South African Military History 


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 117
June/Junie 2014

The fifth meeting of 2014 was held in Grahamstown, a city rich in military history, on Saturday 10th May. Two morning tours were led by Pat Irwin, followed by four talks in the afternoon. The first tour was a visit to the Cathedral of St Michael and St George. The Cathedral contains some 28 plaques, memorial tablets and other items of military historical interest, all of which have deep histories and stories embedded in them. Among points of interest are three carved mice embedded in the memorial plaques: finding them provided an interesting diversion for some of the 40 people on the tour. In addition, the Cathedral itself has a rich history, some of which remains controversial to the present day.

This was followed by a field tour to a number of sites associated with the Battle of Grahamstown which took place on 22nd April 1819, between approximately 5 000 members of the amaNdlambe clan and their allies on the one hand and 333 colonial defenders of the embryo village of Grahamstown on the other. In the course of the tour, Pat drew attention to the paucity of detailed and reliable information on the battle and highlighted some of the contradictions and inconsistencies in that information which is available. Even the actual site of the battle itself is not entirely certain.

The afternoon session started with two presentations in the Open House slot. The first was Malcolm Kinghorn’s second presentation in the Battle Handling series aimed at assisting in understanding WW I. This month focused on ‘unit level organisation’. It is common for eight to twelve infantry soldiers to be grouped as a section led by a corporal. Three sections and a small command element, making some 30 to 35 soldiers, are a platoon (sub-sub-unit) led by a lieutenant. Three platoons and a headquarters, making a force of between 100and 120 soldiers, are a company (sub-unit), commanded by a major. Three to four companies plus a headquarters company and a headquarters, totalling between 1000 to 1200 soldiers, are a battalion (unit), commanded by a lieutenant colonel (addressed as ‘Colonel’). Names are different in other service arms. Sub-sub units in the cavalry and artillery are called troops. Sub-units are squadrons and batteries in the cavalry and artillery respectively. Both cavalry andartillery units are known as regiments. This may be summarised as follows:

OrganisationMen±Led by aInfantryCavalryArtillery
Soldier  PrivateTrooperGunner
8-10 soldiers CorporalSectionSectionSection
3 sections + HQ30Lieutenant(Subaltern) Platoon (sub-sub-unit)TroopTroop
3 platoons + HQ100MajorCompany(Sub-unit)SquadronBattery
4 companies + HQ Company + HQ1000Lieutenant ColonelBattalion (Unit)  RegimentRegiment

The second presentation was a brief report by Geoff Brown, on research which he and Allen Duff have recently done on the activities of Fouchée’s Commando near to Carlisle Bridge, some 40 km from Grahamstown, during the closing days of the Anglo-Boer War. Geoff reported briefly on a largely unrecorded skirmish that occurred on the farm ‘Salisbury Plain’, (now Ezulu Game Reserve)on 29th May 1902, when a heavily outnumbered patrol consisting of about 75 men from Nesbitt's Horse and the Albany District Mounted Troops, clashed with a 400 – 500 strong Commando under Commandant Fouchée, just north of the Great Fish River and midway between Carlisle Bridge and Sheldon Station. Two Boers were killed and 16 men on the colonial side were taken prisoner bythe Boers. A field visit in early 2008 yielded little information, but progress has been made in discovering more about these events by enlisting the help of Allen Duff. The Commando movements and composition and even the names of the two casualties have been discovered. See also SAMHSEC Newsletter 113.

The curtain raiser was presented by Kari McConnachie who spoke on her father’s experiences as a German conscript soldier in Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 and the subsequent siege of Leningrad, which lasted for 900 days. The talk was based on his diary as well as research and documentation from other sources.

Friedrich Adolf Carl Willem von Plato was born in 1912 in ObergutGrabow, Lower Saxony. Heattended school in Salzwedel and studied at Heidelberg University. Whilst at university, his fraternity was closed down by Hitler for refusing to expel its Jewish members, and von Plato was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. He was initially sent to the western front as part of a cavalry unit, but in 1941 was transferred to the eastern front in a bicycle unit (Schnelle Abt. 196 which was part of the 96th Infantry Division). His ultimate rank was Oberleutnant und Schwadronschef, equivalent to a lieutenant, in command of a platoon.

The unit’s march into the Soviet Union during the summer of 1941 was to the general region between Moscow and Leningrad through Lithuania and Latvia. Its function was ‘clearance and reconnaissance’ which included being sent off the track to flush out Russian soldiers hiding in the forests, many of whom surrendered without a shot being fired. Von Plato also observed many interesting features of the regions he passed through, such as civilians continuing with aspects of their daily lives; the growing of vegetables, church attendance, and keeping their shoes clean. His unit hunted geese on the lakes, enjoying the added protein to their rations, and swam in them to resolve their ablution needs.

