South African Military History 


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 133

October /Oktober 2015

SAMHSEC’S monthly meeting took place in Port Elizabeth on 14th September. The evening started with a small braai to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the East Cape Branch. Thanks go to Ian Pringle, Stephen Bowker and Dennis Hibberd for organising this.

The member’s slot was taken by Ian Copley who briefly outlined the structure and modus operandi of the Roman army. Among the aspects touched upon were camp design and fortification, daily routine, battlefield organisation and the accoutrements of the Roman soldier.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, the programme and speakers had to be changed from that advertised. The curtain raiser was presented by Pat Irwin on the Battle at Holkrantz on 6th May 1902, shortly before the end of the Anglo-Boer War. He began by showing a few slides of monuments of the battle and the battlefield, noting the remoteness of the site. The event is commonly referred to as a ‘murder’, but might more accurately be described as a major skirmish, the essence of the engagement being a pre-dawn surprise attack on 76 Boers of the Vryheid Commando under Veldkornet Jan Potgieter by 300 warriors of the abaQulusi clan of the amaZulu under Sikhobobo. 56 Boers were killed, three taken prisoner and 17 escaped. AbaQulusi losses were 52 killed and 48 wounded.

In most of the general histories of the Anglo-Boer War, the incident at Holkrantz receives little or no mention other than to state that it influenced Boer thinking in the peace negotiations under way in Vereenigingat the time. It appears to have influenced some delegates, but the overall impact is not clear. It did, however, have a major impact on the Boer farming communities in the Utrecht-Vryheid districts of the Transvaal, where it is still to this day regarded as cold-blooded murder.

To the extent that the incident is covered in the history books, Pakenham’s two paragraphs being an example, it more often than not reflects the British or Jingoist view that the Boers had stolen abaQulusi cattle, insulted their chief, Sikhobobo (there are several different variations of these purported insults) and challenged the abaQulusi to come and get their cattle back. They, it is claimed, responded with alacrity and in some accounts the Boers were seen to be getting their just deserts. The most thorough and well documented examination of the incident is by SJ Maphalala in an article entitled ‘The Murder at Holkrantz’ in the journal Historia. After careful analysis of the data and historical records, he concludes that blame for the incident lay largely with the British.

The crux of Maphalala’s argument is that not only were the abaQulusi under chief Sikhobobo part of the combined British force, but that they had been encouraged to attack and arrest the Boers and take their cattle even though an armistice was in force. They were also armed by the British – part of the chain of events which led to the Holkrantzincident. After partially accomplishing these tasks, Sikhobobo and his men could not return to their kraals for fear of Boer reprisals and were protected in Vryheid by the British army, during which period they continued to raid farms and attack and kill isolated groups of Boers. Chief Sikhobobo and his men became known as ‘Mr Shepstone’s Commando’ due to being aided and abetted by A.J. Shepstone, the Magistrate of Vryheid. General Louis Botha then instructed that Sikhobobo’s kraals were to be burnt with a view to placing the burden of responsibility and care for the wives and children of the abaQulusi on the British and because some of the women were suspected of providing the British with information on Boer movements. Maphalala emphasises that the Boers allowed the women to take enough food with them to reach the British lines 15km away before burning the kraals. Homes in which there were sick or infirm individuals were not burnt and on occasion the Boers accompanied the women to Vryheid to ensure their safety. All Sikhobobo’s cattle were also confiscated.

On 5th May Shepstone, having ascertained from spies the position of the Boers at Holkrantz, ordered Sikhobobo to attack them. This they did at 04h00 on 6th May, employing the traditional three-pronged amaZulu battle formation. The Boer commandos did not expect an attack from the British as an armistice was in force and so were caught almost completely unawares. After the incident, a British commission of enquiry was convened and, after ignoring most of the crucial facts – not surprising given the sentiments of the time – concluded that the Boers had been killed because they had been ill-treating the amaZulu and thus brought reprisals upon themselves.

