South African Military History Society

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In his opening remarks, the Chairman, Malcolm King, noted that there had been 57 members and 24 guests at the previous meeting. He reminded the audience about the 2016 tour to the World War I sites as an itinerary is now available - Ken Gillings is the contact for details. He went on to mention the society's ties which are for sale at R80 each. The visitor's fee will rise from R10 to R20 from 1st April. The fee has not been raised for many years, and the current rise will keep it in line with membership fees. Malcolm asked members to sign the petition sent by Andy Bye requesting British government funding to prevent the closure of the library at the Imperial War Museum in London due to a 4 million pound financial deficit.

We were reminded of the World War I and II commemoration films to be shown by The Majestic Historical Film Society at the Museum. The next movie is The Gathering Storm, which deals with the life of Winston Churchill in the difficult inter-war period. The film will be shown on Sunday 24 May in the auditorium at 14h00. Cost is R100, including afternoon tea. Bookings can be made with Hennie Erasmus of The Majestic at (011) 486 3648. As the auditorium will be in the middle of a refurbishment in August, we shall have more details of where the next movie Regeneration will be shown, later. For now, the showing is booked for 23 August.

The first speaker of the evening was someone familiar to us all, Past Chairman and committee member, Ivor Little who attended the South African Naval College about which he spoke in his lecture A Name among Seafaring Men. Ivor had a long and distinguished career at sea and on shore in SA navy and the merchant marine service. He also represented South Africa in diplomatic posts in South America and Italy. His talk, however, took him back to his earliest days at sea.

In 1921 TB Davis, a wealthy Durban stevedore, wanted to do something significant in memory of his son, Howard, who had been killed at Thiepval on the Somme in World War I. As Howard was to have followed in his father's footsteps in a maritime career, he had been sent to the famous cadet training ship HMS Worcester before the war intervened. So Davis thought that it would be appropriate to present a similar ship to South Africa in his son's memory. An obsolete Royal Navy light cruiser, HMS Thames, was purchased and sailed out to South Africa by a crew of Sea Cadets. On arrival it was renamed General Botha, in honour of the then Prime Minister, and brought into use as a training ship.

This was the golden age of sea travel so there was a great demand for promising young lads to be trained as future ships' officers. So, in the minutes of the inaugural meeting of the Board of Control, it stated that the training given was to be of such a high standard that the General Botha would "become a name amongst seafaring men". This was proven true and during World War II the General Botha had the highest number of military awards per capita of any school in the British Empire. This included alumni such as the fighter ace "Sailor" Malan and bomber VC Jack Nettleton. The General Botha produced those who would go on to be admirals, civic leaders, leading shipping figures and businessmen plus more recently, Captain Nick Sloane, the salvor of the cruise ship Costa Concordia.

The General Botha was moved off the ship and ashore to Red Hill during World War II, as her mooring in False Bay off Simon's Town was considered unsafe because of the risk of submarine attack. At the end of the war the college was moved to Gordon's Bay, hence the anchor and GB on the hillside above the town. Then in 1966, it was moved to Granger Bay in Cape Town. It was closed during 1987 because of the impact of air travel and containerisation which resulted in a lower demand for naval cadets. "Those of you who did National Service training for six weeks and thought that you had it tough should remember that General Botha cadets did "basics" for their full two-year course! The day started at 05h30 with the shrill of a Bosun's pipe and ended at 21h00 with the bugle call "Last Post". In between there was a normal school day plus physical training, sport, parade ground drill, keeping the place clean ["clean ship"], prep, morning and evening prayers, maintaining and polishing your kit and last, and very much least, meal times. Parents among you should remember that the young lads in the following film were between 14 and 17 at the time. Imagine your own teenager in similar situations. You will also notice that when they left the Botha they were already young officers."

The film that followed had been shot on an 8mm hand-held camera by Chief Cadet Captain [Head Prefect] Barry Cullen in 1953/4 and had been professionally reworked by a film studio in California. The background music had been by the South African Navy Band. The film had been shown at the 60th reunion of the General Botha class of 1953/4 of which our speaker was a member. The film showed the activities of the class: "cleaning ship", lowering and manning of lifeboats, cross country running, hill climbing etc. The audience appreciated it hugely and were entertained by seeing Gordon's Bay at that time.