As the winter of 1941-42 took hold, circumstances and conditions changeddramatically. The Wehrmacht was poorly prepared for the bitterly cold weather:troops were inadequately supplied with suitable warm clothing and oil froze in the vehicles. Losses mounted on both sides (not least, in the case of the Germans, from severe frostbite) with fighting raging around the ‘WolchowKessel’ (The Volga Cauldron). Von Plato was wounded and sent back to Germany. His eyeballs were also frozen so that he was unable to see. In late summer of 1942 he was returned to the front near Leningrad, which was under siege, and also had his first encounter with the atrocities being committed against the Jews.

By January 1943, the Russian counter-attack was starting to take effect with the surrounding of sections of the Wehrmacht and the closing of bottlenecks such as Poselok 5, where von Plato found himself. He was wounded by shrapnel on 15th January and lay in a bunker until 17thwhen, during the night, he and two others were loaded onto an akjas sled and had to guide themselves through marshland, ice and snow towards the German lines. He used his knowledge of the area and of German weaponry to his advantage,eventually meeting with an unmarked German tank and being able to follow its tracks to reach safety.

Throughout 1943 he was part of the general retreat to Kiev, then Hungary and eventually back into Austria. Towards the end of the war von Plato, like many German soldiers, sought out the Americans to surrender, as surrendering to the Russians almost certainly meant being sent to Siberia. Von Plato was fortunate in being able to return home in early 1946.

The main lecture, titled Airmail matters in North Africa during the Allied Campaign of World War II, 1940-45 was presented by Malvern Van Wyk Smith.

The postal history discussed covered war-time air routes, the military postal system, active service rates, stationery for members of the air forces, air schools established in southern Africa and other related matters. This airmail history was inspired by a cache of letters written by members of the Royal Air Force, and the postal legacy of RAF censors in North Africa.

Normal postal services were suspended at the outbreak of World War II. New postal routes needed to be developed after Italy entered the war on the German side on 10th June 1940 and the Mediterranean became a major war zone. Cairo had already become a nodal point of British imperial and other international air routes by 1939 and these routes had to be defended and expanded, while others had to be developed. The BOAC route through Portugal, West Africa, across to Khartoum and on to Australasia and the Horseshoe Route from Durban via Egypt, India and Malaysia to Sydney are two examples. The French developed routes from Khartoum to Elizabethville to Madagascar and then to Cape Town. PANAM went from Miami to Brazil, West Africa, and Khartoum and then linked with other services. The cost of airmail varied according to the route it would follow.

Airmail proved to be expensive and when the North African Campaign began, ways had to be found to make the service more affordable for servicemen and women. A cheap, rapid and efficient postal system was developed i.e. aerogrammes and airmail letters. Large scale printing of airmail stationery as well as the creation of censorship stamps, date stamps and caches were required. Letters were censored en route by a plethora of officials. Date stamps on envelopes give a good history of the routes followed. As air power became crucial for military success, new planes were developed along with the training of pilots at air schools, such as those established in Rhodesia and South Africa, for example 43 Air School in Port Alfred and 44 Air School in Grahamstown. All of these came with an array of date stamps and cachets.

Aerogrammes were used from 1941 and continued to be used until fairly recently. Airmail letter cards were introduced specifically for military servicemen and had to be made as light as possible. The paper was so thin that such letters were see-through. They consisted of three panels, but the ‘screen’ panel was too dark to write on. A Springbok letter card was developed in South Africa and special Christmas aerogrammes were produced. Later it became standard procedure to produce aerogrammes with stamps already printed on them. The postal services also produced an airmail letter-envelope. Some postal stationery was printed in Cairo for the use of soldiers, although most was printed in Britain. In the air force, censorship of confidential letters led to a system of honour envelopes/air letters that would be censored, not by the local officer, but at the central censorship stations. The Royal Navy and the army had their own systems for such mail.Various organisations produced ‘thank you’ cards that were included in commercial ‘comfort’ parcels.

As the war progressed more postal stationery was developed. It included the air graph, a one page letter written on a special form that was photographed on rolls of 16mm film and reduced to the size of a thumb nail. These were sent to London for developing and printing, after which they were enlarged and sent on as a normal letter. These were delivered in early examples of window envelopes.The 31st July 1945 was the last day of the air-graph service. 350 million air graphs had been sent out over the course of 1942-45.