In conclusion, Maphalala notes that the attack was on the instructions of Magistrate Shepstone; that the British army should have prevented the attack; and that relationships between the amaZulu and the Boers had been good prior to British interference. He makes no mention of any insults. The Boers themselves refuted any ill treatment or attacks on their women by the amaZulu while the men were away on commando. He concludes that the abaQulusi were merely carrying out British orders at Holkrantz. The main lecture by Malcolm Kinghorn focused on the Legal considerations of counter terrorism. With an increasing threat of terrorism in many parts of the world, whether terrorism is war or crime needs to be considered. If regarded as war,the primary resources are military and actions need to comply with the Law of Armed Conflict. If regarded as crime, the primary resources are police and actions are to comply with Criminal Law.

Terrorism is like war in that it has a political purpose, has similar magnitude of harm potential and terrorists see themselves as being at war. Terrorism is like crime in that non-state parties are involved, violence is directed against the civil population and terrorist activities violate criminal law.

Characteristics of the war paradigm are that operations may take place either in or outside one's own country, the use of force is implicit and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) applies. Relevant aspects of IHL include that a distinction is to be made between military and civilian targets, unnecessary suffering is to be avoided, necessity, and proportionality. Detention of prisoners without evidence of a crime is permissible under IHL,on condition that detainees are enemy belligerents, are treated humanely and are repatriated on cessation of hostilities.

Problems with using the war paradigm to counter terrorism include that itraises the prestige of terrorists and ratifies their war narrative; itlegitimises the use of violence; it is often unclear when the war ends;terrorists are located in countries which are not at war; militaryinterventions abroad are often contentious; and it makes the home front a battlefield.

Characteristics of the crime paradigm are that operations may only take place inside one's own country; another country's permission is required to operate externally; the use of lethal force is highly restricted; detention is only permitted with probable cause of criminal activity; incarceration is permitted only after due process; and defendants have constitutional rights.

Problems with the use of the crime paradigm for counter terrorism include that military resources are often required; terrorists are often located in remote areas; the criminal justice system is cumbersome; and admissible evidence hard to obtain.

Counter terrorism operations entail the prevention of transnational terrorist attacks; prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction for purposes of compulsion rather than deterrence; and protection against depredation and destruction. Progress in any one of the three aspects composing counter terrorism often increases the challenges faced in the others.

The conclusion is that counter terrorism needs a hybrid of the war and crime paradigms.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstigebyeenkomsenuitstappe

The next meeting will be at 19h30 on Monday 12th October at the Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be presented by Andre Crozier on Castiglione dei Pepoli and the main lecture by Stephen Bowker on the topic Old Andreans in The First World War: Nugent Fitzpatrick.

Frontier Wars Field Trip

The date for this has now been finalised for the weekend of 23rd to 25th October. Those still interested in attending are invited to contact Malcolm Kinghorn at

2016 Field Trips

Members are invited to share their thoughts on possible field trips for next year. One suggestion so far, from Ian Pringle, is: Dordrecht – Smuts coming down the mountain, a slippery slope, near Penhoek Pass Way. On the return perhaps calling in at Modderfontein near Tarkastad where Smuts’ commando engaged the 17th Lancers. This is supported by Dennis Hibberd, who also suggested Boma Pass/Fort Wiltshire as a possibility. Any further suggestions or comments are welcome.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemenebelang

Individual members’ activities / Individuelelede se aktiwiteite

On a recent trip through the Free State, Fred and Brenda Nel visited the Vegkop battlefield near Heilbron and the site of the Battle of Yeomanry Hills near Lindley. They also stopped at the Sandstone Estate near Ficksburg, which they recommend to members of the Society. See visitor information on the Sandstone Estate under Resource materials of military historical interest below.

Protecting our heritage: defacing and desecration of historical monuments

Following the recent Heritage Colloquium held in Port Elizabeth, Don Bell of the Port Elizabeth SAAF Museum has produced a valuable synopsis of it in the SAAF Museum’s Ox-Box Magazine of 5th September 2015. This is, with permission, reproduced in full as an addendum to this Newsletter.

