South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 473
July 2015

Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Roy Bowman 031 564 4669

The meeting began on a sad note with the news that fellow member Renato Palmi had passed away after a long battle with cancer. Renato's 'Balsak" newsletter was filled to the brim with snippets of well researched military history - some controversial, but always interesting. The Chairman, Roy Bowman, asked those present to stand for a moment's silence in his memory.

The first speaker was Major General Chris le Roux, whose topic was entitled "Operation Vimbezela." Chris began in his usual clinical military style, so that we were left in no doubt about the content of his presentation, which was along the same lines as his talk in 2014 entitled "Operation Meebos", and focused on the role of the South African Paratrooper in recent conflicts. 13 South African Paratroopers lost their lives in that Operation. During 2013 it became known that 13 Paratroopers again lost their equally precious lives. As a former Paratrooper, our speaker felt it appropriate that we placed as much focus on this event, codenamed "Operation Vimbezela".

What has become known as the Battle of Bangui took place from the 22nd to the 24th March 2013 in the Central African Republic near the CAR's capital Bangui. French and South African Troops were in support of President Francois Bozizi whilst the Saleka rebels under their leader Michal Djotodia wanted to rule the CAR. The CAR Army (FACA) and the Peacekeeping Forces of the Central African Standby Brigade (FOMAC) numbered about 2000, supported by elements of the Chad Army. The South African contingent comprised 250-300 men consisting of a Parachute Combat Team, Special Forces Teams and elements of intelligence, signallers and engineers.

Up to 22 March 2013 the South African troops were deployed in the northern outskirts of the city while FACA and FOMAC forces were in defensive positions inside it. A French force of approximately 250 was deployed to protect the airport. On 22 March 2013 the Chad Army Company was overrun ten kilometres north of the city. The FACA force was under fire. SANDF Special Forces reconnoitred Damara and ran into a 300 metre long ambush 20 kilometres north of Damara, but fought their way clear. On 23 March there was heavy firing from the rebels. The FACA and FOMAC forces "evaporated". There was heavy firing from both sides and the South African forces pulled back to their base in a defensive position. By 19h00 until 21h00 the base was under attack by 1500 rebels but the South African troops successfully repelled it. At 22h00 the rebel commander appeared at the gate of the South African base with a white flag and fighting ceased. On 24 March peace negotiations began with 2000 rebels moving past the base to the city. It became in clear that the attacking force of rebels were supported by the Chad Army and some men with what were described as "Arabic features". The FOMAC Force offered to move the wounded to the airport. The losses were 13 SANDF members killed and 27 wounded. Rebel casualties were approximately 500.

If the circumstances surrounding the battle are reviewed strategically it seems that the clash occurred due to ex President Bazizi's inability to implement the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding. South Africa's President Jacob Zuma deployed the South African Forces against the advice of the Minister of Defence, apparently to protect South African commercial interests in the CAR. Pres Zuma announced on the 4th April 2014 that the South African contingent in the CAR would be withdrawn. It now appears that the Saleka leader is in control of the CAR.

Elections will take place in 2016, but the Saleka leader is noted to have said. "I did not say that I would hand over power. I said that in three years I will organize free and transparent elections with everyone's support."

A medal parade was held in Bloemfontein last year where 120 medals for bravery and outstanding leadership were awarded to the heroes of Bangui. The medals were the Iprothiya Ye Silva (Silver Protea for Superior Service).

The South African Commander and the fighting troops did extremely well considering the overwhelming odds against them.

The main talk was presented by Robin Smith, who is no stranger to the KwaZulu-Natal Branch's array of popular speakers. His superbly illustrated topic was entitled "The Escape of the Goeben and Breslau" and formed part of the Branch's commemoration of the centenary of WW1. And he dealt with the first action by British forces in the Great War, which was a naval encounter between an armoured cruiser of the Royal Navy and two of His Imperial German Majesty's warships in the Mediterranean. The German ships were the battle cruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau. The amazing account of how they managed to evade their pursuers, pass through the Dardanelles, and drop anchor at Constantinople was the subject of the talk.

First, the background to the naval rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the Great War was described. Admiral Jacky Fisher - appointed First Sea Lord in 1904 - made the fleet highly efficient and instantly ready for war. Britain's policy was for its navy to be stronger than the next two major naval powers combined. As an island nation with its huge empire, Britain depended on its navy, rather than its army, for security. Fisher introduced oil-fired turbine engines and the first all-big-gun battleships. Battle cruisers, smaller and with less armour plate than a dreadnought, but with similar armament and capable of a speed of 28 knots were another of Fisher's innovations.

