Professor Deon Fourie gave the curtain raiser at the society's lecture meeting on 13 May. The title of his talk was 'Jan Smuts-The Soldier'. It dealt with the military side of the life of the lawyer-soldier-politician Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts, 1870-1950.
Smuts' military life took him from the Victoria College Rifle Volunteers in Stellenbosch during the late 1880s, through the Anglo-Boer War and both world wars. In each of these wars, despite his essentially civil career, Smuts played key roles as field commander, as Minister of Defence in South Africa, as military adviser to heads of the British Government, and even as a member of the War Cabinet for the former enemy, Great Britain (1917-1919).
Smuts' talents ranged from that of a visionary, but incisive, war planner, to that of a determined and astute commander in the field during two of the wars. In the Anglo-Boer War, leaving the comfort of the office of State Attorney, he led a mounted irregular force on a 1 600km raid from the Magaliesbergs to the Western Cape. Before WW1 he established the Union Defence Force. After successfully leading South African forces in German South-West Africa during the war he went on to achieve decisive results in German East Africa, where professional British generals had failed for half a year.
He was then considered by the British Prime Minister as a candidate for command in other theatres. Instead he became a Minister without Portfolio, playing the leading role in establishing the Royal Air Force and directing Britain's war industries into efficient production, besides playing other roles in the conduct of the war.
In WW2, while Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa and Minister of Defence, he expanded the Union Defence Force to some 408 000 volunteers. He also presided over the establishment of a thriving war industry where nothing had existed before, and directed SA participation in campaigns in Abyssinia, Madagascar, Egypt, Libya and Italy. At the same time he acted as a major personal adviser to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, earning high praise from Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke.
It is small wonder that Smuts was named South African Soldier of the Century for the Financial Mail's Special Century Edition at the end of 1999.
The talk was accompanied by a superb display of computer graphics.
The main lecture of the evening was given by Terry Willson and Bruce Wentzel of the SA Arms and Ammunition Collectors Association (SAAACA) on the subject of British small arms in the 20th century.
The great change in British small arms dates back to the growing rivalry between the great powers of Europe that developed in the late 19th century. In 1888 the British introduced their .303-inch calibre Lee Metford rifle as a replacement for the Martini Henry single-shot rifle that had played such a prominent role in the previous Anglo-Zulu War. This Lee-Metford was the principal rifle in use during the Anglo-Boer War, but was soon replaced by the long Lee Enfield, which was initially issued primarily to the reservists and volunteers. The early Lee Enfields were found to have defective sighting, leading to an incident known to history as 'The Great Rifle Scandal'.
During the Anglo-Boer War rifles and carbines were issued to the infantry and cavalry respectively. As a result of the defects that became apparent during this conflict the Long Lee Enfield was redesigned and emerged as the Short Magazine Lee Enfield, one of the most famous rifles of all time. It was the primary British rifle in use during WW1. It eventually replaced both the long infantry rifle and the cavalry carbine, and became know as the No.1 rifle.
WW1 saw extensive use of the hand grenade. This was adapted for firing from the service rifle, a use which vastly increased its range from a maximum 30 metres when lobbed by hand, to 200-300 metres. Various adapters were fitted to rifles for this purpose, the ultimate being the grenade cup.
Building on the experience acquired in use of the Short Magazine Lee Enfield in WW1, and the bottlenecks that accumulated in the production process, the rifle was redesigned to make it more accurate and better suited to mass production. This led to the introduction of the No.4 rifle. By the end of WW2, this weapon was standard issue to the British forces. The Indians and Australians, however, continued to use their locally manufactured No.1 rifles.
Th requirements of the jungle warfare in South East Asia that followed WW2 led to the rebirth of the carbine into the British Army. This was known as the No.5 rifle, or more popularly as the 'Jungle Carbine'. Despite being initially popular, this design was not entirely successful.
The British and Australians continued to use their .303 rifles into the middle 1950s. In South Africa they were issued to the Commandos into the 1970s. India continued to manufacture the Short Magazine Lee Enfield in the more powerful 7,62 calibre until about 1967, and used it well into the 1980s. However, the prize for longevity goes to the British L42 A1 sniping rifle, a version of the No.4, which remained in service until the early 1990s. The basic Lee design served the British for more than 100 years.
During and since WW2 the British serviceman has used a variety of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, ranging from the Sten Gun to its replacement, the Sterling. The standard infantry weapon is now the SA80 'Bull Pup', which has an optical sight and a long barrel. The magazine is forward of the pistol grip and the butt which contains the action. The general-purpose machine gun in use is the British version of a Belgium design. The elite SAS use the M16 rifle among other weapons.
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EYEWITNESS: A HISTORY OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY IN SOUND
Published by BBC Audiobooks Ltd, under the BBC Radio Collection label.
Eyewitness provides a rare and fascinating opportunity to hear the events of the century described by those who saw them happen. A wealth of BBC archive recordings, some never previously broadcast, is interwoven with an illuminating commentary by the historian Joanna Bourke. Published in ten volumes, Eyewitness examines the role and the life of the British people in each decade of the century.
The series is being launched in South Africa in June and starts with Eyewitness 1900 - 1909 (on 3 CDs)
The 1900s began with British troops at war in South Africa, and here soldiers of all ranks recall their part in the action. Whilst the death of Queen Victoria cast a sombre mood over the nation, Edward VII restored a sense of optimism and gaiety. For some life was lived on a lavish scale, but there was also great poverty, and the decade ended on a note of violence with suffragette militancy and political upheaval.
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Thought-provoking and moving, these are the voices of the past speaking to the present.
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THE SOUND OF HISTORY IN THE MAKING
On 6 June, 1944, D-Day became the largest seaborne invasion in modern history - and one of the world's most tightly kept secrets. This CD brings together despatches from the BBC war correspondents who brought up-to-the minute graphic descriptions of the events to the listening public.
From the eve of D-Day, to the naval bombardment and the seaborne landings on Normandy, and then on to the ringing bells of a newly-liberated church, these momentous events are described - as they happen - in rich and vivid detail from the experienced BBC reporters who braved the frontline to record history in the making.
Robin Duff describes the tense atmosphere from onboard ship as H-Hour approaches; Chester Wilmot dramatically recounts the landing of glider troops on French soil; Colin Wills prepares to disembark; and Richard Dimbleby surveys the armada from a Mosquito as it flies over the invasion beach-head.
Including reports from land, sea and air, as well as the Normandy beaches, this is a unique collection - now on CD for the first time - that reveals the courage of those who were part of the invasion force, and of those who documented it.
D-Day Despatches: 1 CD. Recommended retail selling price: R 189,95
Special offer to members of the South African Military History Society: R 169,95
Published by BBC Audiobooks Ltd under the BBC Radio Collection label.
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