South African Military History Society


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 203


With lockdown regulations now being eased, we have the ability to travel and gather in safety, so are of the opinion that we should see a bit more sunshine! Various options have been mooted for visits within the City, but a day trip is not out of the question. We would like to button down and finalise one such event before our next monthly meeting which is on 9 August and your suggestions are welcome. That said, do not rush the goalie!

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SAMHSEC has a new member!

We welcome Graeme Johnson from Cape Town as a SAMHSEC member. We trust that you will enjoy your membership and look forward to your company, Graeme.

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Our monthly meeting on 12 July was on “The Historiography of Warfare with particular reference to the Anglo Boer War” by Robin Smith

Robin’s talk was about some of the important literature of the Anglo Boer War 1899-1902. This seminal event in South Africa’s history was documented shortly after the war by two multi-volume accounts, The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 and the (official) History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902. The genesis of these two works was covered in the talk. Both of them took nine years to write and both may be considered to be of historical integrity.

The first was under the auspices of The Times, at that time a national institution with a disproportionate influence over British political and cultural life. It is a lively account and formed the basis of author Leo Amery’s campaign for revolutionary reform of the British army. The army of 1899 bore no resemblance to the army of 1914, so the account certainly played some part in that.

The official history contains little that would be controversial, but its production was plagued by delays because of wrangles with the Treasury and the forced retirement of its editor, Major General Sir Frederick Maurice.

The two works were both considered to be historical works of great national importance.

Only seventy years later was another chronological and comprehensive account written, The Boer War by a controversial Irish author, Thomas Pakenham. This book revived interest in the war and brought forth a flood of new material over the next few years to the centenary of the war and after.

Recently a Stellenbosch professor of history has produced another very interesting book that ignores the military campaigns practically completely.

Recordings of Robin’s presentation are in the SAMHS Zoom Library.

Received in response to Robin’s talk:

“Thanks to Robin for last night’s lecture.

Two of the books referred to are available locally - both booksellers are in Johannesburg. Generally, prices are negotiable. The first is Chapter1 and the second SLW Books. The first is also on Bid or Buy at R5 500 from another seller.

The Thomas Pakenham book is freely available in both languages from R145 plus courier on Bid or Buy. There are 2 versions as the second is referred to as an illustrated version.”

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SAMHSEC RPC on 26 July 2021

SAMHSEC had the pleasure of the company of historians talking about military history on 26 July. In session 1, Stefan Szewczuk spoke about the Polish children in Oudtshoorn in 1943. In session 2, Pat Irwin spoke about Women in War. We look forward to summaries of the talks from the speakers, which will be published in our newsletter when received.

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Frank Bestbier – farewell to a tough paratrooper by McGill Alexander

Brigadier General Frank Bestbier, SM, MMM died on Sunday 25 July 2021. He was my company commander when I was a rifleman at 1 Parachute Battalion in 1968. In subsequent years our paths frequently met, particularly while he was the SA Army’s Director of Operations and I was the SO1 Operations and, later, Officer Commanding 44 Parachute Brigade.

He was a tough and uncompromising soldier for whom I had a lot of respect. Generally taciturn and abrupt, seldom smiling and a man you crossed at your peril. He was not one who sought the limelight and popularity was never on his agenda. He called a spade a spade – which did not endear him to some people. His stubborn nature made him well-suited to be a paratrooper. He was a hard taskmaster who would brook no nonsense, but he was a professional soldier – a master of his profession. I was privileged to have been trained by him and the instructors under him. He was a hands-on company commander who spent his time with us in the field, sleeping rough, route marching with us and personally sharing his considerable knowledge at a tactical and technical level with ordinary soldiers.

Head Boy of the Hoërskool Oudtshoorn in 1960, Frank made no attempt to polish his own marble. And yet, he had an impressive, but little-known, operational record. He was one of the few officers in our army who commanded at every level from platoon to division. He volunteered for the Army Gymnasium, serving there in 1961. After joining the Permanent Force, he was commissioned in the Infantry Corps and was an early volunteer for parachute training. For ten years he served in 1 Parachute Battalion, where he gained his regimental experience from the rank of lieutenant to major.

Early in 1967, as a field cornet (lieutenant), he was one of nine South African officers and NCOs who attended the Rhodesian SAS selection and training. Later that year, when the first SA Police company was deployed on counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Rhodesia, he was seconded to them as a platoon commander.

Subsequently, he commanded several successive companies of 1 Para Bn, deploying with them in the early COIN operations on the Angolan/Namibian border. During Operation Savannah, South Africa’s intervention in the Angolan Civil War in 1975, he was the second-in-command of Bravo Group, which subsequently became 32 Battalion. Under the commander, Jan Breytenbach, he participated in some of the heaviest fighting of the campaign.

He trained in mechanised operations at the Infantry School in Oudtshoorn when the new Ratel Infantry Combat Vehicle was just being introduced into the SA Army. Subsequently, he was appointed as the Officer Commanding 1 SA Infantry Battalion, our first mechanised unit. In 1978, during Operation Reindeer, he commanded Battle Group Juliet (the forerunner of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group). As such, he carried out the first mechanised attack by the SADF in the Bush War during the assault on the Chetaquera base.

