NEWSLETTER NO. 355
The VC death was of Captain Richard Annand, the 1st soldier to win a VC in World War II (although the 6th overall) and who found fame as the "wheelbarrow VC". At the time of his death there were just 13 winners of the VC still alive.
The DDH talk was given by Dave Matthews and his subject was The Diary of a Military Photographer - Durban 1899. He told us the fascinating story of William K. L. Dickson, an important pioneer in developing movie film, and stills taken from his work enlivened the talk. By 1883 Dickson had joined Thomas Edison in the United States and established himself as an electrician and photographer. Edison saw little future for moving pictures, Dickson's special interest, and they parted company. Dickson, with 3 friends, founded the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and designed a huge electrically driven camera, using 68mm film, which ran at forty frames per second. In 1897 Dickson returned to England and joined the British Biograph Company, after Cecil Rhodes had invited them to send a cameraman to South Africa to increase immigration to South Africa from England.
When the Anglo-Boer War broke out, Dickson sailed to South Africa in the S.S. Dunottar Castle. Sir Redvers Buller, who was on the same ship, granted Dickson permission to follow the army into the field and to draw rations and forage for the horses needed to draw the cart for the large and heavy biograph camera. En route to the Cape, the Dunottar Castle received news of the Battle of Talana and the death of General Penn Symons. Filming was frequent on board ship and in Simonstown, Cape Town and later, in Durban, troops arriving by sea gave Dickson many opportunities for filming. Mr. David Hunter, the manager of the Natal Government Railways, was most accommodating, and gave Dickson full railway facilities free of charge. Dickson photographed the armoured train which was to be sent to Estcourt and then to Frere, taking photographs of everything that interested him, including the entraining of the wounded, the movement of guns, naval guns in action, the crossing of the Thukela at Pretorius Drift, stretcher bearers, the pontoon bridge and the arrival of British troops in the relief of Ladysmith.
In Ladysmith, Dickson contracted enteric (typhoid) and convalesced in Durban before sailing to Cape Town to join Lord Roberts en route to Pretoria. On this journey, Dickson's great achievements were to record 2 major events, namely the Orange River Colony annexation ceremony and the hoisting of the Union Jack in Pretoria. Dickson spent the rest of his life as an electrical engineer, and died in London in 1935, having made a major contribution to the art of movie making and as Dave Matthews so eloquently emphasised, being one of the very first to film a major war.
The MAIN talk was given by Frank Bullen, a member of the Society from Johannesburg, who was making his 2nd visit to us in Durban as a guest speaker. We have been exceptionally lucky over recent years to have so many speakers giving us "I was there" talks, based on their actual experiences in war, and this talk was another in this series and was entitled No Scarlet - No Bearskin: A Guardsman in Battledress. Frank spoke to us on his personal war service from 1943 to 1946, with particular reference to his active service in North West Europe with the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards, (Guards Armoured Division) as part of XXX Corps. In 1943, he volunteered for the Scots Guards and as he stated, just after his 18th birthday he started the most action-packed, instructive, eventful and totally fascinating time of his entire life - his time with what was then known as the Brigade of Guards. Guards' training was acknowledged at the time, as the most ruthless in the British army and his months of training were described with a nice touch of humour - humour which he most certainly did not feel at the time. He described how he missed death by about 30 minutes, when he left the Wellington Barracks on 18 June 1944 to travel to Scotland and just before a German V.1 hit the Guards Chapel with high casualties. He then told the fascinating story of the battle honour awarded to the Pretoria Regiment after they had fought side-by-side with the Guards in North Africa and in Italy and how a close bond developed between them. The Pretoria Regiment wear a cloth patch in the Guards colours of blue, red and blue behind their cap badge, which was presented by the 24th Guards Brigade in recognition of their valour in providing support for the infantry. In return, after the war each member of the Pretoria Regiment contributed a days pay towards the restoration fund of the chapel, a gesture greatly appreciated by all Guards regiments.
The 2nd battalion Scots Guards arrived in Europe in time to join XXX Corps in their drive to the Rhine, where for the first time German soldiers were fighting on their own soil. General Montgomery described their fighting as being with "a fanaticism unexcelled at any time in the war" as they contested every inch of ground. Frank was part of this fighting and he gave a number of examples of clashes with German forces, as units "collided" in the confusion of war. The first set piece battle was in the Reichswald, a large wooded area at the most northerly limits of the Siegfried Line, against the 1st Parachute Division of General Kurt Student's 1st Parachute Army. The German aim was to drive the allies off German soil or at the very least to stop anyone crossing the River Rhine. The weather was wet and cold, with low thick cloud stopping air cover, but this did not stop the artillery firing piecemeal from both sides, and the shrapnel from one shell shattered the gearbox of the motorbike being used by our speaker who was unhurt in the incident. Then the battle started in earnest with a massive artillery barrage from the allied side; our speaker and his colleagues kept their heads down before "fix bayonets" was ordered and the advance through the forest began. Frank Bullen gave a vivid description of this advance, with reference to the noise, deaths of colleagues, finding dead German bodies, the damage caused by the artillery and the efforts made to, as he told it, "winkle" out the German defenders from their dugouts. He was, amazed and thankful to get through without a scratch. Frank also described some of the weapons used against allied forces in that area; the Krummlauf - a gun that fired round corners (don't laugh - it did) and the Nebelwerfer, a six-barrelled rocket launcher which fired missiles at random.
In the advance to the edge of the Rhine, we were told many stories of close shaves, death by random shells falling into the Guards ranks, an allied sniper killed by what today the Americans would call "friendly fire" and most particularly Frank told us how he watched an advance by the Coldstream Guards across open land towards German positions, and the casualties they suffered before forcing a German surrender. The battalion was then given a few days rest and on their return they were able to cross the Rhine and our speaker was given a replacement motorbike!! Here he saw and heard his first jet fighter, the ME 262, and in an enclave of Holland they passed into the town of Enschede to be mobbed by dense and delirious crowds who welcomed them as liberators. After that delightful interlude, the battalion moved on towards Hamburg, where resistance was met but always effectively dealt with by the Household Cavalry.
The talk, so full of personal and dangerous memories of those eventful days through to the end of the war, ended with a sad but true story. Germany had transferred thousands of Russians to their own country to work as slave labour, men who were denounced as traitors by their own government, and who knew that return to Russia would certainly mean going to their deaths. These Russians were determined to fight to stay away from Russia, but under a hush - hush Allied - Soviet agreement it was the sorry duty of the occupying powers to round up these Russians and to send them home. Many men, like Frank, had survived the war but now had to risk their lives to complete this sorry duty.
There was a final irony in our speaker's story, for after surviving all that the German defence had thrown at him in the war, he went on leave to Brussels and in a bizarre accident, badly fractured his femur. After many months in hospital he was demobbed, returned to London, and as he said, caught the underground and went home. It was finally over!!
Our Vice Chairman, Bill Brady, thanked both speakers for providing the Society with a fascinating and very different evening for us all to enjoy, and a particular thank you to Frank Bullen for travelling down from Johannesburg to address us with his memories of his own war.
South African Military History Society / email@example.com