South African Military History Society

Tel (+27)(0)10-237-0676 Fax (+27)(0)86-617-8002


Our chairman, Malcolm King, opened the meeting by commenting on the huge attendance last month and the success of the film show "Oh What a Lovely War!" on Sunday 10th August.

Then he began This Week in History:

Malcolm went on to the notices: -
Malcolm next introduced the first speaker of the evening, David Katz whose topic was the Surrender of Tobruk, June 1942 which he illustrated with maps and photos. This surrender was a major catastrophe for the Allied war effort as it weakened their position in North Africa and caused huge embarrassment to political leaders. It is considered the largest reversal of arms suffered in South African military history.

Tobruk is part of what is referred to as the Gazala Battles. The British brigades were formed into "boxes" with minefields in the distances between. This was a weakness as supplies had to be brought forward. There was also a lack of armour to defend them. The British could not identify where the German thrust would be, and the Germans attacked at night, which they had practised. The Italians overran the Indians. The Panzers were only halted because of the British Grant tank. This halt caused a supply shortage to the Axis. However, the Italians managed a small resupply sortie whilst Rommel personally led a German one - successfully. Rommel now relaunched his attack, again taking personal charge at the front, causing severe British losses.

At Bir Hakeim the Free French put up very heavy resistance but finally staged an orderly break out to the British lines. Then Rommel began to destroy the brigade "boxes" causing the line to fall back. Originally, it had been decided not to defend Tobruk but in the circumstances Churchill reversed the decision which caused confusion. A South African, General Hendrik B Klopper was in charge at Tobruk with 33 000 men. General Klopper's rise in the South African army had been meteoric but this was his first combat command so he was inexperienced, as was his 2nd SA Division. The Australians had held Tobruk during the siege in 1941 and the town's defenses were said to be in a poor state as a result but this was incorrect as much repair work had been done. Added to this the German troops were exhausted from constant battles but the South Africans were fresh.

Rommel planned to attack from the south-east and then continue through to the harbor. The fresh SA 6th Brigade was defending the north-west perimeter whist the Indian 11th on the south-east took the brunt of the attack. There was a total lack of co-ordination in Tobruk therefore there was no proper support whereas Rommel kept to his timetable and punched through the defenses. The South Africans could have broken out to British lines but General Klopper's commanders refused to do so. As a result, Rommel gained Tobruk with its harbour and a huge stockpile of vital supplies. Experience, personal command at the front, speed and training had shown their winning value and it was considered that General Klopper should have done far better with the resources at his disposal.

The second speaker was Col. JP Malan on An Overview of the fighting east of Cuito Cuanavale 1987-1988 in SE Angola. This talk was also illustrated by detailed maps and photographs plus very entertaining personal anecdotes. The history of Angola was reviewed from the withdrawal of the Portuguese in 1975 up to the Brazzaville Accord of 1989. The area of the operation was flat, treed and sandy. Distances to be covered were either relatively short (20 -30 kms), but very difficult going, or vast.

For example SA air support had to fly from Ondangua in north Namibia to reach the area this only allowed the planes enough fuel to get there and back with a very little extra. This was the time before modern devices. There was no GPS so a compass had to be used and personnel had to get out of a Ratel to take a bearing. There were no cell phones, Rooivalks, Rooikats, Rinkhals nor computers plus there were only four G6 155mm mobile artillery pieces available. Cuito Cuanavale at the confluence of the two rivers (Cuito and Cuanavale) was a formidable obstacle with a bridge linking east and west.

Other difficulties were:
the flatness of terrain which made observation hard;
the bush which the South Africans had to push through, which meant they made a speed of 3 - 5 km per hour;
having to travel with hatches closed in the heat otherwise snakes and small mammals would fall into vehicles;
the sand which made movements slow but trenching easy;
torrential rains which also slowed movement.

The opposing forces - FAPLA, Cubans, East Germans & Russians - numbered about 34 000, whereas the South Africans were not even one brigade, with very limited vehicles and artillery, never more than 3 000 in number. Originally they had no tanks, then were sent 22 Olifant tanks, but these did not like sand because of their steel tracks which had to be shortened regularly, often in action.

The South African plan was as follows:
1) Operation Modular to stop the FAPLA advance against UNITA in their positions at Mavinga & Jamba. The advance was stopped at the Lomba Battle.
2) Operation Hooper was to inflict maximum casualties and stop any attempt to resume the advance. FAPLA retreated.
3) Operation Packer to force FAPLA back to Cuito Cuanavale and west of the river Cuito. Although the FAPLA forces deployed and set up telephones so that the South Africans could not pick up any info, the SA trained at night and finally took the FAPLA positions in just 59 mins.
4) Operation Displace was to stop any resumed advance against UNITA, which it did. Some of the reasons for all this success were the superb discipline, the exceptional humans who fought together as a team and leadership from the front.

Pat Henning

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Forthcoming Events at Ditsong Military Museum:

Sunday 7th September - Family Musical Picnic at the Museum - 11h00 to 15h00 - contact Military Association of Gauteng (MAG) Secretary, Pieter Williams on 082 807 7116 for details

Saturday 13th September 9am to 9pm - SCOPEX 14 - Annual Telescope and Astronomy Expo - bring own picnic. More details from the Museum on 011 646 5513.

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E-mail query from Karin - has her e-mail contact details.

My grandfather Fred/Frederick Ernest Smith served in the BW and died in WW1 in 1916 in Tanzania, East Africa. While I am battling to find him in the BW [too many Fred Smiths!], I am wondering if somebody could tell me more about the 7th SAI, their where-about in East Africa, their clothing [uniforms] etc. I have received his enlistment forms from the SANDF, his personal effects at the time of his death could not be accounted for as it was missing.

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Michael Hofmann, who repairs bagpipes in Germany, has been asked by a Mrs Beuck (ex-South African now retired in Germany) if anybody might remember her father, Douglas Haig Stewart who lived in South Africa, whose set of pipes she inherited. Michael has created a web-site - and anybody interested is welcome to contact him at

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For Cape Town details contact Johan van den Berg 021-939-7923
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676

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