South African Military History 


NEWSLETTER No 5: February 2005
NUUSBRIEF Nr 5: Februarie 2005

Thirty persons attended the 13 January 2005 meeting which was held at the PAG Drill Hall.

Prof Pat Irwin's well illustrated curtain raiser was on South Africa's 9.2 inch coastal defence guns. After reviewing the coastal artillery used in South Africa during the 20th century, Pat focused on the 9.2 inch Breech Loader, developed in the late 19th century to protect harbours. By 1945 there were 98 such guns in operation in the British Empire and Commonwealth. Today only 25 remain, about 20 (12 in South Africa) still in their original emplacements.

The WW 2 version of the gun had a range of approximately 29 km, a 360( traverse and fired a 173 kg shell. At 28 tons (400 tons with the turret and mounting) they are the largest guns ever used in South Africa. They each a required a crew of 11, with another 11 in reserve. During the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer war, at least one of these guns was mounted on a railway carriage for an intended bombardment of Pretoria, but was never used for that purpose. An interesting variation of these great guns was the 'disappearing gun'. The original mechanism and replica gun at Fort Wynyard in Cape Town is possibly the only surviving example left in the world.

Missile technology made the 9.2 inch gun obsolete and most, including South Africa's, were decommissioned during the 1950s. The South African guns are, regrettably, in poor condition. In other countries, by contrast, they are tourist attractions. In Gibraltar and Lisbon, a few are still operational, while Australia, Bermuda and Singapore promote the tourist potential of theirs.

The main lecture was on "The Battle of The Ridge" by Col.Piet Hall (ret). This engagement between the Xhosas and the British force stationed at Fort Hare, near the present day town of Alice, took place between Fort Hare and Middledrift on 29 December1850. It has never been well documented in spite of being a relatively major engagement resulting in the loss to the British of 2 officers and 23 men, who are buried in a now unkempt cemetery at Fort Hare. More than 200 Xhosa warriors are thought to have been killed. Col. Hall's presentation revealed an intimate knowledge of the theatre of operations and included the causes of the war and brief descriptions of the leading figures on both sides. His presentation was amply illustrated by detailed sketches and maps.

Hostilities in the Eighth Frontier War opened with the ambush of Col McKinnon's column in the Booma Pass on 24 December 1850 and the successful Xhosa attacks on the villages of Auckland, Juanasburg and Woburn in the Tyumie Valley on 25 December. By 28 December, the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Harry Smith, was besieged in Fort Cox, the Kat River Khoi had rebelled, the Xhosa police and some Cape Mounted Rifles soldiers had deserted and the Xhosa had invaded the colony.

In an attempt to establish communications with Sir Harry Smith in Fort Cox, Colonel Henry Somerset set out from Fort Hare on 29 December with 150 infantrymen of the 91st Regiment, 70 Khoi cavalrymen of the Cape Mounted Rifles and a 3 pdr gun. His objective was a ridge some 10 kms from Fort Hare and approximately halfway between Forts Hare and Cox, from which he intended to send despatch riders to Fort Cox. After being attacked on both flanks as well as from the front by what he later described as "an overpowering and daring body of the enemy", Somerset decided to fall back on Fort Hare. Fighting in the extreme heat during the four hour retreat became hand to hand after the trail of the 3 pdr broke, rendering it useless. The retreating British were saved from even greater casualties by a relief force from Fort Hare. It should be noted that a large percentage of the Xhosa were armed with firearms, including cavalry carbines obtained from Cape Mounted Rifles deserters.

This battle, which can only be described as a British defeat, has fallen into almost complete obscurity, to the extent that it hasn't even been officially named. Col Hall's research, which has included detailed reconnaissance of the terrain over which it was fought, is a valuable contribution to the available knowledge of one of the major engagements of the Frontier Wars.


Welcome to Mel Smethurst and Dave Whitehouse as members of the Society


The next meeting is to be held at 1930 on 10 February 2005 in the Prince Alfred's Guard Drill Hall, Prospect Hill, Central, Port Elizabeth. An AGM will be held in lieu of a curtain raiser. The main lecture will be by Barry Irwin on Ciphers and Cryptography. A decision on the venue of future meetings will be taken during the meeting


This letter reaches most parties by e-mail. If you are aware of an interested person who may not have this facility I would be happy to fax the same to that person. Please let me have the details but remember that e-mail is the preferred option. Thank you

Ian Pringle: SAMHSEC Scribe Designate. Tel 041 368 8798, fax 041 368 8798, cell 083 636 6623, e-mail:

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 /