His funeral was held on October 27th. After a short service, a Memorial Gathering for George was held at the Museum. We have asked anyone who wishes to remember him in a formal way to send donations to the Society, via Joan Marsh, our Treasurer. Monies raised will be used to endow a bequest to the new Library at the Museum in his name, as we feel that this is the way he would like to be commemorated.
George's contribution to the Military History Society over many years was considerable, both as Chairman, and Committee member, as well as an entertaining and knowledgeable lecturer. But his major contribution was as our faithful Scribe, and his passing leaves a gap that will be very hard to fill.
The curtain raiser at the Society's 13th October meeting was given by committee member Marjorie Dean. It was entitled "Major General R E Urquhart, CB, DSO "Urquhart of Arnhem".
Robert Elliott Urquhart was born in 1901, in London, the son of a Scottish doctor. As a boy, he attended St Paul's School in London, and decided to follow a career as a soldier, gaining a scholarship to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) in 1920, served with the HLI in the pre-war years, doing duty in Ireland and in Malta. After two years at Sandhurst, he went to India's Northwest frontier as Staff Captain of the 1st Abbottabad Gurkha Infantry Brigade, when he met and married Pamela Condon, daughter of an Indian Army family. He was in India when war broke out, but in September 1940 returned to Britain, taking up a Staff appointment with Montgomery's 5th Corps as Chief Administrative Staff Officer of 3rd Division.
In December 1940 he was given command of 2nd Battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, where his main task was to restore morale after Dunkirk. In March 1942 he was back with the HLI as Chief of Staff, and shortly thereafter embarked with them for North Africa. His arrival coincided with that of Montgomery, and the HLI saw much hard fighting with the regiment in North Africa, and then Sicily and Italy, where he commanded 231st Malta Infantry Brigade Group. He was wounded and gained a DSO and bar.
Posted back to Britain as Brigadier General Staff to XII Corps, he was then, to his surprise, summoned to take command of 1st Airborne Division on 7th January 1944, and his unassuming manner and professionalism soon earned their respect.
Over the months in 1944 various airborne operations were planned and then discarded, until Operation Market Garden was decided upon. This was to take vital bridges over the Rhine and, in Montgomery's words, "race across Europe and end the war by Christmas". It was to be a three-stage "roll-up" operation, and Arnhem was the final stage. Urquhart and his men paid the price for hasty planning and lack of equipment. His summing up was that "We were alone for much longer than any airborne force is designed to stay".
In May 1945, he and his men accepted the surrender of Norway by the Germans, and in November the 1st Airborne was disbanded. After the war Urquhart went back to a desk job, then served two years in Malaya at the height of the Emergency there. His skills were used to disguise a military operation as a civilian operation, in line with political demands at the time. His last command was in Austria, as GOC British troops from 1952 - 1955, when he retired from the army, and took up a civilian position with an engineering company. He was by then Colonel of the HLI, but resigned when the regiment was amalgamated into the Royal Highland Fusiliers, and no longer allowed to wear the kilt.
Roy Urquhart died in 1988, aged 87. His career can be perhaps best summed up in the words of General Sir John Hackett - "That brave imperturbable fighting Scot, the best battlefield commander I fought under in all the war years".
Ken Gillings, long-serving committee member and Past Chairman of the Durban branch, gave the main lecture of the evening on "What really happened at Vlakfontein?". An acknowledged expert on Anglo-Boer War battles, Ken's talk was lavishly illustrated by his own photographs and original research.
Ken recounted the events of the guerrilla stage of the Anglo-Boer War, with General Lord Methuen concentrating his efforts in trying to capture General Koos de la Rey. This concentration of troops in the south meant that General Jan Kemp was able to operate fairly easily in the north of the Western Transvaal, particularly in the Swartruggens area. This posed a threat to Brigadier General H J Dixon, who was encamped in the Naaupoort area of the Magaliesberg, based at Tafelkop, between Koster and Lichtenburg.
On 26th May, Dixon set out with a force of 450 men to clear farms and search for hidden guns on the farm Waterval near Vlakfontien, in the vicinity of present-day Derby. The next day they removed women and children from two farms, before making camp at Vlakfontein.
Kemp had by then laagered at Waterval with about 400 burghers, including his scouts, members of the Staatsartillerie (without guns) and men from the Krugersdorp, Pretoria and Rustenburg commandos. They had buried some of their remaining guns to give them increased mobility. At 05h30 on 29th May 1901, Dixon set out with three columns to recover these guns; the left was led by Maj. J H Chance, the right by Lt Col Duff of the 8th Hussars (commanding the Scottish Horse) and the centre by Col Wylly. Their search proved fruitless, and because it was late Dixon decided to return to camp.
Kemp had believed he was to be attacked, and decided to attack the British! Chance and Duff came under sniper fire on the ridges. When the British attempted to arrange their defence, Kemp's men, under cover of a veld fire they had started, charged straight though Chance's rearguard, mainly inexperienced members of the Imperial Yeomanry, who suffered heavy casualties, and the Boers overran their two guns. Dixon ordered Duff to reinforce Chance, who had returned to the action with the men of 1st Derbyshire Regiment. On Chance's Ridge, the Derbys and what remained of the Yeomanry charged the Boers with fixed bayonets. The Boers galloped off and the British retrieved their guns. The British suffered heavy casualties (6 officers and 51 other ranks killed) while only seven burghers died on the field, and two others later from wounds. Kemp's new strategy of lightning strikes behind a smokescreen had been extremely effective.
The controversy about the action concerns allegations that some Boers had shot wounded British soldiers. Gillings quoted statements, based on eyewitness accounts made in the Times History of the War and After Pretoria - The Guerilla War. Parliament was told that Lord Kitchener had denied the truth of these statements. Kitchener later confirmed the shootings, but his confirmation was at first suppressed. A war correspondent (Edgar Wallace) threatened to expose the truth, and he was in turn threatened with unspecified punishment.
Ken Gillings perused the diary of Pioneer Thomas Warburton of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, which revealed an allegation of Boer killing of wounded soldiers. It seems that Kitchener was at the time involved in negotiations for the surrender of Boer leaders and did not want to jeopardise their outcome by revealing such critical comments. His later confirmation followed the collapse of these negotiations.
General Dixon's report to Lord Kitchener, which Ken Gillings received from the KOSB Museum in Berwick upon Tweed, denied the allegation of atrocities. In view of the rumours, Dixon had called for written accounts from his men, which were collated by Major Chance. They denied that Boers had shot the wounded, but an eyewitness described the death of wounded Lt. Spring of the Yeomanry. Spring was wounded and being tended by his sergeant. When the Boers attempted to capture them, the sergeant retrieved a carbine hidden under the recumbent Spring and shot three Boers. Spring and the sergeant were promptly shot.
The mystery of the allegations remains, but it became clear by the end of the talk that a vicious battle of words developed between the British Government and the Daily Mail (Edgar Wallace was their correspondent). The House of Commons proposed a motion that the editor of the Daily Mail be summoned to the bar of the House.
Whatever the truth, the town of Derby, apparently named after the Derbyshire regiment, remains a lasting memorial to the men who bravely retook the guns and rescued the surviving Yeomanry, saying "Here comes 1/3d a day to save 5/- a day!"
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