The first meeting of the year was opened as usual by our Chairlady, Lyn Miller, with the usual notices and advance notice of a new series of walking tours around Parkhurst which are being organised and advertised in the Press. She then asked Mrs Marjorie Dean to come forward to make a presentation to the Museum on behalf of our Society. Mrs Dean explained that the donation she was about to make was made possible by all those who had made donations in memory of our late Chairman, Mr George Barrell. This money had been used to purchase two small portable tape recorders and matching tapes which she would hand over and which would assist with improving the Museum's ongoing "Oral History Project". The balance of the money collected would be used in the installation of a security system for the Library door. This installation was currently in hand. Accepting these donations on behalf of the Museum, Hamish Paterson thanked Marjorie and the Society for their ongoing interest in the Oral History Programme which was expanding and proving very successful. Lyn then introduced Mr Flip Hoorweg, our Vice Chairman, who would present the curtain-raising lecture. This was entitled "Defeat Into Victory - Mons 1914 vs 1918".
Using maps to illustrate his talk, Flip commenced by pointing out that Mons in Belgium was the scene of both the first and last battles fought by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in Belgium in World War I. The circumstances were vastly different. Prior to 1914 the French had built strong fortifications all along their border with Germany. To outflank these positions with the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Germans adopted the Schlieffen Plan which would involve a massive swing through Belgium, South (to the left) of the French fortified line. Britain became involved through her treaty with France known as the Entente Cordial and her objection to the German violation of Belgium's neutrality. The BEF was sent to Belgium and placed at Mons, which would place it squarely in the face of the German onslaught. By 23 August 1914 the BEF had only managed to get four infantry divisions and a cavalry division into position, as part of the 1st and 2nd Corps to the left of the French 5th Army.
Following their predetermined Schlieffen Plan, the German 1st Army, under General Oberst von Kluck, headed straight for Mons where the British had established a defence line along the Mons-Conde Canal. This was to prove a difficult line to defend. The Germans attacked the British right flank most strongly with 160 000 men and 600 guns where the Canal made a curve towards Obourg. This position was defended by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien's 3rd and 5th divisions of the 2nd Corps. The BEF could muster only 70 000 men and 300 guns and, although the British stoutly defended themselves, the German superiority in numbers and particularly in artillery soon told. In the ensuing battle the West Kent, Middlesex and Northumberland Regiments suffered heavily, as did the Royal Scots, two of whose men won Victoria Crosses. After suffering 1 600 casualties the British were forced to retreat.
Four years later, in 1918, the British found themselves advancing towards Mons. Although no major operations were called for at this stage of the war, with victory in sight, it was decided to take Mons before the Armistice came in to effect. This was done on 11 November 1918 when the Canadian 2nd and 3rd divisions entered Mons.
Flip ended his talk by giving a few examples where men taking part in this occupation were killed minutes or seconds before the end of the war. Most poignant was the example of three members of the London Rifle Brigade who were all wearing the Mons Star awarded to them for their part in the 1914 action. What symbolic futility to live through four years of war only to lose your life at the very end of it and back where it all started!
The main lecture of the evening was given by Mr David Williams, a well-known radio personality who has spoken to the Society before. The title of his talk was advertised as "The History Of Rank" but Mr Williams felt that he was not yet ready to speak on that subject and would prefer to speak on "Monte Cassino", a subject he had spoken on before at the Rand Club. He gave a few examples of the complexity of the subject of rank structures where more research was needed, particularly in the field of corporate structure. The audience agreed with him that in view of this "Monte Cassino" would be a more appropriate subject for the evening and David commenced his lecture.
Although titled "Monte Cassino" David's talk in fact dealt with the South African 6th Armoured Division's progress through the Italian Campaign in World War II. Many of the South African forces had been withdrawn from North Africa in early 1943 to be retrained and refitted after the Battle of El Alamein. This resulted in the formation of the 6th South African Armoured Division, known informally as 6th Div, under the command of Major General Everard Poole and made up from mainly the famous citizen force regiments. Volunteers for these came through in a steady stream. Ultimately in addition to the armour and infantry there were five regiments of artillery, three squadrons of engineers and the usual supporting elements.
