South African Military History 


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 108
September 2013

The open house slot was presented by Malcolm Kinghorn who showed recent photographs taken at the Tregardt Trek Memorial Garden in Maputo. After leaving the Cape Colony in 1836, the party of fifty-two Voortrekkers led by Louis Tregardt reached the fort at Delagoa Bay on 13 April 1838. Within days of their arrival, Tregardt’s wife Martha died of malaria. The climate and grazing at the fort were found to be unfavorable for a long term stay and Tregardt dispatched a messenger to Natal to request evacuation by sea. Tregardt succumbed to malaria, six months after his wife. During the winter of 1839, the 26 survivors were transported by the schooner Mazeppa to Port Natal. The Memorial Garden is on the site of the cemetery where the party members who died were buried. It is maintained by the Heritage Foundation and is in an excellent condition.

The curtain raiser was titled 1939 to 1941: South Africa’s Finest Hour? Andre Crozier talked to this title (a play on the famous speech by Winston Churchill made at the start of the Battle of Britain). When war was declared by Britain at 11am on Sunday the 3 September 1941 South Africa was in a quandary of what to do. Two issues influenced the decision.

In 1935 Mussolini decided to expand his African empire and invaded the independent Ethiopia ruled by Haile Selassie. Sanctions were imposed but they were ineffectual. At the time General Smuts said that if Italy was allowed to get away with this Hitler would try to do the same. How right he proved to be.

The other factor was that South Africa had been administering South West Africa in terms of a League of Nations mandate but was starting to regard the territory as its own. Hitler in his speeches referred to recovering the lost colonies and Gen Smuts was concerned that a triumphant Germany would demand its colonies back and how could South Africa on its own prevent this.

The coalition government was split down the middle. General Smuts was adamant that it was both South Africa’s duty and in its interests to side with Britain and declare war on Germany. General Herzog however felt that we should remain neutral while honouring our agreements as regards Simonstown. Parliament debated the motions on Monday 4 September and eventually when the matter was put to the vote 80 voted for war and 67 for neutrality. Gen Smuts formed a new government and on the 6 September 1939 South Africa formally declared war on Germany.

While Hitler apparently laughed when informed of the declaration there is no doubt that it would have been a huge blow to Britain if South Africa had decided to remain neutral. The problems facing the new government were enormous. The Defence Force had been run down over the depression years and both the Army and the air force were woefully underequipped.

There was no navy whatsoever to defend the coast line. The coastal defences existed in Durban and Cape Town but none in Port Elizabeth and East London. The economy had to be transformed to produce every type of military equipment. In particular the army had to be motorised.

Because the country was divided on the war, Smuts decided that only volunteers would be deployed outside of the borders of South Africa. The volunteers had to sign the so called Africa Oath and then wore a scarlet-orange flash known as the red tab.

One of the first steps taken by the government was to put in large orders for truck engines and spares with the manufacturers in America. The assembly plants of Ford and Chevrolet in Port Elizabeth were requisitioned. In this way thousands of trucks were produced which were then driven up to Kenya and played an essential role in the Abyssinian campaign.

The South Africans designed and built the Marmon Herrington armoured car which was based on the Ford 3 ton chassis and had a 4 wheel drive Marmon – Herrington (hence the name) drive train. Iscor provided the steel plate and it was assembled by Dorman Long. Although initially only armed with machine guns it proved invaluable in Abyssinia and also very useful in North Africa.

All the aircraft of the SAA were commandeered for us by the Air Force. Ironically they were all German made Junkers, Ju86’s and Ju 52’s.

Orders were placed with factories to supply everything from uniforms to ammunition. Considerable use was made of the SA Railways Workshops to keep the costs down.

Marmon Herrington Armoured Car

With the fall of France in June 1940 Italy entered the war and so on the 10 June 1940 SA declared war on Italy. As feared the war had now come to Africa. Smuts had already anticipated this and SA had already deployed advance elements to Kenya and on the 15 June 1940 the First South African Brigade sailed for Kenya.

