South African Military History 


Newsletter No 50/Nuusbrief Nr 50 November 2008

The 13 October 2008 meeting opened with the sixth in the series on by Pat Irwin on the 6-pdr anti-tank gun of WWII, easily identifiable by its low profile, shield and wide 90 arc of traverse. The gun employed two key features of successful anti-tank guns of its time viz. a projectile of hardened metal capable of piercing armour plate and a high muzzle velocity. The 6-pdr replaced the obsolescent 2-pdrs. It first saw action in May 1942 at Gazala and then at El Alamein. The gun was used by all the allied forces, including South Africa, and was much liked by the Americans. Several hundred were manufactured in South Africa. Towards the end of the war the 6-pdr was replaced by the 17-pdr. There are few 6-pounders left in South Africa today. In the USA they are much prized collectors' items as ammunition is still available, They are still in use in the armies of Pakistan and several South American countries.

(Scribe's note: with Pat's popular series on historic artillery pieces in South Africa now at its half way point, suggestions are invited on whether this series should be followed by another and, if so, on what and by whom.)

Mac Alexnder's curtain raiser was on Operation Blouwildebees, the heliborne assault on the SWAPO base at Ongulumbashe, Owamboland on 26 August 1966, the first action of the 23-year insurgency war in SWA/Namibia. It was also the first time that elements of an SA Army unit had been deployed in action since the Second World War.

About July/August 1965 six armed SWAPO insurgents entered Owamboland, having crossed Angola from Zambia. They established a remote base, called it Ongulumbashe and began training local youths. The Security Police intercepted a second group of insurgents and one of them led them to the base. A decision was made to attack the base using the police riot unit. Untrained and lacking equipment, the police requested assistance from the SADF. Ten paratroopers from 1 Parachute Battalion were seconded to the police. Eight Alouette III helicopters and crews were provided and, after two weeks' training, the force was flown to Ruacana in three C-130 aircraft.

The security Police carried out a final recce of the base two days before the attack. A reserve force was sent by vehicle to a point some 17km east of the base. At first light on 26 August, the attacking force was flown to the base by helicopter. Three helicopters were used to position the 15-man assault element, three to position the 15-man stopper groups, one orbited with an airborne reserve of five men and the eighth was used for command and control. The 16 insurgents in the base were expecting an attack, but not from the air. The fire fight was quick, but heated, with a chaotic absence of control and no basic battle drills by the police, but even more confusion amongst the insurgents. An insurgent was killed, several others wounded and ten captured. There were no casualties amongst the security forces. During cut-off flights in surrounding areas, another insurgent was killed and two more captured. Two escaped. The insurgents' weapons were a few old sub-machine guns and pistols and included bows and arrows, which they used against the attackers. Ongulumbashe was the first and only base established inside SWA by SWAPO.

The main lecture was by Pat Irwin on The Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, the first and only major engagement in the invasion of England by William, Duke of Normandy. What we know of the battle is based on relatively little factual material. No eye witness accounts of the battle are known to exist. Much of the contemporary history relating to the battle was written by the victors who understood the need to re-write history for their own ends. Recent critical analysis of the Bayeau Tapestry has added to our understanding of the battle and its context.

The immediate cause of the invasion was a dispute over accession to the throne of England. The Saxon king of England, the childless Edward the Confessor, had on his deathbed in January 1066 given the throne to Harold Godwinson, a prominent Earl of the Realm. This had been ratified by the Witan - the Saxon parliament - and Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey. The process was however disputed by William who claimed that Edward had promised the throne to him and that Harold had subsequently acquiesced in this. Much current scholarship regards William's claims as dubious at best.

The landing of William's army coincided closely - whether by design or coincidence is not clear - with the invasion of northern England by King Harald Hardrada of Norway. Harold had rushed north, leaving the south coast unguarded against the impending invasion, and had decisively beaten and killed Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York on 25 September. He was to hear on 1 October that William had landed at Pevensey on 28 September and was laying waste the surrounding countryside. Harold was then forced to return south to London, covering the 300 km with the most mobile part of his army in only six days. Here he immediately proceeded to organise a new army to meet William.

Harold seems to have felt an urgency in confronting the Normans, the reasons for which are not clear. On 13 October, after a forced march from London with a relatively small force, he occupied Senlac Hill, a low rise above the surrounding country some 14 km north of Hastings, where William was encamped. The intention appears to have been to establish a base at which the full Saxon army could be gathered and deployed over the next few days for an attack on William. It is probable that William, seeing this likelihood, decided to attack immediately before reinforcements arrived, and marched to Senlac to confront Harold's exhausted and incomplete force. The two armies clashed on the morning of the 14th.

