South African Military 
History Society


July 2006

Mike Laing gave the DDH talk entitled Sherlock Holmes and the Great Boer War - which covered the life of author Conen Doyle from 1886 to 1929.

Attention was drawn to Doyle's interest in military matters, his travels in Africa and in particular, the time he spent in South Africa - first from March to July 1900 and again in 1928/9. The creator of famous characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, whose meticulous consideration of evidence and rules of deduction enabled them to shed light on perplexing situations, was himself to undergo a transformation between 1900 and 1929 which, it seemed to cause him to reject unpalatable evidence and facts thereby rendering him a stranger to the truth.

When war against the Boers was declared in October 1899 and following the Boer successes in December that year, Conan Doyle attempted to enlist but was rejected apparently because he was "too old and fat". In January 1900 however, he was asked to go to South Africa to take charge of a 50 bed hospital he arrived in Cape Town on 21st March and visited a POW camp, where he gave money to Boer POW's who he described as "good, honest fellows". He arrived in Bloemfontein on 2nd April - he could smell the town before he could see it - and established a hospital in the Ramblers cricket club pavilion with tents on the cricket field.

While in Bloemfontein - a stay of a little over 2 months - he witnessed the ravages of disease caused by the lack of a clean and adequate water supply - the English had failed to secure the waterworks and there were no proper latrines - and the consequential deaths of 1 000 English soldiers - 50 on one day! The English authorities showed little sign of caring about the fate of their troops. After a visit to Pretoria during which he interviewed Lord Roberts and a visit to a POW camp at Waterval Boven, Doyle returned to Cape Town, stayed at the Mount Nelson Hotel, met Milner and sailed for England on 11 July.

At the end of 1900 he published his book, The Great Boer War - revised in 1901 - in which he reviewed Buller's tactics in some detail. On 17 January 1902, he published a pamphlet in which he attempted to explain British policy in South Africa - he justified the "scorched earth policy", excused the Concentration camps and refuted claims that dum dum bullets had been used. His book, The Hound of the Baskervilles, written in 1901, contains references to South Africa - the creation of wealth from gold and the anatomy of the Bushmen and Hotentot are compared.

With the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, Conan Doyle set up a volunteer force and based on his South African experiences he urged the War Office to introduce body armour but only succeeded with the introduction of a steel helmet. He was however, to suffer the death of both his son and brother as a result of the war.

From 1919 onwards, Conan Doyle's adherence to a belief in spirit occurrences proved to be unshakeable even when Houdini to the contrary produced evidence. It appears that the rules of deduction that so characterised his famous creation - the detective Sherlock Holmes - now desert the author himself.

Between November 1928 and February 1929 Conan Doyle undertook a tour of Africa - from Cape Town to Nairobi - to promote spiritualism. He visited the Vroue Monument in Bloemfontein and refused to accept that within a 2 year period, 20 000 Boer women and children died in the concentration camps. In spite of the evidence before him and his own experiences in Bloemfontein, he becomes unable to consider the facts as his former character, Sherlock Holmes, would have done. His comment was "It is a lie, Disgraceful to blame the British. We fought the husbands and fed the wives." Having experienced at first hand the unsanitary conditions in Bloemfontein in 1900 and the death of 1 000 British soldiers in 3 months from disease, not war, he was unable to cotemplate the scale of the disaster from disease amongst the women and children in the concentration camps.

His stubborn refusal to acknowledge the truth meant that the Conan Doyle of 1929 was not the same person as the creator of Sherlock Holmes in 1886.

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Jimmy Alberts gave the main talk (His friend Dick Spiller could not attend because he was involved in training a new group of recruits). The title was "BRIDGE 14"

The audience automatically expected a description of the famous battle at the bridge on December 9, 1975, during Operation Savannah. What we heard was an interesting description of his personal experiences as a Sapper from Bethlehem to Bridge 14 and back. As engineers, his group had been trained in locating and lifting mines, and in building bridges. There had been vague talk about war (?) on the border, but no hard facts. And then in mid-1975 off they went from Bethlehem to Ondangwa, Oshiwello, and Oshikati (which became home for 2 months) He got a genuine 'brake fluid tan', and became one of the oumanne, grensvegters. His comment: "Rumours are dangerous, they tend to come true."

Next thing they flew off by Flossie to Rundu, where there was "a sea of Browns". The Sergeant major called for volunteers to join the assault pioneers; the engineers would lead Savannah! Their job was to locate the mines, then lift them (which was a terrifying business). It was easier (and safer) to blow up a mine than it was to lift it. As Jimmy put it, "we blew up many rocks, better safe ..."