The French had the largest fleet in the Mediterranean, The British Mediterranean fleet, based in Malta, was headed by three battle cruisers, Inflexible, Indomitable and Indefatigable, The Italians had a number of capital ships and the Austrians had two new dreadnoughts based on Pola at the head of the Adriatic. The immediate and primary task of the French and British fleets was to safeguard the passage from North Africa to France of the French Colonial Corps of 80,000 men.

Germany, with the second largest fleet in the world, had only two warships in the Mediterranean: the battle cruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau. To be ready to attack the French transports was indeed one reason why the Goeben and her consort had been sent to the Mediterranean after their launching in 1912. German Rear Admiral Souchon was in Haifa when he heard the news of Sarajevo. He well aware that Goeben was well below peak efficiency. Two years of constant steaming without dry-docking had caused the ship's bottom to be fouled and her engines had a number of leaking boiler tubes, which reduced pressure and hence speed. He telegraphed Berlin, asking for new tubes to be sent to the Austrian base at Pola, and arrived there on 10th July 1914.

For eighteen days the crew worked to replace the defective boiler tubes. There were twenty-four boilers and 4,000 leaking tubes had to be located and replaced. The work was still unfinished when a signal from Berlin warned that war was imminent. Souchon left Pola soon after, lest he be bottled up in the Adriatic. Souchon would have liked to steam west, inflict what damage he could on the French transports, and force his way past Gibraltar into the Atlantic. But the uncertain condition of Goeben's boilers prohibited the sustained high speed that this would require.

Souchon decided to make for Messina. Italy declared her neutrality and Souchon was refused coal. He issued an order for all German ships in the harbour to come alongside. Using axes and crowbars, everything that obstructed the removal of their coal was destroyed. The result was two thousand tons of coal and the two German warships headed north out of the harbour at 1 a.m. on 3rd August 1914 and headed westwards towards the Algerian ports of Bne and Philippeville. Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had instructed the commander of the Mediterranean fleet, Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, that his first task would be to aid in protecting the French transports "and if possible bringing to action" Goeben. Milne was enjoined "not to be brought to action against superior forces."

Milne had been Lord Chelmsford's Staff in Zululand in 1879 as a naval lieutenant and concentrated his fleet in Malta. Churchill decided that the German ships were headed into the Atlantic. Indomitable and Indefatigable were ordered to proceed westwards at high speed and headed for Gibraltar at 22 knots.

Souchon heard by radio at 6 p.m. that Germany and France were at war. At 2 a.m. on 4th August 1914 he received Tirpitz's message to "proceed at once to Constantinople." He approached within range of the port of Philippeville, and opened fire. Breslau fired a few shots at shipping in the port of Bne and the two German ships headed back east to obey the order to go to Constantinople. But first they needed more coal and so another stop at Messina was necessary.

Milne had no idea where Goeben might be but Indomitable and Indefatigable were steaming westward. Early on 4th August, the Indomitable sighted Goeben coming east at 20 knots. The British and German ships were rushing towards one another at almost 80 kms per hour. Britain and Germany were not yet at war and the ships passed on opposite courses. The British ships turned and Milne was able to report to the Admiralty that Goeben had been found. Souchon was aware that war might come at any moment and the two German ships arrived back in Messina at dawn on 5th August with an exhausted crew.

The Italians allowed Souchon to take on coal but granted him permission to remain in their neutral port for no longer than the twenty-four hours. He gave orders for steam to be raised for departure at 17h00 on 6th August 1914. The German East Africa Line passenger steamer General, on her way to Dar es Salaam, was requisitioned. Milne had been told by the Admiralty to rigidly respect Italian neutrality Milne now positioned his ships so as to block any attempt by Goeben to break westwards towards the sea lanes between France and North Africa. Only the light cruiser Gloucester was assigned to patrol the southern exit. Souchon received a message from Berlin: "At the present time your call at Constantinople is not possible" and that Austria had refused to give active naval assistance. Passage of the German battle cruiser through the Dardanelles would violate the neutrality of Turkey. Souchon decided nevertheless to head for Constantinople. The two ships were scarcely out of neutral waters when the smoke of waiting light cruiser Gloucester appeared. Souchon was unwilling to take time to turn and destroy his enemy while Gloucester signalled to Milne the speed and course taken by the German ships. Rear Admiral Troubridge, on patrol south of Corfu, commanded four armoured cruisers that were smaller, slower and weaker than the German battle cruiser. He set off at midnight at full speed southward but at 04h00 he called off the pursuit. His orders from Milne had repeated Churchill's order that he should not "be brought to action against superior forces."

