South African Military History Society


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 202

July / Julie


We would like to encourage all presenters to the Society to provide the Scribe with a written summary of their presentations. All presentations have no doubt required a lot of research and the subject is invariably close to the presenter’s heart. Why not simply preserve the work for the sake of posterity in the archives of the Society and allow others who may in time wish to delve into the work to find it readily available? Let us please remember that the task has not been completed until the paperwork has been done!

RPC on 31 May 2021

In the first session, Franco Cilliers spoke about Military Podcasts:

“What is a podcast? The Wikipedia definition is that a podcast is an episodic series of spoken word digital audio files that a user can download to a personal device for easy listening. Think of listening to a radio, but you pick the programmes. You can also pause and continue listening in your own time.

The app I use is PlayerFM. There are many different ones. If you have an Apple device, you can use iTunes. PlayerFM has a website which synchronises with your feed of podcasts. With the app you can curate your podcast feed to your interests.

Figures do not display so his comments referring to the figures are omitted
Figure 1: PlayerFM with some podcasts
Figure 2: Description of a podcast on Irish peacekeeping in the Lebanon
Figure 3: PlayerFM website

YouTube is a video sharing website, which in recent years has attracted documentaries and documentary makers. Museums have joined to raise awareness, increase their reach and to provide an additional source of income. There are channels dedicated to various events and, because of the format, you can do different things compared to traditional documentaries. There is, for example, a video channel dedicated to World War 1, which details each day of the war during its centenary.

The Tank Museum in Bovington in the UK has a good YouTube channel. They have two series which I follow, one is Tank Chats, which are short discussions on various vehicles and the other the Tank Workshop Diaries, which discuss the maintenance and restoration of the vehicles in the museum collection.

Another museum which uses YouTube is the USS New Jersey Battleship Museum. Their channel has short videos showing various aspects of the Museum.

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In the second session, Malcolm Kinghorn spoke about The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat. This novel, published in 1951, is about the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War. It is based on the author's experience of serving in corvettes and frigates in the North Atlantic. It was written in South Africa while the author was a media correspondent with the British High Commission in South Africa. The novel was made into the film The Cruel Sea in 1953.

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14 June 2021 presentation

“Polish-Soviet War of 1919/20” by Stefan Szewczuk

Stefan is the President of the Polish Association of Siberian Deportees in Africa and the Vice-President of the Polish Heritage Foundation of South Africa.

The Polish-Soviet War was a military conflict between Poland and Soviet Russia, which lasted from 1919 to 1921. Following World War 1, Polish nationalism was sparked by the re-creation of an independent Polish state, which blocked the Bolshevik determination to carry the gains they had achieved during the Russian Civil War into Central Europe. The decisive Polish victory resulted in the establishment of the Russo-Polish border that existed until 1939.

The recording of the talk is available in the SAMHS Zoom Library.

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RPC on 28 June 2021

Our 28 June RPC differed from the usual format as both sessions were addressed by Anne Copley on “Allied Escapers in Italy: An Untold Story of WW2”. Anne is a Trustee of the Monte San Martino Trust, on which her talk was based.

The Trust exists to promote awareness of a unique situation in Italy during World War 2; unique because Italy became a bit of a sideshow in WW2, which is clear with every D-Day Commemoration and poignant because those left fighting in Italy were nicknamed D-Day Dodgers.

Italy changed sides in the war and signed an Armistice with the Allies in September 1943, which prompted mass prison escapes into what days before, had been enemy territory.

Whilst in other countries many brave people assisted Allied escapers and passed them back to the Allies, in Italy circumstances did not really allow for that and, instead, there arose a completely ad hoc welcome to escapers from the country’s lowest of the low. This often meant the individual remaining with an Italian family or group of families for months at a time, learning the language, working in the fields and forming strong bonds with the isolated communities in which they found themselves. This with people who had, only days before, been their mortal enemy and whom their previous experience had led them to despise. It was an extraordinary cross-cultural event on a huge scale.

Keith Kilby was the founder of the Monte San Martino Trust. His experience of that protection during his time on the run in Italy led him to set up the Trust to repay in small ways the courage and compassion that he had experienced. Keith lived to the ripe old age of 102 and died only a couple of years ago.

