South African Military History Society



September 2003

PAST EVENTS: For the second year in a row the August meeting provided a busy time for members of the Society, with our Annual Base Visit being the main August meeting, but with the Annual Battlefield Tour following on the weekend. With excellent attendance at both functions, and with glorious weather for the tour, it provided us all with a memorable 3 days of military activity.

The Society's annual Base Visit this year was to one of the great military centres in South Africa. The Durban Light Infantry (formerly the Royal Durban Light Infantry) was founded in 1854 and next year this Regiment, which is synonymous with the City of Durban, will celebrate its 150th anniversary with the Natal Mounted Rifles. The DLI has participated in most campaigns in Southern Africa since its inception, and played a vital role in German South West Africa during World War 1, and its members served with honour during World War 2. Its Honorary Colonel, Col. Cyril Metcalfe, is well into his 90s and as active as ever. Many of our members have served in this great Regiment's ranks and several have commanded it. We were fortunate, therefore, that the Commanding Officer, Lt.Col. Greg de Ricquebourg had consented to host the Society for this visit for 2003, and that both the C.O. and his predecessor Lt.Col. Bill Oliver were present to give us a warm welcome.

Col Oliver was our host and guide for the evening and as we met in the officer's mess, he started by informing us that the DLI own the freehold of the 17-acre site where their headquarters are located in DLI Avenue, Greyville. He then described the history of the regiment by taking us in sequence around the portraits and framed mementos that are hanging on the walls of the officer's mess and the dining room. We were then taken to the recently revamped regimental Museum, which has an outstanding collection of medals, maps, photographs, posters and other memorabilia - all excellently displayed - which are all related to DLI action since its inception in 1854 through to the 2nd World War and beyond. After the museum we visited the regimental Chapel and were shown the magnificent stained glass windows. A senior British officer from the Royal Green Jackets, with whom the DLI have an affiliation, recently visited the Chapel and had stated that it was one of the most beautiful regimental chapels he had ever seen. Full of admiration for the buildings and the great history of the DLI, the members then spent an enjoyable social hour with our hosts, before our Chairman Paul Kilmartin gave a warm vote of thanks to the DLI to end a most enjoyable evening for the 50 or so members present.

The Annual Battlefield Tour was planned to provide a detailed review of the major Battle of The Thukela Heights, which took place between the 12 - 28 February 1900 and to show how it created the opening for the Relief of Ladysmith. The plan was to visit Hussar Hill, Monte Cristo, Colenso Koppies, Wynne Hill, Harts Hill and Pieters Hill (or Pieters Ridge as it is often called). From these locations the fighting on Cingolo, Green Hill, Hlangwane and Railway Hill were also reviewed. This year the committee decided to try to reduce the work to be done by our tour guide and organiser, Ken Gillings, by asking members of the Society to give talks on related aspects of the fighting and this went well although we now realise that we tried to fit in too much in the planned day and a half on the battlefield and we will review that aspect before our tour in 2004. Apart from the major role played by Ken, 12 other speakers supported him during the course of the tour.

The indefatigable Ken Gillings started his lengthy and detailed presentation of the Thukela Heights by giving the background to the 3 armies that took part in the events leading up to the British occupation of Hussar Hill on 12 February 1900. This introduction covered the advance of the Boers in October 1899 and the main happenings leading to the Siege of Ladysmith, and then the failed attempts to break through the Boer positions at Colenso (15 Dec 1899), Thabamnyama (20 - 22 Jan 1900), Spionkop (23 - 24 Jan 1900) and Vaalkrans (5 - 7 Feb 1900). In what was thought to be a 1st for the Society, Lt. Col Graeme Fuller then described the way that the Medical Services worked during the Anglo Boer War, and particularly how wounds were treated, and this gave many of us a new perspective on what the war was like for those who took part. Dr Ingrid Machin then described the 2 main Boer generals - Lucas Meyer and Louis Botha - and described Botha at just 37 years old and new to command, as the most brilliant strategist from either side on the Natal front. From the British perspective our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, summarised General Redvers Buller, a man who to this day creates mixed reviews and emotions. To complete the summary of the armies present at the Thukela Heights Colonel Ray Lotter summarised the numbers and types of artillery used by both sides and Commander Mac Bissett, from the Cape Town Branch of the Society, described the Royal Navy's guns, which were converted for use in the battle.

