South African Military History Society

Tel (+27)(11) 648-2087 Fax (+27)(11) 648-2085


Our first meeting of 2008 started with the Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, welcoming all present and wishing them all a very happy 2008. After the usual notices our curtain raiser speaker, Mr Sarel Rousseau, was introduced by Colin Dean.

Sarel was born in Paarl and after attending Paarl Gymnasium took up farming, as well as serving in the Commandos. He then went into banking and is at present a Product Specialist at Bankserve. He has also been an amateur radio enthusiast since 1985. The subject of his talk was "Radio Hams at War".

The term "Radio Ham" had its origin in the time of early spark transmitters, when it was a derogatory term used amongst professional telegraphers to describe a poor or "ham fisted" operator. Amateurs adopted this sobriquet as a badge of honour and the term has remained in use ever since. Amateur radio is very much an unpaid hobby and it's practitioners are not only fanatical but are great technical innovators who, among other things, were responsible for the development of short wave radio when originally restricted to a limited number of frequencies.

Sarel then took us through the history of radio communication starting, surprisingly enough, as far back as the early Greeks whose investigations gave rise to the modern word "electron". Early electronic transmission was by telegraph over wires and in a code invented by Samuel Morse, but the efforts of early pioneers such as Hertz and Edison (who invented the vacuum tube in 1883) gave rise to the term "wire less" to describe these attempts to transmit by means other than the telegraph. In 1886 Guglielmo Marconi gained the support of the United States Navy in his wireless experiments and in 1890 successfully sent the first wireless message across the Atlantic Ocean. This sparked the imagination of a large number of people and soon resulted in the first amateur wireless enthusiasts appearing on the scene.

A large network of high-powered transmitters was soon built up and this resulted in a variety of unofficial and official codes also making their appearance, and considerable confusion then ensued as a result of this later development. Legislation began to be introduced to sort out this type of problem and in 1906 the word "radio" was officially introduced to replace the term "wireless". The amateur movement continued to grow and in 1909 the first amateur radio enthusiasts' club was formed in the USA.

The largely publicised sinking of the liner Titanic in 1912 gave rise to significant legislation of the radio world. Enthusiastic radio hams had, in their efforts to help, blocked official transmission to and from the ship and to identify this type of person call signs and licenses to operate were introduced. "Silent Periods" of three minutes every fifteen for the easier identification of distress signals were also introduced and the International Distress Signal was standardised on the German SOS instead of CQD as used by shipping until then.

By the time of the outbreak of World War I there were about 6 000 radio hams world wide and the Allied nations promptly shut them all down and forced them to dismantle their sets. Germany allowed her hams to continue in operation and in many cases these hams were involved in cases of information gathering on behalf of the German war effort. When the USA entered the war she too shut down her radio hams and this state of affairs lasted until 1919, after which amateur radio operators started operating illegally and by the 1920s both they and pirate radio stations were flourishing. This led to all restrictions being lifted and ham radio being legally reborn.

With the commencement of World War II the Allied governments again shut down all ham stations in 1939, but later in the war started using them for secret communication with various underground movements in occupied Europe. Similarly European ham stations were used to send clandestine messages out of the Nazi occupied countries, in many cases using power provided by bicycle dynamos. Following the pattern established in World War I, Germany continued to allow her hams to operate and used them for clandestine purposes as well. In the USA an American Radio League was formed in 1940 as an umbrella body for all ham clubs and in June 1942 the USA established a War Emergency Radio Service, using radio hams in many facets of radio communication. Eventually there were 25 000 radio hams serving in this service with another 25 000 in reserve, while 500 other members were called up for active service in the Armed Forces. Not all were used as operators - many served as technicians - and others were used in tracking down rare radio spares that were only obtainable through amateur links. In Japan all amateur stations were simply closed down as well.

In South Africa all amateur stations were also closed down but most radio hams enlisted in the various signal branches of the Armed Services and were particularly effective in the control of shipping. A small number of radio hams, who were also members of the Ossewa Brandwag, are supposed to have kept in contact with Germany and supplied her with shipping information but this has never been fully proven. With the end of the War in 1945 all restrictions on ham radio were lifted and, with the availability of surplus war radio equipment, the amateur radio scene experienced a boom in numbers. These flourished during the period of the Cold War, although there were no amateur stations other than clandestine ones in Russia or the Communist bloc countries and a Russian station known as "The Russian Woodpecker" effectively blocked all attempts at communicating with these countries from the West.

With the easing of the Cold War, and co-operation between the USA and Russia on the Mir space station project, ham radio reached its peak when it was found that incompatability between the official Russian and US communication systems could be bridged by the use of ham radio, and astronaut Greg Olsen, the third paying tourist in space, was actually a ham radio enthusiast. When official British communications temporarily failed during a phase in the Falklands War, recourse was had to ham radio to resolve the situation, and ham radio similarly played a major part in the wake of the US 9/11 attack, when the official channels became clogged and humanitarian aid was sought through unofficial radio channels, with the aid of radio hams.

At the close of this talk Sarel was thanked by Flip, who then stood down to allow the Vice Chairman Bob Smith to introduce him as the next speaker. This done, Flip commenced his lecture on "Hitler's Greatest Defeat: Operation Bagration 1944 and the Collapse of Army Group Centre". With the aid of his son Jan managing the overhead projector, Flip proceeded to give us a detailed and accurate account of this massive Soviet Russian operation.

By June 1944 large areas of Soviet Russia had been liberated from German occupation and the Soviet planners now looked at a large salient in the vicinity of Minsk, the capital of Belorussia, which intruded into their territory and stood astride the path to Warsaw. This salient, which had a front about 1 000 kms long, was occupied by the German Army Group Centre, commanded by Field Marshal Ernst Busch. It was bounded on the North by already liberated territory and to the South by the Pripet Marshes, and the Soviet planners decided to deliver a crushing frontal attack and eradicate it completely. They named this proposed assault Operation Bagration, in honour of a Russian hero of the Napoleonic Wars by that name.