Many people, when first told this story, are surprised to learn that there were prison camps in Italy, so engrained in our consciousness are the film and TV images which overwhelmingly deal with German camps and usually officer camps at that. But the fact is that by September 1943 there were 80,000 Prisoners of War (PoWs) -British, American, Australian, Indian, South African and others interned in camps in Italy.

The vast majority had been captured in North Africa, during a war that had been fought back and forth across the North African coastal regions for the previous two and a half years. The Italians, then an Axis power, invaded Egypt from their colony of modern-day Libya in September 1940 and it wasn’t until May 1943 that the Axis Powers were finally defeated and surrendered in Tunisia.

After the Italians’ initial success, things went badly wrong and the Germans were forced to come to their aid. Part of the deal was that any PoWs captured in Africa were the responsibility of the Italians, who were ill-equipped both militarily and in terms of provisions and were sometimes little better off than the prisoners they were guarding. Certainly, they were looked down upon by the German troops and, in fact, there are many accounts of German captors apologising to their prisoners for having to hand them over to the Italians.

Throughout the two and a half years Allied soldiers became PoWs, either as a result of skirmishes or full-on battles, either individually or in large groups. One of the largest “bulk captures” was at the fall of Tobruk on 21 June 1942 when 32,000 men were taken prisoner, 10,722 of whom were South African, including 1,200 Native troops.

On capture or shortly afterwards, officers were segregated from their men and transported to Italy, usually by plane, but sometimes by ship. There are several accounts of discussions about overpowering the pilots and flying the plane back to the Allied lines. These all came to nothing, often because there was no one with the required expertise amongst the prisoners to fly the plane, though there is one story of a plane being hijacked and flown to Malta.

The Other Ranks suffered long marches or were crammed into trucks and driven for days in the intense desert heat to transit camps, which were little more than patches of sand surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by disaffected Italians. At this stage there was little opportunity for successful escapes, debilitated as the men were and surrounded by thousands of miles of almost featureless desert. However, there were a few.

One of those few was Lance Corporal Job Maseko, who was a volunteer, (as were all South Africans) in the Native Military Corps, 2nd South African Division. Like all black prisoners, Job was made to work for the Germans, unloading provisions from supply ships. He managed to acquire a defunct German radio, which he repaired and listened to news of Bernard Montgomery’s arrival in Egypt as Commander of the Eighth Army. He left his work detail and walked for three weeks across the desert to El Alamein in time to take part in the final battle there.

Prior to that, he had sabotaged and sunk a supply ship, placing a bomb made out of a condensed milk tin and cordite from bullets, next to drums of fuel in the hold. He got away with it because it was assumed that the explosion had been caused by prisoners smoking whilst working.

He received the Military Medal for his actions and a rather fine portrait of him was painted by South African war artist Neville Lewis.

Sooner or later, the Other Ranks were transported to Italy in the holds of cargo ships, mostly from Benghazi or Tripoli. The journey took 3-4 days and I leave to your imagination the impact in the ships’ holds of men suffering from dysentery and seasickness - suffice to say the conditions were unspeakable, added to which was the fear of attack by one’s own side. Several ships were torpedoed, two examples being the Nino Bixio, holding 3,200 prisoners, which limped on to Greece with a loss of life of 336 PoWs and the SS Scillin, holding 814, which was sunk by a British submarine, with only 27 PoW survivors. The latter was kept secret until pressure from relatives and historians forced it into the public domain in 1996.

Italy was ill prepared to take in the numbers of PoWs, particularly when 32,000 arrived in the Autumn and Winter of 1942 after the fall of Tobruk. All sorts of buildings were pressed into service, including factories and warehouses, and, for the officers, various castles and even a newly built orphanage in Fontanellato near Parma. Some prisoners found themselves put up in tents and were required to build their own huts from scratch. The Other Ranks camp in Servigliano had been a PoW camp in WW1.

Given the Tobruk influx, there was a lack of Red Cross parcels, owing to the weather and the fact that at this stage the Red Cross didn’t know where all these camps were. The winter of 1942 was when conditions in these camps were at their worst. Deaths due to starvation were commonplace in some and there are many accounts of men being so malnourished that they blacked out merely by standing up.

