South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 12 June was Maj Willem Steenkamp, MMM, JCD, the distinguished military correspondent and author who has been a member of the Cape Town Highlanders for 49 years. His subject was the history of his regiment, one of the traditional regiments of Cape Town, if not South Africa.m

Maj Steenkamp started by explaining that there is and had always been a good rapport between the officers and other ranks in the CTH. All members eat the same rations and the other ranks always eat first. The officers go hungry if there is insufficient food. He recalled the thoughtfulness of his men when they noted that no meal had been provided for him. To solve the problem, each man made a contribution from his own plate!

The regiment was formed by a group of leading Scotsmen in Cape Town and the Peninsula and its establishment was gazetted with effect from 24 April 1885. Command was accepted by John Scott who had served in the Scots Fusilier Guards and who was a veteran of the Frontier Wars of 1877 to 1879. Although 150 men had originally promised to join, only 3 officers and 16 men attended the regiment's first parade. Scott formed the men up and, after an hour's drill, the squad was marched off to a room in the old Exchange Buildings, where they were joined by a large number of volunteers. By the end of the evening, the regiment had 23 men more than the unit's establishment table allowed!

It should be noted that, in those more liberal times, officers were elected by the members of the unit a somewhat more democratic and informal approach than hitherto was the case!!

In August of 1885, Capt Dickson and the disgruntled members of the Dukes' Scottish Company, who had been refused permission to wear the doublet and trews (close-fitting tartan trousers), transferred to the CTH. This event gave rise to the myth that the dukes had fathered the CTH.

The regiment had a pipe band from its earliest days and, in addition to adopting the Gordon tartan, the Gordon Highlander's terminology is used. The band is called the Drums and Pipes and not like all other regiments, the Pipes and Drums. To this day, the CTH still drinks a toast to the Gordon Highlanders who were disbanded in 1994.

The first active service took place during the Malay Riots early in 1886. Maj Steenkamp described the official bungling by an insensitive City Council regarding an unsanitary graveyard on the slopes of Signal Hill which caused the riots. When, on 6 January 1886, the Highlanders supported the magistrate who read the Riot Act, the mob dispersed before the time limit of fifteen minutes had elapsed and so peace was restored.

In 1897, 144 members of the regiment volunteered for service in the Bechuanaland campaign which was precipitated by the slaughter of cattle to prevent the spread of the rinderpest. The campaign lasted for just short of 6 months and there was much hard fighting and marching in the extreme climate and inhospitable terrain. Fortunately all ranks returned home safely.

Maj Steenkamp described the role of the regiment during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902. Most of their service was spent as bridge guards along the railway lines in the Karoo. When Kitchener's Horse (a mounted infantry unit) was formed in 1900, some 56 members of the CTH served as a squadron of this unit for the rest of the war. Capt H Watermeyer was appointed as an extra ADC to Field Marshal Lord Roberts and served on his personal staff as an interpreter.

Two battalions of the Gordon Highlanders served in South Africa between 1899 and 1902 it were during these years that links between that famous regiment and the CTH were forged which still exist to this day.

It was not until 1932 that the two regiments were formally affiliated. It was then that the Gordon Highlanders presented a silver statuette of Capt E B B Towse, VC, to the CTH. He won his VC at Magersfontein and was blinded during the battle. The Silver Highlander is piped in to the mess at all formal mess dinners and is ceremoniously placed before the Commanding Officer. Maj Steenkamp explained that the Gordon tartan is in fact the Black Watch tartan with yellow stripes superimposed.

During the German South West campaign the CTH was the first Active Citizen Force (ACF) unit called up and in fact saw no action. He described the raising of the 1st S A Infantry Brigade which served in Libya, Flanders and France. Men from the CTH and the Transvaal Scottish served in the 4th Regiment, commanded by Lt Col Jones CMG, DSO. The regiment's collar badges were identical to those of the CTH but bore the Latin motto "Mors Lucrum Mihi" (Death is my reward) in place of the usual CTH wording.

The 4th Regiment and the rest of the brigade won undying fame for their gallantry in the Battle of Delville Wood from 15 to 20 July 1916, where it suffered horrendous casualties. The survivors were piped out of the wood by a legendary future Cape Town Highlander Pipe Major, Sandy Grieve, then serving in the Black Watch. Maj Steenkamp explained that the CTH had been denied the battle honours won by the 4th Regiment. His struggle with the bureaucrats in the National Defence Force to obtain these continues to this day! Nancy, the Springbok mascot of the 4th Regiment, is now on display in the Transvaal Scottish Regimental Museum.

The years between the two world wars were difficult ones, but, despite the Great Depression, volunteers and new recruits were trained by a core element which kept the regiment going.

During the 2nd World War, the Regiment was initially commanded by another legendary character, Lt Col H L Sumner, MC, MM. The Regiment was mobilised for full time service on 1 July 1940. Initially they were employed within the Union, guarding internment camps at Andalusia, Graspan, Koffiefontein, Leeuwkop, and Baviaanspoort and on internal security duties at Oudtshoorn and Johannesburg.

In February 1941 the Regiment was sent to Egypt to escort Italian prisoners of war back to the Union. In June of that year, they returned to Egypt where they were to serve with distinction, earning the battle honours Gazala, Best Post, Western Desert 1941-43, Alam Hamza, Alamein Defence, Alamein Box and El Alamein. Maj Steenkamp took it upon himself to thoroughly research the combat history of the unit and the regulations concerning the Second World War battle honours and discovered that the Regiment was entitled to two more. On this occasion his application was successful.

