We extend to our membership all the very best for the year ahead and may it be a good one – it can after all only be better than 2020! We trust as well that those who celebrated Christmas enjoyed the company of their family and friends and that the occasion was a happy one for all.
In reflecting on the past year, we would like to say that we had under the circumstances a good year.
The Zoom sessions were the life blood of our branch and were not only viewed locally by our own members, but by others residing globally. We had on occasions attendances of more than 50 zoominati and it is with all credit that we must thank SAMHSEC in taking the initiative and frog-marching us on board to join and to enlist on the digital platform! We have emerged strong and well done to all our members for their support and making positive and interesting contributions to our meetings.
The British 1820 Settler Bowker family in the Eastern Cape by Stephen Bowker
The SAMHSEC zoomeeting on 14 December 2020 talk was by Stephen Bowker on the British 1820 Settler Bowker family in the Eastern Cape.
Stephen told that the Bowker family in South Africa has the seals of Sir John Bourchier, who was one of the signatories of the Death Warrant of King Charles I.
Miles and Anna Maria Bowker and their young family from Mitford in Northern England arrived in Algoa Bay on 15 May 1820. They settled on their allotted farm Tharfield, between Port Alfred and the Great Fish River.
Miles was one of the few 1820 British Settlers with farming experience, having been a sheep farmer in England. His knowledge was put to good use and Tharfield developed into a thriving enterprise.
The sons of the family were involved in repelling invasions of Xhosa territory by refugees from the expanding Zulu kingdom in 1826 and 1828.
Like many other British 1820 Settler families, the Bowkers lost everything in the 6th Frontier War, which followed the Xhosa invasion of Albany in December 1834 and had to take shelter in Bathurst. Bowkers participated in the subsequent invasion of the Xhosa territory led by Governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban, with Colonel Harry Smith as military commander, to recover cattle stolen during the Xhosa invasion.
Bowkers also participated in the 7th and 8th Frontier Wars and were prominent in the recapture of Fort Armstrong from rebel forces in the 8th War.
Stephen gave short descriptions of the contributions of each of Miles and Anna Maria Bowkers’ children:
The eldest was John Mitford Bowker, who remained in England to wind up the family affairs before joining the rest of the family in 1822. He became a spokesperson for the Settlers and emphasised the British Government’s failure to protect them. He fought in the 6th Frontier War with his brothers. His report written in May 1836 describes the situation of the Settlers after the 6th Frontier War “I am one of a family which in 1820 was induced to emigrate to this colony by the proffer from the Home Government of free passage, a grant of land on arrival and due protection. (I had) full confidence that common exertion and industry would enable me in a few years, if not in affluence, but confidence in my adopted home, (to live) in peace and comfort. But I found I had counted against my host. Many were the difficulties we had to contend with - continued losses of settler brothers by plundering and murdering by the natives and their frequent depredations.” Stephen does not know the cause of his death during the 7th Frontier War.
William Monkhouse Bowker was a leader with Richard Southey of the Corps of Guides in the 6th Frontier War. He raised the Somerset Volunteers in the 8th Frontier War and participated in the recapture of Fort Armstrong. After the war, he was a Justice of the Peace and Field Cornet. He represented Albany in the Cape Parliament.
Miles Brabin Bowker lived on the family farm Thornkloof, in the Fort Beaufort District, where he was in laager during the 7th Frontier War.
Thomas Holden Bowker represented Albany, Victoria East and Queenstown in the Cape Parliament, where he advocated compensation for the losses suffered by farmers in the wars. He commanded the defence of Whittlesea during the 8th Frontier War. He was invited to stand for President of the Orange Free State, which honour he declined. He was the founder of Queenstown and designed the Hexagon on which the defences of the town were based. He discovered pre-historic artefacts in the area and was a respected entomologist and botanist.
At the end of the 8th Frontier War, he wrote in a report “I think all the wars that we have had have arisen out of what we call cattle stealing, better known by the name of Xhosa depredations. Not suppressing the depredations has been the main cause of all the wars that followed. I believe the best method of suppressing depredations is to employ an active mounted police force of men with border experience and commanded by a man experienced in border warfare. The frontier farmers have so many occupations besides merely looking after their cattle, sheep and horses that they cannot always be on the spot to miss them.”
His report is believed to have contributed to Governor George Cathcart’s 1853 system “For the Prevention of Native Disturbances on the Frontier”. This provided for local defence by farmers combined with a para-military force as it included the establishment of the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police, also known as Currie’s Police, after its first commander, Sir Walter Currie. This was a police force during times of peace and a disciplined unit to act with other military forces in the event of war. The system was successful in that no disturbances took place for 24 years.
Bertram Egerton Bowker was a skilled carpenter. He was requested by Governor Sir Bartle Frere to establish the Bowker’s Rovers in 1877. Like many second generation 1820 British Settlers, he moved to the Johannesburg goldfields in 1887.