Souchon continued eastwards. Far astern there was a plume of smoke from Gloucester. Captain Howard Kelly was anxious to delay Goeben until Milne arrived. Every spare man went below to the boiler rooms where the temperature was more than 50C. Four stokers died in the intense heat. Breslau was ordered to scare Gloucester away. Souchon resumed his course and he could not spend precious time and coal in pursuit of a light cruiser.

Goeben and Breslau entered the Aegean Sea but still needed more coal and a collier met him at Denoussa, a remote island in the Aegean. He sent the liner General, to Smyrna to forward a message to the German Embassy. Milne and his battle cruisers left Malta on 8th August 1914 and on 10th August Souchon learned that the British ships had entered the Aegean. At first light on that day Goeben followed by Breslau steamed north at 18 knots making for the Dardanelles reaching there at 5 p.m. that afternoon. Souchon had to make a decision with the British coming up behind. Two Turkish destroyers hoisted a signal: "Please follow me." Goeben and Breslau entered the narrows and anchored peacefully in a creek. For three days the two German ships stayed quietly at anchor. Then the battle cruiser and her consort steamed out into the Sea of Marmara and a few hours later the German sailors saw at last the Imperial city of Constantinople. Ironically, the news of Goeben's arrival at the Dardanelles brought great satisfaction in Britain. The Turks were unsure whether to be pleased or frightened by this turn of events. However, the German ambassador proposed that the ships be "sold" to Turkey. The crews were mustered on deck and informed that the ships had been bought by Turkey. The German flag was lowered and the Red Crescent raised, fezzes were distributed to the men and the day of worship on board was advanced from Sunday to Friday.

When the British ambassador protested at what had happened, he was informed that Goeben and Breslau were now Turkish ships. Churchill proposed to send a torpedo flotilla through the Dardanelles to sink Goeben and Breslau. Lord Kitchener vetoed this idea, saying that England could not afford to alienate the muslims by taking the offensive against Turkey. Admiral Souchon was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Ottoman navy. On 27th October 1914, under Admiral Souchon's command, Goeben and Breslau sailed into the Black Sea and bombarded Odessa, Sevastopol and Novorissisk. On 4th November Russia declared war on Turkey and Britain and France followed suit the following day. With access now barred to both the Baltic and the Black Sea, there was no route by which weapons could travel from western arsenals to Russian armies which caused Russia's collapse. Turkey's entry into the war critically affected Britain's strategy leading to the Gallipoli campaign Turkey paid for her choice with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Admirals Milne and Troubridge were recalled on 18th August 1914. He declared accurately that the Admiralty had given him no hint that Turkey was a possible destination for the German ship. On 30th August a Court of Enquiry announced that: "Their Lordships approved the measures taken by him in all respects." Troubridge returned to England to face a Court of Enquiry. Troubridge based his defence on the instructions from the Admiralty and from Milne not to engage a superior enemy force and Troubridge was "fully and honourably" acquitted. In a larger sense neither Milne nor Troubridge received full acquittal as they never again served at sea. Milne had inextricably failed to block both openings of the Messina strait and Troubridge had ignored Nelson's dictum that "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy."

The content of both talks can be measured by the number of questions put to the speakers by the attentive audience and Professor Philip Everitt conveyed the thanks of those present to General le Roux and Robin Smith for their outstanding presentations.


Thursday 9th July 2015:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "Operation Drosdy - a seaborne raid in 1984 on Namibe, Angola", by Lt Col Douw Steyn HC. Colonel Steyn is the recipient of the Honoris Crux for bravery.

Main Talk: "The Battle of Waterloo & its impact on European History", by Capt (SAN) (Retd) Brian Hoffmann.

Please note that Captain Hoffmann will be travelling from Cape Town to present his talk.


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.

Thursday 10th September 2015:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture:  :   "Naval Actions preceding the Gallipolli 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.

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.

ADVANCE NOTICE; 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:

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.
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 /