South African Military History Society


One of the few outstanding US military commanders of WW2, yet still among the least known, was General Douglas MacArthur, hero of the war in the Pacific, director of the Japanese transition to democracy, and victor of the Korean War. He was the subject of the curtain raiser given by Terry Leaver at the 14 September Society meeting.

In 1992 the National Geographic magazine described MacArthur as: 'A proud mixture of vanity and valour. A figure of legend and controversy...a military prodigy unlike any other in US history. A veteran of three major American wars, his honours and influence grew with each new command. In the end his pride exceeded his authority, and like a figure of Greek tragedy, he fell precipitously from power.'

MacArthur was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1880, son of a Union Army officer and a Confederate mother. He saw himself as 'born to the bugle call'. At West Point in 1903 he graduated top of his class with an academic record bettered only by Robert E Lee decades before. When the US entered WW1 in April 1917 Major MacArthur became Chief of Staff of the Rainbow Division, which he had named, and which fought in the St Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives. He was wounded twice.

By June 1918 MacArthur was a brigadier. For three years he commanded at West Point before serving in the Philippines from 1922 to 1930, when he returned to the US as army Chief of Staff. He was recalled from retirement after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and appointed Commander Army Forces in the Far East. He led the heroic, though doomed, defence of the Philippines, and subsequently the entire allied resistance from his base in Australia.

Following the allied victory in August 1945 MacArthur became the virtual dictator of the defeated Japan. He piloted the country through its first democratic election in 1946, the demilitarisation of its society, and the adoption of a new constitution which introduced freedoms the Japanese had never before experienced.

The attack by communist North Korea on non-communist South Korea in June 1950 brought his most brilliant military triumph, and his subsequent downfall. As commander of the UN forces defending what remained of South Korea around Pusan at the extreme tip on the Korean peninsula, he launched an amphibious landing at the west-coast port of Inchon in the invaders' rear, thus forcing their hurried retreat.

Had MacArthur been content with restoring the territory of South Korea all would have been well. But his subsequent advance through North Korea to the Yalu River provoked Chinese intervention, and his demand for retribution against China gave US President Truman no alternative but to dismiss him. He died in April 1964, a fallen, but much honoured, hero.

Islands in a tempestuous sea must maintain effective defences if they are not to be swamped by changing winds and tides. Such was the position of Switzerland in WW2, a tiny island of neutrality in an ocean of warring nations threatened at any time with being submerged by their conflicts. The armed neutrality of the Swiss in WW2 was the subject of the main lecture delivered by Paul Shamberger, journalist and historian.

Switzerland has a centuries-old history of neutrality in Europe's innumerable wars, although her fighting men have often served as mercenaries in the contesting armies. There are varied reasons why this neutrality has been possible. Perhaps the most important are that the Swiss have been prepared to defend themselves when necessary, and that the topography of their mountainous country presents daunting problems for any potential invader.

Criticism of the Swiss Government's attitude towards Nazi German in WW2 and its dealings with its aggressive neighbour tend to ignore the precarious position in which the country found itself. In 1939 it had to face the possibility of interference from both France and Germany. After the fall of France in June 1940 it was entirely surrounded by German, or German-held, or German-allied territory. Its sole land link with the outside world lay across Italian territory to the port of Genoa. It emerges that Hitler never had any intention of invading Switzerland, despite the fact he despised the Swiss. But that was not known at the time.

What was obvious to the Swiss was that they could not withstand for long a concentrated attack by a great power. Their only options were to impress on any would-be invader that his losses would be out of all proportion to his gains, and that he would have to contend with a devastated country and an armed and resentful population. This was announced to the world in August 1939, along with Switzerland's continued neutrality, when Colonel Henri Guisan was appointed C-in-C of the country's defence forces with the wartime rank of General. The country's military defences were hastily strengthened.

After the fall of France the immediate threat of invasion was deemed to have receded, and the conviction was strengthened when the Germans invaded Russia. By then the construction of the alpine redoubt, in which Swiss resistance would be concentrated, was complete. But throughout the war there remained a continuing threat from the air. By day the US Army Air Force, and by night the RAF habitually intruded into Swiss air space on their way to, or from, enemy targets. There were several incidents of bombs being dropped on Swiss cities, namely Basle, Zurich and especially Schaffhausen, the centre of the Swiss ball-bearing industry. By the time the war ended Switzerland had acquired a considerable collection of allied aircraft and airmen. These were supplemented from time to time by escaped POWs.

Switzerland was among the few European countries that emerged from the war reasonably unscathed. It had succeeded in maintaining intact both its territory and its neutrality.



11 September
CR John Murray - Sinking of the Scharnhorst, 1943
ML Colin Dean - The Jet Race
9 October
CR Geoff Hardy - Amazing British Bi-plane Ops of WW2
ML Col. C J Jacobs - 1st Battle of Alamein, July 1942: The role of the 1st S A Division


11 September
DDH Ken Gillings - Recent Discoveries on the Death of Bambhatha
MAIN Brian Thomas - The First, and Last Surviving, SA Recipients of the VC

Cape Town

11 September
Brig-Gen. Dick Lord SAAF(Ret.) - South Africa's Border War: Total Onslaught Myth or Reality

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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