Robert Mitford Bowker farmed the isolated family farm Craigie Burn in the Somerset East District, which served as a place of refuge for his brothers’ families and livestock during the 7th and 8th Frontier Wars. He represented Somerset East in the Cape Parliament.
Septimus Bourchier Bowker served in the 6th, 7th and 8th Frontier Wars and in the Bowker’s Rovers commanded by his brother Bertram. He was a sheep farmer and Justice of the Peace in Bedford.
Octavius Bourchier Bowker was an exceptionally good marksman. He served in the 6th, 7th and 8th Frontier Wars. He was a gunsmith and developed the sought-after Bowker Gun. He participated in Boer operations against the Basuto in the Free State, where his skill as a marksman was valued.
Mary Elizabeth Barber (neé Bowker), in spite of having had no formal education, had wide knowledge of botany, natural history and entomology and was a skilled artist and poet. She corresponded with Charles Darwin and assisted Dr Harvey in compiling his Thesaurus Capensis. The plant genus Barberae is named after her.
Anna Maria Bowker (Junior) was born in 1820 on board ship in Table Bay en route to Algoa Bay.
Stephen knows little about her life, other than that she married John Frederick Korsten Atherstone and had 9 children.
James Henry Bowker was born in South Africa in 1822. He served in the 7th and 8th Frontier Wars. He succeeded Sir Walter Currie as the commander of the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police in 1855. He was the founder of Umtata. He commanded an expedition to Basutoland in 1868 and planned the expedition against Langalibalele in 1872. He was well known for his study of butterflies and the genus Bowkeria is named after him.
The view that the 1820 British Settlers were the instigators of the wars that followed their arrival in the Eastern Cape is not borne out by the writings at the time of John and Holden Bowker. These show that lack of protection from the British Government and constant depredations from the Xhosa left the British Settlers with no option but to fight to protect their lives and property.
The descendants of 1820 British Settlers Miles and Anna Maria Bowker have contributed and continue to contribute to the development of South Africa in many fields.
Stephen’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library, see
Book Review: The War Story of Soldier 124280 by Mike Sadler (1922-2002) presented by Andre Crozier to the SAMHSEC RPC on 30 November 2020
The War Story of Soldier 124280 by Mike Sadler published in 2014 by 30 Degree South Publishers (Pty) Ltd) ( ISBN 978-1-928211-37-2; e-book 978 -1-928211-38-9. Available on Kindle at reduced price of $8 – about R120,00)
This book is the personal account of a very young soldier who served in the South African Artillery during World War II.
Mike Sadler joined up as a signaller in the South African Artillery at the age of 17. His father had to sign an indemnity to allow this. His war story tells how and why he joined up, his experiences during training and in North Africa leading to the fall of Tobruk and afterwards as a Prisoner of War in Italy and Austria.
It took one day, the 20 June 1940, for Rommel’s Afrika Korps to smash through the outer perimeter at Tobruk and capture the port. Shortly after dawn on the next day, the 21 June 1940, General Klopper avoided a blood bath by surrendering and 32 000 British and Commonwealth soldiers had to ignominiously destroy their weapons and surrender. Included were over 10 000 South Africans. The entire South African Second Division surrendered without firing a shot.
There are many books on this the greatest disaster in South African Military history. However, for an amazingly vivid account of what this all looked like to a very young, ordinary soldier, one should read this book.
Mike Sadler recounts the battle as he saw it. He was not yet 20 at the time. Being the radio operator and driver of the Battery Commander, he had a unique insight into what was going on. He deals with the frustration in the seemingly inexplicable failure of the Garrison Commander, General Klopper, to communicate by radio and give the Artillery the order to open fire on the German tanks and vehicles streaming towards the port of Tobruk. On the late afternoon of the 20 June 1940, he describes what he saw as follows:
“I glanced to the north, where the town lay. Loud and constant explosions are coming from that direction. With sheets of flame and clouds of smoke. Then I look around about, in every direction I could see scores of vehicles speeding away from the invading enemy. And when I look eastwards, I saw a scene that is engraved in my memory. Coming towards me was an endless stream of weary men, trudging along the edge of the escarpment. These were the infantrymen and the men from the tanks and guns. They had been defeated by the Germans and were now fleeing on foot. Some were carrying their rifles, some had packs, but most of them had only what they stood up in. The sun was setting and sent long, golden rays shining through the dust and I could see the hopelessness of defeat etched on the white, exhausted faces. A feeling of pity flooded my mind and then came the thought. This is no longer a brave army. We are vanquished – a rabble on the run”
On the first night of captivity. Sadler was one of the thousands of prisoners huddled on the runway of the airfield. He described the scene as follows:
“I looked up at the stars. It was a brilliant, cloudless night and the stars twinkled as merrily as they had done the night before, when I had settled down so bravely to sleep beside my armoured car. I was free then, but now was a prisoner and the sentries marching to and fro were there to remind me of that fact, but they never even bothered to look at the thousands of men who sat huddled together in the moonlight. They knew none of us would try to escape. There was no point. We would have to return and surrender again. There was no escape.”
