South African Military History Society


Newsletter / Nuusbrief 210
March / Maart 2022


There is a saying that “’n Boer maak ‘n plan” and, with the demise of our postal services, we were faced with the non or belated delivery of our Society’s Military History Journal of December 2021. That said, we made a plan and we have a number of regular postmen who collect the issue from a point where it is delivered by courier and set off to do their delivery rounds. The system works well and we think that one or two may have missed their calling in life! Our thanks is expressed to those who have stepped up to the task.

The Journal includes three articles by SAMHSEC members: The First South African Operational Parachute Drop – 4 June 1974 by McGill Alexander, General H. J. de la Rey – a life worth remembering written by Robin Smith from notes provided by SAMHSEC member Stephan Botha and Revisiting a controversial last engagement of the Anglo-Boer War: Holkrantz, 6 May 1902 by Pat Irwin. BZ, Gentlemen, you do SAMHSEC proud!

Notice of SAMHSEC AGM 14 March 2022

Notice is hereby given of the SAMHSEC AGM to be held at 1900 on 14 March 2022 by means of Zoom. The Chairman’s and Treasurer’s reports for 2021 will be distributed to members in advance. Nominations for members to serve on the SAMHSEC Committee for 2022 and agenda points for the AGM are to be submitted to me by e-mail to before 28 February 2022, please.

SAMHSEC RPC 31 January 2022

An overview of the movements of armies across North Africa 1940 – 1943 by Pat Irwin

This talk illustrated, using a series of maps, the movements of the Axis and Allied armies across North Africa from 1940 – 1943. The initial setting for this was Mussolini’s occupation of Libya and his intention to extend his empire. On the other hand, the British saw neighbouring Egypt as their sphere of influence with the imperative of safeguarding the Suez Canal, ‘owned’ and operated by a joint British-French company, which was vital to their trade with the East. An additional factor was retaining access to Middle East oil resources.

With the outbreak of the Second World War and Italy’s subsequent alliance with Nazi Germany forming the basis of the Axis powers, Mussolini made the first move, which was the invasion of Egypt in September 1940, headed by Marshall Graziani. He reached as far as Sidi Barrani, some 75km into Egypt, before being halted by British resistance.

In December 1940, British General Wavell counter-attacked, pushing the Italians all the way back to Benghazi, from whence they had started, by early February 1941. As a result of an appeal for assistance by Mussolini, German General Rommel landed at Tripoli in Libya on 12 February 1941 with a relatively small military force, which became known as the Afrika Korps, to bolster the Italian Army. In the interim the British Forces, although beginning to be bolstered by the arrival of Commonwealth Forces from South Africa, Australia, India and New Zealand, had been weakened by withdrawal of a substantial number of troops for the defence of Crete.

Rommel then led a combined German-Italian attack starting on 23 March 1941, reaching Bardia by 13 April and crossing the Egyptian border to capture Sollum by 28 April, where he halted due to over-extended supply lines. The strategic port of Tobruk, while not captured, was nevertheless besieged by the Axis forces. The attempt to relieve it with Operation Battle Axe was a failure, but it was subsequently held by the Australians for seven months, until they were relieved by the 8th Army (formed in September 1941) under General Auchinleck on 27 November 1941.

The Allied 8th Army, which had been created under Auchinleck in September 1941, launched Operation Crusader in mid-November with a view to relieving Tobruk, and in doing so resulted in Rommel withdrawing all the way to El Agheila by December 1941. It was during this period that the South African 5th Brigade was virtually annihilated at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh on 23 November 1941. German history recalls how they admired the courage of the South Africans in withstanding the assault against them.

By early January Rommel had re-equipped and rested his forces and was able to launch another major assault on the Allied lines. Apart from dogged Free French resistance at Bir Hacheim, the Allied front was outflanked and began to crumble leading to a precipitate retreat from the Gazala line, known to the soldiers who were involved in it as the “Gazala Gallop”. Tobruk was bypassed and surrendered in controversial circumstances on 21 June resulting in the capture of 33 000 troops, of whom 12 000 were South Africans – a very large proportion of the 2nd Division.

