South African Military History 


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 112
January/Januarie 2014

The open house series, the curtain raiser and the main lecture were conflated into one presentation on the military aspects of the Great Trek between 1836 and 1848. The content was presented by Pat Irwin with poetry relating to various aspects of the Trek read by Anne Irwin. Readings from the Herinneringe of Hendrik Potgieter and the Joernaal of Sarel Cilliers, two prominent Trek leaders, were presented by Alwyn du Preez and Franco Cilliers respectively. The presentation included slides of maps showing both the positions of the various armed encounters and, where information was available, details of the battle sites.

After an introduction outlining the importance of the contextual dimensions of the Trek and setting the tone with AD Keet’s poem, Voortrekkerlied, the Trek was examined in relation to other major population moves in southern Africa in the first half of the 19th century. This was followed by a brief analysis of the background and social circumstances in which the Trek took place. These included issues such as the term ‘Voortrekker’, class origins, political rivalry among the Trekkers, and the positions taken by the NG Kerk in the Cape Colony and the British colonial administration. The major Trek leaders were highlighted. It was also pointed out that much of the primary source material was from the Trekkers’ viewpoint, although every effort had been made to incorporate other viewpoints from the relatively sparse material available.

The proportion of the domestic life of the Trekkers in relation to the total amount of time spent on military activities was then considered. Approximately 30 days were spent in battle, 27 days on a fruitless siege and 90 days on commando, riding to or from military encounters. This accounted for roughly 3% of the time duration of 4 700 days under review. Trekker military capacity was analysed under the headings of: the social structure and uses relating to the kakebeen ox wagon; the concept and history of the laager; the fighting qualities of the Trekker men and women, including their use of arms and horsemanship; and the weapons and ordnance available to them, primarily the flintlock referred to by the Trekkers as snaphane and sannas. A particularly fitting poem interspersed here was Jan F Cilliers’ evocative Ossewa. This was followed by an outline of the capacities of the military opponents of the Trekkers during the period under discussion.

These opponents were mainly the amaNdebele under Mzilikazi, the amaZulu during the reign of uDingane kaSenzangakhona and the British, the latter with some assistance from their allies at various times, such as the Griquas, Koranna and elements of the BaRolong. The amaNdebele and amaZulu were armed with only spears, shields and knobkerries throughout their conflicts with the Trekkers. The British and their sometime allies were generally armed with weapons equal to, and in the case of artillery, superior to that of the Trekkers.

The second part of the talk briefly described the major armed encounters in which the Trekkers were engaged, with a focus on strategies and tactics employed by them and their enemies. It started with an account of the annihilation of the van Rensburg party and the attack on Louis Trichardt’s party, both in the area south of the Limpopo. This was followed by a description of the annihilation of the Erasmus and Liebenberg parties and the successful defence by the Trekkers at the Battle of the Vaal in August 1836 in which the employment of the laager proved crucial.

The Battle of Vegkop against the amaNdebele, fought in three stages under the command of Hendrik Potgieter and Sarel Cilliers in October 1836, was then discussed in some detail as was its significance for both the Trekkers and the amaNdebele. Moroka’s assistance to the Trekkers after Vegkop was also highlighted. This was followed by a brief description of the Trekkers’ punitive expeditions against Mzilikazi at Mosega in January 1837 and at Tshwenyane, Kapayn and eGabeni during the ‘Nine-day Battle’ at the end of that year. One of the prime purposes of these was to retrieve cattle lost in the earlier battles. A number of the Trekkers then crossed the Drakensberg, followed by the massacre of Piet Retief’s party at KwaMatiwane in February 1838. This was immediately followed by the amaZulu attack on the unsuspecting Trekkers in scattered camps in the foothills of the Drakensberg, resulting in the massacre of 540 Trekkers and their retainers, including 185 children. This event is known as the Blauuwkrantz Massacre. The trauma of the incident and the fear following it are captured in D F Malherbe’s poem Middernag.

Following Blaauwkrantz, an expedition to retrieve cattle from the amaZulu was mounted during April 1838 and an encounter took place at what is today known as the Battle of Italeni. The Trekker commandos were led into a trap and lost a number of men, including their elected leader Piet Uys. It was on this occasion that the incident of his son Dirkie, losing his life while attempting to rescue his father, took place, making him a child hero of the Trekkers. Johan Bester described the incident in a poignant poem Dirkie Uys. Internal dissention during and after this event, which was labelled the Vlugkomando, resulted in a proportion of the Trekkers leaving Natal to return to the northern Free State area.

