South African Military History Society



(Note: Newsletter No 1 was dated September 2004. No 2 is dated November 2004 in accordance with Society practice to date newsletters for the coming month. There is thus no SAMHSEC newsletter dated October 2004)

Mr Ken Stewart's curtain raiser was on the Bridge on the River Kwai or, correctly, River Kwae. Between June and September 1942, 61 000 Allied POWs and an estimated 200 000 labourers were put to work to construct a 415 km long railway line between Kanchanaburi in Thailand and the Japanese base camp in Burma. The 1 metre gauge single line ran though mountainous, jungle-covered terrain with an adverse climate on a route surveyed by the British in 1903 and rejected as impracticable and too costly. The Death Railway, as it came to be known, was built in 17 months at the cost of the lives of 16 000 POWs and 100 000 labourers.

The biggest bridge required on the route was over the Kwae Yai (Big Kwae) River. The Japanese brought an 11 span steel bridge captured in Java to cross the 380 metre wide, swiftly flowing river. A wooden construction bridge had to be built before concrete piers could be built and the steel spans erected.

The wooden bridge was destroyed by Allied bombing in April and 2 spans of the steel bridge in June 1945. The destroyed steel spans were replaced by different pattern spans which are still in place.

Although extensively used, the railway never fulfilled its intended role satisfactorily. The bridge was brought to the attention of the world by the fictional account by Pierre Boule' and the film with its provocative Colonel Bogey whistled tune. Ronald Searle, of St Trinians fame, published sketches he made while a POW working on the line.

Four kilometres north of the bridge, many of the POWs who died during the construction of the line are buried in well maintained cemeteries. A museum near the bridge records the inhuman conditions endured by its builders. Mr Stewart has a water bottle which seems to have been used by a British POW working on the line.

Mr Mike Duncan delivered the main lecture on the history of the Prince Alfred's Guard (PAG) as depicted in campaign medals issued to members of the Regiment, examples of which from Mr Duncan's own collection were displayed.

Established in 1856, the PAG first saw action on 2 December 1877, when the PAG comprised half of the colonial force of 150 men with 2 field guns which defeated 2000 Gcaleka tribesmen in the Battle of Umzintzani during the Ninth Frontier War. Service in this war was recognised by the award of the South African General Service Medal with the clasp 1877-1878. The PAG next participated in the Basutoland Campaign of 1880-81. A notable action was a 500 metre bayonet charge by the PAG which led to the capture of Lerothodi's village. The Cape of Good Hope General Service Medal (or CGS for short) with the clasp Basutoland was issued for this service. In the Bechuanaland Campaign of 1897, the PAG was present during the capture of Luka Jantje's stronghold in the Langeberg. The CGS with clasp Bechuanaland clasp was issued.

For service in the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902, PAG members were awarded Queen's South Africa Medal clasps for Johannesburg, Diamond Hill, Belfast, Wittebergen, Transvaal and Wepener, in addition to the more common Cape Colony, OFS, South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902 clasps. A number of King's South Africa Medals were also received. The Bambatha Rebellion in 1906 ended before the PAG contingent mobilised for service at that time was engaged, so no such campaign medals were awarded to PAG members.

Following dissension in the ranks of the PAG volunteers for service in the First World War after long deployment on sentry duty in Cape Town, the contingent was disbanded. Most of its members saw active service during that war in other South African units. During the Second World War, the PAG converted from infantry to armour in North Africa and saw active service in Italy, thus qualifying participating members for the Africa and Italy Stars. Members of the PAG were awarded Pro Patria medals for service in armoured cars during the Bush War.

After the main lecture, Mr Mike Raaff displayed the medals of well-known Eastern Cape personality, the late Mr Tom Dean, who held 5 Second World War service stars.


Anyone aware of contact between the South African population and German U-boat crews during WW2 is requested to contact John Mahncke at 021 797 5167.


The next meeting is to be held at 1930 on 11 November 2004 in the Prince Alfred's Guard Headquarters in the Drill Hall in Prospect Hill, Central, Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be by Mr Derrick Langman on the Port Elizabeth Cenotaph. Malcolm Kinghorn will give the main lecture on the Mendi casualty list.

Eastern Cape Branch convener: Malcolm Kinghorn 041 373 4469, 082 331 6223,, 15 Conyngham Road, Parsons Hill, Port Elizabeth, 6001.

South African Military History Society /