South African Military History Society


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 156

September 2017

SAMHSEC’s August meeting took place on Monday 14th at the usual venue.

The members’slot was used by Ian Pringle, who recently attended a weekend at Matjiesfontein arranged by Dean Allen, the author of War, Empire & Cricket. Besides a talk on the book, delegates listened to a series of presentationson a number of other subjects related to the Anglo Boer War. These included explorers who had strong connections to this war and their voyages to the South Pole, the Deelfontein Hospital, the ABW Womens' Museum in Bloemfontein, and the trauma that has followed over generations as a result of the ABW and the destruction of farms,properties and livestock coupled with the living conditions of the concentration camps.

The curtain raiser, The Fall of Tobruk 21st June 1942, was presented by Andre Crozier. It was a sequel to his lecture on The Battle of Gazala in June this year (Newsletter 154).

After the 8th Army’s defeat at the battle of Gazala and its hasty retreat eastwards towards the Nile Delta, with Rommel in hot pursuit, the question of the defence of Tobruk arose. Prior to Gazala, the Allied High Command had decided that they would not allow the town and its harbour to be cut off and invested again as had happened in 1941. Although the town had significant political and propaganda value after the 1941 siege, when the Australians had kept Rommel at bay for 241 days, it had no great strategic importance. As the Gazala line crumbled, however, Churchill became insistent that Tobruk should be held at all costs.

The British C-in-C in the Middle East, General Auchinleck, succumbed to this political pressure and ordered the 8th Army Commander, General Ritchie, to hold the line. Apparently Auchinleck did not appreciate how bad things were at the front and seems to have been unaware that the South African 1st Division and the British 50th Division were in full retreat back to the Egyptian frontier. The 29th Indian Brigade, which had attempted to hold El Adem with its strategic airfield (30km south of Tobruk), was overwhelmed by Rommel’s 90th Light Division and had been ordered to abandon the position. By this time the British armour had also been destroyed, and by 18th June Tobruk was once again cut off despite all the intentions that this should not happen. The planned defence of the town nevertheless met with Churchill’s firm approval.

On 14th May Major-General Hendrik Klopper had been appointed OC of the 2nd South African Division which was quartered in Tobruk. Although he was essentially a training officer with limited combat experience, on 16th June he was appointed Commander of Fortress Tobruk with 32 000 troops under his command. As the 1st Division, in its retreat, passed Tobruk, General Dan Pienaar, its OC, called on Klopper to discuss developments and the High Command decision not to evacuate Tobruk. Pienaar left with little optimism that it could be held. Britain’s General Gott visited Klopper on 14th June and, checking stock levels and defences, declared himself satisfied that Tobruk could defend itself. On the 16th June Ritchie also met Klopper and informed him that Tobruk was to be invested. Klopper took a positive view of his task and assured Ritchie that he could hold out for three months. His force had five brigades of infantry and three regiments of artillery with 25-pounders. He had, however, only limited armour and very little in the way of anti-tank artillery. He did though, have two experienced subordinates in British Brigadiers Willison and Thompson.

With a defensive perimeter of over 30 miles (45km), it had to be anticipated that penetration by the Axis at some point was inevitable and thus a counter attack force with the capacity for concentrated artillery fire was vital. In the 1941 siege the Germanshad broken through twice, but had been repulsed by such means. An effective force of this kind had not been created by the time of the German attack on 20th June.

