South African Military History Society

Tel (+27)(011) 648-2087 Fax (+27)(011) 648-2085


The first meeting of the year was opened by the National Chairman, Bob Smith, who commenced proceedings by wishing all those present a very happy and prosperous 2009. He then proceeded to the usual notices, which included a letter from Spioen Kop Lodge, wishing the Society well, and the announcement that, thanks to the good offices of former Chairman Flip Hoorweg, the Society was once again able to offer the raffle of an 8 DVD set on the Vietnamese War. This would be raffled at the February meeting.

Bob then introduced the curtain raiser speaker, Mrs Debbie Schlosser, who was to speak on her father's 63 years of military service. Debbie has lived in Johannesburg for the last 30 years and is a full time housewife and mother, with an abiding interest in things military.

Her subject was "A Tribute to My Father, Colonel Frans Nel" and, supported by her daughter Anne-Marie on the PowerPoint, Debbie proceeded to relate the story of this remarkable man, who was known to many in the audience.

Frans Nel was one of 12 children born to a former die-hard Boer warrior by the name of Francois Nel. The family farm at this time was near Pietersburg and this is where Frans grew up and went to school. After passing standard seven, he left home and became an apprentice carpenter in Pretoria. Having enjoyed his school cadet training, in 1936 he enlisted in the Citizen Force and became a member of the Corps of Signals. This resulted in his being called up for active service in 1940.

After further training at Potchefstroom and Pietermaritzburg, Frans was shipped north to Egypt in the liner "Mauretania" and soon found himself in action at Bardia, Sollum, Mersa Matruh, Capuzzo, Gazala and El-Alamein. Commissioned in the field, he was captured at Tobruk and served as a prisoner of war for the next three years until his release in 1945.

As a POW, Frans was interned at Chieti, Modena, Strasbourg and, finally, Oflag 5A Weinsburg. During this time he kept himself busy by completing his builder's diploma; serving as a liaison for the Red Cross; amateur dramatics and by planning and assisting in escape attempts. He also perfected a natural artistic talent and Debbie showed us a selection of top quality watercolours done by Frans, depicting scenes from North Africa and his period of internment. In this Frans was helped by a German camp guard, Karl Wolfsberger, himself an artist, who perceived Frans' talent and actively helped him to improve upon it.

At the end of the war, the Red Cross billeted Frans at Itton Court in Wales, a 24-bedroom Queen Anne home where he was hosted by Lady Augusta Curre, an 80-year old aristocrat. There he learned to play bridge and proper table manners. During this time, while on a visit to London, he met Sir Winston Churchill's private secretary, Elizabeth Layton, whom he married and carried back to the family home at Politsi, near Duiwelskloof. He returned to his trade of carpenter and moved to Pretoria where he made all the doors for the Voortrekker Monument. He also took up his Citizen Force activities and helped rebuild the Pretoria Regiment. Rising through the ranks, he was appointed to command the guard of honour which welcomed the British Royal Family to Pretoria in 1947 and, as a major, represented the Pretoria Regiment at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London in 1953.

By this time Frans was working for the SA Bureau of Standards, which transferred him to Port Elizabeth in 1956. From then until his retirement he devoted himself to Prince Alfred's Guard, first as Commanding Officer for 13 years, then as a colonel in the Reserves for 12 years and finally as honorary colonel, laying down the reins in 2000.

During this time many changes occurred, with the Regiment being called up for duty at regular intervals for service on the border and in the townships and right into the new dispensation. He passed away at the age of 83, after a lifetime of voluntary military service to his country.

Bob thanked Debbie for her most interesting and superbly delivered talk and then introduced the main speaker for the evening, Mr Sarel Rossouw.

Sarel was born and educated in Paarl and served in the Commandos with the rank of lieutenant. Starting his working career as a farmer, he moved to banking and is currently a Product Specialist with Banksen. He became interested in amateur radio in 1981 and is a well-known figure in amateur radio circles.