The arrival of Spring, together with a regular supply of Red Cross parcels meant things improved. News trickled in from outside and the deposing of Mussolini in July 1943 helped raised morale -also amongst many of their Italian guards! The first many PoWs knew of the September Armistice signed between Italy and the Allies was sounds of jubilation from outside their camp and the disappearance of the Italian guards.

Although told to “Stay Put” as a result of a misguided belief that the Allies would sweep up through Italy, collecting the prisoners on the way, some 50,000 took the opportunity to escape. With one or two exceptions, these escapes were completely ad hoc and on the men’s own initiative. Sometimes they didn’t get much further than the nearest wine shop, where they were feted by enthusiastic Italians, who encouraged them in the notion that the war was now over. They and others were quickly recaptured by German forces, who didn’t take long to fill the vacuum created by the disappearance of the Italian army. However, 26,500 were still at large in October 1943 and most of those would not have survived without the courage and compassion of the Italian contadini (peasantry).

There are photos of Italian helpers from the Marche region in Central Italy on the Adriatic coast, which contained three Other Rank camps, including Servigliano. They represent 60,000 or more Italians who ignored the German warnings of death and destruction to be visited on anyone who aided escaped prisoners.

These contadini lived a life that had not changed much since the Middle Ages. Mostly illiterate and certainly impoverished, they were sharecroppers at the mercy of their landlords, who were entitled to 50% of everything they produced and could throw them off the land on a whim or if they were not satisfied with their cut.

They were despised by the rest of Italian society – in Anne’s nearby town of Amandola, until the 1960s, they were not allowed into the main piazza.

All accounts by escapers confirm that these were the people whom they could trust. There even existed a sort of Goldilocks assessment-by-haystack of the likelihood of help when approaching a farm: three haystacks – too rich and probably Fascist; one haystack – too poor and unable to provide much; two haystacks were “just right”.

It took 18 months for the Allies to liberate all of Italy and escapers from the more northern camps sometimes spent all that time sheltered by their erstwhile enemy, who treated them as members of their family and both sides were often devastated when the time came to part.

Anne touched on some individuals from South Africa who went through this experience.

The first is Archibald Reice Campbell, the subject of a previous SAMSHEC talk by Alan Mantle. Reice died in the confusion of a botched partisan raid and has been brought back to life by the research of Raoul Piaciaroni in Italy, who wrote a book about the incident in which Campbell lost his life and Alan, who undertook the herculean and very rewarding task of tracking down Reice’s descendants both in South Africa and the UK. I thoroughly recommend Alan’s talk if you want to know more. (Scribe’s note: The recording of Alan’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library.)

Uys Krige, well-known as a South African man of letters, was a war correspondent captured in November 1941 during Operation Crusader, which was an attempt to lift the siege of Tobruk. He escaped at the Armistice and was sheltered for 6 months by Italians before being guided through Allied lines to the Canadians in February 1944. His book The Way Out was first published in 1946 and is one of the defining accounts of the time.

Paul Randles left behind a huge stash of letters. He wrote almost every week to his parents during his training, time in North Africa and his imprisonment in Italy. His family have reconstructed his story from those letters together with visits to the relevant sites in Italy and meetings with the descendants of those who helped him. A copy of that account is now in the Monte San Martino archives and will shortly be available online.

Paul was captured at the fall of Tobruk along with his entire regiment. His imprisonment started in a tented camp in Lucca, which was so bad that it was condemned by the Red Cross and closed down. He then had the good sense to volunteer as a batman to officer PoWs and, as a result, enjoyed much better conditions than some, firstly at an aristocratic castle near Piacenza, then at the newly-built orphanage at Fontanellato near Parma. That latter camp was probably the only one where escape was organised with military precision and everyone marched out of the camp before dispersing. Paul then undertook a 600km walk down the spine of Italy to the Pellegrini family. He had the bad luck to be recaptured in March 1944 and spent the rest of the war in Germany. A photo shows him back in Brighton with 2 mates awaiting shipment back to South Africa, which finally happened in July 1945.

