South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 10 September 2009 was Cdr Mac Bisset, whose topic was A Short History of the SA National Defence Force Museums. He introduced his talk by explaining that he would first give an overview of the SADF/SANDF Museums and then relate some of the reminiscences of his 27.5 years working in them.

The utilisation of part of the Castle of Good Hope as a military museum was first mooted by Councillor (later Sir William) Thorne in discussion with General J C Smuts shortly after he had become Prime Minister in 1919. The Castle and all the other British War Department buildings were transferred to the Union Government on 1 December, 1921, and on 22 March 1922 the matter was discussed again.

Nonetheless, it was not until 1952, the year of the Van Riebeeck Festival, that part of Dr William Fehr's important collection of Africana paintings and antiques was displayed there. In the same year, the Minister of Defence, Advocate F C Erasmus, approved the establishment of Military Museums in Cape Town and Pretoria. Capt., later Lt Gen H de V du Toit, Senior Staff Officer of the Military Historical Sub-Section at Defence Headquarters in Pretoria, started assembling a collection of military relics. Early in 1961 it was decided that a Military Museum at the Castle would be housed in D Block in the inner square of the building. Maj H V Joyce, formerly Staff Officer-in-Charge of War Records and a veteran of both World Wars, was appointed curator of the museum. He brought with him from Pretoria Mr Japie Kgopotse, who was to remain on the staff until his retirement in 1990.

In 1965 a committee chaired by Capt (later R Adm) S C Biermann, was appointed to assist with the establishment of the Military Museum in the Castle. His members included four more SAN officers, one of whom was Lt Cdr (later Cdre) D F Gerhardt. Capt J E Lorraine-Greus (who had served in Die Middellandse Regiment in the Western Desert and escaped from Tobruk), served at War Records and relieved Maj Joyce on 28 February 1966. Attempts to collect enough naval exhibits, to devote the major portion of the museum's displays to the SA Navy, were unsuccessful and SAAF and additional SA Army exhibits were substituted. Dr Frank Mitchell, a founding member of the Cape Town Branch of the SAMHS, most kindly lent part of his magnificent collection of SA Orders, Decorations and Medals to the museum and this later resulted in many more being denoted to the museum by veterans and their families. The Commandant-General of the SADF, Gen R C Hiemstra SSA, SM, opened the museum on 25 November 1966, and expressed the hope that Dr Mitchell would consider bequeathing the medals in his collection to the museum.

Fort Klapperkop in Pretoria, one of the forts built after the Jameson Raid in 1895/96, was the first SADF Military Museum to be opened in 1966, and its theme was the military history of the Transvaal Republic from 1852 until 1902. The founding father of the SADF Museum was Brigadier Dr Louis S Kruger, SM, who had commenced his service career in 1962 as acting Staff Officer of the Military History Sub Section (SADF Archives). In 1963 he was promoted and confirmed in this appointment and two years later he was also made responsible for the establishment of SADF Museums. When more museums were established a separate Directorate of Military Museums was established with Brig Kruger as Director on 1 May 1974.

From 21-29 March 1968 a Maritime Week was held in Cape Town. The SADF seconded Cmdt L S Kruger to the SA Cultural history Museum to organise the maritime exhibition, which led to the formation of the SA National National Maritime Museum Trust and the establishment of the Maritime Museum in a dormitory above the Military Museum at the Castle. The Chairman of the Trust and driving force behind Maritime Week was the then Mayor of Cape Town, Alderman Gerry Ferry. The museum was opened by the Chief of the Navy, V-Adm H H Biermann on 18 May 1971, as part of the RSA's 10th anniversary celebrations. The museum was designed by the architect Mr A B Holm. Most of the displays were devoted to the Merchant Navy.

The Simon's Town Historical Society was founded in 1960 and had campaigned for the restoration and preservation of the Martello Tower in the East Dockyard in Simon's Town. Although the Society failed to raise sufficient funds for this to be done, it interested Cmdt Kruger in the project, and the decision was made to restore the building and turn it into a museum displaying the history of the naval base and the SA Navy in Simon's Town. The museum was opened by the Commandant-General SADF, Adm H H Biermann, on 2 May 1973. Once again very few naval exhibits were available and one display case contained the white tunic and cap worn by one of the museum staff, CPO Vic Baisdorf.

Fort Schanskop, on a hill opposite Fort Klapperkop in Pretoria, was converted into a museum because it was felt that there was insufficient space for a comprehensive representation of the Transvaal's military past at Fort Klapperkop. Mr A B Holm again was the architect responsible for designing the display cases inside the fort, which was opened in 1978.

Lt (SAN) Ben van Coller, who had been Staff Officer Military Museums WP Command, was responsible for the Maritime Museum and Martello Tower Museum projects, was appointed Staff Officer Military Museums OFS Command where he converted Queen's Fort in Bloemfontein into a military museum. He was also responsible for planning the Donkin Reserve -, Fort Beaufort- and Delville Wood Museums. He was subsequently transferred back to the SA Army and retired with the rank of Commandant.

The Delville Wood Museum was the brainchild of Mr R F 'Pik' Botha, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and at the time it was built it was the only formal military museum in the Somme Battlefields. Its theme was the two World Wars, the Berlin Airlift, and the Korean War. Some of these displays have been replaced new ones depicting the 'Freedom Struggle'. The Delville Wood Museum was opened by State President P W Botha on 11 November 1986, seventy years after the momentous battle of the same name.