The attack was a co-ordinated thrust by German infantry, armour and artillery, supported by the Luftwaffe using bombers, primarily Stukas (Ju 87 dive bombers), which kept it up all day, using the captured airfields at nearby El Adem. At 06h35 the AfrikaKorps infantry broke through the wire defences on the south-east side of Tobruk and made progress against feeble resistance. By late morning a wide breech had been made, bridges laid across anti-tank ditches and the way prepared for the tanks to enter the perimeter. Allied artillery counter fire was uncoordinated, limited and ineffective. At 07h00 Klopper had ordered a counter attack but this too was uncoordinated and ended up a complete failure. Klopper was also not kept fully informed by his brigade commanders. By 14h00 the Panzers had penetrated the inner minefield and by 15h00 the British tank force had been annihilated. By 16h00 the German tanks were advancing on Klopper’s HQ. Fearing it would be overrun, Klopper ordered the destruction of all radios, code books and the telephone exchange, thus eliminating and chance of further co-ordinated action. The Panzers meanwhile raced for the harbour in order to capture the fuel stocks before demolition. By nightfall they had entered the harbour although partial demolition of stocks has already taken place.

At this point, Klopper requested permission from 8th Army HQ to break out. Receiving no reply, Klopper then cancelled the warning order to break out and issued orders to fight to the end. Ritchie finally replied at 03h30 on 21st June suggesting continued resistance but leaving it up to Klopper’s judgement. After further vacillation and argument among the staff at HQ, with the two South African Brigades facing possible annihilation and with a large number of men wandering aimlessly about, Klopper changed his mind. At 06h00 he signalled Ritchie “Situation shambles. Terrible casualties would result. Am doing the worst. Petrol destroyed” and raised the white flag: 32 000 soldiers, of which 10 000 were South Africans, went into captivity.

A Court of Enquiry was held in Cairo during 1942. Klopper, himself being a POW, could not give evidence, but 50 others, from generals to sergeants, did. The fall of Tobruk was intensely embarrassing to both Churchill and Smuts and the last thing they wanted was for the true story to be revealed and for recriminations to follow. As a result, the findings of the Court have never been made public. This led to the myth that the South Africans were unwilling to fight. The Court did however basically exonerate Klopper and his troops from blame, concluding that Tobruk fell largely due to: eleventh-hour policy reversals and the indecision and confusion which resulted from this; that the 8th Army was in full retreat from an enemy with high morale; and that there was insufficient time for the garrison to make adequate preparation for the new besieged role expected of them.

Map showing the defences of Tobruk and the Axis thrusts into the town.
Source: Common Domain:

Immediate military consequences of the fall of Tobruk were Rommel’s promotion to Field Marshall, his persuading Hitler to allow him to press on to the Nile Delta and Suez, and the Axis invasion of Malta being postponed. The latter in turn led to innumerable knock-on consequences in the ensuing months, including the serious disruption of Rommel’s supply lines, which contributed to his defeat at El Alamein in October 1942.

Andre concluded with an overview of the positions taken by different writers including Agar-Hamilton, Heckstal-Smith, Hartshorn and most recently, David Katz. An extended and lively discussion followed the talk. It was interesting to note that approximately 25% of the audience had some connection with the fall of Tobruk through the involvement of either parents or relations.

The main lecture,titled Old Andreans in the Great War 1914-1918: Harold Sampson, was given by Stephen Bowker.It was the third in a series of five lectures on this theme.

Harold Sampson (1896-1973) was a Rhodes Scholar, soldier, linguist, poet, author and Professor of Law at Rhodes University. Born in Grahamstown, he was schooled both at the Diocesan School for Girls and St. Andrew’s College, where he enjoyed a successful sporting career. As a school boy he witnessed the St. Andrew’s College boys march out against the perceived threat to Grahamstown by the Boers, who were under the leadership of Jan Smuts. He fulfilled all the criteria for the Rhodes Scholarship and attended Trinity College, Oxford, from September 1910, where he read for a BA in Law. He was awarded his first Rugby Blue in 1910, later turning his attention to both English and Italian poetry.His uncle, Colonel Aubrey Woolls-Sampson, along with Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, Captain Charles Mullins VC and Major Walter Davies, was one of the founders of the Imperial Light Horse, now the Light Horse Regiment.