At the onset of battle the Saxon army probably consisted of no more that 700 to 800 professional soldiers - the elite Housecarls who could be described in today's terms as 'heavy infantry' - and 3 000 odd levies or peasant conscripts under their thegns (landed gentry). More levies were to drift in during the course of the day so that it is possible that as many as 8 to10 000 Saxons ultimately took part in the battle. While the Housecarls bore similar armour and had similar teardrop shields to William's 'Normans', they favoured the heavy battleaxe over the sword or spear. The levies would probably have been armed only with spears or even farm implements. It is unlikely that many of them would have owned or worn armour and many of their shields would have been of the simple round kind.. There is no record of the Saxons fielding archers or mounted fighting men. The Saxons, now forced to fight from a defensive position, formed what has been termed a 'shield wall' along the crest of Senlac Hill.

William's army was composed of more or less equal numbers of Normans, Bretons and French, many of them volunteers and adventurers fighting largely for plunder. They consisted of some 7 500 well armed infantry similarly clad to the Housecarls, but armed with swords and spears rather than axes, 3 200 mounted knights, who fought from horseback as light cavalry, and several hundred archers.

The Norman assault took place in three phases. The first, at about 0930, was an infantry attack which the Saxons were able to repulse. In an otherwise orderly Norman retreat, the Bretons on the Norman left flank panicked and fled, hotly pursued by the Saxon right, composed largely of undisciplined levies. William, seeing opportunity in defeat, attacked the levies with his cavalry, badly mauling them before they could recover their positions and effectively weakening the Saxon defence line. After a lull during which both sides regrouped, the second Norman attack took place in the early afternoon with the mounted knights playing a major role. It was again repulsed, but, at some point, William feigned a retreat by the French on his right wing. The levies on the Saxon left once again left their defended positions in pursuit and were counter-attacked by the cavalry, this time being virtually annihilated. These losses resulted in a serious contraction of the defence line allowing the Normans for the first time to carry out a flanking movement to their right which probably contributed to the ultimate rolling up and fragmentation of the Saxon defence line.

The third attack, commencing about 1530, became a hand to hand slogging match in which there were high casualties on both sides, but during which the exhausted Saxons were slowly worn down. Norman archers were also instructed to shoot high so that arrows descended like bolts from above, one of these wounding Harold in the eye at about 1630. As evening approached, with many of the Saxon leaders, including Harold's two brothers, killed, and the Normans sensing victory, one can imagine the Saxon line breaking into isolated, fragmented and scattered groups. At about 1700 or shortly before dusk, the mounted knights seem to have broken through the ring of Housecarls protecting Harold and killed him. Shortly thereafter, what remained of the Saxon army disintegrated and fled, the exception being the remaining Housecarls who reportedly fought to the last man around Harold's body.

Hastings was the only set-piece battle of the invasion, although in the subsequent conquest of England, which was only completed in 1071, a great deal of vicious and vengeful slaughter by the Normans took place, far exceeding casualties at Hastings,. William had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 and proceeded with the dispossession of land and property of the Saxons on a scale seldom equalled in history. It was almost total.

Among the most significant of the long term consequences of the invasion were the entrenchment of a landed aristocracy of Norman origin, evident to this day, and a peasantry and ultimately a working class of Saxon origin. The Normans were sophisticated and competent administrators and one of the most remarkable legacies of this process was the Domesday Book which recorded in varying degrees of detail the property of almost everyone in England. It was used as recently as the 1960s in the settlement of a land dispute. The English language and the long term social and economic linking of England with the European continent rather the historic links to Scandinavia were other major consequences. The Saxon language disappeared and its culture was absorbed into a new blend of Englishness which over time came to be one of the most aggressive of nations.

In summary, as several historians have noted, for all its brutality the invasion can be seen as conquest and colonisation by a more energetic and technically and administratively advanced people over those less so. It is one of the most oft repeated phenomena of history.

Congratulations to Barry & Yolande Irwin on the birth of their daughter.

SAMHSEC members Richard & Ansie Dalldorf have relocated to the Johannesburg area.

Members are invited to submit suggestions for SAMHSEC's 2009 tours to Ian Pringle on or 071 366 6933.

Members interested in attending the commemoration of the 130th anniversaries of the Battles of Islandhlwana and Rorke's Drift in Jauuary 2009 are invited to contact Steven Bowker on or 083 630 9608.

There are still vacant slots on the SAMHSEC 2009 speakers roster, which members are invited to contribute to filling. Thanks to those members who have already contributed.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on Monday 10 November 2008 in the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club. The curtain raiser will be on traces of the ABW in parts of the Northern Cape and Free State by Richard Tomlinson. The main lecture will be on Electronic and Modern Information Warfare by Barry Irwin.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

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