South African Military 
History Society


May 2008

Contact: Mike Laing 031-205-1951
Bill Brady 031-561-5542

The DDH was presented by former chairman Ken Gillings who gave an account of the role of the artillery during the Battle of Spioenkop, 23/24 January 1900.

He pointed out that the artillery does not have any Battle Honours; neither does it have Colours, for its guns are its Colours. The loss of its guns is akin to an Infantry battalion losing its Colours, hence the indignity suffered by 14th and 66th Batteries RA during the Battle of Colenso on the 15th December 1899.

When the War broke out, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery were organised into Brigade Divisions - nowadays known as Artillery Regiments.

The Royal Horse Artillery's role was to support the cavalry, and the Royal Artillery the infantry. By the time the Anglo-Boer War began in 1899, the British Army's 15 pr gun had become somewhat obsolete when compared with the Boers' 75 mm Krupp and Creusot guns, which outranged them. Nonetheless, because the Boers possessed far fewer guns, they were forced to use them individually or in twos and threes.

During the battle of Spioenkop, several Batteries of the RA came into action at different stages. It is important to realise that in those days, observation of the target came from the actual gun position, not from a forward observation post, as is the case nowadays.

The observation factor is one that must be considered when discussing the limited effect the guns had on the 24th January 1900. When the battle commenced, the principal objective of the field batteries was to prevent Boer reinforcements from arriving. The problem facing the British was that the Boer guns were not only effectively deployed, but also brilliantly concealed from British observation. To make matters worse for them, they had no observation of the Boers' attack.

Several Naval guns (which had been removed from the warships and transferred to the front on carriages designed in the Railway workshops in Durban by Capt Percy Scott RN) were sent to support the Army in the veld. This gave the British advantage in firepower but the guns were not utilised effectively. An example of this fact was when shortly after noon on the day of the battle, several hundred Boer horsemen were observed approaching from the direction of Ladysmith. Lieutenant England RN was ordered to test what effect a shell at an indeterminate range would have amongst them. The gun was given extreme elevation, the range was 18 000 yards and the Boers were dispersed. Thereafter, the naval guns provided what is best described as desultory fire, with many shells landing amongst their own troops.

The Boer artillery was commanded by Major Jan Francois Wolmarans of the Staatsartillerie, which, besides the ZARP, was the only statutory military unit in the South African Republic. When the Boers became aware that the British had taken the Kop, General Louis Botha ordered it to be retaken.

By brilliant utilisation of their guns, the Boers created havoc for the British on the summit, with shells raining down on them with staggering accuracy. A great deal of credit for this accuracy must go to the heliographer who had positioned himself on level ground just below the crest of Aloe Knoll and directed devastating fire onto the British position.

The saga does not end with the Battle of Spioenkop. During the Battle of the Thukela Heights (12th to 28th February 1900), the British experimented with indirect fire - something that they had learnt from the burgher artillerymen at Spioenkop concealed along the iNtabamnyama and Twin Peaks!

The real issue was one of communication or, rather, a lack thereof. The Times wrote: "There can be no doubt that to fit an army for the real conditions of war, all ranks ought to be specially trained in the passing of messages. There is no reason why a telegraph line should not have been taken up Spioenkop on the morning of the 24th January 1900." That may have resulted in direction being given to the British gunners.

That old gunner expression: "Artillery lends dignity to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl". The Boer gunners could certainly lay claim to that.

The evening's main talk was by Robin Taylor entitled: The Air War in Korea; Mig15 VS F86 Sabre. It is impossible to do justice to this wide-ranging presentation on one side of A4 paper. It is not solely about Mig and Sabre.

Korea was arbitrarily partitioned at the 38th parallel at the end of World War 2. As part of the expansionist policies of Josef Stalin, a North Korean army was trained, and in June 1950 this army attacked the effectively unarmed South. The United States responded with aircraft from Japan and Okinawa: P51 Mustangs, F80 Shooting Stars, F82 Twin Mustangs, B29 Superfortresses, and A26 Invaders. C54 Skymasters flew supplies into Pusan while the 8th Army under general Walton Walker held the perimeter. The aircraft carriers of the Royal Navy contributed WW2 vintage Fireflies and Sea Furies. The UN forces now had air superiority over the Russian prop aircraft flown by the North Koreans.

The turning point now came with MacArthur's brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon in September. Within a week the UN forces crossed the 38th parallel and were driving north towards the Yalu River. At the end of October the Chinese army invades in overwhelming numbers. On 1 November a mysterious fast-moving jet fighter appears in the north. B29 losses suddenly soar, it outclasses all other aircraft, including the jet propelled USN and USMC Panthers and Banshees. This is the Russian Mig15, swept wings based on German WW2 research and powered by a Rolls Royce Nene jet engine. 25 of these motors were given to the USSR by the British Labour Government in 1947 [at the insistence of Sir Stafford Cripps].