In 1982, when the headquarters of 44 Para Bde was reactivated, he was appointed as the commander, with the task of formalising and building the brigade into a proper all-arms formation. Under his command, the various non- infantry elements of the brigade were incorporated or established, and a start was made on compiling a proper operational airborne doctrine.

Promoted to brigadier, Frank Bestbier was appointed as the Army’s Director of Operations for the final years of the Bush War. After moving on to become Director of Plans, he ended his military career as the Commander of 8 Armoured Division. He had therefore commanded a police platoon, a parachute company, a mechanised infantry battalion, a parachute brigade, and an armoured division. Surely, a unique record of command for any soldier!

He deployed operationally at platoon, company and battalion levels and he oversaw the planning and conduct of operations at the highest level in the SA Army.

He came from a military family. His father was a farrier in the Permanent Force, a veteran of the Second World War who retired as a sergeant major. Frank therefore grew up on military bases in Potchefstroom and Oudtshoorn. He was the elder brother of Andre, also a paratrooper, who retired as a major general. His younger sister, Wendy, married James Hills, another legendary paratrooper.

Frank Bestbier was a competent rugby player in his young days and continued to coach rugby and administer the sport in the SADF for many years. He was also an enthusiastic Bisley (full-bore target rifle) shottist. Although he was something of a loner on the range, I was always glad to see him at the annual National Open Championships, where I was the Chief Range Officer. We both found it amusingly ironic that whereas I once appeared before him on orders for a misdemeanour when I was one of his soldiers, I could now give him orders on the range. (My misdemeanour had been wearing a creased shirt during Company Commander’s weekly inspection!).

Frank’s heart always lay in farming, and he retired early to farm full-time in the Waterberg in Limpopo Province. In recent years he suffered increasingly from ill-health and a few weeks ago, he collapsed on his farm. He was hospitalised with a severe gall bladder infection that turned septic, and he then contracted Covid-19. He died in hospital, apparently from heart failure.

We have lost a great soldier and a tough paratrooper who left a valuable imprint on the SADF. I will remember him with fondness and respect. He provided me with a solid grounding in the military profession, for which I will always be grateful.

My deepest condolences to Eileen, their sons Francois and Alreich and their wider family. Also, to Wendy and to Andre, who is himself not well. An impressive and formidable tree has been felled in our forest.

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Young boys in War – an incident in Graaff-Reinet during the Anglo Boer War

It was not uncommon during this conflict to find young boys barely in their teens joining the Boer Commandos of the time, many to join their fathers or older brothers as the war progressed and the fighting forces became depleted. One such occurrence took place in Graaff-Reinet during the Anglo Boer War that brought confrontation between the local British Commandant and the local Headmaster.

William Archer Way was then Headmaster of the Graaff-Reinet Public School and an Oxford graduate. He later, in 1911, became the Rector of the Grey High School and is looked upon to this day as probably the finest Rector to head this 165 year old school. He died in 1928 and in his obituary which was carried in the school magazine of that year, this episode read:
“He treated me as he treated all boys, with the courteous bonhomie of someone able to sympathise with the thoughts of youth just passing into manhood. He told me he had among his pupils, boys whose brothers and relatives were on the side of the Boers while on the contrary there were those whose relatives sided with the English. This was a difficult state of affairs for him, but he faced it bravely and with a certain sense of humour and the result was that the boys took him into their confidence.

When I heard how he has acted towards a few boys who absconded from school to join the commandos and fell into the hands of the English, I knew that his attitude was a result of his strict sense of fairness that guided him through life. The boys had been sentenced by Court Martial to punishment and the Commandant ordered Way to administer the punishment and he simply refused. He said, “If my boys did anything that you think deserve punishment, then punish them according to your regulations, but at my school I am the Head – not you. If I find out that they did anything improper, I will punish them according to my regulations”.

The result was that, after a long correspondence which was not free from threats made by the Commandant, the boys returned to school. The punishment they received from Way was that they had stayed away from school without his permission! The incident was collaborated when Way added that, having punished the boys, “They are among my best pupils and better boys you will find nowhere - I made them choose their own punishment and they have undergone it and they are better boys just because that they have realised that they acted foolishly. There was nothing bad or sinful in their conduct.”

And the punishment – who knows, but we suspect six of the best may have been the order of the day? But what a gentleman William Archer Way was and he was held in the highest esteem. The day and full evening before his funeral his casket was guarded by Old Greys drawn from Prince Alfred’s Guard as it lay in the school hall – known as the De Waal Hall.

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Friends of the War Museum of the Boer Republics monthly zoomeetings

The Friends of the War Museum of the Boer Republics hold a Zoom meeting on the last Wednesday of the month. These presentations are certainly worth attending.

In the July meeting we heard of the life of Abraham Esau of Calvinia, who, besides being remembered for various other reasons, is considered a martyr in his community. In August the topic will be “The First de Wet Hunt” by Professor Fransjohan Pretorius. We will forward the link to SAMHSEC members when it is available.

