NEWSLETTER NO. 334
The DDH for the evening was a striking and most unusual talk by Professor Philip Everitt entitled Bagged but Cheerful: A POW at Tobruk. His talk, displayed with outstanding use of computer technology, was based on the experiences of his father, Sergeant Eric Everitt, who was captured at Tobruk on 21 June 1942. On that day, following blunders and confusion mostly not of his own making, the young South African Maj. General Klopper surrendered the fortress of Tobruk to General Erwin Rommel. Into "the bag" went some 33,000 allied troops, including 10,722 South Africans, including the whole of the 2nd SA Division, most of whom had hardly been in action. Incredulous, angry and somewhat ashamed they were handed over to the Italians for custody, and although a few escaped from captivity in North Africa, and a larger number on the capitulation of Italy, most were to see out the remainder of the war in the Stalags and Oflags of Germany. One of those was Sgt Eric Everitt who, after a stay in Italy, ended in Stalag IVB near Muhlberg in the very centre of Germany - which made escape extremely difficult. We were shown maps of all POW sites in Italy and Germany, a copy of Eric Everitt's prison ID card (which included a photograph and finger prints), a photo of the entrance of the camp, drawings made by the prisoners of the layout of the interior of the camp and most remarkable of all, photographs of the allied prisoners when in the camp. But the reality of discomfort was highlighted with the fact that 504 men shared a barrack hut.
The question raised was "How did they Survive?" with the emphasis on "The Spirit of Man" in adversity, and the acceptance by all of the need for discipline and mutual respect between prisoners and between prisoners and their captors. Photos were shown of allied troops marching past a saluting German camp commander and then of a funeral of a British prisoner with German soldiers in full uniform firing a 12-rifle salute over the grave. But the dominating theme of life in the camp, and its variety, was based on the reports printed in the Stalag IVB prisoner's newspaper The Observer. Many different copies of this remarkable newspaper were shown, highlighting the quality of its reproduction and the wide range of activities it covered from cartoons, sport (including soccer, Australian rules and on one rugby occasion the Springboks beat the Rest 9 û 0), theatrical productions, visits by the Swiss Red Cross, negotiations with the German commander, obituaries, medals awarded to prisoners after their capture, details of church services and most amazing of all detailed reports on the progress of the war. Surely the scoop of the life of the paper came with the publication of a photograph of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in conference in Tehran which was belatedly shown in the 27th April 1944 edition. One wonders how the Germans allowed this to happen! Philip Everitt's talk, which brought time spent as a POW very much to life, ended as he ran through copies of the personal diaries of Sgt Eric Everitt as his time as a prisoner came to an end, the release by the Russian army and as his new life of freedom began prior to his return to Durban.
A warm welcome was given to our guest speaker, Lt. Colonel Clive Wilsworth, who had travelled from Johannesburg to give the main talk on The Battle of Bakenlaagte, which took place during the Anglo-Boer War on the 30 October 1901. The battle has a very personal perspective for our speaker as his grandfather QMS Willie Wilsworth took part, and survived. Clive Wilsworth supported his narrative with numerous maps, photographs, diagrams and information from his grandfather's diary and all presented with excellent use of computer technology. As a member of the Bakenlaagte Centenary Committee, he had used this material to present the battle story to interested parties and potential sponsors.
The British army, led by Lord Roberts, occupied Pretoria in May 1900. The Battle of Dalmunutha shortly afterwards, signalled the end of the conventional war and introduced the guerilla war phase from July 1900 to May 1902. When Roberts returned to Britain, he was replaced by Lord Kitchener, whose policy was to remove the Boer logistical support by removing families from farms and burning crops and dwellings. In reply, the Boer forces split up into small, mobile units harassing the British forces to wear down their morale and overextend their lines. To counteract the Boer strategy, the British evolved a tactic of deploying fast-moving flying columns less dependent on large quantities of rations, forage and ammunition. They employed large numbers of colonial as well as Afrikaner "joiners" (turncoats). A flying column would typically comprise a battalion of mounted infantry, a regiment of cavalry, a battalion of light infantry, a limited artillery battery, a Pompom section and support elements - what today would be termed a battle group. The units would be deployed in different ways once battle was joined, as they were at Bakenlaagte.
Operating with other flying columns, they attempted to push the commandos up against the blockhouse lines and neutralise them there. No. 3 flying column, under the command of Colonel G.E. Benson, based at Middleburg in the eastern Transvaal, patrolled the area between Roos Senekal, (NW), Lydenburg(NE), Machadodorp, Ermelo, Carolina and Bethel. So successful was this column with regard to moving long distances at night and launching dawn attacks on commandos, that it was known as "The Scourge of the Transvaal" Much of the success of Benson's column rested on the intelligence expertise of Lt. Colonel Aubrey Woolls-Sampson, of Jamieson Raid notoriety, who, in obtaining information employed a group of local black "spies". On the Boer side general Louis Botha, after his attempted invasion of Natal, withdrew his forces to the Bethel district, supported by Commandant Hans Grobler of the Bethel commando.
