South African Military History Society

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Our Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, opened the last meeting of the year by welcoming our visitors and asking all present to stand in memory of one of our members, F.J.L. "Bomber" Wells who had passed away on the 16th of November. He had been a member of the Johannesburg Branch since 1983. Flip then asked Professor Deon Fourie to come forward. Deon was a contributor to our very first "Journal" which is now 40 years old and in appreciation of sterling service before and after the founding of that magazine the Society wished to honour him by granting him an Honorary Life Membership. Flip handed over a framed certificate to this effect to Deon who responded with a brief word of appreciation for the honour accorded to him.

Flip then thanked our Vice President Bob Smith for the excellent tour of our Museum which he had organised in November. The guide for the tour was our well known member Hamish Paterson and between the two of them they had brought 33 members out for a very pleasant and educational outing.

Next on the list was the introduction of our curtain raising speaker, in this case another well known member in the person of John Murray. John is a regular speaker at our meetings and a former National Committee member and the subject of his talk was "Death Of A Hero: Captain R.L. Nairac GC."

Robert Laurence Nairac was born on Mauritius on the 31st of August 1948 and moved at an early age with his family to the United Kingdom. There he had an upper class education at Ampleforth College where the Headmaster was Abbott Basil Hume, a future cardinal. Nairac was an outstanding student and distinguished himself both academically and on the sports field before graduating and moving on to Lincoln College in Oxford. Here he obtained a boxing Blue and a good degree before applying for and being accepted in to Sandhurst.

Nairac came from a home where his father was Catholic and his mother a Protestant. There were no religious difficulties in his family and he received a Catholic upbringing with a respect for religious tolerance. As a child he developed a deep and lasting friendship with members of a prominent Irish family and his visits and stays with them at their city and country homes in Ireland brought about a lasting interest and passion for things Irish which was to have a profound effect on his life.

On graduation from Sandhurst he was commissioned in to the Grenadier Guards but undertook post-graduate studies at University College in Dublin where he set out to become "more Irish than the Irish" and could convince many that he was in fact a native born Irishman. With time he returned to his regiment and was posted with No 1 Company, 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards to Northern Ireland as part of the British governments attempts to stabilise that country during the violent religious and sectarian fighting in the late 1960's and through the 1970's.

With his Irish background he fitted in well with the locals and when his battalion was transferred to Hong Kong he decided to stay on in Ulster by undergoing intelligence training and returning as an Intelligence Officer. By all accounts he was good at this and it would appear that he became cavalier in his attitude to the risks he was running and over confident in his ability to pass as a local. In May 1977 he was serving as a liaison officer with an SAS squadron based at Bessbrook Mill, 14 miles from the republican stronghold of Crossmaglen. Working undercover with the name of Danny McAlevy he unwisely spread it around that he had infiltrated the IRA and could have been following this up when he visited a pub known as "The Three Steps" for two nights running in Crossmaglen. There he was abducted by at least seven men and carried South over the Border. Efforts to break his will and garner information from him which involved savage beatings were unsuccessful. Nairac fought back and made several attempts to get away which only resulted in further beatings, until his captors lost patience and shot him.

His body was later recovered and his assassin identified. In the words of this man, Liam Townson, "He was the bravest man I ever met. He told us nothing. He was a good soldier". For his bravery in resisting his captors and refusing to divulge any information under torture Nairac was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

Flip thanked John for a most interesting and thought provoking talk and then introduced the main speaker for the evening. This was Colonel James Jacobs, a senior professional military historian who has addressed our Society before. The subject of his talk was "The Basuto Wars: 1820 -1881". The talk was based on the findings and research of the South African National War College and was illustrated by photographs taken during this exercise which Colonel Jacobs had placed on a "Powerpoint" presentation. The complex movements of the protagonists were also well illustrated by clear and easy to understand maps of the area.

James commenced by describing the Basuto Wars as a series of conflicts that occurred during the 19th Century in the present Free State and Lesotho. They commenced in 1816 with a rebellion of the Bamokoteli clan under Lepoqo against their masters, the Basekake tribe in what is now the Eastern Free State. Lepoqo was successful in this rebellion and re-named himself Moshoeshoe, by which name history remembers him. Leading his followers in to present day northern Lesotho he established himself on the top of a natural mountain citadel named Buthe Buthe from which position he could raid the surrounding countryside with impunity as it was an almost impregnable defensive position.

At the same time the Mfecane (Difqane) conflict of inter-tribal warfare was raging in present day northern KwaZulu-Natal and displaced tribes were forced to move southwards. One of these tribes was the Tlokwa led by Queen Mantasisi, others were the Matabele under Mzilikazi and the Korannas. Under this pressure Moshoeshoe led his own followers further south to another natural rock fortress, Thaba Bosiu. Having learnt the value of horses and muskets from his skirmishes with the Korannas the Basuto as they now called themselves were enabled to assert their superiority over their enemies and eventually incorporate the Tlokwa kingdom, now led by Sekonyella, into their own new Kingdom of Lesotho in 1853.

After the British annexation of Natal in 1842 thousands of Boers re-settled in the Free State and the subsequent fights with the Basuto over land rights led to British intervention to keep the peace and the establishment of the Orange River Sovereignty in 1848. This sovereignty included all the land between the Orange and Vaal Rivers and lasted until 1854. This British intervention involved two minor wars against the Basuto before the British restored the Free State to the Boers and it became the Orange Free State Republic. Almost immediately the new Republic found itself involved in three wars against what was known as Basutoland as a result of rival land claims and territorial differences. These conflicts finally ended in 1869 when Basutoland was as a compromise incorporated in to the Cape Colony. Moshoeshoe died in 1870 and in the subsequent succession struggle one of his sons, Moorisi, rebelled against Cape authority and it took the British until 1881 to suppress this uprising. Basutoland was then declared a British Protectorate and in the subsequent years of peace was ruled directly from London until it achieved independence as Lesotho in 1966.

After the usual question time Colonel Jacobs was thanked for his excellent descriptions of a little known piece of Southern African military history after which Flip closed the meeting. In doing so he reminded all present that our January meeting would as usual take place on the third Thursday of the month to allow all our holiday makers to return. He also drew attention to the usual monthly book sale at the tea venue. This sale has gone from strength to strength and has become very popular with members after the monthly meetings. Margaret and Peter Rush have over the course of this year earned R1 310 for museum funds and are to be congratulated. Flip then concluded by wishing all our members a Happy and Joyous Festive Season.

As this News Letter will only get to our members in the New Year your Scribe would like to take this opportunity of wishing all his readers a Happy and Prosperous 2008 and to hope that your Christmas Season was all that you hoped for.

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Ivor C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

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