South African Military 
History Society


January/February 2007

Contact: Mike Laing 031 2051 951

The New Year started off with two contrasting talks. The DDH was by Ian Sutherland, entitled: "Scapa Flow", in which he described its history as a base for Britain's Royal Navy. Scapa Flow is a land-locked anchorage, 24km by 13km, in the Orkney Islands, 20km from the northern tip of mainland Scotland. Until about 1800, Scapa lay undisturbed, with the British naval bases being located in the South (facing France and Spain). But, in the late 19th century Germany began to build its High Sea Fleet, and Britain's navy now began to eye the Baltic and North Sea as sources of danger. As a result in 1909 and 1910 ships of the British fleet visited the Flow. And in 1913 the Admiralty decided to develop it as a main base. By August 1914 the Grand Fleet occupied the "base". With a tide of 30ft it was considered safe from enemy submarines.

It was from Scapa that Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet sailed in May 1916 to do battle with the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland. In 1917 the battleship HMS Vanguard exploded in harbour, killing over 600 of the crew. In December 1917 battleships of the US Navy arrived to support the British. In November 1918 WW1 ended and the German fleet was interned at Scapa. In June 1919, their crews scuttled all 74 of these ships. The British launched a massive salvage operation to raise and then scrap the hulls.

World War 2 found the British fleet in Scapa , still without proper defenses. In October 1939, Prien in U-boat 47 entered the Flow and torpedoed and sank HMS Royal Oak at its moorings. It was from Scapa that Churchill sent the Hood to hunt the Bismarck. During 1940 the defenses were significantly improved, and there were no further air attacks after 1941. During WW2 the Orkneys were populated with thousands of men. The conditions inspired a poem: "Bloody Orkneys", - with dames that won't even give their names.

WW2 ended, and the Grand Fleet Battleships were no longer relevant, and so the fleet left. HMS Vanguard (in Durban in 1947) visited once before being scrapped, and in March 1957 Scapa Flow was closed as THE naval base. The Flow is now a haven for scuba divers who explore the wrecks like the "Dresden" but not the "Royal Oak" which is a gravesite.

Very different was the main talk by Ken Gillings - "The Aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War", spanning people and politics over the years from the Peace Treaty of 1902 to the present day. The war ends with Lord Kitchener shaking hands with the Boer leaders and saying: "We are good friends now". The Boer delegates sign their loyalty to King Edward VII as their Liege and Sovereign.

The cost to Britain has been enormous: 200 million. The cost in lives is staggering: 20 000 Boer women and children died in the British concentration camps. The British had created a wasteland of what had been the two Boer republics; the ZAR and the OVS. Lord Milner was given the task of reconstruction from this shambles, aided by his 'kindergarten' of young Edwardian Imperialists. First priority was the repatriation of 25000 Boer POW's from places like St Helena, Ceylon and Bermuda. 30000 Boer homesteads had been burned, the crops destroyed, the farms stripped of livestock. The British government paid compensation of 10 million to rebuild the farms. Kitchener, Milner and Rhodes had a vision of a British South Africa, but the immigrants did not arrive.

In 1906 the Liberal Party came to power in England and they gave self-government to the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony. This was followed in 1910 by the formation of the Union, with the Boer general Louis Botha as the first Prime Minister. The effect of the war on the British army was very large: it was forced to admit its shortcomings. The Territorials were created by Haldane in 1909; the artillery received new guns with a recoil system, and the gunners discovered indirect fire (learned from Louis Bothma at the Battle of Spioenkop in January, 1900). It was obvious that cavalry charges with lances and sabers were useless; yet the cavalry and regalia were still there in 1914! Thomas Packenham puts his finger on the most Important lesson - the smokeless high velocity round from a magazine rifle together with the machine gun and trench had tilted the balance in favour of the defence. This lesson was still not learned after 4 years of bloody carnage in Flanders. The British khaki uniform of the veld remained almost unchanged until the 1960's when camouflage was introduced.

The newly formed British Army Medical Corps pioneered the use of x-rays in the field, yet could not cope with the outbreaks of diseases like typhoid. The catastrophic toll of death in the concentration camps reflects the lack of organization in the British Army at all levels but especially in the RAMC.