After Blaauwkrantz many of the Trekkers gathered in a fortified laager at a site known as Gatslaer, where they were joined there by Andries Pretorius, a popular and able leader. Dingane’s army struck there again on 13th August 1838, and a three day battle ensued at the end of which the amaZulu, unable to penetrate the laager and with heavy losses, left taking with them, once again, the bulk of the Trekkers’ cattle. Gatslaer was renamed Veglaer. By early December another punitive foray was planned against Dingane, and by the 15th a force of 820 men, including retainers and some allies, most notably 60 traditionally armed amaZulu warriors from Port Natal, had established their laager on the banks of the Ncome River. During the journey there, the famous Vow or Covenant had been taken. An estimated 15 000 amaZulu attacked the laager early on the morning of 16th December.

At this point Pat spent some time analysing the pattern of the battle and the tactical and command errors of the amaZulu who, by about 11h00, having suffered very substantial losses, had had enough and began a chaotic retreat. Such was the slaughter that the river was said to have run red, hence the appellation Bloedrivier or Blood River/Ncome. This battle was followed by an attempt to retrieve cattle at the Ophathe Gorge on the White Mfolozi River. Once again, however, the Trekkers were led into a clever trap from which they fought their way out only with difficulty and some loss of life. Upon its return to Veglaer, this force was called the Wenkommando.

Three other armed conflicts, this time against the British, awaited the Trekkers during the time frame under review. In May 1842, the British had occupied Port Natal and were confronted by a commando under Andries Pretorius, victor of Blood River/Ncome. In an ill-planned night-time foray, the British attempted to attack Pretorius’ laager located at Congella, on the shores of the bay, by both land and water. Due to the vigilance of the Trekkers, the attack was a disaster for the British and they retreated, with substantial losses, to the fort which they had constructed. The entire action was fought in the dark. The following day a small building on The Point was captured with only one civilian killed and two soldiers wounded – known as the ‘Battle’ of the Point. The Trekkers then began a 27 day siege of the fort which came close to succeeding. The colonial authorities in the Cape, however, having being alerted to the predicament of the besieged by Dick King, as a result of his famous ride to Grahamstown, sent troops by sea to relieve the starving garrison. Upon arrival of the British troops and warships, the Trekkers decamped after only token resistance.

During 1845, the Trekkers in the Winburg Republic in the northern Free State were at loggerheads with the Griqua in the south-western Free State over land and livestock. The British had signed a treaty with Adam Kok’s Griqua which the Trekkers refused to recognise. After a series of incidents the British crossed the Orange River with a small force which was met by a commando, again under Pretorius. After a short skirmish and the appearance of the 7th Dragoons, the Trekkers took flight, abandoning their laager in the process.

The final military encounter of the Trekkers during the period under discussion took place at the Battle of Boomplaats on 29th August 1848. Sir Harry Smith had peremptorily annexed the entire area between the Orange and the Vaal much to the chagrin of the Trekkers settled there. The result was the clash at Boomplaats in which the Trekkers were defeated by a combination of artillery, mounted infantry and frontal infantry attacks, and retreated to Winburg while being pursued by Smith.

The talk was wound up with a brief assessment of Trekker strategy and tactics and an outline of how these impacted on their military exploits against local tribes, who were increasingly better armed, and the British up to 1902.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe

The next meeting will be at 19h30 on Monday 13th January 2014 at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be British troops in Swaziland: 1963 by Ian Copley. The main lecture will be presented by Barry de Klerk on the topic How fast can she go? How far can she shoot? The meeting will be preceded by the screening at 18h30 of the next episode of the ‘World at War’ series which was not broadcast on television. This will be Episode F.

Sake van algemene belang / Matters of general interest

Anglo-Boereoorlog Herbegrafnis in Stutterheim

Die menslike oorskot van drie slagoffers wat gedurende 1902 in die Kabusi-konsentrasiekampbegraafplaas gesterf het, is op 7 Desember 2013 by die NG Kerk Stutterheim in 'n gesamentlike graf herbegrawe. Die Kabusie-konsentrasiekamp naby Stutterheim het in Januarie 1902 tot stand gekom en is in November 1902 gesluit. Op ’n stadium het die kamp soveel as 2016 mense gehuisves. Vir verdere besonderhede kyk na:!165&ithint=file%2c.docx&app=Word&wdo=2&authkey=!AF9jYnbGGbafRBw

Military Veterans

The first meeting of the South African National Military Veterans Association (SANMVA) National Executive Committee took place at Boksburg on 29th and 30th November 2013. It was briefed by the Deputy Minister of Defence and the Director General of the Department of Military Veterans (DMV). They requested that all military veterans take part in the commemoration events marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, stressing that it is part of all South African military veterans’ heritage. Some of the decisions taken were:

It was noted that the DMV is presently moving to new offices in Hatfield, Pretoria, and that the programme of benefits will be rolled out during 2014.

