South African Military History Society


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 199

April 2021


Despite the lockdown and our inability to meet as we once did more than a year ago, we continue to network with other similar societies.

Your Scribe is SAMHSEC’s contact with the Border Historical Society (BHS) in East London (see March 2021 Newsletter). BHS have already initiated a number of Zoom presentations, which they will share with us. The links will be forwarded to you in due course.

Another SAMHSEC member, Arnold van Dyk, is also a prominent member of the Friends of the War Museum in Bloemfontein, which will be presenting a Zoom webinar on the de Wets and Sannaspos on 30 March 2021, in English. That promises to be a good one with two experts in attendance. I will pass on the link when received.

We are investigating a local one-day field trip and we will keep you posted on developments. In undertaking trips of this nature, we must maintain COVID precautions. Gatherings will be outdoors, so that social distancing is not an issue. We will use our own transport and attendance should be no more than 50.

FACIAL FURNITURE – a talk presented by Anne Samson to the SAMHSEC RPC on 22 February 2021

My fascination with facial furniture, or rather moustaches and beards, originated when I was working on my book on Kitchener. His poster has made his moustache or whiskers world famous. At the time, however, they were fashionable, not just amongst the British.

Specifically included in the opening images, is a photo of Robert Baden- Powell, whose birthday the Scouts are celebrating today.

What particularly caught my attention were the images of him in Arab dress. He was known for his ability to disguise himself as an Arab so what did he do about his moustache which was required for service in the King’s Army at the time? A close look at various other illustrations suggest that Egyptian Arabs also wore moustaches, allowing him to move between his military and spy roles without having to worry about a potentially problematic facial hair issue.

A few other articles came to light as well, one on William Finaughty, also known as Old Bill, who was born in Grahamstown before he became an elephant hunter in Rhodesia. His moustache is probably the biggest I’ve seen.

Further investigation revealed that from 6 October 1916 moustaches were banned in the British Army. I wonder how Kitchener would have reacted to this and what he would have looked like? It appears that the decision was made after he drowned in June 1916: the order 1969 in the King’s Regulations was amended on 1 August 1916, and it applied to all ranks. There seems to have been a couple of reasons for this – sideburns prevented gas masks from sealing the face properly while facial hair provided an ideal home for lice and other such creatures.

So why had the moustache been allowed in the army before 1916, and more so, why had it been compulsory from 1860 through to 1916? During this time the regulations stated that
“The hair of the head will be kept short. The chin and under lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip. Whiskers, if worn, will be of moderate length.”

So, before 1860, beards had been permitted, as we see with Thomas Kavanagh, who won the VC in the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and also with the Earl of Cardigan, who led the charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea in 1858.

According to an article in the Daily Mail from the 1700s, the French had introduced different fashions for the various types of soldier – facial hair was a statement of virility and aggression, and it was also regarded as a sign of age and wisdom in India and other Asian countries. European military service in these territories led to the fashion catching on until it became frowned upon as a sign of “going native” and stamped out by the British. However, after 1854, it became compulsory for men serving in the East India Company’s Bombay Army, no doubt to give them greater authority over the local population. This influenced other units in the British Army to follow suit until by the 1860s, the moustache was made compulsory and became part of the army uniform.

It appears that following the army reforms of 1908 there were two schools of thought regarding facial hair in the military – either totally clean shaven or facial hair was acceptable. General Nevil Macready, who signed the order, was completely against moustaches, although he dutifully wore one as his photo of around 1915 shows.

Today, the British Army is generally clean-shaven although facial hair is permitted within reason, especially for religious and cultural reasons. Prince Harry’s wearing of a beard when he was still in service would therefore have been acceptable within these rules. For his marriage despite having left the army, he had obtained permission to do so. This doesn’t mean it’s not a sensitive subject.

So how did this all impact on the UDF? As we know, the UDF came into being in 1912, as an amalgamation of the old Boer Commando system and the British Army tradition. While technically the Union fell under British military regulations, there had to be compromises to accommodate the previously defeated part of the Union.

Looking back at Anglo-Boer War photos of 1899-1902, we seem to have a mix of facial furniture – age-dependent? Knowing that within months the Boer forces would be split into handsuppers and bittereinders, can we draw inferences from the facial hair? I ask the question as I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable of individuals to put this theory to the test, other than to find a few photos of individuals I know. Looking at images of Smuts and Botha over their years in public life, can their relationship with the British Empire be traced through their facial furniture? Or were the changes simply a matter of fashion? Whilst Botha’s beard becomes less pronounced, the same can’t be said of Smuts, whose moustache seems to become less prominent as the years pass by. And photos of his time on commando suggest that razors were in short supply.

These photos and others got me wondering if the prevalence of facial hair gave an indication of political allegiance. This was prompted by a comment by Hamish Paterson regarding the identity of an unknown officer, whose photo was sent to SAMHSEC a couple of months ago – “Boers have beards, the British don’t”.