At the start of the First World War in August 1914, Harold was caught up in the wave of patriotic fervour of the time and enlisted with the Artists Rifles, part of the 2nd London Division, at the age of 23. He did not want to miss out on the great adventure which everyone assumed would be over by Christmas – he even bought and paid for his own second-hand uniform. The Artists Rifles were mobilized for duty in France in October 1914. While they were at Bailleul on their way to Ypres on 6th November, they were stopped by Staff Officer, Colonel Romer, an ex-Artist Adjutant, with an urgent message from the Commander in Chief, Sir John French. The British Army needed officers urgently. These were taken from all ranks but the men with university and public schooling had proved to be so successful that the process of placing probationary officers in the field continued. Harold Sampson attended a crash course in training and practical tips, was promoted to Second Lieutenant, and thereafter went straight into action commanding seasoned troops of the 7th Division. The Artists were attached as Probationary Officers to the Old Contemptables.

With a shrill whistle blast from the Scots Guard and under cover of shells being fired, Harold was baptized into battle at Rouges Bancs and Aubers Ridge on the 18th December 1914. In his diary he speaks of a glorious cheer from his fellow comrades which was soon drowned out by insentient gun fire and the noise of war. Suddenly, Harold discovered he was alone: “Where had everyone had gone?” Harold’s Division lost over 700 men that day without gaining any ground.

Sometime in December 1914, Harold and two privates from his platoon rescued two injured men from no-man’s-land under the cover of darkness. As the two privates had been out for over an hour, Harold, curious as to what had happened to them, ventured into no-mans-land to look for them. He recorded in his diary that “all was dark, quiet, only occasional firing from a sniper suffering from Insomnia and distant machine gun fire”. He met up with the two men carrying a body back to their trench and returned to no-man’s-land with them in search of other survivors. They successfully evacuated another wounded comrade less than 20 meters from the enemy trenches. Not a shot was fired. Harold’s primary concern was the possibility of discovery from the flapping noise of his waterproof cape. His account of this rescue differs from the official version which recorded that it took place under heavy fire during the day, while Harold recorded it as happening under the cover of darkness with very little rifle fire. He was nominated for the VC, but it was not awarded.

In his personal diary, Harold noted the following about the Christmas truce of December 1914: “The fields are as white as snow with frost. Only the chimes are stilled on this eternal morning. Not a church is left standing within earshot, unless at Laventie, and its bells have lost their ringers. Elsewhere, leagues away, the wind-swung peals are gladdening the air for others. We are beyond the peace of gentle hills, and the golden morning of tranquillity. It is not our business to remember the beauty of the world, its tears, its laughter and loving-kindness. Our duty is to death, and Hate. We hear that there is a truce on in the line, for the burial of the dead of the 18th. And what is more, Briton and Boche are now most amicably conversing together by word, sign, and deed. The Germans report that they found Captain Askew's body on their wire, and buried him within their lines. They sent his cap-badge over for his relatives. Unfortunately, the truce is only on for this afternoon, so I have missed a rare incident”.

This differs from the official history of the war which records the event as: “During Christmas day there was an informal suspension of arms during daylight on a few parts of the front, and a certain amount of fraternisation. Where there had been recent fighting both sides took the opportunity of burying their dead lying in No Man's land, and in some places there was an exchange of small gifts and a little talk, the Germans expressing themselves confident of early victory. Before returning to their trenches both parties sang Christmas carols and soldier songs, each in its own language, ending up with Auld Lang Syne in which all contingents joined. On part of the front where there happened to be two Irish battalions, the Germans suggested the prolongation of the cessation of fighting, naturally without result”.

According to Lord French: “These overtures were in some places favourably received and fraternisation of a limited kind took place during the day. It appeared that a little feasting went on, and junior officers, non-commissioned officers and men on either side conversed together in no-man's-land. When this was reported to me I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local commanders to strict account, which resulted in a good deal of trouble”.Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote: “For a single day the opposing forces mingled in friendly conversation and even in games. On the morning of the 26th dark figures vanished reluctantly into the earth, and the rifles cracked once more”.

