South African Military History 


Newsletter / Nuusbrief 106 July/Julie 2013

The June meeting, held in Grahamstown on Saturday afternoon 8th, was attended by about 30 members and their guests. It was preceded by a morning visit to Burnt Kraal, a former farm and home of Piet Retief, now located within the Grahamstown Military Base. SAMHSEC expresses its gratitude to Col. Fred Oelschig for organising this.

Die voorstuk, ‘n Psigobiografiese persoonlikheidsbeskrywing van Generaal Christiaan de Wet, was deur Riana Henning aangebied. Riana shared the results of her psychobiographical research on the personal characteristics of General Christiaan de Wet using Casta and McCrae’s five-factor model.

De Wet was born on 7th October 1854 on the farm Leeuwkop in the district of Smithfield in the Orange Free State. Apart from three months of formal schooling, he was educated mainly by his mother and grandmother. He married at the age of 19 and his wife bore him 17 children.

He had an entrepreneurial spirit which was evident in the several enterprises in which he engaged, such as transport riding, selling chickens and investing his profits.

De Wet joined the Heidelberg Kommando at the start of the Anglo-Boer war and quickly, through force of personality, rose through the ranks to lead his own kommando and become a general. After the fall of the two republics, De Wet was instrumental in the continuation of the war by means of guerrilla tactics. In this he was to a large extent successful by keeping a keen eye on British movements and exploiting their weaknesses. He used his imagination in setting false trails and was himself so mobile that he was often called the Boer Pimpernel as he seemed to be everywhere and anywhere. Despite some narrow escapes the British never caught him.

In terms of his personality, research indicates that although De Wet had a sense of humour, he was an impatient, moody man, a perfectionist, and given to anger when his orders were not followed. He was particularly bitter about the burning of farm houses and the death of his children. Religion, nationalism and patriotism were very important to De Wet. Arising from his strong political views, he supported the 1914 Rebellion, while he was the Minister of Agriculture, but was eventually captured and accused of treason. While De Wet tended to be shy, preferring to remain in the background rather than enjoying the limelight, he is also known to have been sarcastic at public gatherings and as an extrovert who cared about the welfare of his friends and neighbours. An example of this was his participation in the inoculation of neighbours’ cattle against the rinderpest.

Christiaan de Wet was in his time, and is still today, widely regarded as a successful military leader, despite having had no prior military training. Riana’s research indicates this may be because he had the natural characteristics of a leader who used his intuition to the full.

He is buried at the foot of the Vrouemonument in Bloemfontein.

The main lecture, by Col. Fred Oelschig, was on 6 South African Infantry Battalion, Grahamstown, focusing on the period 1982 – 1986 during which he was the Officer Commanding the Base and the Unit. He introduced his talk by outlining the historical origins, organisational structure and functioning of the Unit as well as the aspirations which an officer commanding a unit might have.

The military base in Grahamstown had its origins in 44 Air School during World War II when it was part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. 6 SAI was established in 1963 as one of several infantry training units around the country as the perceived military threat facing South Africa escalated. This was also the beginning of national service being stepped up from a ballot-orientated three months to a general call-up system of two years. The geographical recruitment area of 6 SAI was the Cape Province, the Orange Free State and the northern Transvaal and by 1982 the Unit was taking in 5 000 young men for training in its annual July intakes.

Once the recruits had arrived, usually by train, and were ensconced in camp, a process took place to select the men most suited to the various musterings and specialisations required by the army, such as Special Forces, paratroopers, ‘ops medics’ and infantry section leaders. Within this context, Fred drew attention to the difficulties inherent in basic training in which men from a wide variety of backgrounds – what he termed ‘a cauldron representing all levels of white male society’ – had to be welded into a cohesive and functioning body. This, as anyone who has experienced military training in South Africa will know, was not an easy task, usually carried out by junior officers and non-commissioned officers.

