South African Military History Society



July 2003

PAST EVENTS:With our Chairman away on a European holiday and our Vice Chairman away in Johannesburg on business, the June meeting was chaired by Professor Mike Laing

Society Outing: The Old Fort and the Battle of Congella, May 1842.
Major Keith Archibald provided background and commentary on the battle of Congella when Society members met at the Old Fort. There we were able to view the remains of the fort. We then repaired to the possible site of the battle where we learnt, against the rattle and clank of heavy vehicles, that another site is a possibility. Intensive research by both Keith Archibald and Ken Gillings supported the rival claims. Our next stop was Congella Park where the Trekkers had their laager. The tour ended at a restaurant at the extreme end of the Point, where Ingrid Machin, competing against an enthusiastic guitarist, described the part played by Dick King and Ndongeni Zulu in summoning aid for the beleaguered garrison.
The background noise at each site underlined the difficulty of studying urban history in situ.

As the DDH talk Dave Matthews gave us a dramatic and stirring story of the Dunkirk evacuation and the role played by the small craft in this endeavour.

Dave and Carole Matthews recently visited their son near Teddington Lock on the Thames. This led Dave to investigate Operation Dynamo in which Douglas Tough and his son Bob, owners of Tough's boatyard at Teddington Lock played an important role. Dave illustrated his talk with pictures of the gentle English countryside; of the personalities involved in his story; and the vessels of all shapes and sizes that effected the evacuation of Dunkirk against a substantial German force.

When the German tanks led by General Heinz Guderian, reached the English Channel in May 1940, Churchill ordered the evacuation of troops and equipment from Dunkirk, according to a plan drawn by General John Gort. British Blenheim bombers were to keep the Germans at bay and fighter aircraft (Hurricanes and Spitfires) to protect the beaches. Destroyer escorts provided cover for the ships engaged in evacuation, but they needed small boats to move in close to the shore and ferry the soldiers to the larger ships.

An urgent appeal was sent to Admiral Ramsey for small vessels. The Tough family was active in commandeering small craft along the Thames. Along the Essex coast at Burnam-on-Crouch, and along the south coast from the Isle of Wight to Margate, small craft were obtained, as well as lifeboats from larger ships on the Thames and in the docks. Pleasure boats were also found to take part. All these vessels gathered in their hundreds at Sheerness, Chatham and Dover, while destroyers and minesweepers moved in to protect them on their way to France.

From 28 to 29 May the vessels began to rescue men. Plying to and fro between the beaches and the ships, the small vessels had by 31 May, brought 165000 men to the larger ships. Further rescue attempts were made from 2 June with men given standing room only at first. The fleet set out again on 3 June for a further 8000 men, many of them Frenchmen.

By 4 June, some 338 226 Allied soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk, but was estimated that 40 000 men were still left in France. Although France fell in June 1940, Britain, thanks to Operation Dynamo could still offer resistance to Hitler.

Professor Phil Everitt's main talk of the evening; Tobruk: A Tale of Two Sieges, linked up with his earlier talk in April about his father's experiences as a prisoner-of-war captured at Tobruk. He provided ample illustrations and maps to support his talk.

From November 1941, the Allied forces undertook Operation Crusader in North Africa. The object of this was to drive the Germans back from the "wire" (the Libyan/Egyptian border) and relieve Tobruk. In this operation, General Brink led the 1st SA Division, a fully motorised division consisting of the 1st, 2nd and 5th Brigades. The heavily armoured British Matilda tanks outclassed the Italian Ariste armoured division with its inferior armour.

The Allied advance was progressing well when Winston Churchill halted the advance and sent British troops to Greece. Ominously, Field Marshal Rommel and his Afrika Korps landed in North Africa on the same day. Faced with Rommel's reconnaissance in force, the remaining Allied troops, were caught off- guard, and began to fall back towards Egypt. Meanwhile the Allies abandoned Greece and the Italians surrendered in Abyssinia.

In the siege of 1941, the Tobruk garrison comprised the 9th Australian Division, with artillery and some forty-five tanks. The Germans under Rommel attacked, but the first attacks were impetuous and poorly planned and von Prittwitz, the German Officer Commanding the 15th Panzer, was killed in the lead. The Australians made a determined stand. From 10 April to 13 April the Allies beat back German attacks from different sides. However, from 3 April to 2 May, Rommel successfully knocked out some Matilda tanks, established a salient and settled down to the siege.

