NEWSLETTER NO. 329
The starting DDH saw our immediate past Chairman, Ken Gillings, give a talk with the intriguing title of What really happened at Vlakfontein, May 1901?. He described the actions that took place around Vlakfontein on 29 May 1901 during the Anglo-Boer War, and then considered the still unresolved controversy concerning allegations of Boer shooting of British prisoners.
During the guerilla phase of the War, while Lord Methuen pursued General Koos de la Rey in the southern part of the Western Transvaal, General Jan Kemp was active in the Swartruggens area. This threatened Brigadier General H.G. Dixon encamped at Naauwpoort in the Magaliesberg. Kemp was based at Tafelkop near the Koster/ Lichtenburg road. On the 26 May 1901 Dixon set out with a force of some 450 men to clear farms and search for hidden guns and ammunition west of Naauwpoort on the farm Waterval near Vlakfontein, in the vicinity of present-day Derby. Dixon's force marched in 3 columns led by Major Chance R.A. on the left, Colonel Wylly in the centre and Lt. Colonel Duff on the right. General Jan Kemp laagered at Waterval, northeast of Krugersdorp, had 400 burghers and growing. These included his scouts and some members of the Staatsartillerie (without their guns) and men from the Krugersdorp, Pretoria and the Rustenburg commandos. They had buried some of their remaining guns to have artillery available when required, but also to provide unhampered mobility to commandos. On 29 May Dixon's men set out to recover these guns. Their search revealed no guns, but a large cache of ammunition was discovered. In this search the British came under sniper fire on Duff's Ridge, and the heavy fire from Kemp's burghers. When the British attempted to arrange their defence, Kemp's men under cover of the smoke from a fire they had started, charged Chance's rearguard Yeomanry with (now) 500 burghers. The Yeomanry suffered heavy casualties and the Boers overran the 2 guns of the 28th battery. Dixon ordered Duff to reinforce Chance, who had returned to the scene of action with men of the 1st Derbyshire Regiment. On Chance's Ridge the Derbys, and what remained of the Yeomanry, charged the Boers with fixed bayonets. The Boers galloped off and the British retrieved their guns. The British suffered heavy casualties (6 officers and 51 other ranks dead) while only 7 burghers died in the battle and 2 later from wounds. Kemp's new strategy of lightning strikes behind a smoke screen had been effective.
The controversy, which Ken Gillings then considered, concerned the allegations (and denials) that some Boers had shot wounded British soldiers. He quoted statements based on eyewitness accounts made in The Times History and After Pretoria - The Guerilla War. The British Secretary of State for War stated in Parliament that Lord Kitchener had denied the truth of these statements. Subsequently Kitchener confirmed the shooting, but his confirmation was at first suppressed. A correspondent (Edgar Wallace) threatened to expose the truth, and he was in turn threatened with punishment. Ken's perusal of the diary of Pioneer Thomas Warberton of the King's Own Scottish Borderers revealed an allegation of Boer killing of the wounded. It would seem possible that Kitchener, involved with the Boer leaders about their surrender, did not want to jeopardise the negotiations by revealing critical comments. His later confirmation followed the collapse of negotiations. In January 2001 Ken had this theory confirmed by Dr. Steve Badsey, a Senior Historian from Sandhurst Military Academy. General Dixon's report to Lord Kitchener, shown to Ken by Mr. Ian Martin - curator of the KOSB Museum-made no mention of these atrocities. However, in view of the rumours, Dixon called for written accounts from his men and these were collated by Major Chance from Sergeant Ashford, Gunner Smart and Drummer Egan, of the 28th Battery R.F.A. They denied Boer shooting of the wounded. A different light was cast on the matter by the description of the death of the wounded Lt. Spring of the Yeomanry. A sergeant, who was a prisoner of war, witnessed the circumstances. Spring was wounded in the hand and was being tendered by his sergeant. When the Boers attempted to capture them, the sergeant retrieved the carbine concealed under the recumbent Spring and shot 3 Boers. Spring and the sergeant were then shot. The mystery behind all the allegations remains. The Derbyshire Regiment, whose men recaptured the RA guns, are remembered in the name of the town of Derby (in North-West Province, SA): a more lasting memorial.
