South African Military History 


Newsletter / Nuusbrief 104 May/Mei 2013

In the open house series, Ian Pringle spoke of two graves that lie in the cemetery of The Church of the Good Shepherd, formerly known as St. Luke’s, in Klaarstroom. Trooper Hirschford and Corporal Boyd had been killed in a skirmish in a stand off with Smuts’ Commando in the area known as ‘Die Gang’ outside the small village in February 1901. Although Corporal Boyd was buried on site, his body was later exhumed at the request of his family and interred in the church yard. Ian showed a photograph of the two graves which are well cared for and are in a neat and tidy state.

        The curtain raiser, titled ‘The mystery of Lieutenant Pilkington’, was presented by Ian Copley who examined the circumstances of his death. Investigation into the casualty roll after the first battle of Silkaatsnek on 11th July 1900 revealed that a 2nd Lieutenant T D Pilkington was missing in loco and that there was confusion in the records as to what had happened to him there or elsewhere. [See Newsletter 102 for background on the battle – Scribes]. It was known that Lieutenant Pilkington, 1st Royal Dragoons, had become temporarily attached to the Royal Scots Greys. He had been a POW in Waterval Camp, north of Pretoria, which had been liberated by the Greys on 4th June 1900, having been captured when he refused to abandon a wounded comrade. According to the Greys’ padre, Mr Patterson, he was “ of the most gentle and sweet tempered fellows I ever met ...” To have been killed at Silkaatsnek he would have been attached to C Squadron under Major Scobell.

On 7th July, C squadron moved to the Nek, and were due to be replaced by the Lincolnshire Regiment on 10th July. The Lincolns arrived in the late afternoon, delaying the Greys’ departure until the next morning. The Greys had noticed an increase in Boer numbers and activity that afternoon which was reported to their HQ and the Lincolns as well as to Pretoria. The Lincolns took over their pickets on the shoulders of the hill on either side of the Witkopjie, a rocky outcrop occupying the middle of the Nek. The Greys slept in line of column with their rifles beside them, their horses in the bush below the Nek near the water point.

The Boer attack at first light prevented their departure as they were needed to support the Lincolns. The latter’s right picket was immediately overrun and although the left picket had the use of gullies to form a defence, it was hard pressed. During the morning an officer (presumably Pilkington) and twenty men was detailed to support them.

A Boer eye witness account confirmed that Pilkington was there and that, sometime after midday, he died of loss of blood from a gunshot wound in the leg. Dietlof van Warmelo, in his account in Mijn commando en guerilla commando-leven 1901, gives distances in paces and details of his encounter with the mortally wounded Pilkington. Van Warmelo was one of ten men on the Boer right. One of them scouting ahead heard a wounded man fifty paces away “groaning and begging for water”. Eventually they reached him, “put some grass under his head and gave him some brandy from a flask …. the poor man lay in a pool of blood on a rock under some shrubs. He had been shot through the leg. His name was Lieutenant Pilkington”. On his return later to the wounded man Van Warmelo says, “While we were standing talking he died from loss of blood”.

As a POW in the Provost-Marshal’s office, when his memory of events would have been more recent, Van Warmelo was allowed time to speak to his mother and sister, Hansie, [Johanna Brandt] during which he described his encounter with ‘the young English officer, Lieutenant Pilkington’. His account, recorded in Johanna Brandt’s 1913 The Petticoat Commando, or Boer women in secret service, is substantially the same except he mentions that the man was shockingly wounded and it was evident that his case was hopeless

. Ian had initially thought that the lack of any trace of Pilkington may have been through misidentification of the body as he is not mentioned amongst the names of the Greys interred under a cairn below the Nek, or amongst the Lincolns who died there, yet the Official Roll (1904) states that he died the day before at ‘Kaalboschfontein’. This may well be an error as the only farm of that name was 100km away near Brakpan. After the publication of an article entitled ‘The battle of Silkaatsnek – 11 July 1900’ in the Military History Journal 9 (3) 87 - 97 June 1993, Ian received a letter from a Dr Paul Dunn in England in which he states that “Quite fortuitously I discovered it [the grave site of Lieutenant Pilkington] in the Brompton Cemetery, London”. The body had been repatriated six months after his death by his father and was reinterred there on 22nd December 1900.

