South African Military History Society



October 2003

PAST EVENTS: The September meeting started with confirmation of the 1 day tour to the Battle of Willow Grange which will take place on the 23 November. The details for the day, including timing, locations, what to take, etc appears with this newsletter. The meeting was also advised that the plans for the Annual Dinner in December 2003 are well advanced and the location and the date and venue are announced with this newsletter. Congratulations were also given to one of the founder members of the Society, S.B. Bourquin, who with his wife Hilda, have just celebrated their 60 th wedding anniversary just a few days short of S.B's 89 th birthday.

The September DDH was given by ex-Chairman Ken Gillings, who in a talk entitled The Recent Discoveries on the Death of Bhambatha, dealt with a new and intriguing aspect of the "rebellion" against the imposition of the Poll Tax in 1906. He outlined the course of the rebellion, the action at Mpanza - which seemed to give credence to the inyanga Malazi's claim that his muthi (war medicine) would turn the white man's bullets to water - and the flight of Bhambatha to King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo's Usuthu homestead. At the final battle of Mome Gorge, a rebel, who, it was claimed, was Bhambatha, was killed. After a few days the corpse, being in a state of decomposition, was decapitated and the head was taken to Nkandla for identification. However, the Zondi people maintain that it was not Bhambatha who was killed and that he had escaped to Mozambique, and this position was examined in detail. Further evidence concerning the death of Bhambatha has recently been discovered and passed on to our speaker, Ken Gillings. His startling new evidence formed the main thrust of his talk. In February 2002 he received an e-mail from Mrs. L. Atkins of Ashorne Hill Management College, Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, England, stating that an old trunk belonging to Lt. Colonel J. H. Alexander, DSO, MC, had been discovered in an attic. This trunk contained numerous papers, newspaper cuttings, photographs and negatives. One envelope is marked 'Lock of Bhambatha's Hair and Description of his Wounds, etc". Another smaller envelope within this package contains a lock of African hair, supposed to have been cut from the head of Bhambatha.

Despite a great deal of research and discussions with DNA experts, it was regretfully agreed that the current level of DNA testing was not sophisticated enough to prove, conclusively, that the hair sample did actually belong to Bhambatha. It was therefore, Ken Gilling's regretful conclusion that until scientific tests of more sophistication than the current level are made available, it will not be possible to establish with certainty whether Bhambatha died at Mome Gorge or not, and the mystery will remain unsolved.

As proof that history is a never-ending search for truth, our speaker showed the African hair samples from Lt. Colonel Alexander's trunk to the meeting - which may or may not be those of Bhambatha.

* * *

Research was also part of the MAIN talk of the evening, which was given by Brian Thomas on the subject of The First and the Last Surviving South African Born Recipients of the Victoria Cross. Our speaker stated with confidence that, in his opinion, much of the historical writing on the subject of the first South African winner of the Victoria Cross, gives credit to the wrong man. However, the definition of "South African" became important as the two options were discussed, but it was the title of the talk that underlined our speaker's reasons for his choice of the man whom he described as the first South African "born" winner of the VC. Although the VC was first introduced in 1856, it was backdated to include the Crimean War and next year, 2004, it will be 150 years since the very first VC was won by a young ship's mate aboard HMS Hecla in the Baltic Sea. Since than the VC has only been awarded 1354 times to 1351 men, no awards have been made since the Falklands War in 1982, and today only 15 winners of the VC are still alive. The relevance of this talk was due to one of the few survivors being a South African. As part of his introduction, Brian gave the statistics of the 117 VCs won in Southern Africa and the 65 in the rest of Africa making a total of 182 or 13% of all VCs won. He also quoted that 29 VC recipients served in either South African or Rhodesian forces and a further 18, who were South African by birth or domicile, serving in non South African forces.