For many years our Vice Chairman, Bill Brady, has entertained the Society with well-researched and often controversial re-assessments of important events in the 2nd World War. His talks on Norway, Pearl Harbour, The Channel Dash, and others, are excellent examples of the genre in which he has specialised. With Bomber Command - The Sacrifice, he took a different approach by re-emphasising the traditional perspective with a highly critical review of Sir Arthur Harris in his role as C. in C. of Bomber Command, and the failure of the Command under his leadership, despite their heavy casualties. This line of total criticism is long established, starting as it did with in 1946 with Clement Attlee the then British Prime Minister and continuing to the present day despite new books by expert historians of Bomber Command, that have been published in praise of Harris and the great impact achieved by his airmen by taking the war to Germany.
Bill presented his case with vigour and with the use of 2 sets of slides (1 from his computer and 1 from a carrousel) and 3 extracts of relevant videos, gave a comprehensive presentation of his case. He started with a slide on the casualties of 55,000 killed, 20,000 wounded and 12,000 taken as POW's, and then set the tone of his talk by asking a number of questions, including "was the sacrifice worth it" and "did the bomber offensive really shorten the war". The Casablanca Conference was quoted, when the Air Commanders were given directives to concentrate their activities on military, industrial, economic and morale targets and Bill then set out to prove that Harris concentrated only on morale targets, in disregard of orders, by the concentrated use of area bombing. His aim was to "break the spirit of the German nation". To prove the point, he emphasised the key saturation raids on Cologne (the first 1000 bomber raid), Hamburg (the most successful firestorm raid at the time), Nuremberg (the heaviest RAF losses in 1 raid), the so-called Battle of Berlin (described as a disastrous operational defeat), Dresden (the most controversial raid of the war), and others.
Comment on these and other raids, including the famous Dam Busters raid by 617 Squadron, maintained the view that Harris had his own agenda and ran Bomber Command with "total disregard for Allied strategy". He did that by converting Bomber Command into an awesome destructive power to pursue the destruction of German cities and the slaughter of hundreds and thousands of German civilians. By ignoring military and industrial targets, Bill maintained that the bomber offensive, despite heavy aircrew losses, did little to hamper the German war machine, that military output actually increased until the end of 1944 and that the German military, industrial and economic system - plus the morale of the people - were not undermined. Attention was then turned to the American approach to the bombing campaign, which was described as no different to Harris's approach. Their decision to concentrate on daylight bombing (as opposed to the RAF's night time strategy) was based on their confidence to provide both precision bombing and to reduce casualties by what they called their "self-defending bombers". Their confidence was shattered by a raid an Schweinfurt, to attack an important ball bearing factory, when they lost 950 aircrew in a single raid and 198 aircraft destroyed or damaged from an original force of 291 aircraft. This was followed by another disastrous raid, this time on the vital Rumanian oilfields of Ploesti, where they lost 54 aircraft out of 177 and 532 aircrew did not survive the raid. American raids deep into German territory were suspended until the arrival of their long-range escort fighters, the P.47 Thunderbolt and the P.51 Mustang. The turning point away from area bombing came with the need for Bomber Command to concentrate its activities prior to, and in support of, the D. Day landings. Described as being "incensed" at being ordered to move to strategic bombing in tactical support of the army forces landing in France, Harris attacked fuel plants and transportation networks with outstanding results. This was given as proof that had Harris concentrated on this kind of target earlier in the war, he would have grounded the Luftwaffe, saved RAF aircrews from heavy losses and ended the war many months earlier than May 1945. But as soon as the army was firmly established in Europe, and the war was close to its conclusion, combined British and American bombers attacked Dresden in late February 1945. This was described by Bill as a "crime against humanity" by an "insubordinate commander" which created more suffering than any other raid in the war in a "final destructive frenzy" which served "no strategic purpose". Harris's commanding officer, Marshall of the RAF Sir Charles Portal was criticised for being weak in his handling of Harris, and Churchill who was previously a supporter of Harris, distanced himself from the raid and as soon as the facts of Dresden were known he wrote to Harris ordering an end to area bombing.