While this statement seems to be true, it can’t be said that all South Africans who were Boers, wore beards. For example, CAL Berrange – middle front on the 3rd SA Infantry photo - was born in the Cape and he has no beard. Similarly, the photo of the 1910 National Convention (which led to Union of the Boer and British territories), shows very few beards. The most dominant belonged to Abraham Fischer, of the Orange Free State. Does this suggest a provincial divide?

Returning to the idea of the handsuppers and bittereinders – the five Boers attending the February 1901 Middelburg talks with Kitchener all had beards, two of which are more prominent – all served with Louis Botha throughout the war although Dirk van Velden became a Prisoner of War in May 1901. None of them were overtly bittereinders.

Before we move on to look at the UDF force and its influence in a bit more detail, can you tell in the above photo which of the two men is Jaap van Deventer and which is SH Sheppard? Smuts and van Deventer differed in their relationship with the British General Staff with whom they served in East Africa – can we infer anything from these full photos? Van Deventer seemed to accept and adapt to the prescriptions for a British officer, being a greater administrator than front line man. Is this seen in his almost identical look to Sheppard? Whereas in 1916, when Smuts was still in command, the South African staff was in a darker uniform than the others. Smuts’ beard is clearly discernible as are a few moustaches. Time has not permitted all these men to be identified – although it does appear that the South Africans were distinct from the British General Staff. But where does that leave us with the UDF and facial hair?

I sourced photos from the web, mostly from Wikipedia, but not exclusively. Whilst moustaches are commonly worn throughout – by British, South African English or Boer soldiers - perhaps the young Deneys Reitz is the exception. I don’t think I’ve seen a picture of him at all with facial furniture.

However, the beards tell a different story. While more work again needs to be done, a quick look at these faces suggests that the 1914 rebels had beards – except for Manie Maritz. Beyers’ beard is a little nondescript compared with de la Rey’s and de Wet’s but it’s there. However, HC van Heerden, who was in the Botha cabinet, also sports a larger beard than just the bokbaard we find on Smuts, Botha and van Deventer amongst others, while Theron’s moustache rivals Kitchener’s.

And then Hertzog, said to be a silent voice behind the rebellion, has no beard at all.

A picture of Hartigan’s Horse suggests the British moustache had taken hold, as do the photos of Bouwer and Berrange, who both made their mark in the UDF, although some in the photo are clean shaven.

What I haven’t had a chance to look at yet, are the UDF military regulations concerning uniform. We know that in these early years, there was huge debate about keeping the Boer influence – one of the reasons Beyers took the stance he did was that he felt there was too much Anglicisation of the SA Armed Forces. As a result, there might not be anything written down until the Union sent men to Europe, East Africa and the Middle East as Imperial Service troops, where they would have associated more with the British regulations – actions which perhaps influenced the uniform development of the UDF in the 1920s and 1930s as a picture of Smuts’ 1923 cabinet and some of the senior officers of the 1930s suggests.

I haven’t set out to answer a question, but rather to open a discussion on the facial furniture of the early South African Armed Forces in the hope that some conclusions can eventually be drawn which will assist researchers narrow their parameters when investigating the identity of those in unnamed photographs.

I’m not sure about you, but I’ve enjoyed this little excursion into the realms of facial furniture and learnt a fair bit, not least about Dirk van Velden who oversaw Jopie Fourie’s Court Martial and was to serve on Smuts’ staff in East Africa.

Anne’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom Library

SEA MINES, MINING AND MINE COUNTERMEASURES, by Captain Robert Harm, South African Navy (Retired) – presented to the SAMHSEC meeting on 8 March 2021

The effectiveness of the mine has not decreased with the coming of the space age. So long as ships cross the seas, this unspectacular weapon will remain a major factor in control of the approaches to harbours, and the shallow straits between seas -R.D. Bennett, Wartime Director of Naval Ordinance Laboratory, USA, 1945

Sea mines:

Use of sea mines:

Mine damage:

The damage caused by sea-mines varies according to the type of mine activated. The contact mine may blow a large hole in the ship’s hull or even blow off the bow/stern. Ground mines in shallow waters can break a ship’s back. Influence mines, when activated, cause an underwater explosion, creating a pressure wave which can cause the following:

Strategic use of sea mines:

Mines can be used to deny the enemy entrance to certain sea areas in order to limit freedom of manoeuvrability. When used in this manner, a large number of mines are not required to be laid, but they may well require an explosion to strengthen the message. For example, a small number of mines laid in the Malaccan Straits can force shipping to sail the longer route.