Fred enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy in running the Base and the Unit which allowed him a flexible approach and the opportunity to deal in innovative ways with many of the issues which arose in training. These ranged from engaging with recruits who were motivated and keen to do their service, to dealing with unwilling conscripts whose aim was to disrupt the system, as well as a variety of deviants such as drug users and devil worshippers. Attempted suicides were rare but also occurred. Homosexuality, although a tiny percentage of each intake, also led to a number of problems and required out-of-the box thinking to deal with. In this situation Fred in-spanned the base Ladies Club which led to a solution with which all could live.

The men’s general welfare was another important aspect. This varied from parents’ concerns, to the ‘troopies’ being involved in an excessive number of road accidents either while on pass or AWOL. In the first case these were largely resolved by requiring every instructor to have personal knowledge of the men in their company or platoon and to keep the OC informed of their health and circumstances on a daily basis so that he could deal promptly with parents’ enquires. Parents were kept informed and involved where it was practicable, and at passing-out parades frequently expressed pride in what the army had made of their sons. In the second case the issue was greatly mitigated by allowing the men to bring their cars to camp, where not only were they provided with shaded parking, but the Base’s Tiffies were allowed to affect repairs and maintenance after hours. Another innovative idea which took some persuasion on the part of the Regimental Sergeant-Major was, on occasion, the playing of Cat Stevens’ Morning has broken instead of the traditional Reveille. Dealing with the press and adverse publicity, aided and abetted by organisations such as the ‘End Conscription Campaign’ and the ‘Black Sash’, was another major challenge. Fred described the case of how he dealt with a very antagonistic and provocative young woman reporter by facilitating everything she wanted to see and participate in. This approach, as well as making sure that she was always accompanied and assisted by the best looking young officers, resulted in her writing an article very favourable to 6 SAI and the SADF in general.

Fred then turned to the thorny issue of the Unit’s involvement in the 1984 Grahamstown riots – the first real urban riots in South Africa. The army had been called in to assist the South African Police who had failed to contain the situation. 6 SAI had not been trained for the task and again innovative thinking had to be employed to protect people and property. Examples were given of how looting, pillaging and burning were brought under control inter alia, by the use of WW II searchlights placed up at the 1820 Settlers’ Monument and used to light up Fingo Village and Makana’s Kop, and the employment of a platoon of Zulus from 121 Bn. armed only with robust hitting sticks, and who camped in the middle of the township. The violence soon subsided. The consumer boycott was also defused by tricking the activists and the spaza shop owners who were encouraging it.

This was a time of grave turmoil in the country and many will recall the establishment of the ‘JMCs’ (Joint Management Committees) – high level bodies intended to at least alleviate the general unrest and forestall further disturbances. Their tasks included the forging of links between the security forces and the wider public and their representatives. Fred Oelschig chaired the Albany district JMC. The N2 bypass and the raising of the height of the dam supplying Port Alfred with water were the result of some of its recommendations. By 1985 the situation in Grahamstown had largely been normalised. Good relations and areas of mutual benefit and co-operation had been forged between much of the local community, including the Chamber of Commerce, and the military base.

Fred was thanked for sharing his experiences and for a fascinating insight into local military history. Perhaps the ultimate accolade came from a former member of the Black Sash who expressed appreciation for, and understanding of, Fred’s explanation of decisions he had had to take, which at the time had not been fully understood or agreed with.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe

SAMHSEC’s next meeting will be on 8th July 2013 at 19h30 at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be by Mac Alexander on The South African Army College – alma mater of defence training establishments. He will also present the main lecture titled The Pondoland Fusiliers. The five minute slot will be by Malcolm Kinghorn on his recent visit to the Louis Trichardt Trek monument in Maputo. The meeting will be preceded by the screening at 18h30 of the next episode in the ‘World at War’ series Remember – how the war, both good and bad experiences, was experienced and remembered by its witnesses.

As a number of members have requested a re-scheduling of the August field trip, this has been postponed to sometime between September and November, subject to further discussions and consultation.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang New members
We welcome Hilel Allison as a new member of the South African Military History Society and welcome back Mel Smethurst who has re-joined. We wish them both a happy and fulfilling association with SAMHSEC.