Surface mail was always available to servicemen for free, but delivery could take over two months.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkomste en uitstappe

The next meeting will be at 19h30 on 9th June at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The ‘open house’ will be the next in the Battle Handling series presented by Malcolm Kinghorn. The curtain raiser will be by Alan Moolman, titled My experiences as a fighter pilot in North Africa in WW II, while the main lecture will be Rebellie 1914, to bedelivered by Alwyn du Preez. 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 the remainder of Episode H which will conclude the series.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang

New member /Nuwe lid

We welcome Andrew van Wyk as a member of the South African Military History Society. We hope you will enjoy a happy association with the East Cape Branch and look forward to having you join us at meeting and outings.

Individual members’ activities / Individuelelede se aktiwiteite

None to report this month

Member’ forum/Lede se forum

Nothing has been received this month.

Memorial service, SADF Wall of Remembrance

The annual memorial service at the SADF Wall of Remembrance at Fort Schanskop was held on Sunday 25th May, incorporating the memorial service that used to be held at Fort Klapperkop in September. Fort Klapperkop will no longer be used by the Council of Military Veterans' Organisations for memorial services.

On a related matter, the following information has been received from the Heritage Foundation:
A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the Heritage Foundation (HF) and Freedom Park on Friday 25th April 2014, replacing an earlier MoU which included the Voortrekker Monument, with which a separate MoU will in due course be signed. The MoU between the HF and Freedom Park was signed in a spirit of cooperation, social cohesion and reconciliation and has at least three tangible objectives in mind:

* An annual joint commemoration ceremony, to be presented at the Wall of Names at Freedom Park, to commemorate all South Africans who paid the highest price during the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902). The aim is to achieve optimum awareness of the losses suffered and sacrifices made during and as a result of the Anglo-Boer War.

* A joint wreath laying ceremony by military veterans at Isivivane, Freedom Park to commemorate all South African victims of war from all sides who died during the period since the early sixties of the previous century, as well as the members of the SANDF who have died in service of the country since 27 April 1994. The veterans associations include APLA, AZANLA, the TBVC military veterans, MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe) and the CMVO (Ex-SADF Council of Military Veterans Organisations). They have been invited to afterwards join the commemoration service and lay wreaths at the SADF Wall of Remembrance.

* The parties will also separately and jointly advocate and promote the idea of erecting a suitable memorial for all members of the SA National Defence Force who have lost their lives in service of the country since its inception on 27 April 1994, in close collaboration with and in support of the SANDF, if the latter agrees. There is as yet no such dedicated memorial in the country.

Emily Hobhouse and the Grahamstown Festival

The award-winning play, An Audience with Miss Hobhouse, returns to the Festival in Grahamstown, after its resounding success in 2013. Die Burger described the script, which won a Standard Bank Ovation, as “a jewel”. Cape Talk described it as ‘not a history lesson, but breathing life into very real characters and giving audiences insight into a period fraught with many tensions similar to those experienced today’. There will be eight shows from 3rd – 13th July. The Festival programme is available on the web at

WW II Photo album seeking original owner

An Australian woman is on a mission to reunite a World War II photo album with its original Italian owner. Given the number of WW II Italian POWs who came to South Africa, and the many who stayed here, can any South African help her? See:

World War I Centenary Year / Eerste Wêreldoorlog Eeufeesjaar

How the Unknown Warrior came to be the symbol of the Great War’s fallen heroes

He was chosen to become a symbol of his fallen comrades from the Great War — TheUnknown Warrior. Yet many do not know how the unidentified body came to become one of the [British] nation’s symbols since it was brought from France to Westminster Abbey in 1920. Recently, a document was released explaining the selection process of The Unknown Warrior. This was disclosed by Tim Kendall, grandson of Army chaplain George Kendall who was responsible for bringing home The Unknown Warrior. Tim Kendall was said to have discovered the story in a box in one of his grandfather’s effects. When he read the document typewritten by George Kendall, he realized that it was a very important part of British history as it explained how they selected the warrior. His grandfather had, however, requested that the facts be revealed only after his death.

George Kendall chose The Unknown Warrior from six corpses who were unidentified. He placed the remains in six identical coffins. There was no way to figure out where the remains came from. The six remains were taken to [Army] headquarters at St. Pol near Arras.The six coffins of the unidentified soldiers were placed in trestles in a hut for the night, each being covered with a Union Jack. The coffins were identical so that it was difficult to distinguish one from the other. The hut was then locked and sentries stood guard outside. In the morning, a general entered the hut and placed his hand on one of the six coffins. From then on, the body in that coffin became The Unknown Warrior.

