South African Military History Society



September 2002

PAST EVENTS: The August meeting was the Society's annual Base Visit and was the start of the busiest few days in the Society calendar for 2002. After the Base Visit on the Thursday the annual Battlefield Tour took place on the following Saturday and Sunday. Both events were a major success and any members who were unable to attend either or both meetings missed something very special.

This year the Base Visit was to 15 Squadron, which operates from Durban airport, and a group of nearly 40 members were greeted by Lt. Colonel Graham Barr, the commanding officer. With the bar open and everyone duly charged, he gave us a warm welcome and explained the program that he and his colleagues had arranged. We started with a tour of the main hanger, where we were shown around their 14 helicopters, or "aircraft" as members of the squadron prefer to call them, which comprises 6 Oryx medium transport helicopters and 6 DK 117 light utility helicopters. Pilots from the squadron were available to answer the many questions that were raised and we returned to the main meeting room with a tour of the impressive squadron museum. Back in the meeting room, drinks were refreshed and a splendid buffet of hot snacks were provided, before we settled to listen to Lt. Colonel Barr give us a talk on the history of 15 Squadron from its formation on 18 September 1939 to the present day. During the 2nd World War the squadron saw action in many theatres, including Kenya, Abyssinia, Western Desert, Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, Italy and Austria. Their role included, bombing, general reconnaissance, attacking German convoys taking supplies to Rommel, and anti-submarine and surface ship patrols, etc. Their proud record of service ended when the squadron was disbanded after the end of the war in 1945.

In February 1968 the squadron was reformed and moved to Durban. Today the squadron has a peacetime role and concentrates on such humanitarian services as air-sea rescue, mountaineering recovery, crime prevention and capture, medical rescue and much else. What was clear from the talk and the SAAF Video we were shown is that today's pilots in peacetime need just as much skill and courage as their wartime colleagues did in 1939 - 1945 and today they proudly uphold the squadron motto of "The Eagle seeks the Heights". They do indeed. Lt. Colonel Eric Elphick, who led the squadron in 1991, demonstrated this in full, with a talk on the famous work done by himself and the squadron on the night of 3 August 1991. This was the rescue of passengers and crew from the Oceanos, which proved to be the classic example of how the squadron had moved its core business from fighting in wartime to humanitarian aid in peacetime. They also proved that if the SAAF are asked to perform the "impossible" at short notice, they deliver. In his talk, Lt Colonel Elphick emphasised the drama, but in such an unassuming manner that it needed one of his colleagues to advise us that because of his actions that night, he became the first recipient of the Air Force Cross for bravery.

The next talk was of a more recent, but just as famous, an event as the Oceanos. Lt Colonel Peter Harvey, assisted by Major Graham Chisholm told us the story of the work done by the squadron during the dreadful floods in Mozambique in 2000. Both officers had taken part in this "action" - and it certainly was an action. They started with an explanation of how the floods occurred. They described the heavy rains that had fallen throughout the region and had caused the initial floods in Zimbabwe, Eastern Transvaal, the Kruger Park and elsewhere, which in turn, caused the rivers to break their banks in Mozambique to create country wide flooding. This position was then pushed to the edge of a devastating tragedy by the arrival of cyclone Eline. With the population being forced to pockets of high ground and trees, we were then told how some of the very people they were trying to save wanted either to stay with their animals, or did not understand how to use the lifting equipment being dropped down to them. Problems of re-fuelling and overcrowding of the helicopters as desperate people tried to force themselves on board were just some of the major problems that were described in graphic detail. Despite this, Squadron 15 saved 7,300 Mozambiquans in just 9 days. This desperate story was then illustrated by the showing of overseas TV reports, none of which have been shown on South African TV, which left all who attended in great admiration for the skill, bravery and dedication of all the pilots in squadron 15.

Our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, thanked all concerned for the very warm welcome we had received and for proving to all members present that there is something greater in life for the military than just fighting wars.

On the Saturday morning a strong party of members assembled at the Babanango Hotel for coffee and a briefing by our regular tour organiser Ken Gillings, our past Chairman. We then moved off in car convoy for an unscheduled stop at Fort Newdigate. This was one of a chain of forts built during the second invasion of Zululand in 1879 when British troops were en route to Ulundi. The 2/21 Regiment, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, occupied this fort and the 10/7 Royal Artillery manned 2 Gatling guns. Using these forts showed that the British had learned a lesson from Isandlwana. Ken Gillings gave a history of the fort, which was commanded by Major Marter, who was to gain fame later in the campaign as the officer who captured the Zulu King Cetshwayo kaMpande. After that brief stop we arrived at location of the death of the Prince Imperial at the Ityotyozi River, where we were pleased to welcome the group from Johannesburg. Ken Gillings then provided a background of the Prince from birth to death, including how he came to be in the British army and in Zululand, the details of the day of his death and how the skirmish evolved and the role of Lt. Carey (later Captain) who was supposed to ensure the safety of the Prince and his subsequent court martial. As we were standing in exactly the spot where the events took place on 1 June 1879, Ken's graphic description made it all come to life. Our next speaker was Iva Clements, who had travelled especially from Cape Town to provide a French alternative view of why the Napoleonic dynasty should be regarded as unimportant and she placed her view firmly against what she regarded as the popular perception of the dynasty and its founder. For her Napoleon Bonaparte was an upstart, and the so-called dynasty became meaningless after his death. That Napoleon III became Emperor by force and was not a direct heir to Bonaparte (he was only a nephew) only made the Prince Imperial an impostor in his claim to be the direct heir to the French throne. It all made for a fascinating, and different view and certainly made all present reconsider their views and opinions on what has always been regarded as a highly important battlefield death. The third speaker was Paul Kilmartin, who on listening to what Iva had to say, decided to change his planned talk and instead, explained why both Napoleon Bonaparte and his heirs have had such an influence on British history and why, impostors or not, they have dominated the thinking of British historians since the end of the 18th century. In summary he also explained why the death of the Prince Imperial had such serious implications in London, for both political and royal circles when news of his death became known. By now the weather had become much colder, it was muddy underfoot and rain was imminent. The party left the site with much to ponder on.

