Museum curator Alan Sinclair gave the curtain raiser at the 11 December society meeting. His subject was 'The Art of the Museum'. This was part two in his series. It featured Francois Krige, an official South African war artist in World War Two.
Krige was the only one of seven official artists with an Afrikaans background. Conservative Afrikaners often ridiculed both him and his brother Uys, the famous poet and author. Krige was not interested in portraying battle scenes or celebrating the glories of war. Instead he sought to capture the scenes of daily military life, the non-heroic chores, the boredom, and the workman-like jobs behind the lines. He also took a great interest in the plight of Axis POWs being held at El Alamein following his brother Uys' capture at Sidi Rezegh.
Krige sketched scenes he encountered on the many excursions he made to the front lines and across the western desert. On his first trip he was taken to the battlefield at Sidi Rezegh shortly after the 5th South African Brigade had been decimated by German armour, and where his brother was taken prisoner. It made an indelible impression on his mind. Of the many scenes he sketched some were later painted as oils.
Krige gained the reputation as a loner among his fellow artists and war correspondents. He stayed apart, turning in on himself to deal with the traumatic events of which he was a part.
The main lecture of the evening was given by George Barrell whose subject was The Great Game, the rivalry between British and Russian imperialism in 19th century central Asia and Afghanistan. The British saw the steady advance of Russian power into Muslim Asia as a potential threat to their Indian Empire and planned that Afghanistan should become a buffer between them. They were particularly anxious to prevent the Russians from establishing a warm-water naval presence on the shores of the Arabian Sea. This led the British into two wars with Afghanistan. In 1838 a column of 15 000 troops, about 5 000 being British, the rest Indian Sepoys, and no less than 26 000 camels plus other beasts of burden, marched the 2 500km from Firozpure on the Sutlej river to Kandahar, Ghazni and Kabul. The occupation was a disappointment, however, and when the British attempted to withdraw in the winter of 1842 only one British soldier of the 4 500 that set out survived to reach Jalalabad, the gateway to the Kyber Pass. This defeat had to be avenged, and later that year the British forced the Kyber Pass, marched to Kabul and destroyed the city centre.
Further Russian encroachment into central Asia promoted another British invasion of Afghanistan in 1878, which proved more successful than the first. This was led by General Roberts, who later commanded in South Africa, and is sometimes known as 'Robert's War'. But again the British withdrew when their representative in Kabul was murdered and the Russian threat receded.
Finally the British had to be content with intimidating Afghanistan by maintaining a commanding military presence on the famous North West Frontier of their Indian Empire.
The lot of allied POWs was usually a hard one. Denis Cullighan, who gave the curtain raiser to the 15 January meeting, joined the SA Irish Regiment in 1939, fought in East Africa and was subsequently taken prisoner by the Germans at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh in November 1941. What followed was a life of rigorous hardship. The ship carrying him and many other prisoners to Italy was torpedoed and driven ashore in Greece, where the survivors spent a terrible winter without even the meagre comforts of a camp.
Four months later they were sent to a barely operative camp near Bari in Italy, where many worked on the land. When the Allies arrived in 1943 the prisoners were transferred by cattle truck to the huge Stalag VIIIB near Breslau on the then Polish border. They were held there for the last 18 months of the war. As the Russian approached in February 1945 the prisoners were marched westward under dire conditions. Eventually they passed into the hands of the Americans, who sent them down the line to Paris.
The ability of any speaker to describe such hardships with lightness and humour constitutes a remarkable achievement.
Hitler's Ardennes offensive in December 1944, The Battle of the Bulge, was the last major German operation of its kind in WW2. It involved three armies comprising 28 divisions, eight armoured, with a total of 500 000 men. It featured the use of Special Forces, or battle groups, some dressed in American uniforms. The intention was to drive ahead of the general advance and seize the bridges over the River Meuse. One of these battlegroups, Kampfgruppe Peiper, named after its commander, SS Lt. Col. Jochen Peiper, was the subject of the main lecture of the evening given by committee member Flip Hoorweg.
The objective of the offensive was to recapture the strategic port of Antwerp, and to drive a wedge between the British and US armies. Peiper was a young man, handsome, well-bred, dashing, and a resourceful leader. He had spent 10 years with the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, some of them in Russia, where he and his unit had established a reputation for ruthlessness. Kampfgruppe Peiper comprised some 4 000 men.
Everything began to go wrong from the beginning. Crowded villages and twisting, narrow lanes slowed the advance, and Peiper 's group, along with others, ultimately failed to reach their objectives. Peiper tried alternative routes, but was again slowed down near the town of Malmedy. There numerous American prisoners were taken who, along with many civilians in the area, were indiscriminately butchered by the frustrated SS men. Peiper succeeded in escaping the growing American encirclement with the surviving 800 men of his Kampfgruppe.
After the war Peiper was sentenced to death for his part in the murder of 86 American prisoners, but this was commuted and he served only 11 years' imprisonment. Fate caught up with him 20 years later, however, when his house was firebombed and he was killed.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581For KZN details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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