South African Military History 


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 130

The monthly meeting took place in Port Elizabeth on 8th June. The member’s slot was presented by Anne Irwin, who linked the introduction of three alien invasive weeds in South Africa to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The seeds of khakibos, the common blackjack and the cosmos flowers were present in the fodder the British troops imported from Argentina and Mexico for their horses. These plants grow in old lands and flourish in disturbed soil. Khakibos derives its common name from the epithet applied to the British soldiers who donned khaki coloured uniforms for the Anglo-Boer War, in contrast to the traditional red coats used in the Anglo-Transvaal War (1880-1881).

The curtain raiser, presented by Franco Cilliers, on the topic Nuclear Weapons Design was a prelude to the main lecture.

Nuclear weapon design can broadly be divided into three groups: pure fission weapons, boosted fission weapons and staged thermonuclear weapons.

Pure fission weapons are divided into the gun type and the implosion type. The gun type weapon was used on Hiroshima (‘Little Boy’) and in the South African nuclear programme. This works by firing a projectile of enriched uranium into a target of enriched uranium and thereby starting a fissionable chain reaction. This weapon had an efficiency of only 1.38% for the Hiroshima detonation. The implosion type works by using high explosive, shaped like patches on a soccer ball, to compress the plutonium core once the explosive is detonated. The plutonium core is surrounded by a tamper/pusher material sometimes made out of tungsten. When the high explosive is detonated the tamper/pusher is used to crush the plutonium into the neutron initiator. This reaction then starts a fission chain reaction. The implosion type of bomb makes more efficient use of nuclear material than the gun type of weapon, with a calculated efficiency of 13%. This was the type of weapon dropped on Nagasaki (‘Fat Boy’). The efficiency of nuclear weapons relates to how much of the weapon’s nuclear fuel is used up before it blows itself apart.

The second type of weapon is a hybrid design which is a fissionable weapon, but which is boosted by adding fusion fuel in the form of tritium and deuterium gas (both radioactive isotopes of hydrogen). This method can enhance a bomb’s efficiency to about 29.7% and is the type of weapon Pakistan tested in 1998.

The third type of weapon is a staged thermonuclear weapon, also known as a hydrogen bomb. This is initiated by an implosion weapon. The fission primarily emits X-rays which are scattered along the inside of the casing, irradiating the polystyrene foam lining. The polystyrene foam becomes plasma, which then causes the plutonium sparkplug to fission. Compressed and heated, lithium-6 deuteride fuel produces tritium and begins the fusion reaction. The neutron flux produced causes the U-238 tamper to fission and a fireball starts to form.

The largest nuclear test ever conducted was the ‘Tsar bomb’ detonated in the Soviet Union on 30th October 1961. The weapon was a 50 megaton hydrogen bomb. The fireball from the detonation was visible at 1 000km, the mushroom cloud was 64km high where its diameter was 95km. At ground level the diameter was 40km and anyone 100km away would have experienced third degree burns. The shockwave broke windows up to 900km away.

The main lecture, also by Franco Cilliers, focused on South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Programme.

This was started in 1948 by Prime Minister Jan Smuts,who established a committee on nuclear energy. From 1959-1964 the US and UK nuclear bomb projects depended on South African supplied uranium. The Raad vir Atoom Krag (RAK) Development Plan was approved in 1959 and can be divided into four parts:

The next decision was to site South Africa’s nuclear research project, the required criteria being:
These criteria were satisfied by the farm Pelindaba, in the Magaliesberg, which was then purchased. In 1953 US President Eisenhower made his ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech whereby the United States would assist countries with nuclear equipment and know-how if it were to be used for peaceful purposes. South Africa’s nuclear programme benefited from this offer in that over the course of the project, South Africa was able to send about 100 engineers and scientists for training in the United States. South Africa also bought the SAFARI-1 research reactor from the United States during this time, the United States being happy to supply South Africa with the reactor since we were dependent on them for the supply of the fuel the reactor used.

At this point the RAK had two projects that they were working on. The first was a reactor project called Pelinduna and the second was uranium enrichment. A test reactor was built and went critical in November 1967, but the project was cancelled in 1969 as the RAK could not fund two separate projects. This reactor would today be regarded as unsafe because it used liquid sodium as cooling and water as a neutron moderator in close proximity. It was decided however, that to keep the scientist and engineers busy, a project was to be started to research peaceful nuclear explosives.

