South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926



The committee would like to wish all our members a happy and prosperous New Year.
One of the frequent discussions at our committee meetings is the declining membership and increasing average age of members of the Society. The discussions have not only centred around ways to increase membership but we are faced with other issues as well; most members are retired and are effectively on a fixed income. We have for many years held our membership fees constant. The committee is mindful that some members will not be able to afford a substantial increase fees but we need to find ways to improve our financial well-being.
The 2019 AGM is just around the corner and we invite all members to come forward, to be involved by joining the committee and helping the Society to grow.
Members are reminded that subscriptions for 2019 are due. As mentioned at the last AGM we are not raising membership fees for the year. We urge all members to please pay their subscription fees before the cut-off date of February 2019.
Members are reminded that the January talk is on the THIRD Thursday of the month and not the normal second Thursday.



Chris Dooner led a guided tour for the Cape Town Branch to Apostle Battery, attended by24people in total (members and other interested persons). Chris was very well prepared and managed to retain the interest and attention of all for the duration of the almost 5 hours.  The overwhelming reaction was extremely positive and our branch of the SAMHS gained some goodwill in the process. The tour started with a visit to the 6-inch Field Gun 2 emplacement, followed by the support buildings, magazines, the Battery Observation Post, Radar installation building, the defensive blockhouse and Fortress and Battery Plotting Room. The tour was a huge success with many members requesting more visits to other sites. The committee would like to thank Chris Dooner for a well-presented tour.

Group Photo of the tour participants.
Capt Chris Dooner (SAN Retd.) in the blue shirt (LHS)


October 2018 Talk - Operation Barbarossa – Part 2

Mr Greg Pullin started his talk on the initial objectives of Operation Barbarossa, which was NOT to conquer the whole of Russia, but to provide Lebensraum for the German people, a source of oil, agricultural resources and to eradicate Communism.

Mr Pullin stated that there were a number of campaigns and battles fought during 1942 and discussed each one and highlighted specific points. These were: the Rzhev-Vyazma Offensive, the Siege of Leningrad, the Demyansk Pocket, the Second Battle of Kharkov, the Battle of Voronezh, Operation Blue, the First Rzhev-Sychevka Offensive, the Battle of the Caucasus, the Battle of Stalingrad, Operation Winter Storm, Operation Saturn and Operation Uranus.

Mr Pullin explained the opening phase of the Red Army strategic counter-offensive operations were a costly Soviet victory.

The campaign began with the Moscow Strategic Offensive Operation with the simultaneous Kerch-Feodosia Amphibious Operation followed by four other offensive operations in central and northern Russia. The Rzhev-Vyazma Strategic Offensive Operation was a disastrous Soviet attempt to cut off the Rzhev salient. Due to the horrific losses suffered by the Red Army in the campaign it became known as the "Rzhev Meat Grinder"

The salient was strategically important for the German Army Group Centre due to the threat it posed to Moscow, and was therefore heavily fortified and strongly defended. The Red Army attacked West of Rzhev, and penetrated deep into the western flank of the German Army by the end of January. This penetration soon found itself surrounded and the Soviet Vyazma Airborne Operation took place but this was unsuccessful and most of the troops were lost.

In the aftermath of the Soviet winter counteroffensive, substantial Soviet forces remained in the rear of the German Army.

Mr Pullin then explained General Model’s Operation Seydlitz. The Germans first blocked the natural breakout route through the Obsha valley and then split the Soviet forces into two isolated pockets. The battle lasted eleven days and ended with the elimination of the encircled Soviet forces.

Mr Pullin explained that the Soviet Army suffered terribly from severe deficits in weapons and lack of ammunition. The Soviet tank forces were no better, they had a large number but of mainly low quality and many were damaged and outdated.

The Siege of Leningrad was a prolonged military blockade; it started when the last road to the city was severed and was not lifted until 872 days after it began. The successful German defence of Demyansk Pocket, achieved by an airbridge, was a significant development in modern warfare. However, the cost for the Luftwaffe at 265 transport aircraft was significant. Its success was a major contributor to the decision by the Army High Command to try the same tactic during the Battle of Stalingrad.

The Battle of Voronezh was fought in and around the strategically important city of Voronezh on the Don river. It was the opening move of the German summer offensive it hadtwo objectives to seed confusion about the ultimate goals of the overall campaign and by strongly attacking toward Voronezh it would hide the real objective taking place in the south. The highly mobile forces would move eastward to Voronezh, turn southeast and follow the Don to Stalingrad. The German armoured forces moved forward and crossed the Devitsa River bridge and sweep aside the defensive forces to reach the outskirts of Voronezh. Soviet forces then mounted a successful counterattack. The Soviets poured reserves into the city. The German troops cleared the city street by street. The final Soviet forces west of the Don were defeated and the fighting ended.