  There are several anniversaries this September:

Op 13 September was die veertigste herdenking van Operasie Savannah by die SAW Muur van Herinnering op die Voortrekker Monument Erfenisterrein herdenk.

The 11th September was the 65th anniversary of the death of General Jan Smuts, soldier, prime minister of South Africa, international statesman, lawmaker, internationally acclaimed philosopher and botanist of note, to name but a few of his achievements.

The 15th September was Battle of BritainDay commemorating ‘the few to whom so many owed so much’. On that day in 1940, 176 enemy aircraft were destroyed by British fighter planes, mainly Hurricanes and Spitfires. At least another nine aircraft were hit by anti-aircraft guns. British casualties were relatively light: only 25 aircraft were lost with 13 pilots killed or missing. It was the turning point in the Battle of Britain.

Louw Wepener

Following last month’s field trip, Fleur Way-Jones has written the following report on the commemoration on 15th August 2015 of the death of Commandant LouwWepener on 15thAugust 1865:

The remains of Commandant LouwWepener (1812-1865) and his comrade, Adam Raubenheimer (1840-1865), are buried in a ridged granite memorial on a hill on Constantia, Wepener’s farm at the time of his death. The bronze bust of Wepener by Coert Steinberg on the memorial depicts a man gazing toward the mountains of Lesotho. When looking at the frieze at the back of the memorial, one can imagine the burghers’ ascent up the cliff faces of Thaba Bosiu and how Wepener and his comrades became easy targets for the Basuto defenders. The memorial was erected around the time of the Voortrekker centenary celebrations in 1938.

Wepener’s remains and the remains of two others were retrieved from Thaba Bosiu by his son, Dick Wepener and kept in the cellar of the farm Goede Hoop before being buried on Constantia.

The commemoration ceremony at the memorial was introduced by Pieter Joubert, current owner of Constantia. Tony Hocking related the story of Wepener, who grew up in Graaff Reinet. President Brand had divided the Free State into three districts, North, South and West. Wepener was elected as the Chief Commandant of the Southern District with the Bethulie, Smithfield, Philippolis, Fauresmith and Jacobsdal Commandos under his command. In August 1865, the combined Free State forces besieged the Basotho under Moshweshwe on Thabo Bosiu. Wepener was killed while leading an assault on the northern face of the mountain.

The ceremony concluded with the laying of a number of wreaths, including one on behalf of the SA Military History Society. It was followed by a dinner at the Royal Hotel in Bethulie. The dining room had been General Knox’s operations room during the Anglo-Boer War.

Lusitania centenary marked at UK Merchant Navy Day commemoration

The sinking of the Lusitania during the First World War was remembered at the annual Merchant Navy Day service in London on 6th September. The commemoration took place at the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill, London. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the original monument was opened by Queen Mary in 1928 in tribute to 12 000 First World War merchant seafarers who have no known grave but the sea. That same year, King George V decreed that Britain's mercantile marine should be known as the Merchant Navy in recognition of its sacrifice during the Great War. A later extension commemorates almost 24 000 casualties of the Second World War. The annual remembrance service, organised by the Merchant Navy Association, includes a different first-hand account each year of an action involving a ship and its crew named on the walls of the memorial. The 2015 reading was about the loss of the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Irish coast on 7th May 1915 with the loss of 1 200 lives. Representatives of Commonwealth countries, the Royal Navy and seafaring charities take part in the service. A 'Sea of Remembrance', formed of miniature Red Ensigns (the flag of the Merchant Navy), is planted by the Sailors' Society. Merchant Navy Day is marked in Britain on 3rd September each year, the anniversary of the start of the Second World War. The sinking of the Lusitania remains controversial to this day as, despite government denials,overwhelming evidence is that, against international law, she was carrying a substantial cargo of munitions of war. (See SAMHSEC Newsletter124.)

Sourced at: Daily Collection of Maritime Press Clippings 2015 – 239 .. 26th August 2015.

