South African Military History 

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Our speaker on 13 November 2014 was Mr Ian Cameron whose topic was the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC and the Persian invasion of Greece.

Our speaker introduced his talk by pointing out that there had been many invasions which were of great importance in history, e.g. the Hun invasion of the Roman Empire, the Muslim invasion of France and Spain and Genghis Khan’s invasion of Eastern Europe. The second Persian invasion of Greece and the battle of Plataea were as important in history as any of these. The Greek victory at Plataea made Alexander the Great’s incredible achievements possible and also may have saved Rome from Persian invasion and conquest. This would have altered European history, and therefore the history of the world.

Mr Cameron then referred to Homer and the Iliad, his book on the Trojan War with its warrior ethos, and the Odyssey, on the return voyage from Troy. He explained that Troy was in the northwest of Turkey. Ulysses took ten years to return home after the fall of Troy. His wife Penelope remained faithful to him during this time. The same cannot be said of Ulysses though.

He then discussed Herodotus, an Asian-born Greek (circa 485-425 BC), the father of history and chronicler of the Greco-Persian Wars. The latter were a series of conflicts between the Achaemenid Empire of Persia and city-states of the Hellenic world that started in 499 BC and lasted until 449 BC. The first Greco-Persian War was undertaken by Cyrus II (ca. 575-530 BC) of Persia. In about 559 BC, at the age of 16, Cyrus became ruler of his cousin’s half of Persia and, ten years later, he became ruler of the Medes as well and called himself King of Kings (Xerxes I). He was also known as Cyrus the Great and founded the Achaemenid Empire. Following a series of conquests he became the ruler of all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded vastly and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia and the Caucasus. From the Mediterranean Sea and Hellespont in the west to the Indus River in the east, Cyrus the Great ruled over the biggest empire that the world has yet seen. His empire would have extended much further to the west, were it not for a number of disparate and fractious Grecian city-states….

The Neo-Babylonian Empire which dominated the ancient Near East, was conquered by Persia in 538 BC. This conquest had an interesting side-effect that still has a profound impact on the world to this day: In about 596 BC the Biblical tribes of Judah and Benjamin were conquered by the Neo-Babylonian Empire and deported virtually en bloc to Babylon to live and work in bondage. After Cyrus conquered Babylon in 538 BC they were set free and allowed to return to their homeland which then became a useful buffer state of Persia.1 Cyrus was known in Babylon as “The Liberator”.

One of Cyrus the Great’s conquests in Asia Minor was the Lydian Empire. The Lydian king, Croesus, in turn, before being subjugated by Persia, had conquered the cities of Eastern Greece, in Asia Minor, and amongst them, Ionia, prior to 547 BC. Croesus’ downfall was precipitated by the occupation of his brother-in-law’s throne of Media by Cyrus, which led to war. Croesus was defeated by the army of Cyrus in 547 BC. Cyrus was only 45 years of age when he himself was killed in battle in 530 BC.

Our speaker then discussed the composition of the Persian Army, which was drawn from the many nations making up the huge population of the Persian Empire. Its order of battle included archers, infantry, cavalry and siege machines.

By 510 BC all of the islands off the coast of Asia Minor were under the control of the Persians. Struggling to rule the independent-minded cities of Ionia, the Persians appointed tyrants to rule each of them. This would prove to be the source of much trouble for the Greeks and Persians alike. In 499 BC the Greek city-states of Asia Minor – vassals of Persia - rose in revolt, led by Miletus. Athens and Eretria sent troops to assist and Sardis, capital of the Persian Satrapy was sacked and burnt. The Persians crushed this revolt with great harshness and the inhabitants were enslaved. This led to the Persian king, Darius I (550–486 BC), building up an invasion army and fleet to invade Europe and conquer the Grecian city-states on the southernmost tip of the Balkan Peninsula.

In 494 BC, the Persians sent heralds to Greece demanding earth and water – the symbols of submission. Most of the Greek states refused to do so but the strategically important island of Aegina, which controlled the access to Athens’s harbours, did submit. The Spartan king Cleomenes intervened and, after King Demartus had been deposed, Aegina once more became an ally of Athens.