The Soviet Army Command failed to discern the direction of the main German strategic offensive anticipated in 1942, even though they were in possession of the German plans. Joseph Stalin, however, believed it to be a German ruse. With the German thrust expected in the north towards Moscow, Stavka< planned several local offensives in the south to weaken the Germans. The Second Battle of Kharkov was a new Soviet attempt to expand upon their strategic initiative. After a promising start, the offensive was stopped by massive German airstrikes. Critical errors by staff officers and Stalin facilitated a German pincer attack which cut off three Soviet field armies. The battle was an overwhelming German victory.

Operation Braunschweig, was the German plan for the 1942. It was a continuation of the previous year's Operation Barbarossa, intended to knock the Soviet Union out of the war. Believing that the main Soviet threat had been eliminated and being short of oil, Hitler made a series of changes to the original plan.

Hitler wanted the oil resources of the Caucasus and this became known as the Battle of the Caucasus. It involved a two-pronged attack. The right flank to the oil fields of Baku, Operation Edelweiss and the left flank along the Volga River in the direction of Stalingrad, Operation Fischreiher(Grey Heron). Later the goal of capturing Stalingrad was added. The new directive created enormous logistical difficulties and it would make the advance impossible using the existing conservative fuel supply rates.

With the success of the initial advance, Hitler ordered the Fourth Panzer Army south to assist in crossing the lower Don river. However, the assistance was not needed and the Fourth Panzer Army only clogged the roads. Two weeks later, the Soviets had enough forces to check its advance. Operation Edelweiss was the German plan to take the Caucasus and capture the oil fields of Baku. The Germans attacked towards the Caucasus and when Rostov-on-Don fell the tank units moved across the Caucasian Mountain Range. The Germans advanced through the gorges of rivers of the Kuban River basin and stopped at two towns, Malgobek and Ordzhonikidze.

However, the German forces could not fight their way through to the Caspian Sea oilfields. After the Soviet breakthroughs in the region around Stalingrad, the German forces in the Caucasus were put on the defensive and were eventually compelled to withdraw as Operation Little Saturn threatened to cut them off.

The Battle of Stalingrad was the largest confrontation of World War II, it was also the largest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare.

The German 6th Army pursued Soviet armies who had fallen back into Stalingrad. The battle began with the heavy bombing of the city, much of the city was quickly turned to rubble, although some factories continued production while workers joined in the fighting.

The Soviet Air Fighter Force, the VVS, was swept aside by the Luftwaffe but the Soviets continued to pour in aerial reinforcements with appalling losses.

Stalin rushed all available troops to the east bank of the Volga. The Soviet Army had been reduced to 90 tanks and these were used as immobile strongpoints.The Red Army gradually adopted a strategy to hold all ground for as long as possible. Bitter fighting raged for every ruin, street, factory, house, basement, and staircase.

Having slowly advanced the German Army was finally at the three giant factories of Stalingrad: Red October, Barricades and Tractor Factory. Exceptionally intense shelling and bombing paved the way for the German assault groups. The Soviet-controlled area shrunk down to a few strips of land along the Volga river. The fighting concentrated around what Soviet newspapers called "Lyudnikov's Island".

However, the constant air support operations required by the Germans began to affect the strategic balance in the air and operational efficiency fell. During the siege, the natural defence line of the Don River was never properly established. The German and their allied Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian armies protecting the north and south flanks were poorly equipped in terms of anti-tank weapons.

Recognizing that German troops were ill-prepared, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus, a two-pronged attack on the German 6th Army flanks. The Axis forces on the flanks were overrun and the 6th Army was cut off and surrounded in the Stalingrad area. The Red Army immediately formed two defensive fronts: a circumvallation facing inward and a contravallation facing outward.

Manstein was tasked to conduct a relief operation to Stalingrad named Operation Winter Storm. He thought it was feasible if the 6th Army was temporarily supplied through the air, even though he recognized the enormous technical difficulties of this. If a narrow link could be established a relief force could help to extract the 6th Army. He also acknowledged the heavy moral sacrifice by giving up Stalingrad, but it would conserve the combat power of the 6th Army and allow Germany to regain the initiative. Hitler insisted that the 6th Army should stay at Stalingrad and that the air bridge would supply it.