This headlong flight was only halted at El Alamein on 30 June 1942 where there were pre-prepared defences. Here the line was consolidated in the First Battle of El Alamein where Rommel failed to maintain the momentum of his advance due to the exhaustion of his troops and difficulties with his extended supply lines. The El Alamein line held firm despite a serious attempt by Rommel to break through at Alam al Halfaat at the end of August. The two armies were initially in a position of stalemate with the difference that while the Axis forces had difficulty in getting supplies, as long as the Royal Navy dominated the Mediterranean, the 8th Army was able to grow in strength and re-equip itself with new weaponry and supplies arriving via the Cape. In addition, it was subjected to improved training and a build-up of morale under General Montgomery, who had replaced Auchinleck.

On 23rd October, the 8th Army attacked the Axis line in force. While initially offering strong resistance, the Axis line eventually broke after 17 days and, on 11 November, the combined Axis began their long retreat through Libya and Tunisia until their final ejection from Africa in May 1943.

Pat’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library.

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“I Deserted Rommel (1961)” by Günther Bahnemann
(former Corporal [Feldwebel], Afrika Korps)
- a book review by Nick Cowley

The intriguing title of this book, barely known in South Africa, was enough to persuade me to buy it in a second-hand bookshop. As the title suggests, the author, Günther Bahnemann, served with the Afrika Korps in the North African desert campaign up to his desertion. He partially explains it in the course of the book.

At the outbreak of World War Two, Bahnemann is a hardened 19-year-old who’s been to sea and already seen much of the world. He joins the German Army as a transport rider, but later becomes a paratrooper and serves in Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Norway. During this time he’s awarded the Iron Cross First and Second Class and is promoted to lieutenant – but is later degraded to corporal, for reasons unspecified, at least in the book. A wartime drawing of Bahnemann suggests a man who is very tough, very competent, independent minded probably to the point of rebelliousness and certainly no coward. These attributes are indeed manifested throughout the book.

His narrative begins in March 1941 in eastern Libya. At this time in the North African campaign, the front lines of the Axis and Allied forces were roughly along the Libya-Egypt border, but with the Allies still occupying the port town of Tobruk as an enclave within Axis-held territory. Günther Bahnemann, now a corporal and back in transport, is driving both motorcycles and armoured cars, as his errands demand. One day, he is driving an armoured car on a road east of Tobruk when he sees, beside the road, four Italian soldiers, his allies, beating up a tied-up and almost naked Arab. He stops, points the armoured car’s machine gun at the Italians, rescues the Arab, and drops him off two days later near Bahnemann’s base at Gazala (site of a key battle more than a year later). They communicate in Italian, which Bahnemann speaks and which most Arabs in Libya have learnt under 30 years of Italian occupation. The Arab swears undying loyalty to Bahnemann and tells him he will always enjoy protection in the Arab’s home town – promises which turn out be crucial for Bahnemann’s very survival later on.

Back at his base in Gazala, Bahnemann suffers a devastating blow. He receives a letter from his mother in Hamburg telling him that his father, a World War One veteran, has been arrested by the Gestapo and executed. Bahnemann never gives any reason for the Gestapo’s action, but we already have enough idea of the son’s character to guess what the father might have done – most likely some sort of dissent by word or action against Nazi ideology or authority. Bahnemann decides then and there he wants no further part of Hitler’s war and formulates plans to desert that very night.

If his decision is impulsive, his strategic planning and implementation are cool and composed. He decides to head west out of the combat zone, first on his army motorcycle. Then he will somehow get hold of a durable truck and travel south across the Sahara, before making for Luanda in neutral Portuguese territory, now Angola, where he has an uncle. Bahnemann now proceeds to requisition or steal what he needs for a desert wartime journey – fuel, ammunition, food and water, plenty of it. He stashes all these supplies in the sidecar of his motorbike. It carries an official German courier’s pennant, which helps him get past gates, roadblocks and other barriers. He reaches the town of Derna. During the confusion of an Allied air raid, he sneaks into the Luftwaffe motor park, manages to steal a captured British Bedford truck and gets away from Derna in it.