In 490 BC the Persian fleet attacked and sacked Eretria and sailed on to the bay of Marathon, where their army landed. An Athenian runner was sent to Sparta for help and the Athenians prepared to face the Persian invaders. Although the Spartans agreed to help Athens, they could not do so until six days had passed as they were observing a religious festival. The Athenian army of 9,000 men was assisted by 1,000 Plataeans and was commanded by Callimachus. The supreme commander was Miltiades. He proposed that the Greeks should fight the Persian on the Plain of Marathon. The Athenians were outnumbered by the Persians and had no cavalry.

One night Miltiades learnt from some Ionian soldiers serving in the Persian army that the Persian cavalry were absent. He attacked the Persians at dawn the next day and won a famous victory. The victory was due to the bravery, spearmanship and protective armour of the Athenians and the generalship of Miltiades. After the battle the Persians sailed to Athens but the Athenian army reached the city before them, so they sailed away and ten years were to pass before they attacked Athens again.

Mr Cameron then proceeded to explain the tactics used by the Greeks during the battle in some detail. When the Athenians were close to the Persian army, the enemy fired volleys of arrows into them, so they stormed forward to minimize the danger. The Athenian forces in the centre were forced to withdraw to the hills by the Persian centre, but the Athenian forces on the flanks destroyed the Persian flanks. They then attacked the Persian centre which was pursuing the Athenian centre, killing many of them. Realising that the battle was lost, the main body of the Persians embarked on their ships and withdrew.

Our speaker then described the armour and weapons used by the Greeks. The breastplate had a metal plate back and front. In the second half of the 6th Century, this was replaced as the hoplite’s body armour by a linen corselet made of many layers of linen glued together and about 0.5cm thick. Despite its stiffness it was quite effective and comfortable.

Full-length lower leg guards or greaves were introduced in the 7th century. At first they protected only the lower leg, but were later extended to protect the knee as well. Ankle and heel guards were also worn. Helmets of varying designs protected the head.

The hoplite’s main weapon was his spear made of ash-wood and which had a metal spike sometimes made of bronze. A 2.5 metre hoplite spear weighed about 1 kg. The hoplite was also armed with a short sword some 60 cm long at the time of the Persian Wars. He carried a shield which protected him from chin to knee. When the phalanx was formed, it also protected his vulnerable side. Shields were decorated with many different designs which identified the hoplite whose face was hidden by his helmet.

The Spartan way of life was very different to that of other Greek tribes. Sparta was a nation of warriors serving the state, who were permitted to do conventional work. Helots tilled their land. When a boy was seven years old, he joined a troop of his contemporaries and lived in barracks. To become a man, the Spartan boy was required to go hungry, sleep on the ground and learn to live off the land by pilfering. He was permitted to kill helots if he encountered these during his nightly raids. Influenced by the Spartan way of life in Greek legends and myths, literary expressions such as “laconic speech” and “a spartan diet” have become part of the English language.

Mr Cameron then touched on the second (and greater) Persian invasion of Greece. During the ten years which elapsed since the first invasion, King Darius of Persia died (in 485 BC) and he was succeeded by his first-born son, King Xerxes I. He was persuaded by his cousin Mardonius to avenge the Persian losses at Marathon and to invade Greece. Two bridges were built over the Hellespont by Egyptian and Phoenician engineers, but these were swept away in a violent storm. This so angered King Xerxes that he had the engineers beheaded and 300 lashes inflicted on the waters of the Hellespont – a somewhat futile response.

Xerxes then moored two rows of ships together across the straits. Planks were used to make a road and palisades were erected to hide the water from the animals crossing. The invading Persian host was said to consist of 1.7 million men with a fleet estimated to include 1,207 warships and some 3,000 smaller vessels – probably exaggerated but even so a formidable force. A more accurate figure would be in the order of approximately 170,000 men plus the 10,000 immortals and a lesser number of ships. A number of naval actions took place but the details of these are somewhat obscure. The Persians lost a number of ships in storms off the coast and the Greeks had captured some 30 Persian ships.

The Greeks learnt of the invasion when the Persians started work on a canal across the isthmus of Mount Athos, a project later abandoned, and when Persian heralds arrived again demanding “earth and water”. All of the Greek city states, except Athens and Sparta, submitted. These two then tried to persuade as many of the states that had submitted to join the Greek League. King Leonidas of Sparta was appointed as commander of the League’s army. When it proved impossible to defend the passes from Macedonia into Thessaly, it was decided to check the Persian invasion at Thermopylae.