Milner's great aim was to increase production of gold, and to this end he introduced indentured Chinese labourers. This action exacerbated a complex political scene. Whites in Natal moved into Zululand to plant sugarcane. The government introduced a poll tax, which led to the Bhambatha rebellion of 1906. That year the first Springbok rugby side was born, and it toured Britain.

After Union in 1910 came the problem of the 'flag'. Ten years had now passed since the Peace of Vereniging. The SANNC was formed. Gandhi split from the Natal Indian Congress and returned to India in 1914. The land Bank was established, and the Native Reserves were expanded.

The outbreak of WW1 in Europe caused bitter divisions. "Who do we fight this time? The British or the Germans?" South Africa went to war in South West Africa (successfully) and in East Africa (not so successfully). The destruction of the SA Brigade at Delville Wood in 1916 was a heroic stand amidst the futile slaughter in Flanders. The war ended in 1918; SANLAM was founded.

Louis Botha died in 1919 and was succeeded as prime minister by Smuts. In 1920 the League of Nations gave South Africa mandate over SWA. In 1921 Smuts used armed police against the fanatic Israelites at Bulhoek, resulting in 183 dead. In 1922 Smuts was faced with the communist inspired miners' strike. This time he declared martial law and pitched battles were fought along the Reef from Fordsburg to Brakpan. Smuts lost the general election of 1924.

The next 15 years are politically complex. The Wall Street crash of 1929 severely damaged South Africa. In 1933 the political parties of Hertzog and Smuts merged. The break came in September 1939 when Smuts defeated Hertzog in parliament and took South Africa into WW2 on the side of Britain. 2000 of the Ossewabrandwag were interned, including B. J. Vorster who one day would become South Africa's prime minister. Smuts, the Boer general was made a British Field Marshall, and was critically important as advisor to Winston Churchill. Smuts lost the election of 1948, rather as Churchill lost to Labour in July 1945.

By 1961 South Africa became a republic and withdrew from the British Commonwealth, with a president who had spent his youth together with his mother in a British concentration camp.

One bizarre happening links these two talks. Lord Kitchener, C. in C. in South Africa 1900-1902, died in 1916 when the HMS Hampshire on which he was traveling was sunk on the western side of the Orkneys. The ship had sailed from Scapa Flow.

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Vote of Thanks

Adrian van Schaik proposed a vote of thanks to both speakers. He thanked Ian for his fascinating look into Scapa Flow the naval base in the Orkney Islands that was to control the Atlantic during WW2. He also thanked Ken Gillings for his detailed and well-researched talk spanning people and politics after the Boer War and the effect this had on South Africa today.

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THURSDAY, 8th February 2007


DDH: Dunkirk: I was there by Sam Willis. This is a talk not to be missed and probably Sam's last to the society

Main Talk: Battleship Tirpitz by Bill Brady. This is also a fascinating and detailed talk that must not be missed

* 1st April - Swartkop Challenge at Wagon Hill, Ladysmith. Thanks to Charles Aikenhead for giving the society a detailed breakdown of the event.

* 12th April - AGM. The Society will be asking paid up members to vote for the 2007 committee and chairman. This will take place prior to the talks on that day. If anyone should wish to stand on the committee please would they pass their nomination to Ken Gillings prior to the day.

* 14th April - Highland Gathering at Fort Nottingham. Thanks to David Fox for giving the society a detailed breakdown of the event.

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David Rattray:

The cold-blooded murder of David Rattray on January 26 has shocked and horrified society. David was a well-known authority on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and an expert on the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. His contributions to the understanding of this War have made him world famous.

All that knew him and his work will miss him.

Our heart felt sympathies go to his family and we can but hope that the perpetrators of this cowardly deed will be arrested soon and be suitably punished.

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8th Feb
DDH - Sam Willis - Dunkirk : I was there
MAIN - Bill Brady - Battleship Tirpitz

8th Mar
DDH - Capt Brian Hoffman - The Naval Battle of Copenhagen
MAIN - Lt Col Ged Argyle - The Falklands War of 1982

12th Apr
DDH - Dave Matthews & Charles Whiteing - Gordon of Khartoum
MAIN - Charles Whiteing - WW2 Battlefields revisited


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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 /