D-Day, 6 June 1944, was the subject of the curtain raiser at the 10 June society lecture meeting given by George Barrell at exceptionally short notice.
The landing of the western allies on the Normandy beaches just 60 years ago was the most massive military amphibious operation of all time, and the most intricately planned. Over 150 000 men, together with as much of their equipment as could be got ashore, landed on five beaches stretching westward from the mouth of the River Orne to the base of the Carentan Peninsula, with its strategic port of Cherbourg. The responsibility for planning Operation Overlord, to use its codename, was given to British General Bernard Montgomery, with American General Dwight D Eisenhower in overall command. Essential to success of the entire enterprise was allied command of the Atlantic sea-lanes, which was achieved by the middle of 1943, and total superiority in the air.
Montgomery's operational plan involved five separate landings along the roughly150km of Normandy coastline. Two of these, Sword and Gold were assigned to the British, with the mainly Canadian Juno sandwiched between. To the west were the American beaches, Omaha and Utah. The purpose of these dispositions was to attract the main German counter-attacking forces, especially their armour, on to the British and Canadian forces. This would allow the Americans the maximum freedom to seal off the Carentan Peninsular, take Cherbourg, drive south to cut off Brittany and its numerous ports, then swing eastward to link up with their allies on the River Seine.
After devising the plan Montgomery left the details to his subordinates while he travelled Britain addressing every unit, British and American, likely to be involved in the landings. It was a public morale boosting exercise on a monumental scale. He also devised an elaborate system of deceptions to confuse the Germans concerning his intentions. A fictitious concentration of troops was organised in Scotland, suggesting Norway as the target. Then an equally fictitious army was planted in south-east England to suggest an invasion in the Pas de Calais region of France, where the English Channel was at its narrowest. This was a most elaborate deception, with dummy tanks, lorries, landing craft, lively wireless traffic, and even a C-in-C, American General George Patton. It was also the most successful because for the first three weeks of the landings Hitler was convinced the main effort would be made in the Pas de Calais, and was thus reluctant to commit German armour to Normandy.
Despite the elaborate beach defences, and the appalling sea conditions, all five landings were successful, although at Omaha beach the American had to overcome appalling difficulties. It was at Omaha that more than half the 2 500 killed on D-Day was recorded. Total casualties, killed, wounded and missing, amounted to about 10 500, although many of the missing tended to be airborne forces that later rejoined their units.
The main lecture of the evening was given by Colonel C J Jacobs. His subject was the Guerrilla Phase of the Anglo-Boer War in the North-Eastern Transvaal.
With the occupation of Pretoria on 5 June 1900 the British decided the war would soon be over. In fact, it was about to enter its second phase with the Boers in both the Free State and the Transvaal adopting guerrilla tactics. The British C-in-C, Lord Kitchener, who had replaced Lord Roberts in November 1900, adopted 'scorched earth' methods to deprive the guerrillas of their supply sources while unleashing 'drives' to hunt them down. The first of these, in the South-Eastern Transvaal, ended in February 1900. He then turned to the North-Eastern Transvaal. His concept was to march north along the railway from Pretoria to Pietersburg and to occupy the drifts on the Olifants River. Six columns would then advance from Belfast, Middelburg and Lydenburg to trap the Boers under General Ben Viljoen against the river. Viljoen escape relatively intact, although he had to destroy his wagons and artillery. Before returning to the area at the end of June he operated with Louis Botha south of the Pretoria-Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) railway.
This guerrilla action in the North-Eastern Transvaal did not make a substantial contribution to the Boer war effort, although its mountains, hills, numerous streams and rivers, and thick vegetation were ideal for guerrillas and seriously impeded British mobility. At that stage the British army was using mainly infantry supported by artillery, with only small detachments of cavalry and mounted infantry. The result was that the Boers were able to move freely and the railway remained extremely vulnerable.
However, the Boers were operating in country whose inhabitants were usually hostile, and the British took advantage of this by using blacks as scouts and spies. They also began to adapt their tactics and organisation, using more mounted infantry and building blockhouses to defend the railways. In time the Boers began to find their difficulties increased by malaria and horse sickness. Their ability to live off the land was also limited by the winter of 1901, and the terrain that had earlier helped their mobility came to impede them as the number of their horses declined.
Meanwhile, the mobility of the British was increasing and the intelligence available to them improving. The result was that by early 1902 the main task facing them in the North-East Transvaal was the protection of the railway line, and Kitchener was able to concentrate his efforts against Boer leaders such as Botha, De Wet and Smuts. Moreover, Viljoen was no longer providing the inspirational leadership needed to tackle his difficulties. In early 1902 he was captured by the British and replaced by General Chris Muller.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581For KZN details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
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