World War I Centenary Years / Eerste Wêreldoorlog Eeufeesjare

Over the next few months we look at the trench systems on the western front

After the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, roughly a month after the war began, the Germans were pushed back to the River Aisne in northern France.  The German High Command, in assessing the situation and not wanting to lose the territory that Germany had gained in France and Belgium, ordered the army to dig trenches to defend themselves against French and British troops.  These provided some protection from artillery shells and machine guns and gave soldiers a major advantage when warding off frontal assaults.  Realizing that they could not break through the German trench system, the British and French soon began digging their own. Over the next few months the armies tried to outflank each other, continuously adding to their trenches. This resulted in two parallel trench lines running from the English Channel to the border of Switzerland.  If all of the trenches constructed during the First World War were laid end to end, it is estimated they would cover some 40 000 km.

with acknowledgement to "Trench construction in World War 1" at

Major engagements in October 1915

The Battle of Loos (or 3rd Artois) on the Western Front,which started on 25th September, ended inconclusively on 8th October. (See SAMHSEC Newsletter 132).

The Third Battle of the Isonzo, on the Austro-Italian Front, was initiated by the Italians on 18th October, 10 weeks after the end of the Second Battle of the Isonzo (see SAMHSEC Newsletter 130).The Italians had sought a major breakthrough with enhanced artillery capacity in support of a massed infantry frontal attack, but spread their attack too thinly. Like the two earlier battles, it lasted only two weeks before being once again, called off as a costly failure, with the Austro-Hungarians remaining in command of the high ground.

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang


Australian 'Great Escape' survivor dies, aged 101
Anon BBC News 28th August 2015

Mediaeval history

Intact Ottoman 'war camel' found in Austrian cellar
Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News 2nd April 2015 World War I

The Story of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion and the Wereth 11
CJ Kelly War History Online 20th December 2014

The Real “No-Go Zone” of France: A forbidden no-man’s-land poisoned by war
MessyNessy Blog 26th May, 2015

A WW I steam convoy

World War II

Dug up on a WWII battlefield
War History Online 7th May 2015

How 'Kilroy was here' changed the world
Heather Whipps   Live Science 15th September 2008

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

Poland radar image 'almost certainly Nazi train'
BBC News 28th August 2015

Authorities confirm a military train has been found in Polish mountains
Lauren McMah 27th August 2015

Royal Mint creates 50p Battle of Britain coin
Eastbourne Herald 15th September 2015

Historic cannon in South Africa

Lion Battery: The Russians and the Noon Gun
Ron Viney The Heritage Portal 10th June 2014

Captain's tower was site of old battery
Anon The Heritage Portal 26th January 2015

Historic aircraft

Horrific WW II statistics and photographs
Steve McGregor, Spitfire Association

The ‘Bone Yard’ near Davis Monthan Air Force Base\

The times, they are a changing

Navy SEALs set to open to women, top admiral says
Navy Times David Larter and Meghann Myers 19 th August 2015

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang

* The British resource Forces War Records has released the following information to mark Battle of Britain Day on 15th September:
Hitler's Black Book - List of Persons Wanted (2813 names),296W,15FU26,6FLH,1

* WW1 East Africa Study Pack Designed primarily for senior school pupils, this pack contains a wealth of information on the South African role in East Africa in 1915/16. It is produced by ‘The Great War in Africa Association’, and one of its main contributors is Anne Samson, a South African military historian who has written a number of articles on South African involvement in the First World War. The pack can be accessed at:

* For those individuals who, for one reason or another, are fortunate enough to find themselves in the eastern Free State, a visit to Sandstone Estate near Ficksburg may be very a worthwhile experience. Apart from operating steam trains, agricultural equipment and a host of other fascinating historical artefacts, there is a substantial collection of Military equipment. For further information start with: of direct military interest is:

* For the literary or linguistically inclined, the following item on ‘War slang’ will be of considerable interest:

* The Newsletters of the Royal Air Force Officers’ Club, Johannesburg, are a rich source of insights and information. The August 2015 newsletter is of particular interest.

* Tony Westby-Nunn has reprinted Colin Coetzee’s classic Forts of the Eastern Cape. For further information visit the website: or contact him by phone at 083 4444 662

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,Fred and Brenda Nel, Michael Irwin, Dennis Hibberd,Ian Pringle, Malcolm Hacksley and George Curror.