The Uranium Enrichment Project (UEP) benefited from a project developed by the South African Chamber of Mines. This used a tube called the Ranque-Hilsch vortex tube, a mechanical device which could separate a compressed gas into hot and cold streams to deliver cold, dry air in the mines by separating water molecules out of the air. The big advantage of this tube was that there were no moving parts. The project achieved its first success with this tube in November 1965 when they achieved separation. By 1967 they had the vortex method working fully in a laboratory environment and were ready to proceed to a full-scale demonstration model. The PNE project benefited from the enrichment project because it enabled South Africa to create its own highly enriched uranium.

The government decided in February 1969 to build a pilot enrichment plant, and in 1970 UKOR was created with a capital of R50 million for this purpose. The development of a Peaceful Nuclear Explosives (PNE) project was approved in March 1971. A decision was also undertaken to have the first PNE by the second half 1977. The first phase of the enrichment plant was fully completed in March 1977 and the first highly enriched uranium was withdrawn from the plant on 30th January 1978. During 1977 with mounting sanctions and international pressure the PNE project was changed to a nuclear weapons project. During April 1978 the government also approved a nuclear strategy with the following operational phases:

As early as 1971 the RAK had made progress with the development of the PNE, which included computer programs and buildings. During 1973 a test was conducted with the firing of 50kg of tungsten to confirm the ballistic parameters for the theoretical model of a cannon type of device. By the middle of 1977 the first nuclear device without the highly enriched uranium was ready to be tested. This was done successfully in 1978 with a natural uranium projectile. After the success of the initial test, a miniature device was built to enable a demonstration to be performed if needed. By November 1979 the first highly enriched uranium was withdrawn for the demonstration model to work. It was given the codename Video.

A month after PW Botha became Prime Minister he established a committee to create an action plant to weaponize the PNE of the RAK. On 31st January 1979 the SADF registered a project codenamed Festival to develop a military-qualified weapon for use by the SADF. The committee reported in July 1979 that seven weapons would be needed. The facilities for the storage and production of the nuclear weapons were built on the Gerotek facility, henceforth to be known as the Circle Facility. This was taken into use on 18th May 1981, with PW Botha officiating at the opening. In his speech he said that South Africa had melted the plough share and turned it into the sword that would be used to force the US and USSR to the negotiating table. The Circle Facility consisted of three buildings: the main one housed the safes, workshops and offices and the other buildings were a store for the explosives and an environmental testing facility. During this period the project was building gun type weapons, but there was also a research focus on implosion types.

The first nuclear weapon made by Armscor was completed in December 1982. This device was codenamed Hobo. After this, a device was completed every year. Each weapon consisted of two parts, the projectile part and the target part. These were kept in separate safes and were never worked on at the same time. With the state of emergency and the worsening economy a meeting was called to examine the future of the programme. The outcome of the meeting was that:

The nuclear strategy was also confirmed in an altered form. The biggest change was that the decision to move between phases was the sole responsibility of the state president.

The project continued to function until 26th February 1990 when FW De Klerk terminated it, having decided that all weapons were to be dismantled and the highly enriched uranium sent to the RAK for storage. By the end of the project there were five nuclear weapons and one demonstration model. There was never any overt intention to use the weapons and no targets were ever identified.

The June Field Trip took place on 6th and 7th June. Mike Heywood reports as follows:

The first day, Saturday, was spent at the Bergrivier Eco-Retreat, near Thornhill, where Hoffie Williams, having explained the value of the ox-wagon to the Voortrekkers, used various models and artefacts to illustrate the art of wagon building and maintenance.

The strength of the wagon came from the construction of the wheels, various kinds of wood being used. Early examples included cedar, assegai, yellowwood and stinkwood with the rims being made out of strips of iron first heated to fit by the blacksmith as the ‘tyre’: the cooling would tighten and fix it on the wooden spokes and fellowes. Hard sprung wood was used for the spokes, ironwood for the axles, and nailable timber for the superstructure. The lighter trek wagon (Kakebeenossewa), which was the focus of the talk, had a load capacity of about 1 ton whilst the heavier transport wagons were capable of carrying up to 5 tons, depending on the terrain and oxen.

He spoke of the importance of the positioning and pairing of the span of 16 oxen, harnessed in pairs with yokes across their necks. Drivers had to know the disposition of their animals well. Oxen, which all had names, were normally paired for the duration of their working lives. Very large turning circles were required, hence the legacy of broad main streets that we now see in many towns across South Africa. Squares and bridges were determined by the size of the ox-wagon.

Various items were displayed including harnesses, whips and childrens’ toys, based on the wagon. Hoffie also spoke briefly about the role of the muskets used by those who lived in and fought from their wagons.