Ian was fortunately able to meet Paul Dunn and inspect, amongst the Anglo-Boer War memorabilia he had acquired, an album compiled by Pilkington’s mother which includes photographs of the London Memorial and of a Monument thought to have been in South Africa but which, according to Lady Maureen Black, a relative by marriage, is on the family estate at Sandside in Caithness.

With the help of Ms Jean Beater of the then National Monuments Council, a plaque was made with the details of Lieutenant Pilkinton’s death and ultimate interment for addition to the Garden of Remembrance at the consolidated military cemetery in Rietfontein, (now called Ifafi) at Hartbeespoort. The dedication ceremony, held on 5th February 1995, was attended by representatives of the War Graves Division of the National Monuments Council, the Hartbeespoort Town Council and the Hartbees Heritage Association. [Readers interested in further details are referred to the article by Ian Copley in the Military History Journal 10 (1) 15-19 & 40 June 1995 - Scribes.]

The main lecture, entitled His Majesty’s Schooner Pickle, was presented by John Stevens.
He introduced the Pickle as the second most famous vessel, after HMS Victory, to be associated with the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805; the Royal Navy’s great victory over the combined fleets of France and Spain. HMS Pickle, an 8-gun schooner under the command of Lieutenant J R Lapenotiere, was selected by Admiral Collingwood to carry the despatches of the victory to London. She was the second smallest vessel in Nelson’s fleet and, as a topsail schooner, was a rarity in British home waters at that time. This is the story of how she came to be at Trafalgar and her subsequent career.

HMS Pickle was attached to Captain Blackwood’s Frigate Squadron, the ‘eyes’ of Nelson’s Mediterranean Fleet. She mostly performed as the ‘odd jobs vessel’ of the fleet carrying despatches and running errands, but was occasionally used for reconnaissance work. Prior to Trafalgar, she had nosed into Cadiz Harbour to count the French and Spanish ships of the line massing there. During the battle Pickle was too small to take part in the ‘line of battle’ and was under orders to stay windward of Nelson’s column to render assistance where necessary and to act as a rescue ship. When the French 74-gun Achille blew up spectacularly, she picked up 50 survivors including two women.

After the battle ended Pickle spent the next few days weathering the severe storm which followed it. By the 26th October it had abated and Lieutenant John Lapenotiere was summoned on board HMS Euryalus, now Admiral Collingwood’s temporary flagship, and given orders to take the despatches to the Admiralty in London. For Lapenotiere, 35 years old and with his career at a standstill, this was a defining moment. Not only was it a much coveted mission, since by custom the officer concerned would have a high probability of promotion, but there was also a substantial financial reward for the bearer.

As a rule, a favourite captain would be given the task, but Collingwood, now in command of the fleet, was duty bound to maintain the blockade and had no ships to spare. The Pickle was also the fastest ship in the fleet and had no battle damage. Not far from Lisbon she spotted a sail which turned out to be the Royal Navy brig Nautilus under command of Commander Sykes. Being the senior officer, Sykes recognised the opportunity and strongly suggested that the despatches be handed to him to deliver. Lapenotiere remained firm, arguing that he was under Collingwood’s direct order to hand-deliver the despatches to the Admiralty. An unhappy compromise was reached whereby a copy was made so that Sykes could act as a parallel backup. They parted company and effectively the mission became a race between the two to reach London first. Pickle hastened towards England but faced such bad weather and heavy seas in the Bay of Biscay that Lapenotiere, concerned that his ship would founder, jettisoned four of his guns to reduce weight. Eventually, after a nightmare journey followed by the ship being becalmed and having to be rowed in the English Channel, Lapenotiere decided to go ashore at Falmouth on 4th November and to cover the 270 miles to London overland, knowing that Sykes was trying to get there before him. He hired an express post chase carriage to get him there at a cost of £49 (half a lieutenant’s annual pay) and covered the trip in 37 hours after 19 changes of horses. He arrived at Admiralty House in London in the early hours of the 6th November (normally a four day trip on a standard coach service). Amazingly, he found the Secretary of the Navy, William Marsden, working overtime, who then sent immediate word to Lord Barham the first Lord of the Admiralty. Commander Sykes arrived a few hours later. The following morning Lapenotiere was summoned to appear before King George to give an account of the battle.