The pass of Thermopylae was chosen as the place to oppose the Persians. King Leonidas was in command of a small force of some 6,000 men. Xerxes waited for some four days hoping to overawe them into retreating. He attacked the largely Spartan army but could not break through. Then a Malian Greek betrayed his fellow Greeks by showing the Persians how they could cross the mountains to attack the Greek position from the rear. When Leonidas heard of this, he retained the Spartan, Theban and Thespian contingents and sent off the rest of the army to join the Greek forces in the south. His force was attacked from two sides with Xerxes using the Immortals, his best troops. The Greek force was annihilated with heavy losses on the Persian side. Leonidas and two brothers of Xerxes also fell. The bravery of the defenders of Thermopylae won the Spartans the support of all the Greek City states.

The Persian navy had sailed south and came upon the Greek navy in the bay of Salamis. They attacked the Greeks and were defeated. This left Xerxes in a hostile country with the sea controlled by the Greeks. As his army had been supplied by his fleet, he decided to withdraw most of his army to Northern Greece leaving one corps behind. Its commander tried to drive a wedge between Athens and the other city states by proposing that Athens should become an ally of Persia. This was rejected by the Athenians, who raised an army reputed to be 100,000 strong. This army fought and won the Battle of Plataea, as described below, which decided the fate of Greece in 479 BC and put an end to further Persian expansion into the Mediterranean proper.

The Athenians had chosen Aristides and Xanthippus as their leaders and the former declared that the Athenians would fight the Persians with the help of the gods and heroes whose shrines had been desecrated by the Persians. The Spartan contingent had been delayed by their observance of the Hyacinthian festival and, by the time they joined the Greek League, Attica had been laid waste by the Persians for the second time.

The Persian corps, reckoned by the Greeks to number some 300,000 men, and commanded by Mardonius, was probably less than that in number. It was based in a stockade camp in the southern plain of Boeotia next to the River Asopus. The cavalry consisted of heavily armed and armoured cuirassiers, 1,000 Royal Household Guards, lightly armed cavalry from Persia, Media, Scythia, Bactria and India and Greek cavalry from Boeotia, Thessaly and Macedonia. The infantry included 10,000 Immortals (Persia’s best troops) and hoplites from Central Greece. Mardonius was aware of disunity and animosity in the Greek League forces and hoped that this would result in the break-up of the army.

The Greek league forces were commanded by Pausanias, the Regent of Greece who was a nephew of King Leonidas. The largest contingent in the Greek League forces came from Sparta and consisted of 5,000 Spartans, 5,000 Lacedaemonians and 35,000 Helots who were well-armed skirmishers. Athens provided 8,000 men under Aristides, Corinth 5,000. The centre was made up of troops from Plataea, Megara and Aegina.

When this large force assembled at Plataea, the problem of logistic support quickly became critical. The situation worsened when the Persian Cavalry (the Greeks had no cavalry) fell upon a Greek convoy of 500 pack animals and overcame them and the escorting foot soldiers. Pausanias and his staff were keen to fight the Persians as soon as possible but were constrained by their lack of cavalry, just as Militiades had been at Marathon.

Pausanius deployed his forces in the foothills above Plataea. The powerful Persian cavalry led by Masistius attacked the Greek left wing with arrows and darts. A small force of Athenians now fell on the Persians and, in fierce fighting, they killed Masistius and repulsed the attack. Their cavalry commander’s death dealt Persian morale a heavy blow. However, the Persian cavalry continued to harass the Greeks who had no cavalry. This continued for three weeks.

King Alexander of Macedonia visited the Athenian commander by night to inform him that the Macedonian army would attack at daybreak on the following day. Both sides changed the positions of their forces opposite each other and Mardonius cancelled his planned attack. The Persian cavalry then forced the Spartans out of their positions and rendered their water supplies unusable. This forced the Greeks to move nearer to Plataea during the following night.

