South African Military History Society

News-sheet No. 77. DURBAN BRANCH September 1979


At the September meeting of our branch to which members of the South African National (Historical) Society had been invited, resulting in a record attendance of over 100 persons, Mr Peter Walton of Zulu Wars Centenary Merchandising, Casdagrove Ltd., kindly presented a documentary film which appeared on British Television earlier in the year.

"Black as Hell and Thick as Grass" represents an account of two battles between Zulu warriors and British solciers - the first of which provided the inspiration for the forthcoming film "Zulu Dawn". The second, at Rorke's Drift, resulted in a record 11 VCs. A year ago the Welsh Divison of the British Broadcasting Corporation asked Kenneth Griffith if he would make a film for them. He agreed and reminded them that 22 January 1979 would be the precise centenary of perhaps the most bizarre and horrific tragedy to hit the British army up to that date at a place called Isandlwana in Zululand, and hard upon it - 12 hours later - would occur the most famous British military redemption ever known - at a place called Rorke's Drift.

The imperial regiment involved in both of these events was, primarily, the 24th Regiment, whose regimental depot was at Brecon in Wales.

Invariably in his documentary films to date Kenneth Griffith had 'played', impersonated, all of the characters in the story - even the women! But as he approached Zululand he suffered a strong compulsion not to speak the words that King Cetshwayo and other Zulus spoke 100 years ago. And so, with considerable trepidation, he journeyed to Ulundi, and by appointment called on chief Minister Buthelezi`s First Secretary, Mr. Gregory.

To Mr. Gregory he murmured his uneasy enquiry: "Do you think, sir, that Chief Minister Buthelezi would contemplate speaking the words that King Cetshwayo spoke 100 years ago?" And he passed to Mr. Gregory the quotations, the most famous of which reads "Why does the Governor of Natal speak to me about my laws? Do I go to Natal and dictate to him about his laws? ... Go back and tell the white man this: the Governor of Natal and I are equal - he is the Governor of Natal, and I am Governor here."

As Mr. Gregory read those politically significant words Kenneth Griffith must have been acutely conscious of the lethal implications if they were ever to be spoken by Chief Minister Buthelezi - the most sophisticated and influential black statesman south of the Limpopo River.

Mr. Gregory did not discourage him by slamming the shutters. He simply said: "Of course, if the chief Minister does speak those words for you, he will have us white South Africans strongly in mind."

Chief Minister Buthelezi wished to read the whole of the script and, having done so, to Griffith's astonishment and delight, agreed to speak for his famous Zulu ancestors.

The battlefield of Isandlwana is ghost-ridden. Isandlwana is a stange Sphinx-like mountain looming out of the Zululand veld. On its eastern flank the central column of the British army encamped - on 20 January 1879. Shortly after midday on 22nd King Cetshwayo's Zulu army was attacking Isandlwana camp in devastating force. Captain Penn Symons described the scene: "The whole range of hills (the Nqutu) - the whole of its length of four and a half miles was covered with black masses before they began to descend into our valley." (There were 22 000 of them.)

When the Zulu attack had begun on the British camp there had been 1 774 soldiers defending it. After the Zulus had broken through the British line there were 1 329 dead. Over 600 of these dead were soldiers of the 24th Regiment.

At Rorke's Drift, approximately 100 fit soldiers of the 24th Regiment stood between the victorious Zulu army and the British colony of Natal. Four thousand Zulus attacked and those men from Brecon held the little military depot for 12 hours inflicting heavy casualties on the Zulus, until they retreated back to Zululand.

Of that small British garrison an astounding 11 were awarded the Victoria Cross - more than have ever been won in a single military action before or since, including the two World Wars.

After the British army had been grandly reinforced, the Zulus were finally defeated at the Battle of Ulundi.

The title of this TV documentary is derived from the breathless exclamation of a soldier, stumbling down from the Oscarberg at Rorke's Drift, where he had been posted on look-out duty: "Here they come, black as hell and thick as grass."
(Adapted from Radio Times.)


In discussing the talk on "The Escape of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau" in the August Newsletter, these two ships are variously described as pocket battleships, battleships and battle-cruisers. In the presentation they were referred to as battle-cruisers. It appears that some clarification is necessary.

The pocket battleships at the beginning of the war were the Deutschland, Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer. The Washington Naval Agreement of 1922 had allowed Great Britain, France, Italy, The United States and Japan to build battleships of 35 000 tons with 16 inch guns. German "replacement battleships" were limited to 10 000 tons, the tonnage of a cruiser. The German solution was to keep to that tonnage, but to increase the armament from 8 inch to 11 inch guns. These were the pocket battleships - although actual tonnage was about 12 000 tons.

With the renunciation of the Versailles Limitations and the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Treaty in 1935, the Germans enlarged their battle-fleet. They now built two enlarged versions of the above Deutschland class - but with three triple 11 inch turrets and not two. The tonnage announced was 26 000 tons, but it was actually 31 800 tons. There were two of these ships, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. Sometimes described as battleships, the ships are more often and more correctly referred to as battle-cruisers.

The term "battleship" is more correctly applied to the Bismarck (41 700 tons) and the Tirpitz (42 900 tons). Both armed with 8 fifteen inch guns, these ships came into service after the start of the war. (By courtesy of Major D.D. Hall.)


A warm welcome is extended to new members Major and Mrs. A.C. Machin.


October 18th (PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS THE THIRD THURSDAY IN THE MONTH) MAJOR D. MACK of Natal Command will give a talk on the Angolan War (in which he was personally involved) entitled "OPERATION SAVANNAH".
November 8thLt Col N.S.E. Martin will give a talk on "THE HISTORY OF NATO".
December 13thFellow-member Dr. Ian Copley will show some films on the war in Rhodesia (on behalf of the South Africa/Rhodesia Association).

The venue for all meetings will be the Lecture Room, 'SB' Bourquin Building (Port Natal Administration Board's Head Office) on the corner of Jan Smuts Highway and Buro Crescent, Mayville, on the second Thursday of each month, UNLESS OTHERWISE ANNOUNCED, commencing at 8 p.m. Glasses and ice will be supplied so please bring your own canned or bottled refreshments. Friends and interested persons are welcome to come along.

(Mrs) Tania van der Watt

Secretary : Durban Branch, S.A.M.H.S.
Box 870 HILLCREST. 3650.

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