NEWSLETTER NO. 349
PAST EVENTS: The August meeting was the Society's annual "Base Visit" and this year we were the invited guests of 19 Field Engineer Regiment, based at Lord's Ground in The Old Fort Road, Durban.
Colonel Tex Westgate - the Commanding Officer of the regiment and his team of officers, gave us a very warm and friendly greeting, and the Honorary Colonel of the regiment, Colonel Derek Moe, endorsed this greeting. We started with drinks in the mess bar, as we signed in and mixed with members of the regiment, before finding our way to the regiment's main lecture hall.
Colonel Westgate then gave us a fascinating talk on the make up of the SADF and where and how the Reserve Forces fit into the overall strategy. He explained how in the modern SADF, each type of formation has its own identity and reports to its own HQ. In previous times all sectors of the armed forces reported into a brigade, and it was the brigade that was responsible for all arms including: motorised and mechanised infantry, armour, tanks and armoured cars, artillery, engineers, signals and much else besides and it was this framework that provided a composite fighting force. This has now changed into what our speaker described as the "silo' theory, which when applied to the engineers, meant that they were now responsible for their own structure, their own training and for being in the state of readiness as the military situations dictate. Within the Engineer silo, there are 2 arms - the full-time force and the reserve force - and all report into the one Engineer HQ. Although the "19th" is recognised as a reserve force unit it is also recognised as combat engineering regiment, an honour that means that they are the first standby to the regular engineers. They are the only regiment to be so recognised and it means that they have 1 field troop of 44 men ready for what is described as "extended deployment" - which is 6 months - and 3 field troops for "short term" deployment of 1 week.
To be ready for immediate deployment means that the officers and warrant officers of the regiment have to put strong emphasis on the recruitment of training of the troops, and this was covered in a later talk. Colonel Westgate also discussed the regimental mandate, which is to train and to maintain leaders only, in order to have the structure to allow the rapid expansion of the regiment to a full strength of over 700 men, with a ratio of 1 fully trained man in every 5 on the force. To put the training into perspective and to emphasise the quality needed by all members of the regiment, we were given a detailed explanation of the role of a combat engineer regiment by listing the kind of work they have to undertake.
In general terms this means "To enhance the mobility and survivability of South African forces and to deny the same to the enemy" by being able to carry out a formidable list of engineering tasks. Specifically this includes: laying and lifting of mines and booby traps, demolitions, water provision, building obstacles and defences, watermanship (operating ferries, high speed rubber ducks, etc) playing a secondary role to the infantry, providing combat lines of communications and the most important of all - and perhaps the most difficult of all - bridge building (both improvised and long term structures). It is doubtful if many members of the Society who attended the evening, were aware in advance of the size, capability and commitment that exists behind the bland outside wall of Lord's Ground. If they did nor before they certainly knew now, after this fascinating insight to the role of the regiment and its standing in the SADF. To achieve all this, great emphasis is put on recruitment and selection, and once that has been achieved the same intensity is put on training. Major Brian Dore spoke to us about the first of these important issues, recruitment and selection. He emphasised just how important it was to find the right people to achieve the mission of the regiment - people with the right aptitude and flexibility who can add value to the work of the regiment. Much of the recruitment was done by word of mouth, but a written application was required (this provided the first level of screening) and all applicants have to be between 18 - 25 years of age, and have either matric in maths and a science subject, or be accepted for a tertiary education, or have served an apprenticeship. What became clear to us all as Major Dore explained the policy of recruitment and selection was how important it was that the regiment retained their men after they had completed their training. The regiment has no legal hold on the men, so great efforts are made to retain interest in the work of the regiment, as retention made it so much easier if experienced men are available for deployment.
Once recruited, training becomes the focus for all recruits and Captain Charles Wilsenach gave an explanation of the training levels and requirements. He told us that all the men in the regiment are trained locally and both the trainees and the trainers undertake this training in their spare time. The average amount of time spent is between 70 - 90 days per year with most of the fieldwork being done at weekends. Formal courses are offered and these are a mixture of classroom training and practical training in the field. Our speaker stressed that all the courses are mounted and certified by the School of Engineers, so that students end up with a recognised military qualification. This training nearly always develops an enthusiasm and pride in what they achieve and this is an achievement when it is understood that virtually all the recruits come without any military background.