Reverend David Railton, another chaplain, was said to have coined the idea for the Unknown Warrior. It was said that he got it after noticing the markings on a grave in France in 1916, viz. An Unknown British Soldier. After four years, he communicated his idea to the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle. The bodies of the servicemen were exhumed from four battlegrounds — Arras, the Aisne, the Somme and Ypres.

It was also reported that it was Brigadier General L. J. Wyatt who chose the body from the six coffins. The other bodies were reburied. The official sources state that The Unknown Warrior was chosen from only four bodies and Westminster Abbey’s website supports this claim. George Kendall’s account however places this number in question.

The original article for this item is taken from War History Online 13th April 2014which can be found at:
It is reproduced here with some minor editorial alterations for greater clarity.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang


Wing Commander Peter Ayerst: one of the last Battle of Britain pilots
Western Daily Press   19th May 2014

World War II

Fascinating World War II aircraft facts
World War II Foundation

Census shows Hitler’s brother, married to an Irishwoman, lived in Liverpool
Casey Egan Irish Central 1stMay 2014

US Nazi suspect case moves ahead
news 24 22nd May 2014

HMS Birkenhead

The Shipwreck of the Birkenhead. A very good 7-minute video on HMS Birkenhead and the Birkenhead Drill
See also SAMHSEC Newsletter 116

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang

The [UK] Independent is running a series of 100 articles leading up to the start of WW I. These are titled A History of the First World War in 100 Moments and highlight different, often little known, aspects of WW I. On the whole, the series is well worth reading. Qualitatively, it is a mixed bag, the articles ranging from being relatively weak and biased to incisive and very good. An interesting example relating to the Italian-Austrian front, which appeared on 13th May 2014, may be found at:

From here one is able to navigate to both earlier and later sites. Alternatively one can go directly to:


Applebaum Anne 2012 Iron Curtain: The crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 – 1956 London Allen Lane

For anyone interested in the relationship between military force and the active oppression of conquered (‘liberated’) peoples/nations, this insightful book is unsurpassed. Dealing with the Soviet Army’s conquest of Eastern Europe in 1945 and the forced implementation of Stalin’s interpretation of communism, this is a detailed account of the setting up of a deeply repressive system and the vicious and ruthless methods used to enforce it. Apart from the army which was prepared to use force whenever needed, it was a world of secret police, frequent midnight arrests followed by long terms of imprisonment or execution, and people simply ‘disappearing’. Much of this was achieved with the support of small communist party minorities who never had any hope of an electoral victory in the countries involved. While the book focuses on Poland, Hungary and East Germany (the DDR), it also raises wider issues of living under communist regimes in which three-year olds could be expelled from school for saying ‘politically incorrect’ things, and in which in all these countries there were often hundreds of political prisoners under the age of 15. The author describes in devastating detail how political parties, the church, the media, young people’s organisationsand the institutions of civil society on every level, were quickly eviscerated and destroyed. The contents are encyclopaedic in scope and deeply incisive in style: it is also a work of moral reckoning and a reminder of how fragile free societies can be when faced with ruthless opposition and a conquering army with a different view of reality.

Timothy Bax’s Who will teach the wisdom may be of interest to some of our members. Click on ‘Links’ for a wealth of information relating to several Rhodesian military units (SAS, RLI, Selous Scouts etc.) We do not have a date of publication, but it is fairly recent. For further details see:

ROSE’S ROUND-UP No 246, June 2014has two interesting items on the role of Australian women in the Anglo-Boer War. This newsheet, which often contains items of military historical interest, is available from ‘Rose’,who can be contacted The annual subscription is R75.00 for 12 issues.

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 Fred Nel, Richard Tomlinson, Malcolm Kinghorn, Barry Irwin, Michael Irwin and Peter Duffell-Canham.

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

TAILPIECES: Some serious low level flying

In the 1980s and 90s, No 208 Sqn RAF were the real experts in ultra-low-level‘under the radar’ nuclear strikes. During the International Air Tattoo in 1993, to mark the squadron's 75th birthday, this Buccaneer S.2B was flown at an altitude of just 5 feet (1.52 metres) for the entire length of RAF Fairford's runway.

A South African Air Force Harvard trainer ‘rips up a beach’ on the Atlantic coast nearSaldanha Bay with its propellertips no more than one metre from the sandy surface. A group of army officer candidates walking on the beach are possibly realizing that their lives are in some jeopardy. In the far distance one can just make out three other Harvards. Reference: Open Source.

South African Military History Society /