There follow a series of adventures and narrow escapes. Bahnemann is a lone fugitive and faces a certain firing squad if he’s captured by Germans or Italians. His plight becomes more desperate as the hue and cry is raised and he sees his photo displayed almost everywhere he goes. He reaches Al Mayr, then called Barca – the home town of the Arab he’d saved from the Italians earlier. He manages to locate the Arab, named Ben Omar. Ben Omar turns out to be one of the leaders of the Arab resistance to Italian occupation in Libya. Fighting for that cause, loosely aligned with the Allies, these rebels are as fine a collection of bandits, thieves, gun-lovers and cut throats - literally so in one incident - as one could find in any guerrilla movement. Bahnemann soon realises that without the fortuitous debt of honour that these patriotic brigands owe him, he would have been murdered by them in short order just for his German machine pistol.

One of his experiences with the Arabs involves cloak-and-dagger interaction with the Allies. Bahnemann is allowed to drive three Arab rebel leaders to a remote desert rendezvous with two British infiltrators who are way behind enemy lines. He has to remain in the truck, well disguised, and can’t understand the Arabic conversation. But he notices that one of these Lawrence of Arabia-type figures has a British major’s crowns on his shoulders. It’s tempting to speculate who this officer could have been: -perhaps the scientist-soldier Ralph Bagnold, founder of the Long Range Desert Group or LRDG or the better known David Stirling, founder of the SAS or Stirling’s colleague Paddy Mayne. Further research would probably produce other candidates.

Bahnemann can’t stay with the Arabs forever and leaves their protection to resume his flight, facing even more dangers than before. He risks entering Libya’s second biggest city of Benghazi. It lies well west of the combat zone, but still has a considerable military presence. Bahnemann takes this risk for the specific purpose of sending a letter home to his mother to assure her he is still alive, whatever the Nazi authorities have told her. He sidesteps the military censors by going to Benghazi’s airport and handing the letter to a German Red Cross worker, who’s about to fly home and asks no questions.

Bahnemann goes on to the dusty town of El Oubba, where he is betrayed by an Italian civilian. He has to fight his way out of a corner and loses the Bedford truck. He commandeers a German Opel truck at gunpoint. But he soon concludes that the Opel truck will never be able to cross the Sahara. So he changes his entire plan to an option he’d rejected earlier: going to the Allies and surrendering. To this end, he doubles back on side roads towards the Libya-Egypt border. Bahnemann’s strange odyssey ends almost anti-climactically inside an abandoned Beau Geste-type desert fort somewhere near the border, where he risks catching up on much-needed sleep. He wakes up hearing English and looking at the wrong end of a British Tommy gun – the weapon, as he puts it, of captivity but not of the firing squad. For him the war is now properly over; he has deserted Rommel and survived.

I found this book a gripping true war escape story, with the dark and very rare twist that the writer was escaping from his own side. He is very disparaging about the Italian contribution to the Axis effort and the general calibre of the Italian troops in North Africa, something I would warn any potential Italian reader about. His adventures make what used to be called “a rattling good yarn”, except that the heroes of those yarns would never have deserted. Günther Bahnemann tells his tale in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way, indifferent to anyone’s judgment on him, never seeking the reader’s approval, condonation or pity.

Shortcomings? We might have liked a little moral reflection on the radical step he was taking; and related to that, we certainly would like to know what exactly his father had done to be executed by the Nazis. But with both these aspects, it’s easy enough to read between the lines, as I intimated earlier. On another level, his book reminds us that the motives for deserting in wartime can be complex and very different from the all too easy assumption that any deserter is a coward and lacks moral fibre.

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SAMHSEC 14 February 2022 meeting

Vikings: a talk by Ian Copley

At 16 I was privileged to travel round parts of Scandinavia with a friend by bicycle. Originally we were going to travel to Burgan in the north of Norway by fishing trawler, but this was prevented [fortunately] by the onset of the Korean War, our trawler had to leave under sealed orders. We sailed by passenger ship to Copenhagen and then on the Kron Prinz Olav to Oslo.

From Oslo we spent 3 days going uphill over the Jutenheimen Mountains to the summer snow line and one day downhill to the deepest and longest Sogn Fjord. A ferry took us further down to take a different road back to Oslo via Göl. On the way we were able to visit the wooden stave church at Borgund built in 1120. Back in Copenhagen we had time to cross the Kattegat into Sweden and swim in the Baltic. On the passage home the ship stopped in Aarhus in Denmark where we found a museum of beautiful Viking ships.