The SAAF launched the first raid on Italian targets on the 11 June 1940 using German made JU 86 aircraft. Thereafter a concerted air war was undertaken against the Regia Aeronautica. The pilots had the added risk that if shot down they had little chance of survival due to the extreme heat, lack of water and murderous Shifta tribesmen.

On 16 December 1940 South Africa launched its first offensive operation. The target was El Wak, an Italian fortification on the Kenyan border. In a combined operation the 1 South African Brigade, the Gold Coast Brigade, the 1 SA Light Tank Company and the SA Air Force attacked and captured the fortification. The operation required an approach march of 110 km and was a complete success. This victory was used for propaganda purposes. As General Wavell was at the same time launching his successful counter attack in Egypt these victories gave some cheer to the British people battling with the Blitz. For the Italians in Abyssinia it would have had the opposite effect.

The Italians had hoped to stop any invasion from the south along the Juba river. The river was at the time of the attack 580 feet wide and all the bridges had been destroyed. The 1 SA Brigade led by the Transvaal Scottish, attacked on the 16 February 1941. The river was crossed at Yonte and counter attacks beaten off. The South African engineers constructed bridges and then the race was on as the Italian opposition collapsed. The South Africans reached Gelib on the 22 February 1941 and Mogadishu was captured by the Nigerian Brigade on the 25 February. The race was then on to Harrar, the second city in Abyssinia, with the East African Brigade in the lead supported by SA artillery and armoured cars. Harrar was captured on 27 March 1941.The Awash River was the last barrier before Addis Ababa. The bridge had been blown but once the Kings African Rifles had forced the crossing and SA engineers erected a bridge in a day and Addis Ababa was captured on 6 April 1941.

There were still considerable Italian forces and these retreated to the heights of Amba Alagi which were between 10000 to 12000 feet high. The Indians attacked from the North and the South Africans from the South and after 5 days of fighting the Duke of Aosta surrendered on the 16 May 1941. The last Italian fortress of Gondar was captured on the 22 November 1941. The war in Abyssinia was over. The South African forces had played the leading role in this campaign.

The British Commanding Officer, General Cunningham wrote after the campaign:
“I have seldom seen anything like the ability of the South African soldier to improvise something out of nothing… the South African technical services have been excellent and invaluable. The road companies, the bridge and water engineers, artillery, mobile repair, convoy and transport have really done an outstanding job during this campaign, of which any country might be extremely proud.” By then the 1 SA Division had been deployed to North Africa where it would form part of the Eight Army facing Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Disaster struck on the 23 November 1941. In the mad confusion of Operation Crusader the 5 SA Brigade found itself at Sidi Resegh in the open and not properly dug in and right in the path of a full offensive by the Afrika Korps. The South Africans fought like tigers with 25 pounders firing over open sights at the advancing tanks. Eventually the ammunition ran out and they were overrun. The 5 Brigade ceased to exist. Brig Armstrong was captured. Over 250 South Africans were killed and over 3000 captured. The fact that the battlefield was littered with 56 German tanks and that these losses eventually led to the withdrawal of Rommel was of little consolation. By October 1941 the 2nd SA Division under General de Villiers had also been deployed to North Africa. Their first task was digging the defences of the El Alamein line. They then conducted a number of successful attacks on the besieged German garrisons capturing Bardia on the 2 January 1942, Sollum on the 13 January 1942 and Halfaya Pass on the 18 January 1942.

The Air Force had defeated the Regia Aeronautica in Abyssinia and was playing an increasingly prominent role in North Africa. The Joint Air Training Scheme was established in South Africa in June 1940 and by 1945 over 33 000 pilots and aircrew had been trained. By the end of 1941 the Seaward Defence Force (SDF) had 35 minesweepers and 14 anti submarine vessels in service. The Economy was on a full war footing producing every type of war material.

