her request over the decades.

Chrissiesmeer has an annual Wild Flower Day and on this day members of the local community hold a special ceremony and place wild flowers on Lt. Swanston's grave. It has become a lasting tribute in a love story that has spanned generations and brought reconciliation. Alongside Swanston lie a number of other English graves, including that of Private Garlick, whose life Swanston tried to save, together with a memorial dedicated to the members of the Heidelberg Commando who were also killed in the action. All the graves, regardless of what side one may have fought on, are cared for by the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Both the curtain raiser and the main lecture were presented by McGill (Mac) Alexander. In the former, titled The development of the South African Army College, Mac traced the origins and growth of the College over the past 100 years and the crucial role it has played in the training and education of South African soldiers, particularly the officer corps. Starting with the founding of the ‘South African Military School’ in the old Presidency in Bloemfontein in 1912, the establishment was unique in the British Commonwealth because of the integration of former foes in its composition and the merging of two distinct and often disparate military systems. Its purpose was to train officers and instructors. After closure during the First World War, the College was re-opened in 1920 at what was then called Roberts’ Heights (later Voortrekkerhoogte) outside Pretoria in a beautiful building that it and its successors occupy to this day.

In 1924 the name was changed to the South African Military College and included a number of branches such as G-Branch for general military training, Signals and Musketry. All Permanent Force officers at the time were also trained as artillery officers within the G-Branch. Over the years that followed, the College had many different branches, some of which became the nucleus for the establishment of well-known military schools and even the Military Academy. As such, the College played a fundamental role in shaping the Defence Force and training its best-known officers. Whereas in most countries a Military Academy was responsible for forming and educating young officers, while a Staff College undertook the highest level of officer training, in South Africa both tasks were, for many decades, done by the Military College.

Mac presented a chart in which he outlined the development of some of the other training establishments which sprang from the College, such as the Schools of Signals, Medical Training and Gunnery. These and other establishments reached the point where they became established in their own right in different parts of the country. Gunnery eventually moved to Potchefstroom, Infantry to Oudtshoorn, and Armour to Bloemfontein. Many, such as Signals and the Services School, went to Pretoria. At one stage the Police were also trained at the College but split away to become the South African Police College. In 1951, the College’s Air Staff Wing became the South African Air Force College. By 1968 the nature of the College’s functions was such that it underwent a further name change to the South African Army College, which it retains to this day.

The main lecture, The Pondoland Revolt and Operation Swivel (1960 – 1961): Genesis of airborne operations in southern Africa examined the political background to this event and the military operation to supress it and the early role of aircraft in this context.

The relatively small military operation that took place in Pondoland between November 1960 and February 1961 is one of the least known of modern counter-insurgency campaigns. What little has been said about it is generally shrouded in the rhetoric of the liberation struggle and has been moulded to suit specific political agendas. Yet it was a significant campaign because of the successes that were achieved, both by the insurgents and ultimately, by the security forces, and the profound effect it had on the future thinking of both the liberation movements and the security forces of the state that they opposed. Both sides had meagre resources compared to subsequent campaigns of the so-called ‘Thirty Years’ War’ of insurgency and liberation within the Southern Africa theatre of operations, but there were important principles applied by them during the insurgency.

The Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 had identified certain tribal reserves that were to be given self-government and eventual independence. The government-sponsored tribal authorities, with their chiefs and headmen on the payroll of the National Party government, were encountering strong opposition from many of the people living in these areas. Poverty, overcrowding, government interference in traditional practices and the corrupt actions of many of those in the pay of the government (actions that included the collection of illegal and inflated taxes for themselves) resulted in factions both supporting and opposing the authorities. Clashes occurred with increasing frequency between the factions, and against government officials and the police.

Contrary to the claims on which much popular modern ANC mythology is based, there appears to be little evidence that this rural resistance was orchestrated by, or even directly linked to, the actions of the African National Congress. Rather, it was part of a larger, spontaneous sense of anger amongst those of the suppressed black majority that burst forth as a result of the intensification of the implementation of apartheid policy by the National Party government in the 1950s. The tribal peasantry living in the reserves could simply no longer tolerate the social effects of the draconian measures that were being imposed on them. Women, often alone in rural areas because of the migrant labour system, were often in the forefront of the opposition. The most significant uprising of several which took place in the late fifties and early sixties, termed the iKongo movement, took place in the rugged and forested countryside of Pondoland. After fruitless attempts to engage government agents and magistrates to hear their grievances, the resistance of the local people reached open rebellion with protest meetings and incidents of violence organised around what was called the ‘Hill Committee’ or Intaba in March 1960. The local police and magistrates were powerless to prevent the anarchy and mayhem that ensued. Those who belonged to iKongo were quickly made targets of police repression, so they hid in the remote mountains and forests of that part of the Transkei Territory, set up a rival administration and attacked, burnt the huts and slaughtered the livestock of government supporters. Several chiefs and headmen were murdered.

