South African Military History 

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Our speaker on 10 September 2015 was Mr Ian Cameron whose topic was the Battle of Hastings, which took place on 14 October 1066, and the period before and after the battle. His talk was augmented and enhanced by a liberal amount of illustrations and maps. He introduced his talk by explaining that the outcome of this battle reshaped the history of England, Ireland, Scotland and France for many centuries and its effect is still felt today. The historian Sir Keith Feiling noted that this battle was the greatest revolution in English history.

Our speaker then discussed the origins of the Anglo-Saxon race and how this developed from the early Britons and the Roman colony of Britannia, an extremely complex story. There were influxes of Bretons from France and Picts and Scotti from Ireland, as well as Jutes, Angles and Saxons from Denmark and neighbouring territories in the 6th century and thereafter.

The Romans colonized Britain and this resulted in an influx of Roman legions and civilians, as well as a large number of Roman Military Auxiliaries which garrisoned the new colony. These latter came from all over the Empire and included eight cohorts of Batavians.1 Many of these people settled in the colony over the years and intermarried with the local population. The Romans also controlled the seas round Southern England with their fleet and castles placed strategically round the coastline.

As the Western Roman Empire was declining, the Romans withdrew their army and, in 410AD, advised the civil authorities that they should look to their own defence. This was done by enlisting the help of Anglo-Saxon mercenaries, who settled in England. This was part of a general westward movement of Germanic people around Europe in the years between 300AD to 700AD.

Over the years there was much fighting between the various groups as well as intermarriage. Various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were formed in the 5th and 6th centuries, the chief of which were Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The 7th century saw the gradual conversion of England to Christianity and the arrival of Danish settlers. During the 9th and 10th centuries there came the gradual unification of England under Wessex hegemony and the slow introduction of the feudal system.

Early Anglo-Saxon governments were rudimentary and not very well organized but, as the years and centuries passed, they became more organized and feudal in their nature. In the later centuries, the country was divided into shires - comparable to a mini-county. A number of these made up an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. The taxation and court (legal) systems were built into that structure varying with the presence or absence of a kingdom controlling some or all of the mini kingdoms. Each shire was governed by a sheriff, appointed by the king and responsible for tax collecting, law and order and the judicial system. Our speaker, very much tongue-in-cheek, pointed out that certain practices and concepts we today take for granted are related to the American Wild West, in fact predates that Hollywood-typified period in history by many centuries. Posses were used to hunt down villains, who were severely punished if found guilty in the court. Hanging was common, while scalping also, was not uncommon as a form of punishment.

Between the 8th and 11th centuries, raiders and colonists from Scandinavia, mainly Danish and Norwegians - known as Vikings - plundered Western Europe including the British Isles. By the 9th century, the raids had turned into invasions and Viking settlers started to arrive. All the kingdoms with the exception of Wessex fell to the invaders and King Alfred of Wessex took refuge in the Somerset swamps.

In 878AD Alfred formed an army and defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Edington. A treaty was signed between Alfred and the Danish King Guthrum. Wessex was left with the whole of the South and part of the Midlands and Guthrum with East Anglia and the North.

Alfred now started to transform his Kingdom. He built a Navy, reorganized his Army and built up a system of fortified towns known as burhs. He used mainly old Roman towns where he could rebuild and strengthen their existing fortifications. These towns were not only fortifications but also commercial centres, attracting traders and markets to a safe haven. He developed a taxation system to finance his activities. The Danes could no longer raid at will. A new Danish invasion started in the year 891 but, by 896, they gave up. Alfred died in 899 but his son Edward and grandsons Aethelstan, Edmond and Eadred continued with his policy of resisting Viking incursions. Their use of fortified towns or burhs (burghs) enabled them to recover the Danish-occupied parts of Mercia and Essex by 937.

In 938 Æthelred became King of England. He was known as "the Unready"2 which describes his rule very accurately. The Vikings started to raid again and were so successful that the Danish kings took control of the raiding. They defeated an English army at Maldon and King Æthelred decided to pay ransom, known as Danegeld, to the Danes, hoping to stop the incursions. Danegeld, however, only encouraged them to intensify their raiding. The Dukes of Normandy were quite happy to let the raiders use Norman ports, so relations between Normandy and England became strained.

In the summer of 1013, King Sven Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England. He died in 1014 and his son Cnut returned to Denmark to secure his throne and then re-invaded England. In the meantime Æthelred had died and Edmond had become King. He was defeated by Cnut and it was decided that that Edmond would rule Wessex and Cnut the rest of England. His empire now included England, Denmark, Norway and a bit of Sweden.

