South African Military History Society



A mild winter's evening saw a good audience assemble at the Lemer Auditorium for Melville Milner's talk on the British Expeditionery Force in France in 1940, and our appetites were whetted by Metro-Goldwyn-Hall's excellent short on the sinking of PT 109, John F Kennedy's ship, in the Solomon Islands during 1940.

Mr Milner found himself in the northern part of France near Arras in the second half of May 1940, having been a camp commandant in Boulogne at an earlier stage in the proceedings and having managed to transfer himself to an ill-equipped battery closer to the then rapidly-crumbling front. While Belgium had declared itself neutral in 1936 they were in no way able to resist Hitler's invasion and the British troops found thcmselves squeezed into a small wedge of land south of the Belgian border which was being rolled up towards the coast at an astonishing rate by the Panzer Divisions.

The 11 divisions in France were woefully unprepared for Panzer warfare and three of them in the south were mnnned by volunteers who had come to France to dig trenches - preparing for WWI type battles - and were totally underequipped. The story was the same everywhere - insufficient equipment, no rations or supplies and such communications as existed by rumours and word-of-mouth. One unit had a Bren gun and seven rifles for two hundred men!

The speed of the Panzers enabled them to surround many troops and it took from May 17 to Nay 20 to move from Cambrai to the coast: Boulogne was attacked on the 20th, Calais on the 22nd and both were taken by the twenty-sixth. It was apparent that their only hope lay in an evacuation from Dunkirk, the northernmost point and the only one not yet in German hands. No orders ever reached his battery to formally tell them to withdraw and it was only when they saw British troops destroy vehicles which had run out of fuel that they realised it might be prudent to move westwards.

He mentioned taking a truck across a bridge already primed for destruction - the driver wouldn't entrust "his" truck to Milner but allowed him to accompany him on what might have been their last bumpy ride. The withdrawal saw the men crossing the Belgian border several times as they made their way north of the Canal line towards the coast, and seems to have been a pretty desperate affair despite his light- hearted presentation.

Dr Sinclair thanked the speaker for sharing his experience noting that the presentation was an example of British phlegm at its best and an enrichment to all who heard it.

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Battlefield Tour: Sunday 16th June 1985.

Two bus loads of enthusiastic historians arrived at the Museum before eight on Sunday morning and not even Charles Cohen or Felix Machanik were in danger of being left behind - the novelty of a tour after such a long interval must have had something to do with it. The rustiness was evident however and we shall have to get Tony Spier on a refresher course: his scouts let him down badly and an unplanned excursion into the centre of Town occurred - the motorway was closed, courtesy of certain demolition experts whose intentions had not been entirely unrecorded by the Press! Never mind, Tony, we got some fine photographs of the cooling towers from the Queen Elizabeth Bridge.

The Highveld woke up gently and even the smell at Vanderbijl seemed a bit lazy but by the time we turned in at Creenlands station everybody was keen on the day's business. In the lee of the stone buildIng - which probably existed as the Vredefort Road station in 1900 - the Museum staff's advance guard had set up tables and were waiting to serve coffee, tea and biscuits. Following these most welcome refreshments we gathered for a prayer, Col. Duxbury's introduction and Prof. Barnard's first lecture. The subject of the excursion was the activity undertaken by General de Wet's forces during the first week of June 1900 in the vicinity of Koppies. The psychological value of the success which de Wet's men achieved - particularly at Rooiwal - was emphasised as being crucial to encouraging the resistance of the Boers after both Johannesburg and Pretoria had fallen during May.

Moving on to the banks of the Renoster River one could imagine the disgust and despair that the British must have felt, seeing their almost-completed crossing being set alight hours before the trains were scheduled to have resumed moving northwards. The nearby cemetery was tantalisingly close and Maurice would have happily shown us around but time was against it and we proceeded to Rooiwal itself.

The supplies which were captured by de Wet and his men at Rooiwal were valued at three quarters of a million pounds sterling in 1900, which possibly explains why do Wet's nearby farm was burnt out by the British four days afterwards, on May 11th. What could not be carried away by Boer or prisoner, or secreted, as was a large quantity of ammunition from which the Burghers were still drawing over a year later, had to be burned - the bonfire lasted four days.

After a braai bravely borne by the hotel in Koppies the buses were boarded for the return journey, slightly behind schedule but generally satisfied with a day well spent. Thanks to all organisors and helpers. Major Hall had a camera attached to his lense so we expect to see some slides - those which the victims have not purchased to silence him! - at a forthcoming meeting.

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Joan Marsh (Acting Scribe) (Unpaid)

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