In Memoriam
It is with sadness that we record the passing of Tim Jones, a Life Member of the South African Military History Society. Condolences are extended to his family.

Members’ activities

In June, Andre and Lynn Crozier spent three weeks in France during which they visited some of the major places of military historical interest. Starting at Delville Wood, they visited other sites and memorials in the Somme area such as Butte de Warlencourt, where the South Africans were involved in a futile attempt to capture that strongpoint, and Ypres where they attended the Ceremony of the Last Post at the Menin Gate. They spent four days in Normandy during the anniversary period, where they visited numerous sites including St. Mere Eglise, Omaha Beach and Pegasus Bridge. On the way to the south of France they visited Oradour-sur-Glane, where the SS Panzer Division Das Reich killed all the inhabitants before burning down the village. We look forward to hearing more details of their trip from Andre and Lynn.

Also in June, Barry Irwin attended, by invitation, the NATO convened 5th International Conference on Cyber Conflict in Tallinn, Estonia, where he presented a paper on his research and sat on a panel to discuss the future of cyber warfare. He and Yoland, who accompanied him, also visited a number of military historical sites in this ancient walled city, including the controversial bronze statue of the Soviet soldier, the removal of which was associated with the cyber attack on Estonia in 2007. For those interested, Barry’s paper, titled A baseline study of potentially malicious activity across five network telescopes, is available from him at

Medal replacements

Forces War Records have announced that they are able to offer a range of official military replacement medals from World War I and World War II. Visit the Forces War Records Campaign Medals Section for more information.

A follow-up

There is an interesting sequel to Tiaan Jacobs’ lecture on the Dickin Medal presented in January this year, during which he gave some prominence to Vaclav Bozdech, a Czech bomber pilot in the RAF, and his dog Antis which regularly accompanied him on raids over Germany. A similar talk to the SA Genealogical Society resulted in the story being picked up in the United Kingdom by none other than Vaclav Bozdech’s daughter, Magdalena. Tiaan has subsequently been in correspondence with her and hopes to meet her when she visits South Africa next year. The power of publishing and sharing!

Great Trek 175th anniversary: Military encounters of the Voortrekkers 4

After their engagements with the amaNdebele in 1837, a large group of Trekkers led by Piet Retief moved eastwards over the Drakensberg to what was later to become Natal. There, throughout 1838, they came into armed conflict with the kingdom of the amaZulu under the overall leadership of Dingane. Six clearly discernible military or quasi-military engagements followed and for the Trekkers they ranged from crushing defeats and great loss of life to overwhelming victory. Here we look briefly at the events which took place during February 1838.

The first was the massacre of Piet Retief and his party of 69 Trekkers and a number of retainers at KwaMatiwane, a small kopje near to Dingane’s headquarters, on 6th February. The story is well known and still arouses controversy about Retief’s judgement and intentions, and the ostensible reasons for Dingane’s treachery. The entire incident was observed both by the missionary, Rev. Francis Owen, and 13-year-old William Wood, Dingane’s interpreter, both of whom later wrote accounts of it. [For a balanced view of this event, see the article by Jackie Grobler under ‘Websites of interest’ below.] On the same day Dingane despatched an estimated 10 000 warriors, under the command of Ndlela, one of his senior generals, to attack and annihilate the Trekkers dispersed in small groups in the foothills of the Drakensberg.

In the early hours of the morning of 17th February the amaZulu army struck, catching the majority of the Trekkers completely unawares and killing all whom they came across. These were mainly women, children and older men as the other men folk were either with Retief, out hunting or surveying the countryside for potential settlement. The first wagons to be attacked were at what is today known as Moordspruit, followed by those along the Bushman’s (Mtshezi) and Bloukrans (Msuluzi) rivers. Despite the attempts by isolated groups to defend themselves, entire families and parties were wiped out. These events are now collectively known as the ‘Blaauwkrantz Massacre’ and have left a deep scar on the Trekker- and later Boer psyche. Some years later the village of Weenen (Dutch for ‘weeping’) was established in the area.