On Sunday members gathered at the privately owned Mount Ingwe Anglo-Boer War Museum on the farm Middelwater in the Elands River Valley. The artefacts on display are the result of over 30 years of painstaking and passionate research by Lukas van der Merwe and his associates.

Lukas gave a short overall review of each display case prior to an informal time for SAMHSEC visitors to indulge their individual passions and raise any questions. The artefacts were discovered and collected on land and farms where permission had been obtained. Where any discoveries are made, photographs are taken and GPS locations are marked for posterity. A percentage of any finds are given to the landowners so as to preserve the local knowledge. No metal detecting is done on National Monuments or designated historical sites, only on the peripheral areas.

The artefacts in the museum are professionally displayed relative to the site where they were discovered, such as Norvalspont Concentration Camp and Majuba battlefield. They include shell cases, powder canon fuses, buckles, belts, buttons, munitions, various camp equipment and personal items.

The visit, concluded after lunch, was enjoyed in a most beautiful location.

At the request of some members the following contact details are added:

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstigebyeenkomsenuitstappe

The next meeting will be at 19h30 on 13th July at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser, titled The Guild of Loyal Women of South Africa will be by Anne Irwin. The main lecture by Pat Irwin will be The invasion of German South West Africa in 1915

. August Field Trip accommodation

Unfortunately, the promised list of accommodation available in the Bethulie area only arrived recently and has consequently been sent out as a separate document.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang

Membership for second half of the year

Prospective members are reminded that they may join the Society from the 1st July for half the 2015 annual subscription fee. The half year fee is thus R115.00 which includes the December 2015 Journal. The application form is available from the Honorary Secretary, Franco Cilliers at
It is also available on the MHS webpage at: http:/
or from:

Individual members’ activities / Individuelelede se aktiwiteite

June 18th was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in which Napoleon was very narrowly defeated. Bill Mills, Stephen Bowker, John Stevens and Pat Irwin attended the Grahamstown Historical Society’s commemoration of the event on 12th June, Pat and John giving presentations on the battle and the weaponry. Functions associated with the event included commemorating the establishment of the farm Waterloo outside of Grahamstown by Sergeant William Beadle, a veteran of the battle. Some 30 of William’s descendants from around the world attended the occasion, visiting the farm and other places of interest associated with Sergeant Beadle.

An interesting question related to the battle, is what might have happened if Napoleon had won it, which he came close to doing. For a little counter-factual history, try

Members’ forum/Lede se forum

Fellow member Tiaan Jacobs is both a military historian and a genealogist. He was recently approached to explore the background of General Nicolaas Jacobus Smit, as all his great-great granddaughter knew about him was that he had been an important figure in the old Zuid Afrikaanse Republic (ZAR). By sharing this, Tiaan hopes to create a greater awareness of this interesting man and the relationship between genealogy and military history. What follows is an extract of his findings. Please contact Tiaan at should you wish to read the full version that also contains interesting illustrations.

Generaal Nicolaas Jacobus Smit was beide Generaal en Vise-President van die ZAR. Hy is op 30 Mei 1837 in Graaff-Reinetgebore, was twee keer getroud and was op 4 April 1896 oorlede. Smit was die oudste seun en het saam met sy ouers na Natal getrek in 1840. Hy is in die Ou Begraafplaas in Pretoria begrawe.

Genl. Nicolaas Jacobus Smit was bevelvoerder van die Boeremagtetydens die veldslae van Ingogo en Majuba in die EersteVryheidsoorlog van 1880-81. Hy was ‘n uitstaande militêreleier. Sy strategie was verstommend suksesvol, veral met die slag van Majuba en hy het groot vertroue onder sy manne geniet. Hy was daarna Lid van die Volksraad (Parlement) vir Ermelo en word Vise-president van die ZAR in 1887, ‘n pos wat hy vir bykans 10 jaar onder President Paul Kruger beklee het.