General Wavell attempted unsuccessfully to relieve Tobruk but General Auchinleck was successful in raising the siege. By November the Australians had moved out and a garrison of British and Polish troops took over. The Allies planned to destroy the enemy's armour, but the Germans defeated the 7th Armoured Division, the main armoured force of the 8th Army and annihilated the SA 5th Brigade. In December, the Allies took Benghazi and Rommel retreated to El Agheila.

By February 1942 Rommel has rallied his forces and stormed back in increased strength to Gazala on the coast. The 8th Army retreated to the Gazala line (minefields stretching from Gazala to Bir Hachim in the south.) The 2nd SA Division was at Tobruk. By May, both sides were stronger than they had been during Operation Crusader, but the British were superior in tanks, artillery and air power.

Rommel moved around the southern flank and then northwards again towards Tobruk. He encountered formidable opposition from Grant tanks with their 75mm guns. The Gazala battle ensued with fluctuating fortunes on either side. Rommel attacked the Free French at Bir Hachim. The British launched a piecemeal attack on Rommel's armour and had their own tank force reduced from 400 to 170. In June Rommel took 4 000 prisoners-of-war. The British rallied and increased their tank strength to 330, but again their armoured strength was drastically reduced and Rommel squeezed them out of the "Knightsbridge Box." The next day, General Ritchie, Auchinleck's commander in the field, abandoned the Gazala line.

The SA 1st Division escaped, but Rommel captured their rearguard and and those remaining retreated to the frontier. By 20 June, the SA Division was in a westward arc from Tobruk, with British troops in the centre, Mahrattas, and Gurkhas to the south-east. Rommel struck with full force and German Panzer troops poured in. The South Africans had been left with no transport as High Command had placed the emphasis on infantry. General Gott had left the 2nd SA Division without artillery regiments. He had taken their only six heavy tanks including half their anti-aircraft guns.

On 21 June 1942 the SA commanding officer Major General Klopper surrendered. About 33 000 Allied troops were taken prisoner, 10 722 of them South African, including the entire 2nd SA Division. Rommel had captured Tobruk. In analysing the two sieges, Phil Everitt pointed out that in 1941, the experienced General Morshead had commanded the Australians, while in 1942 the South African's were commanded by their most junior general, Klopper. Rommel's force's were also not as strong as they were in 1942. Poor Allied Intelligence security played a part, with Rommel being well informed.

Churchill's political interference was deplored with the withdrawal of Allied troops for a fruitless quest in Greece when the Allies had held a superior position in North Africa, proving disastrous.

In July, Charles Whiteing's talk "The Death of the Desert Fox" will add another dimension to the life of Field Marshal Rommel.

Lieutenant Colonel Ray Lotter proposed a vote of thanks to both speakers, after numerous questions were received from a knowledgeable an interested audience.


The main talk for July will have CHARLES WHITEING taking a German perspective. During the North African Campaign, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was respected by both Axis and Allied forces alike for his tactical skills, and subsequently acquired the nickname of "The Desert Fox". Following El Alamein and the retreat of the Afrika Korps, he left this theatre of operations in Tripoli, and returned to Germany. He was later appointed the commanding officer of Hitler's much vaunted "Atlantik Festung", or Atlantic Wall.

After D-Day, he was returning to the Front, when an Allied Fighter strafed his car and he was hospitalised. The attempt on Hitler's life on the 20th July 1944 changed the whole military scenario in Germany, with suspects being rounded up and dispatched to concentration camps, and death sentences imposed. Although never a member of the anti-Hitler resistance group, Rommel was suspected. Charles will detail the events leading to the infamous death of one of Germany's most legendary officers with his talk entitled THE DEATH OF THE DESERT FOX.

The DDH will bring the wild west to town as Lt. COLONEL RAYMOND LOTTER talks to us about the famous BATTLE OF LITTLE BIGHORN - CUSTER'S LAST STAND. This will be a 1st for the Society and one not to be missed!!

