South African Military History Society

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The Chairman, Malcolm King, opened the meeting and commented on the very big attendance on such a freezing night. He went on to cover the very popular This Week in History:

This was followed by Hamish Paterson giving a short presentation on 4 August 1914. This marks the outbreak of WWI with Britain drawn in on the issue of Belgian neutrality.

Malcolm then drew attention to up-coming outings and events of interest:

Susanne Blendulf at the Museum, Malcolm reported, was looking for volunteers to do research on some unusual aspects of WWI.

Malcolm next introduced our first speaker, Peter James Smith, whose topic was The Boy Scouts in WWI. This was illustrated by unusual photographs and original film clips. The movement started in 1907 when Lord Baden-Powell held an experimental camp for Boy Scouts on Brownsea Island in mid-July. On 1st May 1908 the first part of Scouting for Boys came out as a complete book. This was written by Pearson in small easy-to-read bites and was followed by scouting magazines. In 1910 when Baden-Powell retired from the army Kitchener asked him to concentrate on the Boy Scouts as 109 000 were enrolled in UK. Scouts continued to grow internationally with branches opening in 1909 Chile, Denmark, India, Russia, USA, Japan; in 1910 Brazil, Finland France, Germany, Greece, Netherlands; in 1911 Serbia, Belgium, Austria Hungary, Norway, Sweden, Thailand and in 1912 Argentina, Armenia, Estonia, Iceland, Indonesia, Italy, Lebanon, Palestine, Ottoman Empire, Spain, Switzerland. [Peter did not mention that several South African Scout Troops started in 1908 - JM]

On 4th July 1911, 33 000 Scouts gathered at Windsor. Basically, Baden-Powell wanted a boy to be able to do something useful so that he would never starve but could earn a living. Before war was declared BP had offered the service of the Boy Scouts to the War Office. With 80 000 German Nationals in Britain there was a fear of sabotage particularly of communications. As a result, Scouts were to watch telephone and telegraph lines, bridges, reservoirs - anything strategic. In August 1914 the Admiralty asked for 1 000 boys for coastal watching on the East Coast after serious shelling at Whitby and there were 23 000 by the end of the war. Coast Guarding duties involved patrolling the beach three miles out and back in all weathers; watching out for fishing vessels that worked unauthorised hours at night; examining all boats coming in to the shore and checking that the men had their permits in order; answering all Naval calls on the telephone and reporting all vessels passing; despatching and carrying every patrol log to the Naval Base Commander every night through-out the war.

Other duties included: blowing the all-clear after air-raids; orderly duties in hospitals and refugee centres; helping on farms especially harvesting flax and turnips; collecting hard fruit pips to be recycled for the filters in gas masks; collecting and recycling glass. They also collected funds (by working) to finance ambulances and recreation huts for the front and even a cinema in Rouen. The Marconi company gave scouts free training in wireless operating.

Jack Cornwell was awarded (posthumously) the VC for his bravery and endurance when working with a gun crew under attack at the Battle of Jutland. The Scouts still have a Cornwell Badge, awarded for bravery and endurance. In 1914, a Russian scout, 12-year-old Andrei Mironenko, became separated from the army patrol he was with. He found a German artillery unit, sneaked through and unscrewed the breeches from two guns. He made his way back to the Russian lines the next day. For his bravery he was awarded the Order of St George.

The Main Lecture of the evening was given by Major General Tony Dippenaar who spoke on Surgery in Wartime focusing on his experiences on Operation Savannah in Angola in 1975. This followed just after the hasty evacuation of Portuguese nationals from the country. He was hastily summoned to Pretoria, and after putting together basic supplies, was flown to Rundu and then on to Novo Redondo.

Operation Savannah was expecting to receive many Bushman casualties, but in reality none were found. However it was necessary to set up some kind of hospital for SA military casualties as our troops were by now in the area. Fortunately Battlegroup Foxbat had just captured the village of Cela, and reported that there was a large deserted Angolan hospital in that location, which, after three days of hard cleaning from cellar to dome was made serviceable. From then on at the hospital a war diary was kept every day.

Tony started by outlining the basics of battlefield surgery, as conflict will usually be in a remote area, with the enemy trying to disrupt you. Huge numbers of casualties arrive at once, taking up great lengths of time which exhausts medical staff, and consumes logistics. In such a remote area triage has to be done carefully, so that less badly wounded soldiers can be evacuated as soon as possible. Only the most critical cases have to have surgery on site.

The most essential thing to remember for a battlefield surgeon is - no stitching of wounds immediately but unfortunately this has to be relearned with every major conflict. Wounds are usually full of debris and devitalized tissue, and although bleeding helps to flush this out, very careful cleansing of the wounds is still required. On one occasion a Cuban casualty was brought in after several days lying in the bush, and it was found that maggots had eaten his wounds clean.

Although the hospital was reasonably equipped and had a good number of beds, much basic equipment was not available. So in such circumstances a surgeon and his team have to be both resourceful and creative. Tony was fortunate in having a sergeant who was both! Their first requirement was a machine to vaporise and deliver anaesthetic. So they improvised with a canned fruit bottle and two pieces of copper brake tubing, fed from a cylinder of compressed air. They had no means of testing the strength of the anaesthetic, except by sniffing it. But that worked... The next problem was the mountain of soiled linen lying on the back verandah, mostly bedding, which his sergeant solved by "acquiring" an abandoned concrete mixer, which worked very well as a washing machine.

They had a problem transporting the wounded to the helicopter pickup site, sorted out by retrieving an abandoned ambulance from a nearby village. Its carburettor was broken, so they improvised with a jerry can on the roof and gravity feed via IV (intravenous) tubing to the carburettor, and they were on their way. As usual " 'n Boer maak 'n plan"!

One thing they found in abundance was old-fashioned Dr White's sanitary pads. These had originally been intended for Portuguese refugees, but made fantastic pressure dressings in the Cela hospital reception area.

One day a German nun driving a Peugeot station wagon arrived from a mission station 70 kilometres to the south. Having heard that the hospital was functioning, she had come to beg some medical supplies from them, which they were glad to give on this and subsequent occasions. When the decision was made to withdraw because of the deteriorating political climate they remembered the nuns, and set out for the mission to advise them to leave and make for Novo Lisboa, where they would be able to link up with SA army convoys and be evacuated. While they were struggling to find directions, a passing local arrived, and asked "Wat soek die baas?" in perfect Afrikaans [having worked on a South African mine]. However there was a problem as the nuns had not received permission to leave from their Mother Superior and would not move. He never found out what happened to them.

Pat Henning

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