South African Military History Society


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

The May meeting was opened by our new National Chairman, Mr Flip Hoorweg with the usual round of announcements. Members are reminded that the Society will be 40 years old in November 2006 and this will be celebrated with a luncheon at the Museum on Sunday 19 November. Please diarise this as it will be a gala luncheon.

He then asked Marjorie Dean to address the meeting about a few decisions made at the last National Committee meeting. Briefly - volunteers are required to proof read and evaluate subjects of a technical nature which are submitted to the editor of the Journal for possible publication. If you have a specific area of expertise, say aviation or weapons, ships or trench warfare etc. your input would be welcome on a special panel to be formed for this vetting process. Similarly, the Society is looking for a volunteer to draw up an index for volumes 7 to 15 of the Journal. If this is in your line we would like to hear from you. Finally, the Museum intends to draw up a series of booklets introducing visitors to the Museum to the various exhibits. These will take the form of small booklets on sale at the front desk and dealing with various exhibits on display. Once again if you are an expert in a particular area and would like this chance to write about your hobby and have it published we would like to hear from you. The Museum envisages a series on, say for example, the aircraft on display, or the uniform display, medals, guns, tanks - you name it and we will allow you to write on it. Members who are interested are please requested to contact the Secretary at her address, which appears elsewhere in this newsletter.

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Flip thanked Marjorie and then introduced the first speaker. This was Mr Bob Smith, the newly elected Deputy Chairman and a long-standing member of the committee. Bob has spent his career in the travel industry where he was first International Marketing Manager for South African Airways and is at present the National Sales Manager for a large travel agency. He is a well-known travel lecturer, writer and photographer and his subject was "Bridge On The River Kwai - A Personal Journey Of Discovery To Hell And Back, Visiting The Bridge And Hellfire Gorge".

Bob introduced his talk by referring to the 1957 film entitled "Bridge On The River Kwai" which, although an excellent production, was not altogether historically correct and is today remembered mainly for its whistled rendition of "Colonel Bogey" which Bob then played to remind us of it. He declined to comment on the lyrics! Using a power-point presentation, Bob then showed us the geographical location of the Bridge in Thailand and gave us the historical background to the war in South East Asia between 1941 and 1945.

In December 1941 the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Thailand from Cambodia and the Gulf of Thailand, in response to which Britain sent out the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse. These were promptly sunk by Japanese aircraft and in a matter of weeks the Japanese had also conquered Burma. On 15 February 1942 Singapore also fell and a British force of almost 85 000 men was taken in to captivity. These also included Australian, Indian and local troops. Unable to gain command of the sea, the Japanese then decided to build a rail connection through Thailand to Burma and on to India, thus gaining for themselves an interior line of logistic support. To build this railway system they needed a vast reserve of labour and so decided to use the prisoners for this task.

Using a large scale map to illustrate the area, Bob showed how the metre gauge railway line would commence from Nong Pladuk north of Bangkok, would pass through Kanchanaburi and then cross the Kwae Yai River to continue along the Kwae Noi River to the Burmese Border. At the same time workers would commence at the Burmese border and work south from the area around Three Pagodas Pass to meet the line coming North. These routes would follow hundreds of kilometres through jungle-covered mountains and would entail the construction of more than 300 bridges and trestles, as well as major rock cuttings. The route had previously been surveyed by British railway engineers and abandoned as unfeasible because of the probable high cost in human lives. This Japanese plan got off to a bad start when the commander of the 9th Railway Regiment, Lt Gen Shimada Nobuo, and eleven other senior engineers were killed in a 'plane crash whilst flying over mountainous terrain near the Three Pagodas Pass in North Thailand. This accident was to have tragic consequences for both the Japanese plans and the hapless prisoners of war who were made to pay with their lives for the miscalculations made by inexperienced and junior Japanese army officers trying to build the railway using an old 19th century engineering guide and frequent guesswork. In the final result the two ends of the line missed their joining point by ending up about a hundred kilometres apart!

On 19 June 1942 the Japanese called for volunteers from Changi Jail in Singapore to go north where they would enjoy better camps and living conditions. They then transported these men North in metal railway trucks normally used for the carriage of rice. There were no windows, the heat was intense and there were no sanitary arrangements made for the 32 men squeezed in each truck. These men had to stand all the way to their destination, taking turns at lying down if they could.

The trip from Singapore to Ban Pong took five days and from there it was a five kilometre march to Nong Pladuk, the railway construction starting point. From there they were either housed in nearby camps along the proposed route or were carried on further by trucks. One unfortunate group known as "F Force" had to carry out a forced march for a further 300 kilometres. It took them 20 days through dense jungle and marching at night to avoid the heat of the day. When construction started there were about 68 000 British, Australian, American, Canadian, Dutch and New Zealand prisoners and about 200 000 Asian slave labourers actively engaged in building this railway.

Within days of their arrival on site, the death toll began as the physical effort required was more than most men could deliver on their small daily rice ration. Physical exhaustion, brutal beatings from the guards, tropical disease and venomous snake bite all claimed their victims. A typical day usually began the evening before when the prisoners came in from work. A roll call was held and the numbers counted were expected to be available again the next day, irrespective of whether there were sick or injured amongst them. A special mention should be made of the bravery of the camp sick bay orderlies. The orderly who presented a sick list was beaten up as a matter of course and the patients were then dragged from the sickbay and forced out to work. Some of these died during the day and were carried back to camp on improvised stretchers made of old sacks, to be put on the constantly burning funeral pyre. If you could walk you worked and drew rations. If you could not work your rations were stopped. The rations consisted of a handful of rice porridge and a tin of tea in the morning, repeated in the evening, with the possible addition of a thin vegetable soup. On these rations the prisoners marched, dug, moved rock and excavated earth to lay the track, and carried heavy logs and positioned them for bridges and trestles. Sixteen thousand died, as did 100 000 Asian slave labourers.

