South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 475
September 2015

Ken Gillings 031 702 4828
Roy Bowman 031 564 4669

There were 46 participants in the 2015 Battlefield Tour to Fort Amiel, Lang's Nek, Mt Prospect military cemetery, Schuinshoogte, Majuba and O'Neil's Cottage over the weekend of the 14th to 16th August 2015. The weather was perfect and the conditions ideal for those intrepid hikers who walked to the summit of Majuba after the battle had been described from the foot of the mountain. We are indebted to the curator of the Fort Amiel Museum, Louis Eksteen, for his hospitality and for his comprehensive account of the background to the fort and its role in the history of early Northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Contributions were made by Rob Suberg (on the weaponry used by both sides during the Transvaal War of Independence), Robin Smith on the background to Maj Gen Sir George Pomeroy Colley and Commandant-General Piet Joubert, Brian Thomas (the Branch's expert on medals) on the medals awarded during the conflict, Vice Chairman Lt Col Graeme Fuller for his account of the medical arrangements for both sides while the overview of the campaign, the battles and the War's aftermath was provided by Ken Gillings. Credits for the photos go to Louis Eksteen (Fort Amiel), Heather Gillings (Lang's Nek Battlefield) and Udo Averweg (the party on the summit of Majuba).

The first speaker at the August meeting was fellow member Jesse Wesseloo, whose topic was "The world of Admiral De Ruyter". Jesse began by quoting the following as an introduction: "Some people see De Ruyter as the greatest sea commander of the 17th century, or as the man who saved the Dutch Republic and ensured its independence. He knew how to fight a sea battle on the grandest scale or haggle like a canny Dutch merchant to achieve the release of many Dutch sailors from Barbarian imprisonment and of 26 Hungarian clergymen from Spanish captivity. Louis XIV, often his opponent, called him 'a man who did honour to humanity'."

He spent more than 25 years in the navy defending his country, often against tremendous odds, always showing his humanity. He bought the freedom of some 2 500 African slaves, paying from his own pocket. When he captured prisoners he dropped them off at the nearest friendly port. There is, hwoever, more to the admiral than his mythic role in Dutch history. De Ruyter is a figure of international significance who played an important role in the history of many countries.

Besides being a key figure in the Dutch Republic's wars against England, Sweden and France in the second half of the 17th century, he also proved an invaluable ally to Portugal, Denmark and Spain and was instrumental in dealing with the Barbary corsairs.

During his astonishing career he was honoured by King Frederik III of Denmark (Baron), King Charles II of Spain (Duke) and King Louis XIV of France (Knight). Even King Charles II of England wanted to ennoble him and invited him to spend two weeks at his palace.

De Ruyter was born in 1607 in Vlissingen, and went to sea at eleven. He rose from ship-boy, to skipper at 15, captain at 34 and supreme commander of the Dutch Navy. He spent the first 33 years as sailor on merchantmen, steersman on whalers, captain on privateers and as captain in the merchant fleet trading with many countries in Europe, North Africa, West Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean. He learned to speak five other languages.

During his career he had some narrow escapes. Once, returning home with a cargo of Irish butter, his merchantman was chased by a well-armed privateer. Instructing his crew they quickly smeared the deck with butter and went below decks. The pirates boarded, but soon left after stumbling and falling about, leaving De Ruyter and his crew unmolested.

In April 1641 he signed up for a year as captain on a small 26 gun, 90 crew warship, soon to be promoted to rear-admiral. That same year he fought his first naval battle together with France to help Portugal beat back a Spanish-Dunkirk fleet at the Battle of St Vincent. Returning home he bought his own ship trading mainly with Morocco and the West-Indies. At the age of 44 he decided to retire having made enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life.

However, his journey in life turned out differently. In 1648 the 80-year war between the Dutch Republic and Spain ended; a treaty was signed but peace did not last long. Soon war began with England - a war for domination of world trade. The reason according to London University Prof Jonathan Israel in his book 'The Dutch Republic' was: "The take-over by the Dutch of English maritime primacy overseas took place in the 1640's with breath-talking speed and was one of the most decisive factors in the 17th century English economic development. They were basically a much stronger trading nation than England, with more shipping, lower freight rates, a better financial system, lower interest rates, and on the whole a wider range and higher quality in manufactures".

During 1648-1650 England built a strong navy while the Dutch fleet had been badly neglected. Instead of upgrading and modernising the navy they had sold many of their warships helping pay off loans and extensive war debts.

