Prior to our meeting on Thursday 11 May 2009, Brig Genl John del Monte, the General Manager of the Rosedale complex, our venue for meetings, gave us a short overview on Fort Wynyard and its future. He explained that the 2010 Soccer Stadium, which many people felt was too close to the fort, had turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The City of Cape Town is keenly aware of the historical importance of Fort Wynyard and has been most forthcoming in assisting with the upgrading project current underway.
Genl del Monte then described the present status of Fort Wynyard. Six years ago, it was leased by the Department of Defence to a Trust. The Dept of Defence recognises the lease although it is and always has been a non-document which has not been registered with the Public Works Department. It is currently - and has been for a number of years - been used as the headquarters of the Cape Garrison Artillery, a Reserve Force air defence regiment. Most of the regiment is to move to Fort Ikapa at Wingfield, with the exception of Regimental HQ.
The collection of coast and anti-aircraft guns and other relics formally part of the museum collection have been transferred to the CGA Regimental Trust.
In view of the Fort's important role as part of the Soccer Stadium urban park, the fort is being upgraded and the Department of Public Works, SANDF, the City of Cape Town and members of the regiment, assisted by a joint working committee, have already made very significant progress. All the alien trees have been removed and repairs to the buildings are to start soon. The "New Laboratory", built in 1812, is to be painted in its original ochre colour-scheme and provided with replicas of the original wooden gates - these are to be made using original plans obtained from the Royal Engineers Museum in the UK.
Some of the anti-aircraft guns have been repaired and restored and the National Botanic Gardens at Kirstenbosch have most kindly undertaken to assist with the landscaping and planting of indigenous flora on the Fort Wynyard site outside the fortification walls.
Genl del Monte explained that his vision is that the fort be re-opened as a living museum and major tourist attraction. He envisaged the establishment of a workshop in which an ordnance artificer would repair guns and saw the fort as an important part of the Cape Peninsula's rich military history as well as coast artillery heritage, complementing the batteries on Robben Island (currently being upgraded by the Navy), Simon's Town, Llandudno and the Chavonnes Battery in the Waterfront.
Genl del Monte reported on the high-rise buildings which developers are keen to construct in front of the Fort and told us that Fabio Todeschini, (emeritus professor at UCT, noted architect, town planner, urban designer, as well as being a cultural heritage advisor) and many others were doing their utmost to try to amend the plans to lessen the impact on the fort's sea view.
The chairman thanked Genl del Monte for his most interesting talk.
We then commenced with the main topic of the evening. The chairman introduced our main speaker, Mr Ben van den Berg whose topic was his youth in Occupied Holland during the Second World War - some 65 years and 5 days ago! The Netherlands had been neutral during the First World War, so the invasion came as a tremendous shock to the Dutch.
At the time our speaker was a 9-year old boy living on a farm in Groningen in North Holland. Opposite the farm was an army camp which, during the First World War, housed escaped British POWs. On the other side was an army camp housing Dutch troops as well as an enormous building which housed the Central Prison. These sites were all taken over by the occupation troops and he and his family were soon in the middle of a German Army base.
At first there were no changes but, after a few months, the Germans started to impose restrictions on the Dutch.
Mr van den Berg managed to continue his school career in these trying times. By early 1942 air raid sirens were sounding every night as Holland was in the flight path of the RAF bombers on their way to Bremen, Hanover, Berlin and other targets. There was a blackout and light AA batteries of 20 and 37 mm anti-aircraft guns - single, twin and quadruple - were stationed 200 metres from the front door of his house! After an hour or so the all clear would be sounded but at 0300 there would be a further alarm as the bombers returned. In December 1941, the USA entered the war and their bombers started their daytime bombing raids over Europe.
In August 1942, the Germans confiscated all motor cars in Holland so bicycles were used for transport instead. Air raids increased in intensity. When the first Allied bombs started falling on Holland, the German propaganda machine sprang into action - look what your allies are doing to you" was the cry! The locals were becoming fluent in German and this was very advantageous to our speaker in his later career when he worked in Hamburg.
In 1941, strikes and disturbances began in Amsterdam and soon spread to other towns and cities. There was a total railway strike which greatly restricted travel and stopped coal deliveries to power stations. Candle supplies were quickly used up. Our speaker described the ingenious oil lamps invented to light the kitchen, dining room and toilet using little containers containing water with oil and a wick. He reminded us that in winter it was dark by 1630! Mr van den Berg's bother, Hans, who was an engineering student, improvised a small reading lamp being powered by a number of bicycle lamp generators.
Our speaker's family consisted of his parents, an older brother and himself. By 1943 all Dutch males between the ages of 18 and 40 were called up to go to German labour camps. Full time university students were exempted. Every garden in Holland was used to grow vegetables to supplement the domestic food supplies - all kinds including onions, potatoes, cabbages, etc were grown. Milk and butter were well nigh unobtainable but a friendly farmer living some 18 km away let the van den Bergs have a litre of milk and 125 gm of butter from time to time - our speaker was sent to fetch this on his bicycle irrespective of the weather.
In 1943 all the schools in Holland were closed and converted into army barracks. Our speaker and his friends, all 14 years old, kept their families warm by collecting lumps of coal which had fallen from locomotives and were lying next to the railway lines. This was a dangerous occupation as the Germans viewed in the same light as economic sabotage. One of his friends, 12 years of age, was shot in the leg whilst doing this and his brave friends carried him to the hospital and then took his half filled bag of coal to his parents.
