South African Military History 


Newsletter No 41/Nuusbrief Nr 41: February/Februarie 2008

SAMHSEC's 8 January 2008 meeting opened with the Frontier Wars Regiments series presentation by Pat Irwin on the Cape Regiment, Cape Mounted Riflemen and the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police. The services of Khoi soldiers in the employ of the Dutch were retained by the British after their occupations of the Cape in 1705 and 1806 as the Cape Corps, later the Cape Regiment. In 1817 most of the Regiment disbanded, except for a small force retained for the defence of the Eastern Frontier. In 1827 the Cape Regiment became the Cape Mounted Riflemen (Imperial), with mainly Khoi troops under white officers with some white NCOs. After a mutiny by some Khoi in 1850, the proportion of whites in the unit increased. The Frontier Armed and Mounted Police was established in 1855 and took an increasingly military role in addition to policing until it was reformed as the Cape Mounted Riflemen (Colonial) in 1878. The Artillery Troop of the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police, raised in 1874, became the Cape Mounted Riflemen Artillery Troop, which in turn became the Cape Field Artillery in 1880. The Cape Mounted Riflemen was disbanded in 1926.

Peter Duffel-Canham's curtain raiser was on Helen Duncan. After the sinking of the battleship HMS Barham by a German submarine on 25 November 1941, the British were determined to keep the identity of the sunken ship secret. Helen Duncan was said to be a spiritualist materialization medium who could make a deceased person appear to those at her seances. She was in great demand during the war by relatives of missing or dead persons. She attracted the attention of the Admiralty when she was able to materialize the form of a Royal Navy sailor with the HMS Barham tally on his cap at a seance soon after the loss of the ship. She was arrested and charged with conspiracy as she had revealed the loss of a RN ship. She was found guilty of contravening the 1735 Witchcraft Act and imprisoned. Winston Churchill, called her trial "obsolete tomfoolery" and visited her in prison. However, any thoughts of release were overridden by the risk that she was seen to pose to the secrecy surrounding the planning for D Day. She was eventually released in September 1944. She was regarded as a traitor in some circles as it was believed that she had communicated with the Germans regarding the loss of the Barham. However, it was confirmed after the war that the Germans had no idea that the Barham had been sunk. Her family still seeks to clear her name.

The main lecture on South African airborne thinking and paratroopers in WW2 was presented by McGill Alexander. South Africa never fielded a parachute unit until the establishment of 1 Parachute Battalion in April 1961. However, many South Africans served in airborne operations during WW2. The first person to do a military parachute jump in South Africa was Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, who jumped in England in 1926 and again at Zwartkop in 1927. The first South African to be trained as a paratrooper, however, was ardent Nazi Robey Leibbrandt, who was trained in Germany in 1940 in preparation for his return to South Africa as a German agent and Fifth Columnist.

South Africa had an illustrious, though unpublicised, role to play in the field of airborne operations. In June 1940, eight SAA Junkers Ju 52/3 aircraft transported a Transvaal Scottish company from Swartkop Air Station to Pietersburg and back to Swartkop with instructions to secure the airfield against a fictitious Fifth Column attack. On 1 July 1940, a police officer, Colonel Cooper, was instructed to train 2 battalions of the Police Brigade for the airborne occupation of Lourenço Marques should the need arise to prevent it being used by the Germans. A series of exercises was held between 9 and 15 July 1940 at Waterkloof and Wonderboom Air Stations and standard operating procedures were drawn up for the rapid deployment of air landed troops. It was a concept ahead of Allied military thinking at the time.

A SAAF signals officer, Captain McCombe, was detached to the British Airborne Forces in July 1942 to do a feasibility study for parachute training in the UDF. (Scribe's note: see McGill's article on David McCombe in the Military History Journal Vol 10, no 2 Dec 1995 on Practical realities sobered thinking in the UDF and an airborne unit of only one company of paratroopers was envisaged. The SAAF Regiment Paratroop Company was formed at 75 Air School in Lyttelton. Volunteers were sent to the UDF Battle School at Premier Mine for commando-type training. The Paratroop Company was, however, doomed by the manpower situation in South Africa. Because the UDF relied on volunteers, it was difficult to fill 6 SA Arm'd Division for service in Italy. The SAAF Regiment was amalgamated with the Natal Mounted Rifles to become a tank regiment. McCombe was seconded to the Airborne Forces in the UK and parachuted with them into Arnhem in September 1944, one of at least seven South Africans to participate in this operation. McCombe, however, was the only one seconded from the UDF, the others having joined the British or Dutch forces directly.

The largest group of South Africans to serve as paratroopers with the British Airborne Forces were about 50, mostly officers as the UDF had a surfeit of officers at the time, who volunteered for secondment and parachute training in the Middle East during 1944 and 1945. More than half of them served with the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade Group in Italy, southern France, Greece and Palestine. Others served with units which today would be classified as Special Forces.

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On 8 January, SAMHSEC members joined a Grahamstown Historical Society visit to the site of a skirmish near Carlisle Bridge, probably on 27 May 1902, between Fouche's Commando and members of the Grahamstown DMT. Research into the incident is ongoing. Details from Pat Irwin on 082 445 0973.

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SAMHSEC's next meeting is on 14 February 2008 at 1930 in the PAG Drill Hall. The curtain raiser will be by Ian Pringle on the Arthur Cup and the main lecture by Anne Irwin on the Power of war poetry. The Frontier Wars Regiments series presentation will be on the 95th Regiment by John Stevens.

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The SAMHSEC Annual General Meeting is to be held in lieu of the curtain raiser at the meeting on 14 March 2008 at 1930 in the PAG Drill Hall.

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Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

South African Military History Society /