Despite the loss of 285 Trekkers (including 185 children) as well as 252 Basotho and KhoiKhoi retainers and servants who had accompanied them, the amabutho did not have it all entirely their own way. At the Rensburgspruit, Hans van Rensburg’s party managed to retreat to a nearby hill, subsequently known as Rensburgkoppie, where they successfully defended themselves. At Doornkop, Retief’s own laager, there was some forewarning and 196 men women and children were able to gain refuge and organise several mounted counter attacks. At Saailaager near modern day Estcourt, Andries Pretorius and his followers successfully repelled an onslaught. The amaZulu finally called off the attacks and returned home taking with them cattle variously estimated at between 10 000 to 25 000 head. Their own losses over the period were estimated at 500 to 1 000, many of these in the counter attacks. The surviving Trekkers were quickly grouped into fortified laagers, where they planned retribution.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

The Great Trek

  An excellent article entitled ‘The Retief Massacre of 6 February 1838 revisited’ by Jackie Grobler is available on the Internet. It was originally published in Historia 56 (2) 113 – 132 November 2011 and can be viewed at

World War II

Paul Allen buys lovingly restored vintage V-2 ballistic missile
Lester Haines Science 24th May 2013

Treating women fairly: WW2 'Fly Girl' to finally get military honors / Detroit Free Press
27th May 2013

WW II V2 rocket restored
Lester Haines The Register 24th May 2013

WWII bombshell stops Japan bullet train
News 24
4th June 2013

Rare colour photos of women working during WW2
So Bad So Good: The best and worst of the web
Alex Wain 16th June 2013

The Cold War

Red Eagles: America's secret MiGs
Book description

2003 invasion of Iraq

Consequences of war
John Pilger Truthout 31st May 2013

History of Signalling

How Napoleon's semaphore telegraph changed the world
Hugh Schofield BBC News Magazine 16th June 2013
[Members familiar with the East Cape signalling system of the 1840s will find this of particular interest.]

Matters ‘naval’

Who, what, why: How do you scrap an aircraft carrier?
BBC News Magazine
20th May 2013

WWII ships may pollute US waters
News 24
25th June 2013

US Navy’s Triton UAS achieves first flight
22nd May 2013

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundige belang

Prysor Glynn 2011 Citizen sailors: The Royal Navy in the Second World War London Penguin

This book is unusual and in many respects unique. There are few books written on the social history of the Royal Navy and even fewer addressing the issue in World War II. Based on contemporary letters and documents written by members of the lower deck and their officers, this book reflects in vivid accounts how the men and women of the Royal Navy experienced the war. It provides acute insights into such aspects as morale, discipline, leave, class barriers, family and domestic worries, death (sometimes in stark and graphic detail), dealing with fear, stress and traumatisation, political views and many other aspects of sailors’ daily life during wartime. It is interesting, for example, to discover that Stalin’s portrait was to be found in the officers’ wardroom on some ships and that communist sympathizers were often ‘cured’ by a trip to, or even a period of stay in, Murmansk, the terminus of most of the Arctic convoys.

All this is put into the context of the actions which took place, usually bloody affairs, from the Bismarck to the Scharnhorst, from Dunkirk and the evacuation of Crete to Anzio and D-Day and innumerable less publicised events. Unlike soldiers and airmen, sailors essentially fought from their homes, the ships they lived on, which themselves varied in every possible way. It was a life of substantial and sustained hardship in which one could be faced with constant mortal danger (survivors of sunken ships, for example, all too often had to be left to drown as circumstances did not allow for rescue) but sometimes also long periods of boredom and inaction. This is a marvellous book for anyone with an interest in naval history or the social history and psychology of war.

552pp. Illustrated with 16 b & w plates, nine useful maps, substantial references and a detailed index. The paperback is R149.00.

Books on wars in southern Africa:

For members interested in recent military conflicts in southern Africa, 30? South Publishers have an interesting range of titles in their Africa@War series. For further details see:

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 Kimghorn:
Secretary: Richard Keyter:
Scribes (Newsletter): Anne and Pat Irwin:

South African Military History Society /