South African Military History 


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 129
June/Junie 2015

SAMHSEC’s May meeting took place in Grahamstown on the morning of Saturday 16th. Some 35 members and their guests assembled at Fort Selwyn in fine weather, after which they proceeded to Rhodes University where Professor Hugo Nel of the Department of Economics led a 2½ hour tour of some of the buildings of military origin on the campus. All of these buildings are currently still in use and in excellent condition. Hugo, whose interests lie in both architecture and history, focused on seven buildings in particular, all of which were built in the first half of the 19th century when the current campus grounds were a military base. These are the Provost (a unique military prison, now part of the Albany Museum complex), the Military Hospital (now the Botany Department of Rhodes University), the soldiers’ Barracks (currently the Linguistics Department), the Officers’Mess (now the Mathematics Department), the Drostdy Arch (now the entrance to Rhodes University), the aesthetically appealing Royal Engineers Building (now the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science) and a crenelated structure in the gothic-revival style built as a private home by the redoubtable Major Jasper Selwyn, Royal Engineers, and still known as ‘Selwyn’s Castle’, in which the Department of Anthropology is housed.

After a picnic lunch in the precincts of the Department of Education, the meeting began at 13h30 as an Eskom blackout was expected in the mid afternoon. The curtain raiser, The Burma Campaign 1942-1945 was presented by Major Bill Mills.

This campaign in the South-East Asian Theatre of the Second World War was fought primarily between the forces of the British Empire and China, with support from the United States, against the forces of the Empire of Japan, Thailand, and the Indian National Army.

British Empire forces peaked at around 1 000000 land, naval and air forces, and were drawn primarily from British India supplemented by British Army forces, 100 000 East and West African colonial troops, and smaller numbers of land and air forces from several of the Dominions and Colonies. The Burmese Independence Army was trained by the Japanese and spear-headed the initial attacks against British Empire forces.

The campaign had a number of notable features. The geographical characteristics of the region meant that factors like weather, disease and terrain had a major effect on operations. The lack of transport infrastructure placed an emphasis on military engineering and air transport to move and supply troops, and to evacuate wounded. The campaign was also politically complex, with the British, the United States and the Chinese all having different strategic priorities.

It was also the only land campaign by the Western Allies in the Pacific Theatre which proceeded continuously from the start of hostilities to the end of the war. This was due to its geographical location. By extending from south-east Asia to India, its area included some lands which the British lost at the outset of the war, but also areas of India wherein the Japanese advance was eventually stopped.

The climate of the region is dominated by the seasonal monsoon rains. In the hills, rainfall exceeds 2 500 mm per year. The plains are not significantly lower. Even the ‘dry season’ (October to April) has rains. Such heavy rainfall restricted really effective campaigning to only just over half of each year. This, together with other factors such as famine and disorder in British India, and the priority given by the Allies to the defeat of Nazi Germany, prolonged the campaign and divided it into four phases:

A recent comment, covering the general and failed involvement in East Asia by western powers over the past 70 years is that, contrary to failed operations by the Americans (Vietnam), Dutch (Indonesia) and French (Indo-China), the re-conquest of Burma and the removal of the threat to India allowed Britain, in the end, to leave Asia without losing face.

The main lecture, titled Weapons used in the East Cape Frontier Wars was by Rod Hooper-Box who used a combination of excellent slides, examples of the weaponry involved, and direct quotations by contemporary users of each weapon regarding its efficacy and performance. He began his presentation with some general comments on the European concept of ‘civilised’ war and the difficulties which the British had in adapting to the more irregular form of warfare which characterised the nine Frontier Wars of the Eastern Cape. Technically, these lasted from 1779 to 1878 with periods of relative peace and minor raiding by all sides in between. The difference in weaponry between the antagonists (who varied in composition from war to war as opportunity arose), which changed over time, was examined, as was the effect of firepower, particularly disciplined volleys. An example was the Battle of Grahamstown in 1819, where a small number of regular troops were able to withstand an assault by a much larger body of amaNdlambe armed mainly with assegais. The effectiveness of assegaais versus guns was examined and the use and ‘non-use’ of bayonets referred to.

The India Pattern 39” 3rd Model Brown Bess flint lock muzzle loader as used in the Eastern Cape, was the standard service weapon for the British Line Regiments from the mid-18th century to 1838 and beyond – for some regiments as late as 1853. Demonstrating with examples, various models of this musket were then dealt with, as were its accuracy, reliability and some of the technical aspects. There was relatively little change in the basic components between its introduction and finally being taken out of service.