In 1017, Edmond died under suspicious circumstances (probably murdered by Cnut) and the English council declared Cnut as King of all England. He divided England into Earldoms, appointing Godwin as Earl of Wessex. Cnut decided to marry Emma, widow of Æthelred, and she agreed to this if the English succession was limited to children born to their union. Cnut already had a wife who bore him two sons. Somewhat complicated but par for the course in those days.

In 1018 Cnut's brother King Harald of Denmark died and Cnut returned to Denmark to claim the throne and brought Norway under his control. He left his Danish wife and son Svein to rule Norway. Cnut died in 1035 and the throne was disputed by Emma's son Harthacnut and his Danish wife's son Harald Harefoot.

There were the usual struggles and murders and eventually, in 1042, Edward, half-brother to Æthelred, was crowned king. He was better known as "Edward the Confessor" and was supported by Godwin, Earl of Wessex. There followed the usual squabbles and scraps and eventually Godwin was reconciled to King Edward. At some stage the crown of England had also been offered to Duke William of Normandy. Godwin died in 1053 and his sons Harold, Gyrth, Leofine and Tostig were appointed as Earls of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria respectively.

On 5 January 1066 King Edward died childless and Harold Godwinson was crowned King of England. Duke William was seriously put out by this and King Harald Hardrada of Norway also had a claim to the English throne. Earlier, Tostig, Harold's brother had been removed from the Earldom of Northumbria and had fled to Normandy. The various interested and/or aggrieved parties started to prepare for the usual medieval method for solving the problem - by having a war.

Duke William now started to build ships to help him gain control of the seas between England and Normandy and to transport his army over the English Channel. He also started to call up his vassals, i.e. all the noblemen owing allegiance to him and having the duty of providing him with troops. Mercenaries were also recruited and William also obtained Papal authority for his plans. Allies were asked to provide troops. By 27 September 1066, William was ready and set sail for England.

In the meantime, King Harald Hardrada set out to invade the North of England and was joined there by Tostig, who saw an opportunity of getting back at Harold. The scene is now set for a series of three battles fought over a period of some four weeks which changed the face of England and its history. But first, let us look at the three armies that would be involved in this war - the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and Duke William's forces and see how these were organised.

The Vikings were skilled both at sea warfare and land warfare. They had advanced seafaring skills. The jarls (knights or thegns) wore helmets made of iron or hardened leather and chainmail from neck to knee. They carried shields, swords about a metre in length and 15 cm wide which were used for slashing and cutting, as well as daggers. Freemen wore chainmail and leather helmets and carried shield, spears 2 to 3 metres long (both for thrusting and throwing), swords and daggers. Bows and arrows were normally used to start an action, e.g. when in ambush. All Norsemen carried axes ranging from chopper-sized axes, used both for farming and fighting, to Danish Axes with a handle a metre long and a wide double-bladed battle-axe sharpened at each end. These could be thrown with accuracy at an opponent or used to hack him.

They often used a wedge formation with the best-armed and best-armoured men in front. They ignored the tactics used at the time and were fond of using ambushes. Stealth, deceit and ruthlessness were used as required. They were a very strong, fit and tall race of people and used this strength and mobility to maximum effect. Their long ships with a very shallow draught were used to move their forces very quickly by either sail or oars, using the sea and the rivers for maximum mobility.

The Saxon army was made up of the King's huscarls, a well-trained force of regular household troops, and supported by the fyrd, a militia of troops raised when needed by the thegns (the knights, in other words, the Anglo-Saxon Barons and lesser nobility). These were called up for a period of two months and were paid during their period of service. They could be used in the field army or to guard towns and castles.

The huscarls and thegns with their own regular troops wore chain mail and helmets, carried shields and were similarly armed. There were also archers, slingers and javelin throwers. As many of these, as could, wore chainmail. There was little cavalry. The tactics were simple - a shield wall was formed with the best-armed and best-armoured troops in the front line. These would be the huscarls with the members of the fyrd in ranks behind them, spears protruding from the shield wall. They would be flanked by the archers, slingers and javelin throwers. Axe men would be placed behind the wall but, when possible, they would rush out, do their deadly work and retreat behind the shield wall.

Finally we come to the Norman army. The Norman state was a feudal state where every baron or bishop held his land on condition that he maintained a given number of knights or men at arms for service when required. These were mounted and equipped with chain mail, helmet, iron-tipped lance just under 3 metres long, shield, sword and either battle-axe or mace. Duke William called these up for service against the English. He also enlisted volunteers and mercenaries from other parts of France and even from Normans in Southern Italy. He had between 2,000 and 3,000 knights and men at arms. In addition, he recruited between 3,000 and 4,000 infantrymen armed with pike and sword and fitted with chainmail, helmet and shield. Included in this total were archers and some crossbowmen. The tactics followed will be set out in the story of the battle below. William was an experienced and able commander who kept his army under tight discipline.