The contribution of South Africa would inevitably become less and less significant as the war progressed. However in the dark days of 1940- 41 our contribution was vital. It was indeed our finest hour.

The main lecture was by John Parkinson on HMS Hermes in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf in 1941. HMS Hermes, the first ship ever to be designed and built as an aircraft carrier, was launched on 11 September 1919. In 1941, Hermes operated twelve Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber aircraft of 814 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm.

Hermes spent Christmas 1940 on patrol in the South Atlantic and New Year’s Eve on passage from St. Helena to Simon’s Town where she arrived on 5 January 1941. Sailing from Simon’s Town on 20 January 1941, in company with the cruiser Enterprise, Hermes proceeded on patrol to south of the Moçambique Channel. On 26 January, a Swordfish from Hermes sighted the Vichy French passenger freighter Sontay. A prize crew from Enterprise boarded and took the ship to Durban, where she was confiscated by the British Ministry of War Transport.

In south Somalia, Jubaland, military operations commenced against Italy, the occupying power, on 11 February 1941. The Allied force included South African Army and Air Force contingents. A pincer movement was planned, with the Army and Air Force advancing from bases in Kenya and the Navy, including the Hermes, offshore to intercept ships and men endeavouring to leave the country, prevent reinforcements from arriving, carry out aerial reconnaissance and bomb and bombard enemy military traffic, troop concentrations and fortifications ashore.

Swordfish from Hermes spotted two Italian freighters on 11 February and another two on 12 February, all of which were captured by boarding parties from Hermes’ accompanying cruiser, Hawkins.

Over the next few days, aircraft from Hermes flew reconnaissance flights, anti-submarine patrols and successfully attacked the coaster Askari, reported to have been recently towing a barge laden with troops. Also, her aircraft observed 8 inch gun fire from the heavy cruiser Shropshire onto a concentration of enemy military transport some 20,000 yards inland. Hermes returned to Kilindini on 18 February.

In London the Admiralty knew, from a sinking in the South Atlantic the previous December, that a German surface raider was at sea, but they were not sure of her identity. On 21 February 1941, a Canadian freighter on passage from Colombo to Durban radioed her position and added: ‘Battle cruiser chasing us’. Early the next morning, a similar distress message was received a Dutch freighter on passage from Durban. From these reports it was possible to ascertain the speed and possible intentions of the raider, now thought to be the Admiral Scheer. Hermes, with the cruiser Emerald in company, sailed from Kilindini on 22 February to give chase. However, the German ship evaded pursuit and returned to Germany.

On 26 February Hermes anchored off Victoria, Mahe for 36 hours before proceeding on patrol towards the Maldives and Colombo where she arrived on 4 March, subsequently steaming around to the North East of the island to the Naval base of Trincomalee. Following a short period of R&R and over the next few weeks, the ship carried out several patrols in the vicinity of the Maldives, Seychelles, and the Chagos Archipelago. By 8 April she had returned to anchor off Victoria. On 13 April, Hermes received orders to proceed to the Persian Gulf and Basra. At sea the next morning the engine of one of the Swordfish on dawn patrol cut and the aircraft ditched about ten miles from the ship, but the crew was successfully rescued.

Hermes entered the Gulf of Oman on 19 April and straight away performed her first duty in those waters. At dawn she flew off three aircraft to search for the American freighter Brooklyn Heights bound from New York to Basra. Hermes continued into the Persian Gulf and the next day anchored off Bahrain. During the forthcoming deployment, Hermes did not anchor, but steamed back and forth at an economic speed of 12 knots.

Aerial operations from Hermes against Iraqi rebels commenced on Saturday, 3 May with a demonstration flight in the Basra/Zubair region. Operations continued with the aircraft involved first flying ashore to Shaibah to refuel and then maintaining a patrol from the river mouth to Basra. In order to extend the limited range and endurance of the Swordfish, the decision was made to station a number of Hermes’ aircraft ashore at Shaibah.