Ingrid's recently published book "Antbears and Targets for Zulu Assegais," presents a good background for events which took place during the Colonial period in Natal, but have had a long lasting impact in Natal ever since.
The book is available from Ingrid Machin at a price of R95.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES : August 2003-October 2003

14 August 2003 - (Sat/Sunday)
16/17 August 2003(Sat/Sunday)
Ken Gillings - Organiser
11 September 2003
DDH Recent Discoveries on the Death of Bhambhatha - Ken Gillings
MAIN The 1st, and Last Surviving, SA Recipients of the VC - Brian Thomas
9 October 2003
DDH Alamein: We Three Were There, 61 Years Ago - Prof. Mike Laing, Chairman
MAIN The Warsaw Uprising: My Role and Involvement - Eric Winchester


Date:16/17 August 2003 and the Tour will be to:


Day 1: Visits to Hussar Hill, Cingolo, Monte Cristo and Hlangwane.
Day 2: Colenso Koppies, Wynne Hill, Harts Hill and Pieters Hill.

MEETING PLACE: DAY 1: As usual at the Escourt Ultra City on the N.3, at 9.30 am

OVERNIGHT: DAY 1: The Royal Hotel Ladysmith, where the following excellent prices have been negotiated. Single Bed and Breakfast: R200.00 per room and a Double Bed and Breakfast: R300.00 per room (i.e. R150 pp!). In addition a special dinner buffet for the SAMHS has been agreed @ R60.00 per person. While this is not mandatory, we need a minimum of 30 guests to have this arranged for us. Those who have stayed at this hotel on previous Society tours will know that we will be well looked after.
Those members and friends wishing to take advantage of these sharply reduced prices must PLEASE PHONE THE HOTEL DIRECTLY on 036-637-2176 and SPECIFY THAT YOU ARE PART OF THE MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY GROUP. You will be asked to make a deposit to confirm the booking. As in previous years, IT IS UP TO OUR MEMBERS TO MAKE THEIR OWN RESERVATIONS, and to CANCEL ANY BOOKINGS SHOULD THAT BE NECESSARY. At the same time, please indicate with the hotel if you will be having Dinner.

LUNCH: DAY 1: The Colenso Club has offered to provide a Cold Meat & Salad lunch @ R30 pp. We will be stopping at the club for liquid refreshments, but we have been asked by the club that own lunch "boxes" not be to be eaten on their premises. (Understandable.) Those members who would like to have lunch at the club please telephone the Colenso Club directly on 036-422-2508 to make your lunch reservation.
It is important that we know who will be attending the tour and at the last meeting a name sheet was passed round and this will be repeated at the next 2 meetings in June and July. Any member not attending these meetings, and wants to go on the tour, please ring Ken Gillings on 083-654-5880 to advise him. Also those wishing to buy a copy of Ken's book on the Thukela Heights can order in the same way. See section on Guide Book below.

SPEAKERS: As usual our past Chairman Ken Gillings will be responsible for the planning of the trip and will be our main guide. However he will be supported by a further (at present) 8 speakers and these include: Paul Kilmartin, Bill Brady, Dereck Petersen, Charles Whiteing, Ganes Pillay, Major Tony Gordon (SAMHS Cape Town, whose father fought in the battle), John Murray (SAMHS Johannesburg) who will focus on the role of the Irish Regiments on the Thukela Heights, prior to the formation of the Irish Guards on 1 April 1900.
Our guest speaker will be Gilbert Torlage.
The Speakers and their respective Topics to be announced in our August Newsletter.

DEPARTURE: Again, as usual, we will aim to close after lunch so that all members can be on the road by 2.30 pm on the Sunday.

GUIDE BOOK: We are pleased to announce that we have approached the publishers of Ken Gillings excellent Raven Press paper back on The Battle of the Thukela Heights and they have agreed to let us have a bulk supply at a 30% discount. That means that all members and friends who are going on the tour will be able to buy the book for R36.00 and it will prove to be of immense value for all attendees.

This tour could prove to be one of the best Battlefield Tours in recent years and we hope that it will be well supported by members and friends of the Society.

For further information, please ring KEN GILLINGS on: 083-654-5880 or 031-266-2233

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

South African Military History Society /