O’Neill se Kothuis

Met verwysing na Nuusbriewe 93, 107 en 110 het die Erfennisstigting kennis gegee dat die restourasie projek van O’Neill se kothuis, naby Majuba, nou klaar is. Die struktuur en die terrein is neitjies en van veraf sigbaar danksy die verwyding van die swartwattel bome. Die afdraai van die hoofpad en die ingang is nou ook toegangbaar. Vir volle besonderhede sowel as fotograwe kyk na:!157&ithint=file%2c.docx&app=Word&wdo=2&authkey=!ANsKCMO1y_8IdMU

Historical snippets

The South African Corps of Signals celebrated its 90th Birthday in 2013. Established in 1923, its primary role was to provide professional, specialist signal services for the Union Defence Force and later the South African Defence Force. In the SANDF the South African Army Signal Formation also provides services in integrated electronic warfare, command and control and general telecommunications. For those interested in the history of the Corps, Walter Volker’s History of the SA Corps of Signals in 3 Volumes is highly recommended. For further details see:

Brig. Sir Basil Schonland was a South African scientist, who was voted South Africa’s ‘Scientist of the Century in 2000’. Amongst other achievements such as founding the CSIR and serving as its first President, he was also a remarkable wartime soldier, having been involved inter alia with the development of radar. In 1944 he was appointed scientific adviser to 21 Army Group for the invasion of Europe. Once back in South Africa after the war Schonland recommended to the Prime Minister, Gen. Jan Smuts, that the government needed a body of scientists on hand who could advise it on various scientific matters related to Defence, both during peacetime and if the country should ever find itself at war again. Smuts readily agreed and gave Schonland authority to set up such an organization which was called the South African Corps of Scientists. It was a highly secret organization and, as a result, almost nothing was known about it amongst the general public and even within most of the UDF/SADF. Truly another great South African. Further details are available on the Society's website at:
  With acknowledgements to Wel en Wee van die Militêre Veterane: BERIG 31/2013

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang


Polish paratrooper Michael Czeredrecki
FifeToday 4th December 2013
The Scotsman 9th December 2013
[Members will recall that in June 2011, (Newsletter 82) Michael’s granddaughter Nadia Czeredrecki-Schmidt addressed SAMHSEC on her grandfather’s remarkable military experiences during the Second World War.]

Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Wakeling was a defuser of UXBs who emerged victorious in a five year battle of wits with Hitler’s bomb makers.
Anon The Telegraph 20th November 2013

Matters Naval

US Navy launches slightly less cool drone from submarine
Evan Ackerman IEEE Spectrum 12th December 2013

The past and future of aircraft carriers
Bryan McGrath The National Interest 10th December 2013

Battleship X: USS South Dakota

German Battleship Tirpitz

Matters aeronautical

Top five fighter aircraft of all time
Robert Farley The National Interest 7th December 2013

US Air Force being downgraded to ‘Air Persuasion Task Force’ [The comments on this letter provide a fascinating discussion on past and current defence spending and cuts in the USA.]
Eric K Fanning (Acting Secretary of the USAF), Gen. Mark A Welsh III (Air Force Chief of Staff), James A. Cody, Chief Master Sergeant of the USAF Michael Yon Online Magazine 12th December 2013


Exclusive footage on how the tank armour on Challenger 2, Leopard 2 and Abrams M1A2 works

Top 10 best battle tanks

Top Ten World War II Tanks

World War I

WW1 'sacred soil' ceremony takes place in London
Anon BBC News UK 30th November 2013

The following is a selection of WW I websites sites featured in The Telegraph over the past few months:

‘Your Country Needs You' - The myth about the First World War poster that 'never existed'
Jasper Copping The Telegraph 2nd August 2013

Viola, the trawler that fought World War One
Jasper Copping The Telegraph 3rd August 2013

The British medic, the US Doughboy and the French post mistress: A tale of WW1 love and bravery
Jasper Copping The Telegraph 7th August 2013