Lapenotiere was promoted to Commander and given a ‘sword of honour’ for his efforts. He also received the traditional £500 reward and his carriage expenses were re-reimbursed. Sykes was promoted to Captain. Lapenotiere’s career and place in history was now ensured, having carried the most important despatch in Royal Navy history, as was the fame of HMS Pickle.

The story of Pickle itself is equally interesting, given that she was acquired by the Royal Navy through unusual circumstances. She is believed to have been built in 1799 on the Island of Bermuda, which was then a major ship building centre. Bermudan cedar, an indigenous wood which was tougher and lighter than oak, more resistant to rot and, better still, impervious to the Infamous ‘Teredo’ wood boring sea worm, made Bermudan ships sought after, both for speed and longevity. Pickle was possibly built for a business consortium in Jamaica for use as a privateer, but recent evidence suggests she was initially seized in harbour when the Dutch island of Curacao was captured by the British. She was probably taken to Jamaica and sold as a prize to a private consortium. The Pickle was originally named Sting and was rented to Vice Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour, the commander of the Royal Navy Jamaica Station for the princely sum of £10 per day.

Lord Seymour was woefully short of ships and hired the Stingto replace the tender to his flagship. He had sent a request to the Navy Board in England to purchase ships locally but was denied permission, rental being preferred. Being a peer of the realm, however, born of one of the richest families in England, an Admiral and a recent serving member of the Board of the Admiralty, as well as a personal friend of the Prince of Wales, he had some clout and went ahead and purchased the Sting for £2 500 in defiance of instructions. He sent a confirming notification to the Navy Board. Given Seymour’s contacts and status the Navy board could not do much about it other than issue a reprimand and demand that the name be changed to Pickle. Lord Seymour refused and Sting she remained while in the Caribbean.

Not long afterwards Lord Seymour contracted yellow fever and died. His family demanded that his remains be sent home and the Sting was only vessel available for that purpose. Upon her arrival, the Navy Board demanded that her name be changed to Pickle with immediate effect. It would appear that the Board wanted to hide her acquisition into the Royal Navy, probably due to the enmity that existed with the State Treasury at that time. Any ship purchases were heavily regulated and controlled due to the fact that the Royal Navy was Britain’s biggest capital and operational expense at the time, and funding was hotly contested. While ships were acquired in various ways from various sources, strict procedure was followed, which included surveying the ship and the drafting of detailed plans before approval. This was meticulously done for all ships built for, or acquired by, the Royal Navy, a process which benefits us today in that detailed plans and records for most Royal Navy warships are still in existence. There are, however, no known drafts or records for the Pickle other than operational documents, which is unusual. There are also no known builder’s records, although this was not unusual in terms of private shipyards at this time. The name Pickle is in itself odd, as this was the first time the name was used in the Royal Navy although it has been repeated since.

The Pickle was refitted and went into service in home waters. Under the command of Lieutenant John Lapenotiere, she saw initial service in the English Channel where she assisted the Revenue Service in apprehending smugglers. She then went on to serve with the fleet maintaining the Brest blockade under Admiral Cornwallis. She was renowned for reconnaissance work in Brest Harbour and for landing a party to destroy the telegraph on Pointe St Mathieu, a story fictionalised by C.S Forrester in his Hornblower Series. Pickle was attached to Blackwood’s Squadron shortly before Trafalgar.

HMS Pickle, now under the command of Lieutenant D Callaway, re-joined Collingwood’s fleet in December 1805 and resumed despatch duties for the Mediterranean Fleet. Sadly, and somewhat ironically she ran aground on the Chipiona Shoals while entering Cadiz harbour on 26th July 1808 and could not be recovered, although her crew were saved. She remains there to this day.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe

The next meeting will be at 19h30 on 13th May. The curtain raiser and main lecture will be combined for a presentation on The Great Trek by Pat Irwin. The first part will examine the origins and employment of the wagon laager as a defensive structure, and the second part will focus on the military dimensions of the Trek. The meeting will be preceded by the screening at 18h30 of the next episode of the ‘World at War’ series, Reckoning (April 1945). It includes the situation in post-war Europe, the Nuremburg Trials and the ultimate costs and consequences of the war.