The German attempt to relieve the trapped army from the south, was initially successful aided by the element of surprise. The Soviet infantry quickly reinforced villages in the path of the German drive. The German Army had pushed to within 48 km of 6th Army's positions but the starving encircled forces at Stalingrad made no attempt to break out.

The attempt to break through to Stalingrad was abandoned and Army Group A was ordered to pull back from the Caucasus. The 6th Army now was beyond all hope of German relief.

In spite of the failure of the German offensive to reach the 6th Army, the air supply operation continued under difficult circumstances and remained the last hope for the Germans.The airfield at Pitomnik was one of seven airfields within the Stalingrad Pocket and the only one equipped to handle large amounts of air traffic. Along with anti-aircraft guns, the airfield was protected by fighter planes.

The forces under the 6th Army were large and there was also a corps of the 4th Panzer Army trapped in the pocket. The maximum supplies the Luftwaffe could deliver a day was 107 tons but a minimum of 750 tons was needed.

Gradually the airfields were overrun by the Soviets. When Pitomnik and the other airfields fell the 6th Army was left without any means of direct support. There were no more landings, just intermittent air drops of ammunition and food.

The Germans were now not only starving, but running out of ammunition.

Nevertheless, they continued to resist, in part because they believed the Soviets would execute any who surrendered.

Paulus requested that he be granted permission to surrender. Hitler refused. He telegraphed the 6th Army later that day, claiming that it had made a historic contribution to the greatest struggle in German history and that it should stand fast "to the last soldier and the last bullet."

Hitler promoted Paulus to Field Marshal. In his last message, Hitler made a clear order: "not one German Field Marshal has ever been taken prisoner." If Paulus surrendered, he would become the highest-ranking German officer ever to be captured. Hitler expected Paulus to fight to the last man or commit suicide.

The Battle of Stalingrad lasted five months, one week and three days. Out of the nearly 91,000 German prisoners captured in Stalingrad, only about 5,000 returned. Some were kept in the city to help rebuild it.

Stalingrad has been described as the biggest defeat in the history of the German Army: the 6th Army had ceased to exist. The German High Command had to withdraw vast military forces from the Western Front to replace their losses.

It is often identified as the turning point in the war against Germany. In a speech on 9 November 1944, Hitler himself blamed Stalingrad for Germany's impending doom.

Regardless of the strategic implications, there is little doubt about Stalingrad's symbolism to both Hitler and Stalin.

The war was to drag on for another two long years.

Our chairman, Carl Burger, thanked Greg for a well-presented and -illustrated talk and handed him the customary gift.


November 2018 Talk – Battle of Cambrai - 1917

Our speaker for the evening was Mr Johan van den Berg, our past Chairman, whose topic was the Battle of Cambrai. He was prompted by an article in the Cape Argus of 1 November 2017, titled “Awesome Fire-belching Monsters” that was supposed to be an overview of the Battle of Cambrai, 1917, but contained so many inaccuracies and misconceptions that it induced him to write to the Cape Argus.

Mr van den Berg stated that the battle of Cambrai was the first time that tanks were used in battle en masse, and it was hoped by the British that it would break the stalemate of trench warfare. Rather than complementing existing plans, they sought to employ tanks in an operation that would achieve surprise by concentration of force. At Cambrai in November 1917 the fledgling Tank Corps found their first opportunity.

By 1917, with Russia out of the war, Italy on the brink of collapse, and the French reeling from the effects of widespread mutiny, Britain was the only member of the Western Allies still capable of holding the mighty German Army at bay.

At dawn on 20 November 1917, the British attacked the German lines with almost 400 tanks - the first ever mass use of this brand-new weapon of war. The Germans were taken completely by surprise and crumpled beneath the blow – or so it appeared. For a brief moment it appeared that a stunning breakthrough had been achieved, and church bells rang out across England in celebration. By the time the peals had died away, the mobile nature of the battle had already congealed into the familiar stalemate.

Many myths have developed about this iconic battle. It was not the tanks that most shocked the Germans at Cambrai at all, but brilliant British innovations in artillery techniques. The myth of the potency of the tank was finally brought to reality in the mobile battles of World War 2.

