South African Military History Society

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The Chairman, Bob Smith, opened the monthly meeting by welcoming the large audience present and then called for all to stand in a moment's silence in memory of the immediate past Chairman, Flip Hoorweg, who had passed away in September after a lengthy illness.

Bob then dealt with the usual notices. These included reminders of the up-coming Society tour to Nooitgedacht battlefield on Saturday, 14 November; the international Anglo-Boer War Conference in Ladysmith from 25/27 January 2010 and the unveiling of the monument to Edwin Swales VC in Durban on 11 November. He paid tribute for the latter to our committee member, David Scholtz, for his generosity in subsidising this monument at Durban Boys' High School. Members will recall that Edwin Swales VC Drive in Durban has recently been re-named and David's monument will help to keep Swales' memory alive when it would otherwise have been forgotten. Among other forthcoming events also mentioned was the National wreath-laying to be held in Johannesburg in November.

Bob then introduced Marius Whittle, the curtain-raising speaker. Marius, who has been interested in military history since the 1970s, did his National Service in the SA Army before making a career in advertising. His interest in matters military led him to study Strategic Studies through UNISA and eventually gaining a Master's degree. He has spoken to the society on previous occasions and the subject of his talk was "Operation Leopard - The French Foreign Legion in Zaire, 1978".

Using excellent slides in a Power Point presentation, Marius gave us a detailed and analytical account of this almost-forgotten operation, also sometimes called Operation Bonit<é>.

The Zairean province of Shaba, formerly known as Katanga, is the mining heartland of Zaire and possessed of great mineral wealth, particularly around the town of Kolwezi in Southern Shaba. This plum proved irresistible to the rebel movement FNLC (National Front for the Liberation of the Congo) who, during the course of the 2nd Shaban War of 1978, launched on attack on Kolwezi from Angola and Zambia, in an effort to obtain Shaban independence.

The government of Zaire, under the leadership of Mobuto Sese Seko, unsuccessfully resisted this invasion and Kolwezi quickly fell to FNLC troops, under the leadership of a General Mbumba. On 16 and 17 May 1978, Zairean troops, under the leadership of Major Mahele, attempted to recover Kolwezi by means of a series of parachute drops. These proved disastrous, although Mahele did succeed in securing the perimeter around Kolwezi airport. This action immediately led to retaliation by FNLC troops on the approximately 2 500 foreign nationals, mainly French and Belgian, living in Kolwezi and a number of them were massacred in the Impala Hotel.

France and Belgium decided to intervene on behalf of these nationals; France to restore order in Zaire and Belgium to rescue its citizens. The latter then took up the matter with FNLC representatives in Brussels and while doing this threatened military action. Alarmed at this announcement and the effect it would have in Kolwezi, the French decided to stage an immediate rescue attempt.

The French Foreign Legion Airborne Unit (2 REP), under the command of Lt. Col. Phillipe Erulin, was immediately placed on an action footing and flown out to Kinshasha. There they received equipment from the Zairean forces and struck their first snag. The Zaireans used the American UST 10 parachute while the French were trained and rigged for the French EFA parachute. Uniforms, webbing and drill had to be adjusted hurriedly before the 700 men were packed 85 to a plane (Zairean C-130s) and flown on to Kolwezi. They arrived over the drop zone on 19 May, only 53 hours and 10 minutes from the time they were activated!

Inexperienced Zairean pilots led to a bad drop but non-the-less by the evening of 19 May the French had secured Kolwezi "Old Town", which was target Alpha. Not all 700 men could be brought in on the first drop so a second wave came in on 20 May, capturing the "New Town" and the surrounding mining complexes. The occupying FNLC troops then promptly ditched their uniforms and weapons and melted into the local population, making further mopping up very difficult.

That same day, 20 May, the Belgians landed at Kolwezi airport, still held by the Zaireans and, in an operation code-named "Red Bear", headed for the "Old Town". To prevent confusion, it was then decided that the Belgians would control Kolwezi and fly the ex-pats out, while the French would assist the Zaireans in clearing out the FNLC and secure the area. This was done rapidly and 2REP withdrew. They had suffered 5 dead and 22 wounded. FNLC casualties are not recorded.

Lt. Col. Erulin was awarded a Zairean decoration. He died as a result of a heart attack a year later. In 2008 the veterans were fˆted at a commemorative parade by the Legion, where French President Sarkozy took the salute.

After a brief question period Bob thanked Marius for an excellent talk and then introduced the next speaker, Paul Kilmartin. Paul joined the Society in 1990 and served as Chairman of the Durban branch from 1998 to 2005. He is a keen historian with a special interest in World War I and its political causes; the Armistice and Remembrance ceremonies and the Victoria Cross. He is a published author of a book on the Anglo-Boer War and, after a lifetime in the IT industry, has retired to Umhlanga Rocks to pursue these interests.

The subject of Paul's latest lecture, the fifth he has given to our branch, was "1914 - The Road to War and the Opening Months". Starting with the quote by Channon that "every day was a document and every hour an history" Paul stated that this was particularly true of 1914, which was a tumultuous year with seven months of peace and five months of war. Using yet another quote, this time from Keegan, that "The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary war", Paul set out to prove that, in the context of the times, World War I was in fact inevitable.

The period at the turn of the 19th Century was one of imperialism, colonialism and international rivalry and was extremely militaristic, so much so that in 1887 Karl Engels accurately predicted a war coming, as did Bismark in 1888. People could see it coming; would welcome it and go off willingly to war when it came. Planning for this clash began by France in 1887, Germany in 1899 and Britain in 1907. To illustrate how this came about, Paul showed a time scale that commenced with the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, which resulted in Prussia's emergence as a military power. This enabled her to take on and defeat France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1879, with the subsequent cession of Alsace-Lorraine to Prussia. This Prussian success gave rise to imperialism in the then-united Germany, resulting in the autocratic rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the resignation of Bismark.

Subsequent events in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russo-Turkish war gave rise to a self-ruling Serbia, whose existence was ratified at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 when Serbia was incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a factor which gave rise to much Serbian discontent.

In 1904, in order to maintain the balance of power in Europe against a growing Germany, Great Britain entered into the "Entente Cordiale" with France and Russia. At this stage Lord Haldane, Britain's brilliant Secretary for War, also predicted that a European cataclysm was rapidly approaching. The final factor was the Russian defeat by Japan and the image of Russian military weakness.

All these factors came together when, on 28 June 1914, a Serbian insurgent assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia in Sarajevo in Serbia. Austria demanded severe reparations; Serbia baulked and Austria invaded Serbia. Russia was drawn in on Serbia's side as leader of the Slavic Bloc; France was drawn in and, under the "Entente Cordiale", so was Britain. It all happened so quickly that only Germany, drawn in as Austria's ally, was really ready. The Schlieffen Plan for a German invasion of France was dusted off and given to General von Moltke to carry out. This plan was designed to overpower France in weeks. Unfortunately, von Moltke's nerve failed and he modified the plan so that the planned capture of Paris failed. The French were able to counter-attack; the British rallied and, by the end of the year and after the 1st Battle of Ypres, a 700km stalemate was in place on the Western Front.

An intriguing question which Paul then posed in closing was "Who was to blame?" The French and British blamed Germany, but surely Serbia (the assassin) or Russia (leader of the Slavic Bloc) or France (seeking "revanche" for 1879) was more to blame? In fact the blame lay with all of them and history was changed forever.

After this excellent and well-illustrated talk there was a short question period, after which both speakers were thanked by Committee member John Parkinson, for an excellent job.

The meeting then adjourned for refreshments in the foyer.

Ivor C Little

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