They arrived at the little town of Bibo: a street, a bank, a hotel and a cigar shop. It was a ghost town, no people, like the Marie Celeste there was warm coffee still in coffee cups. At 17.00 each day the choppers dropped rations - canned peas and rooibos tea. They tried smoking the cigars that got liberated. After 2 days of this, they went back to brewing and drinking rooibos tea, and then drying and smoking the rooibos.

Quibela was now the important objective. It was the first week of December and down came the rain. The Nhia river became a real obstacle. The north bank end of the bridge - Bridge 14 - had been blown. It was up to the sappers to 'fix' it. This was done by building up alternative layers of sand bags and blue gum logs which had to be cut down. (We saw a beautiful picture of Bridge 14, taken from the enemy side, showing the repairs)

As they worked, the sappers came under small arms fire and Red Eye (Katyusha) rockets. "The loud explosions of the rockets for two days wore you down. You could die (and some did). It was OK when you were working, but when you rested in the evening, your hands started to shake, and you would cry." But then the Bats arrived, crossed over, and there was no more enemy fire after that. There were some acts of great heroism at the Bridge. Lieutenant Heyns swam the river three times to get medical supplies for his wounded men on the north side.

The Elands arrived and Battle group Foxbat crossed over the bridge, and laid waste to the enemy. The repairs to Bridge 14 had paid off, but four of our men died. The troops were then ordered to withdraw and return to base, a decision already made in Pretoria in November (a decision that upset many of the troops). Kmdt Kruys had real difficulties getting his men of Foxbat to withdraw across Bridge 14 and head back to South West.

On the return trip, Jimmy located his first "real" mine. "I must pick it up. This took three hours. The Lieut. was unhappy - other guys lifted mines faster. But no one died. By 13 December it was all over, and 'we all got home OK".

And now 30 years later Jimmy Alberts is still busy as a "Sapper" in the Reserve Forces, training new engineers to use explosives, build bridges with the new aluminium girders, and to lift mines amongst other skills.

Vote of Thanks

Our Member Dave Matthews thanked the speakers for the so totally different and interesting talks. It was quite remarkable, he said, how Mike Laing could somehow get a reference to George Patton into a talk about Sherlock Holmes! The talk by Jimmy Alberts gave us all a far better idea of what went on at the Bridge. So seldom do we hear about personal experiences that are so well described.

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THURSDAY, 13 July 2006


DDH: Captain Brian Hoffman will speak on "Naval Traditions" - There are plenty of these and who better to talk on this subject. This promises to be an eye opener for many of us.

The Main Talk is by Bill Brady, entitled "Operation Sea Lion: Hitlers plan to invade Britian in 1940". This was a critical battle plan of Hitler and if he had initiated it we could now all be speaking German instead of English.

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Other events:

23 - 25 September: Battle re-enactments, Dundee. For details phone 034 2122121 ext 2262

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Information Required:

1. Allan Jackson cell 082 588 2151 would like information about troops, casualties from WW2 buried in the Hillary Military Cemetery. In which hospital were they patients? What did they die of etc
2. Allan Jackson cell 082 588 2151 would like information about Stamford Hill Aerodrome, the SAAF base and RAF Training School of WW 2
3. Robin Taylor e-mail is trying to trace information about Troopers George and Daniel Rumbell/Rumble, part of the Cape Frontier Mounted Police in the Eastern Cape from 1862 to 1867.

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There was an earlier announcement that the Annual Battlefield Tour would take place in May 2006. Due to an unavoidable clash of dates and availability this has been changed to the 1st weekend in AUGUST, being the 5/6th AUGUST. Please make a note in your diaries for this important change in dates. The tour this year will be on BULLERS ADVANCE FROM LADYSMITH, and will cover the battles at HELPMEKAAR, BOTHA'S PASS and ALLEMANSNEK. More details will be given in future newsletters, but KEN GILLINGS is planning to get 2 teams from our members to consider the problems faced by both BOER and BRITISH forces. The aim is to have a great fun weekend, with very little preparation, in order to have reactions to the reality of those events. Those wishing to take part should contact KEN GILLINGS on 083-654-5880 or 031-702-4828.

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FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: June - August 2006

13 July 06
DDH - Captain Brian Hoffman - Naval Traditions
MAIN - Bill Brady - Operation Sealion

5/6 Aug
TOUR - Bullers Advance from Ladysmith
Ken Gillings - Organiser - 083-654-5880

10 August
DDH - The Curragh Mutiny, 1914 - Brian Kennedy
MAIN - The History of the Zulu Military - Dr Ingrid Machin


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Some Committee contact details
Mike Laing 031-205-1951
Phil Everitt 031-261-5751 (after hours)
Adrian van Schaik 082-894-8122 (after hours)
Bill Brady 031-561-5542 or 083 228 5485
Ken Gillings 083-654-5880

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South African Military History Society /