South African Military History Society


The curtain raiser at the 11 July lecture meeting was entitled Aspects of the Spanish Civil War. The speaker, Geoff Hardy, took much of his inspiration from a recent book by author Hugh Thomas, which he described as 'the monumental and definitive' work on the subject.

The social and political background to the war that began early in 1936 was complicated. In the previous years the politics of the 2nd Spanish Republic had been reduced to virtual anarchy. The reforms supported by the communists, the socialists, the trade unions and the intellectuals were staunchly resisted by element of the church, the monarchists, the fascists and the army. The 'rainbow' of conflicting interests ranged across the entire political spectrum, and eventually coalesced into the familiar two divisions of left and right. Or, perhaps more accurately, communists versus fascists.

The army's top brass, under General Emelio Mola, had planned to launch a coup to overturn the Republican Government and restore stability to Spain. But they were betrayed to the government, which proceeded to take defensive action. The Nationalists' hopes then centred on the Army of Africa, under its commander General Francis Franco. Germany and Italy provided the aircraft required to transport Franco and his army to Spain. The result was that what had been intended as a quick and peaceful seizure of power developed into a bitter and massively destructive civil war.

The war rapidly assumed an international aspect as a battleground for the conflicting liberal and authoritarian ideologies that came to dominate the 20th century.

The Republicans received considerable help from the Soviet Union and from left-wing elements in Europe and America. The Nationalists gained even more assistance from Europe's increasingly aggressive fascist dictators, Hitler and Mussolini. All major powers involved took the opportunity to test the new weapons and tactics being prepared for the greater conflict they knew was coming. Both sides made extensive use of international 'volunteers', some genuine, others not.

By the time it ended in March 1939 the Spanish Civil War had developed into a practice run for World War Two. Aerial bombing and tank tactics were both a feature of what became an increasingly brutal and bloody conflict, which was only marginally relieved by the pioneering improvements in field medicine.

The final victory of Franco's Nationalist imposed a regime of cruel repression on Spain for the next four decades. Any signs of a revival of the pre-war liberalism were ruthlessly suppressed. The country remained desperately poor and recovery was slow. However, Spain mercifully avoided being dragged into the greater destruction that would have resulted from its joined WW2 on the Axis side.

The main lecture of the evening, The Siege of Mafeking, was given by Paul Schamberger, and was accompanied by a lengthy and fascinating collection of photographs and drawing from the period. When the opening shots of the Anglo-Boer War were fired on 12 October 1899, the small, dusty border town of Mafeking in the remote north of the Cape Colony, along with its adjacent Baralong settlement, was garrisoned by about 1 200 defenders. A Boer attack from the Transvaal was expected, and arrived on 14 October. The subsequent siege was to last until relief came on 17 May 1900. The way in which its outnumbered garrison, inspired by its ingenious 42-year-old commander, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, kept the Boers at bay, captured the attention of the world.

Accurate figures are not available, but at the beginning of the siege it seems that Mafeking was surrounded by some 3 000 Boers from several Transvaal commandos. Their commander, General Piet Cronje, and his successor, General 'Koos' Snyman, both hesitated to launch a full-scale attack despite being urged to do so by President Paul Kruger. They considered the risk of casualties too great, although much of this reluctance to shown even signs of determined action must be attributed to Baden-Powell's methods of deception. He consistently led the Boers to believe his garrison was far stronger and better equipped than it really was. The Boers confined themselves to shelling the town from a great distance, although some Boer snipers approached as near as they dared to the defence lines.

Mafeking enjoyed a good press throughout the siege. But the publicity it got afterwards was less favourable.
The first concentration camp was established just outside the town, and drew considerable criticism owing to the high rate of disease and death among the Boer women and children.

It could not be known at the time of the relief, but the war was to drag on another two years and Mafeking had to continue being closely guarded. The besieging ring had been remarkably porous, and the British public had been fed with a continuous commentary of what was going on inside the town. It would have been a severe blow to morale if the town had been captured after the eruption of joy throughout Britain and the empire that followed the relief. The event added a new verb to the English language. To 'maffick' came to mean to celebrate joyously and exuberantly.



22 August
CR John Murray - The Irish Guards: The Micks
ML Dr Alan Kayle - The Sinking of the Birkenhead, Salvage and Artifacts (Please note that 22 August is the fourth Thursday of the month)
12 September
CR Allan Sinclair - The Art of the Museum
ML Louis Wildenboer - Heavy Gustav: The Story of a Gun


15 August
Base Visit

Cape Town

8 August
John Mahncke - The WW2 U-Boat Commander Who Shopped at Stuttafords, and Other True Stories

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

* NOTE* Fast mirror and backup site      BOOKMARK FOR REFERENCE     Main site * NOTE*

South African Military History Society /