South African Military History 


Newsletter No. 35: August 2007
Nuusbrief Nr. 35: Augustus 2007

SAMHSEC regrets the passing of founder member Chris McCanlis, BCR. Chris was born in Ceylon in 1937 and educated at Cheltenham College and RMA Sandhurst. He served in the Middlesex Regiment in Cyprus from 1956 to 1958. From 1958 to 1968, he was a Tea Planter in Ceylon and from 1968 to 1972 a Tea Planter in Rhodesia. He served with the Rhodesian Department of Immigration Control from 1972 to 1982. While serving with 4 Battalion, Rhodesia Regiment he was awarded the Bronze Cross of Rhodesia for Gallantry in Action. He served with the South African Department of Home Affairs from 1982 to 1999. He was a long standing member of the MOTHS. His presentations to SAMHSEC included the Retreat from Kabul in 1842, The Shangani Patrol and the Nuremburg Trials.

Ian Pringle opened SAMHSEC's 12 July 2007 meeting with the Frontier Wars Regiments series on the 7th Dragoon Guards, a cavalry regiment raised as Lord Cavendish's Horse in 1685. It became the 7th Dragoon Guards in 1788. Its Battle Honours include Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, Warburg, Egypt (1882) the Somme, Cambrai, Amiens, Mons and others. The regiment participated in the 7th and 8th Frontier Wars, including Burns Hill (where their regimental silver was lost, never to be found), the cavalry charge on the Gwangwa and Boma Pass. It also served in the Basuto War of 1857 and in South Africa again between 1900 and 1902. It has the oldest cavalry standard in the British Army, having been first used at Dettingen in 1743. The standard is preserved in the National Army Museum.

Barry Irwin's curtain raiser was on HMS Seraph, a submarine featured in 2 books and a film. Between September 1942 and May 1943 she was involved in four clandestine operations. The first was a periscope reconnaissance of the Algerian coast prior to the Torch landings. Next was Operation Flagpole in October 1942 when General Eisenhower's deputy, Lieutenant General Mark Clark and other officers were landed on the Algerian coast for negotiations with Vichy French officers prior to the Torch landings. During Operation Kingpin in November, she transported French General Henri Giraud, his son and three staff officers to a meeting with Eisenhower in Gibraltar. Giraud flatly refused to deal with the British. Since there were no US submarines available, HMS Seraph became USS Seraph and flew the US ensign under the nominal command of Captain Wright USN. The British crew affected American accents. Terence Robertson wrote the book "The Ship with Two Captains" on Operation Kingpin.

Her most famous operation was Operation Mincemeat, popularized in Ewan Montague's book "The Man who Never Was" and the film of the same name. HMS Seraph landed a body, purportedly that of Major Martin, RM, carrying false documents intended to convince the Germans that the Allies were to land in the Balkans and Sardinia instead of Sicily later that year. The documents were passed by Spanish authorities to the Germans and had a significant effect on the subsequent weakening of the Sicilian defences.

She was scrapped in 1963. Parts of her now form the Seraph Monument to Anglo American Co-operation at the Citadel Military Academy in South Carolina. General Clark was the Academy President after the war. The main lecture on The Battle of Waterloo was presented by Pat Irwin. The Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, followed Napoleon's escape from exile on Elba. Arriving in France he quickly gathered support, causing acute alarm at the Congress of Vienna where the rest of Europe was carving up his empire. Napoleon was declared an international outlaw, all negotiation with him was rejected and huge armies were formed to crush him once and for all. His immediate major antagonists were the Allied army in Belgium under the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army under Marshall Blucher. The strengths and weaknesses of each of these armies and the chief characteristics of and difficulties faced by each of the commanders were outlined. Of interest is that a minority of Wellington's force was English speaking, the remainder being Dutch, Flemish, Belgian and German.

The talk suggested that Wellington did not so much win the battle, fighting defensively as he did all day, but that Napoleon lost it through a cumulative series of errors. Napoleon also failed to adhere to some of his own tactical doctrine and advice.

The battle is best understood in its strategic context. The battle on Sunday 18th was the climax of 3 days of complex manoeuvre by both sides, each striving to gain a position that would bring tactical benefits on the battlefield. With foreign armies closing in on France from the north, east and south, Napoleon had little option but to attempt to defeat them in detail. He thus invaded Belgium on 15 June and attacked and partially defeated the Prussians at Ligne on the 16th, but allowed much of that army to escape instead of crushing it entirely, a major blunder allowing it to return to the field on the 18th. The error was compounded by despatching a fifth of his army and a quarter of his guns under Grouchy to pursue Blucher and prevent him from rejoining the fray. Grouchy lost contact with both Blucher and Napoleon and took no further part in operations, effectively depriving Napoleon of these forces when he most desperately needed reserves at Waterloo.

Also on the 16th, Ney had been instructed to attack the Allies at Quatre Bras. This battle was indecisive, as, due partly to Ney's tardiness in pressing the attack, the Allies were able to bring up sufficient reinforcements to allow them to retreat in good order. Wellington was thus able to choose the low ridge at Mont St Jean near the village of Waterloo on which to mount his defence.

