NEWSLETTER NO. 364
Due to restrictions placed upon him because he is a serving officer in the SANDF, Adrian was obliged to change from the originally advertised content.
We saw the Border War through the eyes of a Troepie, illustrated by excellent pictures like the SAR coach full of Cape Town Highianders with the piper bidding farewell as he plays the regimental march.
We saw the development of the webbing from 1974 through 1980, and sampled the weight of the dreaded "Staaldak" that Adrian passed around.
The serious aspects like the correct layout of mortar pits and machine gun positions in a base were contrasted with the light hearted Christmas dinner with coloured paper hats and the famous SAAF city traffic light (liberated from Pretoria) which showed green when the pub was open, and the beer was cold.
Water was always a problem: none to drink, but after rain the vehicles sunk into the mud up to their axles. As for the vehicles, the Buffel was mine-proofed but the was very high for debussing. The driver was well protected behind the armoured glass window. The Ratel-90 was a winner, capable of taking on enemy tanks with great success.
Things changed from open bush warfare to trenches and tunnels, typical communist Vietcong doctrine. Clearing was a nasty business and grenades were the weapon of choice.
The psychological aspects seemed to be missing for many of the troops. They did not appreciate the political reasons for fighting this war, and many needed psychological counselling on their return from the battle zone; this was inadequate.
Ours was a war against Russia and its Communist system fought by the SADF for NATO. Our troops went all the way to Luanda, and came back as the most effective and best trained army in Africa. This is how we remember it.
Main Talk: "South African Regiments at Tobruk" by Phil Everitt
This talk had two aspects: a detailed description of each regiment involved; followed by a day-by-day chronicle from the 1st June to the final debacle on the 21st June.
For each Regiment we were shown (in colour) its badge, a brief history since its formation, the name of its commander during May to June 1942, and for so many that the unit ceased to exist after that fateful day June 21, 1942. They became prisoners of war.
Interestingly, some of the British regiments, the Coldstream guards, the Royal Tank Regiment, were later re-formed - to maintain an image?
We were shown excellent maps of Gazala line and Tobruk perimeter defences of May/June 1942, and then some beautiful coloured satellite maps, which show that the roads of today follow the dusty tracks of 1942. The original Italian built concrete strongpoints are still there clearly visible from the air.
There was no doubt that the disaster at Tobruk was related to the last minute changes of policy imposed by Winston Churchill on June 14, when he demanded that Tobruk be held despite the agreed plan that Tobruk would be evacuated and the 8th Army would not be invested there as it was in 1941.
But worse still, on 18th June, the BBC broadcast from London that Tobruk was "not vital, and might be lost to the enemy" Klopper signalled Army HQ: "I cannot carry on if the BBC is allowed to make these statements". The command and control from 3th Army and communication and co-operation amongst the British commanders was abysmal.
It is important to remember that when the Australians were besieged in Tobruk in mid-1941, they occupied only the defensive perimeter of permanent concrete strong points some 15 kms from the town, that had been built before 1940 by the Italians. The Gazala line was new, only created by the British during early 1942. This defensive line stretched from Gazala on the coast in the north to Bir Hachiem in the south, approximately 60 kms west of Tobruk.
The deployment of the South African units is complex. The 1st Division, as of 27 May 1942, occupied the northern part of the Gazala line, straddling the Via Balbia. The 2nd Division was within the Tobruk defensive perimeter, manning the strongpoints except for those in the southeast manned by the 11th Indian brigade, in particular the Mahrattas occupying strongpoints R58 to R69 through which the final DAK assault would come.
Phil now gave us a long and detailed chronicle beginning with the initial assault by the Italians on the South Africans on 26th May, followed by the chaotic battle of armour in the Cauldron, and then the fall Bir Hachiem on 11 June and the breakout of the DAK from the Cauldron. The piecemeal counter-attacks by the British armour are defeated at Knightsbridge. It is obvious that the Gazala line cannot be held; the Afrika Korps is now between it and Tobruk. The lst S.A. Division is ordered to abandon its positions at Gazala and withdraw into Tobruk and then along the Via Balbia to Mersa Matruh and then to El Alamein. So on 14 June the Gazala gallop begins.