[The ‘India Pattern’39 inch Brown Bess Musket (3rd Model) - currently unable to display photograph]

Rod then moved on to demonstrate and discuss the operation and merits of some of the percussion muskets such as the 1839 and 1842 Patterns as well as the innovation of rifling. The 1851 percussion rifled-musket (the Minié Rifle) was the first percussion rifle issued to the entire line infantry and to the Rifle Brigade. Used in the 8th Frontier War, production nevertheless ceased in 1855 and it was replaced by the Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-musket. After 1867 many Enfield 1853s were converted to, and replaced in service by, the cartridge-loaded Snider-Enfield rifle. In this context, the pros and cons of muzzle-loaders was discussed, the advantages of the breech-loader being that loading was quicker, the powder charge was factory measured, and it could be loaded while prone.

The Enfield 1853 was followed by the 21” cavalry carbine, the 24” artillery carbine, and the 1865 Snider, which had a higher level of accuracy. It was one of these guns which mortally wounded Sandile in 1878. The lecture concluded with a brief discussion of the 1871 Martini-Henry which replaced the Snider, the Baker rifles used in the early part of the 19th century and the CMR double-barrelled carbine. This latter firearm was developed specifically for South African conditions and used by the Cape Mounted Riflemen. It had two short 26” barrels which enhanced handling but reduced accuracy. One of the barrels had a smooth bore for buckshot while the other was rifled for ball.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstigebyeenkomsenuitstappe

The next meeting will be at 19h30 on 8th June at the EP Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. Both the curtain raiser and the main lecture will be presented by Franco Cilliers. The former will be on Nuclear Weapons Design and the main lecture on South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Programme.

Regarding the August field trip to Bethulie and surrounds,Malcolm Kinghorn’s warning order of 24th March, refers. Developments since then are:

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang


SAMHSEC wishes to express its condolences to fellow life member, Taffy Shearing, on the recent passing of her husband David, a highly respected, well-loved son of the Karoo.

Individual members’ activities / Individuelelede se aktiwiteite

On their way to and from Kruger Park, Pat and Anne Irwin visited the Anglo-Boer War battlefield at Yeomanry Hills near Lindley in the Free State accompanied by local historian, Kota Botha. They also visited the battlefield and museum at Vegkop where the Voortrekkers clashed with the amaNdebele in 1836. Both sites are worth a visit. Pat also had a superb personal tour of some military historical sites in Mpumulangawith fellow Military History Society member Marion Moir of Lydenburg. These included the battlefield at Bergendal, the skirmish sites at Suikerboskop and Ouhoutbossie, and their adjacent cemeteries (near Dullstroom), as well as the cemetery and historic buildings in Belfast.

A number of small fortifications in the area were also examined as was the Witkop Blockhouse south of Johannesburg. This is the last remaining blockhouse of the line which stretched from Germiston (Elandsfontein) to Vereeniging. Although declared a national monument in 1948, it has been completely vandalized and is in an appalling state. Sadly, it is probably only a matter of time before it is reduced to a heap of stones.

From Pathfinder to Ox-Box

The following information was received from the SAAF Museum in Port Elizabeth:
Due to improvements, restructuring and the need to add value to our visitors and readers, Pathfinder, the magazine of the South African Air Force Museum in Port Elizabeth magazine has been replaced by The OX-BOX. The OX-BOX derives its name from the first vintage aircraft to be showcased at the museum - the Airspeed Oxford. From now on the OX-BOX will reflect more PE SAAF Museum and local aviation content and information, which will benefit visitors, aviation historians and aircraft enthusiast more than has been the case. Although ‘outside’ news will also be included, the emphasis will be on showcasing local content so that visitors from all parts of the world will be more informed of what is happening here - this will assist them in obtaining accurate, up to date information which will assist them to select Port Elizabeth as a stop-over on their travel calendar. OX-BOX welcomes local news and views as well as aviation news from around the world and invite you wherever you are, to make contributions to the editor, Don Bell

World War I Centenary Year / Eerste Wêreldoorlog Eeufeesjaar

German South West Africa in June 1915

By the middle of June, the ever energetic Louis Botha, after a period of rest and consolidation for his forces, was ready to resume the offensive. The railway lines between Swakopmund and Keetmanshoop to Windhuk had been repaired and the line between Upington and Kalkfontein connected, thus enabling Botha to receive more regular supplies than had hitherto been the case. Supply of water however remained a constant problem both for the troops and the animals. In this respect the German troops were better prepared with regular wells. Botha’s advance to the north began on 18th June, exactly 100 years to the day after the Battle of Waterloo. By 24th June the South Africans using Bothas’s favourite outflanking manoeuvres, honed during the Anglo-Boer War, were already at Kalkfeld, the commandos under Coen Brits and Manie Botha having moved particularly rapidly. Consequently the Germans had been forced to retreat much faster than either they or the South Africans had envisaged. By 1st July Colonel Victor Franke, the German commander, had withdrawn to a point only 10km south of Otavi where the railway line branches to Tsumeb and Grootfontein.

