South African Military History Society


December 2004

PAST EVENTS: The November meeting fell on Thursday 11th November, the 86th anniversary of the signing of the armistice, which ended the 1st World War in 1918. For that reason there were 2 Society meetings on that day, starting with the annual Armistice Day meeting in the morning at The MOTH'S and ending with the normal monthly meeting in the evening. At 1030 hours, 26 members met in the splendid surroundings of Warriors Gate for what was the 10th anniversary of these annual meetings with the MOTH'S, as they first started in 1994. Our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, spoke about how the London Cenotaph was created as the first monument to Remembrance, how and when it was built, when it was formally opened and how it led to many similar structures being built around the world, including the famous Cenotaph in Durban. He finished in time for the 2-minute silence at 1100 hours. After the silence we moved to the ground floor for sandwiches and refreshments, and agreement was reached by all who attended just how important this ceremony has become as part of the Society's annual Remembrance for The Fallen in all Wars.

11 November is also the anniversary of the birthday of General George Patton, and for the 6th year Professor Mike Laing gave the November DDH on an aspect of the career of Patton. This year, given the date, his subject was most apt as he spoke to the meeting on General George Patton in World War I. Our speaker started with a summary of Patton's early life, going from his birth in California in 1885 - his marriage to Beatrice in May 1910 (a very wealthy lady) and his honeymoon in the United Kingdom and France. Reference was made to his joining the US army, his participation in the 1912 Olympics, and his trip to the French army at Samur in 1913, which gave him the chance to tour Normandy where he was to make such an impact in 1944. In 1915 Patton was posted to Fort Bliss, where the C.O. was General Pershing who was later to be made Commander in Chief of the USA forces when they joined World War 1 in 1917. In 1916 Patton went on an expedition to Mexico before returning to camp in Texas. On 6 April 1917 the USA declared war on Germany and at the age of 32 years Captain Patton sailed to France on 28 May, arriving in London on 9 June and finally in France on 13 June. On 7 July he had dinner at the HQ of Field Marshall Haig before arriving at the USA HQ at Chaumont (250 kms from Paris) on 31 August 1917.

Earlier in the year he had written to his wife bemoaning the fact that in the first 6 years of their marriage he had been away for 2 and a half years on military service, an aspect of a military career that is frequently overlooked.

At this stage of the war, tanks were being introduced and this new military technology was to become a major influence on the career of Patton. The first major tank battle took place at Cambrai on 20 November, when 300 British tanks attacked German positions but, in Patton's view, without the opportunity being properly exploited. Patton was now promoted to Major and having been ordered to set up a tank training school at Langres, he visited the French tank school in November and in December he met J.F.C. Fuller, who was considered to be the brains behind the concept of the tank. Tanks and their use now became the dominant factor in his life as he travelled widely, training and lecturing on tanks and how they should be used. The first US tank manoeuvre took place on 23 April 1918 and in May they went into battle in support of French infantry. Promotion followed for Patton and in August 1918 he was made Commander of the 1st Tank Brigade at the time of the battles on the St Mihiel salient, where Patton made such a great name for himself in terms of both tactics and bravery. He also met Douglas McArthur, one of the future greats in the USA Army and Harry Truman a future US President, before getting involved in a number of battles and getting wounded for the first time near Cheppy in September 1918 and winning his first medal for bravery. His direct C.O., General Rockenbach called Patton "mercurial" and "impulsive" when in battle and criticised him "for not staying at his HQ and being all over the field" In his summary, Mike Laing compared that with the attitude and approach to Field Marshall Erwin Rommel - not as a criticism but as high and justifiable praise.

Our Deputy Chairman, Bill Brady, gave the MAIN talk on The Battle of The River Plate. This was also an apt talk as it was the first naval battle of World War II - in December 1939 - and bears a remarkable similarity to the first naval battle of World War I. The River Plate was described by our speaker as a "classic" naval battle which centred on the German Pocket Battleship Graf Spee and the role it had played in attacking merchant shipping in the southern Atlantic. The Graf Spee was a new warship design; it had 6 x 11-inch guns, 8 x 5.9-inch guns and was capable of 26 knots with a wide radius of action. She left port in August 1939, before the declaration of war, and sailed secretly to the South American shipping routes. Once war was declared she camouflaged her appearance and successfully deceived merchantmen into thinking that she was a French heavy cruiser, with the result that 9 ships were sunk, totalling 50,000 tons. Fortunately some of sinking merchant ships managed to transmit distress signals, which alerted the Admiralty that a pocket battleship was at large. As a result a Naval Squadron (Force G) consisting of the heavy cruiser Exeter and the light cruisers Ajax and Achilles were sent to intercept the Graf Spee. To throw off her pursuers, the Graf Spee headed to the Indian Ocean, where she sank a British oil tanker in the Mozambique Channel. On receiving a message that he had been spotted, Captain Langsdorff - the captain of the Graf Spee - decided to return to the Atlantic Ocean and what he expected to be rich pickings off the coast of South America. However Commodore Henry Harwood, the commander of Force G, expected this move and decided to patrol the River Plate region although he knew that the taller Graff Spee would see his force before he could spot any approach by the German ship.

