South African Military History Society


The curtain raiser at the 12 June lecture meeting described the massive contribution made by the USA to allied victory in WW2. The title was 'America: Arsenal of Democracy', and the speaker was committee member Flip Hoorweg.

The first move made by the US to prepare for possible war dates from the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in September 1939. The then-president, Franklin D Roosevelt, declared a limited national emergency under which the US army was expanded from 174 000 men to 220 000. As the war progressed Roosevelt did much to steer his country towards active assistance to the allies, despite the considerable strength of the neutrality lobby in the general population. The US economy had still not recovered from the Great Depression, and the country was hopelessly unprepared for war. A special Executive Office was created which concentrated the structure of authority and made Roosevelt commander-in-chief in fact as well as in name. The Joint Chiefs of Staff became an instrument of national strategy, lifted above the departmental level and joined in a special link to the president alone.

In 1941, on 11 September - a date that has acquired much mystical significance six decades later - the Victory Program was signed. This set down the basic strategy of a global war before the country was even involved in it. The programme set tremendous production goals, far higher than ever before heard of. Implementation was sharply accelerated following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Personnel had to be inducted and trained, industrial capacity and output expanded and all military and naval facilities boosted to astronomic proportions. Within eight months the US was able to begin offensive action against its enemies.

The application of the USA's unique contribution to large-scale industrial output, namely mass-production, provided itself and its allies with massive quantities of high-quality aircraft, tanks, guns and vehicles. The unique application of 'assembly line' techniques to the building of merchant ships played a major role in the allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic by replacing tonnage as fast as it was being sunk. From its own resources the US provided food sufficient for the needs not only of its own armed forces, rapidly expanded to about 11,5 million, and its workforce of around 60 million, but to supplement the supplies of Britain and the Soviet Union as well. The contribution made to the allied war effort by Spam and powdered egg, for instance, will forever be remembered with gratitude by civilians and armed forces alike.

The US policy of Lease-Lend, by which its allies could be provided with their war needs without payment, was inaugurated in March 1941. It has been reported that Joseph Stalin, in one of his more convivial moments, admitted that without American production the war would have been lost.

The main lecture of the evening was given by Steve Lunderstedt, Kimberley based battlefield expert, author and guide. He discussed two new insights into the British defeat in the Anglo-Boer War Battle of Magersfontein.

Traditionally, the spectacular Boer victory at Magersfontein has been ascribed mainly to the line of trenches at the foot of the Magersfontein Kopje. These were dug on the insistence of Boer General Koos de la Rey. Supported by Free State President Steyn, he persuaded General Piet Cronje, who commanded at Magersfontein, to abandon the tactics that had failed so dismally at the previous engagements at Belmont and Graspan. Instead, De la Rey stressed the comparative success of the trenches dug into the river banks at the Battle of Modder River. Fire from these trenches had kept the main British force pinned down throughout the battle, and the Boers had only been forced to withdraw when finally out-flanked.

Cronje had originally intended to base his defence at Spytfontein, between Magersfontein and Kimberley, and to use the same tactic of firing down on his attackers as used at Belmont and Graspan. The decision to defend at Magersfontein instead, and to adopt ground-level firing from trenches dug a few metres from the foot of the ridge, subsequently delivered the Boer victory. However, there was one notable weakness in the defences of which the trenches formed such a vital part. This was on the extreme east of the Magersfontein Kopje, between the end of the trench line and the beginning of a low ridge of well-defended higher ground known as Scrub Ridge, which reached down to the Modder River. It's known in the history of the battle as 'the gap'.

The British commander, Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen, decided on a frontal assault. His lifeline was the railway that dissected the Langberg Ridge on its way to Kimberley some few hundred metres west of the Magersfontein Kopje. On this line depended his supplies of food, water, ammunition and reinforcements. It was also needed to evacuate the starving civilians from Kimberley, when relieved, and supply the garrison. Methuen's attack was to be centred on the kopje as the recognised key to the entire position. The commander of the attacking force, Major-General Andrew Wauchope, doubted the wisdom of a frontal assault. He favoured a flanking attack along the Modder River, but was unable to impress his commander. The Boers expected the attack to come either along the railway or the Modder . Only at a late stage did they recognise the weakness of their defences at the gap. Hurried attempts to close it were made by extending the trench line towards Scrub Ridge and erecting a barricade of sandbags.

Evidence indicates that these hastily constructed defences were breached in the course of the battle. A mixture of men from the Black Watch and the Seaforth Highlanders fought their way through and attempted to climb the eastern flank of the Magersfontein Kopje. However, their numbers were insufficient to affect the overall outcome of the battle, and all were killed by a combination of Boer fire and their own artillery. The outcome of the Battle of Magersfontein might well have been different if Wauchope's plan had been adopted.



10 July
CR Marjorie Dean - Florence Nightingale
ML Paul Chappe - P.R.A.W. (Police Reserve Air Wing, Rhodesia)
14 August
CR Terry Leaver - General Douglas MacArthur
ML Paul Schamburger - Swiss Armed Neutrality in WW2


10 July
DDH Lt.-Col. Ray Lotter - The Battle of Little Bighorn: Custer's Last Stand
ML Charles Whiteing - The Death of the Desert Fox

Cape Town

10 July
Vice Admiral Sir Alan Grose KBE, RN - The Falklands War: June 1982

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

For Durban details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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