In the Italian prison camps, the men suffered from terrible hunger and many would surely have died of starvation were it not for the eventual arrival of the Red Cross parcels. Speaking of the ever present hunger, Mike writes:
“It was not so much the physical side of hunger which was distressing as the mental and emotional aspect. The constant pain prevented one from falling asleep at night and, also, one woke frequently with pains in the stomach and lay there restlessly moving about and when one did fall asleep, one dreamt about food, which naturally increases the stress… (During the day) we would sit around and try and find something of interest to discuss but, somehow, it always ended up with the subject of food.”
After almost three years in a prison camp, he returned to South Africa and, like all other POWs, he had to face the realisation that 5 years of his life was gone with nothing to show for it and he had to rehabilitate himself and adapt to civilian life. That he clearly did. He got married in 1948. He obtained a degree from Natal University and became a teacher specialising in teacher training. He was the founder principal of a teacher training college in Zambia. After his return to South Africa, he taught at various schools, including Graeme College and the Training College at Grahamstown.
He was my History teacher during my final year at Graeme College, Grahamstown, in 1967 and he delighted the class by recounting to us lesson by lesson his experiences during the war. He was much loved by all his students and inspired many of us to take an interest in military history. So, I was pleased to discover that, before his death in 2002, he had written up his war stories. The book is not just gloom and contains many interesting and amusing stories of his experiences whilst in the Army and as a POW.
Many of us had relatives or knew of men who were captured at Tobruk, survived the POW camps, but would never talk of their experiences. Reading Mike Sadler’s book will give one an insight into the experiences of which many would never talk. May I leave the final word to Mike Sadler:
“When writing an autobiography, one has to choose between what is of interest to oneself, and what may be of interest to the readers – if any. If one is famous, then one simply chooses those incidents which illuminated the path which brought one to fame but, as I am not famous and did not do anything particularly daring or exciting during the war, I have had to choose other criteria. I decided that my only readers would probably be my children and grand-children and they would perhaps be interested in learning how my experiences had helped me in the process of reaching maturity. If this is so, then my labours will be well rewarded.”
Searching for Captain Martin
Former SAMHSEC member Chris Papenfus is researching the war service record of Captain James Martin, who was a POW in Germany in 1944. Chris’ interest is based on a letter to Captain Martin from a correspondent who lived in Castle Court in Central, Port Elizabeth. If you can assist Chris, please contact him on 076 168 2651 or email@example.com.
South African War Memorials
In response to the SAMHSEC RPC presentation on 26 October 2020 on the War Memorials on the East London Railway Station (http://rapidttp.co.za/milhist/zoomvideo/eastlondonmemorial.mp4) the following was received from SAMHS KZN member Richard Nortje:
“I am affiliated with the South African War Graves Project and a fellow member of the South African Military History Society. For many years I have collected and archived countless Regimental ROH's and plaques/memorials recording the South African sacrifices of WW I and WW II. I have managed to obtain these images at Town Halls, cemeteries, schools, churches, Regimental HQs and corporate buildings or companies whose employees fed the War Effort.”
If you can contribute to Richard’s project, please contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Uitenhage Commando during the Border War
SAMHS Jhb member and former SAMHS National Chairman Jan Willem Hoorweg writes:
“I was approached recently by a colleague who would like more information on his father and his actions as Commanding Officer of the Uitenhage Commando. Apparently, the Commando took part in several operations during the Border War. My colleague’s father was Commandant Andries Albertus Fokkens. He passed away in the year 2000. My colleague and his father never really got to speak about his time on the Border and his dad was not keen to talk about it. My colleague, who is a prominent South African conductor, would like to know what the Commando did and how his dad was involved.”
If you can help Jan Willem, please contact him on email@example.com
Unidentified South African Army officer from the Great War
SAMHSEC ZOOMEETING 11 JANUARY 2021
Alan Mantle is to address the SAMHSEC zoomeeting on 11 January 2021 on
Italy 1943 to 1945: War and Civil War.
SAMHSEC RPC on 25 January 2021
SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to discuss military history at 1930 on 25 January 2021:
Session 1 from 1930 to 2010
Ian Pringle will discuss the escape from Tobruk by Cecil " Quills" Featherstone, MC.
Session 2 from 2015 to 2055
This session is available for anyone to speak about military history books. If you have a book or something about a book you would like to share with us, please contact Andre at firstname.lastname@example.org,
This is the captain speaking
One of the advantages of having migrated from room to Zoom is that speakers from anywhere can
address SAMHSEC meetings. Andre Crozier coordinates the speakers’ roster. It you are available to
share your knowledge with fellow military historians, please contact Andre at
I look forward to the day that SAMHSEC’s speaker roster reaches the point of “Hurry and reserve your slot while stocks last!”