South African Military History 


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 131

August /Augustus 2015

SAMHSEC’s monthly meeting took place took place in Port Elizabeth on Monday 13th July. In the members’ slot, Emile Badenhorst, curator of history at Bayworld Museum in Port Elizabeth, spoke briefly about his recently published book Pushing up daisies: The Great War letters of Corporal Gordon Smith of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade. This book is doubly interesting in that Gordon Smith was a Port Elizabeth man who became a leading citizen of the city after the Great War.

The curtain raiser was presented by Anne Irwin, who spoke about the Guild of Loyal Women of South Africa in the context of their practical assistance during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. During this time, they compiled registers, located graves of both English and Boer combatants and marked them with iron crosses. The South African Soldiers Graves Association took over this work in 1910.

The Guild of Loyal Women of South Africa, launched in Cape Town in 1900, was spearheaded by the author Dorothea Fairbridge and Lady Edward Cecil. It soon spread to include branches in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Among other activities designed to support the British Empire, members of the Guild were involved in the erection of headstones and beautifying military cemeteries.

An example of the latter is illustrated by a letter published in The Spectator for 6 April 1901:

The main lecture, titled The South African Invasion of German South West Africa 1914-1915 was presented by Pat Irwin. Using maps and contemporary photographs, Pat traced the political and military sequence of events in the invasion and conquest of German South West Africa (GSWA) between September 1914 and July 1915, when the German forces defending the colony laid down their arms.

Strictly speaking, hostilities between GSWA and South Africa started when the first skirmishes took place between German and South African patrols at Kunnernais and Nakop on 23rd August 1914. South Africa’s invasion of GWSA and the campaign which followed started on 11th September when South African troops crossed the Orange River and lasted until 9th July 1915, when the German Schutztruppe (Defence Force) formally surrendered. It was partially interrupted in 1914 by an armed uprising by a segment of the population strongly opposed to South Africa’s involvement in what they regarded as ‘England’s war’.

Using almost entirely Boer commandos the South African government, led by Generals Louis Botha (the Prime Minister) and Jan Smuts (Minister of Defence), put down by force what has come to be known as the ‘1914 Rebellion’. The uprising, apart from its long term effects on the politics of the country and brief interruption of the plan to invade GSWA, had only minor ramifications on the campaign itself – when a remnant of the rebel forces under Manie Maritz, supported by a small German contingent, attacked Upington and Kakamas without success. It was the only German ‘invasion’ of South Africa.

The basis for the South African involvement was Britain’s somewhat impertinent and unwelcome request to South Africa toinvade the German colony in order to neutralise the powerful radio stations in the territory, which were used to relay messages to the Imperial German Navy worldwide. South Africa had no quarrel with GSWA, or indeed with Germany itself, and Botha found himself in a difficult position in that no matter which way he moved he would alienate some sector of the population of the newly established Union. Weighing up the pros and cons, Botha and his government decided, with substantial parliamentary support, to weigh in on Britain’s side. The arguments put forward for this boiled down to: South Africa having to act honourably as a member of the Empire; possible territorial and political gains for South Africa; the great majority English speaking South Africans (particularly those in Natal) being determined that South Africa should support Britain militarily, fanning fears of a breakup of the Union; and a concern that if South Africa did not undertake the task, Britain would use foreign troops. Botha himself led both the political and the military campaign, largely from the front, while for much of the time Smuts acted as Prime Minister in his absence and tried to ensure that Botha got what men, materials and supplies he needed.

The military campaign was characterised by anumber of features:

The very act of going into the physically and strategically hostile environment of GSWA was a formidable task for the South Africans. The German command was of the firm belief that the sand, desert and mountains were their best defence, and that the South Africans would never get through it. Transport problems and especially the supply of enough water and food for both horses and men were very problematic for the South Africans, particularly in the early stages of the campaign. Bureaucracy too played its role in this regard and delivery of supplies was often tardy. But, as one commentator of the time put it, “The desert did not know Louis Botha”.

It must also be borne in mind that the South African army,which was eventually to number some 66 000, was largely a volunteer one with a high percentage of Afrikaners, many of them battle-hardened from fighting the British invasion of South Africa only a decade earlier. The troops broadly reflected the composition of the white population, the majority of whom supported Botha in the GWSA campaign.

