South African Military History Society

P.O. BOX 12926


Our Society's 28th Annual General Meeting on 8th April 2004 was not as well attended as one could have hoped for. Only 30 Members were present. The Hon. Treasurer, Bob Buser, once again reported our finances in a sound state, enabling the Committee to keep branch subscriptions low. Our Hon. Auditor, Geoffrey Mangin, was again confirmed in his position, as were all serving Committee Members.

Chairman: Derek O'Riley
Vice Chairman/Scribe: John Mahncke
Hon.Treasurer: Bob Buser
Members: Major Tony Gordon, Johan van den Berg, Commander Mac Bissett

Our Branch has 105 Full and Associate Members.

Anyone wishing to obtain a copy of the audited 2003 Balance Sheet, is asked to contact Bob Buser at 021-689-1639.

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The evening lecture was given by Fellow Member Stan Lambrick who spoke about a dramatic segment of the Vietnam War.

Between 21st January and 31st March 1968, the South Vietnamese village of Khe Sanh became the site of one of the most fiercely fought battles, and possibly the most publicised of the whole Vietnam war. 6 000 US marines held out against a besieging force of the North Vietnamese Army, numbering 20 000, for more than 70 days and nights. The area around Khe Sanh combat base became one of the most heavily bombed places on earth.

After their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French signed a peace agreement with the communist Viet Minh, dividing Vietnam into north and south, with the northern part being governed by the communists, while the Republican south was supported by the US. But the communist leader Ho Chi Minh never gave up in his determination to unite both parts of Vietnam, and sent his troops south from 1959 onwards via the "Ho Chi Minh Trail". They were called the Viet Cong, numbering 6 000 trained soldiers among an insurgent force of some 400 000. However, in the beginning they merely carried out nuisance attacks.

This was the time of the "Cold War" during which the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was transformed into a world class fighting force, a fact that worried the US military. By contrast, in the south there was government chaos, social dissatisfaction and a corrupt political system, with the US government wishing to hold the 17th parallel dividing the country, against communist expansion. In due course they sent groups of military advisors to assist.

When, in August 1964, a North Vietnamese patrol boat attacked US destroyer "Maddox" in the Tonkin Gulf, President Johnson retaliated by ordering the bombing of North Vietnamese coastal facilities which was an unofficial declaration of war. The North Vietnamese retaliated, and in early 1965 the US Operation "Rolling Thunder" began with aircraft bombing missions which were to last for the next three years. On the ground the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) were attacking newly built air bases defended by South Vietnamese, but the Americans decided to defend their own military bases, and thus the Marines arrived to defend the base at Danang in March 1965.

In order to interrupt Viet Cong supplies and men moving to the south, defensive fortifications were erected along the enemy supply route, the infamous "Ho Chi Minh Trail", on a number of hill tops, one of which was Khe Sanh. Over the next few months, Khe Sanh turned into an important guard post, from where aggressive patrols were conducted to the surrounding areas.

In December 1967 it became clear that the NVA planned a major offensive through the Khe Sanh plateau and into the south, and the base was thoroughly strengthened by howitzers and tanks. They were to hold the high ground and be supplied by helicopter.

In January 1968 fighting escalated quickly and brutally, a NVA rocket attack with devastating results rained on Khe Sanh and the 70-day-siege had begun. But a necessary rescue plan for Khe Sanh had to be put on hold because the Tet Offensive had started against cities in the central highlands, many provincial capitals and even key towns near Saigon. Khe Sanh would have to hold out while being supplied from the air.

For the next few weeks life became hell for the Marines. Not only did they have to fight a determined enemy who showered the base with artillery of any kind and calibre, but they had to endure Monsoon conditions too. Everything was wet, damp and rotting. Rats were constant companions.

The NVA attacked a dozen different targets. The runways at Khe Sanh had to be repaired every day, artillery barrages were conducted on a scale never before experienced by either side. Still, Khe Sanh held out. The ground around the perimeter was one massive moon landscape, covered by bomb craters.

But despite every effort of the NVA, the Tet offensive failed in the end due to the massive US air power, with the US bombers dropping the equivalent of 10 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs in explosive and napalm bombs around the area, and after 77 days, in early April, enemy attacks faded and the garrison of Khe Sanh was relieved.

The NVA techniques that had succeeded at Dien Bien Phu under French command, failed. Thus the battle of Khe Sanh was a major victory for the US forces. The Marines left their position on 5th July 1968, and Operation "Charlie", the defence of Khe Sanh, was over.

The losses suffered by both sides were truly horrific, but no numbers of dead, wounded or crippled can adequately express the cost of the war - for each fatality represents agonizing grief to millions of loved ones.

