SAMHSEC’s most recent meeting took place on Saturday 12th November. It was preceded by a morning tour of some of the military historical sites in Port Elizabeth. The first was the Cenotaph outside King George VI Art Gallery, where Malcolm Kinghorn elaborated on its history and significance.Next was the nearby site of the South African Heavy Artillery Memorial, where Pat Irwin spoke about the 6-inch Howitzer which used to stand on the spot, and the attempts to refurbish it. This was followed by a visit to the well-known ‘Horse Memorial’, where Richard Tomlinson outlined the history of the monument and the role which horses, mules, donkeys and oxen had played during the Anglo-Boer War.The final stop was at Grey High School War Memorial. Ian Pringle spoke about the school’s association with the two World Wars, the roles which some of its past pupils had played, and the ways in which those who fell are commemorated.
This was followed by a delicious potjie lunch organised by Donna Cilliers and prepared by Francois and Sandra Cilliers to whom go SAMHSEC’s sincere appreciation. The monthly meeting followed at 14h00.The first item was a short presentation by David Roberts, who displayed his copy of The Times of London of 7th November 1805, which contained the first detailed report of the Battle of Trafalgar which had taken place on 21st October. The news of the great victory and the death of Nelson had, however, taken 16 days to reach London. David read several extracts, including Admiral Collinwood’s despatches, and there was time for members to examine the newspaper.
The members’ slot was taken by Lynne Crozier on the subject of Constance Stuart Larabee, the first South African female war photographer, who was sent to Europe in 1944 to cover the operations of the South African forces in Italy. Lynne described her background, training, and her photographic style as well as her life before and after the war. Sheoutlined the route followed by Larabee following the invasion of southern France and then returning to Italy and to Castiglione deiPepoli. By showing photographs and reading extracts from her diary, Lynne conveyed to the meeting the experiences of Constance and the arduous conditions for the troops stationed high in the snow bound mountains during the winter of 1944.
The curtain raiser was presented by Andre Crozier on Castiglione dei Pepoli. It took the form of a slide presentation based on a visit by him and Lynne during 2015. This small town, situated in Apennines just off the main auto route between Florence and Bologna, is the main South African Military Cemetery in Italy with over 400 South Africans buried there. The cemetery is perhaps one of the most picturesque of all the Commonwealth cemeteries with an unspoiled view up the valley towards Monte Sole in the distance.
The South African Military cemetery at Castiglione dei Pepoli
with the Appenines in the bachground
Photo: Andre Crozier
Andre set out briefly the progress of the 6th South African Armoured Division across Italy and the battles for the peaks that took place in 1944 and 1945. He also showed photographs he had taken of the museum in the town, which has a section devoted to the 6th Division. A special feature is the display dedicated to the late Colin Eglin MP who took part in the battle for Monte Sole as a 19 year old and who became a regular visitor to the area. He was given honorary citizenship of the nearby town of Grizzana Morandi.
The talk was concluded with photographs taken in the cemetery as the sun was setting, and of the well-known words displayed next to the cemetery registry – To serve mankind yourselves you scorned to save.
The main lecture, titled The Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia August 1968, was presented by Pat Irwin. This invasion which took place on the night of 20th /21st August 1968 was a momentous affair with widespread consequences for both the Czechoslovakian people and international communism. In order to fully grasp the scale and significance of it, one needs to understand the historical, social, political and economic circumstances which led up to it.
Czechoslovakia was created from some of the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. It brought together, under a single political entity, several different ethnic groups, predominant among whom were Czechs and Slovaks, but which also included Germans, Hungarians, Moravians, Ruthenians and others. The country is in the geographical heart of Europe and, significantly, between 1939 and 1989 shared a border with the USSR. Given that the Russians sometimes described Czechoslovakia as a dagger pointing into the heart of the Motherland, and that it had been overrun from the West three times in the previous 130 years, Russia’s pathological fear of invasion cannot be lightly dismissed.
Czechoslovakia is an ancient land with settlement going back to late Palaeolithic times. Topographically, the land lent itself to trade routes between east and west which also made it convenient for invasion from both directions. The area around Prague, the capital, was settled from around 500 BC and the oldest buildings date back to 870 AD. Architecturally it is today a singularly beautiful city, never having been bombed or razed to the ground in the way that other east European cities have. Although it has been invaded and occupied multiple times, its inhabitants have generally surrendered before that could happen.