Force G was seen on 13 December 1939, but with his spotter plane out of action, Langsdorff mistakenly assumed that he had seen light vessels escorting a convoy. Once he realised his error, Langsdorff realised that action was unavoidable and so ordered battle stations and headed at full speed towards the British Force G. By doing so he would expose his ship to a naval battle and so ignore his strict orders not to engage enemy warships. It was to be a battle between the German weight of guns and armour and the British advantage of numbers and manoeuvrability with a British advantage of 3 ships against 1. To make the most of his numerical advantage, Harwood immediately deployed his ships to split the German fire, by sending the Exeter from one side and the 2 light cruisers to the other side. To counter this the Graf Spee prepared to engage all 3 ships at the same time, using its heavy guns against the Exeter and its secondary guns to the Ajax and Achilles. The initial attack on the Exeter caused great damage, and as the Graf Spee moved in for the final kill, the 2 light cruisers raced forwards with all guns blazing. This caused the Graf Spee to leave the Exeter and switch to this new attack, which allowed the Exeter to limp away southwards towards the Falklands. Damage to Force G continued and soon all the guns on Ajax were put out of order, but under cover of a smoke screen fired torpedoes at the Graf Spee, causing her to take avoiding action. This proved to be the turning point of the battle for as the Graf Spee turned away, Langsdorff seemed to lose heart and decided to break away from the 90-minute action, a decision that could be explained by his receiving 2 wounds and being knocked unconscious. His ship had taken 20 hits and lost 36 crew (many less than the British losses) and Langsdorff came to the conclusion that his ship was not sufficiently seaworthy to reach Germany and that he had to find shelter of the nearest neutral port, and that was Montevideo, to repair the damage.

To Langsdorff's dismay, Uruguay was a neutral country whose sympathies lay with the allies, and under international law a maximum stay of 24 hours was imposed. This was extended to a maximum of 72 hours, which was much less than the minimum of 2 weeks that the Germans needed to complete the repairs. Now intense British diplomatic manoeuvres, combined with false and misleading reports, led Langsdorff to believe that he was trapped and that his only options were internment, to scuttle his ship or to fight out to the open sea against what he thought to be a much superior force. Langsdorff addressed his crew and told them that he was not prepared to sacrifice their lives in a senseless sea battle. On 17 December 1939, with a huge crowd watching from the shore, the Graf Spee slowly moved out of Montevideo harbour and was scuttled - a fine ship had come to an ignominious end. The crew were disembarked, taken to Buenos Aires where they were interned for the rest of the war. Three days later Captain Langsdorff, dressed in full uniform and wrapped in the Imperial German flag that he had fought under at Jutland, shot himself. In a final summary Bill Brady successfully attempted the difficult task of examining the personality and character of Captain Langsdorff and the various reasons why he did not complete the battle, why the battle ended as it did and why he committed suicide.

After a number of questions on the summary issues raised by Bill Brady, fellow member Don Ente thanked both speakers for bringing our official year of talks to such a successful end.




We should all be excited by the speakers we have for our first meeting in 2005. For what is possibly the first time in our history we have 2 distinguished overseas speakers on the same evening, and they are a husband and wife team.

The MAIN talk will be given by Dr. STEPHEN BADSEY, an eminent British historian and a well-known expert on his subject for the evening, THE BATTLEFIELDS OF NORMANDY. Among other appointments, Dr Badsey is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of War Studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He has had over 50 works published on military history, including the Osprey History of the Battle of Normandy and his last 2 books, published in 2004 to mark the 60th anniversary, were on Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, the 2 beaches where the American's landed on D-Day in 1944.

He works regularly on British TV and radio, and as an example, for those of you who watched the commemorations to mark the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem on Sky News last year, Dr Badsey was the military expert in the studio.

His wife, Dr PHILOMENA BADSEY will give a talk on THE LIFE OF VERA BRITTAIN. Vera Brittain was just 18 years old when World War 1 was declared and instead of going on to Oxford University she volunteered as a nurse and spent 3 years on the Western Front. During this time her fiancé, her brother and her 2 other closest male friends were all killed in the war and she wrote a considerable amount of poetry in response. When the war was over she wrote a highly acclaimed book on her war experiences and this will be an opportunity to listen to the life of a little known personality of the Great War.

Your committee is delighted that we will be able to welcome such famous speakers to the Society and we hope that as many members as possible will be able to attend this important evening.

THE ANNUAL DINNER - December 2004

The Annual Dinner was held in a Private Room in the Cotton Fields Restaurant in Umhlanga Rocks, on 9 December 2004. 48 members and partners attended and if, for once, we have to admit that the food did not live up to the quality of recent years, we can admit that we all enjoyed a most convivial evening. Piper Thomas Fuller, entertained us with his usual skill - he certainly adds greatly to the atmosphere of our annual dinner - and as always, thanks are extended to Bill Brady for all the work he did in planning and organising the evening.