The division spent the second half of 1943 being trained in the desert, which is where they expected to fight. Thus there was a heavy emphasis on tanks, with provision being made for only one infantry brigade. The posting to Italy came as a complete surprise when their orders came through in 1943, but by April of that year they had arrived in Taranto. It was a very different type of fighting compared to the desert warfare they had hitherto experienced. Instead of the endless vistas of the desert there were mountains, ravines, cliffs and narrow roads, which made things ideal for the German defenders. Another continual problem was the local population, many of them displaced refugees, but all starving and weary of war.
The South Africans first became involved in the Italian campaign in July 1943 when the South African Air Force supported the invasion of Sicily. Other South Africans, such as 6th Div, also began arriving at Taranto and Bari to face a year of fighting lasting from 16th April 1944 to 1 May 1945. Starting from Taranto, at the heel of the Italian boot, they advanced up Italy past Monte Cassino, below the knee, Rome above the knee, Chiusi at the middle of the thigh, Florence near the top of the boot and finally the River Po and Milan.
The 900 year old monastery of Monte Cassino was a major obstacle in this advance and a small number of South Africans consisting of gunners, the 12th Motorised Infantry Brigade, three road construction companies and some engineers took part in the three battles it took to force the Germans to abandon the monastery. On 23rd May 1944 the 24th Guards Brigade of the British Army came under the command of the 6th Div. These included elements of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstreams and Scots Guards. They were to wear the green and gold flash of the 6th Div and remained with them for the following nine months. The northward push continued and on D-Day the 6th June 1944 the 6th Div which was spearheading General Alexander's advance passed through Rome and pushed on to Florence.
The going was tough, particularly in the winter from November 1944 to February 1945. During this period Armour was useless. The tank tracks froze up and had to be thawed out using blowlamps. Infantrymen moved around on skis. The German resistance was fanatical and very few prisoners were taken on either side. As the Germans retreated they also destroyed roads, bridges, tunnels and harbour installations to make the Allied advance even more difficult. At Monte Sole, the site of a major battle, armoured formations had to play the role of infantry. At Chuisi, a whole company of Cape Town Highlanders was lost when German Tiger tanks attacked a cinema where the Highlanders had taken cover. The most savage fighting experienced by the Division was in the drive for Bologna. Blocked tunnels had to be cleared and roads and bridges rebuilt. During all this time the rain was incessant making conditions absolutely miserable for the infantry.
By Christmas 1944 Bologna had been taken and the 6th Div was at Castiglioni Dei Pepoli with thick ice on the village square. Things improved with the Spring and on 14 May 1945 the 6th Div had its Victory Parade at Monza, near Milan. The salute was taken by Cdre F.C.Sturrock, the Acting Minister of Defence, General Mark Clark of the US 5th Army and General Poole. It took three hours for the thousands of men and their vehicles to pass the saluting dais. This was followed by a lengthy demobilisation process. For some there would be no going home. 753 South Africans are buried in military cemeteries in Italy.
After a lengthy and interesting question period David was thanked by committee member Hamish Paterson for his most entertaining and interesting talk and the easygoing manner in which it was presented.
SCRIBE'S NOTE: Members will no doubt be aware that the Society does not publish a Newsletter in December. Although space does not permit the publication of summaries of the two lectures given in December the scribe would like to place on record that those who did not attend this meeting missed two outstanding presentations. Felicia Fourie's talk on "The Treaty Of Vereeniging" and Colin Dean's talk on "Flying Bombs" were both interesting and excellently presented, and were very well received. Copies of these talks are available from the scribe on request.
DVD Raffle - March
Advance warning: Once again Jan Hoorweg has kindly donated DVDs for raffling at the lecture meetings in Johannebsurg. The first of these, to be drawn in March, is entitled: War in the Desert. This very interesting DVD covers the war in North Africa in 1940-41 and could be yours for the princely sum of R10! Features: Rommel arrives; Tobruk in German hands; Operation Lightfoot; Codename Supercharge;Torch; The noose begins to tighten. Running time approx 55 mins.
December 2005 Journals have been posted to all members who were paid-up in 2005, as have invoices for 2006 Subs. Quick reminder: subscriptions for 2006: R140 single, R160 family, can be deposited directly into FNB Park Meadows Branch, code 256655. A/c name SA Military History Society, no 50391928346 or post cheque to address on letterhead.
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