On 6th June 1960, a meeting of about 250 people took place at Ngquza Hill between Bizana and Lusikisiki. The police arrived in force, using 16 vehicles and supported by SAAF aircraft (two Harvards and one Sikorsky S-55 helicopter). The Harvards dropped tear gas as well as smoke bombs. At some point a shoot-out took place which led to the deaths of at least 14 people. In the climate of fear, unrest and racial polarisation that pervaded South Africa in 1960, this tragic confrontation and its outcome were almost inevitable. Coming as it did less than three months after the Sharpeville shootings, this was an ominous development in the overall South African situation. Rather than stopping iKongo in its tracks, the heavy-handedness of the government only served to fuel the insurgency. Between 7th June 1960 and 1st July that year, the South African Police recorded 49 incidents of hut burning in the Bizana District alone.

After the incident at Ngquza Hill, the police were no longer able to control the situation and the Defence Force was sent in to support them. There were in fact two, partly concurrent, military operations carried out after Ngquza Hill. The first was Operation OTTER, which was run from a joint operations room established at the military base on the Bluff in Durban. It consisted of Air Force and Navy patrols along the east coast of South Africa to determine whether any foreign aid to the rebels, particularly Russian, was taking place.

The second operation during the Pondo Revolt was given the code-name SWIVEL. This was the deployment of Army elements in Pondoland, backed by Air Force support. A battle Group called ‘Alpha’ was formed under the command of Commandant Jan Burger SM, OBE, a World War II veteran. Ultimately, the Army was only deployed in Pondoland for about four months, though the confusion between police and military identities that permeates most pro-liberation movement narratives results in, at the very least, the absolutely incorrect impression that the area was saturated by the military from early 1960 to well into 1963.

Mac then outlined the Union Defence Force component which never exceeded 450 men including support troops – medical, workshops and a quartermaster platoon. Effectively, in actual operations, the Army could deploy only about 70 men. At the time of the troop deployment in early December 1960 there were also approximately 280 policemen in the area, who manned checkpoints and guarded vulnerable installations such as power stations and water reservoirs to prevent acts of sabotage by the insurgents.

The air support to both the SAP and the SA Army from early December 1960 consisted of one piston-engined Sikorsky S-55 and two newly acquired turbine-engined Alouette II helicopters from 17 Squadron, four Harvards from 5 Squadron and two Austers from 42 AOP (Air Observation Post) Flight. These operated from the Bizana airstrip. The Harvards were authorised to carry out strikes on request, using smoke or teargas bombs, but lethal weapons could only be used with the personal authority of the Commandant-General of the SADF. The light aircraft (the Austers and Harvards) were used for reconnaissance and to ‘buzz’ unlawful assemblies, causing dissidents to disperse. The Harvards also carried out teargas strikes on forest hideouts.

Because the terrain in Eastern Pondoland is extremely rugged and broken, with numerous rivers crossing the area, deep gorges, and with almost impenetrable indigenous forests in the valleys, combined with the poor roads and the rainy season, vehicle mobility was extremely limited. Because of this, Burger made extensive use of helicopters from the start of the deployment, and in doing so became the pioneer of tactical air-mobility in South Africa. Operation SWIVEL was the first-ever military operational employment of rotary-wing aircraft by the SADF. Initially, the helicopters were used to aid command and control during the operations as well as for the transporting of troops, especially when extricating men who had been patrolling in remote and inaccessible areas. The helicopters could, however, never transport more than three men at a time due to their size and limited capacity. General reconnaissance, road and airfield reconnaissance were primary tasks of especially the Auster aircraft. They and the Harvards were also able to watch for escape attempts during search operations. Battle Group Alpha only deployed for a total of four months.

It is understandable that the rhetoric of liberation should be couched in terms that convey the message of brutal oppression and heroic resistance, but this is not necessarily good or accurate history. Mac drew attention to some of the myths which have been created around this operation:
1. “The revolt was ultimately crushed by a massive military intervention by the crack Black Watch Brigade [sic], which surrounded the region, cut off all roads and then went in to smash all opposition.” Ben Turok (The ANC and the Turn to Armed Struggle). The fact is that at its height in December 1960, there were 37 officers and 410 other ranks from the Army deployed in Operation SWIVEL, including HQ staff and logistic personnel. This was hardly a brigade, which may number 3 000 to 5 000 men – it was not even a battalion. Doing the infantry work on the ground, were ten officers and 312 other ranks – in other words, two companies.