When the Greeks started their night march, an insubordinate Spartan officer refused to move his men and the Spartans, Tegeans and Athenians also remained in their positions. But, at daybreak, the Athenians moved, followed by others including the insubordinate Spartans who had caused the delay. The Persian Cavalry then charged the Greek forces, followed by their massed infantry. The Spartan hoplites then charged the Persians and their spears, shields, armour and combat skills enabled them to defeat the Persian infantry, who had no shields, armour or long weapons. Mardonius was killed and the Persians fled.

In view of the large number of Persians on the battlefield and the atrocities which they had committed, Pausanius ordered that no prisoners were to be taken and the Persian main infantry force was destroyed. The threat of conquest by the Persians was gone. The campaign of Plataea has been described as the finest achievement of Greek unity.

The Chairman thanked Mr Cameron for an unusual, very detailed and most interesting talk and presented him with the customary gift. Major Tony Gordon added a special word of thanks for a talk which brought back pleasant memories of ancient history lessons at school.

1 An estimated 62,000-odd exiles and their descendants returned to Judah – but a substantial number also chose to remain behind in Babylon. The Babylonian exile should not be confused with the subjugation of the ten tribes of Israel by Assyria and their wholesale deportation to Asia Minor in 721 BC, where they became dispersed in the course of time and lost to history. It can only be speculated that the Israelites were absorbed and became assimilated with the indigenous populations over time and were taken up in the subsequent population movement westwards into what became known as the Europe of today. – Ed.


A number of members passed away during 2014. We remember Messrs. E D D Cochrane, J van Alphen Stahl, M Pate, H Munro and A Harvey. Their memory lives for evermore in our midst.



In the centenarian commemoration of the First World War, hardly any mention is made of a political upheaval and armed reaction locally that had direct bearing on the global cataclysm – the Rebellion of 1914-15. It is not surprising, as the “insurrection” hardly received any mention in the mainstream histories of the First World War other than brief mention in a paragraph or two, or a footnote. In modern South African histories it also receives scant coverage – at most a page-and-a-half – pictures included. Very few books on the subject had been published in the previous century - mostly in Afrikaans, a few in Dutch and hardly any in English. This can be explained by the fact that most participants were rural Afrikaners who were still republicans at heart and ex-combatants of the “English War” of 1899-1902, as they tend to refer to it, with a mere twelve years separating the two events. It was, however, a major crisis for the subjugated Afrikaner section of the population in the Union of South Africa: It pitted “Bitter-Enders” from the South African War fighting on the Rebel side against “Bitter-Enders” fighting on the government side. Brother against brother, family against family, and friends and comrades of yesteryear, against each other. It was a civil war in microcosm, in the context of the larger European civil war then underway. It had a profound impact on the Afrikaner psyche, having to deal with the fact of now being an imperial subject loyal to a king thousands of kilometres away whose subjects not only caused them immeasurable hardship, suffering and physical loss, but also having to come to terms with the fact that the Afrikaner took up weapons against fellow-Afrikaner twelve years ago and having to forgive them for that. The Rebellion only served to bring all that mental anguish and bitterness to the surface again. It certainly was the greatest test of the noble imperialist idea of “union”, since its inception in 1910, but it can be argued that, had the sore not burst open in 1914, it could have taken place at a later stage and have had a much more profound impact on the British efforts at appeasement amongst the various population groups in South Africa.

Dr Louis Bothma’s book is a fresh and thought-provoking look at the origins of the 1914 Rebellion and is the first substantial work to appear since the ground-breaking work of Dr G D Scholtz, Die Rebellie, 1914-15, published in 1942. It is certainly the most comprehensive and substantial work on the subject to date, and is highly recommended to the serious, as well as lay historian with an interest in contemporary South African history, and those interested in the history of the First World War. It can only be hoped that Dr Bothma’s book will in due course be translated and published in English, so as to enable a greater market to be reached, but also to counter a general bias amongst English readers and speakers as well as highlighting the radical decision for Afrikaner subjects to oppose the government of the day’s automatic entry in the First World War. As it was an almost spontaneous, popular uprising amongst the largely “Bitter-Enders” of the war of 1899-1902, poorly co-ordinated and provisioned, it was rapidly suppressed by the better equipped, mechanised and superior government armed forces.