The field trip relating to Smuts’ and Kritzinger’s 1901 invasion of the Cape is on track, with 30 people thus far indicating their intention of participating. It runs from 17th – 19th May and enquiries may be directed to Malcolm Kinghorn (

The next Newsletter (No. 105) will contain details of the June meeting, which will include a morning excursion to one of Piet Retief’s houses now situated on the military base in Grahamstown.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang

Individual members’ activities

Barry Irwin has recently attended the 8th International Conference on Information Warfare in Denver, Colorado, where he presented a paper on ‘Deep Routing Simulation’. Anyone with a further interest in this area can contact Barry directly at . While in San Francisco he visited Alcatraz which, among other things, was a former military base. Fellow members, Yoland Irwin and Michael Irwin have respectively been awarded their MSc degrees in Pharmacy and Computer Science specialising in Information Security.

New members

We welcome Stephen Wynne as a new member to the Society and trust it will be an enjoyable experience for him.

NOTE TO ALL NEW MEMBERS: SAMHSEC distributes its Newsletters through ‘Google Groups’. Thus far we have sent your Newsletters to you as an individual but request that you now join the ‘Google Group distribution list’ so that you receive your Newsletters as part of the group posting. All you have to do is go to and click "Apply for Group Membership". Please let us know by return of e-mail to that you have done this and save us the work of tracking and checking that each individual is connected.

New KZN Chairman

Congratulations to Charles Whiteing who has been elected as the new KZN Branch Chairman. Charles is a former Port Elizabeth man in exile in Durban. The Eastern Cape’s best export has long been good people.

Piracy update

Subsequent to his presentation on Somali Piracy to the August 2012 SAMHSEC meeting, Malcolm Kinghorn reports that international counter-piracy measures in the Gulf of Aden restricted successful attacks in 2012 to well below the level experienced in 2011. The situation is, however, contained, not resolved, and the attack rate is expected to increase should the international counter-measures be relaxed. There was an increase in piracy incidents in the Gulf of Guinea in 2012.

Onthulling van die Infanterie se Gedenksteen

Namens die SA Infanterie-vereniging se Nasionale Uitvoerende Raad, verklaar Albert Peters soos volg: Die Infanteriekorps het ‘n lang en trotse tradisie deur twee wêreldoorloë, sowel as die Bosoorlog gedurende 1966 - 1989. Ons vereniging is ‘n organisasie en tuiste wat graag erkenning wil gee aan alle oud-Infanteriste, nie net aan hulle wat die hoogste prys betaal het nie, maar ook aan hulle wat diens in die verskillende vertakkings van die SA Leër en die destydse SAW diens gedoen het. Die vereniging se gedenksteen word op 26/05/2013 onthul, om saam te val met die jaarlikse Herdenkingsdiens by die Muur van Herinnering by die Voortrekker Monument.  Die Nasionale President, Genl-maj Jack Turner, nooi alle oud-Infanteriste hartlik uit om hierdie besondere geleentheid by te woon en daar word veral ‘n beroep gedoen op oud-lede van die Burgermag en Kommandos om by te woon.

Geliewe asseblief voor of op 26/04/2013 u kontakbesonderhede aan die e-posadres by te voorsien en merk dit vir aandag van Albert Peters.

Great Trek Anniversary: Military encounters of the Voortrekkers 2

The Battle of Vegkop took place sometime during October 1836, the actual date being in dispute. The site is located close to the Renoster River between the present day towns of Heilbron and Lindley and is on open, gently sloping land of the Trekkers’ choosing. It followed on the ‘Battle of the Vaal’ in August 1836 in which a small group of Trekkers had successfully defended themselves against an overwhelming number of amaNdebele warriors by forming a wagon laager. This lesson was almost certainly applied at Vegkop, where roughly 40 men and their families under the leadership of Sarel Cilliers and Hendrik Potgieter defended themselves against an estimated 5 000 warriors under the leadership of Kalipi, Mzilikazi’s senior general. Regrettably there are no records relating to the particular circumstances of Kalipi’s army although a considerable amount is known of its general tactics, strategy and weaponry.

After receiving news of the fate of the Erasmus and Liebenberg parties, Cilliers had a premonition of the attack to come and had adequate time to prepare for it. Among the defenders were seven boys, one of whom was the 10-year old Paul Kruger. Each man would have had three or four guns and it is likely that a number of women would also have been crack shots. The women and older children would have been experts at loading, so that each shooter, who would have covered an arc of about four metres, would have been able to get off three or four shots per minute. Ammunition was apparently plentiful. About 40 wagons were formed into either a circle or a square – it is not clear which – with a small inner laager of about seven wagons, in which the horses were tethered. Cattle and sheep were placed some distance away outside the laager, which did not prevent the amaNdebele carrying them all off. The wagons were chained together and the spaces between filled with thorn bushes and other barricades.

