South African Military History 


Newsletter No 7: April 2005
Nuusbrief Nr 7: April 2005

A record number of 43 persons attended the meeting to hear talks by Pat Irwin and Jimmy Mullins. The branch now boasts 33 members. Following the welcome by Malcolm Kinghorn, Chairman, he invited Piet Hall to expand on the proposed Society tour to the Fort Brown, Committees, Fort Wiltshire and Peddie areas on the weekend of the 9th/10th April. All appears to be in hand and all indications are that the tour will be fully subscribed. Basil Mills also advised the meeting that an enactment of The Battle of Grahamstown is being planned for the 22nd April with commencement at noon. It is a spectacle not to be missed.

Pat Irwin opened the meeting with his talk on The North African Campaign of 1940 - 1943. The campaign was significant as it had a major South African involvement and that for the first time we had large armies contesting the same piece of territory on no less than six occasions in that three-year period. A pipe opener is really insufficient time to deal a campaign of this nature but Pat put the issues succinctly and laid the field as it were for Jimmy Mullins who followed him with his own talk, "Gazala Gallop to El Alamein". The issues in North Africa were clear. The Germans wanted control of Suez and which would in turn lead to the control of the Persian and Iraq oil fields. Italy supported Germany and had colonized Libya in 1911 laying in a sound infrastructure before invading Abyssinia in 1935.

The North African Campaign was difficult for all parties. Distances, logistical supplies, desert and sand conditions, the Qattara Depression and the effects of excessive heat and cold played their part. None the less South Africa's contribution was considerable. Two infantry and two divisional machine gun battalions were deployed followed by a host of medical corps, armour, artillery, engineers, and survey corps in their support. There was Naval involvement and we made up a substantial part of the Desert Air force. Pat detailed that prior the involvement of our troops in North Africa the troops had moved through East Africa and into Abyssinia in defeating the Italians and returning that country to Haile Selassie - a fact ignored in today's history books. Pat covered the roles, amongst others ,played by names that are now part of history. Wavell, the British General in Egypt, Rommel of Desert fame, Montgomery, and Klopper of Tobruk and the surrender of that port. It is said that almost the entire manpower of the districts of Graaff-Reinet, Cradock and Jansenville went into POW camps following the capture then of the one time Die Middelandse Regiment.

Jimmy Mullins, now a sprightly 85 years old, was there and delivered the personal touch on his recollections with amusing anecdotes reliving that campaign in his Main Lecture. His family has a military tradition and counts a VC and DSO amongst its members. Jimmy was sent up North in 1942 after leaving St. Andrews as a member of the Second Division and served in the Artillery. The gun used by this division being the well known 25lb pounder. His first job was to dig trenches at El Alamein but before long he found himself at Gazala where the rampant Rommel outflanked the Gazala Line and forced the 8th Army into retreat. With that went Jimmy and his gun crew in a shambled retreat with others in a gallop for the safety of El Alamein. Traveling in darkness, with little water and but a few biscuits they laid up for the night. The next morning they discovered that Rommel and his company had only been 300 yards away in similar settlement! The first Battle of El Alamein commenced on the 2nd July 1942, Montgomery took over the 8th Army in August of that year and the Second battle commenced with a huge barrage on the 23rd October. By November the Axis forces were on the retreat and Rommel withdrew from North Africa in March 1943. The last shot fired in that Campaign was fired on the 12th May 1943.

Jimmy was in retreat for ten days in which time it was a question of avoiding the Germans, diving Stuka bombers and surviving by drinking suspect water from stinking wells. His photographs depict the troops swimming on the beaches of Tobruk, of their gun emplacements, of bare chested young men in khaki shorts on their trucks and then coming across the New Zealanders laying a railway line at the remarkable rate of four miles a day. Jimmy recalls well the day they left Cairo. It was near the pyramids and traveling past these monuments they observed Winston Churchill standing on top of a flat roofed house saluting the South Africans on their way home. A memorable moment. There are not many of Jimmy's kind left and he, proudly wearing his MOTH blazer, is a tribute to all those who did not return. Well done Jimmy on bringing that campaign almost back to life for the later generations.

Next Meeting.

This meeting will be held at the Ron Belling Art Gallery on the 14th April at 19.30 hours. Our talks for the evening have to do with aircraft and what better venue in seeing the theme of the evening in place. The Art Gallery is situated in Park Drive, opposite the Park Drive Bowling Club and about 200 metres from St. George's Hospital. Our speakers will be Clayton Holiday who will give a pipe opener on "The South African War Museum's ME 262" and the main lecture will be by Geoff Hamp-Adams on "Japanese Undersea Aircraft Carriers".

Ian Pringle - Scribe - SAMHSEC
ian.pringle @ and or 083-636-6623

South African Military History Society /