South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926

NEWSLETTER No 453 - MAY 2017

Our speaker on 11 April 2017 was Mr Hannes Wessels, author of two books on Mr P K van der Byl and on Capt Darryl Watt of the Rhodesian SAS, whose topic was the SAS and the Battle for Rhodesia. He introduced himself and explained that his father was an Afrikaner from Bloemfontein who had served in the UDF during World War 2 and his mother was German. In 1946, his father visited Bulawayo in the then Southern Rhodesia and quickly decided to stay there. His reasons for moving were not black/white or English/Afrikaner friction, but rather because of the Afrikaner/Afrikaner enmity resulting from the divisions caused by the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 - 1902 and, subsequently, his service in World War 2 when there was friction between those men of Afrikaans extraction who served and those who did not. One of his distant cousins had served under Gen Koos de la Rey.

In Southern Rhodesia there was a different approach. There was a large community of Afrikaans-speaking people in Rhodesia with many farmers in Manicaland, who all lived without any strife with the English-speaking majority.

Our speaker was born in Salisbury in 1956 but grew up in Umtali. As a result he never became fluent in Afrikaans during his schooldays. After matriculating, he studied law at UCT and served in the RLI during his university holidays.

Our speaker then spoke about the Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith, who was a friend of his father. After 1980 the Wessels family got to know him well. Mr Smith always considered the outcome of the 14-year-long war and the subsequent political settlement to be a massive injustice and entitled his autobiography "The Great Betrayal". Our speaker said that Ian Smith became the world's whipping boy and was depicted as a stubborn racist, whereas in fact he was a man with a strong sense of values and he bent over backwards in his attempts to reach a settlement with Britain in meetings with Prime Minister Harold Wilson on HMS Tiger in 1955 and on HMS Fearless in 1968.

A brief summary of the background to UDI follows. In October 1923, Rhodesia became a self-governing colony with a governor. In 1953 the British formed the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland which broke up in 1963 when Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were granted their independence. Discussions followed with the Rhodesians regarding their independence and a draft constitution was proposed in a white paper. But, when the draft constitution was published, it gave full authority to the governor, gave the British government authority to change it unilaterally and called for immediate black majority rule. This was not acceptable to the Salisbury government and neither side would back down. On 11 November 1965 the Rhodesians declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. A republic was declared in 1970, which was not recognised as legal by the world. In June 1979, elections were held which resulted in a black majority government but this was rejected by Britain and the USA. In 1979 the Lancaster house deliberations were held and Zimbabwe came into existence.

Ian Smith's main objection to Wilson's proposal was his insistence that Rhodesia should be handed over to a British governor. He later noted that Lord Soames who became governor in 1980 had let him down.

Our speaker then spoke of the important role played by South Africa in the UDI years. The war against the terrorists had, to a large extent, been won by 1974. The Rhodesian forces had been extremely successful in their counter-insurgency operations. At this point Prime Minister Vorster, who was busy trying to reach a detente with black Africa, insisted on a ceasefire in Rhodesia. The unwanted result of this was that the enemy had time to regroup their forces. The Portuguese also pulled out of Mozambique at this time. This gave ZANU and ZAPU an additional and long border across which they could infiltrate into Rhodesia.

In 1976 Dr Henry Kissinger attempted to find a fair solution to the Rhodesia problem. This came to nothing when Jimmy Carter became President of the USA. He was determined to destroy Rhodesia and succeeded with the help of the British government.

Our speaker then discussed the role of Mr P K van der Byl, whose biography he has written. He described him as Rhodesia's best Minister of Defence. He was the son of Major the Honourable Piet van der Byl, a minister in General Smuts' wartime South African Cabinet. Mr B J Vorster, a former Ossewabrandwag general and political prisoner at Koffiefontein during WW2, loathed the very "British", upper class P K van der Byl. Despite the fact that Mr van der Byl was utterly fearless, well-liked by all ranks in the forces and an excellent minister, Ian Smith was forced by Vorster to move him to another cabinet post. Rhodesia was totally isolated and its only access to the sea was through South Africa. This caused many political problems for South Africa and Rhodesia over the years. South Africa was forced to sacrifice Rhodesia as a bargaining chip in later years.

Mr Wessels described the South African Defence Minister and later President P W Botha as a friend of Rhodesia. Although the country was but a pinprick in history, Rhodesia's 15 year war gave South Africa an important, if not vital, breathing space. It gave South Africa time to develop its arms industry, to design and build vehicles and equipment for counterinsurgency campaigning, to evaluate Rhodesian tactics and extract those tactics which would be of use in South West Africa and Angola and train our troops. We were also able to learn from Rhodesia's mistakes and not repeat these.

Our speaker then looked at the Rhodesian SAS, a small unit of extremely well-trained and aggressive soldiers whose contribution to the war effort was immense. One of the most effective members of this unit was Major Darryl Watt described by our speaker as "one of the great fighting soldiers of our time". Born in Rhodesia, he grew up in the country area and became an excellent marksman. A skilled hunter, he was an outstanding tracker and was at home in the bush. He had a sixth sense and knew all of the bird calls and animal sounds which enabled him to locate the enemy. He was never far from the frontline. Commissioned from the ranks, he achieved so much with very slender resources. He expected much from his men but they trusted him and would have followed him anywhere. Watt was one of the first men parachuted in to the site where the first Viscount air liner crashed.