Being born in the West Riding of Yorkshire there were many Scandinavian relics in speech (the real Yorkshire dialect), place names and surnames.

For hundreds of years the Scandinavians had controlled the rich Baltic trade routes, so it is not surprising that a pirate cult developed with separate lords or chieftains. The trade extended into central Europe and they are credited with founding the trade centres of Novgorod and Kiev as they descended the headwaters of several long rivers. It is possible they dragged their ships overland from the Baltic like sledges in winter. They were also seen in the Mediterranean and were familiar with Roman weights and measures. Trading goods included walrus ivory, furs, skins, honey, wax amber, timber and from the orient, pottery, glass, gems, silks and weapons.

Due to population pressure there were migrations westwards including Britain, Normandy, Iceland, Greenland and North America, the latter two were inhospitable and not sustained for long. Ireland was never settled, but trade continued.

The east coast of England was subject to Viking raids from 793 when the monastery of Lindisfarne was attacked, valuables such as gold and silver were taken, the monks slaughtered and manuscripts burnt. York was captured in 840 and London from 834 to 858.

The Viking attacks were sudden and unexpected, particularly high up river; they concentrated on churches and monasteries for metals, gems and supplies of food when required, accompanied by rape, slaughter, general destruction and taking of slaves, including women and children. Raids were then a preliminary to settlement, particularly in the rich eastern half of England. King Alfred did his best to keep the settlers East of Watling Street, the Roman highway between London and Chester. At one time this part of England was included in the kingdom of Denmark under King Cnut (by marriage).

The Viking cult included gods, Valhalla for after life of the slain in battle conducted by maidens or Valkyries. There was a strict code of conduct amongst themselves under their lord who oversaw their feasting, games and sports such as skiing, skating and horse racing; they also played chess. The lord’s hall was also used as a ‘thyng’ or court for settling disputes.

Some information about the Vikings is from the Norse and Icelandic sagas, but is often historically inaccurate with poetic licence. There was little written information available other than from Runes carved on stone. King Alfred was able to provide more historical accuracy of enemy activities when he began the Anglo- Saxon Chronicles.

Most information on their way of life comes from excavations of ship burials (Howes) that contain worldly goods, hordes of coins, weapons, concubines, wives, servants, animals. The burial ritual was prolonged over many days. More recently marine archaeology has discovered well preserved remains at great depth.

Other information came from descriptions by early travellers writing in Greek, Arabic and Persian and later from Christian missionaries in the latter half of the millennium.

The Viking or Dragon ships were some 69m long and 15m wide with a draught of 1.5m; the mast was 27m with a yard arm of 33m carrying a sail made of woollen cloth reinforced by a rope network.

The sides or strakes were held together by iron rivets and caulked by tar mixed with hair and wool. The ship’ sides were held onto the frame by ties which allowed some elasticity of the hull. There were 16 pairs of oars and a crew of 35. The holes in the side for the oars could be closed.

Steering was by a side rudder on the starboard. Navigation for latitude was by Icelandic feldspar when the sun was not visible, longitude was measured by the number of days sailed. They were capable of carrying 15 – 20 tons and the

Norman invaders brought their horses with them. The Bayeux tapestry gives a good idea of the appearance of a Dragon Ship under sail.

Ian’s talk is in the SMHS Zoom library.

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SAMHSEC RPC 28 February 2022

SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history on 28 February 2022.

Session 1:
Jack’s War: Paul McNaughton is to speak on his father, Jack’s service as a Vickers Machine Gun Platoon Commander in the 6th South African Armoured Division in Italy in 1944.

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

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SAMHSEC 14 March 2022 meeting

Robin Smith is to speak on “The escape of the German Warships Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean in 1914.”

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SAMHSEC RPC 28 March 2022

SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history on 28 March 2022.

Session 1
Anne Ward is to speak on "Twelve secret voices: a handmade mystery of World War 1"

In 2018, a bedspread exquisitely embroidered with twelve World War 1 regimental badges, including that of the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force, was discovered in a charity shop in Brecon, UK. But who had made it and why is a mystery.

Time: 1930 South African time on 28 March 2022

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South African Military History Society /