South African Military History Society

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The Chairman, Jan-Willem Hoorweg, opened the meeting with the usual attendance statistics followed by the notices.

He thanked David Scholtz for sponsoring the bus for the outing to the Boer 'n Brit Day at Val. The day was a huge success with a re-enactment of the famous 'Whisky Train' incident during the Anglo-Boer War. Wonderful uniforms, lovely horses and saddles plus Lee-Enfields and Mausers made the re-enactment vivid. Outside the hotel were stalls selling snacks and meals, tuismaak, local cheese and other goodies. We were reminded that the next South African (Anglo-Boer) War Weekend at Kedar Heritage Lodge will take place from 12 - 14 May 2017.

This instalment will see military historian (and Society member), Ret. Maj. John Pennefather, unpack the Battle of Elands River. It will be a particularly exciting instalment as he will highlight some new developments pertaining to the battlefield itself. Military enthusiast Andre Wedepohl will be the Master of Ceremonies. There will also be a book table on the 13th of May 2017 where a selection of South African war publications will be on sale.

If you would like to participate in this weekend of networking, discussion, learning and just having fun, then this is your opportunity!

To book visit their web page

The curtain-raiser of the evening was given by Karen Horn: South African POWs: Libya, Italy and Germany. Karen Horn is not a military historian. Her research falls within the historical genre of war and society, with a specific emphasis on prisoner-of-war (POW) experience and the history of the individual. She is specifically interested in the lived experience of the rank and file men as well as the impact of war on the home front. Her book In Enemy Hands - South Africa's POWs in WWII was published by Jonathan Ball Publishers in 2015. It was the result of research that started as a PhD study in 2009.

During 2010 and 2011 she conducted interviews with twelve surviving WWII veterans. Fortunately some of them had lied about their ages in order to volunteer - one was only 16 at the time - so they were available for interviews. What these men had in common was not only that they had volunteered their services to the Union Defence Force, but they all became prisoners-of-war.

A number of them were captured in November 1941 during the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, but the majority of them were captured when General HB Klopper controversially surrendered at Tobruk in June 1942. In all, 16 430 South Africans were POW's of whom 10 000 were taken at Tobruk. The reminiscences of the veterans form the basis of the account of South African POWs during WWII. With the addition of more first-hand accounts in the form of personal memoirs, and with archival documents, Karen was able to construct a version of their lived experience that includes issues on volunteering for the UDF, battle and capture experiences, mental and physical hardship of captivity, escape and liberty, and finally, homecoming and adapting to life in the post-war era.

In the main, the lecture was structured chronologically, but at the same time it also followed a geographical route, from Libya to Italy and finally to Germany. Needless to say, some of the more enterprising POWs experienced detours in their journeys of confinement, while for others captivity came to a more abrupt end.

POWs went through three main psychological phases: the battle and capture; survival during their marches to the POW camps and during their time in the camps: their acceptance of capture. Many of the men were absolutely appalled by being captured as numbers of those taken at Tobruk had not even fired a single shot so they felt that they had not done their bit. At Tobruk itself there was confusion as to whether they or the Germans had surrendered.

The marches across the desert were appalling as they had little water and almost no food. Their Italian guards were hardly better provisioned. Conditions in the North African camps were worsened because the Red Cross had no access to them so the men did not receive any precious Red Cross parcels.

When men were transferred to Italy conditions improved as they then received Red Cross parcels. Apart from letters and provisions, the parcels contained cigarettes which could be used either to assuage hunger or as a trading currency to buy extras from the guards. In Italy, many POWs worked on farms where the farmers took heavy risks to help them. Many of the men formed life-long friendships with the farmers for whom they worked.

As the war progressed, some POWs were moved to Germany where they were amazed by the cleanness and neatness of the camps. At this point, many of the men came to accept their situation as it was so much more formal and organised than their captivity in Italy. Here again, many worked outside the camps and formed good relationships with the local population but in Dresden, for example, this changed after the huge Allied bombing raids.

For many the return home after the war was difficult and they felt that they had much lost time to make up for.

The main event of the evening The Union Defence Force and the East African Campaign, 1940-1941 - a Critical Analysis was delivered by Evert Kleynhans.

With the outbreak of WWII, the Union Defence Force had to undergo a rapid transformation from an ageing peacetime defence force to one that could project its offensive power across the African subcontinent. The formation of the 1st South African Division during 1940, and the subsequent deployment of South African troops to the East African theatre, afforded the UDF the opportunity to test its military capabilities under operational conditions against the Italian threat in Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland.

It had been 21 years since the Union of South Africa had last been in a state of war, and the UDF's first battle in East Africa is a prime tool with which to measure concepts such as force design, military innovation and the operational employment of forces, to name but a few.

The Battle of El Wak, fought on 16 December 1940, was not only the UDF's first battle in the East African campaign but also its first battle of WWII. This talk analysed the Battle of El Wak against the theoretical notion of "first battles". Emphasis was placed on the South African road to war, the planning for the East African campaign, the Battle of El Wak and the way this battle subsequently influenced the remainder of the UDF operations in East Africa. In doing so, the South African offensive operations in the theatre were critically evaluated against the backdrop of the changing nature of the South African operations, the at times haphazard Anglo-South African relations during the campaign, the character and effectiveness of the Italian military forces, and the adverse influence of climate and terrain on the campaign in East Africa. Climate was very important there as there were either severe water shortages or torrential rains which severely impacted on movement. There was also a shortage of motor transport [critical in desert warfare] and armaments. However, the outcome of the campaign was favourable compared to that in North Africa.

Please remember that the actual lectures are available for two months afterwards on sound cloud so that you can listen to them at your leisure:

Pat Henning

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This serves as notice that the 51st AGM of the Society will take place
in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History
at 20h00 on Thursday 13th April 2017.


  1. Minutes of the previous Annual General Meeting;
  2. Chairman's Report for 2016;
  3. Statement of Accounts for 2016;
  4. Matters arising;
  5. Approval of such minutes, report and accounts;
  6. Presentation of prizes for 2016 lectures;
  7. Election of Chairman;
  8. Election of Committee members;
  9. General.
Please consider standing for the committee -
new ideas and faces are always welcome!

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Branch contact details

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 Roy Bowman 031 564 4669

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KZN in Durban:



CR= curtain raiser; ML= main lecture; DDH = Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture; MS= member's slot

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Branch contact details
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 Roy Bowman 031 564 4669

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