By December 1950, the first USAF F86 Sabres arrive in Korea by ship from USA. On December 23, General Walker is killed in a road accident, and General Ridgway takes command. On 1 January the Chinese attack into South Korea. February, the Chinese are stopped; March, the Chinese are driven back into North Korea. The F86's saved the day. The ground war grinds on for two more years, until the armistice in July 1953.

The air war of Mig15 VS F86 Sabre is complex. Mig15 was lighter and faster: 3400kg VS 4900kg. Yet the kill ratio was close to 10 to 1 in favour of the Sabre.] This number varies depending on who gives it.

I checked three different books on aircraft, and they agree on this number]. The Chinese admit to losing 1000 Migs! The F86's had to fly 300kms to do battle in Mig alley, while the Migs could skip back over the Yalu into China. Despite this, the ratio was favourable. The superior training of the US pilots did it. They were mainly WW2 veterans, average age about 30. "Clobber College" was started at Kimpo, between Inchon and Seoul, under Col. Francis Gabrewski. The curriculum was carefully constructed with amazing attention to detail: "if you are shot down, ditch in the sea on the west coast. Rescue boats are waiting there. The Russian pilots will not pursue you". [Robin showed us the fascinating details].

Flying 3 missions per day was grueling because of the large G forces. [The US antigravity suit was flexible which made it better than the RAF equivalent]. The Sabre had six 0.5in machine guns VS the three canons of the Mig. The better piloting overcame this. The Esprit de Corps of the ground maintenance was wonderful. A turn-around was less that 20 minutes. Changing a motor was simple, which was important because motor lifetime was short.

By 1953 the war was a stalemate, with the Chinese and North Koreans still refusing to agree to an Armistice. The US now bombed Pyongyang to rubble, and the dams at Chasan and Toksan causing massive flooding and destroying the rice crop. Without air superiority [thanks to the Sabre] these attacks could not have been made. March 1953, Josef Stalin dies. Eisenhower is now president, and in May Foster Dulles mentions to Nehru that the US is prepared to extend the war beyond the Yalu, into China, with nuclear weapons. Things now move! In July 1953 the armistice is signed.

Over the years 8000 F86's were built [mainly for NATO, some for the SAAF]. 12000 Mig15's were built, for Warsaw Pact and China. The RAF sent first two and then four pilots to evaluate the Sabre and Mig. Their report remains somewhere in Brussels classified as "secret". In 1954 the RAF received their first swept wing fighters, the Supermarine Swift [a failure] and the Hawker Hunter [a grand success].

The Australians flew Meteors in Korea. Sabres were subsequently built in Australia. The SAAF "Cheetahs" first flew Mustangs in Korea, and later Sabres. 34 SAAF pilots died. 35000 US troops died for what has been described as "that miserable place". Today it is unrecognizable; our cars come from there. But it still remains a forgotten war.

James Porteous thanked both speakers for two most informative talks, their thorough research and excellent power point presentations that re captured Boer and Korean wars most graphically.

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The AGM was chaired by Ken Gillings. Changes made to the present committee are John Cooke has been nominated and appointed vice chairman and Graeme Fuller has been nominated and appointed as committee member.

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THURSDAY - 8 May 2008 19.00 for 19.30
Usual Venue: Murray Theatre, Civil Engineering Building, Howard College Campus, UKZN
DDH: Fellow member Jesse Wesseloo will describe the Dutch-East India Company as a fighting force.

MAIN TALK: Chairman Bill Brady will present a talk on Kenneth Campbell VC - The Natal Connection. Many members were perhaps not present when the society achieved recognition for this remarkable event several years ago. Recently, a new local and most interesting development has occurred which Bill will highlight at the next meeting.

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FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: June to August 2008

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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.

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Annual Dinner

To celebrate KZN society's 40th anniversary this year the annual Xmas dinner will be combined with this event and coordinated by Charles Whiteing. The committee has decided to present those attending with a commemorative set of glasses engraved with the SAMHS logo. The date and venue has still to be established, and will probably be on a Friday during September or October.

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Anniversaries - at this time in history.
In 1820 the first British settlers arrive at Algoa Bay.
In 1865 General Lee surrenders his Confederate army.
In 1940 the Germans invade Denmark and Norway.
And something that is topical tonight, In 1951 General Macarthur is sacked.
In 1960 David Pratt shoots Verwoerd.
IN 1961 Adolph Eichman goes on trial in Israel

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South African Military History Society /