The line was finally finished on 17 October 1943 when a golden spike was driven in to mark the occasion. This was stolen shortly afterward by an Australian. Along the way two bridges were positioned over the River Kwai, an original built of wood and a metal one built on concrete pillars. These bridges became a target for Allied bombing raids with some of the prisoners who were forced to repair them being lost in these raids and others being killed by stray bombs hitting their camp. These bridges were repeatedly hit right up until 1945, by which time the rail supply line was being severely disrupted by this bombing.

Bob has recently had the good fortune to visit the site of this bridge and was able to show us photographs of the metal bridge still in use today by local trains. We were given views of the river itself and shown the difficulties to be faced in bridging it. Bob and his wife Joyce also visited the various museums in the area, particularly the Australian Hellfire Pass Museum where Australian prisoners had to cut through two lengthy sections of rock to make a cutting for the line at dreadful cost in human life and labour. The pass acquired its name from its appearance as a scene from hell during night work with smoking lamps and fires and bullying guards hurling stones on the prisoners from above. The pass is now a living memorial to the four hundred Australians who died there. At the nearby town of Kanchanaburi there is a Railway Museum and a Commonwealth War graves cemetery where the remains of seven thousand prisoners of war are buried. It is surmounted by the Cross of Hope and Sword of Affliction - a fitting tribute to the men who supposedly whistled "Colonel Bogey" on their way to dreadful labour and torment.

Flip thanked Bob for an excellent curtain raiser and then asked a member of the audience to draw the lucky number in this months DVD draw - "Britain At War" - valued at R249. The lucky number was #17 who promptly claimed his prize.

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Flip then introduced our main lecture. This took the form of "A Discussion Over The Merits Of Different Weapons" and was presented by members of the South African Arms And Ammunition Collectors Association (SAAACA). The discussion was divided into three areas of interest, the first being presented by Brendon McGee and Ronald Doyle, on the respective merits of the Bull Pup rifle versus the carbine. Using actual rifles and carbines, the two debated the pros and cons of the two types of weapon. The argument was mainly about the length of the weapon and a conclusion was reached that the Bull Pup is more suitable as a police carbine than the actual carbine itself, which as a scaled down rifle is of more value as a special forces weapon.

In the second section, which was "long versus short bayonets", Craig Monk told us about the history of the long bayonet, whilst showing us examples of each type. It was the direct successor to the pike and as such, when attached to the end of a long musket, was ideal for breaking up a cavalry charge when troops were massed in a square. It also served to hold the enemy at bay in a close quarters situation. However, with the coming of the magazine rifle battlefield distances became greater, cavalry became obsolete and thus so did the long bayonet, the last formal British bayonet charge having taken place in 1917. Wim Moote then spoke in reply in favour of the short bayonet. The short bayonet was developed more as a tool than as a weapon. Showing us various examples, Wim demonstrated their use as wire cutters, combat knives, tin openers, and in some cases also bottle openers! The latest type is basically a combined utility and combat knife which, coincidentally, is fitted to the end of a modern rifle. However, a new use has been found in police work where it has been replaced by a cattle prod. The conclusion was reached that the bayonet as a weapon is obsolete on the modern battlefield.

In the final section, on "AK47 Versus R4", Adrian Blackburn and Dave Feinstein showed us examples of the two rifles. Adrian explained that the AK47 was designed by a peasant for peasants. It is robust simple and cheap and specially designed for use in cold climates. It has been used in every modern conflict and is the most widely used weapon in the world. However, it is put together very shoddily. Dave then told us how the Israeli Army, during the Six Day War, found that the Belgian FAL (R1) was too heavy by comparison to their opponents' Egyptian AK47's. The South African Defence force noted this lesson and basically reinvented the wheel by producing a more elegant and finely tooled version of the AK47. Dave told us about the development process of the R4, in which he was personally involved, and the conclusion was reached that the AK47 did the same job as the R4 but was considerably cheaper.

Flip then thanked the SAACA group for their presentation and the meeting adjourned for tea.

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8th June
CR Colin Dean - WW2 POW Camps in the UK
ML Dick Bullen - Burma - The Longest Retreat
13th July
CR Geoff Hardy - Strategy of the American Civil War: Anaconda Blockade of the South
ML Martin Ayres - Hundred Years War - Joan of Arc and Henry V
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15th June
DDH Charles Whiteing - Divine Wind: The Kamikaze Pilots of Japan
MAIN Jimmy Alberts/Peter Spiller - Bridge 14
13th July
DDH Captain Brian Hoffman - Naval Traditions
MAIN Ken Gillings - The Anglo-Boer War: The Aftermath
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Cape Town

8th June
Johan van den Berg - The Battle of the Somme - July 1916
- In the footsteps of the South African Brigade 90 years on.
13th July
Simon Norton - The life and career of Maj-Gen Dan Pienaar
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SAMHSEC - Eastern Cape - Port Elizabeth:

10th June
Note Saturday in Grahamstown
CR Yoland Irwin - The history of medicine in warfare
ML Alan Bamford - Some views on the causes of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War
3rd July
CR Robin Barkes - The mining of a Union Ironclad by Confederate forces
ML Caroline Rodgers - RAF Brothers
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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

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