South African Military History Society

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The Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, opened the monthly meeting by welcoming the speakers and their wives, and guests. He then asked for a moment of silence for Mr. David Rattray who, although not a member of our Society, was a well-known and respected military historian. Flip then informed the meeting of a few other matters of interest, including a reminder for members to get their voting forms in for the best lectures at or before the next meeting. There will also be a raffle for another high class DVD at that meeting, entitled "The U-Boat War". Tickets will be available at R10 each.

Flip then introduced the first guest speaker, Mr Nick Cowley, who was to deliver the curtain raiser, entitled "The Great Escape - South Africans Involved". Mr Cowley is a well-known broadcaster and radio journalist for the SABC News and he commenced his Power Point presentation by dedicating his talk to the memory of his father, who served in the RAF in World War II.

The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in Eastern Germany, now Poland, took place on the night of 23/24 March 1944 and has been both written about and made into a film. Of the 76 men who escaped by tunnelling under the wire of the prison camp, 73 were recaptured and 50 of those were subsequently executed by their German captors. Of the 76, three-and-a-half were South African. The "half" was Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who grew up in South Africa as the son of immigrant parents from the UK and who returned there as a teenager. The other three were Lt. Rupert Stevens, SAAF, from Cape Town, Lt. Johannes "Boetie" Gouws from Bultfontein and Lt Neville McGarr from Durban, also both SAAF pilots.

Stevens had previously been involved in "The Wooden Horse" escape, as the gym instructor teaching prisoners how to vault over a wooden gym horse while others tunnelled beneath it, while Bushell was Head of the Camp Escape Committee. On the night of the escape, Stevens and Gouws paired up and were the third pair through the tunnel. Both had mastered German and got as far as Munich, in Southern Germany, by train, where they split up, but both were caught and executed on the outskirts of that city. McGarr, who was travelling on foot, didn't get very far and was caught and shot dead the following day. Bushell made it as far as Saarbrucken near France where he too was captured two days later and also shot. Although the escape was unsuccessful, it was a bold and daring one and considerably disrupted the German war effort because of the vast numbers of service personnel who had to be deployed or alerted in the hunt to recapture the escapees.

Bushell's parents retired to Hermanus where his name now appears on the town's War Memorial near the Old Harbour. The others are buried in military cemeteries in Europe, Gouws and Stevens in the same one.. Mr. Cowley was thanked by Flip for an informative and interesting lecture and the next speaker was then introduced. This was Mr. Hamilton Wende, a free-lance writer and TV presenter for the SABC, BBC and National Geographic. The subject of his lecture was "The King's Shilling - 1916- East Africa".

While working on a shoot in East Africa, Mr Wende's interest in the campaign in East Africa during World War I had been piqued by local oral histories and tales handed down by that campaign. A chance remark about South Africans "running away" at the Battle of Salaita resulted in him then researching this battle and ultimately writing a novel with the battle as it's theme. During the German East African Campaign in World War I, the German Commander, General von Lettow-Vorbeck, led the British a merry dance the length and breadth of German East Africa and successfully tied up large numbers of British and Empire troops. The campaign gave rise to a high death toll in terms of disease and starvation among both the troops and the local population, but not in terms of battle casualties. At Salaita, for instance, the toll was about 200 killed in action.

The South African troops taking part were raw and inexperienced and were under the control of officers and NCOs who, in some cases, had fought on opposite sides in the Boer War only a decade previously. These troops were engaged in following up the enemy and were stopped on 11 February 1916 at Salaita Hill, a surprisingly small hill but which was well fortified. The General in charge decided, against the advice of his staff, to launch the 5th, 6th and 7th Transvaal Regiments against this hill in a frontal attack supported by the Baluchi Regiment. So confident of success was he that he even laid on a champagne breakfast for himself in celebration of his expected victory. The South African and Indian troops advanced en masse against the hill and were promptly subjected to a massive defensive effort by artillery and machine gun fire. Although supported by two armoured cars, these proved ineffectual and withdrew when they ran out of ammunition. The German forces, in the main Black Askaris, then launched a bayonet counter attack and the South African troops broke and ran in panic, leaving their machine guns behind. The Baluchies, who were a more battle hardened regiment and had seen service on the Western Front and Indian Frontier, rallied and repelled the charge, in the process recovering the South African machine guns which they derisively delivered to the South African camp that evening.

This was the largest defeat of white British troops by Blacks since Isandlwana and, as such, was promptly covered up by the British and South African authorities. War histories play down the event and when questions were asked in the South African House of Parliament they were politely fielded and ignored.

Using a Power Point presentation, Hamilton then showed his audience the battlefield as it is today, with the trenches, rock machine gun sangars and even a sniper's nest in a hollowed out baobab tree. The battle and its aftermath proved the inspiration for a book that Mr. Wende decided to write and which he has entitled "The King's Shilling". Hamilton told us about the research he had done and particularly the fact that 33 British soldiers were unaccounted for after the battle. Had they kept running? This made him think of the meaning of courage in a battlefield scenario and gave rise to the theme of his book, which is defeat and how to overcome it, a theme still relevant today.

Mr. Wende was thanked by John Parkinson for a most interesting and well-presented lecture and who also presented him with a Society tie as a token of its thanks. Flip then adjourned the meeting for tea.

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In the wake of the Rattray murder, Ken Gillings has written a press release about tourism in KwaZulu- Natal which makes quite an inspiring read. It is on the web-site as one of the Durban Branch newsletters. Please contact Joan at the letterhead address if you'd like her to post you a hard copy.

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This serves as notice that the 41st AGM of the Society will take place in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the SA National Museum of Military History at 20h00 on Thursday 12th April 2007.

SAMHSEC is to tour Aberdeen and Graaff-Reinet from 4 to 6 May 2007. Dr Taffy Shearing is to lead the Aberdeen visit on 4 May, which will cover actions in the area involving Boer Commandos, the Cape Rebel question and the British policy of executing Boer prisoners for wearing khaki. Activities by that "very gallant gentleman", Captain Oates of Scott's Antarctic Expedition, and Colonel Jacob Gordon, who commanded the Dutch East India Company forces during the Battle of Muizenberg, will also be discussed. The Graaff-Reinet visit on 5 and 6 May will cover the town's role in military operations during the Dutch East India Company's rule, the Frontier Wars and the Second Anglo-Boer War, as well as the Graaff-Reinet based Die Middelandse Regiment.
All are welcome to attend. Contact Malcolm on 082 331 6223 or

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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 C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

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