Very surprisingly, Paul was able to get a letter to his family whilst in hiding with the Pellegrinis, which includes: “…and here comes the theme of the whole story – the kindness, friendliness and hospitality of the Italian people”. And that sums up in a few words the reason for the existence of the Monte San Martino Trust.

Our founder Keith’s book, “In Combat Unarmed” describes his stance as a Conscientious Objector and why he was still prepared to do his bit, as long as he did not have to bear arms. He became a medical orderly and had a busy war up to his capture in Sardinia whilst part of a diversionary raid undertaken by the SAS in July 1943.

He was imprisoned at Servigliano, but only for 6 weeks or so before the Armistice, at which point he and his SAS comrades broke out through the prison wall. The hole they made can still be seen today.

For all escapers, following the immediate feelings of elation, came confusion as to what to do, where to go, and how their former enemy would receive them. The answer was not long in coming – ordinary Italians welcomed them and protected them both from the Germans and their own Fascist compatriots. Keith was sheltered in the hilltop town Monte San Martino for two weeks by its inhabitants, including Maria Levi, who Keith describes coming across a field and over a river, barefoot and with a large pot of pasta on her head for Keith and his comrades.

After 2 weeks, Keith moved off South, trying to reach Allied lines. He describes his continued astonishment at the generosity of the Italians he met, providing food and shelter, usually in a barn, but sometimes in the family bed. Unfortunately, after about 6 weeks he bumped into a German patrol and was a prisoner again, this time in Germany for the rest of the war.

Post-war, Keith went back into the family meat business and also travelled extensively in Italy, meeting with those who had helped him whilst on the run. Monte San Martino remained particularly dear to his heart and, after his retirement in 1989, he set up the Trust. Keith’s aim was to provide bursaries for English Language study in England to young Italians, particularly those whose parents had been involved in helping escapers during the war.

We now support about 35 students per year, totalling about 500 since 1989. One of the early students was Giuseppe Milozzi, who remains very closely involved with the Trust and whose father, Antonio, is the Trust’s representative in Italy. We encourage students to retain close links with the Trust and, indeed, one of our very welcome recent Trustees is a Trust ex-student, Nermina Delic.

The Trust has also always had a social side, including an annual lunch in London, attended by many of the original escapers and their descendants.

Major anniversaries are also marked. One was the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the escapes which took place in and around Fontanellato, near Parma in the Emilia Romagna region. The Italians did the Trust’s representatives proud! Frank Unwin, the last of the originals continued to attend our events right up to the end. He was aged 98 on his last trip to Italy, having only recently discharged himself from hospital with pneumonia. He had worked for many years on his account of his protection in the village of Montebenichi in Tuscany and, gratifyingly, was able to get it published shortly before his death in 2019.

The Trust has taken on a research and archive function and expanded from preservation of original objects to increasing focus on research and collaboration.

Keith acquired a considerable archive of first-hand accounts, some published, but many not. There are also books, now available online after a lot of hard work from Trustee Christine English. Hard copies had been kept in Keith’s flat and the Trust is currently discussing a home for them with universities.

There is also an extraordinary bibliography compiled by Trustee Julia MacKenzie. Julia has made a special selection of books relating to South Africa and Africa in general, see Note 1 below.

The Istituto Parri, named after Ferruccio Parri, an Italian partisan turned politician, is keen to preserve memory of Italian Resistance. The Institute coordinates more than 50 historical institutes in Italy specialising in research into anti-fascism and the Italian Resistance.

The Trust has teamed up with IP in a joint project to create an online portal entitled “Italy and the Allies 1939-1947” which will bring under one roof existing and new research. The first section is about PoWs, which is the Trust’s speciality.

The Allied Screening Commission (ASC) was set up in the British Embassy in Rome before the War was over and tasked with investigating and rewarding all those Italians who had aided Allied escapers. This was a huge undertaking involving going up mountain mule tracks etc.

The ASC closed down in 1947, having paid out 60,000 claims out of 84,000 received. Many of those not paid out were because the claimant was not interested in money, only how “their” escapers had fared and if they survived. All those found to be genuine would have received a copy of the Alexander Certificate, so-called because they were signed by Field Marshal Alexander, Supreme Allied Commander in Mediterranean. Many ex-escapers thought the awards were puny given the risks and sacrifices undergone by contadini.

