South African Military History Society



February 2003

PAST EVENTS: As befits the 1st meeting of a new year, the January 2003 meeting had a slight change to its regular format. Before the DDH, fellow member Nicki von der Heyde gave us an introduction to the Swartkop Challenge, the latest and perhaps the most original military enactment introduced into the KZN battlefield scene. Over the weekend of 7-9 February 2003, the "Challenge" will re-enact how the British Naval Guns were draggod up Swartkop Mountain before the Battle of Swartkop in 1899.

Two teams, one from the UK and one from the Natal Field Artillery, will challenge each other to drag two 12-pound guns to the top using the same route used in 1899. Nicki hopes that this will attract audiences from far and wide and for further information contact 03l-767-0518 or 083-654-4166. The second pre-DDH was a short slide show of photograhs taken by committee member Dave Matthews at the end of year dinner of December 2002. They were shown with Dave's usual wit and humour.

The DDH covered a most unusual event that took place in April 1923 in India. Ganes Pillay presented a talk entitled The Mollie Ellis Affair - India 1923. Mollie Ellis was the 17-year-old daughter of Major Ellis, a British army officer, and on the night of 14 April 1923 Afridi tribesmen abducted her when the Major was away on duty and killed Mrs Ellis. No similar attack on an army family could be recalled in the entire history of the frontier. From gossip in the bazaars it was resolved that 2 notorious criminals were responsible, but they would have taken their hostage into Afghanistan where no white man could go without being butchered by the Muslim warlords who controlled the area. In order to negotiate for Mollie Ellis's return it was decided that only men with a thorough knowledge of the tribes and their customs could cross the Afridi border to find the abductors, but if possible the two men chosen localy should go with an English woman They found the ideal person in Mrs Lillian Starr, a serving nursing sister at Peshawar Mission hospital, who agreed to go despite the fact that her husband, a Doctor, had been killed by Afridi tribesmen some 5 years earlier. Two years after her husband's death, Mrs Starr returned to the hospital and continued to treat the local tribesmen and had a wide reputation for her mercy and goodness throughout the territories. It was thought that she, if anyone, could find the missing girl. Our speaker then showed a map of the difficult route taken by the search party, along the Niranzi Valley, the Samana mountain range and on through Lochart, Fort Gulistan to Shinawari Fort. Officials at Shinawari did their best to dissuade Mrs Starr from going ahead but she insisted and they continued. At Dargai Heights they met the rest of the rescue party, which included 40 hand picked Afridi tribesmen, all of whom promised to keep Mrs Starr safe during her journey.

It was the Muslim month of fasting and all members of the party took no food or drink from sunrise to sunset but despite that they went quickly across the most difficult terrain in terrible heat and humidity. Abdul Haq, a local Mullah and a friend of the British in Peshawar helped to smooth the way for this small column, and they entered the Khanki Valley and Mrs Starr was the first white woman to enter this territory since the massacre of thousands of British men, women and children in the retreat from the Kyber Pass many years earlier. The Mullah helped to negotiate their progress, which by now had taken them to over 6,000 feet in the snowclad peaks of the Pachinar range of mountains. They then reached the village where the abductors were staying and their arrival nearly led to an inter-family war and fiercely worded letters were exchanged. However the local political agent aranged a meeting where information was given that Mollie Ellis was alive and that the abductors protested their innocence. This in turn led to long negotitions, during which time Mrs Starr treated the local women, and terms were agreed for the release of Mollie Ellis. The following day Mrs Starr was given permission to visit the girl, who she found to be weak, dispirited but alive. At the time of this first meeting there was an attack on the village and with gun shots thudding into the village houses Mrs Starr confronted the main attacker and shouted at him that the Prophet Mohammed would surely be distressed by a believer attacking defensive women, and won the day. With the help of their chosen rescue party of Afridi tribesmen, Mollie Ellis and Mrs Starr were escorted across the most difficult terrain, fearful of an attack at any moment, but eventually after a most arduous trip they found themselves in the company of Major Maffey and a regiment of Bengal Lancers. Mollie was reunited with her father and Mrs Starr's courageous exploit made headlines in the press in both England and India. Ganes ended his unusual and well-researched talk with the comment that despite better relations between the British and the Afridi, the Afridi were not a peaceable people and nothing would ever change them.

Major-General Chris le Roux gave the main talk of the evening, which was entitled The SANDF. From the "Old" to the "New". This was a succinct description of the transformation of the SADF to the SANDF and gave us a clear picture of the changeover and the characteristics of each phase. The General led us from the Peace Era of 1964-1975, through the War Era of 1975-1994 when the SADF was active beyond South Aftica, to the great changes brought about by the advent of the democratic South Africa, in the Transformation Era. He then dealt with the SANDF involvement with the ANC-IFP conflict in KwaZulu-Natal. This led to the Peace Era from 1998 and gave our speaker the opportunity to emphasise that the role of the armed forces is to fight for peace.
During the Peace Era of 1964-1975, training was the main thrust, with a centralised command and control of the army. The drawbacks for the army at this stage consisted of the lack of experience, with poorly developed equipment resultant from the lack of financial and logistical resources. In addition, the army was not completely trusted by the population of the RSA, nor respected in Africa and the international community. Defending the political status quo, supposedly involved with combating communism, the average soldier was not aware of "the struggle" now so often referred to. During the War Era of 1975-1994, wars were being waged in Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe. The policy of the South African government was to fight outside its borders. This era was characterised by realistic training for war, decentralised command and control, good and serviceable equipment, good inter service co-operation and excellent financial and logistical resources - all different from the conditions prevailing during the Peace Era of l964- 1975. The so-called Border War was, according to Major-General le Roux, characterised by good planning, no atrocities (a point he emphasised most strongly), good deployment drills, trust in leaders at all levels and excellent international respect, all of which made the SA Defence Force the best in Africa. If there was a drawback it was the disruption of family life and the time away meant that the women in the family were left to bring up their children without their husband's help.

