South African Military History Society

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The Chairman, Malcolm King, opened the meeting with the notices as usual. He said that there would be further notice about a trip to the Boer and Brit Day at Val on 14 May this year and that David Scholtz had kindly offered to sponsor the bus.

The publication of the monograph about the Anglo-Boer War by the Russian author which was detailed in last month's newsletter will now be limited to 100 copies at R50 each. Availability will be confirmed once printed.

The schedule for the WWI commemorative movies will be issued at next month's meeting.

The curtain-raiser lecture was given by Hamish Paterson who most kindly stood in as Marjorie Dean was ill. Hamish is a firm favourite at the Society for both his talks and his guided tours of exhibits at the Ditsong Military History Museum. He holds an MA from the University of Natal and has spent 29 years at the museum. His talk Fine Feathers: Full-dress Uniforms from Rome to Victoria was lavishly illustrated and he drew a parallel with the ladies' fashions of each era. He began by showing an Imperial Roman legionary in his leather armour and helmet with plumes plus pictures of what his wife would be wearing. He went on to show the Byzantine fashions when official dress became very plain, by contrast with the Imperial family who wore very gorgeous and colourful clothes. Then came the medieval period with closed helmets; knights in surcoats over their armour; horses with very decorative saddlery and cloths; shields showing coats of arms for recognition; this was illustrated by a view of a section of the Bayeux Tapestry. This was a period when you went to war in your best clothes if you were a leader, in order to impress.

Hamish also explained that the striped uniforms of the Pope's Swiss Guard came about from them having to patch up their uniforms - they would buy a bolt of cloth and all of them would use pieces for patching their uniforms but when they needed to do more repairs at a later date they would end up with a different colour cloth hence the gaudy multi-coloured effect.

Uniform as we know it began to appear during the Thirty Years War 1618-1648 under the influence of that acclaimed general, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. As this war was between Catholics and Protestants/Lutherans, the latter tended to wear darker and plainer clothes in keeping with their religious beliefs. This was also a time of economy as the powers involved found it difficult to pay their troops and mercenaries who had to survive on their loot so fancy and expensive clothes were out. During the English Civil War 1642-1651 uniforms began to appear more, with the New Model Army in their plain red coats (red dye was the cheapest at the time) whilst Cavalier officers tended to wear large lace collars and plumed hats. The women of each side reflected the quality and style of the uniforms with the famous Royalist ladies like Lady Castlemaine sumptuously dressed whilst the Puritan ladies preferred darker colours with neater plainer collars.

During the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War uniforms tended to become plainer and "Twelve Apostles" cartridge belts began to appear. Glamour definitely took a break during the American War of Independence when lace and braid began to disappear from uniforms. However, glamour definitely returned as uniforms became more elaborate in the period from the Napoleonic to the Crimean War although the practice of officers powdering their hair or wearing powdered wigs fell away as the taxes on hair powder soared.

The South African and Indian Wars saw the move to service and field dress with impressive uniforms for Consuls and Vice-Roys. This was the time when the crossed straps of the military packs began to result in medical problems which was mirrored in the damage caused by the whale-bone corsets amongst ladies of high fashion. Before WWI full dress became ceremonial and social but altogether less physically damaging whilst the ladies abandoned corsets and adopted the flowing softer lines of the tea-gown. Hamish also showed uniforms for bands and guards but he really provided a great 'first half closer' when he produced a picture of a maternity uniform for a female member of the American Navy and everyone roared with laughter. He had definitely covered all contingencies!

The main speaker of the evening was Kevin Garcia who has spoken to us before. He was educated in both South Africa and the USA and at present teaches history at the Michael Mount Waldorf School in Bryanston. He had amended the advertised title of his talk to Can History Save the World? He talked of the influence of Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August (Pulitzer Prize 1962) which dealt with how Europe slid into WWI, on President John F Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis.