Against this, while greatly outnumbered (often by 10 to 1) the German Forces in the colony, some 7 000 men including reservists (mostly farmers), had the benefit of internal communications, an efficient rail system and ample supplies. They could rapidly deploy their entire force wherever needed. They also had more and better artillery and plenty of ammunition. Nevertheless their defence strategy displayed a number of characteristics which, in the circumstances, were to their ultimate disadvantage.

In a more general sense, nearly all of the fighting was in the form of limited skirmishes involving small numbers of Schutztruppe and usually considerably larger numbers of South African troops. Only three of the numerous engagements (Sandfontein, Riet/Pforte and Gibeon Station) could be classed as ‘battles’, although these were on a small scale in comparison to those being fought in Europe at the same time.

A parallel component to the fighting was the capacity of Botha’s army to rapidly repair the railway lines destroyed by the retreating Germans, as well as the construction of new lines and the sinking of new wells to replace those dynamited or poisoned by the retreating Schutztruppe. Supported by the South African Railways & Harbours administration of the day, what was achieved in this regard can only be described as monumental. It also left a lasting legacy for the territory. Much of the raw labour was carried out by the troops themselves.

Given the constraints and problems inherent in the campaign, such as the vast expanse of the country, the hot and dry climate, as well as much of the campaign being conducted in the heat of summer, it concluded within a relatively short space of time – nine months from start to finish. Estimates of casualties were for South Africa: 266 killed or died of wounds or illness, and 263 wounded. German casualties were some 130 killed or died of wounds (although some estimates put this much higher) and 890 taken prisoner. There appears to be no reliable source for the number of German wounded. In summary, German South West Africa crumbled under Botha’s methodical, deliberate campaign, which brought a far larger and more efficient force to bear than the defenders could hope to match. From a South African point of view, Louis Botha’s role cannot be separated from the success of the campaign, which was also the first Allied victory of the war.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe The next meeting will be at 19h30 on 10th August at the EP Veteran car Club in Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser, The Rev W R Paterson of the Royal Scots Greys will be by Ian Copley, and the main lecture A South African serving in the Royal Navy during WWII will be by Mr M Cooper, a veteran of the Second World War.

The field tripto Bethulie, Smithfield and environs is scheduled to take place on the weekend of 14th-16thAugust. Anyone interested in still joining for all or part of the weekend, can contact Malcolm Kinghorn at either or 082 331 6233.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemenebelang

Changing address? Adresverandering?

SAMHSEC secretary, Franco Cilliers, has requested that members notify him of any change of either e-mail or postal address. This will ensure that members receive both their Newsletter and Journal as well as other occasional notifications timeously.

Quarterly Management Report of the South African Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the period of 1st March 2015 to 30th June 2015.

The above report has been received. If anyone who would like a copy, contact Pat Irwin at: the subject line ‘CWGC Report’. The report is 2MB in size.

Individual members’ activities / Individuele lede se aktiwiteite

Terry Pattison has offered to represent SAMHSEC on the Department of Youth, Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture’s Heritage Reference Group which will oversee heritage matters in the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality. A big thank you to Terry.

John Stevens presented his talk Oh! What a lovely war at the Bayworld Museum’s launch of Pushing up daisies: The Great War letters of Corporal Gordon Smith of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade edited by Emile Badenhorst.

Pat Irwin addressed the Grahamstown Historical Society on The South African Campaign in German South West Africa during the First World War.

Korean War Commemoration

The 65th anniversary of the start of the Korean War on the 25th June 1950 was recently commemorated at the SAAF Museum at Ysterplaat. The ceremony was attended by the South Korean ambassador to South Africa. South Africa’s involvement in the conflict was from November 1950 to December 1953.

South Africa’s participation in the conflict involved 2 Squadron SAAF (The Flying Cheetahs) which was formed in 1940. In Korea the Squadron was attached to the 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing of the U.S. Air Force. It initially flew P-51 Mustangs, but was later re-equipped with F-86 Sabres. During the war the squadron flew a total of 12 067 sorties, most being dangerous ground attack missions. For its actions over the duration, the squadron received high accolades for its role and Presidential Citations from both the Republic of Korea and the United States as well as numerous other awards and decorations.

