The pom-pom gun was already an accepted item of the Boer armoury when the Anglo-Boer War broke out in October 1899. The British adopted it only later, and then against the better judgement of the senior commanders of the Royal Artillery. They did not regard it as an artillery weapon at all. In the curtain raiser to the society lecture meeting on 7 March George Barrell quoted the impressions of a Royal Horse Artillery Officer who brought the first British pom-poms out to South Africa.
Captain Francis Reader McMeekan landed at Cape Town with his pom-poms in February 1900. He went straight to Bloemfontein to join R Battery, RHA, which came under General French, commander of the cavalry in Lord Robert's army. In a lecture given to his fellow officers after the war, McMeekan, by this time a major, explains that his pom-poms were there mainly because General Buller had urgently requested them. Buller had been impressed with the impact the Boer pom-poms made on the morale of his own troops, although it was generally accepted that their killing power was negligible.
McMeekan outlined some of the problems experienced by those tasked with introducing a new weapon into an unfamiliar environment. He is overjoyed when the 'Scotch Cart' used to carry his ammunition breaks a wheel and has to be abandoned. When loaded it was almost unmanageable. 'The rear mules had an awful time going over rough ground owing to the uneven distribution of the weight.' He praises the 'trek wagon', which he uses for his third line of ammunition supply. The army adds to his problems by providing him with drivers from the Royal Army Service Corp, layers from the Royal Horse Artillery, and gunners and NCOs mainly from the Royal Garrison Artillery. They even gave him a Royal Marine sergeant who had never handled a big gun or even a horse. The fact he would need a farrier was entirely overlooked.
Despite all difficulties Captain McMeekan and his pom-poms were able to accompany Roberts on his march to Pretoria, although whether he made it all the way is not clear. On 22 June 1900 he was back in Bloemfontein lying delirious in hospital with enteric fever. By the August he was in Kroonstadt, where he suffered a relapse and had to return to Bloemfontein. He was still there a few months later when his wife, accompanied by a nurse, came out to South Africa to find him and take him home. He landed in England on 1 June 1991 in the middle of a snowstorm. The British were unable to make much use of the pom-pom during the fast-moving 'commando' stage of the war. It did more for the morale of the British troops, who liked to feel they had the support of a weapon the Boers were using, than it ever did to defeat their enemy.
During the campaign in Western desert in WW2 the 7th Armoured Brigade of the British Army became known as 'The Desert Rats'. It was therefore appropriate that it should be the first British Army unit called on when the US and allied forces were being mobilised to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait in 1990. The subject of Martin Ayres' main lecture of the evening was the Gulf War in general, and the part played by the 7th Armoured in particular.
The brigade was serving in Germany when ordered to the Middle East on 11 September 1990. It consisted of two armoured regiments. These were The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and The Queens Royal Irish Hussars. They took with them their 120 Challenger main battle tanks, and were accompanied by an infantry unit, the 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment, with Warrior armoured fighting vehicles. Also attached were an air defence battalion, helicopters, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. The brigade was brought up to strength by the addition of various other units, including complete tank crews from the 14th/20th Kings Hussars; reconnaissance crews from the 17th/21st Lancers; a company of the Grenadier Guards; and air-defence elements.
Later it was decided to send the 4th Armoured Brigade, also suitably augmented, to join the 7th. This combined array was to make up the 1st British Armoured Division. It took until the end of January 1991 to assemble, and when complete comprised virtually the entire fighting strength of the British Army at that time. It was to be a total commitment.
By the time the offensive began on 24 February 1991 the British 1st Division was grouped with the US VIIth Corp on the western extension of the allied line facing the Iraqi border. The Iraqi defences along the Kuwaiti/Saudi Arabian border were manned mainly by ill-trained, poorly equipped, conscripts. They were battered by one of the most intense 'softening-up' operations in the history of war. The object of the forces on the western extension, which included the French contingent, was to sweep round Kuwait on the west and cut off the Iraqi troop occupying Kuwait. The particular objective of the 1st British Armoured Division was to destroy the Iraqi's tactical reserves, located in numerous static defence positions, and to protect the flank of the VIIth Corp in its assault on the Republican Guard, massed in the Iraqi rear.
As history records, Operation Desert Sword was a spectacular success. It failed to destroy the Republican Guard - Saddam's elite troops on which his regime depended for its survival - and Saddam himself lived on to present a continuing threat to peace in the Middle East. But the ground fighting was all over in 100 hours. In the first 60 hours the British 1st Division had advanced 250km; destroyed three armoured divisions, including over 400 pieces of equipment; and taken 7 000 prisoners. It suffered only 25 fatalities.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
Contact number in Cape Town: John (Jochen) Mahncke (021) 797-5167
Contact number in Durban: Dr Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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