Firstly, he laid in the background to the crisis. Cuba is only 100 km from the Florida coast of the USA. The two countries had been closely involved since 1902 - Roosevelt's early army career there. But by 1959, Castro and his brother had come to power and were installing communism. President Eisenhower saw this as a threat and planned to overthrow Castro. Preparations went ahead with the CIA aiming to launch a guerilla-type campaign, manned by Cuban exiles, from the mountains. They would land on a beachhead near what is now Guantanamo Bay. Unfortunately, the fact that the area between the bay where they landed and the mountains was very difficult marshy terrain was not sufficiently considered, plus the invaders were insufficiently supplied so the attempt resulted in the notorious Bay of Pigs fiasco in April, 1961 - just at the start of the Kennedy administration. The whole business actually consolidated Castro's position as Cubans were outraged at what they saw as a US invasion.

As a result, the USSR exploited the situation to help Cuba to build up its defences by installing ballistic weapons. This served their purpose in that they were able to quieten the Chinese who had become critical of the Russians and they were able to even the balance between themselves and the US as they would be within easy range to attack it. The US began photo-reconnaissance over Cuba by U2s flying at 25 000ft. The cameras used were very high resolution so the CIA could pick up minute details on the ground. The CIA men developed a skill which they called crateology so that they could tell exactly what was in a crate on the deck of a ship going into Cuba. The Cubans stoutly maintained that they were only receiving defensive missiles - but to defend what? The USA was now dramatically threatened as the missiles would only take 5 minutes from launch to hitting Washington and there was both reconnaissance and human intelligence to confirm that the missiles were indeed nuclear.

President Kennedy now headed an executive committee where the majority wanted to bomb the Cuban missile sites. There was also a concern that USSR would use the opportunity to grab the whole of Berlin which was still divided at that time. By now USA was on DEFCON 2 - the highest US military alert short of war - this meant their bombers were loaded and either on the runways with engines running or in the air so as not to be caught in a Pearl Harbour situation. During this time there were some hysterical incidents such as the bear which climbed up the fence of a military base causing the high alert alarms to go off in four bases and the war scramble alarm in a fifth. Fortunately, some quick thinking averted a total crisis.

President Kennedy then backed off from the bombing option and wanted a removal of the missiles to be forced by a naval blockade/quarantine of Cuba. The USSR called this piracy but agreed to remove the missiles. In exchange, the Americans secretly agreed to remove their missiles based in Turkey and had to commit not to invade Cuba.

The book that seriously influenced Kennedy was The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. She described how all those concerned had slid into WWI when it could have been avoided. Afterwards, the protagonists could not really say how the situation had come about. From this book Kennedy learned to evaluate the advice of experts like his Chiefs of Staff (all keen to go to war) as he would any other advice offered and not take it as graven in stone. He learnt not to be desperate to "get the jump" on the enemy. He knew to keep options open, where war was not the first choice. He used the navy to cut off Russian supplies to Cuba so as to deprive them of the means of going to war. He kept asking for information and re-evaluations of the situation so that he would not make any miscalculations about what the enemy would do as had happened in WWI. He also knew that he must not cling to and use outmoded plans like the Germans did with the Schlieffen Plan before WWI. Lastly, he learned that the other side must go away with something so that they did not feel humiliated.

At the end of this talk there was such a spirited question and answer session that the Chairman had to cut it short so that the museum staff could lock up on time.

Pat Henning

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The December Journal has been posted to all members who were paid up at the end of 2015. If your Journal has not arrived by 15 February please let Joan know at the letterhead address.

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Invoices have been sent to all current members and about one third have already renewed. Members aged over 80 may apply for a discount - contact

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Society's Bank Account

Account is at FNB, Eastgate branch, code 257705, name SA Military History Society, number 50391928346

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KZN in Durban:

Cape Town:

SAMHSEC in Port Elizabeth:

CR = curtain raiser; ML = main lecture; DDH = Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture;

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For Cape Town details contact Johan van den Berg 021-939-7923
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676
For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828

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