2. Govan Mbeki in Jackboot over Pondoland instigated another myth stating that “several columns of ‘Saracen tanks’ [sic] were included amongst the units that deployed into the Transkei from Natal”. The fact is that no armoured vehicles of any sort were used.

3. The TRC, possibly inadvertently, promoted a third myth: that “the SADF carried out a parachute attack and the police a helicopter assault at Ngquza Hill”. The fact is that the Army were not deployed at the time of the Ngquza Hill killings and had neither a parachute capability, nor a helicopter assault capability at that stage. Not a single death was caused by the army during Operation SWIVEL. Only two shots were fired by soldiers (every round of ammunition was accounted for): one wounded an insurgent in the arm and the other was a warning shot fired when a guard was attacked.

In conclusion, the military operation was to have far-reaching effects on the thinking of the SADF regarding airborne forces and rural counter-insurgency operations. The lessons learned from Operation SWIVEL laid the foundations for future helicopter air-mobile tactics by the SADF. The campaign was an outstanding example of the innovative use of air power by an exceptional commander, in order to gain the initiative through mobility in terrain that favoured the insurgents. It was also the first SADF experience of a modern rural counter-insurgency operation.

For the opponents of apartheid, it also had great significance both political and military. It may have had a direct bearing on the decision of the ANC to resort to the armed struggle. During much of 1960 iKongo had almost complete control of many districts of Pondoland, issued a constitution, established a political hierarchy and convened its own courts. It even petitioned the United Nations to be recognised as an independent Pondo state. Poqo, the forerunner of the PAC’s Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) showed a marked resemblance to the iKongo in terms of membership, methods and certain of its objectives. Its establishment of functioning alternative structures made it probably the most successful modern insurgent movement in South Africa up to that time.

Though it is a little-known campaign that has been relegated to the periphery of the history of the conflict in Southern Africa, the Pondo Revolt and Operation SWIVEL were together a portent of things to come for both insurgents and security forces. Perhaps this was the real start of the ‘Thirty Years’ War’.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe

SAMHSEC’s next meeting will be on 12th August 2013 at 19h30 at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be 1939 to 1941: South Africa’s finest hour? by Andre Crozier. The main lecture to be presented by John Parkinson is titled HMS Hermes: Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf in 1941. The meeting will be preceded by the screening at 18h30 of the second episode of the ‘World at War’ series which was not broadcast on TV. This is titled Episode C – Warrior.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang

New members

We welcome, Denise Fielding (East London) and Vicky Bell (Dordrecht) as new members of the South African Military History Society and hope that their association with SAMHSEC will be happy and fulfilling.

Individual members’ activities

Richard Tomlinson has had an article published entitled ‘Searchlights in SaldanhaBay’ in the May 2013 edition (No 97) of Casemate, the Journal of the Fortress Study group in the UK. Ian Pringle has recently visited the cemetery in Chrissiemeer (see story above). Fred and Brenda Nel attended OVSAC’s re-enactment of the Battle of Kursk in 1943, near Bloemfontein. Dennis Hibberd, John Stevens, Malcolm Kinghorn and Pat Irwin represented SAMHSEC at the Annual workshop of the SA Genealogical Society held at the Cory Library in Grahamstown in July.

Goeie nuus Kryggeskiedkundiges

Danksy vermelde staatsbydraes, asook die gewaardeerde bydraes van ‘n aantal privaat donateurs, was dit vir die Erfenisstigting moontlik om sedert die begin van die vorige finansiële jaar verskeie belangrike projekte af te handel, wat van kryggeskiedige belang is, waaronder:
Die herstel en opknapping van meer as 30 konsentrasiekamp- en verwante begraafplase.

Die herstel en opgradering van die Louis Trichardt Gedenktuin in Maputo, teen ‘n koste van R135 000.00.

Die toekenning van ‘n bedrag van R350 000,00 vir herstelwerk  aan O’Neill se Kothuis in KZN. Die beplanning daarvoor is gereed, maar daar word nog vir ‘n permit van KZN AMAFA verwag om die werk te begin.

