South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 474
August 2015

Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Roy Bowman 031 564 4669

Our first speaker at the July 2015 meeting was undoubtedly one of the most highly decorated soldiers ever to have addressed the Branch. Lt Col Douw Steyn HC SM MMM PSN spoke on 'Operation Drosdy - a seaborne raid on Namibe, Angola in 1984', which was a clandestine operation that targeted the Angolan coastal town of Namibe, and was executed by 4 Reconnaissance Commando during the so-called "Bush War". His actions in clearing mines under fire during the fighting at 'Bridge 14' earned Colonel Steyn the award of the Honoris Crux decoration for gallantry. He was later mentioned in dispatches for other actions during that operation. Colonel Steyn then applied to join the Special Forces, qualifying as an operator in 1977 and served 15 years as a Special Forces operator, specializing in advanced demolitions and sabotage techniques. After 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 lead 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.

These operations saw the clandestine reconnaissance of harbours, the sinking of Russian and Cuban shipping and the destruction of shore installations in Angola and Mozambique. They were just some of the tasks undertaken by this extraordinary maritime capability which totalled no more than 45 operators, both black and white soldiers.

These exploits - an amazing aspect of modern South African military history - have thankfully been recorded in a highly acclaimed book entitled "Iron Fist from the Sea". With unparalleled access to previously secret material, Colonel Steyn co-authored this book with Rear Admiral (JG) Arnè Söderlund PS SM MMM SANR, who together with our speaker developed 4 Recce's operating capabilities. The origins of the Regiment can be traced back to the 1970's when the South Africans 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 originated to operate from the Navy's existing shipping 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.

The success of Operation Drosdy even amazed the Russians, who have described the operatives as being the best in the world. As is the case with many former South African commanders in the bush war, they have made contact with their erstwhile enemy and Colonel Steyn is no exception. He has become great friends with several of the Russian officers who were either present in Namibe when the Recces attacked or were sent there to salvage what remained of the ships after the incident. We can look forward to our April 2016 meeting, when we'll be treated to another amazing account from "Iron Fist from the Sea".

The Main Talk was entitled "The Battle of Waterloo and its Impact on European History". It was presented by a former Branch committee member who relocated to Cape Town, Capt (SAN) (Retd) Brian Hoffmann. Brian kindly travelled to Durban to present his talk, which was superbly illustrated with maps and paintings of different phases and aspects of the battle.

The Battle of Waterloo between the European powers & Napoleon brought an end to the Napoleonic era. His rise to power began in 1793 when his skilful use of artillery was instrumental in the capture of Toulon. The road to Waterloo had begun. In 1797 he defeated Austria & in 1798 attacked Egypt to threaten British trade with India. Egypt was defeated in 3 weeks but 10 days later his fleet was destroyed by Nelson at Aboukir Bay. Abandoning his doomed army Napoleon returned to Paris.

A month after his return Napoleon seized power & set about restoring good governance in France. In 1804 he was crowned Emperor with visions of creating a French European Empire. By 1811 he had conquered most of Europe with only Britain & Russia standing firm. In June 1812 he invaded Russia but with the onset of winter was forced to retreat. His former allies turned against him. In April 1814 he was forced to abdicate & was exiled to Elba. In February 1815 he escaped & returned to Paris.

The European powers formed an alliance to crush Napoleon once & for all. A British & Allied army under Wellington & a Prussian army under Blucher advanced into Belgium. Napoleon attacked at Charleroi where both armies should have overlapped but didn't. His plan was to drive a wedge between them & then attack & destroy each in turn. Success depended on surprise, speed, & efficiency.

On 15th June Napoleon occupied Charleroi. Wellington wrongly believed he would attack along the Mons/Brussels Road so ordered his forces to deploy SW of Brussels. At the strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras the Dutch commander ignored the order, a decision which saved Wellington from defeat. The left flank of the French army under Marshal Ney advanced along the Charleroi/Brussels road. When his cavalry patrol made contact with Wellington's forces at Quatre Bras he halted for the night. It was a costly mistake. The right flank under Marshal Grouchy pushed the Prussians back to the east.