The man, who is normally quoted as the first South African winner of the VC, is Lt. Joseph Crowe, later to be Lt. Colonel Crowe. He was born in Uitenhage on 12 January 1826 and who won his VC at Cawnpore, during the Indian Mutiny, on 12 August 1857. However, Brian then gave the details of Lt. Christopher Teesdale, later to be Major-General Sir Christopher Teesdale who born in Grahamstown on 1 June 1833. Despite being younger than Crowe, Teesdale won his VC two years earlier on 29 September 1855, at Kars during the Crimean War. The reason why some do not quote Teesdale as the first VC winner is interesting; Crowe was born in the year that his father, a retired British army officer, had retired to the Cape, whereas Teesdale was born to a British army officer who served in the Cape from June 1830 to December 1841. Therefore although they both had fathers who were British officers, Crowe lived on in South Africa until he joined the British army at the age of 20 and Teesdale left South Africa at the age of 2, when his father - later to be a Lieutenant General - was transferred. There may be a debate on whether Teesdale was a South African, but there is no doubt that he was the first South African born winner of the VC. Teesdale's career was most unusual. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in 1851 but in a career of 44 years he only saw active service in one war, the Crimean. In that war he was with the Turkish army in the defence of Kars, and so not with the British Army, and in being awarded the VC he became one of only seventeen men who won a VC without an accompanying British campaign medal for the VC action. He did not even qualify for the British Crimea Campaign Medal, and had the unusual, if not unique honour of pairing a foreign campaign medal - the Turkish General Service Medal with the VC. Two months after the action that led to his VC, Teesdale was wounded and captured by the Russians until January 1856. The VC was gazetted 2 years after his act of gallantry and Queen Victoria presented him with his medal on 21 November 1857. He retired from the army at 59, in 1892.

The last surviving South African holder of the VC, was born in Brian Thomas's home town of East London, to make another "home town " VC to go with our Vice Chairman Bill Brady and Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, VC. He was Lt. Gerard Norton, later to be Captain Norton, but known to everyone as "Toys" Norton. He was born in the Cape on 7 September 1915, but was educated at Selbourne College and lived on in East London until he enlisted for World War 2. He was an outstanding sportsman, and sport always played a major part in his life, but with initial citizen force training behind him, on 19 June 1940 he joined The Kaffrarian Rifles and left Durban on 23 July 1941 to join the 2nd S.A. Division in Egypt. Norton just escaped capture at Tobruk and Brian gave some remarkable detail on the journey that Norton made with a small group from his company, as they fought their way back to allied lines. Despite being wounded when under enemy fire Norton, with his Commanding Officer Lt. Baillie, covered 570 miles of desert by traveling mostly at night, back to the New Zealand lines at El Alamein. The journey took 38 days and Norton was awarded an immediate MM, as he was a sergeant at the time.

In June 1944, Norton was seconded to the British Army and attached to the Hampshire Regiment in Italy. This took him to the Gothic Line, an impenetrable series of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements that was blocking the allied advance into Europe. On 31 August 1944, Norton - now a Lieutenant - was commanding a platoon during the attack on what was called the Monte Gridofo feature, one of the strong points on the Gothic Line. Norton's platoon was pinned down by heavy fire but on his own initiative, Norton single handedly wiped out the two machine gun positions, either killing or taking the occupants prisoner. He then went on to take more prisoners from a nearby house and despite being wounded and weak from the loss of blood, he led his platoon up the valley to capture the remaining enemy positions. His VC was gazetted on 26 October 1944, when he was in hospital at Bari and being nursed back to health by his twin sister. He was presented with his VC, and his MM, by King George VI AT Holyrood Place on 26 September 1946 and he became one of only 5 men to hold both the VC and the MM.

As 1 of just 15 living holders of the VC, Norton now lives in Harare, having taken Rhodesian citizenship in 1946. Brian Thomas spent an afternoon with Norton in 1989, and his talk was the more personal for that. Norton is now 88 years of age and is a living testament to the bravery of all who won the Victoria Cross.

Dr. Ingrid Machin proposed a warm vote of thanks to both our speakers for keeping us all fascinated by two very different aspects of military history.


The meeting in October will be something very special. We will have 4 guest speakers, all of whom "were there". The MAIN talk will be given by former Senator Eric Winchester, who will speak on his personal experience in the Warsaw Uprising. He took off for Warsaw on the orders of Churchill and was shot down the same night. Eric will tell us the story of his part in the raid, his crash, his attempt to escape, his capture and the trauma he experienced as a Prisoner of War. He will also tell us about the effect that a German helmet has had on his life, and his 54-year search for his comrade. This talk, entitled THE WARSAW UPRISING: MY ROLE AND INVOLVEMENT will be on a new area of military history for the Society, and that it should be covered for us by someone who experienced those dreadful days makes it most important

The DDH will also be a unique occasion. Under the chairmanship of Professor Mike LAING, 3 local men who all served at EL ALAMEIN will discuss their memories of the great battle. We will welcome ROD CAMPBELL and JEFF CLARK of the army and STAN TAYLOR of the RAF, to talk to us on ALAMEIN. WE THREE WERE THERE, 61 YEARS AGO. Certainly the October meeting promises to be something very special.