2014 Anglo-Boer War Conference

Advance notice is given of a conference to commemorate the 115th anniversary of the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War. It will be hosted by the Talana Museum in Dundee, KZN from 19th to 21st October 2014. Further details will follow as they become available.

Great Trek 175th anniversary: Military encounters of the Voortrekkers 5

This month we note two military engagements which took place between the Blaauwkranz Massacre and The Battle of Blood River/Ncome viz. the disaster at Italeni and the successful defence at Veglaer. After February 1838, the Trekkers, although in substantial disarray and fearful of further amaZulu attacks, began to plan retribution upon Dingane and the recovery of the livestock which they had lost. They also appealed to the Trekker groups on the Highveld for assistance, particularly those of Piet Uys and Hendrik Potgieter. Both of these groups responded and Uys was elected Commandant but Potgieter refused to serve under him. It was subsequently agreed that, although they would be fighting together, each commando would remain under their own leaders – a decision which was to have disastrous consequences.

The two commandos, totalling 374 men in two separate columns, set out on 5th and 6th April. Sometime between the 9th and 11th (accounts vary) near the Babonango Hills, a number of Zulu men were captured and offered to lead the commandos to the site of the amaZulu army near umGungundlovu, Dingane’s capital. They in fact led them into a well-planned trap where the main amaZulu army, led by the respected and experienced commander Nzoba, was waiting for them. Each column attacked a different part of the amaZulu army and here controversy arises. The commandos were soon partially surrounded and had to fight their way out. Potgieter’s commando got out relatively easily and it was here that he was accused of failing to support Uys who, with nine others, including his son Dirkie, who against all admonition to the contrary went to his father’s aid, were killed. Those who escaped and returned became known as the Vlugkommando (the commando which ran away). The engagement has become known as the Battle of Italeni.

[Like much of South African history there are a range of interpretations of the events around the battle. For a balanced and well-informed view, even though 34 years old, see Ian Uys’ ‘The Battle of Italeni’ in the Military History Journal 4 (5) 167 – 171 & 187. June 1979. ]

In the aftermath of the battle, Potgieter was accused of cowardice which resulted in him and his followers leaving Natal and returning to the Winburg-Potchefstroom ‘republic’ area (today’s northern Free State). Once again, the lessons of fighting in the open against superior numbers of highly mobile and well trained infantry had to be learned the hard way. The lesson of Vegkop, of fighting primarily from the safety of a laager, had again been neglected, but was to be applied with devastating effect at the Battle of Blood River/Ncome later in the year.

Having consolidated their laagers after Blaauwkrantz, Maritz had managed to replenish the Trekkers’ ammunition and other supplies through Durban during May, including the acquisition of a small cannon. The main laager of about 300 wagons was located on a ridge called Gatsrand (sometimes referred to as Gatslaer) near present day Estcourt and it was here that Dingane’s army struck again on 13th August. This time the Trekkers were well prepared and by a combination of sorties outside the laager and retreating back to into it when needed, they were able to ward off a determined attack of an estimated 10 000 amaZulu under the able and experienced commander Ndhlela nTuli, for three days. Accounts disagree on whether one or two cannon were employed but it or they proved their value sufficiently to be taken on the expedition to Blood River later in the year.

On the morning of 15th, the amaZulu army, unable to break into the laager, withdrew taking with them the bulk of the Trekkers’ cattle. Once again the laager had proved its worth and from this time on, the Gatslaer laager was called Veglaer. AmaZulu losses are difficult to determine, but contemporary claims of 3 000 dead are probably a considerable exaggeration. With growing confidence the Trekkers now began to plan in earnest for a punitive expedition to both retrieve their livestock and to destroy the power of Dingane.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

Wars of the Roses

Taking Shakespeare to the battlefield

Jason Caffrey BBC World Service, Towton battlefield, Yorkshire 17th July 2013.

American Civil War

150 Years Later, two states are still fighting over the Battle of Gettysburg
National Journal 28th June 2013

World War I

Burial of South African soldiers killed in WW I
Western Front Association 3rd July 2013
[Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. It was designed by Sir Herbert Baker and is maintained by the CWGC.  There are 11 908 graves registered within Tyne Cot and, of this total 70% are of soldiers whose names are not known.  On the wall at the back of the cemetery are the names of 34 927 soldiers who have no known grave and who died from August 1917 to the end of the war – Scribes.]