Tank Corps Headquarters previously had recommended the Cambrai area as suitable for tanks and would likely draw pressure away from Ypres, but the request was denied. After Ypres it was approved. Brig.-General H. H. Tudor, commanding the divisional artillery recommended the Cambrai front as good tank country and suggested a surprise assault by omission of the usual preliminary bombardment and registration, a creeping barrage was to used instead. The Cambrai offensive started as a large-scale surprise raid but ended as large-scale operation intended to break the German Hindenburg Line and the taking intact of the bridges at Masnières and Marcoing. Due to Ypres consuming all spare infantry there was no reserve available for exploitation should the operation be a success.

Haig assembled nineteen divisions for the attack by General Julian Byng's Third Army. Byng was allotted the complete Tank Corps of 445 tanks, five cavalry divisions stood ready for exploitation. Supporting the attack would be 1,003 guns of the Royal Artillery and 14 squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps. Co-operation between tanks and aircraft laid the groundwork for later military tactics which culminated in the decisive German blitzkrieg tactics of World War II. The Germans had only six divisions - only two on the frontage first to be assaulted and were outnumbered to about the same extent in artillery.

Byng's aim was to smash through the Hindenburg Line, seize crossings over the Saint-Quentin Canal, and capture the high ground on which stood Bourlon Wood. The vital exploitation was to be northward to the canalized Sensée river. This was to be accomplished by three brigades of Mark IV tanks, followed by six infantry divisions with support from another two and three more held in reserve. While the tanks and infantry captured the two main features of the area, the ridges of Flesquières and Bourlon, five cavalry divisions (including the Canadian Cavalry Brigade) were to pour through the gap and isolate the town of Cambrai. From then onwards the plan was rather vague

Mr van den Berg said the allocation of the tanks to be used against the Hindenburg position and the rest held in reserve to capture other strong defence systems was a mistake and explained that a better allotment would be half for the Hindenburg Line and half for exploitation, otherwise the plan was fine. The British had invented a revolutionary weapon, ranking with novelties such as the breech-loader and the submarine and they had evolved fresh tactics to use the tank in a predominant role.

Special tactics were devised for both infantry and armour. The Mark IV tank could cross only a 10-foot trench so fascines of brushwood compressed by chains were carried on the unditchinq beam rails. These fascines would be dropped into the trench, making it possible for the tank to cross a wider trench. A section of infantry in single file was to follow a leading tank. The leading tank and its infantry team were to go through the German wire and turn left without crossing the trench. The second tank would follow, drop a fascine in the trench then cross and turn left. Its infantry team was to block the trench at various points. The third tank and its infantry team were to follow, cross the first trench go to the second line of trenches drop its fascine and turn left. Its infantry team was to garrison the captured trench until the arrival of the first wave of infantry. These tactics were highly successful during the operation.

To some extent, the Germans contributed to their own misfortune. Their standing operational orders insisted that lost ground must be recovered immediately by counter-attack and, amid the mist and growing confusion several units were committed with little understanding of what was involved; the tanks caught them in the open and mowed them down.

By noon, eighteen tanks had become casualties at Le Pavé near Bois de Lateau, three at Masnières, fourteen at Marcoing, sixteen at Flesquières, and six south of Graincourt. At Flesquières a German artillery officer apparently served a field gun alone and his exploits were mentioned in Haig’s Cambrai Despatch. As a result this single action got enshrined in the Official History of the Cambrai battle – such are the events from which legends are born.

By 16h00 the cavalry which was assembling near Ribècourt and Masnières advanced. A Canadian cavalry brigade advance guard had crossed the canal southeast of Masnières, another cavalry squadron crossed at Marcoing and one reached Noyelles, but heavy casualties forced their withdrawal. Tank crews as well as infantry were exhausted by the time Fontaine was taken. During the night of November 20-21 the least exhausted tank crews were formed into composite units in anticipation of a continuation of the advance on the next day. The 3rd Brigade saw little action and was withdrawn because the objectives on the right had been taken and now formed a flank to be held while action continued to the north. However, this advance was forming a bulge or pocket around Bourlon where heavy German resistance increased British effort.While the rest of the front was reorganizing the Germans drove the British out of Fontaine.

There was only sporadic fighting on the 24th but on the 25th, 26th, and 27th, attacks with a few tanks took place at Bourlon and Fontaine but by now the tank crews were completely exhausted and disorganized. Two tank brigades were withdrawn leaving the 2nd Brigade in Gouzeaucourt Wood to refit and rest. This withdrawal was almost completed and the two brigades had entrained when the Germans, who had been moving troops up, counterattacked early on November 30. This attack astonished everyone with its speed and weight.

The Germans had used a new offensive technique of their own, in essence, it contained three elements.