We cannot discuss the Battle of Hastings without also looking at the two earlier battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge. Both Duke William and King Harald Hardrada of Norway had - as mentioned earlier - decided to invade England with the intention of taking the English throne from King Harold. Harald Hardrada was first off the mark and landed his army in the north of England in September 1066.

He moved to Fulford on the River Ouse and was, on 20 September 1066, confronted by an English army led by the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria. The English held a front between the River Ouse and a swampy area on the left with some 5,000 troops, Earl Morcar commanding on the left and Earl Edwin on the right. King Harald placed his best troops on his left flank and the weaker troops on his right flank. Some 6,000 men were in his battle line with the balance (4,000 men) of his army still on the march. Morcar pushed the Norwegians into the swamp. Harald unleashed his better men and pushed the English back. Edwin was cut off from Morcar and was facing the balance of the enemy's force so retreated back to York and the balance of the English army was slaughtered. York surrendered and hostages were called for from the whole of Yorkshire. Both English Earls survived the battle.

When King Harold heard of the invasion in the north, he rushed north with his huscarls and as many thegns and fyrd as he could muster on the way. He reached the area of Stamford Bridge in only five days, having been supplied by the towns on his route. The hostages and supplies for the Norwegians were to be taken to Stamford Bridge in the East Riding of Yorkshire for collection by King Harald. Instead he found King Harold with his army.

The River Derwent was crossed by a ford and a bridge in 1066 although the site of the battle is not known for certain. The Norwegian army was split in two, part on the west bank and part on the east side. On the east bank of the Derwent there is some high ground and it was on that high ground that King Harald decided to form a defensive circle. Those of his troops left on the west bank were attacked by the English before they could form up properly and were soon either lying dead or struggling to cross the bridge. Harald's army formed their shield wall and faced the Norwegian shield wall. The two shield walls crashed into one another and a ferocious battle raged for hours. The Norwegian shield wall was pierced and both King Harald and Tostig were killed. A truce was agreed and the remnants of the Norwegian force was allowed to return home. About 6,000 of the Norwegian army were killed and the English lost one third of their army. Many huscarls and thegns were killed in this battle that took place on 25 September 1066.

On 28 September 1066, Duke William landed his army at Pevensey near Hastings. A prefabricated fort was erected to protect the ships and the army and supplies were landed. On 29 September Duke William marched to Hastings, the fleet was brought into the harbour and the countryside was systematically ravaged. Harold was still in York, allowing his men to recover from the battle at Stamford Bridge. He heard about the landing on 1 October and set out for London the next day with his huscarls. His army had to rally and it was only on the evening of 13 October that he reached the appointed rallying place of his forces at the "hoary apple tree" on a spur of the South Downs, about 8 km north of Hastings, near the present-day village of Battle. His forces were tired after their long march south and the fyrd were still arriving piecemeal as they were travelling on foot.

Harold's intention appears to have been to act as soon as possible, as he had done at Stamford Bridge, attacking Duke William with his best troops, hoping to gain surprise. However, the Normans had to fight a decisive battle as soon as possible and win it. They were on English soil but behind them was the English Channel with the English fleet patrolling it. The longer they delayed the more troops the English would collect and the more Norman morale would sink. The best plan for the English would be to wait to fight the Normans in the Weald, the forest between Hastings and London. But Sussex, part of Harold's Wessex, was being devastated by the Normans and this Harold wanted to stop. William's spies had reported that the English army was not yet at full strength and now was the time to attack the English.

Before sunrise on the 14th October, the Norman army marched the 3½ km to Telham Hill, opposite the Hoary apple tree. The English were taken by surprise, some were still asleep and many of the fyrd were just arrived and tired, with many still to trickle in to the bivouac. William sent an embassy to Harold to seek a peaceful settlement and gain time to form his army for battle.

Harold had chosen a ridge some 640 metres long, sloping down to a boggy valley to the south and south-east and rising steeply to the north. He formed his shield wall across the whole distance, with his huscarls in front and the fyrd in many ranks behind and on both flanks, making it difficult for the Normans to take him in rear or flank. He had between 6,000 and 7,000 men, but his army was tired and not properly re-equipped since Stamford Hill. He lacked the archers who had served him well in the North and who could have raised havoc among the Normans.

The Normans advanced in three divisions. On the left were the Bretons under Count Alan of Brittany; on the right the French and Flemish, as well as other mercenaries under Eustace of Boulogne, and in the centre the Normans under Duke William. The archers led the way, followed by the infantry and, in the rear the mounted knights and men at arms. They deployed to cover the full line of the English.

