Gideon Jacobus Scheepers was born near Middelburg, Eastern Transvaal, in April 1878. His parents were farmers and landowners and he grew up on the farm of Roodepoort just north of where Arnot station was built in the 1890s. He attended local farm schools, and his parent's intention was to have him study for the Dutch Reformed church Ministry. But no money was available for university study, and instead Scheepers joined the State Artillery of the South African Republic in 1895. He was in the heliographic section of the Field Telegraph. He took part in the suppression of the Jameson Raid. Scheepers was intelligent and able, rising to the rank of Sergeant-Major at the age of twenty. He was then second in command of the heliographic section. In 1898 he was asked by the head of the O.F.S. Artillery to transfer to Bloemfontein and train a heliographic unit there. He accepted, and was still in the Free State when war was declared in October 1899.
At the outbreak Scheepers was on the Western front and remained there for some months. He was active in the operations around Kimberley, at Modder River and Magersfontein, where he inflicted a number of casualties on the Highland Brigade. He came under General C.R.de Wet's command in about January 1900. A week before Danie Theron went into Paardeberg on hands and knees, Scheepers was sent by De Wet to persuade General Cronje to break out. In March 1900 he was promoted to the temporary rank of Captain and given command of the fledgling O.F.S. Scout Corps. Scheeper's duties now entailed more scouting than heliography. He was at Poplar Grove and was then given a few weeks leave. He returned to Roodepoort for the last time. In late March he returned to De Wet's command and took an active part in that guerilla General's great counter-offensive of Spring 1900.
In mid-1900 Scheepers accompanied De Wet to the Transvaal. He scouted the advance guard while Danie Theron was in charge of the rear guard. After the return to the O.F.S. he launched a number of dynamite attacks against the railway line. In October De Wet sent him to the southern Free State to prepare the way for the remobilization of that region. On 16th December Scheepers entered the Cape Colony with Cmdt Piet Kritzinger's commando.
Scheepers' career up to his execution on the 18th January 1902 was dealt with by Rodney in his talk last year. But he pointed out that the Scheepers saga did not end with his death. As his body was never found. rumours persisted for many decades that he: was not dead. His own family came to believe that he was alive, perhaps deranged and living in an institution somewhere. Every night his mother, who lived to the age of 100, placed a lighted candle in the window of his room in Roodepoort, so that he could find his way home. Scheepers achieved legendary status and was elevated to the pantheon of Afrikaner heroes and martyrs.
Rodney then focused his attention on Commandant Hans Loetter. He was born on a farm in the Somerset East district, but grew up on the Middelburg-Cradock border. He attended a senior school in Graaf-Reinet where he studied commercial subjects, but in 1893 left before matriculating and moved up to the Free State. The Jameson Raid radicalized him, and he read widely on South African history. His father's death brought him back to the farm. But Loetter was essentially a townsman and he soon went of to work in Middelburg and Noupoort. In late 1899 Loetter disappeared and it was heard that he had joined the rebels at Colesberg.
In 1900 Loetter became dispatch rider under General C.R.de Wet. In mid-1900 he proposed to President Steyn and General Hertzog that a select group of Boer officers return to the Cape Colony and agitate underground in order to ferment rebellion and mobilize a rebel force. Steyn was not in favour of this move, but Hertzog was, and it was carried out. From about September (or October) a number of men were infiltrated into the colony. Among them were Japie Neser, Gert van Reenen and Meyndert Bornman; all later became commandants. Documentary evidence of this secret phase of Boer operations in the Cape Colony is scarce, but it appears that Loetter must have been among these men. By 16th January he had raised almost the entire Middelburg district. He was waiting only for arms and horses and for the signal to rise in rebellion. This came with Cmdt Piet Kritzinger's invasion of the colony in December 1900. Loetter joined him and became his right-hand man in extensive guerilla operations in the Eastern and North-East Cape and Cape Midlands.
In August Kritzinger was forced to abandon the Cape Colony but Loetter remained behind as the only operational commando in the Cape Midlands. He was hunted remorselessly by four columns coordinated by General John French at Middelburg. Col.Harry Scobell was assigned the position of chief hunter. His crack column consisted of 280 men from the 9th Lancers and the Cape Mounted rifles (under Col.Tim Lukin). Scobell operated out of Cradock, and trekked for six days at a time. He went on pack mules and had no guns or wagons, taking only three days food. In early September he finally ran Loetter to ground in the Sneeuberg. Trekking at night Scobell surrounded the commando at Paardefontein, east of Graaf-Reinet. The commando fought desperately but was forced to surrender. Out of a total of about 132 men 15 Boers were killed or died of wounds. Loetter and four of his officers were executed in Middelburg and Cradock during October 1901. Nine British soldiers died. The bloody action at Paardefontein brought an end to Boer guerilla activity in the Midlands during 1901. As a scout, spy, guerilla leader, dispatch rider and underground agitator, Loetter was without parallel. He was what Col.Scobell called "a most dangerous man".
From one unsuccessful commando, Rodney had wanted to turn to one that had succeeded and survived. It was the commando of Commandant Willem Fouche, operating mainly in the North East Cape. But time constraints did not allow this. It is hoped he will give us a talk on Cmdt Fouche at a later stage.
It was an excellent presentation and judging by the applause and comments made by members afterwards, greatly appreciated for its content based on Rodney's extensive historical knowledge.
Thurs 21st - 11h00 at Simon's Town Garden of Remembrance: burial of remains of victims found at Danger Point
Fri 22nd - 18h00 at Danger Point lighthouse: viewing of childrens' wreaths.
19h00 informal supper at Boat club (Booking essential)
Sat 23rd - 08h00 at Danger Point lighthouse and later Stanford
Bay/Cove: Sail-past of boats and wreath-laying over Birkenhead Rock. Triathlon to Stanford Bay and Tableaux
Sun 24th - 10h15 at Royal Hospital, Chelsea: Memorial Service
Tues 26th - 10h00 at Danger Point lighthouse: Memorial Service
Wreaths to be laid by representatives of all 10 regiments.
See also Website: www.overberg.co.za/birkenhead
A YEAR IN ITALY. An account by Eric Axelson as military historian with the 6th South African Armoured Division (V) in 1944-45. Available from the SA Legion, Rosedale, Rosebank, Cape Town
SERVE TO SAVE. The South African Air Force at sea from 1939-1986 by Guy Ellis. The History of the SAAF motor boat unit and the lives they saved off the South African coast. 160 pages, 130 illustrations at R 95.- SC and R 145. - HC. The book can be obtained from the author at (021) 671 5646.
Jochen (John) Mahncke (Vice-Chairman/Scribe) (021) 797 5167