South African Military History Society

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The Chairman opened the Meeting and extended a warm welcome to Members and Visitors. Notice was given of the upcoming Events and those interested were asked to put their names down on the lists which are available on the front desk after the Meeting. Hamish Paterson was welcomed back after an absence due to illness. Jan-Willem introduced the Speakers and subjects for the evening. The Curtain Raiser Speaker was Nicki von der Heyde who last year presented an overview of South African Battlefields.

The Turbulent Cape Frontier was the subject for Nicki's talk. During the 100 year period 1779 to 1879, no less than 9 wars were fought in the region we know today as the Eastern Cape. Essentially all the wars had to do with two expanding groups of pastoral peoples as their need for more grazing was forced upon them by population growth. The gradual move eastwards from the Cape by descendants of the early Dutch settlers and that of the Xhosa people south and westwards resulted in the first two conflicts happening even before the First British occupation of the Cape in 1795.

A third war erupted in 1799 between these "Trekboers" and the British when a split had developed between two Xhosa chiefs. At the time the indigenous Khoikhoi were customarily loyal to the British but discontent led to them to side with the Xhosa. The rebellion was put down. After 1806 with the British having now established the Cape Colony, matters simmered until 1811 when the fourth war took place. It was at this time that Grahamstown was founded, the key point behind a series of forts designed to protect the frontier, many of these still exist.

The fifth war saw the frontier being extended eastwards to the Keiskama River and the British introducing the 1820 Settlers into the highly volatile region between the Fish and Keiskama Rivers. The colourful Sir Harry Smith arrived at Grahamstown and during his tenure the confusing sixth war took place. Smith was an enigma, on one hand a good tactician but in the eyes of the Xhosa a clown or fool. His policies of how to view the relationship between the British, the Boers and the Xhosa were a major motivation in getting the Great Trek under way, not helped in any way by his successor who was perceived to be pro-Xhosa. After his recall the frontier slid into the seventh war which saw the frightening siege of Fort Peddie parts of which, including the Martello Tower, are still in good repair today.

In 1847 Smith returned as High Commissioner and Governor of the Cape Colony but his continued theatricals failed to convince the Xhosa and, coupled with the arrogance he displayed towards them, led to the devastating eighth war of 1850. The two major sieges of Forts Cox and Armstrong are features of this conflict. Smith was sent home before the war ended but none of his successors were any more successful in keeping the peace. It was the great cattle killing and famine of 1857 that brought Xhosa resistance essentially to an end. The ninth war in 1878 saw overwhelming British force in a final "clean-up" and the boundary of the Colony was extended to the Untumvuba River. Nicki's hope is that students of the period and events might use her new book; "Guide to the Sieges of South Africa" as well as other excellent publications to research the wars. Amongst these books are; Noel Mostert's "Frontiers" and "Sandile" by Johannes Meintjies. The area is accessible and roads in the main are in good condition.

Gil Jacobs, remembered for his lectures on the "Longitude Problem" and "The Atomic Bomb" next came to the lectern to present the evening's main lecture; The Hydrogen Bomb - Peace or Annihilation?

Gil started by explaining how the energy of the atomic bomb results from the fission of uranium or plutonium nuclei into lighter nuclei. The hydrogen or "thermo-nuclear" bomb comes from the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium nuclei. Hydrogen positively charged nuclei repel each other and a very high temperature is required to overcome this repulsion. Once the temperature is attained the nuclei come together with a tremendous release of energy. This same process occurs in our Sun whose internal temperature of about 20 million degrees keeps the cycle going. The only way in which science (or the Military) can achieve such a high temperature is to use an atomic bomb as a detonator, i.e. no atom bomb-no hydrogen bomb. Gil stressed that when such fusion reaction involving light elements happens, the mass of the end product is less than the mass of what was there to start with. A helium nucleus thus is 0.8% less massive than 4 hydrogen nuclei. This "missing mass" has been converted into energy-as explained by Einstein's equation; (E=mc2 )

Nuclear Bombs are rated by their "yield". Atomic bombs described in "kilotons" of TNT, that of hydrogen bombs in "megatons" of TNT. Atom bombs are limited to about 500 kilotons by their nature whereas there is no limit to the size of a hydrogen bomb!