After serving in North Africa, the Regiment was amalgamated with the First City, a Grahamstown Regiment, to form the FC/CTH for service with the 6th S A Armoured Division in Italy. Both units chose not to wear a cap badge but rather a yellow and green (6th S A Armoured colours) hackle instead. This wartime amalgamation was very successful and the Regiment earned high praise for its distinguished service in this difficult and fiercely fought campaign.

Maj Steenkamp recalled discussing the Battle of Monte Sole with 2nd Lt Mollet, who led his men through a minefield and captured the top of the mountain. Although an exploding mine caused him to do a somersault, he was unscathed by the explosion, and pressed on to capture his allotted target. He was awarded the DSO a near-VC award for a junior officer. As no senior officer was present to witness what he had done, he could not be recommended for a VC. In addition to this DSO, members of the unit earned the MBE, American Silver Star and Bronze Star, MC, MC and Bar, MM, MM and Bar, mentions in dispatches and three C-in-C Commendations.

After the War, the Regiment was re-formed and, in 1947, played an important part in the Royal Visit by providing the guards of honour for the opening of Parliament, mounting guard at Government House, as well as taking part in HRH Princess Elizabeth's 21st Birthday Parade at Youngsfield and street lining on various occasions.

Maj Steenkamp pointed out that, in addition to having an Honorary Colonel, the CTH had had two Colonels in Chief. The first of these was the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn from 1906 to 1943. Sadly, his heir, the Earl of MacDuff, died of wounds in the Western Desert in 1943. In 1947 HM the Queen graciously accepted this appointment which was terminated in 1961 when South Africa became a republic. Nevertheless the Queen Mother, as she became in 1952, retained her links with the Regiment, which was represented both at her 100th birthday and at her funeral.

The CTH served during the 1960 Emergency and then later during the many years of the Border War. Our speaker recalled one of the last actions of the Border War in 1988 in which the CTH had carried out a reconnaissance in force in vehicles which had seen better days, this resulting in the Cubans withdrawing.

In 1994, Maj Steenkamp, who had been a member of the President's Council, was serving in the Independent Electoral Commission. He described the inadequate security arrangements made by the S A Police for the first democratic election. He had proposed that the CF be called up to assist. Judge Kriegler and Mr Kobie Coetzee had concurred and the CTH and many other units played their part in this historic and fortunately - peaceful event. Maj Steenkamp was not called up as he was already playing a crucial role in this historic event. It was at his instigation that CF members who had been called up received a R35,00 per day election allowance.

He described how one potentially very dangerous situation was defused. When faced with a riotous mob, the legendary "Snakes" Snyman stopped the CTH Rates, climbed out of his turret in his kilt, waved his ashplant cane at the mob and told them to move off (the actual words used are censored!!). He then ordered the gunners in the Ratels to turn their turrets to face the mob. The noise of the turrets rotating and the sight of the depressed muzzles of the guns facing them had the desired effect. A great spirit of peace quickly descended on the scene!

Our speaker described that an administrative error at Defence HQ had resulted in no funds being budgeted for the Reserve Forces immediately after 1994. Once again the CTH and other Reserve Force units made the best of things and the oversight was rectified quite a while later. Since then the Regiment has deployed troops for service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in other peacekeeping operations. The CTH Drums and Pipe Band have represented South Africa at the Edinburgh Festival and always plays an important part at the Cape Town Military Tattoo. He ended by describing the Regiment as "relentless self- promoters"!

After questions had been answered, Bob Buser thanked Maj Steenkamp for his excellent and witty talk and presented him with the traditional gift on behalf of the Branch.



We are always interested in welcoming new members. If you know of anyone who might be interested in military history or who might want to join the Society, please bring them along and persuade them to join. They will be most welcome. This seems to be the most effective way of attracting new members!

Only some 20 members have not yet paid their subscriptions. Please let us have your payments as soon as possible. Note that full members will only receive their copies of the Military History Journal if they have paid up their subscriptions. This is understandable if one considers current printing and postage costs.

If any member has a speaker or subject that he or she thinks would be of interest to members, please speak to a committee member and let us know.


Forthcoming Television Series

A documentary series in 26 parts on the Border War, produced by the Carte Blanche producer, Linda de Jager, for the DSTV Afrikaans channel KYKNET (Channel 111). This series is entitled Grensoorlog and starts on Sunday, 6 July 2008, at 20:30 and thereafter each Sunday at 20:00 (but check schedule!).

It is apparently a very informative and balanced account of what happened during the long years of the campaign.


New Books

Two books of note has been/is due to be published: Col Jan Breytenbach has written an extensive account of the paratroop assault on Cassinga in May 1978, currently shrouded in as much controversy and historical obfuscation as the battle at Cuito Cuanavale, for political gain. The book is called EAGLES STRIKE!, is in paperback format with colour and b&w illustrations, maps, ops orders and much more, covering a total of 640 pages! It sells for R450,00 and is only available through selected outlets.

The second book is due to be published in October and is written by no less than fellow-member and this month's speaker, Brig Gen Dick Lord. The book is titled FROM FLEDGLING TO EAGLE The South African Air Force during the Border War, in hard cover with dust jacket, colour and b&w illustrations, maps and approx. 448 pages. It will sell for R295,00 and is sure to be written in Brig Lord's lively and inimitable style that makes his previous books so readable and highly sought-after.

These will be obtainable from our book dealer members Johan van den Berg on telephone 021-939-7923 or Dave McLennan on phone 021-424-6955.