Self-published 2014; Paperback: 530 pages; colour & b/w photos, 13 maps. RRP R295,00


  This seminal work documents the clandestine seaborne operations undertaken by South Africa’s 4 Reconnaissance Commando Regiment. It breathtakingly reveals the versatility and effectiveness of this elite unit which worked with a range of other South African and Rhodesian forces, including the Rhodesian SAS, to engage in a range of raiding and fighting activities. These operations saw the clandestine reconnaissance of harbours, the sinking of enemy shipping and the destruction of shore installations in Angola and Mozambique. Just some of the tasks undertaken by this extraordinary maritime capability which totalled no more than 45 operators, both black and white.

With unparalleled access to previously secret material, the authors, both of whom worked to develop 4 Recce’s operating capabilities, trace the origins of the Regiment back to the 1970’s when the South African’s determined the need for a maritime force projection capability. They relate how maritime doctrine was developed within South Africa’s wider Special Forces capability and how joint operational approaches were configured with the South African Navy. This saw the development of a range of swimmer, reconnaissance, diving and boat operator training courses, along with the design of specialist raiding craft and amphibious assault platforms, which were designed to operate from the Navy’s existing ships and submarines. All of which demonstrated the immense potential of this newly emergent force and the resourcefulness of its individual operators. Required to successfully complete a gruelling selection process, the operators of 4 Recce were relentlessly tested to prove their physical and mental mettle, not to mention their leadership skills and initiative.

Steyn and Söderlund’s chronological analysis of the operations undertaken by 4 Recce and the South African Navy is stunning to behold. They impartially detail the secret and specialised actions which saw both success and failure. From Cabinda on the West Coast to Tanzania on the East, 4 Recce, whose existence and capability was largely kept secret even within the South African Defence Force, conducted numerous clandestine raids. They attacked shipping and strategic targets such as oil facilities, transport infrastructure and even ANC offices. And sometimes the raids did go wrong, spectacularly so in one instance when two operators were killed and Captain Wynand Du Toit was captured. He was later paraded in front of the world’s media, much to the embarrassment of the South African government.

This is a fascinating work and one that will enthral anyone with an interest in Special Forces operations. Profusely illustrated with many previously unpublished photographs, it stands as a testament to the author’s endeavours as, respectively, the former Operations Commander of 4 Recce and the former Commander Task Group of the SA Navy - as well as the incredible operators of 4 Recce.

  Explosive and compulsive, Iron Fist from the Sea takes you right to the raging surf; to the adrenalin and fear that is seaborne raiding.

Publisher: GG Books UK & Helion and Company (November 2014); Paperback: 496 pages, c 100 colour & b/w photos, 10 maps. RRP R685,00

About the Authors

Lt-Col Daniel Steyn, HC, SM, MMM, PSN
Daniel (Douw) Steyn joined the Army in 1974 after completing high school, and was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers in 1975. His first operational deployment came later that year during Operation Savannah, the South African incursion into Angola. His actions in clearing mines under fire during the fighting at ‘Bridge 14’ earned him the award of the Honoris Crux decoration for gallantry. He was later mentioned in dispatches for other actions during that operation.

Steyn then applied to join the Special Forces, qualifying as an operator in 1977 and served 15years as a Special Forces operator, specializing in advanced demolitions and sabotage techniques. Joining 1 Reconnaissance Commando in Durban, he led the operational Bravo Group for the next four years. The unit’s most important operations during this period were Operation Amazon, the attack on the oil facilities in Lobito, for which he was awarded the Medal for Military Merit, and Operation Kerslig which targeted the oil refinery in Luanda, for which he was awarded the Southern Cross Medal. He was also instrumental in training the anti-communist resistance movements in Angola (UNITA) and Mozambique (RENAMO) in the use of explosives, mines and in sabotage operations.

In 1981 he was appointed as the operational commander of the Raiding Group of 4 Reconnaissance Commando, the seaborne Special Forces unit based in Langebaan in the Cape Province. There he qualified as an attack diver and saboteur and led a number of seaborne operations to destroy strategic military targets in Angola and Mozambique. After ten years in this demanding role, he was transferred to Special Forces HQ in Pretoria as the Research and Development Officer, assisting with the development of operational tactics and of specialised equipment research. In 1995 he was appointed as the Chief of Staff of 71 Brigade in Pretoria.