It was natural that the General would be enthusiastic about the record of the Parachute Battalion, to which he belonged. It was involved in over 70 operations and the quality of the young soldiers thus eagaged was excellent. This quality was remarked upon by a number of senior outside military observers. During one operation, when a helicopter was shot down with considerable loss of life, the soldier's morale was such that next day they were prepared to "get on with the job".

When the democratic new South Africa came into being in April 1994, General George Meiring urged that the SANDF support the new government in the Transforation Era. He handed over an army trained for war, with a decentralised command and control; structure, good and serviceable equipment and good inter service co-operation. However the strain was soon being felt in finances and logistics with not enough funds available to get needed and correct equipment for the future. In Natal the ANC-IFP conflict raised its head. In quelling this unrest the co-operation between the SANDF and the South African Police Service was excellent. Illegal weapons were confiscated in great numbers as part of the campaign.

The Transformation Era saw some changes in the SANDF that Major-General le Roux criticised particularly as the army generals were not involve in the decision making process. The navy was given greater prominence and the priority was to provide new equipment in the order of navy first, air force second and the army third. Our speaker was adamant that the needs of the army should have had top priority. Once peace was established by 1998, the SANDF was placed under central control from Pretoria. By this time many experienced men had left, to be replaced by ex-MK soldiers of less experience. Unions were introduced and perhaps not advantageously. Logistical and financial resources were minimal and borders were to a great extent, open. Some members of the SANDF were engaged in peacekeeping operations in Africa at large, being withdrawn from the internal situation on the understanding that the SAPS would keep the peace within South Africa. The result of all this was that the SANDF lost the respect of the international community. In spite of many failings and drawbacks, peace has been restored. However the ideal military situation, according to Major-General le Roux would be a small permanent force with a large reserve force available in the form of a well-equipped citizen force of volunteers.

The question and answer session was as long and as interesting as the Society has had in a long time. The questions were interesting, relevant and searching and reflected a knowledgeable and discerning audience. The replies were concise but complete and ended a fascinating look at the SANDF from one of its key commanders, now retired.

Major Keith Archibald entered into some amusing "in house" SANDF banter with Major-General le Roux before thanking both speakers most warmly for providing the Society with an outstanding start to 2003.


The main talk at the February meeting will be on a specialist subject given by a member who is very much a specialist on his subject. The talk by MAJOR JOHN BUCHAN will be entitled THE HISTORY of FLYING BOATS and will show the development of Flying Boat's and their use in the 1st World War, through their use in the Empire Postal Service and how this opened up many of the world's air routes, to their vital role in the 2nd World War. The military role of Flying Boats in Soutnem Africa and Durban in particular will also be covered. This talk will provide a strong link with the DDH, as it was a Flying Boat that first spotted the Bismarck.

The DDH will be another in our series of "I Was There" presentations. Our guest speaker, RAY LOCKE, who ended his career as a naval Lieutenant, was actually on deck of his ship during the battle and watched as the Bismarck was sunk in a famous naval battle. His talk, and one not to be missed, is called I WATCHED THE SINKING of THE BISMARCK.


Membership dues for the current year are now due. The rates are R110 for single members and R120 for family members. Please forward your cheque directly to JOAN MARSH, the Society Treasurer in Johannesburg, at the following address:

JOAN MARSH, P.O. Box 59227, KENGRAY, 2100.

If any member requires a copy of a 2003 Membership Form for new members, or has not received their Military History Journals in 2002, please contact PAUL KILMARTIN on 082- 449-7227.


The AGM will take place at the April meeting. If any members would like to be considered for the committee or they know of other members who would be important additions to the committee, please contact Dr. INGRID MACHIN on 031-201-3983. We hope there will be an election for all posts on the committee this year.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: March 2003- May 2003

13 Mar 2003
DDH The Fighting 69th - Brian Kennedy
Main Barbarossa: The German Invasion of Russia - Bill Brady
10 April 2003
The Annual General Meeting
DDH Bagged but Cheerful. A POW at Tobruk - Professor Philip Everitt
MAIN The Battle of Bakenlaagte - Lt. Col Clive Wilsworth
8 May 2003
DDH European Battlefields Photographed - Ian Sutherland
MAIN The Run-Up to The Battle of The Somme - Paul Kilmartin

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001
Telephone: 031-201-3983

South African Military History Society /