For many years, the Society Annual Dinner has been held in either Durban or in Westville. This year it has been decided that we should go closer to our members who live in the hills, and so we have booked THE HUNGRY DUCK Restaurant in Clifton Road, GILLETTS. The cost will be R50 per head - much cheaper than of late - and despite the wine list being of excellent value we have negotiated a 7.5% discount on all wines for th evening. Following his success last year we are pleased to report that the piper will return!! We will pass a signing on sheet round at the next meeting, but for those unable to attend the meeting, but want to be at the dinner, please ring BILL BRADY on 031-561-5542 to book. As in recent years we are asking for payment by the November meeting so that we can be sure of the numbers attending.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES November - December 2003

11 November 2003
Tuesday -
Armistice Day - Warriors Gate - Paul Kilmartin
13 November 2003
DDH - What cost Patton the 3rd Army? - Prof. Mike Laing
MAIN - Medical Services during the Natal Campaign - Lt.Col Graeme Fuller
11 December 2003
Annual Dinner
Bill Brady: Organiser
Ring; 031-561-5542

The Battle of Willow Grange Battlefield Tour
Will take place on Sunday 23rd November 2003 (the l04th anniversary of the battle).


The Willow Grange battlefield is located in pristine country, very close to Mooi River, and unlike most of the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields has not become overgrown with trees and bush and in many respects it is very much the open grass fields that existed 104 years ago at the time of the battle. During this tour, one will be able to enjoy the historical aspect and at the same time enjoy the beautiful surroundings. The route to the Boer's gun position passes along the abandoned Natal Government Railways track for several kilometres over privately owned land. This is the track used by the armoured train and Buller's main line of communication. This is a trip not to be missed as the old railway cuttings and the old stone bridges are very exciting for train buffs. Ron Gold will lead the convoy of vehicles. The last vehicle must close all the farm gates. The view of the Drakensberg from the Boer's gun position takes your breath away so bring your camera.

9:30 Sunday 23rd November: Meet at the Wimpy Restaurant in the Engen One Stop garage at Mooi River.

9:35 Depart for Brynbella Hill in convoy. We will visit the graves of the men who fell in the Battle of Willow Grange at the base of Brynbella Hill and then proceed in convoy to the 'old stone wall' (now a national monument). There we will park our cars (a car guard will be provided) and Dereck Petersen will describe the main features of the battlefield and the rout taken by the British troops to attack the Boers on Brynbella Hill on the night of the 22nd November 1899. We will walk alongside the old stone wall towards Misty Kop to the position where the West Yorks and the East Surreys attacked each other in the dark, bayoneting and shooting several men.

We will proceed in convoy to the crest of Brynbella Hill by 4x4, microbus or bakkie. Those who have these vehicles are asked to help transport those who have cars. Car guards will guard the cars. There is a short walk from the Boer's gun position to the crest of Brynbella Hill. There is a splendid view of the Beacon Hill and the route take by Colonel Kitchener's men on the night of the battle. Dereck Petersen will give a detailed description of the events leading up to the battle, the battle that took place in the early hours of the 23rd of November 1899 and the aftermath of the battle. Ron Gold will describe Colonel Kitchener's retreat from the crest of Brynbella Hill.

It is recommended that each person bring along food and drink for a picnic lunch. The view is so good from the top of the hill that this will be a good opportunity to have a relaxed lunch and enjoy nature. We will return to the parked cars. Please tip the car guards before departing for the Boer War museum at Weston School. Ron Gold will explain the position of the British camp at Mooi River.

Recommended items to bring along:

A good sun-hat, sun block, good walking shoes or boots, drinks for tea and a good hamper of food & drink for a picnic lunch and some warm clothing in case the weather gets cold.

Optional items to bring with: Binoculars and a camera

Things not to bring: Cooking equipment - as the lighting of fires is not permitted at the request of the farmer owning the land.

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

South African Military History Society /