South African Military History Society



May 2002

PAST EVENTS: The April meeting started on a sombre note, when our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, announced that due to the tragic death of a close member of his family Major-general Chris le Roux, who was due to be the main speaker for the evening, would unfortunately be unable to attend the meeting. The thoughts of all members present were with the General and his family throughout the evening.

This meant that, at short notice, we had to change the April program and we were particularly appreciative to Bill Brady for bringing forward his July DDH talk and to Ken Gillings for giving us his first "rehearsal" of a new talk he was preparing for another Society. With Dr. Ingrid Machin giving the official DDH as originally scheduled, we had an evening of 3 DDH, or DDH equivalent talks, covering three very different topics.

Secretary and Treasurer, Dr Ingrid Machin's talk on The Formation of the Zulu "Regiments", or amabutho, began with an explanation of the late it century and early 19th century population increase among the Ntungwa-Nguni, in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. This was possibly caused by the introduction through East Africa, of maize, which produces an abundant crop to support a large population. During this time, several important leaders competed for land and power, and applied a military solution to gain the ascendancy. The most important of these leaders was Shaka kaSenzangakhona, who ruled the Zulu from 1816-1828, but Dingiswayo kaJobe of the Mthetwa, Zwide kalanga of the Ndwandwe and Mzilikazi kaMashobana of the Khumalo were also prominent.

Shaka's success rested on his militarisation of the amabutho based on the age group sets, which permeated the social, economic and political spheres as well as the military. Shaka controlled all conquered groups with no chief (inkhosi) independent of him. He established regimental headquarters throughout his domain. At the local level, one of the rites of passage included the call-up (butha) by each chief of l8-20 year olds to form an ibutho headed by a more senior leader (induna) and supported by 14-18 year old boys as cadets and baggage carriers. This ibutho was responsible for keeping cattle, cultivating land (usually women's work) and hut building for the chief. Shaka, and later kings, called up these local age group sets (amabutho) to form the king's army with each local ibutho forming a company (iviyo) in the king's new royal ibutho. The overall command of the Zulu king's army was in the hands of two important leaders: Mdlaka and Mgobozi under Shaka; Ndlela Ntuli and Dambuza Ntombela under Dingane; and Mavungenwana kaNdlela Ntuli Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khosa and under Cetshwayo. The attacking formation was based on the hunting crescent (umkhumbi) from which was derived the buffalo horns (izimpondo), chest (isifuba) and rear reserve (umuva) of the classic Zulu formation. The youngest amabutho formed the horns while the more seasoned warriors were part of the chest and the rear reserve. In all, Shaka called up seven regiments, Dingane seven, Mpanda tweny-one or twenty-two and Cetshwayo three or four. Each king took over regiments from the previous king.

The chief weapons were the throwing assegai (spear), the stabbing assegai and the club or knobkerrie. The great Shakan warshield, the isihlangu, gave way to the smaller, less unwieldy umbumbuluzo. Ingrid showed slides of these weapons and shields. The recorders of the Battle of Blood River against the Voortekkers, i.e. Jan Bantjies and Sarel Celilers in l838 suggest the disposition of the sections of Dinganes army as horns, chest and rear reserve. The Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 was recorded by various participants. Since the amabutho formed up on the run, their positions were confused. The uMbonambi (thity-six year olds) were on the extreme left horn, beyond two amabutho in their 20's. At Rorke's Drift two regiments were in their 30's and four in their 40's, which suggests that this was the rear reserve of the Zulu army which attacked at Isandlwana. The Zulu army was effective at Isandlwana where the British were not in a prepared position. However, at Blood River the Zulu failed, defeated by the Boer fire from the laager; and at Ulundi the British firing from the "square" put the Zulu to flight. Zulu military tactics remained much the same from the time of Shaka to that of Dinizulu, with little element of surprise. Dr Ingrid Machin ended her fascinating and scholarly talk with a final thought: perhaps guerilla warfare would have been more effective for the Zulu's, considering their disadvantages in weaponry.