Late in the war, the Rhodesians assisted the forces which had rebelled against Frelimo. Major Watt achieved his greatest success in Mozambique where he raised and trained a large body of anti-Frelimo rebels and, leading them into action, inflicted considerable damage on the government forces. He did not seem to have been very popular among the SAS officers and never received the recognition he so richly deserved.

Our speaker mentioned the proposals made by Portuguese army officers after the coup in Portugal in 1974. They offered to persuade the Portuguese forces then in Mozambique to remain there, but this was rejected by President Vorster. Frelimo also realised that Mozambique would soon be theirs and also rejected the offer.

Mr Wessels next discussed the senior officers in the Rhodesian Forces. He explained that many of them had served in the British forces and their loyalty to Queen and Country was strong. It was consequently difficult to detect those who remained in the Rhodesian Forces and who were spying for Britain. Some officers resigned from the Rhodesian forces after UDI, refusing to serve in the rebel army - one of these was Major General Putterill. But others remained - one of these was Ken Flower, head of the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organisation. He was British-born and received the Independence Decoration, continuing in service after 1980, in the service of the Mugabe government. He famously was reported as stating that the Rhodesian Intelligence set-up was thoroughly compromised at every level. This was a serious situation as the CIO was responsible for all foreign intelligence gathering. The Police Special Branch was responsible for all counter intelligence and, until late in the war, there was no military intelligence corps at all. Brigade and unit intelligence officers received no training and served only to make sure the correct maps were available.

Only in the last years of the war was a Military Intelligence Corps formed. Officers were scarce and those seconded to the new Corps received very little training, as both the CIO and SB were opposed to the formation of the new Corps. This Corps "learnt on the job" and, too late, started to produce some information useful to the armed forces.

The war effort in Rhodesia was supposed to be based on the British campaign in Malaya, where the insurgency was defeated. General Templar was put in charge of the campaign and he ruthlessly ensured that all parts of the armed forces, police and government worked as a team. The Rhodesians tried this approach but unsuccessfully. Army, Air Force, Police, Internal Affairs and CIO/SB were supposed to operate in close cooperation. At the operational level, they did this very well but, at national level, they did not. Ian Smith was supposed to be in charge but government ministers and the commanders of the various services all did their own thing. Rhodesians as a nation are very independent-minded people and this was a reason for the lack of cooperation. This was recognised and Gen Walls was made supremo but cooperation still did not improve to any great degree.

There was even rivalry among the generals. Two of the best senior officers, the Army commander Lt Gen Hickman and Lt Col Reid-Daly, O/C of the Selous Scouts came to blows and were retired, thus depriving the Army of the services of two very competent and experienced officers. Mr Wessels pointed out that ideas did not flow from the top but rather came from the younger but very experienced captains and majors, who had realised that the war should be fought on enemy territory. Colonel Reid-Daly described the Rhodesian generals as "not very aggressive, not thinking enough and severely inconvenienced by the war".

There was unhealthy competition between the SAS and the Selous Scouts. There was no clear-cut definition of their respective roles. Both were very fine units but each should have been given a defined role so that they could cooperate better.

Finally, Mr Wessels commented that the National Party government should have included SADF representatives at the Codesa negotiations and that this might have prevented some of the problem we now have.

After a lengthy question and answer session, Mr Stephan Fourie, who knew the speaker from the Rhodesian Bush War, thanked and presented him with the customary gift for an interesting talk.


The outgoing committee was re-elected en bloc to serve another term. The elected members are:

Mr J van den Berg (Chairman), Mr Alan Mountain (Vice-Chairman), Mr R Hattingh (Honorary Secretary), Mr R Buser (Treasurer), Cdr M Bisset (Scribe), Mr Ian van Oordt (Liaison)



THURSDAY, 11 MAY 2017: THE FALL OF SINGAPORE, FEBRUARY 1942 by Capt. Peter Rogers, SM, MMM (SAN Retd.).
The topic for May, the Fall of Singapore, also known as the Battle of Singapore, was fought in the South-East Asian theatre of World War II when the Empire of Japan invaded the British stronghold of Singapore-nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the East". Singapore was the major British military base in South-East Asia and was the keystone of British imperial interwar defence planning for South-East Asia as well as the South-West Pacific. The fighting in Singapore lasted from 8 to 15 February 1942 although this was preceded by two months of British resistance as Japanese forces advanced down the Malaya peninsula.

It resulted in the Japanese capture of Singapore and the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history. About 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war, joining 50,000 taken by the Japanese in the earlier Malayan Campaign. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, called it the "worst disaster" in British military history. Leading military historians also view the Malayan Campaign and the Fall of Singapore as one of the most successful military campaigns of World War II - along with the Fall of France in 1940 - when taking into account the input of resources as compared to the outcome thereof from the victors' point of view.

Our speaker for the May meeting recently had the opportunity to visit Singapore and this will certainly add interesting side-notes to his illustrated lecture.


This is the first-hand account of the speaker, who, after finishing school, was conscripted into the SA Defence Force as an infantryman. He volunteered to pass the gruelling selection and training course mandatory in joining the elite band of paratroopers in the SADF, colloquially known as "Parabats". This is his story of his experiences in combat and the scars it left - both physically and psychologically.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

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