Harold’s diary records this truce lasting until 12th January 1915. When told the war was on again, he doubted this as he and his men continued to walk in full view of the enemy. Only when they were about 100 yards from the enemy, did they draw some fire. They immediately dashed for cover and found sanctuary in a flooded trench.

He returned to England for leave on 25th January 1915, was wounded during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on 11th March and returned to London to recover. Harold was wounded yet again at Suvla Bay on 11th November 1915, and was shot in the arm at Beaumont Hamel, on the first day of the Somme on 1st July 1915. Twenty of the 23 officers in his Battalion were killed while 619 of 809 other ranks were killed, wounded or missing during that battle. As a result of his injury, Harold again returned to London to recuperate, where he met a nurse, Margie Anderson, a fellow South African who was with the VAD. They were married the following year. Due to the injury to his right arm, Harold could no longer remain with the infantry. His strong sense of duty saw him however being transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an Observer in the Balloon Corps until the end of the war. He was shot down numerous times, but survived to tell the tale.

Harold and Margie's wedding

SAMHSEC’s Field Trip: Friday 4th to Sunday 6th August 2017

Malcolm Kinghorn reports as follows:
The Field Trip was attended by 23 members and their guests. We visited the East London Museum on the morning of Friday 4th August. There is an impressive Great War exhibition, which will be on display until the end of 2018. The shipwreck section of the Museum is of interest to those from Port Elizabeth as it includes artefacts salvaged from the Atalaya, which was wrecked near East London in 1647 while sailing in convoy with the Sacramento, wrecked near Port Elizabeth. The Frontier Wars section is worth visiting. The nearby East London War Memorial is dilapidated, with squatters in residence. The Buffalo Volunteer Rifles Museum, which we visited in the afternoon, is in the Regimental Headquarters in the East London Drill Hall. It is a credit to the Regiment and the Curator, Major Tony Step.  

On Saturday 5th August we visited the sites of actions during the 9th Frontier War, namely Gwadana (26th September 1877), Ibeka (29th September 1877), Umzintzane (2nd December 1877) and Centane (7th February 1878). We also visited St Paul’s Church in Komga, which has a memorial to “Those who died in Komga & vicinity 1835-1912” and “Those who died East of the Kei River in Transkei Tembuland and East Griqualand” over the same period. There are military graves in the churchyard, but most of the headstones are illegible.  

On Sunday 6th August we visited King William’s Town, starting with Dale College and Dale Junior School. The College has the distinction of having three Old Dalians who were awarded the VC, namely D’Arcy, Nesbitt and Sherwood-Kelly. There are photographs of many Old Dalians who served in various armed conflicts on display in the entrance foyer. The College War Memorial, known as the Lone Soldier, is in the Hallowed Square in front of the College main building. Dale Junior School is on the campus occupied by the College until 1961. The names of Old Dalians who served in the Great War are recorded on a wall in the hall. The Edward Street Military Cemetery is unkempt. It includes the graves of people who died after the Cattle Killing of 1856/57. King Williams Town’s War Memorial is particularly imposing and prominent on a main thoroughfare. It is badly dilapidated and is all too obviously used as a public toilet, which makes it not to be visited by the faint of heart.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstigebyeenkomsenuitstappe

The next SAMHSEC meeting will be in Grahamstown on 9th September 2017. The meeting will take place in the First City Drill Hall in Hill Street starting at 14h00. There is plenty of parking in the road outside. The curtain raiser will be by Elizabeth Millnon Reminiscences of a WAAF during the Second World War. The main lecture, titled Drummer Hodge, will be presented by Professor Malvern Van Wyk Smith. It is based on his book of the same title. During the afternoon Professor Ian and Ms Jenny Copley will each be presented with certificates of Honorary Life Membership of the South African Military History Society. Both have contributed greatly to the Society, Jenny having been National Chairman for several years.

For those interested, during the morning there will be short field trip to the site of an ambush which occurred during the 7th Frontier War, followed by a visit to the recently revamped First City Regimental Museum. Meet at Fort Selwyn, where toilet facilities will be available at the Settlers’ Monument. Details of departure times will follow shortly in a warning order.