The subject of his talk was "Radio Hams and World War II". Using a PowerPoint display operated by Colin Dean, Sarel commenced with the definition of a "radio ham", basically a qualified and licensed radio enthusiast.

Before the advent of the radiotelephone, these amateurs would use the Morse code to tap out messages to each other, in many cases earning the scorn of professional telegraph operators who considered them "ham-fisted". The sobriquet "ham" stuck and was adopted with pride by the amateurs. By World War II there were thousands of these enthusiasts constructing radios, communicating with each other and, in their own way, advancing the technical aspects of radio. With the outbreak of war most countries immediately clamped down on these amateurs as being security risks but then slowly recognised the valuable role that this pool of talent could play. The USA at first enforced a strict neutrality policy on their hams and this was followed to such good effect that the authorities were impressed by their sense of responsibility and when the USA entered the war, established the War Emergency Radio Service (WERS).

There were approximately 51 000 hams in the USA at the time and half promptly enlisted as radio men in the armed forces, while the other half became actively involved on the home front. They taught in radio and electronic fields; served in the communications industry and enlisted in WERS. They also proved invaluable as a source of spare parts for military radio equipment when they were in short supply. WERS served throughout the war as a civil defence organisation and a direct link between the military and civil authorities in times of military crises or natural disaster. By contrast, the Japanese failed to recognise this potential and all amateur radio activities were banned in that country for the duration of World War II. The same policy was followed by Germany and, apart from one or two clandestine stations operated as spy stations, all amateur radio was banned throughout Europe until 1946.

In South Africa amateur radio operating was closely supervised and most hams enlisted as signallers in the Armed Forces. Despite strict control measures, there were one or two amateur stations in contact with Nazi Germany that passed across vital shipping knowledge and remained undetected. Restrictions were lifted in 1946.

However, it was in Britain that amateur radio came into its own. A Radio Security Service (RSS) was established in 1939 and continued operating until 1946. A network of listening services was established across Britain, utilising the services of radio hams, who became known as Voluntary Interceptors (VIs). Operating under the aegis of the Post Office, these VIs, drawn from all walks of life, would listen in to specified frequencies and pick up any incoming radio signals. These were taken down, logged and forwarded to P O Box 25, Barnet, headquarters of the organisation.

An initial success was immediately gained by the interception of messages intended for "Group I", a German sky network being set up in Britain. As a result, several of these potential spies were met on arrival and those not executed were "turned" and worked under British control. "Box 25" grew into a vast organisation, with more than 1 500 people working there, most of them radio amateurs. The size of the organisation inevitably embroiled it in military power struggles but, although it moved from one military empire to another, it continued turning out a wealth of information on German signals; the location of their stations; and data for Enigma decryption.

The hams were closely vetted and sworn to secrecy and, as late as 1979, were still reluctant to talk about their wartime activities. However, there is a section of the famous Bletchley Park code-breaking centre that is preserved as a museum and tribute to the hams of the RSS.

Sarel was thanked by Marjorie Dean for a most interesting talk about people who had received very little credit for their undercover war work.

Bob then asked Frank Bullen to come forward and appraise those present of the re-inauguration of the Johannesburg branch of the SA Genealogical Society, which would be having its initial meeting on 17th January.

This done, the meeting was declared closed and all present adjourned for tea.

Ivor C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

* * *

December 2008 JOURNAL

These have not yet been received from the printer as of 28 January. Please accept apologies and expect to see them during February ... Editor Susanne was busy producing someone FAR MORE important!

* * *

Mystery subscriptions

Please would the member who deposited R175 on 14 January and referred to it as SUNNINGHILL contact Secretary/treasurer Joan Marsh at the letterhead address so she can credit the correct person... Ditto the 13 Jan deposit of R185 which was referred to as Craighall 788 921 ...

* * * * * * *


* * * * * * *

For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Mike Laing 031-205-1951 (
For Cape Town details contact Bob Buser (Sec'y/Treas) 021-689-1639 (
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469 (

* NOTE* Fast mirror and backup site      BOOKMARK FOR REFERENCE     Main site * NOTE*

South African Military History Society /