Benson was tasked to burn farms and collect Boer prisoners, taking them to Brugspruit station (now Cluwer) for transportation to concentration camps. To this end, on 20 October 1901, Benson's column left Middleburg heading south to Bethel, burning farms and collecting Boer men, women and children. His column comprised the 3rd Mounted Infantry (350 men of the Essex Regiment), the 25th Mounted Infantry (350 men of the 60th Rifles, the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and the Dublin Fusiliers), the 2nd Buffs (650 men), the 2nd Scottish Horse (including QSM Willie Wilsworth) and Colonel Wools-Sampson's black scouts plus 15prs from the 84th battery, RFA, and a section of two Maxim Nordenfeldt Pompoms. Clumsily following this force were 230 wheeled vehicles of different kinds and 120 ox wagons, which were impossible to conceal and protect effectively. In addition, there was no support from any other columns in the area. On 22 October, a hailstorm hit the column and 200 horses stampeded, reducing the columns strength. On 24th October with 800 burghers ambushed the rearguard of the column and 14 of Benson's men were killed or wounded. During the next few days, Benson's column suffered further casualties and all possibility of surprise was lost. Benson changed his tactics from dawn raids to daylight clearing operations. On 30 October the Boer forces at Vaalkop included the Ermelo, Standerton, Pretoria and Heidelburg commandos, all under the overall command of General Louis Botha.
Benson's unwieldy column advanced from Bethel, past Nooitgedacht, in the mist and pouring rain with the commandos snapping at their heels. In the afternoon the commandos combined behind Kruisementfontein and headed for the British rearguard with their fast moving horsemen. Benson ordered an about-turn with fixed bayonets and the two remaining guns of the 84th battery commenced firing from the high ground where Benson took up his position. Hans Grobler of the Ermelo commando ordered "Reguit kanonne-toe" (straight to the guns) and the Boers charged the guns. All the British officers were killed and Benson was critically wounded. The Boers captured the guns and turned them on the convoy, but ceased fire when they realised that Boer women and children were with the column. The British dug trenches at Nooitgedacht for night shelter where Benson died of his wounds. The British killed were buried on Gun Hill but later exhumed and buried in the Primrose Cemetery in Germiston. Lt. Colonel Wilsworth closed his fascinating and detailed presentation by summarising the lessons learned from this battle, which were the following: Boer massed frontal attacks focused on weak points; an unwieldy and spread out column (such as Benson's on this occasion) was vulnerable and no longer manoeuvrable; the British suffered from a shortage of supporting artillery fire and although the Scottish Horse was speedy and manoeuvrable the Mounted Infantry was not effectively used; the British troops were courageous and disciplined but were defeated because the Boers used clear tactical thinking and a single focus on the rearguard to remove the British column. Our speaker's final and crucial point was that as a result of this engagement, he felt that Lord Kitchener lost his last vestige of self- confidence.
Our immediate past Chairman, Ken Gillings, raised a number of relevant issues about Bakenlaagte, which extended the question and answer session, before he closed with a warm vote of thanks to both our speakers for another excellent Society evening.
THURSDAY 8 MAY 2003
At the May meeting, our Chairman, PAUL KILMARTIN, will continue his series of talks on
the role of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western front during the 1st World
With his last 1st World War talk, in May 2002, he covered the disastrous Battle of Loos, which ended in late October 1915. There was now to be a gap of 8 months before the next major confrontation in July 1916, but although there were no major battles it was a time of great activity and interest, with many changes in the way the war was to be planned and fought and where it was to fight as the lines moved further south, with changes in the command and size of the army and the weapons to be used, and the impact brought about by actions beyond the control of the officers commanding operations. This talk will be one of positioning as PAUL attempts to make sense of the British Army's move to the darkest day in its entire history.
The DDH will be a talk by IAN SUTHERLAND entitled MILITARY HISTORY on a MOTORCYCLE. IAN has said that this will be different, so why not attend to find out if that is true!!.
see below for News of the BATTLEFIELD TOUR - 2003
THE SOCIETY OUTING - Sunday 8 June 2003
As announced at the March meeting, your committee has responded to a number of requests
received from members for a 1-day military history outing, by planning a tour of Old Fort and
the battlefield of Congella on Sunday 8 June. This is not to be confused with the Annual
Battlefield Tour, which is scheduled for the weekend of 16/17 August 2003.
Announcement of the arrangements will be given at the May meeting and the intention is get details published in the next newsletter in good time for members to plan to attend. For further information please ring Ken Gillings on 083-654-5880
THE SOCIETY'S 2003 BATTLEFIELD TOUR
Date:16/17 August 2003
Location : THE BATTLE of THE THUKELA HEIGHTS and THE RELIEF OF LADYSMITH
Program : Visits, in sequence, to
Meeting place - Day 1 - will be as usual at the Escourt Ultra City on the N3, at a time to be advised.
Overnight on Day 1 is being planned and quotations are being obtained from a number of hotels and B&B locations in the area. As soon as they are available we will give the details to members.
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, Dr. Ingrid Machin, Charles Whiteing, Major Tony Gordon (from SAMH Society Cape Town, whose father fought in the battle) John Murray (from SAMH Johannesburg, who will concentrate on the role of the Irish regiments on the Thukela Heights, prior to the formation of the Irish Guards on 1 April 1900) and guest speaker Gilbert Torlage.
We hope that more speakers will be added to this list. If any member feels that he or she would like to speak on any matter relating to this important battle, and its outcome, please ring Ken Gillings on 083-654-5880.
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. Arrangements to purchase will be advised shortly.
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. A list, for those who wish to join the Battlefield Tour party for 2003, will be started at the April meeting and more information will be given in the next newsletter.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001