Belangrike regeringskommissies waarin Smit gedien het, was in verband met die BarbertonseGoudvelde (1886), Opleidingsregulasies vir Aptekers (1887), die inlywing by die ZAR, van De NieuweRepubliek, Vryheid, Natal (1888), die Delagoabaai-Pretoria-Spoorwegen kommissies met betrekking tot Swaziland. Hy was in 1892 'n stigter van die eerste Landbouvereniging van Pretoria en 'n kurator van die Staatsgimnasium wat in 1892 opgerig is. Hy verkry die Bereapark vir die rugbyveld te Pretoria, en saam met Generaal Joubert en andere, doen hy herhaalde aansoek vir konsessies om spoorweë te bou. As krygsman was hy 'n onverskrokke stryder en bevelvoerder, en in die Raadsaal 'n beskeie, maar oortuigde spreker. Ook was hy 'n hartstogtelike en fyngevoelige patriot, altyd regverdig en onkreukbaar maar tog vatbaar vir oortuiging en hoewel hy geen skoolopleiding geniet het nie, het hy nogtans op die hoogstevlak bygedra tot die ontwikkeling van Transvaal van 'n beskeie begin tot welvaart en aansien binne 'n enkele leeftyd. Hy was blind in sy linkeroog.

Hy word nie alleen deur sy land hooggeag nie, maar ook internasionaal deur regerings in die buiteland. Pruise maak hom Ridder van die Rooi Adelaar, Portugal vereer hom met hul hoogste toekenning naamlik Kommandeur van die Orde van die Onbevlekte Ontvangenis van Onze Liewe Vrouwe van Viçosa en Holland vereer hom ook met hul hoogste toekenning naamlik Kommandeur van die Orde van die Nederlandse Leeu.

Using Photobucket

Concern has been expressed that the Photobucket site set up by Franco Cilliers some time ago is not being used to its full potential by members. To facilitate its easy use Franco has prepared a step-by-step guide, which has been sent out as a separate document.

Delville Wood Parade

The Aloe White Ensign Shellhole have invited SAMHSEC members to join their Annual Battle of Delville Wood Parade and Wreath Laying Ceremony, to be held on Sunday the 19th July 2015, 11h00, at the Aloe White Ensign Dugout, corner of 8th Avenue and Church Road. Those wishing to go on parade and wreath layers to report by 10h00. Dress Code: Veterans Uniform: Moth, SA Legion, Gunners Association, 31 Bn VA, 32 Bn VA, 61 Mech VA etc. If you wish to lay a wreath please advise Old Bill Mervin Blom on 079 511 9735 or e-mail: by the 10th July. You are also cordially invited to refreshments after the Parade in the Claredon After Care Hall. Telephone contact details are: Old Bill, Mervin Blom 079 511 9735; Adjutant, Tertia Morton 072 124 3303

Proposed Concentration Camp Reconciliation Tour

As many will be aware, the Heritage Foundation (Erfenisstigting) had the contract from SAHRA via the Department of Arts and Culture to look after the Concentration Camp sites up to the end of March last year. The contract has not been renewed as there is no money available.

In an effort to continue looking after and preserving these sites, The Erfenisstigting is attempting to organise local teams based on our military veterans to plan, develop and maintain these and other heritage sites. One of the schemes planned is to have nine simultaneous tours in December 2016 to visit all 114 Concentration Camp sites (50 were for whites and 64 were for blacks), to do a proper military-like commemoration service at each and collect a stone from each site. The nine tours would then converge on Petrus Steyn in the norther Free State where it is planned to build the first ever joint memorial for all South Africans that suffered from that and other wars. It is intended that this will also be a significant act of reconciliation. Any person interested in the project is invited to share in it and participate. The Heritage Foundation website is:

World War I Centenary Year / Eerste Wêreldoorlog Eeufeesjaar

German South West Africa in July 1915

July 1915 saw the end of the South African campaign in German South West Africa. With the continued, and what seemed to the Germans unstoppable, South African advance to the north (especially those commandos under Brits and Myburgh) and an inevitable pincer movement, Governor Seitz wrote to Louis Botha asking for his detailed terms for ending hostilities. Botha’s reply demanded the surrender of the regular troops in the German forces and the handing over of their weapons, but said the reservists would be allowed to return home and resume their normal occupations. A meeting was subsequently convened for 6th July at a place known as Kilo 500. Here Botha and his staff met Seitz and Colonel Franke and the formal surrender was signed at 10h00 on 9th July. The Germans had been able to destroy some of their equipment and artillery, but about 37 guns were captured. These were largely the 7.7cm FK field guns, some of which were used against the Germans in East Africa and others ended up as trophy guns in various South African towns, particularly those, such as Standerton, which were strongholds of Botha and Smuts’ South African Party. Some of them are still there today.

Major engagements in July 1915

The Battle of Åland Islands (the Battle of Gotland) took place on 2nd July between German and Russian cruisers supported by a British submarine. After laying mines off the Åland islands, the German ships were located by the Russian interception of their radio signals. In the subsequent engagements two of the German cruisers were damaged (one torpedoed by the British submarine) and a minelayer put out of action. The Battle of Åland Islands was the last significant naval engagement on the Baltic front during the First World War. It is also regarded as the first instance of Russian radio signals intelligence.