Fort Wynyard at Green Point was converted into a museum of coast and anti-aircraft artillery between 1984 and 1987 and has the most comprehensive collection of coastal and anti-aircraft guns in South Africa. It was described by Christopher Foss, the Jane's Weapons expert and author as the 'best example of a coast artillery battery in the world'.

The speaker explained that the SAAF Museums were not part of the Directorate of Military Museums. They were controlled by a board chaired by Chief of the Air Force and commanded by a combat officer, usually a pilot. In one of the many reports in military museums they were described as living museums, public oriented, self-supporting and drawing enthusiastic support on 'Open Days', which normally coincide with aerial displays of some sort. They receive considerable support from an enthusiastic 'Friends of the Museum' organisation and their historic flight is the pride of the SAAF.

All these museums were housed in historical buildings that form part and parcel of our South African Cultural and Military Heritage, and usually came into being, assisted by advisory committee of interested and affected parties and SADF representatives. The HQ of the Directorate was based at Fort Klapperkop in Pretoria and the size of the staff at command level was usually very small. In Port Elizabeth the staff consisted of a staff officer, pioneer, national servicemen and cleaner. In Simon's Town, at the Martello Tower, there was only a pioneer and a gardener. At the two museums in the Castle there was a staff officer, warrant officer, petty officer, two pioneers a typist and four general assistants, who were responsible for general maintenance, cleaning and acted as security guards as well!

The most important and valuable personnel bonus was the National Service system which provided the museums with some very talented and hard-working engineers, archaeologists, architects, archivists and school teachers, amongst others, whose contributions were immense. Cdr Bisset explained that the smaller the staff, the more versatile its members had to be! He described, as example, the dire shortage of talented staff and his unsuccessful efforts to recruit extremely talented ship model builders as members of the museum team.

Items for the museum collections came from two main sources - the SADF and the public, chiefly from veterans and their families. Items from the SADF came from the SADF Auction Centre and the Naval Stores Depot at Youngsfield. Most of the important collection of coastal and anti-aircraft guns came from the important collection of coast- and anti-aircraft guns from the Ravelin at the Castle where they were not wanted after the building was restored to its former glory, as well as the Wynberg Base.

The end of the Border War and retirement of State President P W Botha in 1989 heralded the start of a comprehensive nationalisation programme in the SADF, and huge budget cuts. The first casualty in the Directorate of Military Museums was the Director himself, who retired when his post was abolished. The museums were returned to the control of the SADF Archives, before being decentralised to the various regional Army Commands and the SA Navy. When SA Army attempts to transfer museums to the Department of National Education failed, all Army Museums - except the Castle Museum - were closed. The SA Navy closed the Martello Museum due to structural problems and established a new - and much larger - museum in the West Dockyard in Simon's Town. The new museum was opened on 1 April, 1993, by the Chief of the Navy, Adm R C Simpson-Anderson.

Cdr Bisset furthermore explained that his job was not limited to conventional museum work. He proceeded to describe some of the additional tasks that he had to perform: Organising veteran reunions; selecting new ships' names prior to the Navy 75 Fleet Review; assisting with the designing of new uniforms for the SA Navy and the SA Army's Castle Guard; assisting with research and the writing of books, as well as documentary films; compiling brochures; selecting names for buildings, speechwriting for dignitaries and controlling the issue of the SA Navy's philatelic covers!

He recalled some of the amusing moments during his career and discussed some exciting research projects: the discovery of King Cethswayo's room at the Castle; the Saluting Battery at the Castle; the previously unknown history the SA Navy's most highly decorated war hero, Lt Victor de Kock, MBE, DSC; Cape Town's Noon Guns, and HMSAS Parktown.

Our speaker concluded his talk by stressing that the remaining SANDF Museums are doing well and congratulated the current personnel for their excellent work and dedication.

The treasurer, Bob Buser, thanked our speaker for a very interesting and insightful talk and presented him with the customary gift.



The treasurer will be sending out Renewal Advices to those members who have not yet paid their subscriptions for 2009. Your speedy response to these reminders will be appreciated. A word of appreciation to the members who responded favourably to the treasurer's previous request. However, there are still a small, but significant number of members who have not yet responded.

We are always looking for new members so, if you know of anyone who might be interested in military history, bring him or her along to the next meeting or otherwise persuade them to join.



Thursday 8 October 2009 - A short History of the South African Artillery
Our speaker for this month will be Colonel Lionel Crook who served in the South African Artillery, in 1 Medium Regiment and the Cape Field Artillery, which regiment he commanded. He served in a number of Staff posts and is currently serving with the Reserve Forces Council. The author of a number of books, he is currently completing a comprehensive history of the Cape Field Artillery over a period of 150 years.

Thursday 12 November 2009 - A History of Military Medicine in the Anglo-Boer War
Our speaker for next month will be Prof J C (Kay) de Villiers, foremost expert on the history of military medicine during the South African War, or better-known to us as the Anglo-Boer War. Prof de Villiers has recently published a boxed set of two books on the subject that is monumental in the detail and scope of the subject covered. Our speaker will address specific aspects of military medicine that will suit the intended target audience, and is therefore not to be missed!


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279 or 021-531-6781

South African Military History Society /