Army HQ now presents a new line on which the 8 Army will "stand": Mrassas - Acroma - El Adem (a case of wishful thinking) There was no armour.
The 2nd SA Field battery from 1 SA Division was left behind and C Troop and D Troop were deployed south of the Via Balbia, 3km behind the perimeter occupied by the Mahrattas. The FOO was Arthur Candy, formerly on the staff of Chemistry Department, University of Natal, Durban. In his own words: 18th June, a quiet night, then clanking of tracked vehicles beyond the Mahratta lines. Reported this to battery HQ. After 2am (19/6) ominous silence. During that day there was enemy movement and our battery opened fire, the first shots to be fired in this battle.
At dawn on the 20th the Afrika Korps fell upon the Mahrattas and an eyewitness was Heinz Werner Schmidt, one of our members. "It was a combination of shells, Stukas and Panzers. By 8am the infantry was through" By 15:00 the battle was way to the north, Rommel was at King's Cross; the sun went down. Dawn broke on the 21st, a clatter of tracks was followed by footsteps: a German soldier made Arthur Candy a prisoner of war.
At 09:00 (on) 2lst June 1942 General Klopper surrendered Tobruk to General Rommel, 10 000 South Africans and 20 000 British. The Cameron Highlanders held out until the evening of the 21st, and were allowed to march into surrender with their bagpipes playing. The South Africans to the west could not believe the order to surrender: they had not yet fought the enemy!
General Klopper made the correct decision. He surrendered to prevent futile slaughter. The 8th Army was not coming to their aid. High-ranking British officers had left.
The difference between the leadership of the British armour and the Afrika Korps is seen in the example of General von Bismark leading his tanks through a minefield riding his motorbike and sidecar.
It is impossible to present all of the detailed information that we were given. What was really depressing was the minute-by-minute scenes of chaos and disorganisation that went on over the 24 hours of 20 June 1942.
On May 14, Klopper had been appointed OC 2nd SADiv, yet on 14 June he had forced upon him the impossible responsibility of the defence of Tobruk without proper and adequate support. One has the feeling that Klopper was the fall-guy.
Vote of Thanks
This was an unusually long evening Bill Brady thanked Adrian for his presentation which nicely reflected personal experience, and Phil for his exhaustive research that brought us new details of the chaos that caused the surrender of Tobruk.
Please remember that the March meeting will be held on THE SECOND THURSDAY OF MARCH, being the 9 March 2006 in the Civil Engineering Building
The MAIN talk will be given by Lt Col Peter Harvey, on 15 Squadron, SAAF, and their participation in Mozambique during 2000
The DDH is a talk on being shot down in Italy in World War II by Terry Tremain
NOTES FOR YOUR DIARY
The 4th Swartkop Challenge, this year being held for the first time on Wagon Hill, will be held on Sunday 2 April 2006, starting at 1100 hours, with team practices being held on Friday 31 March. If any members have yet to experience this remarkable event, we strongly urge you to attend To compliment the event the Siege Museum in Ladysmith is holding a comprehensive programme over the weekend with the "Challenge" being the core part of the proceedings For further information please contact Charies Aikenhead on 036 631 4990 or get further information on the Internet on www.campaigntrails.co.uk or www.swartkopchallenge.com
Subscriptions for 2006 are now due. Membership has been increased by R1O, to R140 per year for Single membership, and R160 for Family Membership (for a maximum of 2 members of the same family). Please send your subscription ASAP to Joan Marsh in Johannesburg, or directly into the Society Account at FNB Bank, Park Meadows Branch, A/c 50391928346, Branch code, 25-66-55, Name: South African Military History Society.
Please note the change in the date of the April 2006 meeting due to the clash of dates with Easter 2006
NOTE CHANGE OF VENUE FOR March MEETING
We will be back in the usual 124 (Murray Theatre) venue in the Civil Engineering Building If further information is needed please contact one of the committee members listed below:
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
South African Military History Society / firstname.lastname@example.org