National Children's Football Alliance wants a pitch on the site of the fabled Boxing Day Truce in 1914
Jim White The Telegraph 8th August 2013

How WW1 sailor saved his life by laying it down for a friend
Jasper Copping The Telegraph 15th September 2013

German and British art to feature in new WW1 exhibition
Jasper Copping The Telegraph 24th October 2013

WW1 romances and the 'hasty weddings' scare
Jasper Copping The Telegraph 28th October 2013

The stone that will celebrate WW1 VC heroes
Jasper Copping The Telegraph 3rd November 2013

Inside the First World War
The Telegraph 15th December 2013

World War II

World War II photographs hidden in a trunk for 71 years

WW II U-boat found in Java Sea
Alan Hall Mail Online 22nd November 2013

Middle East

Iron Dome in Action in Israel: Shooting Down Rockets
Anon New York Times 20th November 2013


Satellite imagery reveals mystery ‘supergun’ in Chinese desert
StratRisks 16th November 2013

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundige belang

Roberts David (Ed) 2010 Minds at War: poetry and experience of the First World War. London Saxon Books

This is a rich and comprehensive collection of literary sources contextualising the canon of the war poetry we have become familiar with. The 250 poems by 80 poets featured in this book make if far more than a mere anthology. These are augmented and contextualised by an array of extracts from contemporary records, personal letters, diaries (both private and regimental) as well as other published works that help to create an insightful understanding of the First World War from the first rumblings to beyond the ‘peace’ at the end.

The collection of poems and other writings cover various facets of the war from the early enthusiasm for it, through the suffering it caused, to early recognition of psychological stress, the end of the war and a heart-felt exploration of the alien peace-time world as experienced by the service men and women who survived the war and went home to find a different world. This book is arguably one of the best introductions to World War I. It is a gripping read and is recommended as an excellent guide to those events that have cast a long shadow across the years.

The book was first published in 1996 and has been reprinted seven times. The paperback is 410 pages and contains maps, photographs and sketches. - ACMI

Ons het kennisgewing ontvang van die volgende boekbekendstelling:

Grobbelaar Paul 2013 1914: Rebellie of Protes? Vryheid teen imperialisme

Hierdie boek is ’n poging om leemtes in die geskiedskrywing oor die rebellie aan te vul. Die gebeure is op verskillende vlakke benader om ter wille van balans ook die ‘stem’ van sowel rebelle as regeringsondersteuners op die grondvlak te ‘hoor’, maar veral dié van die Afrikaner aan beide kante van die politieke spektrum wat vanaf 1910 hulle pad in die vreemde atmosfeer van die Westminster parlementêre stelsel van die Unie van Suid-Afrika moes vind.

Dit is in drie afdelings ingedeel. In die eerste afdeling word tersaaklike aspekte oor elk van die vernaamste leiers en hulle persoonlikhede behandel. In die tweede afdeling word die rol van die Bethulie-kommando aan regeringskant aan die hand van nog ongepubliseerde operasionele dokumente en korrespondensie behandel. In die derde afdeling word die ervarings van ’n gewone rebel, `n prokureur, aan die hand van sy ongepubliseerde briewe behandel. Daarin gee hy, as ontwikkelde mens, ’n interessante kykie op die omstandighede in die tronke, asook op die persoonlikhede van Genl. De Wet en Siener van Rensburg met wie hy saam in die Johannesburgse Fort opgesluit was.

Die gebeure word deurgetrek vanaf die staatsvlak tot by die gewone mens aan beide kante van die opstand, die werklike belanghebbendes by die gebeure. Valshede en innuendo word sonder aansien van persoon aan die kaak gestel. Vir elke aanvegbare stelling wat die skrywer maak, word die nodige bewyse so breedvoerig moontlik aangevoer. - PG

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 as well as news on individual member’s activities. In this Newsletter, there have been contributions by Malcolm Kinghorn, Barry Irwin, Michael Irwin and Dennis Hibberd

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



During the First Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch fleet had a resounding victory over the English fleet on 29th November 1652. The English Parliament had decided to reduce the size of the fleet to save money. As a consequence, Admiral Blake with only forty ships came up against the Dutch fleet of ninety-six ships under the command of Admiral Tromp. The English fought from noon until night fell but lost heavily in both ships sunk and captured and as dusk fell the survivors made for the safety of their harbours. It was after this battle that Tromp hoisted a broom to his masthead to indicate that he had ‘swept the English from the sea’.

South African Military History Society /