The laying of defensive minefields can aim to deny the enemy certain attacking areas, thus allowing the defending forces to be used to greater effect elsewhere. This becomes an insurmountable obstacle to the enemy if it has to gather mine countermeasure forces over a vast distance. The minefield will, therefore, also serve a strategic purpose. In order to clear the area after finalisation of hostilities, an accurate record of where and what type of mines were laid, is essential. Local communities have to beware of such fields to prevent or diminish friendly casualties.

Tactical use of sea mines:

The tactical use of mines requires them to be laid in either offensive or defensive fields.

The use of defensive minefields has already been touched upon, although it can have a tactical objective as well.

Offensive fields are almost always used in support of attacking forces, to force opponents to spend time and energy opening channels in seaways to their own shipping.

The importance of sea mines:

The use of sea mines remains on the planning books of all navies, as ignoring them could be disastrous. Since WW2 a number of ships have been damaged or sunk by sea mines. One of the biggest threats to the world order lies in the Strait of Hormuz: if Iran fulfils its promise of mining the Strait it could halt the supply of 80% of available oil to the world. Even if no mines are actually laid, the flow of shipping could be interrupted while the Strait is subjected to sweeping or hunting for mines.

The South African Navy:

The South African Naval Service (forerunner of the SA Navy) was founded in 1922 when the Government of the Union of South Africa acquired two minesweeping trawlers named HMSAS Immortelle (ex HMS Eden) and HMSAS Sonneblom (ex HMS Foyle). It can therefore be seen that minesweeping was an important function of the SA Navy (and what happened before) and has been an integral part of its history for over 60 years. However, the return of these ships to the Royal Navy in 1934 effectively ended training in minesweeping.

When South Africa declared war in support of the Allies, it was decided to re-establish the Naval Service under a new name: the South African Seaward Defence Force. From October 1940, the Service had 28 minesweepers (or minesweeping trawlers), once again emphasising the importance of minesweeping to the authorities.

During the entire lifetime of The South African Navy the practice of minesweeping has developed into the much broader field of Mine Countermeasures: in future, drones or remotely operated vehicles will probably be able to counter mines without the help of men of steel in ships of wood (or glass-reinforced plastic). That day has not yet come and as recently as March 2020, clearance divers from HMS Grimsby had to go down to place charges alongside World War II mines which had been laid in the Bay of the Seine to destroy Allied ships in the event of an invasion of Normandy. Thus, it is fitting that we celebrate the men and ships who, for many years, served as a safeguard to the coastal waters and harbour approaches of South Africa.

At the outbreak of WW II the Royal Navy relied on the Bangor Class steel- hulled minesweepers, and a fleet of converted trawlers taken up from the Fishing Fleet to keep harbours, rivers and roadsteads free of moored mines. These included some relatively unknown ships’ names: HMSAS Brakpan, Florida, Roodeport, Southern Barrier, Southern Floe, Parktown and Rondevlei. These vessels not only operated in South African waters, but were also an integral part of support of the Allies in the Mediterranean. In fact, HMS Southern Floe struck a mine on 11 Feb 1941 en route to Tobruk and was lost. Only one crew member survived.

The discovery in 1939 that Germany was laying magnetic mines, gave rise to the urgent requirement for a ship to locate and destroy them. As a matter of interest, the first magnetic mine was discovered by the British when an airdropped unit which missed the river Thames landed on the Essex mudflats in 1939.

It must remembered that all South African ports are susceptible to mining and even a single mine can close its busiest port Durban.

The Germans knew this. On 19 May 1940 the German raider Atlantis laid 92 mines on the Agulhas Bank about 40 km offshore. Two days later the lighthouse keeper at Agulhas reported a heavy explosion at sea and another two days later a flotilla of four minesweeping trawlers arrived at Agulhas. Heavy seas prevented them from sweeping the mines, but had the effect of breaking the mooring wires of the mines causing them to self-destruct.

The Seaward Defence Force acted as part of the Royal Navy and the decision was made to transfer two ocean minesweepers and ten coastal minesweepers to the SDF. The ocean minesweepers HMSAS Pietermaritzburg (ex-HMS Pelorus) and HMSAS Bloemfontein (ex-HMS Rosamund) had proved their effectiveness against moored mines and could deploy noise-generating devices to detonate acoustic mines. However, they had limited success due to their steel construction and inherently high magnetic signature when sweeping magnetic mines, which made their appearance during World War II. SAS Bloemfontein was taken out of service in 1961 and temporarily used as a moored training ship. SAS Pietermaritzburg was modified to become a midshipmen-training ship.