In March 1651 a 295 men English Parliamentary mission to Breda demanded a more strict and intimate alliance and union and made it absolutely clear that if the Dutch did not accept subordination further pressure would be exerted. Soon the Navigation Act was passed. It aimed to stop the importation of all colonial products and other products from European countries, and fish to be carried on Dutch ships. Furthermore, it outlawed Dutch commerce with the English colonies in the Caribbean. This was a serious blow but did not fundamentally threaten the Dutch trading system. What made war certain was the mounting interference with Dutch shipping by the English navy and its privateers. An undeclared war began. No fewer than 140 merchantmen had been seized and brought to English harbours on charges such as infringement of the Navigation Act, trading with Royalists and shipping munitions to Ireland and Scotland led ultimately to the Anglo-Dutch Wars. If the Dutch did not stop this harassment her world trade primacy would end. Despite repeated protest another 30 vessels were taken in January 1652 alone.

The Dutch answered by appointing the very talented, Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt. Under his leadership a program was implemented to build warships that could do battle with the English on an equal footing. It was during this time that De Ruyter was asked to join the navy. Although he initially refused when told that the country needed him, he accepted but again for one year only. Fortunately, he never left the navy and fought many a battle for his country. De Witt's navy under De Ruyter's leadership meant a nearly irresistible combination. It started a time of great results. The next eight years formed a period in which De Ruyter showed his mastery. De Ruyter was involved in many Anglo-Dutch battles, the most important being Plymouth, Kentish Knock, Dungeness, Portland, Gabbart, Scheveningen, Four-day battle, the Two-day battle, St James Day, the Raid on the Medway, Solebay, Schooneveld and in Franco-Dutch battles such as Texel, Stromboli and Augusta. He also participated in some major and minor battles in the Baltic, Mediterranean, West African Coast and the South and North American Coasts.

In the Second Anglo-Dutch War De Ruyter won a hard-fought victory in the Four-Day battle. The St James Day battle, however, nearly turned into a disaster when Cornelis Tromp, against the orders of De Ruyter, followed a small fleet of English ships leaving De Ruyter [to] fight a much greater English fleet. Returning home Cornelis Tromp was dismissed for insubordination.

The most significant battles were those in the third Anglo-Dutch War. His victories over larger Anglo-French fleets in the battles Solebay, the two at Schooneveld and the one at Texel warded of an invasion. He prevented a much stronger Anglo-Franco fleet from capturing Dutch ports and landing its marines. Survival was assured when De Ruyter brilliantly fought both navies by making use of the numerous sandbanks and changes in wind direction. The war on land was won when the Dutch army with contingents of hired soldiers, defeated both Munich and Cologne and compelled France to withdraw its forces through the flooding of farmlands and launching a major attack on its forces via Bonn.

In 1676 De Ruyter was asked to accept a commission to help Spain recapture Sicily. From the outset he argued that the fleet given to him was too weak, consisting of only 18 ships and 4 fire-ships. De Ruyter reluctantly accepted. In the battle of Etna, without the help of the Spanish fleet, he was mortally wounded by a cannonball while directing the battle sitting on his chair on deck. Three days later he died. On hearing of the death of his former mentor Admiral Duquesne immediately postponed the battle and out of respect King Louise XIV ordered the two largest French warships to accompany De Ruyter's flagship on his last journey home. All passing French warships and gun-batteries on the French coast were ordered to salute him by firing cannon volleys. Arriving home de Ruyter was given a fitting state funeral and buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam.

In 1677 an English biography of De Ruyter, composed by a former enemy - who never even mentioned the Medway expedition - was full of praise, and the following was written: "In fine, so good a man, so devout a Christian, so stout a soldier, so wise, expert and successful a general, and so faithful, trusty and honest a lover of his country, that he deserves justly to be recommended to prosperity of his age, the darling of the seas and the delight and honour of his country".

The Main speaker was the highly acclaimed veteran journalist, Stephen Coan, whose topic was "The Great Escape; the South African Connection". Stephen has relocated to Johannesburg but kindly agreed to travel to Durban to present his talk. We were certainly not disappointed.

On the night of March 24-25, 1944, 76 Allied RAF officers escaped from the German prisoner of war camp Stalag-Luft III on the snowbound German/Polish border. Seventy-three were recaptured, 50 of whom were executed on the direct orders of German chancellor Adolf Hitler.

Among those shot were four South Africans: one of them a former Glenwood High School old boy, Flight Lieutenant Neville McGarr, along with two other flight lieutenants, Johannes Gouws and Rupert Stevens, these were all from the SAAF. The fourth South African was Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of the RAF - the driving force behind the mass escape. He was head of the Escape Committee - codenamed X-Organisation - and known as 'Big X'.

