South African Military History 


Newsletter No 45/Nuusbrief Nr 46: July/Julie 2008

The SAMHSEC's 14 June 2008 meeting in Grahamstown was preceded by a morning visit to the War Memorials at St Andrew's College, Kingswood College and Graeme College.

The second gun in the series by Pat Irwin on 'historic artillery pieces' in South Africa was the British 6 inch 26 cwt Mk I Howitzer. This type of gun, which is easily identifyable by a number of features, was a redesign of the British 6 inch 30 cwt howitzer used during the Anglo-Boer War. It first appeared on the Western Front in 1915, replacing the 4.5" howitzer with which the Allies had started WWI. It rendered sterling service throughout the remainder of the war. The original gun as used in WWI had spoked wooden wheels.

Twelve of these guns were brought to South Africa at the end of WW I, six of them being erected as war memorials to the South African Heavy Artillery in the post war years and the rest being given to the Army. Due to South Africa's acute shortage of artillery at the outbreak of WW II, some of the memorial guns were removed from their pedestals and, with some modification, such as the fitting of pneumatic tyres and new sights, again pressed into service. The gun as a type was one of the most acurate howitzers ever produced and was the standard Allied medium howitzer during the early part of WWII. It was used with great effectiveness in a counter-battery role in both East Africa and North Africa, including by the South African medium artillery regiments. Some guns were still in use at the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. Technically however this gun was obsolete by 1939 and it was gradually replaced by the 5.5" medium gun.

Eleven of the twelve South African guns have thus far been traced and their condition evaluated. Nine are on war memorials (most in either relatively good condition or currently being restored by dedicated gunners), one at the School of Artillery in Potchefstroom and one (the former Port Elizabeth war memorial) in a disintegrated condition with parts missing, in Bloemfontein.

The curtain raiser was given by Dr Mary Knowling, who served in the South African Coastal Artillery from 1942 to 1945. Recruited in her final year of school, Mary received her matric results while in training as a Women's Army Auxilliary Service Rangefinder for both the 9.2 inch and 6 inch guns, with many other young women on Robben Island. She described the basic daily training routine (up early, inspections, keeping kit clean in sandy conditions, occasional shore leave) and the conditions of living on the island, and recalled with affection Sgt. Nortje, who was responsible for the girls despite at times being utterly exasperated with their parade ground drill. The course on range-finding and gun drill were quite tough, but she remembers the experience as one with as much laughter and fun as hard work.

After completion of training, Mary was transferred to Simon's Town to the 9.2 inch guns, which are still there today, and later to Port Elizabeth which had 6 inch guns, also still there today. While there, she served at the Central Battery, Amsterdamhoek, Cape Recife and Schoenmakerskop. She outlined some of the technical aspects of her work including the operation of the equipment and the 'mapping ocean co-ordinates'. The girls also learnt to use a variety of small arms, including Sten guns and hand grenades, and often went out in minesweepers to monitor the fall of practice shot.

Peppered with many humorous anecdotes, such as bringing the Air Force out when a suspected enemy convoy was sighted on the horizon and confirmed as such by several spotters, which turned out to be low cloud. She also recalled, as a bombadier, being invited to a house party and being introduced by her hostess to, amongst others, high ranking officers, as a brigadier. She was too shy to contradict, but it was all accepted with good humour. Army girls were generally treated with kindness and generous hospitality by the public in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. This included not only frequent invitations to peoples' homes, but also free rail passes and cinema tickets in uniform. In recognition for their work, they were allowed the honour of wearing Royal Artillery buttons and badges. On discharge in 1945, Mary was given an ID book (with no phograph in it), a discharge certificate, a letter of recommendation from her commanding officer, 30 and a clothing allowance with which to start her new life, which was to be full of accomplishment and service to others.

Your Scribe prefers to await a precis of the main lecture on the Roman Occupation and Pacification of Britain by John Jackson from the speaker rather than to summarize from memory an excellent presentation by an expert. The precis will be included in a future newsletter.

Members might find the website of interest as it mentions General George Cathcart, who served as Governor of the Cape in the latter part of the Eighth Frontier War.

Also of interest to members may be the 26 episode series on the Border War starting at 20h30 on 6 July 2008 on Kyknet.

Our Secretary and Tours Coordinator, Ian Pringle's new contact details are 071 366 6933,

SAMHSEC's next tour is to the Middelburg area from 8 to 10 August 2008. Details will be confirmed after a recce on 3 July. Members who do not have access to e-mail and who are interested in joining the tour are requested to advise Ian of their interest using the above telephone number.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on Monday 14 July 2008 in the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club clubhouse at the corner of Conyngham and Cape Roads in Port Elizabeth. Both the original speakers have had to wtihdraw, so the curtain raiser will be on the Bishops War Records by Alan Bamford and the main lecture on Long Range Penetration Operations in Burma in 1943 and 1944 by Malcolm Kinghorn.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

South African Military History Society /