Edward Teller, one of the team which developed the first atomic bombs, started agitating for the development of the H-Bomb during the A-Bomb build. The other scientists strongly opposed this emphasizing that a development path should be observed. However, in August 1949 the Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb, the result of traitors and spies led by Klaus Fuchs feeding the Russians with technical and scientific secrets. The Soviet bomb was an almost exact copy of the Nagasaki bomb. Of concern to the Americans was that Fuchs was privy to discussions on a possible H-Bomb. President Harry S Truman on advice gave the go-ahead for developing the H-Bomb on 1950.

In November of 1952 the first hydrogen bomb was detonated on Eniwetok Atoll. With a yield of 10 megatons, the island of Elugelab was wiped away. The main problem in weaponising the H-Bomb was the need to retain hydrogen in liquid form which requires a massive refrigeration unit. The problem was solved by combining hydrogen with lithium thus eliminating the need for cooling. Testing took place at Bikini Atoll, the "Castle Bravo" test being on 1st March 1954 with an estimated 5 megaton yield. The yield was in fact 15 megatons, the equivalent of 1000 Hiroshima bombs! The explosion left a crater 2 kilometres across and 80 metres deep. Japanese fishermen a great distance away were covered in radio-active ash with one man dying and the others left seriously ill.

No fewer than 23 Atom and Hydrogen bomb tests were conducted at Bikini Atoll between 1956 and 1958 leaving the area uninhabitable until the present day. The H-Bomb is deliverable several ways; by air with Bombers such as the B-52; Submarine launched missiles such as Polaris and by Minuteman missiles, ground-launched from deep silos.

Winston Churchill was one of the first to realize that although a terrible weapon, the thermonuclear bomb could in a bizarre way be an instrument of peace. Albert Einstein was sure that thermonuclear war would destroy everything humans have achieved. Many others spent much time speculating on what outcomes of thermonuclear war might be and notable amongst them was Herman Kahn who believed such a war is survivable. The author Neville Shute described graphically what could happen in his novel, later filmed, "On the Beach". The story conceptualized by him that of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, was terrifying.

Notable amongst the people who were opposed to thermonuclear weapons were Robert Oppenheimer - "Father of the Atomic Bomb", Joseph Rotblatt - the only scientist who left the A-Bomb project after Germany's surrender, Albert Einstein who deeply regretted the part he played in initiating the bomb's development, and the great controversial philosopher Bertrand Russell who was nuclear's most vociferous opponent. The last was actually imprisoned at age 89 for demonstrating against the H-Bomb.

The implied threat to the world diminished with the détente achieved by Reagan and Gorbachev and the eventual demise of the Soviet Union. Although several treaties over the decades have been concluded to minimize the size of nuclear arsenals, many weapons still exist in possession of the 9 nations known to have them. Mathematically, there are no less than 36 ways in which a nuclear conflict could be started by any two of these nine so-called powers! Nations with arsenals are United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, Israel, India, Pakistan, China and North Korea. The threat exists still and Robert Oppenheimer summed it up neatly:-

We may anticipate a state of affairs in which two great powers will each be in a position to put an end to the civilization and life of the other, though not without risking its own. We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle; each capable of killing the other but only at the risk of losing his own life.

A lively discussion ended the lecture with several people contributing ideas and comments.

Colin Harris

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Society Awards

The Society is pleased to announce the awarding of Honorary Life Membership to three worthy members:

The Johannesburg branch also now has three new Life members: Mr Don Browne, Mr Tim Waudby and Dr Des Sonnenfeld.

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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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