As heavy rains on the night of the 17th resulted in deep and sticky mud, the battle did not start until 11h30 in conditions less advantageous to the attacking French, especially in the movement of artillery and cavalry and decidedly in favour of a relatively static defence. The battle is complex as many actions took place simultaneously, although often in isolation of each other in terms of aim. The day can be divided into six major engagements, viz

The struggle for the chateau of Hougoumont on the right of the Allied line. Initially intended as a diversionary attack starting at 11h30, this battle within a battle was badly mismanaged by Napoleon's brother, Prince Jerome. It lasted all day sucking in 18 000 French troops for little tactical advantage. Tenaciously defended by elements of the Guards Brigade, it did not fall, with the French only withdrawing with the general retreat after 20h30;

D'Erlon's infantry attack between 13h00 and 14h15. After 30 minutes of 'softening up' the Allied infantry by the Grand Battery of 80 guns, French infantry attacked the ridge on the centre left of the Allied line. They were repulsed by the Allied infantry and this was followed by an Allied cavalry attack on them and the French artillery, followed in turn by a well timed and effective French cavalry counter attack;

From 16h00 to 18h00 a massed French cavalry attack of 9 000 horsemen under the direct leadership of Ney - 'the bravest of the brave' - was launched against the infantry in the centre of the Allied line. Allied resistance based on the famous 'squares' resulted in 60 % French casualties, a futile waste of men and resources as no battle advantage whatever was achieved;

The struggle for the farmstead of La Haye Sainte only 200 metres from Wellington's line. This strategic strongpoint, which the Allies had occupied during the preceding night, was attacked by French infantry and cavalry at 13h30. It was stoutly defended, mainly by the King's German Legion and only fell to the French at about 18h30, after the remnants of the KGL had run out of ammunition. At this stage Napoleon had virtually no cavalry left with which to exploit this advantage, which in turn might have influenced the outcome of the battle;

The struggle between the French and the Prussians for the village of Plancenoit. At about 16h30 the Prussians, returning from the east in a remarkable forced march, largely attributed to the personal drive of Blucher, began to make contact with Napoleon's right flank. Elements of the Imperial Guard and what remained of the French cavalry were deployed to bar their way, but by 18h15 the Prussians had captured the village in house to house fighting. It changed hands a further four times, the Prussians taking it for the final time at 20h00. The Prussian attack on Plancenoit - behind his lines and drawing off his last reserves - was the biggest single factor in costing Napoleon victory;

The final assault and subsequent retreat of the French Imperial Guard, signalling the end of the battle. By 20h00 Napoleon had a hard choice with the Prussians already at Plancenoit. Faced with the options of an orderly retreat and one last throw of the dice, he decided to attack the centre of the Allied line with the last of his reserves, elements of the Imperial Guard. Although they reached the ridge, for reasons which to this day are unclear, they retreated, something which they had never done before. This led to a general retreat by the French army, much of which initially fought a brave rearguard action although some elements came close to being routed. The Imperial Guard however retreated in good order with Napoleon in their midst, until they could get him to relative safety.

Waterloo was remarkable for a number of reasons:

It was decisive in that it marked the downfall of Napoleon, effectively put an end to 26 years of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and ushered in 99 years of relative peace in Europe;

Over the 26 year period, virtually every country in Europe had become involved and had an interest in the outcome at Waterloo. Some historians have even called the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the true 'First World War';

It is one of the best known, most intensely studied and certainly the most written about battle in history - some 300 000 books, articles etc. in the past 192 years;

This scale of slaughter - 50 000 casualties in eight hours and all in about 8 square kilometres - was not reached again until the first day of the Somme on 1 July 1916. Over 85 % of casualties were the result of artillery fire, the rest being mainly by musket fire but with bayonets playing a significant role in the bitter fighting at Plancenoit.

The battlefield is today relatively little changed from 1815 and is well signposted with numerous memorials and good interpretation of the sites and events which took place. Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte are virtually unchanged. It is well worth a visit.

The meeting was a first for SAMHSEC, perhaps even for SAMHS, in that the main lecture and curtain raiser were presented by a father and son.

SAMHSEC's August 2007 Tour is to Cradock, Tarkastad, Stormberg and Slagtersnek from Friday 31 August to Sunday 2 September. Details from the tour coordinator Ian Pringle, 083 401 6623,

Members joining the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth visit to the van Stadens River Gorge forts on 15 September 2007 are reminded to advise the Society office (open on Monday and Thursday mornings; tel 041 585 2073) of numbers attending.

SAMHSEC's annual meeting in Grahamstown is on Saturday 13 October 2007. Fellow member Alan Bamford is leading a Military History Tour in Grahamstown starting at 09h00 on that day to 4 or 5 sites of military historical interest, not yet visited by the Society, during which there will be a talk of military historical interest pertaining to the area. There will be a tea/coffee/juice and sandwich break, with toilet facilities, to be paid for individually at a cost of approximately R20 pp, and at another site, lunch can be purchased by members of the group, if they so desire, at approximately R60/R70 pp excluding drinks. Our monthly meeting is at 1400 at the lunch venue. The curtain raiser is on Grahamstown's First City Regiment. Alan is the main speaker on "Some Ideas on the Causes and Course of the 1st Anglo-Boer War - 1880/1881". Copies of the Regimental History "First City - A Saga of Service" 2nd Edition by Reginald Griffiths, published in 1987, will be available for purchase at R25 per copy for over 200 pages. Note: the annual meeting in Grahamstown is a gesture of appreciation to the Grahamstown stalwarts who regularly attend SAMHSEC meetings in Port Elizabeth. Attendance by as many members as possible will be appreciated.

SAMHSEC's next meeting at 1930 on 9 August 2007 in the PAG Drill Hall is a film night presented by fellow member Paul Galpin. The feature film is Dunkirk, starring John Mills.

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Malcolm Kinghorn.
SAMHSEC SCRIBE 082 331 6223

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