NEWSLETTER No 391a
The evening's DDH talk was presented by guest speaker Mr. Ken Parry-Hughes on his experiences in France between 1944 and 1945.
Due to total secrecy in the build up of the Normandy landings most units were cordoned off in military camps all over southern England under armed guards. Eisenhower adequately summed up the situation when he said the only thing that keeps this island afloat is the barrage balloons. This was the case with Ken's unit the AFAP (Aviation, Fuel and Ammunition Park.) Their objectives were never explained for security reasons but it soon became clear they were preparing for invasion and the liberation of Europe. Where and when would only be revealed on departure.
After an eventual voyage they landed on Arromanche beach on 15 June 1944 amidst enormous supply shipping activities supporting the landing troops. Ken expressed admiration for the abilities of all concerned with the landing and especially the beach marshals. They moved further inland towards Bayeux and set up camps to store fuel and munitions, preferring to sleep under trucks for safety.
Ken was issued with a Harley Davidson motor cycle and moved between fields to ensure all was according to plan. During this time he would swap his cigarette ration for fresh butter supplied by the local populace. At this time it was decided to use slit trenches and empty rocket boxes for protection. American issue food rations were far superior to British and were eagerly sought after. Washing facilities were virtually non existent and one had to make do with whatever was available.
Orders were received to pull out and move on to Dieppe, en route they passed through Rouen, the city was almost completely flattened and thousands of German vehicles lay wrecked at the key side, mainly victims of British rocket firing Typhoons.
Near Dieppe a group of Jewish labourers from Britain formed a dance band to entertain the troops and locals. Unfortunately for Ken his Harley Davidson was stolen and only a 3 ton water bowser was available. Refusing to be deterred, Ken went to the dance in this RAF water bowser, met a girl, courted her for three weeks using his water bowser and became engaged after three weeks.
Ken was then promptly posted to Belgium. After several weeks he asked permission to take leave and go back to Dieppe to be married. The commanding officer refused, however, with an instruction that Ken was quick to appreciate told him that he must return to Dieppe to collect a bomb. After overcoming all sorts of bureaucratic difficulties Ken got married, enjoyed a two week honeymoon in Eelko, Belgium. The couple moved to Rhodesia and subsequently to South Africa.
They were married for 49 years until her death in Durban in 1994.
The evening's main talk was presented by guest speakers Peter Williams and Barry Roper who both described their experiences with 32 Battalion. Barry began by describing the formation of the unit from troops who were originally FNLA from Angola. They were placed under command of Colonel Jan Breytenbach and were known as Bravo Group. In October 1976 they were formally incorporated into the SADF as 32 Battalion, the Buffalo Soldiers [ from the Buffalo head on their badge.] Operating from Rundu they were tasked to "dominate the area" which meant carry out ops well into Angola. If there were casualties, they had to be brought back: the SADF 'could not' cross the border. In January 1977 Gert Nel became OC and Eddie Viljoen was 2IC. Over the next three years the battalion was involved in many of the vital recce and resupply missions. These were in wheeled vehicles like Unimogs [and whatever else was available or 'obtained']. [Barry was the transport officer and went on these missions hundreds of kilometers into Angola.] Slowly the scale of the ops became bigger and became more conventional all-arms like Savannah. The biggest problem was that far-away stare in the eyes of the men after they had been out in the field for about six weeks: the 'Bossies' look. They had to be withdrawn and given a couple of weeks of R and R to recover, and become fit again to deploy. The great strength of the Battalion was the bond between the men and the officers. On one occasion the men carried the body of their officer many kilometers back to base so the MPLA/Cubans would not know that the SADF was operating against them. The tragedy is that despite promises that 32 Battalion would remain part of the new SANDF, it was disbanded in 1993. Perhaps it was just too effective to keep around.
Peter Williams then posed nine questions about the strategy and tactics of fighting a counterinsurgency war, and how they applied to 32 Battalion.