Our Vice Chairman, Bill Brady had the good fortune to be in Fort Lauderdale, Florida during Navy Week in 1998 and he spent a fascinating day on board a brand new aircraft carrier that had been commissioned for the USA navy just weeks before this event. His talk on the USS Harry S. Truman was a description of his day on the world's largest warship. Bill began his talk with a summary of the development of nuclear aircraft carriers. From 1945 onwards, the US navy embarked on the concept of the super carrier in order to facilitate the operation of jet aircraft at sea. These large carriers proved so successful during the Korean War that even larger carriers were designed and the first of these, the USS Forrestal, was commissioned in 1955. It displaced 80,000 tons and was 1,000 ft long. However new fighter planes were becoming larger, more sophisticated, required much faster take-off and landing speeds and had reached the same weight as the B.17 bomber that was used so successfully by the USA in World War II. That meant that ever-larger carriers were needed and this led to the new breed of nuclear powered aircraft carriers, the first of which - the USS Enterprise - was commissioned in 1961. This was followed later by the USS Nimitz, which was commissioned in 1975, and which at the time was the largest warship ever built, being 1,100 feet long and displacing 97,000 tons. The USS Harry S Truman, the very latest in terms of time and technology, is a Nimitz class carrier, the 7th such vessel to be built, and its mission is to provide deterrence in peace time, and then the rapid deployment to protect friendly powers and the engagement in operations to support US forces in war time. An essential factor in the choice of nuclear power carriers was that they only needed to be refuelled every 20 years.

These large modern carriers operate as the centrepiece within a battle group that consists of an air wing, 2 cruisers, 4 destroyers and a fast combat support ship. The aim, when a crisis erupts anywhere in the world, is to be within range within 48 hours. If hostilities should occur, the carrier and its Battle group offer the most versatile and powerful weapons systems in the world, with up to 80 strike aircraft, 6,000 seamen and space for 5,000 marines on the USS Harry S. Truman alone. Bill ended his remarkable description of this massive warship with a group of his own personal photographs, which showed the awesome size of the carrier, and with a dramatic 5-minute video showing the USS Harry S. Truman in operation at sea. All attendees at the meeting envied his opportunity to spend so much time on such a modern warship.

Our past Chairman, Ken Gillings, gave the third presentation of the trilogy evening with a talk entitled The Artillery at Spionkop. With its international motto of Ubique (everywhere), the artillery is normally disposed about the field of battle in support of the cavalry and the infantry. Gunners claim, "The artillery lends dignity to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl"!! During the Anglo-Boer War, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery were organised into brigade divisions, with the RA in support of the infantry and the RHA in support of the cavalry. They were under the overall command of General Sir G.H. Marshall, but directly commanded by a Lt Colonel. Each brigade division of artillery comprised 3 batteries of guns and 1 ammunition column, with each battery of 6 guns, split into right, centre and left sections, commanded by a Major. At the Battle of Spionkop on 24 January 1900, the target was observed from the gun position and not from a forward observation post. This fact limited the effect of the British guns. The artillery for the attack was drawn from General Sir Charles Warren's 5th Division, commanded by Lt Colonel AJ. Montgomery, and comprising the 19th and 28th Batteries, RA. General Sir Redvers Buller's force included the 63rd and 78th Batteries as well as the 61st Howitzer Battery, 64th Battery, two 4.7inch naval guns and eight 12pdr, 12cwt ("Long Twelves") naval guns. These were deployed with General Lyttleton's Brigade near Potgieters Drift.