The people of the country are characteristically mild-mannered, embodying by their own admission much of the character of one of their central literary figures, The Good Soldier Schweik. They are in every respect a cultured people who place much value on architecture, music and other fine arts. Other than during the communist interlude between 1948 and 1989, the characteristics they have chosen in their political leaders have been a philosophical and literary disposition, Masaryk, Beneš and Havel being key examples.
Between 1918 and 1938 Czechoslovakia functioned as a working democracy. In September 1938 Hitler, with the connivance of Neville Chamberlain of Britain and &Éacute;douard Daladier of France, occupied the Sudetenland, followed in March 1939 by invasion of the whole country. In May 1945 it was ‘liberated’ by Soviet troops and in free elections in 1946, the Communist Party won 38% of the vote, leading to a government of national unity between liberals and communists, and in which the communists secured the key ministries of defence, interior, communications and justice. In February 1948, with the communists losing electoral support, a political coup d’état was staged at Stalin’s behest. This resulted in the establishment of a classic Stalinist regime based on central planning, enforced collectivization and one-party rule as well as the systematic oppression which characterizes such regimes. Political purges, show trials and executions became a part of life.
By the mid-1960s the economy was in serious decline and public dissatisfaction was at a high level. Individuals within the Communist Party began to criticise the government, questioning existing economic and political structures. This in turn led to an unprecedented open attack on, and criticism of, Antonin Novotny, president of the country and First Secretary of the Party, for his rigid and doctrinaire Stalinism and in turn, to a major groundswell of opposition within the Party. This spread to wider public demands for full freedom of expression, the abolition of censorship and arbitrary arrests, and freer contact with the West. By early 1968, under increasing pressure both from within and outside the Communist Party, the Stalinist hegemony was falling apart and was replaced by a reformist group led by newly elected First Secretary of the Party Alexander Dubcek and his allies, the most prominent of whom were Josef Smrkofský, the leader of parliament,OldřichČerník, the Prime Minister, and General Ludvik Svoboda, who became president. All came from solid communist backgrounds and had impeccable Party credentials. They set about with a full-fledged programme of reform assenting to almost all public demands This period became known as the Prague Spring and was embodied in a 27 000 word document which included free elections, free enterprise, free trading with the West, the freeing of political prisoners, and the rehabilitation of the victims of Stalin’s terror trials.
This was anathema to the governments of the other satellite countries within the Soviet orbit and confirmed the worst fears in Moscow, Berlin, Budapest Sophia and Warsaw. It is now known that the initial planning for the armed intervention started taking place at this time despite a period of negotiations and pretence at negotiations over the following seven months.
Opposition to the reforms by conservatives and reactionaries within Czechoslovakia also moved swiftly. These ranged from pamphlets questioning the personal integrity of the reformists, blatant character assassination and threats of execution ‘when we get back to power’ to advocates of free expression. Most of it had little effect of the vast majority of the population and attempts at political subversion in the factories and on the collective farms were also of little avail. A planned coup d’´tat also fell flat when the secret police refused to take part in it. The conservatives were left with little option other than to appeal to Moscow for support thus reinforcing the covert intentions of the Soviet Union.
Although the reformists took their plans to the Warsaw Pact leaders and tried to persuade them to give their views a chance, they were roundly rejected. In May there were major Warsaw Pact military manoeuvres after which 100 000 Russian troops remained on Czechoslovakian soil, mostly in remote areas where they were not easily visible. During July further military activity took place on Czechoslovakia’s borders and Russian reservists were called up. In mid-August there was a feigned withdrawalaimed at leading the Czechs into a sense of complacency and a false sense of security. Six days later the full scale invasion took place.
The first indication of the invasion was at 22h30 on 20th when an Antonov AN 24 landed at Ruzyne Airport outside Prague and a number of civilians got out and into waiting cars. A group of men posing as passengers waiting for a flight then produced arms and took over control of the airport. Simultaneously a stream of heavy military aircraft, AN 12s and AN 22s were directed in by the AN 24 which served as a control point. Troops (including commandos, marines and paratroopers), light tanks and APCs poured from the heavy aircraft and rapidly moved the seven kilometres into central Prague. In addition, paratroopers were dropped at strategic points throughout the country.
By 04h30 on the 21st motorised troops had surrounded and secured all strategic points and key installations including bridges, main roads, train stations and hospitals in Prague. They also surrounded the offices and homes of the President, Prime Minister and other senior officials as well as the Headquarters of the Communist Party. They could not, however, find the Prague Radio building which began to broadcast news on the invasion as well as anti-Soviet messages. This continued for some days as the station moved to various clandestine sites. While all this was happening, the order was given to ground forces in the neighbouring states to cross the borders. By dawn, the first land-based troops had reached Prague and taken over most of the towns and villages in the country. At dawn MiG 21 fighters also landed at airports and air bases throughout the country, followed by transports and troops.