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


The US Navy Battle Group ‘Echo’ in the Arabian Sea in 1987. In the centre column from left to right are the battleship, USS Missouri (upon which the Japanese surrender was taken in September 1945), the fleet carrier USS Ranger (the setting for the film Top Gun which defined public perception of the US Navy) and the nuclear guided missile cruiser, USS Long Beach. The rest of the group is made up of eight cruisers, destroyers and frigates, and four auxiliary and replenishment vessels. All told, there is close to half of a century of naval technology on display in this photo. Source: Tyler Rogoway Foxtrot Alpha .. 12th September 2015.

Addendum relating to the Port Elizabeth Heritage Colloquium – Don Bell, SAAF Museum Port Elizabeth

The recent meaningless defacing and damaging of historic monuments raised many questions about the effectiveness of heritage legislation and the policing thereof. With these goings on it was veryenlightening to see how the various voluntary bodies have raised their voices against this sudden cancerous disease which threatened to become an epidemic of wholesale proportions. One of these organizations was the Mandela Bay Heritage Trust, which recently held a ‘Heritage Colloquium’conference in Port Elizabeth where Dr Bernadine Benson, Dept. of Police Practice - UNISA and James Ball of the Heritage Portal were keynote speakers.

  Two main reasons for the conference were to inform delegates on the legislation which protects our heritage (Dr Benson) and the web site portal (James Ball) where opportunities to inform and educate on many aspects of heritage in our diverse country can be listed. After each presentation, a panel debate took place where questions from the audience were debated. These included matters regarding degradation of built heritage, defining culture and heritage, respect for different culture’s heritage, the value of heritage tourism to SA, heritage education and proper management of heritage resources.

  Dr Benson reminded delegates that it is not widely known by the majority of the general public, that SA is a member state of the following international heritage conventions:

These legally tie us into best practices worldwide and in addition, SA is considering subscribing to the following conventions: Dr Benson stated that Section 30 of the Constitution enshrines the right to culture and as a result of Section 30 as well as the White Paper on Arts and Culture, it was necessary to develop legislation in order to create institutions that would ensure that the constitutional mandate of the DAC is achieved. The National Heritage Resources Act was developed to achieve this.

   As a delegate representing the PE SAAF Museum, it was heartening to compare the progress of measures that the SANDF has instituted to protect and manage military heritage assets as their part of embracing the NHRA.

Our Museum has been comprehensibly audited with every item identified, recorded (including photographic recording) and valued in an asset register. Teams have been trained in heritage management. There are now strict protocols for moving heritage items between museums etc.  The PE SAAF Museum falls under the SANDF’s Collections and Museums category, sub-section‘ServiceMuseum.’ 

  Another point raised at the conference was how to maintain an unoccupied heritage building that is deteriorating. Examples of overseas success stories prove that to retain its heritage significance, utilization of the building need not be the same now as what defined its past. Old buildings need to be maintained and upgraded or restored, this takes money. Our authorities profess to have none so my take on it is why not lease or rent the old structures to caring heritage-oriented businesses, who will invest in the restoration and look after them proudly? Local municipalities must be lobbied to adopt this strategy now before it is too late.

  One building that falls into the above category is our PE SAAF Museum’s Parachute Loft Building. This building is an asset to the old 42 Air School site, the Museum, our country and the world. It needs to be urgently restored and put to good use - and also bring in much needed income for the Museum. Perhaps a heritage-concerned organisation or corporate business could restore it and adapt it to be of use? Heritage tourism in Europe, Egypt and Eastern states bring in staggering amounts of income to those countries. We are lagging behind through not protecting and managing our heritage assets optimally. We have the best legislation in the world - but where is the political will to execute the plan?

Thank you to the Mandela Bay Heritage Trust, Dr Benson and James Ball for photos and documentation.The presentations by Dr Bernadine Benson and Mr James Ball can be viewed on this link on the Heritage Portal website


South African Military History Society /