With that background Ken Gillings then described the actions that took place on Hussar Hill and Cingolo, before we all moved to the Colenso Club for lunch and a break from the sunshine. After lunch we drove to Monte Cristo where Ken described the actions on Monte Cristo, Green Hill and Hlangwane on 15 - 20 Feb 1900. Another guest from the Cape Town Branch, Major Anthony Gordon, then read from his father's diary, which described his role in the fighting on Green Hill. Those with energy then went to the top of Monte Cristo to visit the Boer sangars and others went further down the hill to visit the Boer gun positions. We then drove to the Royal Hotel in Ladysmith. We were on the road by 8.OOam on Sunday to visit the Colenso Koppies, where the first action on the north side of the river took place on 21 - 22 Feb 1900. There we were joined by Jean de Fleureot, the local farmer who owns the land where the battle was fought. Our Vice Chairman, Bill Brady, summarised with some humour, the role played by the Scottish Regiments before we moved on to the 3 Wynne Hills and the Somerset Light Infantry Memorial. After listening to Ken's description of events, those with sufficient energy walked to the top of Wynne Hill and across to where the Kings Royal Rifles took cover and to inspect the Boer trenches and Sangars. We then moved to a location near Pom-Pom Bridge where Derrick Petersen explained the role of the Natal Government Railways (another Society 1st) and then specifically about the personal role of one of his relatives. We then moved to the monuments and graves at the foot of Hart's Hill, when after Ken had described the opening of the battle, John Murray from the Johannesburg Branch of the Society explained how as a result of the fighting at this battle, Queen Victoria announced the formation of the Irish Guards (which took place on 1 April 1900) and ended by laying a wreath to remember the role played by the Irish regiments. Another guest, Gilbert Torlage, then described the final events on Hart's Hill, Railway Hill and Pieters Ridge that led to the final breakthrough to Ladysmith on 27 Feb 1900. With time pressing, some members had to leave, but the majority went for the final close at Pieters Ridge, where Major Anthony Gordon again read from his father's diary, which described the events in which he took part 103 years ago. It was to provide a moving end to a memorable tour.

Where the actions took place during our journey, the Society's medal expert Brian Thomas, gave concise details of the VCs won during the battle, and as so often our final speaker was Professor Mike Laing who summarised his usual contra view with a "what if" scenario.

The tour was a major success, due in no small part to the brilliant weather, but it was the first time we have changed the format and we will learn from some of the mistakes made in order to make it even better for next year. It was the largest tour we have had with over 90 in attendance on the first day and at one stage a convoy of 40 cars had the locals looking on some bemusement. In all probability, it was also a first for the SA Military History Society as a whole, in that for the first time we had speakers from all 3 branches of the Society - Johannesburg, Cape Town and KwaZulu Natal - all speaking at the same event.

The 2003 Battlefields Tour ended in the sunshine on the memorial on Pieters Ridge with our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, thanked all who had attended (and particularly those who had travelled from Johannesburg and Cape Town), and gave particular thanks to the wide range of speakers for their added input and to those whose organisation had made the event possible. In conclusion he saved his warmest thanks of all to our immediate past Chairman Ken Gillings who had masterminded the trip, organised where we would stand at the various sites and then spoke to us all with knowledge and passion about the remarkable military events as they unfolded on the important battlefield of the Thukela Heights.


The main talk at the September meeting is on a subject that we have not covered before and will be given by BRIAN THOMAS. His subject will be THE FIRST AND LAST SURVIVING, SOUTH AFRICAN BORN, RECIPIENTS OF THE VICTORIA CROSS. Brian will tell us about a young officer believed to be the first South African born recipient of the Victoria Cross, won in the Crimea in 1855. This was almost two years earlier than the second V.C. given to a South African born recipient during the Indian Mutiny in 1857. In most of what has been written on this subject in South Africa the credit as to who was the first is often given to the wrong man. There are today only sixteen living recipients of the Victoria Cross, and we will hear the story of one of them, who was born in South Africa, escaped from the debacle at Tobruk in 1942, and went on to gain a Victoria Cross in Italy in 1944.

With the 100th anniversary of the Bhambhatha Uprising due in 2006, this will be a talk by our immediate Past Chairman, KEN GILLINGS, on the results of some new research on this important event. His DDH talk will be entitled RECENT DISCOVERIES ON THE DEATH OF BHAMBHATHA

It is with the greatest regret that we report that Rob Suberg's parents both died within 3 days of each other during August. Rob is a long-term member of the Society and one of the most regular attendees at our meetings and functions. To you Rob, all our thoughts are with you at this very sad time.

See below for DETAILS of the 1-DAY BATTLEFIELD TOUR - to THE BATTLE of WILLOW GRANGE - on 23 NOV. 2003
It has been a great pleasure for the committee this year that members have made plans to visit KZN battlefields without waiting for the committee to do the organising. In addition to the annual tour, we have had Major Keith Archibald organising the tour to Old Fort and Congella and now Dereck Petersen has organised a visit to the Battlefield of Willow Grange on the date of the 104th anniversary of the battle.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES October - December 2003

9 October 2003
DDH - Alamein. We Three were there, 61 years ago. - Prof. Mike Laing
MAIN - The Warsaw Uprising: My Role and Involvement - Eric Winchester
11 November 2003
Tuesday -
Armistice Day- Old Fort Shell Hole - 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
Venue to be announced

The Battle of Willow Grange Battlefield Tour
Will take place on Sunday 23rd November 2003 (the lO4 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 Bryn bella 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 /