On 15 May, three Swordfish from Hermes bombed the Samawa barracks. Just after completing the attack, one aircraft force landed with engine trouble. The leader of the formation landed his aircraft nearby and rescued the crew in the face of heavy opposition. The flight commander was awarded the DFC and his two crew members were mentioned in Despatches. Hermes’ aircraft returned to the ship from Shaibah on 19 May.

Hermes remained in the vicinity of the mouth of the Shatt-el-Arab until 3 June and then sailed south to oil at Bahrain. From Bahrain on 7 June, she reached Colombo on 13 June and the next day entered drydock to have her bottom cleaned. By 17 June she was back in Trincomalee.

From 1 July her routine of patrol duties resumed between Ceylon, the Maldives and Seychelles. Between 6 December 1941 and 24 January 1942, Hermes was at Simon’s Town in drydock and then alongside for a refit and to undergo some modernization. By 14 February 1942 she was back at Colombo. The following day, Singapore fell to invading Japanese forces.

On 26 March 1942 Vice Admiral Nagumo of the Imperial Japanese Navy and flying his flag in the aircraft carrier Akagi, sailed from Staring Bay, Kendari, Celebes. On 5 April 1942 aircraft launched from his five carriers attacked Colombo. Subsequently swinging around in a huge semi-circle to the south of Ceylon, his ships refueled and on 9 April appeared off the east coast of Ceylon to attack Trincomalee.

Hermes and her escorting destroyer Vampire had sailed south from Trincomalee early that morning. Nevertheless they were not to escape. At 10:35 local time they and three British merchantmen nearby, were attacked by 85 IJN dive bombers flown off Akagi and the other four Japanese carriers in company. The result was a foregone conclusion. Twenty minutes after the attack commenced, Hermes sank in 180 feet of water just four and a quarter miles off Batticaloa on the East coast of Ceylon. No Japanese aircraft were shot down. A few survivors successfully swam ashore. Other survivors were rescued by the hospital ship Vita, which most fortunately appeared on the scene. Amongst these was a young South African, Sick Berth Attendant Buck Ryan. He survived the war and later qualified and practiced as a doctor in Johannesburg. By nice coincidence, when he retired in 1988, John bought his house!

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe

SAMHSEC’s next meeting will be on 9th September 2013 at 19h30 at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be Scotland by Alec Grant. The main lecture, which will be presented by Sam van den Berg, will be Armoured car driver in Operation Savannah. The meeting will be preceded by the screening at 18h30 of the third episode of the ‘World at War’ series which was not broadcast on TV. This is the first 50 minutes of ‘Episode D’ titled Hitler’s Germany 1933 – 1939.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang

Individual members’ activities

There is nothing to report this month.

SAAF and Rhinos

Air Force Base Waterkloof plans to launch a Rhino Day initiative during September. As of 29th July 527 Rhinos have been killed this year. Apart from its involvement in Rhino anti-poaching activities, the SAAF is sensitive to Rhino in its own training areas some of which, such as Ditlolo, are also sensitive conservation areas. Apart from its own personnel, the initiative will focus on communities surrounding such areas.

Forces War Records

Fleur Way-Jones has received the following letter from Forces War Records Customer Care which will be of interest to members.
With war comes bravery and here at Forces War Records we are constantly exposed to moving stories, war diaries and personal accounts involving lashings of courage. There's nothing quite like reading a personal account of war, as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there. For that very reason, we'd like to give you the chance to read some of these amazing real life stories for yourself - completely free of charge.
Read War Diaries For Free Now
One diary in particular stands out is the account of Reverend Alan Maitland Fairweather, an Army Chaplain taken prisoner by the Germans during World War II. Read his story and discover what life was like as a prisoner of war. You can get used to brand new features like this being added all the time because the Forces War Records site is constantly evolving. Also, our UK based transcription team have added another 175 000+ records to our database this month, which could mean fresh insight for you - never give up on your genealogy quest. Who knows, you may even have an ancestor who had similar experiences to Reverend Fairweather, or some of the other individuals involved in our new 'war diary' section.

