South African Military History Society


Newsletter / Nuusbrief 211
April 2022


Message from your Scribe:

Written upside down: Hi Everyone
Can't wait to get a slot on the speaker roster to tell you about our travels!

Your Scribe is on walkabout. We wish Ian and Pixie a safe return.

Centenary of the founding of the South African Navy

We are honoured to record the centenary of the founding of the South African Navy on 1 April 1922.

SAMHSEC AGM 14 March 2022

Thank you to the members who participated in our AGM on 14 March 2022 and ensured that a quorum was formed. The Chairman’s and Treasurer’s reports for 2021 were accepted.

I am concerned that no new volunteers to serve on our committee are forthcoming. While I appreciate that the 2021 committee members have indicated their availability to continue serving and our strategy that we are members for the history not the hassle means that committee duties are not onerous, the time is to hand for new committee members as we must avoid flogging willing horses to death and fresh ideas are always welcome.

It is a pity that our committee has not had the benefit of a lady member for some years, in spite of the fact that 25% of our members are ladies.

I intend to address SAMHSEC’s 2022 committee as a separate issue in the second quarter of 2022.

SAMHSEC RPC 28 February 2022

SAMHSEC requested the pleasure of the company of military historians to talk about military history on 28 February 2022.

In session 1, Paul McNaughton spoke on Jack’s War, his father’s service as a Vickers Machine Gun Platoon Commander in the 6th South African Armoured Division in Italy in 1944 and 1945.

Paul and his brother have written a book “Jack’s War”, which deals with Jack's life on a farm in the Graaff Reinet district, his service in Italy as the 6th fought their way through the Gothic line and the search for the descendants of the woman who saved his life. Details of the book are in the recording below.

The recording of Paul’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library.

In Session 2, Jaco Pretorius reviewed the book “Jan Smuts - Son of the Veld, Pilgrim of the World” by Kobus du Pisani, Dan Kriek and Chris de Jager.

SAMHSEC 14 March 2022 meeting

Robin Smith spoke on the escape of the German Warships Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean in 1914.

As expected, the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War resulted in a huge upsurge in interest in this conflict, perhaps the first war that affected every country of the world. This upsurge was sustained for the next four years. Certainly, specialist British tour guides were never so busy. The French and Belgians reported a tidal wave of military history tourists arriving in their area from 2014 onwards. With an interruption for the pandemic, it is coming to life once again.

The escape of the German warships Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean just at the outbreak of the Great War is a fascinating story. The Royal Navy did not want their two adversaries to escape scot-free but the German admiral was able to outwit his two Royal Navy counterparts. Two senior Admirals of the Royal Navy lost their jobs as a result. Legal proceedings enabled both to evade censure. This verdict caused much unhappiness for the sailors. Only twenty-five years later, in December 1939, in the incident in the River Plate, was the wrongness of that decision confirmed.

Before the outbreak of the Great War, the French and British governments buried their differences in what became known as the Entente. Without a formal alliance, it was agreed that the British would come to the aid of the French if they were attacked by Germany. The naval part of the agreement was that the Royal Navy would defend the French Channel and Atlantic ports and coastline so as to allow the French to concentrate their navy in the Mediterranean. This was logical as, in the event of war, they would need to heavily protect the shipping transferring their forces from North Africa to France.

Two German warships had been stationed in the Mediterranean from 1912. A battle cruiser, HIGMS Goeben accompanied by a light cruiser, the Breslau constituted a formidable force. They would need to be eliminated quickly on the outbreak of war. The Royal Navy based in the Grand Harbour of Malta had three battle cruisers on hand and a variety of smaller vessels, far outnumbering the German warships.

The problem was to find them quickly when once hostilities broke out. Another difficulty was that war broke out in spasms – the French were at war with Germany two days before the British. The position of the Italians, nominal partners with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Triple Alliance, was uncertain. And would Austria-Hungary’s navy with two powerful dreadnought battleships intervene as well.

By a pure fortuity, the two German ships were discovered just before hostilities were opened with Germany. Twenty-four hours later they had outwitted their British pursuers and entered the Aegean. The Turks were wavering as to which side to go with and were concerned about their neutrality. After three days they decided to allow the Germans to pass through the Dardanelles and seek sanctuary off Constantinople.