On 16th June Napoleon planned his main thrust at Quatre Bras. On finding the Prussians close by decided to attack them first. Ney delayed his attack at Quatre Bras enabling Wellington to reinforce his position. By nightfall neither side had made any gains. Napoleon defeated the Prussians at Ligny who withdrew north to Wavre. Napoleon's failure to pursue the defeated Prussians was to cost him dearly.

On 17th June Napoleon believed the Prussians to be in full flight heading east so again didn't pursue them. At Quatre Bras Ney's indecision allowed Wellington to withdraw to Waterloo where he had decided to make his stand. That afternoon heavy rain fell which continued all night turning the battlefield into a quagmire. That evening Napoleon sent a dispatch to Paris claiming a famous victory.

Wellington elected for a defensive battle until the Prussians arrived. Napoleon planned a frontal attack to push through the centre of Wellington's line. Blucher opted to leave a corps at Wavre to delay Grouchy, send another to assist Wellington & attack Napoleon's right flank with his remaining two corps. Opening of the battle on the 18th was postponed for 51/2 hours for the ground to dry out, a delay that was critical to the final outcome. Napoleon opened hostilities with a diversionary attack on the Allied redoubt at Hougoumont. At 12h00 he began an artillery barrage prior to his opening assault. At 13h00 Napoleon received news that the Prussians were advancing from the east threatening his right flank which he reinforced. Meanwhile Grouchy with 33,000 men was 14 miles away advancing on Wavre. He was now too far away to reinforce Napoleon.

At 13h30 Napoleon launched his attack on Wellington's defensive line. Gaps began to appear but a cavalry attack by the Royal Scots Greys drove the French back. The situation was saved. All afternoon Ney launched attack after attack with infantry & unsupported cavalry. Time & again Napoleon appeared to be on the verge of victory but each time the line held & the French withdrew. As they reformed for the next attack French artillery cannonaded the Allied line causing huge gaps to appear.

At 18h00 the Prussians arrived in strength capturing the village of Plancenoit on Napoleon's right flank. His position was now desperate. In an attempt to stave off defeat he ordered another attack on the Allied line. Capturing La Haye Sainte Ney brought up artillery & infantry to provide close support. The Allied line began to waver. Wellington's position was desperate. Ney, sensing victory asked for more infantry but Napoleon refused. It was a fatal decision. To gain respite Napoleon ordered the Imperial Guard to recapture Plancenoit which was achieved in double quick time. Ordering the Guard to reform he prepared for another assault on the Allied line. At this moment the Prussians arrived on Wellington's left flank enabling him to strengthen his line. French spirits sagged, only the Imperial Guard rose to attack. The battle raged with the outcome finely poised. The turning point came when the 52nd Regiment of Foot advanced ahead of the line, attacking the Imperial Guard's left flank. Taken by surprise they retreated. The battle was over Wellington had won by the closest of margins.

Napoleon fled the battlefield & returned to Paris where he was forced to abdicate. He left for Rochefort intending to sail to America but on arrival was obliged to take passage to England aboard HMS BELLEROPHON where he thought he might live in retirement. This was denied him & instead he was exiled to the island of St Helena where he died in 1821.

Wellington may have been the victor at Waterloo but it required Blucher's timely arrival, some good fortune & the failure of Napoleon to seize his opportunities, to win the battle. The balance of power in Europe changed overnight paving the way for the enormous political, social & industrial changes that took place in Europe during the 19thcentury.

Immediate past Chairman Charles Whiteing conveyed the thanks of the audience to both speakers and presented them with the customary gift of appreciation presented to non members for two outstanding talks.


Thursday 13th August 2015:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "The World of Admiral de Ruyter", by Jesse Wesseloo.
Main Talk: "The Great Escape - the South African Connection", by Stephen Coan.