1. "Why was 32 Battalion so effective?" The troops came from Angola, they were indigenous, knew well the terrain, what to avoid. They thought like the enemy, hit and run. They could speak the language. [You will lose the war if you don't speak the language of the people]. Discipline must be strict, in the base, on the march, and under fire. Punishments must be severe, especially for desertion. [These sounded severe but were no worse than in the Royal Navy of Nelson and the British army of 1914/18].
2. "Was there a counter-insurgency doctrine? Or was it Look and Listen?" What came from Infantry School was not effective; it seemed to be based too much on conventional warfare. A better approach would be to train the whole battalion to fight in small groups as guerrillas and intermingle with the locals. [Too many troops get too used to having good food and medics. One MUST learn to live rough].
3 "Was ethnicity a factor; were the troops anti-communist?" Definitely Yes. Ethnic background was important. They were anti MPLA/Russian. Those from the north were an urban, educated, French-speaking minority.
4, "Did the enemy infiltrate the unit?" There were some who would 'take leave' and visit the Angolan embassy in Gaborone [but not a second time]. An Englishman, Trevor John Edwards, ex Rhodesian army, absconded to Zambia and publicized the existence of 32Bn in The Guardian newspaper in London. [Until then the existence of 32Bn was secret.]
5. "Should the commanders have had greater operational freedom?" The answer always is given by Mao and Clausewitz: war is politics. The ANC and SWAPO had world-wide support. South West was a problem; it was only a Mandate, since 1920. The SADF was restricted; its troops "could not" cross the border into Angola. The character of the war changed: in the Anglo-Boer War fighting changed from conventional to guerrilla: in SWA/Angola it changed from guerrilla to conventional. The longer the war, the more unpopular at home. [Sounds a bit like Iraq?]
6. "What traits must the commander have?" He must be strong, lead from the front; first in, last out.
7. "What are the main threats to the effectiveness of the unit?" First and foremost: lack of discipline. The troops must have support from home, and of the local population [or else all is lost].
8. "Does the high command understand how to effectively fight a counter-insurgency war?" Get back to Sun-Tzu, and understand what it means. Withdraw the best commanders and have them rewrite the doctrine. Casualties are heroes; they deserve rewards. One must think as a terrorist. Do not kill the enemy; wound him - four must carry one.
9. "What parallels are there between the conflicts in Angola and Iraq?" In Iraq the initial onslaught was hi-tech conventional; a pushover victory. Five years later the urban guerrilla war wages on. The religious influence is very dangerous. Suicide bombers become heroes.
Over the years 32 Battalion had outstanding commanders: Jan Breytenbach, Gert Nel, Deon Ferreira, Eddie Viljoen. 32Bn had a fine record but in 1992 the Chief of Army announced that it would be disbanded, and so it was in 1993.
Mike Laing thanked the speakers: "What a wonderful evening; two such different and fascinating talks".
Ken made clear to us the importance of the 'support tail' in war, and his initial posting as a quality control inspector in a factory producing armaments. Barry and Peter opened our eyes to what goes on in counter-insurgency, both for 32Battalion and in Iraq. In the end it is all about loyalty and patriotism. Today the 32Bn veterans proudly wear their black blazers with the silver buffalo-head badge.
THE SOCIETY'S NEXT MEETING;
THURSDAY - 14 August 2008 19.00 for 19.30
Usual Venue: Murray Theatre, Civil Engineering Building, Howard College Campus, UKZN
DDH: Prof. Mike Laing will talk to us on Lili Marlene, the enigmatic entertainer that had an impact on both sides.
MAIN TALK: Robin Smith will present his talk on the famous American civil war Battle of Shiloh and its overall effect on the war.
Battlefield Tour will take place on 9th / 10th August 2008.
1. Saturday morning: Depart Durban 07h30, RV at Ultra City at 09h00 for departure 09h30. ETA Blood River at 11h30. DVD presentation in the Interpretation Centre on the Battlefield, followed by discussion at the Voortrekker laager site. Picnic lunch at Blood River, after which we proceed to the Ncome Museum across the river. Time permitting, we'll view the battlefield from the Zulu commanders' position on Intaba kaNdlela (Ndlela's Hill) across the Mathambo plain. Cost: R20 pp entry fee.