To that roll-call should also be added Les Brodrick. Escaper number 52 he came to South Africa in 1955 and settled on the KZN South Coast.

Bushell was born in Springs in 1910, the son of an English mining engineer. First schooled in Johannesburg he then went to the English public school, Wellington, and from 1929 studied law at Cambridge University. As a barrister in London he moved in high society and indulged his passions of skiing and flying, joining an Auxiliary Air Force unit known as "the Millionaires" because of its wealthy membership.

At the outbreak of war Bushell was assigned as squadron leader to 92 Squadron which he built up from scratch. Shot down on his first combat mission he proved a determined escaper. One outing ended in Prague where he holed up for several months during the reign of terror of Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Holocaust. Back in captivity at Stalag-Luft III Bushell was appointed the officer in charge of escapes - Big X - and he planned the escape intended to send 200 men beyond the wire.

Three tunnels were launched: Tom, Dick and Harry.

Neville McGarr was born Johannesburg in 1917. His family moved to Durban in 1923. At the age of 12 he contracted polio and was paralysed from the waist down. He spent eight months in hospital and learnt to walk again. McGarr attended Glenwood High School from 1930, matriculating in 1935. He won awards for both academic achievements and for rugby.

After leaving school he worked at Lever Brothers and later in the finance department of the municipality. He also served in the naval reserve. He joined the SAAF in May 1940. Commissioned in 1941 he was posted to Egypt as a fighter pilot. Shot down, he managed to parachute into the desert and spent three days heading for Allied lines. He was only a few kilometres short when captured by the Germans.

On arrival at Stalag Luft III he offered his services to Big X as a tunnel digger but was asked to help in supervising tunnel security.

McGarr's escape was foiled mainly by the weather conditions. Deep snow forced many of the escapers onto open roads - already hungry, exhausted and disoriented they were easily captured.

Rupert Stevens was born in London in 1919 and moved with his family to the Cape as a child. Educated at the South African College School, after matriculating in December 1936 he got a job in advertising department of the United Tobacco Company. In 1938 he enrolled in the Pupil Pilot Training Scheme and got his wings just before war broke out.

Stevens joined the SAAF and flew in the Western Desert in 1940. Flying in a Martin Maryland on a raid he was hit by flak and attempted to land at the enemy held Bardia mistaking it for Tobruk. He was hit by German ground fire and lost consciousness. He survived the crash and was sent to a German hospital.

In captivity Stevens was involved in the successful "Wooden Horse" escape from another compound at Stalag-Luft III in which three men dug a tunnel while concealed in a wooden gymnastic vaulting horse. Stevens was one of the group using the horse.

On the night of the escape Stevens was teamed with Gouws. Born in Bultfontein, Orange Free State, in 1919 he went to Bultfontein High School and captained the school rugby team. After matric he entered the Special Service Battalion and tried to join the SAAF but failed due to his poor English. He then joined the police but after a year he left to study science at University College of the OFS where he joined the varsity flying training programme for students. His English improved and his next application to the SAAF was successful.

Gouws was commissioned in 1941. While flying in Abyssinia an oil leak forced him to crash land and he and his crewmate managed to re-join their unit after an epic walk of 500 kilometres. He transferred to Egypt and was subsequently shot down and captured.

After the escape Gouws and Stevens caught the Berlin to Breslau express from Sagan. At Breslau they split up planning to rendezvous at Konstanz to cross the Swiss border together. Both were recaptured following document checks at different stations on the morning of March 29.

In 1943, aged 21, RAF Flight Lieutenant Les Brodrick, was forced to crash land his Lancaster bomber in occupied France. At Stalag-Luft III Brodrick was appointed trapfuhrer on Dick which meant taking responsibility for the trap or entrance to the tunnel. However Dick was closed down when a new prison compound was constructed in its path and it was decided to put all the effort into Tom. When the Germans discovered Tom, Harry became the only option and was ready for use by March 1944. The surrounding landscape was covered with snow. The moonless night of March 24 was chosen for the escape. Various mishaps, including Harry's exit being a few metres short of the surrounding woods, saw only 76 men escape.

After getting out of the tunnel Brodrick joined up with escapers Henry Birkland and Denys Street. They were captured three days later. Birkland and Street were among the fifty shot by the Germans.

Brodrick became a teacher after the war and settled in South Africa with his family in the 1955. He retired in 1982 as vice-principal of Amanzimtoti Primary School and moved to Scottburgh where he died in 2013.

Committee member Don Porter expressed the appreciation of the audience for two well researched talks before presenting Stephen with a small token of our appreciation for his tremendous effort in travelling so far to present his outstanding contribution towards this overlooked aspect of South Africa's military history.

