South African Military History Society


Tel (+27)(11) 648-2087 Fax (+27)(11) 648-2085

Our Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, opened the June meeting and then read out an Internet summary of a remarkable series of coincidences between the lives and assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. This was well received by the audience, one of our largest yet. He then gave out the usual notices. The Society is still looking for volunteers to sit on the proofreaders' panel of the Journal, to write booklets for the Museum and to draw up an index for back copies of the Journal. A number of members have already put their names forward for these tasks but more are still needed. Members are also reminded of the forthcoming Gala Luncheon at the Museum on Sunday, 19 November, to celebrate our 40th Anniversary.

Flip then called on Bob Smith to give members details of our next planned outing. This will take place on Saturday, 22 July, and will be to the former Italian prisoner of war camp at Zonderwater outside Cullinan. Entrance to the grounds, chapel and museum is free but a donation would be appreciated. Lunch will be in the historic little town of Cullinan itself and will be for members' own account. This will be followed by a tour of the Sammy Marks mansion which will cost R20 per head. For further details contact Bob Smith in July at (011) 675-0836 (H) after 6pm or by cell on 082-926-3537.

Flip then introduced our first speaker of the evening, Colin Dean, who was to give the curtain raiser entitled "Prisoner Of War Camps in the UK During World War II". Colin is well known to all our members as a previous Chairman of the Society and is also a well-known military historian and computer engineer. As could be expected from someone with his computer background, Colin gave an outstanding power point presentation of his subject, which he had chosen as a result of his curiosity as to the origin of a large number of Italian surnames in small Scottish towns.

He found that there had been extensive immigration from Italy to Scotland from the beginning of the 20th century up until the Second World War. With the outbreak of that conflict many of these immigrants were interned for the duration of the war. Special camps were put up for them or were reactivated from First World War remnants and as the war progressed these were expanded and extended to accommodate Italian prisoners of war captured in North Africa. Other camps were built to hold captured German fliers and seamen as they fell into Allied hands and, towards the end of the war, even more were constructed to accommodate Germans captured after the Allied invasion of Europe. Ultimately there were 456 prison camps in the UK. Colin showed us an impressive map of how these camps were distributed throughout the UK. The locations of 435 of these camps are still known today. For instance Annsmuir, near Ladybank in Scotland, is today a golf course.

Each of these camps was numbered in what appears to be an intentionally random method and they consisted of four definite classes based on the type of inmates they housed. One type were purely transit camps where prisoners were held prior to being shipped across to Canada. There were also interrogation centres, the previously mentioned internment centres and command cages in which senior officers were held. All sorts of buildings were initially used, ranging from converted sports stadiums to stately manor houses, but eventually purpose-built camps replaced these. At first tented and then using Nissen huts, the camps became quite sophisticated. In many cases the inmates were used to carry out these improvements and some camps became small towns, such as Pingly Camp at Brigg in Lincolnshire, which at the end of the war housed 1 862 prisoners. The British National Heritage organisation is currently carrying out an investigation to ascertain how many of these former camp sites can be restored and visited by tourists and have narrowed the result down to three. There is one entitled Island Farm at Bridgend in South Wales, another named Harperley Camp near Crook in County Durham is already a thriving tourist attraction, and Eden Camp at Malton in North Yorkshire is now a museum dedicated to "The People's War 1939-1945" and has won at least two awards.

The prisoners were generally employed in useful work around the community, i.e. on farms, construction work in the area and in camp maintenance. One outstanding example of the latter still exists at Lamb Holm in the Orkney Islands where Italian prisoners working on the Churchill Barriers across the eastern access to Scapa Flow were employed. The barriers are now causeways and the beautiful chapel built from remodelled Nissen huts is still a tourist attraction today.

No prisoner successfully escaped from a POW camp in the UK during the war. Several attempts were made but all the escapees were rearrested within a matter of days. One German officer in particular, Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, made several attempts at escaping and was eventually shunted off to Canada. There he escaped and, after an amazing series of adventures, got back to Germany where he received the Iron Cross and served with distinction once again in the Luftwaffe until lost over the North Sea in October 1941. His story was told in the film "The One That Got Away", starring Hardy Kruger.

By 1948 all the POWs had been repatriated or had been provided with assisted passages to other countries, but 2 000 Italians elected to remain on in the UK, thus arousing Colin's curiosity in their origin and becoming the subject of his lecture. Flip thanked Colin for an informative and excellent lecture and then introduced the main speaker for the evening.

This was Lt Col R A "Dickie" Bullen M.C., T.D. who had flown up from Cape Town especially to give us this talk which was entitled "The Longest Retreat - Burma 1942". Mr Bullen, in addition to being a retired financier and businessman, was also an ex-serviceman who had served in both North Africa and throughout the Burma Campaign. His talk was about the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1941 and of his own personal experiences during that campaign.

Dick started off by giving us an overall geographical picture of the scene of action at the time of the Japanese invasion. Burma was almost forgotten in pre-war British military planning. Its military administration was shifted back and forth between India and the U.K. and in the sixteen months before the Japanese invasion there had been five different Headquarters responsible for this. No attention had been paid to the difficulties of supplying Burma from India and the forces available were completely inadequate. There were two Regular Army battalions - the Gloucesters in Rangoon and the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in Maymyo. Neither had jungle experience or up-to-date equipment. There was also the under-strength 17th Indian Division, which was trained and equipped solely for desert warfare, and the 1st Burma Division, consisting mainly of raw and unreliable Burmese recruits. There was no anti-aircraft weaponry and only one squadron of aircraft - 67 Squadron of the RAF equipped with sixteen obsolete Brewster Buffaloes.