The ASC amassed 1.5 million documents, ranging from administration to personal letters, both from claimants and escapers demanding to know why their Italians hadn’t yet been paid. This fantastic resource both for academics and family historians was nearly lost as the British didn’t want to keep it and it was due to be burnt in Embassy gardens.

Fortunately, the Americans said they would take all the documents, which were crated and sent to the United States National Archives in Washington. Hardly anyone knew of their existence until the Trust started a dialogue, which is currently on hold due to the pandemic, with the Archives to get the whole collection digitised. The funding of digitalisation is still to be addressed.

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Note 1:

POWs from Southern Africa in Italy in the Second World War

A Bibliography by Julia MacKenzie

Note: This list focuses on first-hand accounts and the date is of first publication.

First-hand accounts

Anderson, J. [John], Escape in the Apennines. Gamsberg Macmillan, Windhoek, Namibia, 1992

Burnett, Bill Bendyshe, The Rock that is Higher than I. Privately published, South Africa, 1997

Chutter, James B., Captivity Captive. Jonathan Cape, London, 1954

Crompton, Cyril and Peter Johnson, Luck's Favours: Two South African Second World War Memoirs [For the Adventure of It by Cyril Crompton and On the Run in Wartime Italy by Peter Johnson]. Echoing Green Press, Fish Hoek, South Africa, 2010

Dickinson, E. B. “Dick”, From Jo’Burg to Dresden: A World War II Diary, edited by Taffy and David Shearing. Privately published, 2010

du Preez, Laurie, Inside the Cage. C. Struik, Cape Town, 1973

Flederman, Alan John, And Direction Was Given: A Daring Escape from a POW Camp and a Dramatic Journey to Neutral Switzerland. Athena Press, London, 2008

Krige, Uys, The Way Out. Unie-Volkspers Beperk, Cape Town, 1946 and Collins, London, 1946; also published in Italian, Libertà sulla Maiella. Vallecchi, Firenze, 1965

Mills, John Brent (ed., with a contribution), Gap in the Wire, Tales of Escape and Survival in Italy During World War II. Owl Press, Sydney, 1998

—, Waiting for the Sunrise. Stewart, Cape Town, 1946 [novel]

Morphew, Jeff, Five Frontiers to Freedom. Vineyard International, Cape Town, 1999

O'Neill, George, Enough for Survival. Privately published, Grahamstown, South Africa, 1985

Robinson, Newman I., Missing, Believed Prisoner: The Story of a South African Prisoner of War. Privately published, Durban, 1944

—, and Peter Ogilvie (illustrator), In the Bag. Macmillan, Johannesburg, 1975 Rose-Innes, Harry, The Po Valley Break: The true story of three POWs and their bid for freedom in Mussolini's Italy. Valiant, Sandton, South Africa, 1976

Rosmarin, Ike, Inside Story. W.J. Flesch & Partners, Cape Town, 1990

Rossiter, Jack, You'll Never Make It: The Escape Diary of Pte Jack Rossiter, August–September 1943. England Publishing, Cirencester, Glos., 1992 Sadler, Mike, The War Story of Soldier 124280. 30° South Publishers, Pinetown, South Africa, 2014

Sampson, David, After Tobruk: The Conducted Tour. Privately published, Durban, 1986

Schou, Martin, Mountains of Freedom. Privately published, Durban, 2000; also published in Italian, Sugli Appennini verso La Libertà. Privately published, Durban, 2000

Scott, Douglas, My Luck Still Held. Unie-Volkspers Beperk, Cape Town, 1946

Secondary sources

Chambers, Joan, For You the War is Over: The Story of Herbert Rhodes (Aussie) Hammond. Haum, Cape Town, 1967

Horn, Karen, In Enemy Hands: South Africa's POWs in World War II. Jonathan Ball Publishing, Jeppestown, South Africa, 2015

Leigh, Maxwell, Captives Courageous: South African Prisoners of War – World War II. Ashanti Publishing, Johannesburg, 1992

Smollan, Jeff, Escape to Anzio: Stan Smollan's 2nd World War Saga. Privately published, 2017

Taylor, A. Gordon, ‘Corporal Bob Adams', Blackwood's Magazine, 259:1564 (February 1946), pp. 126–34

The recording of Anne’s talk is available in the SAMHS Zoom Library.

