South African Military History Society

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The December meeting ended the year on a festive note with a book launch to which all members were invited. The book in question was "On the Border/Op die Grens - 1965-1990" and the author, David Williams, was on hand to speak to members and autograph copies of the book.

After wining and dining on the refreshments provided, the members gathered in the lecture theatre for the last meeting of the year. We were pleased to have the inimitable Bob Smith back in the chair and running the meeting after his recent bout with a particularly nasty illness.

Bob opened the meeting with the usual notices of forthcoming events and then introduced the first speaker, Mr Terry Willson. Terry has spoken to us before and is well known to us as a keen weapons collector. Born in Barbados and educated partly in the United Kingdom, Terry is a graduate of both Wits and Unisa, followed by a business career in South Africa. Not surprisingly the subject of his talk was "The Story of a Rifle discovered in Zululand" and this proved to be a fascinating curtain raiser.

The rifle about which Terry spoke was a very worn Martini-Henry of Zulu War vintage that Terry had brought along with him. He described how he had bought this rifle in a fit of youthful enthusiasm and, after wondering over the years about it's history, had decided to see if he could find out more about it.

In a step-by-step account of brilliant detective work, Terry first subjected the rifle to a modern technical analysis that revealed obscured regimental markings that gave a hint of possible Zulu War involvement. Delicate and specialised cleaning of the wooden butt, followed by computer scanning and enhancement, revealed that a series of faint markings were actually the rifle's rack number and the regimental marking of the 80th Regiment (later known as the South Staffordshire Regiment). An important piece of data that was missing was the normal demilitarisation marking, which would have signified that the rifle had been "demilitarised" and sold. The absence of this marking meant that the rifle had either been stolen (unlikely) or captured. If the latter, it would have to have been during the course of the Zulu War of 1879.

Subsequent research revealed that members of the Regiment had been involved in two disastrous actions against the Zulus, where the latter had been left in possession of the battlefield and could well have captured British rifles. These were Isandlhwana and the Intombe River.

Isandlhwana could be ruled out as those members of the regiment killed there were, for various reasons, armed with cavalry carbines, which left Intombe River. At that battle, the 80th was surprised by the Zulus on the early morning of 12 March 1879 while guarding a wagon convoy stranded on both sides of the flooded river, while crossing at Meyer's Drift. Because of the failure of the detachment's commanding officer, a Captain Moriarty, to erect adequate defences and post sufficient sentries, a Zulu impi, under Chief Mbelini, overran the camp and killed 61 soldiers. The British also lost 80 rifles and 90 000 rounds of ammunition.

The combination of circumstances was such that the rifle on display almost certainly, and on the balance of probabilities, came from being captured at this engagement. The final and absolute proof would have been the company sergeant's notebook that would have listed the name of the soldier to whom it was issued against the rack number. Unfortunately very few of these notebooks have survived and in this case the notebook has been lost. Nonetheless Terry believes, as did the audience, that the rifle on display is a genuine relic of the Zulu War.

Bob thanked Terry for a fascinating and well-delivered talk and then introduced the main speaker of the evening. This was the previously introduced author of "On The Border/Op Die Grens" and this was, not coincidentally, the subject of his talk.

David was educated at King Edward School and Wits and is a well-known author and military writer, as well as being the Deputy Editor of The Financial Mail and a presenter on Summit TV. In a well-illustrated and superbly delivered talk, David led us through the Border War from 1965 to 1990, as seen through the eyes of the "Troopie" on the ground, and public perception. This was, in David's view, very much a "secret war" in that the South African public was never fully informed as to what their soldiers were doing "on The Border", This has given rise to "The Battle for History" in which the details and circumstances of actions, such as the raid on Cassinga and the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, have become controversial. Quoting from the personal memories of various senior South African generals, David explained these actions in detail and, in so doing, conclusively demonstrated that the SADF version of events is still the correct one.

However, it was in his description of the logistic difficulties involved, and how troopie humour and ingenuity overcame these problems, that David's talk was at its best. We can only hope that his new book will enjoy the support from the public that it deserves.

At the conclusion of his talk, David was thanked by committee member David Scholtz.

Bob then closed the meeting by reminding members of the upcoming Anglo-Zulu War commemoration week in Dundee and inviting all present to take tea in the lobby.

Ivor C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

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Ken Gillings advises that the Commemorations of the 130th Anniversary of the Anglo-Zulu War will take place in and around Dundee from Friday 16th to Sunday 25th January 2009. On Monday 19th January there will be a conference with an impressive list of speakers including some from the UK and Canada.

More details from or from Endumeni Tourism 034-212 2121 ext 2262, or e-mail or visit their web-site at

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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 (

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