South African Military History Society

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The Chairman, Malcolm King, welcomed all those present for the last meeting of 2014. The attendance figure for the November meeting was 60 and it appeared that the attendance for this meeting was about the same. Malcolm then commenced the notices for the month and started by welcoming Captain Jeremy Carew, OBE, a retired Royal Fleet Auxiliary Captain, who is in South Africa visiting his sister Penelope, who was also present.

December 2014 is the 75th anniversary of the first practical use of radar and Malcolm read out a brief history of this event, when a team of South African scientists from the University of the Witwatersrand succeeded in recording the first radar echo, thus making Sir Rupert Watson-Watts' invention a feasible navigational aid and aircraft detection device.

He then drew the audience's attention to the ongoing D-Day Special and World War I displays at the Museum and to the screening at the Museum of the films 'My Boy Jack' on 22 February 2015 and 'Gallipoli' on 24 May 2015.

The Chairman then had the unfortunate duty of announcing an increase in subscriptions, as from the Annual General Meeting next year. These will be R225 for single membership and R240 for family membership.

Having dealt with the notices, Malcolm then introduced the first speaker, the well-known and popular committee member, Hamish Paterson. The subject of Hamish's talk was Gibeon 1915, a battle which take place in the then South-West Africa, now Namibia.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, South Africa was requested by the Imperial Government to destroy the radio station in Windhoek and to occupy Luderitz and Swakopmund. This would effectively put paid to any naval action by the German Navy in the South Atlantic. The campaign started badly for South Africa when an advance guard for the invasion of German South West Africa was defeated at Sandfontein on 26 September 1914. This was followed by the defection of Manie Maritz as part of the 1914 Rebellion. However, a landing at present day Luderitz on 18 September 1914 proved very successful and gave the South African forces a firm beachhead in the German colony.

The force was then placed under the command of Sir Duncan McKenzie. This redoubtable soldier was born in Nottingham Road, Natal, in 1859 and education at Hilton College. He left there in 1872 to become a transport rider, before enlisting in the Natal Carbineers in 1880. By 1897 he was a major and with the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Boer War, distinguished himself by ambushing and defeating a Boer Commando at Acton Homes on 1 January 1900. On 27 September 1901 he defeated the Boer General de Wet at Tygerkloof, while in command of the 2nd Imperial Light Horse. In 1903 he was appointed Officer Commanding the Natal Carbineers and achieved further military success in 1906 while commanding the Zululand Field Force and defeating a large rebel force at Mome Gorge.

In 1909 he was appointed Commandant-General of the Natal Militia, with the rank of Brigadier General, and in 1912 was appointed to the Union Defence Council. It was this formidable soldier who was tasked by General Louis Botha to push the German Colonial forces northwards from Luderitz.

McKenzie wasted no time and started to push inland along the railway line from Luderitz to Aus. This was a formidable undertaking in an era of horse-drawn transportation. Water was the crucial factor for both men and animals, while the railway line had also to be repaired or re-laid, as the Germans had obviously ensured it's destruction during their retreat.

By 8 November 1914, McKenzie's forces had reached Tschaukaib and by 22 February 1915 arrived at Garieb, where he had access to water. This was augmented by water brought forward and by 22 March 1915 McKenzie had 270 000 litres of water on hand and was able to bring up three mounted brigades. To date the march had been unopposed and documents captured at Riet-pforte showed that the bulk of the German forces were north of Aus. McKenzie pushed forward, reaching Aus, 128 kms from Luderitz, on 28 March. He found Aus abandoned and the local radio transmitter destroyed. McKenzie spent 9 days building up his water supplies and then swung north towards Windhoek, leaving Aus on 15 April 1915 at the head of a flying column. In four days they covered 185 kilometres to Berseba where they encountered the German forces in a short skirmish. The Germans retreated further north to Grundorn and then on to Gibeon. On entering Grundorn McKenzie's column tapped the German telegraph line and found that the Germans had reached Gibeon and that there was a troop train in the station, which would leave that evening.

A demolition group was despatched to blow up the railway line north of Gibeon and this was successfully completed, trapping the German forces in Gibeon.

McKenzie then despatched a Colonel Royston to place his forces across the German line of retreat along the damaged railway line and thus to ambush them. Unfortunately, Royston placed his forces too close to the scene of the explosion and they were easily discovered by German scouts sent to out check the line. In addition to this, Royston placed his men parallel to the damaged line instead of across it. The Germans, aware of the ambush, then set up a machine gun in a culvert from where they were able to enfilade Royston's men, causing heavy casualties.

Royston then decided to go personally to seek help, leaving his second-in-command, a Lieutenant-Colonel Davies, in charge. This latter officer then ordered a retreat from the site of the proposed ambush back to where his men had left their horses. At this stage Royston returned and ordered a further retreat. In the confusion a squadron of the Natal Light Horse was left behind and captured by the enemy. On hearing of this fiasco, McKenzie immediately intervened and while the German were celebrating their victory, ordered three regiments forward in a rapid night march. Their arrival at Gibeon coincided with daybreak and the first artillery salvo directed at the train, (which turned out to be loaded with explosives) brought an instant surrender of the train and station. The remaining German troops broke out past the ambush site and a 35 kilometre running battle then took place. The way to Windhoek was now clear and McKenzie had cemented his reputation as a capable and efficient field commander.

At the conclusion of this interesting and well-illustrated talk, the chairman allowed a short question time before allowing time for the next speaker to prepare his presentation. He also took the opportunity of announcing that the availability of 'Poppy Day' poppies in the foyer at the last two meetings had resulted in a collection of R 482, which had been passed on to the SA Legion.

Malcolm then introduced the next and main speaker of the evening, Mr Robin Binckes, whose subject was "The Battle of Blood River". This was a particularly apt choice of subject as it was only a few days short of 176 years since the battle and so could be considered an anniversary talk. It was also a particularly difficult assignment as most of those present had worked their way through school doing compulsory history, which included the study of the Great Trek and Blood River, and were probably wondering what new aspects Robin could bring to this well-known subject.

Your scribe does not intend to summarize or re-hash Robin's excellent talk. Instead, he would like to compliment the speaker on the way he held the attention of his audience, from the opening of his talk to the last salvo of the battle itself.

Starting with first Koi, Bantu and white inter-relationships in South African history, Robin led us along the path of South African history at a cracking pace, using style, imagination and oratorical skill to paint a vivid picture of the troubled history of our country, culminating in whey we still celebrate what was 'Dingaan's Day', 'The Day of the Vow', 'The Day of the Covenant' and now 'The Day of Reconciliation'.

At the close of this excellent talk, Malcolm allowed a brief question period before asking committee member Peter James-Smith to thank both speakers.

This done, the meeting was adjourned for refreshment and the Christmas break.

Members are reminded that the next meeting will be on the 3rd Thursday of January 2015, being the 15th.

Ivor Little,
Acting Scribe.

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RADAR link

One of the people involved with the radar story in South Africa was Major Bozzoli - later Wits Vice-chancellor - who donated a photo-album which can be viewed at the University's archives by following this link (courtesy of Dr Brian Austin, now residing in the UK)

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The committee extends its heartfelt condolences to Joanne Bullen on the recent passing of Frank who attended the Johannesburg lectures for many years as his health allowed.

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