Our speaker in June 2007 was Mr Colin Eglin, who had a distinguished career in public life and who is a former Leader of the Opposition, who spoke of his service during the Second World War. Mr Eglin attended the De Villiers Graaff High School in Villiersdorp and matriculated at the age of 14. He then studied Quantity Surveying at the University of Cape Town. Whilst at University he joined the University of Cape Town Training Corps, serving in the anti-aircraft section, qualifying as an instructor. Had Cape Town been attacked, he would have manned a Bofors gun on top of the old Colosseum Theatre in St Georges Street in Cape Town!
He joined up as a full time volunteer in the South African Artillery in Ottery in 1943 and, after some time, was sent to Egypt with the 43rd Light Antiaircraft Regiment, which by that time was part of the South African Air Force. The battles north of Rome and leading to the liberation of Florence resulted in a serious shortage of infantry and 43rd Light Antiaircraft Regiment was converted to infantry. After this training period, the regiment was sent to Italy and Cpl (as he then was) Eglin and his company found themselves as part of the First City/Cape Town Highlanders commanded by Lt Col Angus Duncan. This formed part of the 6th SA Armoured Division, one of the most powerful Allied Divisions in Italy. Mr Eglin was appointed Intelligence Corporal.
It was winter and bitterly cold with heavy snow in the mountains. White overalls were issued to the troops to make them less visible. The troops sought shelter from the bitter conditions in ruined house and even in cemeteries, where the alcoves in tombs made snug sleeping quarters for some of the men! (This, obviously, when there were no coffins in the alcoves).
He described the hazards of fighting in the snow and mountainous terrain. Due to the Germans' occupying observation posts overlooking Allied positions, care had to be taken not to leave tracks in the snow. Houses which showed signs of habitation (or anything else that looked as though it was inhabited) were subjected to artillery and mortar bombardment. The war at this time consisted largely of intensive patrolling and mortar and artillery bombardment. He explained that the Americans, who patrolled with large groups of men were often careless and became targets for the eager German gunners or were ambushed by the German infantry.
Mr Eglin then described the attack on Monte Sole in the spring of 1945. This was preceded by an aerial bombardment that was postponed because of bad weather. The Americans managed to bomb our lines, killing one South African and causing the Italian muleteers to flee, leaving their mules behind.
The First City/Cape Town Highlanders had the task of assaulting Monte Sole, with C Company taking the left side of the hill and D Company the right side. He described the hazards of ascending a narrow path of soft broken stone that had been heavily mined. Initially ropes of Cordex were thrown over the minefields to detonate them. 2/Lt Mollett then led his platoon of only five men by that stage in a rush through the final minefield and captured and held the summit. This earned him an immediate DSO.
Mr Eglin described his surprise at finding, on the one hand, a big strong soldier, unnerved by his battle experiences and, on the other hand, an unlikely hero behaving most gallantly during the battle. He recalled the shock of losing the commanding officer, Lt Col Duncan, who was killed when his jeep hit a mine. In all, the FC/CTH lost 30 dead and 76 wounded on Monte Sole.
The capture of Monte Sole broke the mountainous deadlock that held the key to the northern Italian plains - this led to the liberation of Bologna and the advance into the Po Delta and the end of the war in Italy.
This left Mr Eglin and his comrades with a sense of relief that it was all over but also with a sense of emptiness and futility - all they had striven for was now irrelevant. He described the deep divisions in Italy - Fascists, Communists, collaborators and partisans and the many murders that occurred. His talk was interspersed with many anecdotes, some serious and others funny, including the tale of the unofficial "quartermaster" who requested that his repatriation to the Union be delayed. It transpired that he owned "property" in the mountains and was unwilling to let his "investment" go to waste!
He also described the campaign fought against the Germans by the Red Brigade (Partisans) and the savage reprisals exacted by Field Marshal Kesselring. It was a cruel and exacting campaign for combatants and non-combatants alike - thousands of Italian hostages were executed and their properties destroyed. In Mezzabutta the houses were rebuilt and this area is now a memorial to those who died. Mr Eglin played a recording of "So Deep is the Night" and described his feelings prior to returning home after the War.
Maj Gordon thanked Mr Eglin for his fascinating talk and presented him with the customary gift. As a matter of interest the chairman asked if any veterans who had participated in the Italian campaign were present in the audience, to raise their hands. There were no fewer than eight veterans present!
We welcome the following new members who joined in 2007 and look forward to seeing them at our meetings - Messrs D Fenn, S Voyatjes, C W Opperman and R H J Muller.
If you have not yet paid your 2007 subscriptions, please let us have your remittance as soon as possible, either by post, at meetings or by deposit to our bank account at Nedbank, Foreshore Branch, branch code 108309, account number 108 333 2058. Please note your name in the "Remarks" space. Thank you.
Thursday 12 July - BUSH WAR IN RHODESIA - Personal Reminiscences
Bob Buser (Secretary/Treasurer)
Phone: 021 689 1639 (home evenings) & 021 689 9771 (office mornings)