He retired from the Defence Force in 1996 as a Lieutenant-Colonel, and joined a major South African security company as part of their senior management in Durban. Working in the private sector has given him more quality time to spend with his family.

  Rear Admiral (JG) Arnè Söderlund, PS, SM, MMM*, SANR
Born and educated in Kimberley, South Africa, where he matriculated from Christian Brothers College, he joined the SA Navy in 1966 and has served both at sea and ashore with postings to a number of other countries during his 40 years’ service. In 1969 he was attached to the Argentine Navy for training aboard the Sail Training Vessel ARA Libertad and on his return served aboard mine sweepers as First Lieutenant and Type 12 frigates as Communications and later Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer.

In late 1975 after a period in command of the diving support and torpedo recovery vessel, SAS Fleur, he was appointed to the strike craft project in Israel where he commissioned the second strike craft P1562 (SAS P.W. Botha and later Shaka) as First Lieutenant and Operations Officer. In early 1980 he was appointed as the first Captain of SAS Oswald Pirow (later René Sethren). After serving as a DS at the Naval Staff College and later the SA Defence College as well as a four year appointment to Chief of Staff Intelligence, he was appointed Naval and Military Attaché (later Adviser) in London from 1994 to 1997. Promoted Commodore (later R Adm [Junior Grade]) in the post of standing CTG in the SAN in 1997, he took part in the transformation process, becoming Director Fleet Force Preparation on the formation of Fleet Command.

Retired from full-time service in May 2006 and joined the SA Naval Reserves where he still serves. He has edited a number of naval and maritime publications including SA Navy News and was co-author along with Adm. Chris Bennett of a definitive book on South Africa’s Navy. He currently runs the Naval Museum Submarine SAS Assegaai (ex Johanna van der Merwe).


Forthcoming Meetings:

The focus on the centenary of the First World War may overshadow another campaign which took place in South Africa from August to December 1914. It will probably slip unnoticed by most of the local press and not form part of any national debate. The Afrikaner Rebellion of 1914 had the potential of creating a serious political crisis, mostly within the northern parts of the infant Union of South Africa. However, the Rebellion’s relatively quick suppression was evidence of the superior power of the state. It also reflected the tendency of the enfranchised white community, and most importantly, its Afrikaner component, to oppose any movement which threatened to take South Africa back towards its recent past. A past personified by the divisive 1899-1902 South African War. Fortunately for the government, the insurrectionists were poorly organized with inconsistent motivations. They were also splintered across three disparate regions, with little coordination between them. The talk will specifically focus upon the causes and the course of the Rebellion. It will, however, refer to its effect on the following decades and question what effect this has had on the South Africa of 2014.

Dr Rodney Warwick is a member of the Cape Town Branch of the SAMHS. He has presented lectures on a regular basis over the years on aspects of 20th century SA military history, which is his particular field of expertise. He has a personal link to World War One, which he is particularly proud of. His uncle, George W. Warwick - author of that brilliant WWI battlefield memoir, We Band of Brothers - fought with the Transvaal Scottish (SA Brigade) at Delville Wood.


The 1914 Afrikaner Rebellion is a highly neglected piece of South African history, perhaps because it represented a bloody broedertwis between Afrikaner heroes. In reality, it was South Africa’s civil war and could have changed the course and outcome of World War 1. The most crucial battle of this three month conflict took place in Mushroom Valley in the Free State between armies amounting to more than 5,000 men - led, on the government side, by Prime Minister Louis Botha and, on the rebel side, by the venerable Gen Christiaan de Wet.

New technology played a major part in the outcome of the battle with the telephone and motorcar making significant contributions and one of the first ever battlefield actions involving motorised machine guns. (Coincidentally, private motorcars were being fitted with machine guns in Flanders by airmen of No. 3 [Eastchurch] Squadron of the Royal Naval Air Service under Wing Commander Charles Samson at around the same time and did valiant service against German cavalry and as scouts until the warfare bogged down in the trenches.

Nigel Fox is an independent advertising consultant and copywriter and, as a long term immigrant to South Africa, has been inspired to research and document some of the many fascinating stories that make up the rich and complex fabric of South Africa’s past. His recently-published book, A Bullet in the Back, covers major events of the 1914 Rebellion and is the first in a planned series of South African historical novels.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

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