Many hands make things work.

Your scribes, who will be on holiday in the Kalahari during the month of August, wish to record their appreciation to Malcolm Kinghorn and Yoland Irwin for finalizing and distributing this Newsletter.

Great Trek 175th anniversary: Military encounters of the Voortrekkers 6

Two military encounters between the Trekkers and the amaZulu took place in late December 1838, The Battle of Blood River/Ncome, and the Battle of the White iMfolozi.

In mid-November 1838, three months after the battle at Veglaer, the Natal Trekkers were greatly heartened by the arrival of the well-respected Andries Pretorius together with 60 men and a cannon. He was elected Commandant-General with Karel Landman as his second in command and immediately set about the planned attack on Dingane. By the time the force was constituted and set out from Skietdrif on the Tugela, on 2nd December, it consisted of 461 Trekkers, 60 armed amaZulu from Port Natal, three English settlers and an undetermined number of retainers. There were 60 wagons and possibly three cannons, there being disagreement on the number. Pretorius, supported by Landman, exercised strong leadership and did not brook dissent, resulting in a strong sense of cohesion in the commando.

The exact route followed by the commando is also a matter of controversy. It was during this journey that the well known Vow or Covenant was taken by the members of the commando that if God gave them victory they would for all time regard the day as holy, treat it as the Sabbath and build a church to commemorate it. On 15th December, having encountered small parties of the amaZulu army, the wagons were drawn into a laager alongside the Ncome River, a tributary of the Buffalo River with a deep donga on another side. There is considerable debate as to what the shape and configuration of the laager was. It would seem, however, that its tactical position was determined by Landman rather than Pretorius. An estimated 15 000 to 20 000 amaZulu (according to Trekker sources) under veteran commanders Ndhlela nTuli, who had commanded at Veglaer, and Dambuza had amassed in the vicinity of the laager on the night of 15th December and launched an attack early the next morning. This and fearless repeated attacks were rebuffed with increasing losses to the amabutho, who stood little chance against the concentrated firepower of the Trekkers. The compressed nature of the mass of warriors added to the slaughter. By about 11h00 the amabutho had had enough and a general retreat began. Pretorius estimated that as many as 3 000 amaZulu ultimately lost their lives in the fruitless charging at the laager and in the donga, where they were closely massed together. Three Trekkers, including Pretorius, were wounded during the mounted follow-up and harassment of the retreating amaZulu. It is also claimed by some that all wounded warriors were also killed. It was also said that such was the slaughter that the Ncome river ran red with blood. The concept of the laager had again proved its value.

The battle is today known to the amaZulu as Ncome and to the descendants of the Trekkers as Blood River. There are elaborate monuments and museums commemorating both sides in the conflict, each giving their version of the encounter. It is also not insignificant that as early as 16th December 1866 a meeting of reconciliation between the antagonists took place on the site of the battle.

After the Battle of Blood River/Ncome, the commando advanced toward Dingane’s capital, uMgungundlovu which they reached on 20th December, but which had been abandoned and burned. The remains of Retief and his men were also found at KwaMatiwane together with the document ‘signed’ by Dingane.

While there, a Zulu captive by the name of Bongoza offered to lead the Trekkers to where the remains of Dingane’s army were hiding near the White iMfolozi River. Although he was kept strictly captive, Pretorius considered that he was telling the truth. The Trekkers were once again however led into a trap in which the amaZulu warriors, hiding under their shields, were disguised as cattle. As the 350 horsemen approached them the 2 000 odd ‘cattle’ stood up on two legs and cries of Bulala amaBhunu echoed across the hills – while Bongoza made good his escape. The Trekkers were almost encircled and had to conduct a fighting retreat, literally shooting their way out and taking turns to form a rear guard against the pursuing amabutho. There was considerable confusion in this process, the Trekkers dangerously splitting into smaller groups, some having to cross and re-cross the iMfolozi three times as they struggled to get out of the steep-sided valley in which they found themselves.