Ships capable of dealing effectively with influence mines as well as contact mines were needed if South African coastal waters and the ships using them were to be protected. The Admiralty allocated Eight-Ton Class vessels destined for service in the Royal Navy to the South African Navy and a further two, SAS Durban and SAS Windhoek, were ordered from British yards. Two of the eight provided by the RN were of an earlier design with an open bridge and with Mirrlees diesel engines and were renamed SAS Pretoria (ex-HMS Dunkerton) and SAS Kaapstad (ex-HMS Hazleton). The other six had an enclosed bridge and were fitted with the stronger Napier Deltic engines. They were named SAS East London (ex-HMS Chilton), SAS Kimberley (ex-HMS Stratton), SAS Johannesburg (ex-HMS Castleton), SAS Port Elizabeth (ex-HMS Dumbleton), SAS Walvisbaai (ex-HMS Packington) and SAS Mosselbaai (ex-HMS Oakington).

For minesweeping, these vessels were fitted out with the necessary serrated steel wire ropes and associated equipment for mechanical sweeping; acoustic generating equipment to sweep acoustic influence mines; and power cables for sweeping magnetic influence mines. To sweep mines the following procedures were followed:

a. Mechanical sweeping:


Mine hunting:

As technology developed, navies started looking increasingly at ways to keep their vessels out of harm’s way. In mine hunting, the vessels are now fitted with a high definition sonar to sweep the bottom. At first, whenever an object was detected, a diver was sent down to investigate. If the position of the mine was confirmed, the diver would position an explosive charge next to it. There would be a facility to explode the charge and the mine with it, once the diver was safely aboard.

Soon the diver’s task was reduced to confirming a sea mine and ROV’s (remotely operated vehicle) were used to lay the explosive charge. Further technological developments improved the quality of the sonar and the visual identification of objects by the ROV, taking the necessity for divers out of the equation.

The South African Navy also adapted to the new mine countermeasures and converted two of the TON-class minesweepers SAS Mosselbaai and SAS Port Elizabeth to mine hunters, with the inclusion of high-definition Type 193 sonar.

In 1975, a highly clandestine project was launched to acquire minehunters from the German shipyard Abeking & Rasmussen. These vessels were fitted with type 2021C sonar with a plotting and recording system and fitted out with two PAP 104 Mine Disposal Vehicles each.

These ships were similar in size to the minesweepers, built of wood and brass and were unique as they were the first warships to be propelled by two stainless steel non-magnetic Voith Schneider vertical axis propulsion units aft. In order to keep the project classified, these ships were ostensibly purchased by the Department of Transport, but were operated by the Navy. They were named Navors I, II, III and IV, and painted blue, but were renamed SAS Umkomaas, Umgeni, Umzimkulu and Umhloti and painted the normal grey in 1982. Two were built at Abeking & Rasmussen and shipped out on a heavy lift vessel, while the last two were built in Durban.

Mine countermeasures worldwide:

The US Navy took a different route to ensure minesweepers’ safety by replacing minesweepers with helicopters towing sleds with detecting equipment. Due to the fairly heavy towing requirement, these helicopters had to be sizeable. The process worked and the US Navy has not built any minesweepers in decades. That there still is a requirement for mine countermeasure vessels is recognised by including an MCM capability into their Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), although this is still a developing approach.

At present there is much development taking place in the mine countermeasures field. Although this task is far more mundane than those seen to be the main war fighters in any navy, the task is enormously important to ensure the use of the sea for these war fighters. There are many relatively shallow sea straits around the world such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait, the Bosphorus to name but a few.

Robert’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom Library


SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history on 29 March 2021 at 1930 South African time.

Jaco Pretorius will discuss General Stanislaw Maczek and the Polish contribution in WW2

29 March 2021 at 2015 South African time

Mac Alexander will review the book Jungle Man by Major P.J. Pretorius CMG, DSO and Bar


Our next monthly meeting is on Monday 12 April 2021. Our speaker will be Robin Smith. His subject is “A Historiography of Warfare with particular reference to the Anglo-Boer War.”


SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history on 26 April 2021 1930 South African time.


SAMHSEC’s 8 March 2021 was our first AGM to be held on Zoom. Virtual meetings are not new to SAMHSEC, as our next physical committee meeting will be the first. All committee meetings since the establishment of the branch in 2004 have been by e-mail and, since January 2020, by WhatsApp. Previous AGMs have been in lieu of the curtain raiser at the March monthly meeting.

Committee members were lobbied privately in January to confirm that they were prepared to continue serving. Had any one preferred to stand down, a replacement would have been identified in time for the incoming committee member to participate in the AGM preparations.

All members were invited to participate in the AGM preparation committee WhatsApp discussions and several did. My report, which recorded the past year and included the strategy for the next, and the Treasurer´s report for the past year, were discussed and approved by the committee during January and February 2021. Both reports were distributed to all members on 24 February, inviting them to comment and nominate committee members by 1 March. No responses were received: this was taken as a motion of confidence in the committee and approval for next year´s strategy.

We had 45 paid up and life members on 8 March, so needed 9 to attend the AGM to form a quorum; 16 attended, so a quorum was not a problem. I won´t speculate about how many attended because of the lucky draw for the complimentary copy of the book which a publisher donated to us.


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