A lot of careful planning then took place on the Russian side. They intended to use four Army Groups for the assault, which would amount to a force of 1 700 000 men in the front line, backed up by a further 350 000 in support. The amassing of such a vast amount of men and materiel involved a massive logistical effort and also the need to keep these movements secret, something which would be extremely difficult to achieve given the numbers involved. The Soviet planners therefore came up with an intricate plan of deception to conceal the actual point of attack and to mislead the Germans into thinking that it would be south of the Pripet Marshes, instead of directly on to Minsk.

The Russians have been historically unable to grasp the concept of full radio security and, as the German radio intelligence network was as usual outstanding in its efficiency, the Germans soon identified where the attack would be delivered, but not when or how. The observation of Russian movements agreed with the German summing up of the situation that the Russians would deliver a feint attack to the south followed by a main attack in the north. This is in fact what happened on 23rd June 1944 and, even though the Germans had identified all but the most important attack routes, they were simply overwhelmed. The Soviets had air superiority and outnumbered the Germans three to one in manpower and ten to one in tank strength and it was no contest. At the same time as the main assault was launched, Russian partisans went into action behind the German lines. There were 400 000 of these, plus an equal number who could be called out as reserves, and this had the effect of drawing German troops away from the front line to combat them.

On the first day of the assault the Soviet forces advanced 16 kms. The Germans fell back on to prepared static defence lines and fortified cities but only succeeded in getting themselves penned in, while the Russians advanced around them and into the open country beyond. Field Marshall Busch was replaced by Field Marshal Model as the Germans fought back, but by 5th July they were confined to Minsk. This city was encircled and destroyed by 11 July and with its fall a 400km breach was opened in the German line, through which Russian tanks poured heading west.

A dramatic series of advances then occurred as the Russians thrust into Lithuania and ultimately reached the banks of the Vistula, overlooking Warsaw, and where they paused to regroup on 29th August. The German Army Group Central had been completely annihilated, at the cost of 350 000 casualties, while the victorious Russians had also suffered severely with 766 00 casualties. The German Eastern Front had been broken and the way was open for an advance on Berlin.

After an interesting series of questions Flip was thanked by Hamish Paterson for an extremely well researched and interesting talk, after which the meeting was closed by Bob Smith.

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Ivor C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

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For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Mike Laing 031-205-1951 (
For Cape Town details contact Bob Buser (Sec'y/Treas) 021-689-1639 (
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SAMHS Memorial Prizes

February 2008

Dear Gauteng member(s)

Each year we ask for your choices in selecting the winners of our annual prizes for the best main lecture and the best curtain raiser given to the Johannesburg Branch during the previous calendar year.

Please vote - it does not take long - and apart from giving recognition to the speakers involved, it helps immensely in choosing the kind of talks you enjoy most!

The Felix Machanik Memorial prize, which is awarded in his memory for the best main lecture, comprises a certificate and a cheque for R200.

The George Barrell Memorial prize, awarded in his memory for the best curtain raiser, comprises a certificate and a cheque for R100.

On the back of this page you will find a list of the main lectures and curtain raisers given during 2007. At the bottom of this page you are invited to state your first, second and third choices. Replies may be sent by post to P.O. Box 59227, Kengray, 2100 Johannesburg; faxed to 011-648-2085; e-mailed to (Joan) or handed to Colin Dean at the society's lecture meetings on 14 February or 13 March 2008. This last has to be the final date for receipt of replies owing to the time taken to add up the scores to find the winners, and to have the certificates suitably inscribed.

To repeat the advice given last year: will members please avoid the temptation to consider only those lectures delivered in the second half of the year. These may be the ones you remember most clearly because human memory tends to be short. But if the judging is to be fair it is absolutely essential to give equal consideration to those lectures that came earlier in the year, or in the middle.

Curtain Raisers

First ........................................................................................

Second ........................................................................................

Third .........................................................................................

Main Lectures

First ........................................................................................

Second ........................................................................................

Third .........................................................................................

Name (Optional): ............................................ Member / Non-member (Circle)

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Curtain Raisers
January Flip Hoorweg Julius Caesar and the Battle of Alesia 52 BC
February Nick Cowley The Great Escape - South Africans involved
March David Williams Seven Famous Battles that shaped South Africa
April   Annual General Meeting
May Donald Brown A Child at War
June Klaus Kuhne Britische Freikorps - South Africans involved
July Marjorie Dean Sunset in the West - Hood's Tennessee Campaign
August Ivor Little San Boats (Eagle Oil) at War
September John Cramp Soldier-Prince, Edward of Kent, Queen Victoria's father
October Martin Ayres 1066 - a year that changed England forever
November Roslyn Peter The Graf Spee
December John Murray Death of a Hero - Nairac, G.C.

Main Lectures
January Frank Diffenthal We were Volunteers - Angola 1975
February Hamilton Wende The King's Shilling - 1916 - East Africa
March Robin Smith 9 Days in April - Grant's pursuit of Lee, April 1865
April Martin Ayres The Planning of D-Day, 1944
May Clive Wilsworth The S.A. Artillery in action 1975 - 1988
June Tim Waudby The way back - Burma 1943-45
July Carvel Webb The History of SIG Firearms
August Colin Dean The Spice Trade Wars
September Hamish Paterson Cleopatra vs Augustus - the Battle of Actium
October John Parkinson Japan: 1863-64 British Naval Bombardment of Kagoshima
November Steve Lunderstedt Freddie Tait - The Golfing Hero
December Col. James Jacobs The Basotho Wars 1820-1869

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