After lunch the party drove to Vryheid and to the site of the Battle of Lancaster Hill. This battle was fought after Buller had left Natal and entered the Transvaal. That part of Northern Natal and the Transvaal area around Vryheid and Utrecht had been cleared and British troops had become complacent. The Boers got to know of this and attacked the British position on the hill on 11 December 1900. The party climbed to the top of the hill, where Ken Gillings described the battle with the help of Alex Wood - KZN Wildlife regional Officer - and 3 of his honoury officers, all of whom had done so much to make the visit to the site possible. Lancaster Hill is a little known battlefield, which is rarely mentioned but should be better known. Alex Wood and his team have done marvellous work on the site, clearing foreign trees and getting the site back to its original state. The Society made a donation to the funds needed to continue this important work.

After booking into the hotel, we met for an evening braai at the MOTH's Freedom Shellhole in Vryheid. It would be impossible to explain to those who were not there, just what a magnificent welcome we were given by Old Bill Mac Macdermott and all his MOTH colleagues and their ladies. We all enjoyed a truly wonderful evening and we could only offer our heartfelt thanks for such generous and warm hospitality.

Sunday dawned with heavy rain and plan B was put into operation. Back we went to the splendid and spacious main hall at the Shellhole where Ron Lock gave his 2 talks on the Battles of Hlobane (28.March 1879) and Khambule (29 March 1879). Ron, who wrote Blood on the Painted Mountain, a famous book on the 2 battles, then used boxes, chairs and a sackcloth, to produce separate, but realistic models of both mountains and gave his talks around each of the models. It worked perfectly. For Hlobane, he showed the movements of Colonels Wood, Buller and Russell and their troops as the mountain was climbed under darkness in search of the abaQulusi tribe. The arrival of 20,000 Zulus, the attack on Buller's rearguard, the difficulties Russell and Buller found at Devil's Pass as the Zulus attacked, and the retreat down Ntendeka, where Piet Uys was killed were all emphasised. Under attack, Wood was forced to order Russell to Kambula, but in the disarray that followed, the British suffered many losses but were finally in position to hold a new defensive line for battle the next day. Then a short break, a new model and Ron Locke described the heavy Zulu defeat at Khambule. After setting the scene, he described how the Zulu right wing broke away and attacked on one side whist the left wing attacked on the opposite side. Both attacks were repulsed and despite a strong attempt to break through in the centre, the Zulus suffered heavy casualties and with no reinforcements arriving the attack lost all momentum. A counter attack by the British led to a charge by mounted troops that lasted until darkness fell, and caused heavy Zulu casualties. With this victory, the way was now open for the British to advance on Ulundi. These 2 important battles were both complex, with many twists as both sides attacked and counter attacked in different places. Despite that complexity, they were described with great clarity by an expert on his subject. After a vote of thanks from our Chairman to all who contributed to the success of the weekend, we found that the rain had stopped and those with 4x4's drove to Khambule battlefield. It was worth the effort, if only to prove how accurate those models were.



In September 2000 we held our first meeting in Pietermaritzburg and all members who made the journey enjoyed a splendid evening. Now, on 12 September 2002 we are returning to Pietermaritzburg again for what we hope will be a regular bi-annual event. This year, as a special incentive, we will have 3 speakers by 3 well-known experts in their respective fields.

MAJOR KEITH ARCHIBALD will give a talk entitled NATAL CARBINEERS' ADDITIONAL BATTLE HONOURS. He will explain how and why each of the 8 new honours have been awarded, with 1 dating from as far back as the Anglo-Boer War, 6 from the 2nd World War (3 from the Western Dessert, 3 from Italy) and 1 from South West Africa.

PROFESSOR PAUL THOMPSON's talk will be entitled THE ACTION AT MPANZA - 1906. This will be most topical, as the committee to mark the Centenary of the Bhambatha Rebellion has just been set up ( with the Society well represented ). Mpanza, which is between Greytown and Keate's Drift, was an important action as it was the first by Bhambatha's warriors and they inflicted embarrassing casualties on The Natal Colonial forces.

DR. MARK COGLAN will address us on Natal Volunteers in the Anglo-Boer War.


On the N3 from Durban, take the left fork into the town, down the Commercial Road. Drive past the WOODBURN Service Station and over the river, and then after 200-300 metres turn right, just before the cemetery, into GEERE STREET. The Drill Hall gates will then be straight ahead. Once in the gates, turn right and park by the main building. The meeting will be held in the Officers Mess and as usual, is scheduled to start at 7.30 pm. All members and their guests will be most welcome.

If anyone is prepared to offer a lift to Pietermaritzburg, or anyone wants a lift, please ring Paul Kilmartin on 561-2905 or 082-449-7227. As we did 2 years ago, we will arrange pick-ups at the Westville Country Club or at Pick n' Pay in Kloof.


10 Oct
DDH What really happened at Vlakfontein? May 1901 - Ken Gillings
Main Bomber Command - The Sacrifice - Bill Brady
11 Nov - Monday
Armistice Day Ceremony with the MOTHs - Paul Kilmartin
14 Nov
DDH Patton Lights the Torch - Prof Mike Laing
Main The Private War between Gen. Sir Redvers Buller and Gen. Sir Charles Warren - Gilbert Torlage
10 Dec
Annual Dinner - venue to be confirmed

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

South African Military History Society /