World War II

Hitler's taster feared death each meal
News 24 1st July 2013

Navajo Codetalkers - some true World War II American heroes of the U.S. Marine Corps
William Slater’s CIS 608 Blog 29th October 2011

Food Rationing in WW II

BBC History 20th May 2013

70 years on, Britain's last Dambuster takes on one last mission.
Mail Online Helen Lawson 16th May 2013 updated 3rd July 2013 91-appeals-1-000-people-raise-1-000-protect-Bomber-Command-memorial.html

Secret Dambuster papers detail heroics of our bomber crews
The Mail on Sunday (London) 12th May 2013

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – superb photographs
Mail OnLine Mark Duell 1st July 2013

1944 Spitfire crash landing and historical research tracing the pilot
Flight Journal Mike Harbour 28th May 2013
[This is good military history! - Scribes]


Little Willie, the world's first tank.
The Tank Museum, Bovington, UK

70 years on: The Kursk legacy: Will there ever be another massive tank battle?
Tom de Castella BBC News Magazine 5th July 2013

Force, pressure and surface area - ballerina vs. tank
BBC Classic Clips

Explore a WW I Mark I tank
BBC History 2013
[This is a fascinating animation - Scribes.]

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundige belang

Commonwealth War Graves Commission Report

The Quarterly Management Report (April – June 2013) of the CWGC is available from Malcolm Kinghorn for those who wish to obtain a copy. It is 2Mb.

Military History of Robben Island

A new book produced by the Naval Heritage Trust, Island at war: Robben Island 1939 – 1945 written by Col. Lionel Crook has been brought to our attention by Richard Tomlinson. The book covers the story of Robben Island during the years of war (1939 – 1945), the politics before that time, and after the war, the Coastal Artillery School, the SA Corps of Marines and finally the Naval interlude, ending with the handover to the Prisons Department.  It includes an overview of coast artillery at other ports and ends with the restoration of the 9.2-inch guns on the Island. [Very little has been written on the military history of Robben Island and the place is well worth a visit from this perspective. Apart from the 9.2” guns particular points of interest are the number of WW II fortifications unique in South Africa and of which very few remain anywhere else in the world - Scribes. ]

Individual books are available from the SA Naval Museum at a cost of R250.00 each or can be ordered from the Naval Heritage Trust, P O Box 521, Simon’s Town, 7995 with an additional R50.00 for postage and packaging.  The price to book shops is R150 per book for bulk orders of 5 books or more. Richard has contacted the Trust enquiring whether if we had five takers we may be able to get it at the reduced price. The response was ’Yes’ and Richard has agreed co-ordinate a possible bulk purchase from SAMHSEC. If anyone is interested in obtaining a copy of what promises to be a valuable addition to South African military history, please contact Richard at either 083 558 2277 or at

For anyone wishing to purchase a book individually, orders can be placed by email either to Admiral Chris Bennett at or to Lieutenant-Commander Leon Steyn at Payment can either be made by cheque to the Naval Heritage Trust or paid directly into their account: Naval Heritage Trust, Standard Bank, Fishhoek. A/c 072 102 276. Branch Code 036 009

Clark Richard A & Knake Robert K 2010 Cyber War: The next threat to national security and what to do about it New York HarperCollins 290pp h/b R220.00

Your scribes have received a few enquiries about books and materials on cyber-warfare in this early stage of its history. This book, despite being a little dated is a very good, introduction to the topic and readily available in South Africa. As the dust cover accurately notes “Cyber war is not some victimless, clean, new kind of war that we should embrace. Nor is it some kind of secret weapon that we need to keep hidden from the daylight and from the public.” Despite being shrouded in government secrecy, it is the public and their national systems that are most likely to suffer in a cyber war. Although strongly American oriented, the book has equal application elsewhere in the world including South Africa.

Three recent articles on the same topic are:
#1. Gross Michael Joseph ‘Silent war’ Vanity Fair July 2013. This is a non-technical layman’s guide to some of the most recent developments in cyber-warfare such as ‘Flame’ and ‘Stuxnet’. Of course many of the points made are also strongly contested and contestable. It can be viewed at:

#2. Phillips Kyle Genaro Unpacking Cyberwar: The Sufficiency of the Law of Armed Conflict in the Cyber Domain NDU Press. July 2013. It can be viewed at:

#3. Kington Tom ‘Across Europe, Nations Mold Cyber Defenses’ DefenseNews 9th July 2013. It can be viewed at:

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.

In this Newsletter there have been contributions by Richard Tomlinson, John Stevens, Malcolm Kinghorn, Barry Irwin, Michael Irwin, Fred Nel, Jonathan Ossher and Franco Cilliers.

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

South African Military History Society /