The Battle of the Argonne. Over the period of 26th June to 4th July 1915 fighting between the French and Germans took place in the Argonne area of the Western Front. The highpoint was a concerted German attack on 2nd July which, although initially successful, failed to break through the French lines. By 4th July conditions had returned to the trench stalemate it had been eight days earlier. This is not to be confused with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918 in which American troops were involved.

In the Battle of the Rufiji Delta on 11 July the German Light Cruiser SMS Königsberg was severely damaged by the 6 inch guns of two British shallow-draught monitors brought from England specifically for that purpose. Their shellfire and ranging was supported by a spotter aircraft from South Africa, possibly the first time an aircraft had been used in this role. Damage to the Königsberg was severe enough to force the surviving crew to scuttle the ship after salvaging all ten of her main (4.1 inch) guns, after which they joined Lieutenant-Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's guerrilla campaign in East Africa. They remained undefeated at the end of the war. [This was the subject of a lecture by Peter Duffel-Canham in January 2012. For those interested, see SAMHSEC Newsletter No 89]

The attack on Achi Baba, a prominent hill offering a commanding view of the Allied beachhead at Cape Helles an Allied priority for seizure. The attack on 12th July was a final attempt to seize the hill after the earlier repeatedly unsuccessful attacks on Krithia and Gully Ravine in April, May and June. After two days of fighting, resulting in 4 000 Allied- and 10 000 Turkish casualties, theencounter ended with possession of Achi Baba remaining in Turkish hands.

The Second Battle of the Isonzo. Only eleven days after the First Battle of the Isonzo was called off as a failure, the Italians renewed offensive operations with an increased artillery strength. Running from 18thJuly to 3rdAugust using massed frontal infantry attacks against well prepared defensive positions, despite clear evidence on the Western Front that such tactics were fruitless, this second Isonzo battle achieved little more than the first other than increased casualties: 60000 on the Italian side and 45000 on the Austro-Hungarian side.

The capture of Nasiriyeh the advance upon which had commenced on 27th June, took place on 24th July. [See Newsletter 129, but note that ‘24th June’ should read ‘24th July’.]

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

World War I

The scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow, 21st June 1919
Marek Pruszewicz BBC World Service 19th June 2015

World War II Two iconic women from the Second World War: Perla Gibson and Vera Lynn
SA Legion The Home Front 31147/396956767140728/
[Perla Gibson’s moving autobiography The Lady in White was published in 1964 by Purnell, Cape Town. There is a memorial plaque to her memory erected by men of the Royal Navy on Durban’s North Pier where she used to sing. In 1995 Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a statue of Perla Gibson near the Ocean Terminal in Durban harbour.]

The History of the Jerry Can: how it won the war.
Richard M. Daniel Before it’s News 6th April 2015 html

Ghost Army: The Inflatable Tanks That Fooled Hitler
Megan Garber The Atlantic 22nd May 2013

Hacking the Nazis: The secret story of the women who broke Hitler's codes
Nick Heath TechRepublic March 2015


Kirov Class Battle Cruiser: The World's Largest Surface Combatant
Tyler Rogoway Foxtrot Alpha 5th May 2014

1:20 scale model of the Admiral Graf Spee


A recent clip of the world’s last two airworthy Lancaster Bombers flying together

The Blue Angel F/A-18 Hornets Are Literally Falling Apart In Mid-Air
Tyler Rogoway FOXTROT ALPHA 8th June 2015

South Africa

Ossewa Brandwag fight for Finland against the Soviet Union in WW II
Alternative Finland Undated


The first Aboriginal military pilot inspiring new recruits 20 years after his death 20th April 2015

ANZAC Commemoration [A five minute video]

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang

The Great War BBC Documentary in 28 episodes of 40 minutes each
[This is the First World war equivalent of The World at War]

The Fallen of World War II – A data-driven documentary about war and peace
An interesting analysis of both military and civilian casualties of the Second World War.This offers an interactive programme and a video. For the former, one needs to open on Google Chrome.

South African Battlefields App

There is now a ‘South African Battlefields App" available FREE of charge at click here or right click, then open hyperlink)

One can also go to the Earth Ambassadors Facebook site 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, Mike Heywood, Terry Pattison and Michael Irwin.

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


South African Military History Society /