2. Saturday afternoon (+- 16h00) we stop on the right bank of the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River for preliminary discussion on the next day's battlefield tour. ETA Lodge 17h30.
3. Sunday morning: Proceed to site of Maj Gen Sir William Penn Symons's camp for phase 1, followed by retracing of the route through the town of Dundee taken by the British troops en route to Talana. Phase 2: Stop overlooking the Steenkoolspruit for briefing on the British assembly point. Phase 3: Proceed to Talana Battlefield for final phases of the Battle. Climb Talana Hill to view the Battlefield from the Boer perspective, followed by lunch on the battlefield and tour of the museum. Cost: R15 pp entry fee.
Please arrange your own accommodation for the tour. Special Rates have been negotiated with several lodges and B&Bs in the Dundee area and the details are as follows:
1. Fellow Member, Elizabeth Durham, owns and runs Chez Nous - a very fine B&B in Dundee. She has offered members a major discounted rate for Dinner (three courses), Bed and Breakfast at R405.00 per person. Her contact details are firstname.lastname@example.org , telephone 034 212 1014. Please refer to the SAMHS tour;
2. Battlefields Country Lodge is situated 8 km from Dundee. They have offered a simple dinner and a DBB rate of R395 per person sharing. Contact details: email@example.com telephone 034 218 1641. Please refer to the SAMHS tour. Mark your enquiry for the attention of Raymond;
3. The Royal Country Inn is a charming old hotel (originally the Royal Hotel). It is situated below the traffic circle in the town. The owners have offered the following special B & B rate. Contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org .Tel: 034 212 2147 Dinner is about R120 per person:
Single Rate: R390.00 pppn B&B (En suite with DSTV)
Double Twin Rate: R275.00 pppn B&B (En suite with DSTV)
Family Room Rate: R240.00 pppn B&B - 3 pax sharing (En suite with DSTV)
Family Room Rate: R215.00 pppn B&B - 4 pax sharing (En suite with DSTV)
A Family Room consists of two separate bedrooms, linked by an interleading door, sharing a bathroom.
Please refer to the SAMHS tour.
4. Lennox B & B is owned and run by former Rugby Springbok Dirk Froneman and his wife Salome. It is situated on a farm about 8 km from Dundee on a gravel road off the Dundee/Nquthu road. Salome's food is legendary. They have offered the Society a Bed & Breakfast rate of R346. Dinner starts from about R100 but self-catering is permitted in the annexe
. 5. Zulu Wings is situated on a farm about 15 km from Dundee on the Nquthu road. They are fully booked for the night of the 9th August, but can offer accommodation if anyone would like to spend the next night there. Contact Vanessa de Villiers on 034 212 5976 or 083 283 8162.
6. Penny Farthing is run by Foy Vermaak and is situated on the Biggarsberg along the Dundee/Helpmekaar road. At the time of going to print, his rates were not available. His e-mail address is email@example.com
KZN 40TH ANNIVERSARY
To celebrate this occasion the society has arranged a buffet lunch to be held at the Durban Country Club on 21st September this year. The cost will be R85,00 per person and includes wine and a commemorative set of glasses engraved with the SAMHS logo.
Col Jan Breytenbach
The Winston Churchill Shellhole, Westville, has staged a bit of a coup. They have managed to book the legendary Col Jan Breytenbach (of 32 Battalion fame) to give a talk at Flame Lily Park, Queensburgh, on Friday 1st August 2008. Time: 19h00. Cost: R25.00 per person.
Col Breytenbach will have copies of his books available. Dress: smart / casual. Refreshments on sale. Refreshments will be on sale. A social function is being held for Col Breytenbach before the talk. If you would like to attend, please phone Peter Williams on 0832534546.
South African Military History Society / firstname.lastname@example.org