Helping to demonstrate the various aspects of the work done by Bomber Command and their partnership with the Americans, Bill showed 3 separate videos at intervals during his presentation. As they were all filmed during the war and were of actual raids, they made a big impact. Marvellous shots of bomber streams over Germany, both by day and by night, bombs being dropped, targets hit, damaged planes returning to base and particularly the battles of fighters against bombers, all brought a reality to the main points being made.
Brief reference was made to the positive aspects of the bomber campaign. How it tied down enemy manpower of over 1m soldiers and the resources needed to defend against the raids. The use of 20,000 guns allocated to air defence and the loss of 3,500 German fighters shot down, when both were desperately needed on the Eastern Front. Reference was also made to how the Germans started area bombing on Warsaw, London, Coventry, and other European cities and then later in the war continued with their V1 and V2 campaigns against civilian targets. But the final conclusion showed no sympathy for any positive aspects of the bombing, or for any understanding as to why reprisals could be justified. The bomber offensive was "an aberration" with the costs in life and resources "tragically outstripping the results that it achieved".
That disagreement was in the air was soon apparent and it resulted in one of the best question and answer sessions we have had this year. The case for the defence of Harris was put by a pointed question: If Harris was so wrong in his strategy, why was Nagasaki so successful? There was really no answer to that.
Lt. Colonel Ray Lotter, with anecdote and humour gave both speakers a warm vote of thanks for a thought provoking and a thoroughly entertaining evening.
It will be a great pleasure for the Society to welcome back Gilbert Torlage as our main speaker for the November meeting. His subject will be THE PRIVATE WAR BETWEEN GENERAL SIR REDVERS BULLER and GENERAL SIR CHARLES WARREN. This centres on the war in Natal in 1899-1900, but particularly on Spionkop (and we all remember Gilbert's expert description of that battle on a Society Battlefield Tour of a few years back), the Relief of Ladysmith, secret despatches and reports by Buller and Roberts, finger pointing all round much to the detriment of Warren and finally the Royal Commission of Enquiry. We can expect a fascinating talk on what the real truth was about these General's private and then public personal war. It will provide a fascinating, extra background to the Anglo-Boer War.
November is the month of General Patton's birthday and the DDH will allow Professor Mike Laing to present another in his series on the great American General. His talk will be entitled PATTON : LIGHTS THE TORCH.
These 2 talks will provide a stimulating end to our year of talks, 2002. Don't miss them!!
Once again the Society and the MOTH's will gather at the Old Fort Shell Hole for our special Armistice Day ceremony at 10.30 am on Monday 11 November 2002. This tradition, started in 1994, is our way of marking the true time of Remembrance when, 84 years ago to the day the Armistice was signed to mark the end of the Great War. We meet at 10.30 am when our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, will give a talk on a major aspect of Remembrance and he will end in time for the 2 minute silence at 11.00 am. Drinks will be available after the ceremony.
Please make every effort to attend and please give generously to Poppy Day on 9 November.
The Annual Dinner will be held this year at the Westville Country Club, where the Society has taken over the Club's main restaurant for the evening. There will be room for 64 members and friends, sitting at 8 tables of 8 per table. If you have not already done so please contact Bill Brady on 561-5542 or 072-465-3826, to book your seats, as it will be first come first served if we exceed the number of 64. The cost is R68 per head and we are aiming to collect all payments by the next meeting at the latest, with cheques payable as cash or to W. Brady. The date is the normal 2nd Thursday of the month, 12 December 2002.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001