The Chairman next introduced the main lecturer of the evening - Col. James Jacobs who was born in Morgenzon in the then South Eastern Transvaal He joined the South African Defence Force in 1973. and served as an Officer Instructor at 1 Special Service Battalion at Tempe Bloemfontein from 1977. From 1980 to 2000 he served in various positions in the Military Academy (part of the department of Military Science of Stellenbosch University) and at the Army College. From 2001 he was involved in the design and presentation of the Military History Course as part of the Joint Senior Command and Staff Programme (JSCSP) at the National War College where he was stationed until November 2014 when he retired.

His talk was titled The 8th Frontier War, 1850-1853. This was illustrated with very unusual pictures (including Thomas Baines's painting Fordyce's Folly) and photographs of the protagonists on both sides. There were also excellent maps showing the troop movements in specific battles. At the end of the lecture, Col Jacobs showed photos he had recently taken of the actual battle terrains so that we could clearly see the difficulties faced by both sides.

In December 1847, Sir Harry Smith was appointed Governor & C-I-C of the British forces in South Africa. His policies and arrogant actions in the Eastern Frontier led directly to the 8th Frontier War of 1850-53. The treatment of ex-soldiers of the Cape Mounted Riflemen in the Kat River Valley and the dispossession of large tracts of their land entangled the British Empire in a war very similar to the American experience in Vietnam in the 20th century. It was the second longest and bloodiest war for the British to date. This dubious honour was achieved even though most of the rebel guns were muskets which failed when the gunpowder got wet in the rains. Muskets were readily available as some 83 000 had been "dumped" in Africa as they became redundant elsewhere.

British efforts to arrest Paramount Chief Sandile of the Nqgika Xhosa led to the first military action, the Boomah Pass ambush on 24th December 1850. The next day the Xhosa-Khoi alliance attacked the forts/military villages that had been established on land taken from the Xhosa in previous conflicts. Several forts between King William's Town and Adelaide were attacked and Smith himself was trapped in Fort Cox northeast of Alice. In fact, he only managed to escape by disguising himself. During the first month of the war the British had to lift the sieges of some of the forts and recapture Fort Armstrong. At the same time the revolt spread to the Khoi settlements near Grahamstown and as far north as Thembuland. Only at the end of January 1851 had the military situation stabilised so that the British forces could start with counter-offensives as more and more reinforcements arrived from the rest of the Empire. These were sorely needed as Smith had sent 1500 men home to England just before the conflict broke out! It is also worth remembering that at this time a British soldier's pay was one shilling per day and that officers still bought their initial commissions and their promotions whether they had ability or not.

From February 1851 onwards the Xhosa-Khoi Alliance under the able leadership of Paramount Chief Maqoma conducted guerrilla warfare in the Amatola Mountains, the Fish River Valley and the Waterkloof region. The multitude of mountain ranges, thickness of the bush along the river banks and the distances involved enabled them to attack and then melt away. This drew the British forces into a long war until 1853. Cathcart now took over from Smith and eventually the British Empire gained the upper hand by invading the Transkei and resorting to a scorched-earth strategy in which the suffering of the women, children and the old forced the Alliance leadership to sue for peace. The war had lasted for more than two years and cost the British taxpayer between 2-3 million pounds.

It effectively ended the military and political career of Sir Harry Smith and he had to leave South Africa with a tarnished reputation, as two British investigators had been sent out to try to discover the causes of the rebellion and they placed a great deal of blame on him. An estimated 16 000 Xhosa and Khoi rebels died whist the British dead amounted to 1 400. The war was a watershed in the history of warfare as the Minie muzzle-loading rifle, used by the British, was the forerunner of the breech-loading weapons of the wars of the Industrial Revolution, and the scope of the guerrilla war pointed to the tactics of revolutionary wars of the 20th century.

Vice Chairman Jan Willem Hoorweg thanked both speakers for a most interesting evening.

Pat Henning

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This serves as notice that the 49th AGM of the Society will take place in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the SA National Museum of Military History at 20h00 on Thursday 9th April 2015.

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