It was a model operation which had been planned for months and carried out with great efficiency. All the preparation and planning had taken place under the smokescreen ofnegotiations, Warsaw Pact military manoeuvres in neighbouring countries and some even on Czechoslovakian soil. What most Czechoslovakians woke up to was a fait accompli.
It must be noted too that the invading troops were well disciplined. They had been told that they would be welcomed with open arms by the people and if there was any (unlikely) hostility from anti-socialist elements, to behave with restraint. While some limited destruction of infrastructure took place, there was virtually no looting or petty theft and where it did occur, it was severely punished. There was not a single reported case of rape.
The Czechoslovakians did not however welcome the invaders. The troops were stunned and surprised when instead of receiving the warm welcome they had been assured of, they were, at best, booed and told to go home. At worst they were pelted with rocks. Throughout the country food and water was refused, the invader being told to drink from the gutter. Although resistance was largely passive, in places such as Prague and Bratislava it sometimes came close to violence. In broad outline it took a number of forms:
Initially, as most Czechoslovakians spoke Russian, many argued with, and attempted to reason with, the Russian soldiers, explaining that they were not wanted or needed. There was also much insulting and taunting. To all this, the nonplussed Russians could only say that they were acting under orders: they were sometimes angry and hostile but the rigid discipline of the army held; they were under strict orders to show restraint even under the severest provocation.
More active forms of resistance included diverting trains with supplies and sending them to wrong destinations, changing road signs, lying in the road to block tanks and transport, walking out of shops and pubs when Russians entered and boycotting cultural events such as concerts put on by the occupiers. Sometimes girls saucily enticed and distracted the goggle-eyed and astonished Russian soldiers by hitching up their miniskirts and dangling their bras in front of them while the boys darted in among the vehicles doing whatever damage they could: smashing headlights; pulling wiring out; filching oil drums and where possible setting them alight behind the back of the Russians who soon got wise to this kind of tactic. Students assuaged some of their anger by making Molotov cocktails – only a few of which were ever used. Despite contrary claims by the Western Press, casualties among Czech civilians were reliably estimated at only 108 deaths and 500 wounded.
All this behaviour had a subverting effect on the invading troops, which after a few weeks led to the withdrawal of Russian speaking soldiers other than officers, and their replacement with non-Russian speakers from Russia’s eastern territories.
For various reasons, including deep demoralization, the protests in reaction to the invasion lasted only about seven days. The Soviets were, however, taking no chances and within two weeks there were over 600 000 occupation troops in the country – more than the Americans had in Vietnam at the height of their war there. It amounted to one Warsaw Pact soldier for every 17 Czechoslovakians. For an unarmed population there were:
6 300 armoured vehicles including 900 Main Battle Tanks organised into 12 divisions
13 Motorised infantry divisions
2 Parachute divisions
2 000 artillery pieces
Plus all supporting arms (signals, medics, tiffies, logistics etc.)
The Prague Spring leaders were taken to Moscow for ‘negotiations’, some allegedly in chains and there were rumours that they were tortured. They returned six days later – much changed men – having signed the Moscow Protocol admitting to the errors of their ways. Czechoslovakia settled in to another 21 years of Stalinist autocratic rule and economic drudgery. The West confined itself to strongly worded protests. The Czechoslovakians compared these to the lukewarm responses to the 1938 Munich Diktat and Hitler’s subsequent invasion of their country in 1939.
The next SAMHSEC meeting will be on Monday 12th December 2016 at 19h30 at the Eastern Cape Veteran Car Club in Conyngham Road, Port Elizabeth. The members’ slot will be used by Franco Cilliers on the topic of Long Distance Rifle Shooting. The curtain raiser will be by Malcolm Kinghorn on Lt.-General Len Beyers and the main lecture by Mac Alexander on the subject Van Ryneveld, Melville and Viljoen: South African visionary sky generals.
Matters of general interest / Sake van algemenebelang
Subscriptions 2017 / Ledegeld 2017
Subscriptions for 2017 are due shortly. The National Secretary, Joan Marsh, informs us that it was resolved not to increase fees for 2017. They therefore remain as:
Single subscription - R 235
Family (2 people at same postal address) - R250
Over eighties pay 50% and
Over nineties are free.
Technically payment is required by the end of March for membership to be valid. If members wish to pay early for 2017 please add "2017" to your surnames as the reference with any bank deposits made into the account.
