South African Military History Society


The title of the curtain raiser at the 9 September Society lecture meeting was 'Anzio Annie, The Story of a Gun'. Speaker Louis Wildenboer explained how the age-old artillery doctrine that the longest arm had the hardest punch gave rise to a family of guns with extreme range. They included famous names such as Long Tom, Atomic Annie, Heavy Gustaf, Long Max, and the most famous of all, Anzio Annie.

Germany was building on its experience in WW1 when it began designing a new generation of heavy artillery weapons in the 1920s. The requirements of mass and size dictated that this new type of gun should be railway mounted, a form by then regarded as obsolete. Thus the K12E series, where K=Kanone and E=Eisenbahn, was designed to fire to 120km, while the K5 would reach 50km. The most successful gun of the series was the K5E, a total of 21 being built in the late 1930s. It derived its popular name from its achievements in action against the Anzio amphibious landing in Italy in early 1944.

Anzio Annie's statistics were impressive. A calibre of 280mm was combined with a barrel length of 21,5m. The overall length of the gun and mounting was 41,2m with a mass in action of 218t. The mass of the shell fired, with a muzzle velocity of 1128m/sec (Mach 3,3) was 200kg while its maximum range was 63km with HE shells. The rate of fire was 15 rounds per hour. The first use of these guns was against the English coast and the town of Dover from the Calais area in France.

The Anzio saga began in January 1944 when 35 000 allied troops were put ashore behind the German lines at Cassino. Their number was soon increased to 50 000. For a while the only opposition was mounted by 10 000 unprepared Germans, soon increased to 60 000.They were also supplemented by a battery of two 'Annies' which the Germans knew as Leopold and Robert.

The disadvantages of camouflaging railway guns was overcome by using a convenient tunnel located on a branch line 30km from the landings and thus out of range of allied artillery. Various decoys were also arranged to distract the allied air forces. From 5 February to the end of April 1944, when the Annies were forced to leave their hideout, they fired a total of 5 523 shells on to ammunition and fuel dumps, landing and supply ships, and troops on the beaches.

The damage done can never be measured accurately. But their work certainly contributed handsomely to the disappointing performance of the landings. The end came when fighter bombers eventually discovered the guns' lair. They were successfully evacuated to Civiaveccia before it was decided there was no alternative to spiking. Two days later they were successfully bombed. Their lair, the tunnel, was eventually destroyed with 2 270kg 'Tallboy' bombs dropped by long-range RAF Lancasters.

The main lecture of the evening was given by Paul Kilmartin, chairman of the KZN/Natal branch of the Society. His talk, entitled 'Why the Poppy? Why Remember?' explained why 11th November is commemorated as Armistice Day and why the poppy has become its symbol.

The First World War began 90 years ago this year when, on 28 July 1914, Austria-Hungary attacked the independent Balkan country of Serbia in retaliation for the assassination in Sarajevo some weeks before of the heir to the Empire's throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Serbs enlisted the help of their Russian allies, while Austria-Hungary called for support from their ally, Germany. Russia's alliance with France involved that country, while Britain's adherence to her guarantee of Belgium's neutrality, pledged in 1830, brought her into the conflict when the Germans invaded Belgium in order to attack France. The scene was set for 'The Great War', the 'War to end all wars'.

A British Expeditionary Force made contact with the advancing Germans at the Belgium town of Mons. But the momentum of the attack drove the British back until they were able to supplement the French defence of Paris at the First Battle of the Marne. As both sides dug in, the trench lines spread from the Channel coast to the Swiss frontier, and subsequent titanic battles, such as those at Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele did little to break the stalemate for another four years. Millions of men from a host of nations, including South Africa, died in the bloody struggle. Altogether it is estimated that 9,5 million lives were lost in the Great War, although the Russians had no accurate figures.

The end came at 11am Greenwich Mean Time, on 11 November 1918 following the signing by German representatives of armistice terms in a French railway carriage three days previously. Germany had suffered a series of military defeats, a naval mutiny, and political upheavals on the home front. But the allies had suffered heavily too, and their sense of gratitude for their victory was profound. It was only to be expected that thought should turn to how it could be fittingly commemorated.

The inspiration behind the establishment of permanent commemoration came from the well-know South African Percy Fitzpatrick, in a letter to that other remembered name in South African history, Alfred Lord Milner, by then Colonial Secretary in the British Government. Fitzpatrick had lost a son in the Battle of the Somme.

It was finally decided between the French and the British to commemorate Armistice Day by two minutes of complete silence at 11am on 11 November with the humble poppy as its symbol. Poppies had grown in profusion on the devastated battlefield. But it was the artificial flower, made by disabled veterans of the war, that has come to symbolise the gratitude and desire to remember of those left behind to those who made the supreme sacrifice.

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The newly established Eastern Cape branch of the Society was inaugurated on 9 September 2004 under the facilitation of Malcolm Kinghorn. Initial attendance was 30, and there is reason to believe that there is every opportunity for this to grow. The branch's programme for its next meeting is included below.

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Scribe, committee member and former National Chairman, George Barrell, has been awarded Honorary Life Membership for his extensive services to the Society.

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Someone paid R120 by direct deposit at the Northmead bank on 21 January. Someone else paid R120 at Northgate on 28 January. Please let the Treasurer know on (011) 648-1657 if you were either depositor!

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14 October
CR Marjorie Dean - Major-General 'Roy' Urquhart (of Arnhem)
ML Ken Gillings - What Really Happened at Vlakfontein: May 1901
11 November
CR Bob Smith - Ladysmith: The Battle of Waggon Hill January 1900
ML Colin Dean - 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered the World
Attendees at the Johannesburg lecture may buy raffle tickets at R10 each for a DVD entitled "The War in Colour". The draw will be made at the November meeting.


14 October
DDH Col. Pat Acutt - The Reserve Forces
ML Charles Whiting - The Dam Busters Raid: 16/17 May 1943

Cape Town

14 October
Simon Norton - Group Captain A G 'Sailor' Malan: He Fought for Freedom

Eastern Cape

14 October
CR Ken Stewart - Recent Visit to the So-Called Bridge on the River Kwai
ML Mike Duncan - History of the Prince Alfred's Guards as Depicted by Campaign Medals Awarded to Members of the Regiment

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

For KZN details contact Ingrid Machin (031) 201-3983
For Cape Town details contact John Mahncke (021) 797-5167
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn (041) 373-4469

This poem comes from a brochure used at the MOTH Remembrance service held at Curtis Park, Benoni on 14 November 2004

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