Stan Lambrick's extremely well researched exposition in his usual fluent style was greatly appreciated by the audience.

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Members will recall the talk by Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Grose KBE RN in August last year on the naval aspect of the 1982 Falklands War. Last month we were privileged to listen to a further talk on the land operations by Colonel "Tom" Seccombe CBE, Royal Marines. He was appointed at a few hours notice as Deputy Commander of 3 Commando Brigade, consisting of 40, 42 and 45 Commando, 2 and 3 Para, as well as many other supporting units. He sketched the history of the Islands and the unexpected Argentine military build-up, with General Gautieri landing troops on the Islands and declaring them Argentinian territory. Fortunately, the First Sea Lord, Sir Henry Leach, convinced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that a military counterstrike was possible and that he could form a suitable naval force within 48 hours. And thus Operation "Corporate" began.

Col Seccombe joined SS Canberra, which was rapidly converted to a troopship at Southampton. Officers and men were delighted by the ship's spaciousness, which made going to war rather comfortable. At Ascension Island they joined other ships of the invasion fleet, and numerous discussions on the tactics took place. They did not have air superiority. They also had to transfer troops, including their 40 kg (85 lbs) packs, to other ships at sea. Stanley, the islands' capital, was considered as a point of landing, but the beaches at San Carlos were much better suited to an amphibious landing, preferably at night, and this was accepted. The approach of the fleet, however, had to be done by day in the face of probable aircraft attacks by Exocet missiles.

D-Day was set for the 21st May. Luckily it was a miserable 20th of May, weatherwise, ideal for the approach. And the armada sailed on in a tight box formation to reach Falkand Sound unseen around midnight in perfect sea conditions. Still, it took long to unload, which forced the second wave to land in daylight. Unloading proceeded as fast as possible, especially the Rapier Air Defence Batteries that were needed to defend the troops against enemy aircraft. Argentine aircraft pounced at midday but did not attack the big ships, rather they went for the naval craft. Luckily, many of their 450 kg (1 000 lbs) bombs failed to explode because they were dropped so low they did not have time to arm themselves. But the losses in ships were serious during the week it took the fleet to complete the landing. For instance, the ammunition ship Elk, vulnerable on account of the enormous load she carried, only remained in San Carlos waters four hours each night and stayed well offshore during daylight.

The invasion forces moved inland, with the first big battle to the south at Goose Green, where 2 Para acquitted themselves well, but Lt. Col. Jones, the CO, was killed in action (for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross). The next move was to the east to Douglas and Teal inland, which was done by "yomping". There was heavy fighting for Mounts Kent, Longdon and Tumbledown, in bitterly cold conditions and mostly at night.

Logistics was a nightmare due to the shortage of helicopters. Fortunately, enemy aircraft seldom appeared. To the south 5 (Commando) Brigade joined the attack. Some of the Argentinians fought well but in the end it became clear that the enemy, mostly young conscripts, were beaten and on 14th June Argentinian forces under General Mendez surrendered.

The Commando Brigade was proof of what well trained and fit men can achieve when always working together, even under adverse weather conditions. It was certainly no "picnic". Britain lost about 255 men killed and many more wounded.

Using maps and pictures, Colonel Seccombe gave us a vivid, very personal and entertaining talk, using British understatement to great effect. The full-house audience certainly appreciated it.

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P.A. System: Fellow member Geoffrey Mangin has advised the Society that he would like to retire from his post as PA Operator, which he has filled so admirably, and hand over to someone else. Anyone interested is asked to contact the Scribe.

Subscriptions: There are a few subscriptions still outstanding. Would members, who have not yet paid, kindly do so.


10th June 2004
1944 - YEAR OF DECISION (An Airborne Perspective)
The high-tide of airborne operations from its inception until today.
Illustrated talk by Johan van den Berg
8th July 2004
Speaker: Flight Lieutenant VR Denzil Cochrane (Rhodesian Air Force)
12th Aug 2004
Speaker: Rodney Warwick
9th Sept 2004
Speaker: Carl Hegaard
14th Oct 2004
He fought for Freedom - An illustrated talk.
Speaker: Simon Norton
11th Nov 2004
To be advised
December 2004
In recess
The above Programme may change due to unforeseen circumstances.

Meetings are held on the 2nd Thursday of each month, except December, at 8 pm (20:00) in the Recreation Room of the SA LEGION'S ROSEDALE COMPLEX, Lower Nursery Road (off Alma Road), opposite Rosebank Railway Station, below the line.

All Visitors welcome. Tea and biscuits will be served.

Jochen (John) Mahncke (Vice-Chairman/Scribe) (021) 797-5167

South African Military History Society /