On 23 January 1900, the batteries near Three Tree Hill were tasked to direct fire towards the advance of the reinforcements, to be illuminated with star shells. The l9th Battery was to command the neck between Greenhill and Spionkop. Guns were thus laid on the Boer's line of advance and preparations were made for night firingm.When General Sir Edward Woodgate's men reached the summit of Spionlop and overran the Vryheid burghers, a salvo of star shells revealed their position. With the Boer guns brilliantly concealed from British observation, British plans to drop shrapnel over the approaches and sweep the slope towards Aloo Knoll and the Twin Peaks were ineffective, and Colonel A Thorneycroft appealed for them to be checked. In addition, there was a breakdown in communication between the Staff on the summit and Major A.H. Gordon, Battery Commander 61st Battery, who maintained that he could have dropped shells on the Boer guns and marksmen had he known their locality.

The British nval guns and others kept up a desultory fire, regularly dropping their shells among their own troops. These naval guns (two 4.7in and two batteries each of six 12 pdr l2cwt guns) had been brought from Durban as a result of the efforts of Captain Percy Scott, RN. The Naval Brigade, commanded by Captain E.P. Jones, RN of HMS Forte, could match or even exceed some of the Boer guns, notably the 155mm Creusot "Long Tom". The 4.7in guns were deployed on Mount Alice and the 12pdrs at Potgieters Drift. The 4.7in guns fired over the top of the Kop on signalled direction from Warren's HQ. Many shells were wasted, but a lyddite shell directed by Lt England, RN, at an indeterminate range, scorned a direct hit on several hundred Boer horsemen approaching from Ladysmith. Master-at-Arms George Crowe criticised the placing of the British artillery and their relative ineffectiveness. The Boer artillery was commanded by Major J.F. Wolmarans of the Staatsartillerie who positioned himself with one of the 75mm Krupp guns near General Louis Botha's HQ, on the rear slope of Mount Royal. With fire directed by the heliograph of Louis Bothma, General S. Burger, with a Krupp gun of the Vrystaatse Veldartillerie was on the north-western slopes of the Twin Peaks, with a Pom-Pom to the west of them. These were hidden from the view of the British guns, but during the battle the Krnpp guns were moved closer to the target. Lt H. Grothaus, with his 75mm Krupp and Pom-Pom guns faced Spionkop, while Lt F. von Wichmann moved north of Grothaus, nearer to the summit. Wolmarans himself commanded the Transvaal Krupp behind Botha's HQ. The Boer shells accurately rained down on the British on the summit. Two observers (a British soldier and Commandant L Krause of the Soutpansberg Commando) described the accurate and deadly Boer fire. Ken Gillings, whose talk was based on his own excellent research, ended with the comment that in his opmion, the result of the Battle of Spionkop would have been different if the British had taken mountain guns, transported by mules, to the summit and that in addition, with better communication they could possibly have changed the result of the battle.

Major Keith Archibald thanked all three speakers, with an amusing but highly relevant vote of thanks.


The main talk for the May meeting will be presented by PAUL KILMARTIN and will be the latest in his series of talks on the major battles fought by the BEF on the Western Front during the 1st World War. He will take us through the events that occurred on the Western Front from the end of 2nd Ypres in April/ May 1915, and which led to the highly significant and still controversial BATTLE OF LOOS. The lessons learned from the lack of success at LOOS, fought in September / October 1915, led to a major change in tactics by the British high command. It turned out to be the last major British battle fought in 1915 and the last before the great battles of attrition that started in early 1916 and continued to the end of the war.

For those who enjoyed Dr Gus Allen's Irish Cameos, when they were first revealed to us a few years back, will be delighted to know that he will be giving us a second version for the May DDH, with IRISH CAMEOS 2.

It should prove to be a most varied evening


13 June
DDH Alamein : Then and To-Day - Professor Mike Laing
MAIN A Summary of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902 - Ken Gillings
11 July
DDH Robey Leibbrandt & Operation Weissdorn - Charles Whiteing
MAIN The Battle of Sidi Rezeg - 1941 - Professor Philip Everitt
15 Aug
Please note: This is theTHIRD Thursday

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 201 3983

South African Military History Society /