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SAMHSEC Meeting 12 July 2021

Our next monthly meeting is on Monday 12 July 2021. The subject will be “The Historiography of Warfare with particular reference to the Anglo Boer War” by Robin Smith.

SAMHSEC RPC 26 July 2021

SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history on 26 July 2021.

Session 1

Stefan Szewczuk will talk about “Polish children in Oudtshoorn in 1943”

Session 2 on 26 July 2021 at 2015 South African time.

Pat Irwin will talk about “Women in War”.

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Field trip to Southwell and Salem organised by the Border Historical Society on 15 May 2021
by Michael Newcombe

On a perfect Autumn day, my father, Dennis, and I joined nine members of the BHS from East London and another guest from Port Alfred to view some sights in Lower Albany. We met at Lombard’s Post, also known as Kariega Post (-33.548360490336066, 26.6969779032074), where the current owner Peter Keeton gave us a short address of its history. The farm was granted to a Dutch trekboer and was initially fortified prior to the arrival of the British Settlers in 1820. oon after this arrival, it was further fortified and was occupied by the military forces and recognised as a place of safety in time of war.

The farm was a source of burnt lime for various major construction projects in the district. Donald Davies of BHS read to the gathering from the notes of Gwen Callow and elaborated on the local history of the building and area. It was noted that the buildings and walls are in good condition though wild fig trees have taken root in the stonework. Thereafter we travelled to Southwell to view St. James Anglican Church and cemetery. Adjacent the church is the local cricket field where the game still thrives and has done so for generations!

We then headed East via Salem to Amananzini Game Reserve which is on the South bank of the Bushman’s River valley, where the 1983 SABC Reality Series ‘The Volunteers’ was filmed. The show was a social experiment created by legendary SABC producer Tommy McClelland, who was also known for the wildlife show, 50/50. It proved to be extremely popular on US television stations.

Reserve Manager Graham Richardson took us down to the ridge of the horse-shoe bend (-33.54027400104255, 26.477793602710015) where the 14 contestants lived, worked and argued in the time that they were isolated in this remote area. A former contestant, Penny Elliot recalled her experiences over that six month period they spent in the valley, which included Winter. All they had and were provided with were the type of clothes, tools, livestock and provisions that were available to the 1820 Settlers when they arrived on the frontier. Penny also took us to view the remains of their thatch type huts, which were their sole source of shelter. Due to time constraints, we never had the opportunity to see the corbelled structures found South of the road between Southwell and Salem and situated above the Kariega River.

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Anne Samson has shared the following:

“There are some military talks on the following reputable UK (and 1 USA) sites if you want to share these. I haven’t listened to any of them – I just know the organisations as I use them for research.

The UK National Archives

The general National Army Museum collection of podcasts – past and future -

Imperial War Museum 1st World War https://

Royal Air Force Hendon Museum - media-vault/podcasts/ (KS1 and KS2 = key stage 1 and 2 which are school levels, but scroll down for adult podcasts)

King’s College London War Studies https://

Trinity College Dublin (not many) https://

Oxford University WW1 – a mix of military and social/homefront etc http://

St Andrew’s Scotland takes a different look at war -https://arts.standrews.

One I know nothing about other than that Ian van der Waag has links with them -

(Sribe’s note: Readers are invited to report back on those they listen to, either in the newsletter or at a meeting).

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SAMHS subscription fees

The concession of reduced subscriptions for those joining after 1 July is no longer available. The good news is that those joining after 1 July will get copies of both Military History Journals published in the year.

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POPI Act compliance

Members of the SAMHSEC WhatsApp group are reminded that they can withdraw themselves from the group at any time.

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This is the Captain speaking

Thanks to Anne Samson and Michael Newcombe for their responses to my request in the December 2020 newsletter for members to use the newsletters as a means of communicating with fellow historians. I hope that others will follow their example.


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South African Military History Society /