After ten hours in the saddle, the majority of the Trekkers made good their escape having had seven of their number killed and an unknown number wounded. Thirty of the ‘Port Natal Zulus’ who had fought alongside the Boers at Blood River were also killed, some accounts stating that several of these had been shot in error by the Trekkers in the confusion which had reigned. Losses of the amaZulu army are unknown. On their return journey the Trekkers attacked a number of villages, capturing some 5 000 cattle.

Upon return to their home laagers in the shadow of the Drakensberg, this commando became known as the Wenkommando (the ‘Winning Commando) as a result of its exploits at Blood River/Ncome.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

World War II

Military archaeology: Nazi bunkers in Denmark revealed by a storm
Mail Online 6th August 2013

WW II Bomber poet finally laid to rest
BBC News Magazine 18th July 2013

68th anniversary of Hiroshima 6th August 2013

UK packs up in Afghanistan
Caroline Wyatt, Defence correspondent, BBC News 12th July

For the record
Anon, BBC News UK Undated

Cold War

Britain's struggles in nuclear race
Nick Childs, World affairs correspondent, BBC News 16th July 2013

A time-lapse video map of 2,053 nuclear explosions from 1945 through 1998
Juan Cole, Informed Comment 13th July 2013

The Ten Oldest Military Vehicles Still In Service
Máté Petrány Private posting

Falklands War

Falklands War admiral Sandy Woodward dies aged 81
BBC News 5th August 2013

World War III

World War III scenario in 1983
Anon BBC News 1st August 2013

Revisiting Volkswagen

The SAMHSEC Newsletter 90 (March 2012) featured a talk on the origins of the Volkswagen. Those who found it interesting might also enjoy the two following sites.

Matters aeronautical

The Kalinin K-7 heavy bomber: three fascinating sites:
A remarkable Russian women pilot in WW II: Nadezhda Popova,
Anon The Telegraph 10th July 2013

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundige belang

Information on the following book has been received from Captain Tony Nicholas, Chairman of the SATS General Botha Old Boys' Association.

Redford, Duncan & Grove, Phillip D 2013 The Royal Navy: A history since 1900

This is a new history of the modern Royal Navy by two accomplished authors. Since 1900 the Royal Navy has seen vast operational changes. This book tells the story, not just of victory and defeat, but also of how the Navy has adjusted to a century of rapid technological and social change. The extensive reforms made by Admiral Fisher at the dawn of the 20th century saw the Navy’s 19th century wooden fleet replaced with the latest modern technology – battleships (including the iconic dreadnoughts), aircraft carriers and submarines. In World War I and World War II, the Navy played a central role with unrestricted submarine warfare and supply blockades becoming an integral part of combat. However it was the development of nuclear and missile technology during the Cold War era which drastically changed the face of naval warfare – today the Navy can launch sea-based strikes across thousands of kilometres to reach targets deep inland. This book traces the wars and battles fought by the Navy, from Jutland to the Falklands, within a wider context looking at political economic and cultural issues as well as providing a thorough operational history.

This book in hard copy is rather expensive in the UK, if purchased with our ZAR, but a local publishing company that I have dealings with is considering publishing the book locally in soft cover version and cost ESTIMATED at R250/book. However, the local publisher does not wish to embark on this without an idea of the local interest in purchasing a copy. Would anyone who would like to purchase a locally published soft cover version of this book please let Tony Nicholas know. His contact details are:
Office: +27 21 421 4144
Mobile: +27 82 555 2877
Facsimile: 086 604 0811

Members are invited to send 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 Peter Duffel-Cannon, Richard Tomlinson, Malcolm Kinghorn, Barry Irwin, Michael Irwin, Jonathan Ossher, and Fleur Way Jones

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

South African Military History Society /