Seventy-four of the 94 Mustangs and four out of the 22 Sabres were lost in combat, while 34 SAAF airmen lost their lives and eight were taken prisoner. Apart from the SAAF Memorial at Busan in South Korea, there is a memorial plaque at the Union Buildings.

Members’ forum/Lede se forum

Richard Tomlinson forwarded information relating to the Jones family who arrived in Port Elizabeth from St. Helena in circa 1836. Of particular interest is how the sons of an English family ended up serving the Boer cause.This began when, during the Jameson Raid of 1895-1896, John George Jones served as a translator for General Cronjé and Dr. Jameson. At the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899 both John and his brother, James, joined the Boer forces. As English was their mother-tongue, they were regularly in demand as translators when the need arose to communicate with the British troops.

James was taken prisoner in Pretoria on 28th July 1900 and sent to the prisoner of war camp at Ahmadnagar in India. John went on to serve as a Boer officer with the rank of Commandant in the commando of General Christiaan Beyers and later became a Colonel in the South African Defence Force.

He received the DekoratievoorTrouweDienst Anglo-Boeroorlog 1800-1902, which was the Boer officer’s decoration for devoted and meritorious service.

The full document outlining the history of the Jones family is obtainable from Richard Tomlinson at

World War I Centenary Years/ Eerste Wêreldoorlog Eeufeesjare

The junior officer casualty rate on the Western Front

As the war on the Western Front progressed and the front line in northern France and Belgium stagnated into static trench warfare with periodic attacks across no-man’s land, the very severe casualty rate among British junior officers killed and wounded becameapparent. One reason was that ‘over the top’assaults were conducted mainly by the British and French. The only major attack by the Germans was the one at Verdun: other than that they engaged mainly in counter-attacks. Excerpts from British historian Jeremy Paxman’s Great Britain’s Great War (2013:223-244) offer some further insights into the circumstances underlying this phenomenon.

‘’The reason for this is that they had been taught that an attack began with the platoon lieutenant clambering out of the trench and guiding his men from the front, not prodding them forward from behind…The cry was expected to be ‘Come on!’, not ‘Go on!’ ” …In the early stages of the war, “these young men came overwhelmingly from the ‘public’ [i.e. private] schools…not primarily intellectual institutions, but designed to instil attitudes of mind and patterns of behaviour.” In them, Paxman argues “the emphasis on loyalty to the different houses in which they slept, obsession with sporting competition, anti-intellectualism and obedience to authority…cultivated a sense of duty, an awareness of hierarchy and a habit of command. It is today difficult”, he reminds us, “to appreciate how seriously they once took their social responsibilities.” Quoting a headmaster of the time he notes that these schools produced “a race of robust men, with active habits, manly sympathies and exuberant spirits” ready to endure anything for Crown and country. They were, he suggests, “a perfect nursery for the cadre needed to lead an army in combat”. “German snipers very quickly learned that if they wanted to have the greatest impact on the enemy, they should pick off the figures in long tunics, Sam Browne belt and riding breeches”, which was why many subalterns learned quickly to go over the top dressed as ordinary soldiers and carrying rifles rather than canes or revolvers. Army regulations were also soon to catch up stating that ‘All officers will be dressed and equipped the same as the men; sticks are not to be carried’.

Major engagements in August 1915

The most noteworthy battles of August 1915 were those on the Gallipoli Peninsula. What was termed The August Offensive was the last major attempt by the Allies to break the stalemate that had persisted since the initial landings at Anzac Cove on 25th April. The plan included the seizure of a number of highpoints dominating the peninsula.

On 6th August the Allies, seeking a breakout from the cramped confines of Anzac Cove, identified Suvla Bay as large enough and ideal for the landing of a sizeable number of additional troops. Despite light opposition the amphibious landing was badly mismanaged and quickly reached the same stalemate as that at Anzac Cove and the Hellas front. The Battle of Lone Pine (aka KanliSirt), intended as a diversionary attack, was also fought on this day. Although the Australians were successful in gaining their objectives, the overall offensive of which it was a part, was a failure and here too the initiative ended in a situation of stalemate.