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Received from the Border Historical Society

“An archived Audio Recording of a talk "The Africana Enthusiast -relating to the Eastern Cape." presented by Sheila Speedy to the Border Historical Society in 1965 has been loaded on the BHS YouTube channel see

In December 1959 the post of Cory Librarian at Rhodes University was offered to Sheila Speedy, a recent (1959) Honours graduate in History with a University Education diploma, but with no library or archival experience. She took office in June 1960 and remained at Cory until the end of August 1965. In that period, she acquired a B Ed (1964) and spent a year (from August 1963) in Michigan, USA on a scholarship studying towards a Masters in Library Science. Sheila Speedy resigned at the end of June 1965 as she had been appointed to the Killie Campbell Library at the University of Natal. She did however remain at Cory until end August 1965 when Michael Berning accepted the post. During her time at the Cory Library, Miss Speedy was invited by the Border Historical Society to present a talk on 15 June 1965 which she titled "The Africana Enthusiast - relating to the Eastern Cape." Sheila was introduced on the night of the talk by Mark Taylor.

The original BASF reel-to-reel tape Magnetophonband recording was expertly digitized for the Border Historical Society by Paul Wiggins of East London, May 2021

References: Berning, Michael The Cory Library for Historical Research: A Short History, 1931-2003 Grahamstown: Cory Library, 2004, pgs 24, 26-27.

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The following was received in response to Alan Mantle’s talks on “Italy 1943 to 1945: War and Civil War” (see SAMHSEC newsletter 197 February 2021) and “Commemorating Private Reice Campbell who died in Italy in 1944” (see SAMHSEC newsletter 201 June 2021):

“Dear Mr Mantle,

My late father was a Southern Rhodesian volunteer with First City/Cape Town Highlanders (FC/CTH) in Egypt and then in Italy. After obtaining Dad’s war service card in November from the SANDF Archives, I contacted the Castiglione Museum to thank them for the excellent details they had put on the internet. This led to an exchange of information, including which hospital Dad had been sent to after being wounded and explained some of the cryptic abbreviations on the service card. We now know why Dad thought Friday 13th was lucky and learned about the Battle for Monte Stanco. I have been able to ascertain that Dad served in B Company with FC/CTH. That makes reading online about the campaign in Italy more meaningful. Strangely the Company was not on his service card.

According to his service card, my father was not listed as injured on the Friday 13 October 1944 assault on Monte Stanco. His service card has his injury on 20 October. I still don’t know why Dad was Mentioned in Despatches.

He was very upset by the death of another Southern Rhodesian in FC/CTH, “Paddy” Green from Marandellas, who did die on Friday 13th in the Monte Stanco battle. Dad kept a small photo of Paddy’s grave with the basic wooden cross. Recently, using the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, I have found his proper name etc.

Dad was committed to honouring the sacrifice of the servicemen. My brother tells me that in Neil Orpen’s book “The Cape Town Highlanders 1885-1970” page 268/9, there is a photo of the Memorial Plaque St Mary’s Cathedral in Salisbury unveiled on 5 August 1953 in memory of all ranks who died while serving in FC/CTH during the Italian Campaign 1944-5. This plaque was erected by the 62 Club of Southern Rhodesia, consisting of ex-members of both regiments. Dad was the secretary. Maybe the plaque no longer exists in 2021 Zimbabwe, but Dad did his best for remembering them.

I have drawn your Zoom lectures to the attention of Mauro Fogacci, who is the Curator of the Paolo Guidotti Centre at the Castiglione dei Pepoli South African War Museum.”

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Received in response to the 31 May RPC talk on the book “The Cruel Sea" (see SAMHSEC newsletter 202 July 2021):

“A very accurate book about those Atlantic convoys. As an ASW (Anti- Submarine Warfare) specialist, I could truly relate to the story. I have shown the movie at the Seven Seas Club twice already on our monthly 'Movie Nights'. The movie is an epic and a very accurate portrayal of the story. Those days they actually made movies at sea and did not use computer generated images.”

SAMHSEC’s August Meetings

Our next meeting monthly meeting will be on 9 August when the subject will be “The American Field Service” by Barbara Ann Kinghorn.

The American Field Service (AFS) started as the American Ambulance Field Service, a volunteer ambulance corps which served in both World Wars. AFS has transformed from a wartime humanitarian aid organisation into an international secondary school exchange to help build a more peaceful world by promoting understanding among cultures.

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SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history on 30 August:

Session 1: Ian Copley will be talking about Post Traumatic Stress: battle fatigue and shell shock.

Session 2: John Stevens will be talking about the book In Danger’s Hour by Douglas Reeman. The book is historical fiction set in a Royal Navy minesweeper during World War 2.

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This is the Captain speaking

SAMHSEC is pleased to recognise August as Women’s Month in appreciation of our lady members who make up 25% of our total membership.

Thank you, Ladies, for contributing to what would otherwise be a decidedly drab affair!


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South African Military History Society /