Major engagements in June 1915

RMS Lusitania exhibition opened at Merseyside Maritime Museum

Following the November presentation to SAMHSEC on ‘The sinking of the Lusitania’ (Newsletter 123), the following item, which has been extracted and edited from the Daily Collection Of Maritime Press Clippings 2015 – 090, may be of interest.

A letter written by Lusitania First Class waiter Fred Russell to his brother, Harry, describing his experiences during the ship’s tragic sinking, is one of the poignant items on display for the first time in the Merseyside Maritime Museum’s exhibition Lusitania: life, loss, legacy. The exhibition is in Liverpool, as the city prepares to commemorate the centenary of the Lusitania’s sinking on 7th May 1915.The sea-faring brothers, Fred and Harry, were both from Liverpool. Harry took one of the last known photographs of the Lusitania as she departed New York on her final voyage to Liverpool from aboard the Caronia, where he was a chef. He took the picture of his brother Fred’s departing ship, unaware that he would never see the Lusitania again. Harry’s image of the Lusitania will also feature in the exhibition. As many as 600 people aboard the ship had connections with Liverpool and the Cunard linewas headquartered in the city. The Cunard luxury liner was torpedoed, followed by an internal explosion, with the loss of 1191 lives in circumstances which have not yet been fully disclosed. Only 771 people survived. Sheila Williams, great niece of Fred, and Harry’s granddaughter, said: “It’s absolutely wonderful to see history coming to life… I was only seven when Fred died and the fact he had survived the sinking and had this experience was never talked about then. Later in my life, I became absolutely fascinated by it all.”

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

World War I

German soldiers preserved in World War I shelter discovered after nearly 100 years
The Telegraph 22nd May 2015

Gallipoli Commemoration and the Armenian Genocide
Mark Porter & Ana Pouvreau Newsweek 24th April 2015

World leaders join Gallipoli commemoration in Turkey
Aljazeera 3rd December 2014

World War One Through Arab Eyes
Aljazeera 3rd December 2014

World War II

Dunkirk 'little ships' set sail for 75th anniversary
The Telegraph 22nd May 2015

Skeletons of the past: Helping Europe's War Dead Find a Final Resting Place
Alexander Smoltczyk Spiegel Online International 7th May 2015

Interesting images of a war dump in the Pacific Ocean
War History Online 23rd May 2015

Record dive rescues $50m wartime silver from ocean floor
BBC News 15th April 2015

Vietnam War

End of the Vietnam War, 30th April 1975

Aviation history

VE Day: 92-year-old Second World War veteran flies Spitfire for first time in 70 years
Heather Saul The Independent 8th May 2015 70-years-10235907.html

A legend flies again 75 years after it was shot down in France
Sam Tonkin Mail Online 28th April 2015

World’s last flying Vulcan bomber is to be grounded over safety fears
Larissa Brown Mail Online 15th May 2015

Past Newsletters have carried information on the dilemmas facing the F-22 Raptor. This is the latest.
Why it's sad that the F-22 just fired its first guided AIM-9X Sidewinder
Tyler Rogoway Foxtrot Alpha16th May 2015

Something different

Russia's new T-14 Armata tank breaks down during Victory Day Parade rehearsal in Moscow
Christopher Harress International Business Times 7th May 2015

How the Israel Air Force thwarted an alien invasion
Israeli Defense Forces: News and Analysis 1st April 2015

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang

* The entire archive of British Pathé, producer of newsreels, cine-magazines, and documentaries from 1910 onwards, in the United Kingdom, has recently been released on You Tube. Amongst general history of the 20th century, it contains much of military historical interest. See:

* The Google Cultural Institute has made available a large amount of archival material on the two world wars as well as on general history. It is very easy to use. Starting on the First World War, click on the chevron to get the drop-down menu of other fields covered.
The Google Cultural Institute’s home page is also a useful source of military information:

* The Russian-German project to digitize German documents in the archives of the Russian Federation is another very useful archival source for those interested in the conflicts between Germany and Russia/the Soviet Union, in both world wars.

* The Quarterly Management Report of the South African Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission -- 01 November 2014 to 01 March 2015, is available. Anyone who would like a copy forwarded can contact Pat Irwin at:

* Wel en Wee van die Militêre Veterane waaraan ons voorheen aandag getrek het is nou ’n weeklike nuusblad. Om die nuutsteWelen Weeuitgawete lees klik by

* Resource on German Communication Troops in the First World War
For those interested in the role and functions of German communication troops (signalmen telephone and telegraph operators, runners and others) during the First World War, a very good article can be found at
It is a total of about 12 pages and contains some excellent contemporary photographs, such as the example below which illustrates a telephone post in a front line bunker.

[Unable to display photograph]

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, Peter Duffel-Canham, Jonathan Ossher, Yoland Irwin and Michael Irwin.

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



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A view of part of the Somme Battlefield today showing trenches and shell craters. The Battle of the Somme was fought between 1st July and 18th November 1916. Over a million men were wounded or killed in this period.

South African Military History Society /