The Battle of the Nek (immortalised in the film Gallipoli), a relatively small scale assault on another high point, took place simultaneously with Lone Pine. Here the Australians mounted a futile bayonet attack on the Ottoman trenches, suffering 40% killed for no gain and with minor enemy casualties. The battle became known as ‘Godley's abattoir’ after the commander, British General Sir Alexander Godley. The Nek Cemetery today occupies much of the battlefield.

The Battle of Hill 60 (not to be confused with a battle of the same name on the Western Front) which commenced on 21st August was intended to support the attack on Scimitar Hill, the largest battle of the Gallipoli Campaign, involving three Allied divisions. These were last ditch attempts to break out of the confined beachhead at Anzac Cove and link up with the forces landed at Suvla Bay, a distance of five kilometres. Despite fierce fighting stretching over six days, it was, like its predecessors, a costly failure,with the British suffering 37% casualties. This was the last major Allied offensiveconducted on the Gallipoli Front prior to their evacuation in December 1915/January 1916.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

Ancient history

Failed Mongol Armada Wreck Discovered off Japanese Coast
Josh L Davis IFL Science 7th July 2015

Skeleton of Alexander the Great's Father Found
Janet Fang IFL Science 20th July 2015


Battle of Waterloo: Cambridge University Library uncovers rarely seen treasures
BBC News 4th April 2015

World War I

Learning to use Signals Intelligence in the Royal Navy up to 1915
Len Barnett blog 14th July 2015

World War II and its aftermath

Magnificent: Piper Bill Millin on the Normandy beaches
War history Online 9th April 2015

Newly declassified photographs of the Normandy Beach Landings
Lyle Ropacki 1st March 2015

45 previously unseen images of D-Day
Anon War history Online January 2015

Normandy secrets: Forgotten Nazi arms caches a bonanza for historians
Frank Thadeusz Spiegel Online International 13th July 2015

Britain’s frontline WWII tunnels rediscovered 27th July 2015

WWII photos hidden in a trunk for 71 Years
Source unclear

Klaus Barbie: From Nazi criminal to post-war spy Georg Bönisch and Klaus Wiegrefe Spiegel Online 9th April 9th, 2015

Cold War

Project Azorian: The CIA’s raising of the Soviet nuclear armed submarine K-129 from the Pacific Ocean floor
Wikipedia 6th July 2015


Mk I Spitfire faithfully restored after 40 years buried under a French beach sells for world record £3.1million fee at auction - with all the proceeds going to charity
Hannah Parry MailOnline 9th July 2015

C-130 days numbered?
ENCA 2nd June 2015

The ongoing F-35 saga: Australian Navy cancels order for the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter
Kris Osborn DefenseTech 10th July 2015

The ongoing F-35 saga: Joint Program Office Response to “War is Boring” Blog
AnonF-35 Lightning II – Lockheed Martin 1st July 2015

Interesting people

The man who fought for Finland, the Nazis and US Army Special Forces
Paul Szoldra Constantine Report 5thJuly 2015

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang

* A useful site for military history news and views is:
War History Online at:

* A superb blog, with a South African focus, on the First World War The following site is a very informative account of the life of an ordinary South African soldier (Alexander Ernest McCallum) who was a child in the Siege of Kimberley and who fought in both WW I and WW II. The posting is by his grandson, Graham Leslie McCallum.

* English Russia is an online monthly magazine that often contains items of military historical interest. An example is the Issue of 21stAugust 2012 which focuses on the T-34 tank, found at

For general entry, simply go to

* For those interested, a short PowerPoint presentation titled Cyber-Warfare: The Future is Now can be found at:

Members are invited to send in to the scribes, short reviews of, or comments on, books, DVDs or any other interesting resources they have come across, as well as news on individual member’s activities. In this Newsletter, there have been contributions by Richard Tomlinson, Malcolm Kinghorn, Barry Irwin, Jonathan Ossher, Peter Duffel-Canham, Franco Cilliers,George Curror, and Peter Gouws..

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn:
Secretary: Franco Cilliers:
Scribes (Newsletter): Anne and Pat Irwin:


South African Military History Society /