The escape of the two ships helped the Turks to make up their minds. They soon entered the war on the side of the Germans. The tactical problem of eliminating the two ships had political consequences that no one had thought about. It widened the war to the Middle East, Gallipoli followed almost immediately and thereafter Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia.

Not the Royal Navy’s finest hour!

The recording of Robin’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library.

SAMHSEC RPC 28 March 2022

SAMHSEC requested the pleasure of the company of military historians to talk about military history on 28 March 2022.

In session 1, Anne and Damian Ward spoke on "Twelve secret voices: a handmade mystery of World War 1" Anne and Damian were looking for a tablecloth for a Christmas party when they uncovered a World War 1 embroidered mystery.

On 12 November 2018 - one hundred years and a day after the end of the Armistice - Anne was in a British Red Cross charity shop where she found a large, unique embroidery. Unique, because the embroidery is of twelve regimental badges that were all, and some only, active in World War 1. They represent a number of Commonwealth countries including Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa.

This single layer work is done entirely in Whitework - another unique feature -and measures 2 metres by 1,8 metres. The twelve badges are each done on an individual square in Art Needlework with a cotton thread, not silk. The panels are all bordered with a wide band of machine-made filigree lace, which also surrounds the entire work.

Anne and Damian identify it as a bedspread because of the badge orientations and its size. All the badges face the same direction. They speculated whether it may have been made as a wall hanging or tablecloth but have dismissed these ideas. Its uneven surface would make it impractical as a tablecloth and the orientation of the badges means only one side of the dining table would have a proper view. There are no loops or rod channels, so it was unlikely to have been intended as a wall hanging. Its colour did also make them consider it may be an altar frontal, but, again, its size rules this out.

But these are all details that Anne and Damian could see -what makes this item a mystery is that they have no idea by whom, why or where it was made. They have self-published a book of their story with the embroidery so far but are still trying to find its provenance. If this ever does come to light, it will be of great interest to The Army Museum in London, to which they have donated this unique piece of military and needlework history.

“We have genuinely enjoyed researching this beautiful mystery and owning it, but as we did not have the size of house to be able to display it, we decided it should go to a collection where it would be properly preserved and be able to be seen. Who knows, a visitor may recognise it! We know we will never be able to speak to the people who were involved with its creation, but they will now not be forgotten.”

And in the meantime, they are enjoying speculating, proposing theories and asking questions about its possible origin.

Could it have been sewn by soldiers convalescing from wounds or those receiving specialist treatment, as a gift for one of the medical team. 'Lap Crafts' were taught to occupy patients who were bed-ridden for extended periods, including embroidery, crotchet, knitting and basket weaving. It was the start of what we today know as Occupational Therapy. Embroidery was seen as so mentally beneficial to these men in World War 1 that in World War 2 embroidery kits were included in British POW relief parcels.

Another theory is that it was made by continental refugees as a thank you gift for someone in England who showed a particular kindness to their plight or maybe made a significant fundraising contribution. Over 200 000 refugees came to the UK from Belgium, France and Russia from 1914 onwards, countries that were known for their quality textile and embroidery skills.

One more theory is that it was sewn by an embroidery college or club for a war or post-war fundraising exhibition and sale. The quality of the needlework lends merit to this theory.

This unique mystery just keeps us guessing.

The book Twelve Secret Voices, A true World War One mystery is now available, see There is also a Facebook page and YouTube item with the same title.

Anne and Damian are keen to hear suggestions and theories about the origin of the embroidery and are available for virtual presentations and Q&As. Anne can be contacted at

The recording of Anne and Damian’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library, along with the images on the embroidery.

The second session of the RPC was by André Crozier whose talk was entitled From Kosovo to Kiev: the wars and events leading up to the present conflict.

André gave an oversight of the wars and events leading up to the current war in Ukraine and covered the period from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and the Donbas region of Ukraine. Finally, he dealt with the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1998 and speculated on the possible effect this has had on the Russian leadership. The talk was followed by a lively discussion.

SAMHSEC 11 April 2022 meeting

Adam Ranger is to speak on “Biodiversity Management in present and post conflict areas.”

SAMHSEC RPC 25 April 2022

SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history on 25 April 2022.

Session 1

Franco Cilliers will lead a discussion of the military aspects of the present conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Time: 1930 South African time on 25 April 2022

Session 2 Book review: this session is available for you to review a military history related book.


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