By contrast the Japanese placed great value on Burma as part of its planned Greater Asian Co-prosperity Sphere and for its oil production. They needed the Burmese rice harvest to feed their troops and were able to appreciate its strategic value for a flank attack on India. The Japanese troops had received rigorous jungle training in preparation for an invasion of Burma and their intelligence network in Burma was top class. They chose a two-pronged attack, one overland from Saigon through Siam to Bangkok and then on to the Burmese border. The second prong would land at Chumphon in South East Burma and link up with the first. This was rapidly accomplished by the 26th of January 1942. Crossing the border at Kaw-Kareik the Japanese land forces brushed aside the meagre forces opposing them and effected their link-up with the sea borne troops at Moulmein. There the British made a stand but, because of the unreliability of the Burmese troops, this lasted only a day before they were forced to fall back in disarray. Martaban was likewise abandoned and the Army Commander, General Hutton, then insisted on a stand being made at the Bilin River. He stipulated that the bridge across the river be held by means of a stand on the far or eastern bank but Brig Smythe, the man on the spot, decided to dig in on the west bank and hold the bridge from there. This was a costly and abortive action now known as the Battle of Bilin. Smythe's weary troops held the bridge for a week of continuous heavy fighting before the Japanese numerical superiority told and forced another withdrawal. Smythe fell back to Kwaikyo, where the Japanese outflanked him and caused another withdrawal, this time to the Sittang River.

This formidably wide and fast flowing river was crossed by a massive steel bridge and Smythe decided to hold it on the far side. As his troops were crossing, a lorry collided with the side railings and blocked the bridge for a vital two hours, which allowed the Japanese to come up with the British forces. Once again numbers told and as it was obvious that the Japanese were going to take the bridge intact Smythe ordered it blown. This was done, leaving many of its defenders on the far riverbank and these were forced to swim the wide and swift flowing river to escape falling in to the hands of the Japanese. Only a handful succeeded and the British fell back on the town of Pegu. This is north of Rangoon and, when it became obvious that the Japanese intended cutting off Rangoon at this point, General Alexander, who had relieved Hutton, abandoned Rangoon and forced his way north through a heavy roadblock to join up with Smythe's forces. The Japanese marched into Rangoon on 8th March 1942. General Slim then took over from Smythe, who was hospitalised, and led a long slow retreat up the entire length of Burma. Fighting their way out of Pegu, which was now infested by the Japanese, the British fell back on Prome where they linked up with a Chinese force. Alexander then attempted to establish a defensive line, using the British and Chinese, from Prome to the Siamese border via Toungoo. The Japanese attacked the Chinese at Toungoo and by 27th March, despite strong Chinese resistance, broke through the line and outflanked Prome. So the sorry tale continued. Withdrawing back northwards towards India, through Allanmyo and then the vital oil fields of Yenangyuang, they eventually arrived in India at Palel, north of the Irrawaddy River.

Mr Bullen then told us of his own personal experiences during this retreat. After leaving Yenangyuang and retreating on to Pin Chaung, he was assigned to a party detailed off to head east to Wanting on the Chinese border. Under the command of a Colonel Williams, and known as "Willforce", the group consisted of about 250 soldiers, civilians, women and children. Arriving at a station which was still operative Williams placed the women and children on a train to Mandalay and then struck out for a military depot at Heho. The force was subjected to continuous air attack and during one of these raids Williams was killed and Dick Bullen took over command. Battling through continuous heavy attacks and ambushes and the sluicing rain of the monsoon, which turned every track in to a mud bath, Bullen forced his way to Heho where he was able to obtain food, clothing and boots. The monsoon worsened and members of the party started falling out and had to be left behind whilst the rest pushed on eastwards. At the next town, Loilem, they met up with a small unit of the Burmese Army and joined them in a march to Hsipaw, where the Chinese Army had a basic organisation. From there Dick made contact with his Army Group in Assam and received orders to abandon the attempt to reach China, as the Japanese were astride their proposed route, and to turn north for India.

At the end of May his survivors reached the Irrawaddy, which they crossed by using home made rafts and by swimming. Eventually his group arrived in Naba, in India, and were safe. Instead of being taken out of the line and rested, Dick's troops were cleaned up, fed and put straight back into the front line to stop the Japanese crossing in to India. The whole retreat took four months and covered over 900 miles and must rank as one of the greatest fighting retreats in military history.

After a short question period, Dick was thanked for his most interesting talk and presented with a Society tie by our Vice Chairman Bob Smith. The meeting then adjourned for tea.

* * * * * * *



13th July
CR Flip Hoorweg - The Caves of Umurbrogol Ridge 1944
ML Martin Ayres - Hundred Years War - Joan of Arc and Henry V
* * * * * * *


13th July
DDH Captain Brian Hoffman - Naval Traditions
MAIN Ken Gillings - The Anglo-Boer War: The Aftermath
* * * * * * *

Cape Town

13th July
Simon Norton - The life and career of Maj-Gen Dan Pienaar
* * * * * * *

SAMHSEC - Eastern Cape - Port Elizabeth:

13th July
CR Robin Barkes - The mining of a Union Ironclad by Confederate forces
ML Caroline Rodgers - RAF Brothers
* * * * * * *

For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Mike Laing (031) 205-1951
For Cape Town details contact John Mahncke (021) 797-5167
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn (041) 373-4469

Ivor Little (Scribe) (012) 651-3647

* NOTE* Fast mirror and backup site      BOOKMARK FOR REFERENCE     Main site * NOTE*

South African Military History Society /