As time went on life became increasingly more difficult for the Dutch, many of whom had by now joined the Resistance. Our speaker described how road signs were changed by teenage boys to confuse the Germans. The same boys were also responsible for blowing up the porcelain connectors on the telephone lines, thus disrupting the telephone system. Most parents were fully aware of their sons' hazardous pastimes - being involved in the extremely dangerous game of sabotage.
Mr van den Berg described his family's terrible ordeal when his parents were arrested by the Gestapo as suspected members of the Resistance. His older brother was sent to a labour camp but managed to escape by hiding in a toilet at the railway station. Our speaker's feelings on being left alone at home as a 14-year old boy can be imagined. Fortunately his parents were released four days later.
He described the extremely difficult times after the failure of Operation Market Garden at Arnhem in 1944. Prior to the liberation, the Dutch were forced to take refuge in their cellars. He described how some Croatian soldiers had deserted from the German Army and had surrendered to his family. When the Netherlands was finally liberated, Mr van den Berg was surprised to find that an Allied officer in a jeep outside his house was in fact his brother! He had escaped to Allied lines and was employed as a liaison officer with the Canadian Army.
Our speaker's proudest possession at this time was a German dispatch rider's motor cycle which he obtained by bartering it for a bucket full of real eggs!! He initially kept it in a shed but was persuaded to bring it home by his father who later sold it.
He described his father's career in life assurance which had taken him and his family to Kalamazoo in the USA where they stayed until 1926 when they returned to Holland. He described his career after the war and told us that he had decided to learn to fly while he was at university, in order to reduce the 3 year period he would otherwise have had to spend doing National Service. He then elected to join the Navy as a Fleet Air Arm pilot. He served in the aircraft carrier RNN Karel Doorman during the Korean War. He did not have time to cover this aspect of his life although it had been agreed that this would be the main focus of his talk.
Our secretary, Ray Hattingh, thanked Mr van den Berg for his fascinating talk and presented him with the customary gift.
It is our sad duty to announce that one of our Rosedale members, Mr Brian Young passed away within the last month. Mr Young served as a Spitfire pilot with the SAAF in Italy during the Second World War. He came to most of our talks and members may remember him - a short, slim, balding man who always sat on the right-hand side of the hall. Our deepest sympathies and sincere condolences are extended to his family.
On a lighter note, we welcome two new members, Mr Marius van der Merwe and Mr Mike Madlener, who joined us recently.
Mr Geoff Mangin is still at a convalescent home but is on the mend. We wish him a speedy recovery.
Fellow-member Capt James Sweeney will be away in June visiting the UK. We would like to wish him a safe journey and return as well as fine weather for the duration of his stay!
Just over two thirds of our members have paid their subscriptions. Thank you.
We are always looking for more members so, if you know of anyone who might have an interest in Military History, bring him or her along to the next meeting or otherwise persuade them to join.
If you have a topic which you would like covered or know of a good speaker, please advise us so that we can include them in our lecture programme.
COOPERATION AND INTERACTION WITH OTHER SOCIETIES/ORGANISATIONS
Your branch committee is planning to set up a data base of societies and organisations in the Western Cape involved with military-, cultural- and social history as well as issues of heritage, with a view to establish interactive contact and embark on cooperative initiatives which could be to the benefit of all concerned. The intention is not only to exchange information amongst ourselves, but also to cooperate in the promotion, dissemination of information and to act jointly in preserving our common heritage. To this end we are already in contact with a number of societies/organisations in the Western Cape with diverse interests, but a common vision preserving and promoting common goals. We believe that this approach would be beneficial in enlisting new members as well.
You as members, of course, also have a crucial role to play - it is incumbent upon you to inform, or make aware, the branch committee, of possible contacts, societies or organisations that we need to include on our data base. We therefore kindly would like to request your active participation in this initiative. Please contact the secretary or scribe to provide the contact details of individuals, clubs or organizations which we should include in our database.
BOOK NEWS AND NEW PUBLICATIONS
Fellow-member and noted author Genl Dick Lord will be over in the UK for part of the month of June for a number of book-signing sessions of his highly-acclaimed history of the SAAF during the Border War, From Fledgling to Eagle. We wish Genl Lord a safe journey and stay.
A number of new SA Border War and Rhodesian Bush War books are in the process of appearing on the bookstands. Members interested in more detail can contact our member bookdealers in this regard.
Thursday 11 June 2009 - The Three Frigates
Our speaker will be Rear Admiral C H Bennett SM MMM. He will discuss the history of the SAN's three President Class frigates from their initial conception in 1954 to the eventual disposal of the last of the three in 1992.
Thursday 9 July 2009 - The Chavonnes Battery, Cape Town Waterfront
Our speaker will be Maj Willem Steenkamp. Maj Steenkamp is a well-known historian and writer on various subjects, ranging from military history, regional heritage/history and historical fiction, to plays! Not only an accomplished author, he is also widely known and regarded for his ability to colour his lectures with the most fascinating and minute details of the particular period under discussion. He will speak to us about the history and context of the Chavonnes Battery as part of the maritime defences of the Cape, as well as elaborating on the restoration of the battery as a museum, under the guardian- and sponsorship of the BOE Bank Group.
BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771
RAY HATTINGH: Secretary
Phone: 021-592-1279 or 021-531-6781