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemenebelang

Obituary / Lewensberig

SAMHSEC notes with sadness the passing of Dr Taffy Shearing, a life member of the South African Military History Society. Her military historical interests lay primarily in the Anglo-Boer War in the Cape, and in 2006 she addressed SAMHSEC on The Cape Rebels in the Anglo-Boer War. She also held unconventional views on the Concentration Camps.

SANDF Military surplus

For those interested in military surplus items ranging from camouflage clothing to SAMIL 6x6 trucks, the following website may be of interest: World War I Centenary Years / Eerste Wêreldoorlog Eeufeesjare

Major engagements in September 2017

While the war of attrition on the Western Front continued with numerous raids and counter raids by all the participants, the Battle of Ramadi on the Mesopotamian Front wasthe single most significant achievement of the Allied forces during September.

Following the advances of March and April 1917 resulting from the Samarrah Offensive (See SAMHSEC Newsletters 150 and 151), and a period of regrouping, during which a half-hearted attack on Ramadi in July was easily beaten back by a well organised Turkish defence, the Allies under C-in-C Maude renewed operations with a well-planned attack on the town on 28th September. A combination of armoured cars and cavalry encircled Ramadi while the infantry seized high points. The Turks, surprised by the tactics, surrendered the next day. Follow–up attempts to capture the major town of Hit by a similar approach were not successful and Maude turned his attention towards Tikrit in early November.

On matters naval:

Kapitanleutnant (roughly equivalent to the British/South African navy ‘Lieutenant’) Walther Schwieger of the Kaiserliche Marine and commander of the U-20 when it sank the RMS Lusitania, was killed in action with his entire crew when on 5th September 1917, U-88, which he then commanded, struck a British mine off the Dutch coast. He was the sixth most successful U-boat commander of the First World War. (See SAMHSEC Newsletter 123 regarding the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania.)

Between February 1917 and July 1919, units of the Imperial Japanese Navy operated in the Mediterranean. In accordance with the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance, the 2nd Special Squadron consisting of a cruiser and eight destroyers helped defend Allied shipping, particularly in escorting troopships after the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Central Powers. By the end of the war the squadron had accompanied 788 Allied ships carrying 700 000 troops and rescued several thousand passengers and crew from ships which had been torpedoed. They engaged enemy submarines on 38 occasions, but are not known to have sunk any. One of the destroyers, Sakaki, was torpedoed by UC-27 resulting in 59 deaths. There is a memorial commemorating these men in the Kalkara Naval Cemetery in Malta.

The memorial of the Imperial Japanese Navy
at Kalkara Naval Cemetery in Malta

The Royal Navy praised the efficiency of the Japanese Squadron, comparing it favourably to the operational capacity of the French and Italian navies. Deneys Reitz in Trekking On also relates how impressed he was after watching a Japanese rescue operation in the Mediterranean. More on this can be found at:

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

Ancient History

Salt’s value to mankind precedes recorded history–it has served as currency and cause of war
Katerina Kostovska The Vintage News 20th July 2017

Niels Provos

Historic aircraft

PBY Catalina for sale – WWII. All original

For more on Catalinas, see: PBY Catalina night attacks in the Pacific: The story of The Black Cats circa 1945 US Navy
Battle Stations: Catalina Patrol! (War history documentary)

World War I

Passchendaele mud soldier slowly dissolves to mark centenary of battle
The Telegraph News Undated

USS Indianapolis discovered 18,000 feet below Pacific surface
Emanuella Grinberg CNN News 20th August 2017

This is the heavy cruiser which carried parts of the atom bomb used at Hiroshima, to the island of Guam, arriving there on 26th July 1945. Four later she was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-58 and sank in 12 minutes. Of the crew of 1,196 only 317 survived after spending four days in the water. It remains the greatest single loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy. For more details see:

One of the last four surviving Spitfire pilots from the Battle of Britain has died aged 99
Carl Stroud The Sun 2nd August 2017

Cold War and post-Cold war

Hwasong-14 Missile Test: Can North Korea's Rockets Reach the US?
Tom Metcalfe Live Science 14th July 2017

Seven technologies that transformed post World War II warfare
Denise Chow Live Science 19th November 2013

Up close with a US Super Carrier and the pilots fresh from combat operations
Save the Royal Navy 29th July 2017

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieël van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang


Barbaric beauty. An interesting comment and discussion on the History Channel series The Vikings The Great War Channel 101 A YouTube production with week by week episodes, recaps and background.


Von der Heide Nicki 2013 Guide to the sieges of South Africa Cape Town Struik Travel & Heritage
This will be seen as a welcome companion volume to von der Heyde’s 2013 Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa. (See review in Newsletter 113). Of the approximately 60 military events in South Africa which might be construed as ‘sieges’ of one sort or another, von der Heyde has dealt with 17, some of which are debatable as to whether or not they were sieges at all. She covers most, but not all, of the high profile or ‘big’ sieges such as Potchefstroom (1880-1881) and Mafeking (1899-1900). Others such as Pretoria, arguably the most significant siege of the Anglo-Transvaal War of 1880-1881, and well documented, have been left out. So have a number of other major sieges such as the month long investment of Makapana’s Cave (1854) in which up to 3 000 people are reputed to have died of thirst, starvation and bullets. By way of comparison it is difficult to fathom why Fort Armstrong was even considered as a siege as, except for the one-day assault on it by colonial forces, it was never surrounded or isolated. The siege of Post Retief, not far away and which took place about the same time, would have been a more appropriate example. There the inhabitants were genuinely surrounded and isolated for four days with little hope of relief until a joint commando of Burghers and amaMfengu, came to their rescue. It is also a puzzle why Lindley was included as a siege, when it was in effect only a military unit which was surrounded and captured after some stubborn resistance.

As with the Guide to Battlefields, one may quibble over captions and illustrations. On p195 for example, a gun called ‘a 120mm Howitzer’ did not exist in the British Ordnance. There was an 8-inch Rifled Muzzle Loading Howitzer, but the gun in the picture shows a breech loader. Similarly on p 59, the ‘British 7-pounder gun’ which was a Rifled Muzzle Loader with a much shorter barrel, looks like a breech loader. At a push it could be seen as a 2.5-inch mountain gun, but I would need some convincing.

Nevertheless, the book does provide useful background material on the sieges covered and, with directions and GPS co-ordinates given, will no doubt be used as a valuable field guide to the sites. I hope it will be another landmark in popularising military history. In an interesting point made by von der Heyde in the Preface, regarding the role of women in military history, this writer welcomes the increasing number of women involved. In my experience, they bring a refreshing, wider and different perspective to military historical matters. Still on the preface, there are also numerous excellent military historians, including battlefield guides, here and abroad who have never been under fire or even served in the military.

The book is 216 pages in length and illustrated throughout in both colour and with black & white historical pictures, and is well served with maps, both regional and local. It is available online and in local bookstores at prices ranging from R249.00 to R302.00.


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 Franco Cilliers, Richard Tomlinson, Malcolm Kinghorn, Barry Irwin, Michael Irwin, Chris Papenfus and Peter Duffel-Canham.

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn:
Secretary: Franco Cilliers:
Scribes (Newsletter): Anne and Pat Irwin:
Society’s Website:


Have you ever come across the term ‘chickenhawk’ in your military history reading? Word-a-Day, 16th August 2017 offers the following definition: ‘A person who favours military action, yet has avoided military service’. (Think Dick Cheney, former American Secretary of Defence, Vice President and strong advocate of the war against Iraq.) An alternative description is ‘one who is outwardly full of bravado but inwardly fearful or cowardly’, the hawk being on the outside and the chicken being on the inside.

South African Military History Society /