Banking details are:
FNB Eastgate branch code 257705
Current a/c in name SA Military History Society,
a/c number 50391928346
[Joan’s e-mail address should you need to contact her for any reason is: email@example.com]
Obituaries / LewensberigteSAMHSEC has receivedthe news that fellow member Duncan Ferguson, of Cradock,whose museum-like home many of our members will have visited, has passed away at the age of 89. He joined the South African Military History Society in 1987 and was a life member. We extend our condolences to his family and friends. RIP
SAMHSEC notes too, the passing of Tim Couzens (13/2/1944 - 27/10/2016) an internationally respected South African literary and social historian who also published three books on South African military history: Battles of South Africa (2004); South African Battles (2013), a best seller; and The Great Silence: From Mushroom Valley to Delville Wood, South African Forces in World War One (2014). Tim’s informative and easy-to-read style made a significant contribution to the popularising of military history in South Africa. RIP
World War I Centenary Years / Eerste Wêreldoorlog Eeufeesjare
End of the Battle of the Somme
The five-month Battle of the Somme ended on 19th November 1916 with a million casualties on all sides. Some historians have called it the turning point of the First World War.
Two good summaries of the battle from the Allied point of view can be found at:
Some insights into the German experience of the battle can be found at:
For those who can read German, the following accounts of the battle are good starters:
Note: Both these latter sites have a facility for translation into English.
Major engagements in December 2016
The Second Battle of Kut took place on the Mesopotamian Front from 13th December 1916 to 27th February 1917. This is a blanket term for a number of engagements resulting in the recapture of Kut and the Allied advance about 100km beyond it, opening the road to Baghdad which fell to the Allied army in March 1917. Allied success in the battle was largely due to two reasons: firstly the revitalisation of the Allied army under General Sir Frederick Maude who had replaced General Gorringe as a result of the latter’s failure to relieve General Townshend besieged in Kut,and secondly; Maude’s skilful manoeuvring and his use of small naval units to outflank the Ottoman forces under Karabekir Bey. Nearly all of the fighting took place alongside the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Added to this, Maude’s 150 000 army of largely Anglo-Indian troops outnumbered the Turks by a ratio of three to one. Karabekir Bey was nevertheless able to conduct a skilful and orderly retreat throughout the Allied advance.[For the First Battle (Siege) of Kut and related engagements, see Newsletters 135, 136, 138 and 139.]
See http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/kut2.htm for maps showing the extent and period of the operations in Mesopotamia.
Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang
Dornier Do 335 Pfeil – The fastest piston-engine fighter of WWII
War History Online 23rd October 2016
Futuristic 405 mph Interceptor from WWII
The Vintage News 23rd October 2016
Battleships: USS Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Jersey and North Carolina
Kennedy Hickman About.com Military History 24th October 2016
History of the hand grenade – an essential infantry weapon in modern warfare
War History Online 21st October 2016
Some of the most effective melee weapons of WWI,the bayonet was not one of them
William Mclaughlin War History Online 3rd
Tank Chats: The British Mark V Tank [with interesting short video]
JorisNieuwint War History Online 3rd November 2016
Ancient and Mediaeval history
Viking mercenaries of the Byzantine Empire – The Varangian Guard
Anon War History Online 19th October 2016
World War I
Wreck of German U-boat found off coast of Stranraer
Anon BBC News 19th October 2016
Special exhibition – WachtimOsten: German encounters with the East in World War I
Marija Jovanovsk War History Online 26th October 2016 >br>
World War II
Wilhelm Adalbert Hosenfeld – The German who saved ‘The Pianist’ and is honoured by Israel
War History Online Shahan Russell 27th October 2016
Elizabeth Warkentin BBC Travel 14th October 2016
Hitler birthplace under scrutiny
Anon BBC News 18th October 2016
The tragedy of the SS Cap Arcona – the Nazi Titanic
Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang
Battle Stations: Lancaster Bomber - Target Germany. 44min. This is a very good documentary.
Tommy, a short independent film which highlights the tragic nature of PTSD
Damian Lucjan War History Online 9th November 2016
Mel Gibson’s new epic movie Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of a conscientious objector who saved lives on the front line
George Winston War History Online 9th November 2016
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, Michael Irwin and Peter Duffel-Canham.
Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn: firstname.lastname@example.org
Secretary: Franco Cilliers: Cilliers.email@example.com
Scribes (Newsletter): Anne and Pat Irwin: firstname.lastname@example.org
Society’s Website: http://samilitaryhistory.org
His Thai Majesty’s Ship Kut, now the Kokut diving wreck off Thailand