The battle took place in three stages. The initial contact was harassing tip-and-run attacks of about 30 horsemen on the last few kilometres of the advancing amabutho. It is a reasonable deduction that the Trekkers must have accounted for a proportion of the officers, which would have had knock-on effects on the main attack. The second stage of the battle was at the laager itself, which lasted about half an hour. The Trekkers would have opened fire at roughly 30 metres inflicting substantial losses; nevertheless the laager was surrounded as the amaNdebele attempted to penetrate it. They were unable to do so, despite attempts to dislodge the wagons, and resorted to throwing assegaais into the laager. It was at this point that the Trekkers lost two killed and 14 wounded. The amaNdebele, apparently perceiving the impact to be insignificant, broke off the attack and withdrew, ushering in the final stage of the battle which was a pursuit of the retreating amabutho by mounted Trekkers who were, however, unable to recover their livestock. AmaNdebele casualties have been variously estimated at between 150 and 450 killed with an unknown number wounded.

The Trekkers now found themselves both without trek oxen to pull the wagons and their supplies of meat and milk. Very fortunately for them the BaRolong, under Moroka, at Thaba ’Nchu were as pleased as any to see the end of the amaNdebele, came to their aid with trek oxen, food and hospitality, offering them a temporary refuge. This was not the end of the campaign for the amaNdebele, however, as they were attacked by the Trekkers the following year in the vicinity of the Molopo River. This ultimately led to their withdrawal from what was to become the Transvaal, and their establishment of a powerful kingdom north of the Limpopo River. Although relatively small in scale, this was a decisive battle in that it changed the course of South African history.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

Prehistoric conflict

Stone Age women and the effects of ‘war’
Discovery News 13 February 2013


Medal of Honor for US Army chaplain Father Kapaun
BBC News 14 April 2013

History in the Making

Mali conflict: Desert fighting on ‘Mars’ BBC News magazine Thomas Fessy 31 march 2013

Wedding speech from a Harrier au 12 April 2013


Viewpoint: What if Margaret Thatcher had never been?
BBC News 9 April 2013

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundige belang

This month we feature two new books of military historical interest.
Binckes Robin 2013 The Great Trek Published by 30( with free delivery to anywhere in South Africa It will also be available at all Exclusive Books’ shops. 568 pp. 80 b/w illustrations. R320,00 paperback. ISBN: 978-1-920143-68-8

The story is not just that of the Great Trek, but covers the formative history from the times of the Portuguese explorers through the early years of the Cape in the 17th and 18th centuries and culminates in the Great Trek itself. This book gives an understanding of life in those times and expresses a view on the causes of the Trek.

McDonald William 2013 The Lost Victory: Battle of Spion Kop Available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle versions. All profits go to charity.

The author is a retired British Army officer who began his service in the Lancashire Fusiliers, one of the Regiments comprising the composite force (The Lancashire Brigade) which led the assault on Spioenkop, and which subsequently suffered the highest casualties. He writes: “I visited the battlefield in 2007 and felt compelled to tell the story. There are many accounts, but I wanted to portray the battle not just from the Generals' viewpoints, but also from a grass-root perspective and experience - Lancashire cotton workers and young Dutch farmers. So I have written an historical novel which relates true events told through the experiences of fictitious soldiers and real generals. May I also say that during my research I found a number of articles from your organisation to be particularly helpful in accurately (I hope!) understanding the Boer view and actions…. I plan a sequel covering the guerrilla-war phase and incorporating characters from the first novel.”

The most recent Quarterly Management Report of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (3Mb) is available from Malcolm Kinghorn, for those who would like a copy. We greatly appreciate the dedicated work put into the CWGC by Captain (Navy) Charles Ross (Ret), Secretary of the SA Agency.

Peter Duffel-Canham has brought to our attention a recent paper of the (US) National Security Forum entitled Remembering the Invasion of Iraq: A Colossal Strategic Error by Steve Hull. A thought provoking document, it is available 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.

Chairman: Malcolm Kimghorn:
Secretary: Richard Keyter:
Scribes: Anne and Pat Irwin:

South African Military History Society /