Future Meetings:

Thursday 10th September 2014:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "Naval actions preceding the Gallipoli Landings", by Prof. Philip Everitt.
Main Talk: "Mongolia and the Yam Rider", by Simon Pearse.

Thursday 8th October 2015:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "The first 10 years of South Africa's Participation in International Peace Missions", by Capt (SAN) (Retd) Charles Ross.
Main Talk: "The Cruiser Night Action, 13th / 14th November 1942", by Roy Bowman.

Thursday 12th November 2015:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "General George Patten and Sicily", by Maj Dr John Buchan
Main Talk: "Four little whalers from Durban to the Mediterranean in 1940", by Donald Davies.

POSSIBLE CENTENARY PILGRIMAGE TO DELVILLE WOOD. Colonel Mike Bradley (who was the Specialist Guide during the SAMHS tour to the Battlefields of Egypt and Libya in May 2009) has offered to put together a Centenary Pilgrimage of about 10 days to Delville Wood (and other battlefields of the Somme) in July 2016. Members will be kept informed of developments, but in order for us to determine the viability of such a tour, please advise Ken Gillings (031 703 4828 / 083 654 5880 / ) if you are interested in participating. A day's visit to Normandy will also be included in the itinerary. The proposed itinerary is attached.

2015 BATTLEFIELD TOUR, 15TH - 16TH AUGUST 2015: The Branch's 2015 Battlefield tour will focus on the Transvaal War of Independence (1880-1881. It will include visits to Fort Amiel, Lang's Nek, Mt Prospect Military Cemetery, Schuinshoogte / Ingogo, Majuba and O'Neil's Cottage. The following special rate has been arranged with Majuba Lodge in Newcastle:
Accommodation single @ R600.00 per day (1 person) bed only
Accommodation double @ R375.00 p/p per day (2 persons) bed only
Accommodation treble @ R300.00 p/p per day (3 persons) bed only
Accommodation quad @ R262.50 p/p per day (4 persons) bed only
Breakfast (Full English) @ R65.00 p/p per day
2 Course Buffet Dinner @ R130-00 p/p per day

There are of course other forms of accommodation available and for those wishing to camp, there are campsites in Newcastle, at Chelmsford Dam and of course at Majuba itself. Should you wish to accompany us on the tour and make use of the special rate quoted above, kindly contact Melissa Janse van Rensburg at Majuba Lodge on 034-3155011, fax 034-3155023 or e-mail IT IS IMPORTANT TO REFER TO THE SAMHS TOUR TO OBTAIN THIS SPECIAL RATE.

The provisional programme is as follows:
FRIDAY 14th AUGUST 2015:
Drive to Newcastle (+- 4 hours)
08h00 departure for Fort Amiel and Fort Amiel military cemetery. Host will be Mr Louis Eksteen, the curator of the Fort Amiel Museum.
10h00 departure for Lang's Nek Battlefield. NOTE: Low clearance vehicles will be left at the farm house; those with high clearance vehicles will be asked
to help transport the party to the summit of Engelbrecht's Kop / Deane's Hill. Description of the Battle and walk to the 58th Regiment Graves.
12h00: Drive to Mt Prospect Military Cemetery. Picnic lunch.
14h00: Drive to Schuinshoogte / Ingogo Battlefield for a full description of the Battle and walk to the graves and monuments.
16h00: Commence return journey to Majuba Lodge, Newcastle.
08h00 departure for Majuba. A R25.00 per person entry fee will be payable. Full description of the Battle from the foot of the mountain,
followed by a climb to the summit for those who wish to (between 40 and 60 minutes, depending on state of fitness).
13h00 - 13h30 : picnic lunch for those who would like to.
13h30: Commence drive to O'Neil's Cottage for final details about the War;
14h30: Commence return journey (+- 4 1/2 hours)

Note that timings may differ depending on circumstances.

Participants will be required to make their own travelling and accommodation arrangements. Should you wish to participate in the presentations, please e-mail Ken Gillings on

South African Military History Society /