First, an extremely heavy but brief artillery programme designed to neutralise the opposing artillery, destroy isolated strongpoints and provide the assault infantry with a rolling barrage.

Second, the leading storm troops were to bypass centres of resistance, leaving them to be dealt with by the follow-up waves.

Third, the attack was supported by waves of ground-attack aircraft.

Sending in an assortment of tanks back into battle finally brought the German assault to a standstill on 7 December. The Germans had recovered much of the ground they had lost and inflicted comparable casualties to those they sustained on 20 November.

The Germans captured seventy-one tanks which had been hit or disabled and were to repair and use them later against the British and the French. Of the 4,000 officers and men of the Tank Corps who had taken part, a total of 1,153 were killed or wounded. Less than athird of the 474 tanks returned to base and all of them required extensiverepairs. In fact, few of them saw action again in the following year. The infantry losses were about 6,000, a big reduction from previous battle losses. The credit could be given to the use of tanks.

There was an initial Press embargo for 48 hours which was lifted after the army’s initial success. Lord Northcliffe’s Newspaper Empire stoked the home propaganda fires. Ringing of Victory Bells started on 22nd by Southwark Cathedral – spread like wildfire across the country. It made the shock of the reverse on 30th November so much more personal. Politicians and public felt betrayed and were looking for answers.

A number of court of enquiries were instituted. They found:

It would be invidious not to detail the casualties suffered by both sides during the battle. Between 20 November and 3 December 1917, Sir Julian Byng's Third Army lost 44,207 men killed, wounded or missing. During approximately the same period, German losses totalled between 41,000 and 53,300 (the latter figure resulting from attempts to make the method of calculating these casualties comparable with that used forthe BEF's losses).

However, the events of the battle and their significance had already been appropriated and reinterpreted in the inter-war years, principally they focus on one aspect of the battle: the massed employment of tanks. Despite the corrective writings of the Official History the public's imagination was already captured with a simple equation: Cambrai equalled tanks.

Winston Churchill, a man who can rightly claim to have been one of the key individuals responsible for the development of the tank, said “Accusing as I do without exception all the great Allied offensives of 1915, 1916, and 1917 as needless and wrongly conceived operations of infinite cost, I am bound to reply to the question, what else could be done? And I answer it, pointing to the Battle of Cambrai: 'This could have been done.'”

The myth of Cambrai as primarily a tank battle and by virtue of the number of tanks deployed, was in no way diminished by a desire amongst tankophiles to focus on the first day of the battle. Overall, a stunning success had been achieved on that day but a success that fell comprehensively short of complete victory.

Ninety years after the battle, the stories of the courage and enduranceof the men who fought at Cambrai should still excite our admiration and wonder,regardless of its status as a landmark in military history.

Carl Burger thanked Johan for a well-presented and -illustrated talk and handed him the customary gift.



The committee is sad to announce the death of Col. Lionel Crook, former OC of the Cape Field Artillery and a long-standing member of the Cape Town branch, on the 4th of November, 2018. He is survived by his wife and family. The Society sends their sincere condolences to the family.




There are two very similar paintings which appear to have been done by the same hand. Neither of the paintings is signed. The one painting belongs to IZIKO Museums and is in the Fehr Collection at the Castle, the other is in the Library of Parliament, Cape Town. The two paintings together hold a secret and a number of clues that provide important and little-known facts about the battle. So, who exactly is the artist and why and when did he paint the scene?

Ian van Oordt has spent the last thirteen years researching and studying this important South African battle. He has carefully studied these paintings, identifying a number of features that can only be found in many archival memorandums, letters and reports. Although he can never be absolutely certain, he believes the artist has left a “report” on the battle in a picture “that is worth a thousand words”. Can Ian finally answer the question of who is the artist and was he present at the battle?



After matriculation Gabriel Athiros joined SA Navy and took up a career in Industrial Electronics.

He has been a keen mountaineer since 1962, and has led two mountaineering expeditions, in 1978 the South African Aconcagua Expedition and in 1987 the South African Puna de Atacama Expedition. In 1994 he represented SA at the Union of International Alpine Association’s conference in Spain.

In 2001 Gabriel started Historical Media cc and took up the challenge of launching The Cape Odyssey newspaper. Historical Media has published more than 30 books on the culture and history of the Cape. In 2005 he was awarded the Provincial Arts & Culture Award.

In 2005, after a 40-year search, Gabriel reconnected with his family in Greece.


Ian van Oordt (Secretary)
021 531 6612

South African Military History Society /