South African Military History Society

JUNE 1983 NEWSLETTER

MEETING HELD 19th MAY 1983

After welcoming members and guests to the meeting, the Chairman Major D.D. Hall announced a Battlefield Tour of the Mafeking Area, on the 6/7 August. This Tour is different to the Tours organised by the S.A. National Museum of Military History, in that members must make their own arrangements for accomodation and transport. The Tour would start at 9a.m. on the 6th August in Mafeking. An itinerary of the tour will be sent later. Accomodation available is the Mmabatho Sun Hotel just outside Mafekeng. The rate is R43 per person per night. Only double accomodation is available. (no singles) Tel. 783-5333. Other accomodation is available at the Fish-Hoek Hotel at Rooigrond some 10km. from Mafekeng on the Lichtenburg Road. Would all members wishing to join this tour, please advise the S.A. National Museum of Military History. Tel. 646-5513.

The Chairman then invited Col. Duxbury, Director of the S.A. National Museum of Military History to speak on possible future tours. After congratulating the Chairman on his being elected as Chairman, Col. Duxbury expressed his regret that the Tour to Kimberley was cancelled, but perhaps May was not a good month for tours, so the Museum hoped to organize a tour of some Natal battlefields in Sept., or October. He would advise the Society at a later date.

Metro Goldwyn Hall under the able direction of Darrell Hall introduced, what we hope will be a new series of shorts before the main lecture of the evening; "Military Magazine", featuring military careers of famous personalities. This was a semi quiz programme as only the last picture usually identified the personality. The first personality was the military career of a very prominent actor at the time, Clark Gable. He flew five sorties with the U.S. Air Force, over enemy territory, though not required to do so.
Prince Philip served in the Royal Navy and took part in several famous battles.
It was a surprise to see pictures of Max Schmelling (World Heavy Weight Champion 1930-1932). He served as a paratrooper in the German Army.
J.F. Kennedy who became President of the United States served in the U.S. Navy.
The actor James Stewart had a most outstanding career during WW II. He reached the rank of Brig Gen., and was highly decorated.
Richard Todd was with the 7th Paratroop Battalion in WW II.
Mr. Ian Smith ex Prime Minister of Rhodesia served as a pilot with 237 Squadron and has a fine war record. A fine selection of photos with most interest[ing] details, more than maintained the usually high standard of M.G.H. Presentations.

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Mr. Don Beswick was the main speaker of the evening. His subject:
The Blockhouse System of the Anglo Boer War 1899/1902. Mr Beswick now retired, had some 30 years serviec with various military units including the 7th Armd. Division. the study of blockhouses is his speciality.

On the 5th June 1900 a Union Jack measuring 3' x 2' was hoisted over the Raadsaal in Pretoria. This flag was made by Lady Roberts for the occasion when Lord Roberts occupied Pretoria. In their drive to Pretoria, the British had long lines of communications exposed to attacks.

On the 4th June Gen. de Wet captured 55 wagons loaded with warm clothes, food and ammunition. On the 5th June one of Gen. de Wet's detatchments[sic] destroyed a bridge at Rooiwal. On the 7th June a white flag was hoisted [at] Rhenoster, where vast amounts of clothing, food and ammunition was taken. The British losses in these attacks were 35 killed, 111 wounded and 500 prisoners.

It was obvious that the British had to make urgent plans to defend their lines. In 1900 Lord Baden Powell's plan was adopted. This was a system of posts of 10 men placed a mile apart along the railway lines. These posts were in low sunken earthworks protected with barbed wire. These, the forerunner of WW I trenches, were open to the elements and were not used for long. A more habitable form of protection was needed and a Lourenço Marques contractor was commissioned to build some fortified posts in the E. Tvl. One of these in Barberton is now a National Monument. They were oblong 9' x 15' with posts 2' apart with a skin of corrugated iron with stoney sand filled in between. A corrugated iron roof. The loop holes were 3" x 4" in steelplates[sic].

In Febr. 1901 Majpr S.R. Rice designed and built a similar blockhouse in a way that they could be prodiced on a factory basis. Shortly afterwards it was changed to a circular blockhouse. it required no woodwork except a piece to keep the skins apart. Soon factories were started at various R.E. Co. H.Qs. Lord Kitchener was delighted with this design and instructed that a plan be devised which would eventually lead to S.A. being criss crossed by a network of interconnected and interdependant miniature forts. The purpose was twofold, firstly to guard and secure lines of communications secondly Lord Kitchener needed the blockhouses and their intervening barbed wire and other entanglements to drive the Boers into and capture them. The cost was collosal. BY the end of the war there were more than 8 000 blockhouses covering 3700 miles, tying up some 50 000 white and 16 000 black troops. These blockhouses were connected by telephones. Between March and Oct., 1901 some 2 000 Boers were captured each month. In the Free State and Tvl. the Boers had theirmobility destroyed. In Natal there was no resistance. By Nov. some 14 450 sq. miles was cleared in the Tvl. and 17 000 sq. miles in the Free State. However Gen. de Wet constantly broke through these lines, at one time oxen were stampeded into the barbed wire to effect his escape. I his book "Three Years War" Gen de Wet was not impressed with the blockhouse system and claimed they prolonged the war by three months.

However the success of the blockhouse was certainly spelt out by Deneys Reitz in his book "Commando" when he met the men who were the pick of the Tvl. commandos at the Peace Conference held at Vereeniging. The men were ragged, clad in skins or sacking, their bodies covered with sores through lack of salt and food and their appearance was a great shock to those who came from the Cape. Their spirit was undaunted but they had reached the limit of physical endurance.

Mr. Nic Kinsey passed the vote of thanks expressing the Society's appreciation to Mr. Beswick for his most interesting talk on the Blockhouse system in the Anglo-Boer War.

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From the Old Kit Bag (sent in by Nic Kinsey)
Albert Ashbrenton now living on Natal's South Coast is the oldest serving flight sgt. in the Rotal Air Force. He is 72 and still technically on active service. Flt. Sgt. Ashbrenton was during the war in charge of an anti aircraft balloon. In 1944 with the German flying bomb attacks all balloons were moved round London. A clerk made their movement order out to Aidstone instead of Maidstone Kent. Aidstone is in the west of England on the border of Wales. So Flt. Sgt. Ashbrenton, his men and his balloon moved to Aidstone where the balloon was hoisted. The unit was forgotten by Balloon Command. In 1968 after the men had settled down in Aidstome marrying local girls, they hoisted the balloon on the occasion of a local fête. The cable broke and the balloon floated away. The unit was then discovered. The unit received full pay to 1968.

B.G.


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