Subscriptions for 2005 are now due. Single Membership has been increased by R10 to R130 per year, but Family Membership (for a maximum of 2 members of the same family) has stayed unchanged at R140 per year. Please send your subscription ASAP to Joan Marsh in Johannesburg, or directly into the Society account at FNB Bank, Bruma Lake Branch, A/c 50391928346, Branch code, 25-66-55, Name South African Military History Society


We offer our heartiest congratulations to 2 of members of our Society, one an individual and the other a Society, on being honoured at the recent Annual Amafa/Heritage KwaZulu - Natal Awards ceremony, for the following reasons:

To: Dr Eugene Campher, of Ladysmith, for voluntary work on improving the condition of memorials and cemeteries on the Platrand/Wagon Hill site, as well as elsewhere in the Thukela region

To: The Ladysmith Historical Society, for heritage conservation and the promotion of local history.

Well done to all those honoured but particularly to those who are members of our Society.


During the introductions to the November 2004 meeting, we invited David Fox to mention the celebration plans being made for the 150th anniversary of the founding of Fort Nottingham. A full report on David Fox's comments is repeated later on in this newsletter.
The suggestion is that all members make a note of the date and plan to bring as many friends and family to the Fort Nottingham Anniversary Fete on Sunday 13th March 2005 in Fort Nottingham, next to the remains of the original fort. Celebrations include the unveiling of a commemorative plaque by an officer of the Sherwood Foresters, and entertainment by the Pietermaritzburg Pipe Band, the Natal Carbineers, a camp re-enactment by the Oranje Vrystaat Artillerie Corps and the SA Miniature Cannon Club, plus wagon rides, archery, face painting, craft stalls and an antique road-show where family heirlooms can be evaluated.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES : February 2005 - April 2005

10 February 05
DDH Peter Zeeman - I Was Under the Bombs Dropped by Edwin Swales
MAIN Paul Kilmartin - 60th Anniversary of the Death of Edwin Swales
10 March 05
DDH Dave Matthews - The Diary of a Military Photographer - Durban 1899
MAIN Frank Bullen - No Scarlet - No Bearskin. A Guardsman in Battledress
14 April 05
DDH Bill Brady - The Death of Adolf Hitler
MAIN Dr. Gus Allen - The Spanish Armada 2: The Naval Battles

20 JANUARY 2005



In the 1800s, when the Bushmen encountered Zulus who were returning to the Midlands after the decimation of Shaka's wars and the displacement of the Mfecane, and the white settlers, newly arrived from across the seas, it was case of cultures clashing.

The white and Zulu settlers treasured their cattle, but thought nothing of hunting across the whole region, the white hunters often killing animals far in excess of what they could use. To the Bushmen, game belonged to all men, and they hunted only for food, not trophies. Each band of Bushmen had their own recognised hunting ground, and rights over this land were absolute, with hunting by others equivalent to a declaration of war. When the white settlers started to shoot out the game in the Midlands area, their cattle and horses were 'fair game' as far as the Bushmen were concerned.

At the urging of the Midlands settlers, in 1856 the British government decided to establish a garrison at what was to become known as Fort Nottingham after the Nottinghamshire 45th Regiment (the First Sherwood Foresters), who were sent there to protect the settlers and their livestock from Bushmen raids. The soldiers were empowered to pursue the cattle thieves, recapture any animals found and take the necessary punitive action. Although there are no records of the Fort Nottingham garrison having actually killed any Bushmen in these raids, a number of Bushmen were killed in retaliatory raids by Zulu and white settlers. By 1870, as the Midlands became more developed and more densely settled, the Bushmen raids had largely stopped, but no one thought to make peace with the few remaining Bushmen.

Now, for the first time, a gesture of reconciliation will take place at the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Fort Nottingham in March 2005. The reconciliation of the British and the Bushmen will be represented by Brigadier David Keenan OBE, Military Attaché, UK High Commission, Pretoria, and one of the last known living mountain Bushmen, Kerrick Ntusi.

Kerrick Ntusi is believed to be about 94 years old, and appeared on a television show about the San Bushmen that was put together by Frans Prins, an anthropologist and archaeologist who has specialised in the study of the mountain Bushmen. When asked if he would be happy to take part in the 150th anniversary celebrations, Kerrick replied that he would be.

The handshake came about when, at a meeting of the UK High Commission in Pretoria in October this year, David Fox of Fort Nottingham, one of the organisers of the anniversary celebrations, talked to Brigadier Keenan about the history of Fort Nottingham and the 150th anniversary. When David mentioned that they were hoping to have Kerrick attend on the day, the Brigadier immediately said that 'he would very much like to be present at the ceremony, and to shake Kerrick's hand as a symbol of reconciliation and friendship'.

The organisers of the anniversary fête, taking place at Fort Nottingham on

Sunday 13th March 2005

light-heartedly note that 'Kerrick will not be expected to return the 2287 cattle and 400 horses that the Bushman stole in their raids into Natal, a fact that caused Kerrick much relief'. Poignantly and with more than a touch of irony, the aged Bushman asked when he could expect the herds of eland to return.

Please make a note of the date and attend this unusual and important moment in local history.

South African Military History Society /