Condolences. Our sincere condolences go to Annemarie and Professor Andrè Wessels on the death of their father Manie Wessels. Manie was a stalwart of the KwaZulu-Natal Branch for many years and his collection of newsletters must be one of the most unique in the Society. He used to get the speaker to autograph the summary of his or her talk and if the speaker lived away from Durban, he'd make a plan to get the newsletter to them somehow.


Thursday 10th September 2015:

Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "Naval actions preceding the Gallipoli landings", by Prof Philip Everitt.

Main Talk: "Mongolia and the Yam Rider", by Simon Pearse.

Future Meetings:

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.

Thursday 10th December 2015:

One speaker only - Professor Donal McCracken: "How the Irish won the Anglo-Boer War!"
This will be followed by a cocktail function. The Branch will provide the snacks but members should bring their own liquid refreshment.

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 as follows:

Day 0 Mon 27 Jun
Overnight flight from South Africa to Paris
Day 1 Tue 28 Jun
Arrive Paris, meet guide, and drive to Ypres
Orientation tour of Ypres battlefields
Check into Novotel Ypres Centre with dinner in town centre
Attend Last Post Ceremony at Menin Gate
Overnight in hotel (D)
Day 2 Wed 29 Jun
All day tour of main battle areas around Ypres
Drive to Amiens and check into Holiday Inn
Dinner and overnight in hotel (B, D)
Day 3 Thu 30 Jun
All day tour of Somme battles including Delville Wood
Dinner in City Centre and overnight in hotel (B)
Day 4 Fri 1 Jul
Centenary of first day of the Battle of the Somme
Programme given at a later date when details known
Dinner in City Centre and overnight in hotel (B)
Day 5 Sat 2 Jul
Free day with no coach travel (B)
Day 6 Sun 3 Jul
Drive to Caen in Normandy
Check into Quatrans Hotel in City centre
Free evening in Caen and overnight in hotel (B)
Day 7 Mon 4 Jul
All day tour of British and Canadian D Day beaches
Snack unch at Café Gondree at Pegasus Bridge
Lay a wreath at Bayeux War Cemetery
Free evening in Caen and overnight in hotel (B)
Day 8 Tue 5 Jul
All day tour of American D Day beaches and St Mere Eglise
Visit American War Cemetery and pay our respects
Free evening in Caen and overnight in hotel (B)
Day 9 Wed 6 Jul
Spare day for further visits around Caen and Bayeux
Farewell dinner in local restaurant and overnight in hotel (B, D)
Day 10 Thu 7 Jul Day visit to Dieppe or Paris by request
Late evening flight from Paris to South Africa (B)
Day 11 Fri 8 Jul
Early morning arrival and disperse

The Official Guide, Colonel Mike Bradley (who was the Guide for our tour of Egypt and Libya in May 2009) would like to bring the following points to your attention:
The price included 9 nights' accommodation on B&B basis at:
Novotel Ypres x 1 night
Holiday Inn Amiens x 4 nights
Hotel Quatrans Caen x 4 nights
10 days coach as per itinerary (only 1 driver) using UK coach plus driver
Dinner on 3 nights
Entrance Fees
Royal British Legion accredited battlefield guide (Colonel Mike Bradley)
Costs: £1550.00 per person in a twin room
£400.00 single supplement
VERY NB: This cost is based on 20 people. If we do not achieve this number, the cost may change. It also EXCLUDES the cost of flights to and from Paris.
The tour price does not include drinks, meals not specified, travel insurance and items of a personal nature like phone calls.
Colonel Bradley makes the following points:
1. We have extracted all meals less breakfast each day and 3 dinners to keep costs down. I also find that these days, people do not eat much lunch.
2. We have had to insert a day off for the driver which is the law otherwise the costs for a second driver would be prohibitive.
3. Each hotel is in a town centre so there is no problem with people finding places to eat in the evenings.
4. We have heard nothing yet about the Centenary celebrations so that part of the programme will have to be flexible.
5. If you are able to get a coach load of participants, we might be able to afford a second driver and the costs would reduce, but that will have to be negotiated nearer the time.
It will be necessary for us to transfer the funds directly to an overseas account. Once you have confirmed your participation, I'll obtain those details from Colonel Bradley. Your SAMHS Contact for the tour will be Ken Gillings from the KwaZulu-Natal Branch of the Society. His contact details are:
Tel -: Landline +27 (0)31 702 4828; Cellphone 083 654 5880
E-mail-: / Skype kenheath1

South African Military History Society /