The final speaker was Colonel Derek Moe, the Honorary Colonel of the regiment, who spoke to us with great pride in the success of the regiment. He told us that what had been achieved had be done solely on the iniative of the individual officers and warrant officers as there were no army strategies or direction on how the men were to be recruited, trained or utilised. Their achievement has been to show the way forward for all the part time reserve forces and this has been recognised at the highest level of the SADF. He summed up the regiment's focus on stringent recruitment, dedication, the highest level of training to match the requirements of the School of Engineering and a high level of self-discipline being shown by everyone, from the senior officers down to the newest recruit. He also stated that the training officers had understated their commitment of time to the regiment, which in his view was close to 100 days per year. To justify all his comments he restated that in the case of an external military emergency, or a non-military external deployment that requires military skill (in Burundi or the Congo, as examples) the 19 Field Engineer regiment will be the first reserve force regiment to be deployed
It was all very impressive and after the official presentation a number of interesting questions were asked, which led to us being told of some of the practical achievements of the regiment, and this one in particular which highlights the quality of the work that the regiment is achieving:
In December 2002, the regiment went on training manoeuvres to Manguzi, south of Kosi Bay. During their stay they built an 80ft long, 40 ton capacity World War II type Bailey Bridge (a double single - for the technically minded) across the Siyadla River and left it there as a line of communication bridge for use by the local people, the South African Police and the Conservation Services. This permanent bridge was built in just 3 days, excluding the time taken on the approach roads, abutments, etc, a quite remarkable achievement. Now, in the rainy season, the bridge saves a round trip of 25 miles and is proving a great benefit to all who live and work in the area.
On leaving the lecture hall, the Society visitors were shown around the impressive regimental museum in the drill hall, and shown the engineering stores where an extraordinary range of equipment is kept. After that we returned to the bar where drinks and snacks were enjoyed by all present and where the regiments hospitality was demonstrated in full.
The evening ended with a warm and enthusiastic vote of thanks by our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, who thanked Colonel Westgate and his colleagues for the splendid way they had entertained the Society.
We return to our normal meeting place at the recently renamed KwaZulu-Natal University (lets hope that is correct!!) for the September meeting, and an evening centred on the Italian campaign in World War II. The MAIN talk, entitled THE ITALIAN CAMPAIGN: 1944 - 1945 will be given by MAJOR KEITH ARCHIBALD and will be divided into 2 sections; firstly he will explain the strategy of the Italian campaign in the context of World War II and why it was necessary to invade Italy, and secondly he will describe the involvement of the South Africa 6th Armoured Division and make the case of what our speaker will describe as the finest military "team" to leave South Africa and serve its country. Specifically he will explain that the 6th Armoured was the best trained, best equipped and best led of all South African forces. Major Archibald will bring an individual touch to his talk, as 2 years ago he completed a tour of many of the Italian battlefields, particularly those battlefields where the Natal Carbineers fought with such distinction.
Fellow member Graham Harvey, who will provide a fascinating addition to our "I was there" series, will give the DDH talk, entitled I WAS THERE: ITALY 1944. Graham fought in the Italian campaign and will provide a personal view of the events from the perspective of a fighting soldier. The DDH will provide an unusual and complimentary introduction to the MAIN talk.
Thanks to the great personal efforts of Steve Watt - a fellow member of our Society who lives in Pietermaritzburg - a new memorial has been erected at Ambleside. He prevailed upon AMAFA to pay for this handsome granite memorial, which lists the names of the British soldiers who died in the Colenso area in December 1899 and January 1900 and who are buried in the cemetery at Ambleside. Brigadier David H. Keenan, OBE, of the British High Commission in Pretoria, formally unveiled the memorial and gave a very fine address. For all members of the Society who were not present the text of his address is enclosed on a separate sheet.
FUTURE SOCIETY DATES : October - December 2004
As we hope you are all aware, there has been a joint venture between the Gunner's Association and the South African Military History Society in KwaZulu - Natal, to raise money to assist in the restoration of the historic field guns in Old Fort. These guns are an essential part of South African, KwaZulu - Natal and Zulu history and were used at the coronation of King Cetshwayo, at Mlambongwenya, near Ulundi, in 1873. The guns are in urgent need of restoration and with the planning well advanced the remaining need is to raise the last amount of money required.
In newsletter No. 345, dated May 2004, the restoration was mentioned in conjunction with an outstanding money raising effort by 3 lady members of the Society. Jilly Norris, Jill Webber and Elizabeth Woodcock have produced a spectacular quilt, which they are raffling as their contribution to raising the extra money needed to complete the work on the guns.
At recent meetings this marvellous effort by the 3 ladies has been mentioned and many of you have bought tickets at R10 each. However, a number of members took raffle sheets away with them with the promise to sell 20 raffle tickets each and so swell the funds being raised. It is now time to pass the money over to those doing the work on the guns, so may we URGENTLY request those members who took sheets away to return them to Jilly Norris, with the money they have raised, at the September 9th meeting.
When the guns have been restored, they will be unveiled at a special ceremony by King Goodwill Zwelithini, and the winning ticket for the quilt will be drawn at the same time.
If you need more information on the quilt raffle, or you will be unable to attend the next meeting, please ring Jilly Norris on 031-767-4128. If you need more information on the progress of the restoration, please ring Ken Gillings on 083-654-5880.
BUT MOST OF ALL, RETURN THE SHEETS AND MONEY AT THE NEXT MEETING, AND TAKE THE OPPORTUNITY TO BUY MORE TICKETS FOR THIS MOST WORTHWHILE SOCIETY CAUSE.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001