At 0900 the advance started. When the archers came into range, they unleashed their deadly missiles uphill, and therefore not to great effect. The heavy infantry advanced immediately and attacked the shield wall. The fighting was fierce but the Normans could not penetrate the shield wall and retreated. Some of the raw troops on the English right flank broke ranks and pursued the retreating Bretons. They were driven back and the Norman mounted troops took up the attack again to no avail. Attack followed attack but the English did not waver.

William tried a ruse. He ordered a feigned retreat of his troops on the English right flank and, again, the raw troops on that flank set of in pursuit, to be hacked down by the Norman mounted troops. The huscarls in the centre and left of the English line remained firm in their ranks and the Normans were becoming discouraged and wary of the English axes. William ordered an advance and sent his archers up the hill in a loose line supported by the knights. Approximately 90 metres from the shield wall, the archers opened fire, loosing their arrows almost vertically into the air to rain down on to the unprotected heads of the men below. At the same time the knights charged into the shield wall. The fighting was hard but when Harold and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were killed, the shield wall cracked and the English army was routed.

William was crowned King in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066. He now had to take control of his kingdom and he went about this task with remorseless energy and brutality but successfully. All aspects of Scandinavian influence disappeared and the history and civilization of England became intimately connected with that of France. The country was feudalized to the benefit first of the king and then of the Norman lords who took over the country and who replaced the thegns. The judicial system, the system of taxation became Norman. The country was controlled by the erection of numerous castles at every strategic point in the country and numerous cathedrals were built. There were now three classes - those who fought, those who prayed and the largest group, those who laboured.

The Norman Empire in the 12th century became the most powerful in Europe, stretching from Scotland and Ireland to England and on the continent from Western France to the Pyrenees. England and its civilization had changed completely and taken a new direction which still applies today. What happened to the Norman Empire is the subject of another talk in the future.

Our chairman thanked Mr Cameron for another really fascinating talk and wished him and his wife, Anita, well in their decision to relocate to the United Kingdom later in the year, before presenting him with the customary gift.

1 The Batavi were an ancient Germanic tribe that lived around the modern Dutch Rhine delta in the area that the Romans called Batavia, from the second half of the first century BC to the third century AD. The name is also applied to several military units employed by the Romans that were originally raised among the Batavi, or as they are called in the modern day, the Batavians.
2 The story of Æthelred's notorious nickname, from Old English Æþelræd Unræd, goes a long way toward explaining how his reputation has declined in history through mistranslation. The epithet would seem to describe the poor quality of advice which Æthelred received throughout his reign, presumably from those around him, specifically from the royal council, known as the Witan. Æþelræd Unræd is a pun meaning "Noble counsel, No counsel" and is nowadays adjectivally considered as meaning "ill-advised", "ill-prepared", "indecisive" - thus "Æthelred the ill-advised". Æthelred is of late, in fact, considered as one of the most forceful kings of tenth century England.




Our speaker for October, Rear-Admiral Chris Bennett SM MMM SAN (Rtd), has addressed our society in the past and will be best remembered for his excellent and informative lecture on the sinking of the SAS President Kruger in 1982, after being involved in a collision with the SAS Tafelberg whilst at sea. In his forthcoming talk he will discuss the history of the Frigates that served in the South African Navy. His talk will also cover the many obstacles that were placed in the path of the SA Navy in its efforts for the procurement of suitable vessels and equipment, needed for it to fulfil its maritime and defensive role vis-à-vis the country and its citizens, as well as internationally.

The expression "Too many cooks spoil the broth" comes to mind when one looks into how people, policies and events - locally and internationally - bedevilled and obstructed the SA Navy in acquiring much-needed ships and equipment for the vital maritime role it was tasked with.

Adm Bennett served in the SA Navy from 1956 to 1990, and certainly no-one is better qualified than our speaker share with us the colourful history of the SA Navy's Frigates, as well as to lead us through the labyrinthine maze of political intrigue, inter-service rivalry, red tape and command obtuseness involved in the procurement of ships for the SA Navy. Our speaker will also deal with the technical aspects of the ships discussed.

The lecture will be illustrated.

Copies of the latest Naval Digest (No 23, August 2015), covering in much broader detail the evening's topic, will also be on sale.


Major Heitman's annual overview of the security situation in Africa has never failed in the past to draw a full-house as far as attendance is concerned - this year it certainly would be no less so, in view of the continuing unstable political situation and economic turmoil in many an African state. What better than a power-house presentation by one of our ever-popular speakers to end the year's programme with. Make sure you don't miss it.

The lecture will be illustrated.


No lectures are scheduled for December as the Cape Town Branch will be in recess in view of the upcoming summer holiday/festive season at the end of the year. The Branch will routinely commence with its activities on the third Thursday of January (being the 21st), 2016.


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

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

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