South African Military History 


Newsletter No 53 Febuary 2009/Nuusbrief Nr 53 Febuarie 2009

The 12 January 2009 meeting opened with Pat Irwin's series on historically significant guns in South Africa. The 3.7 inch QF Howitzer was designed in Britain as a mountain howitzer for the Indian Army. It was first used in action in March 1917. The 3.7" was the first British artillery piece to use a split trail. The original gun could be divided into eight mule loads of approximately 110kg each. It was especially suited to mountainous terrain denied to a normal howitzer. It was much used during the inter-war years and, in a modified and updated Mark during WW2, by the South Africans in Abyssinia and by the British and Indian armies in Burma. One hundred and ninety of these guns were manufactured in South Africa during WW2, made entirely of local material, with the first one coming off the production line on 18 November 1940. Evidence of the excellence of this howitzer's design is that it was not declared obsolete until 1960. There are nine of these guns in South Africa, one a British original and eight of South African manufacture. Three are with artillery units, three at MOTH shellholes, where they constitute war memorials, and three at museums. Three are in pristine condition and five in reasonably good condition.

Malcolm Kinghorn's curtain raiser was on Bravo Zulu, a naval signal meaning "Well done". Bravo Zulu comes from the Allied Naval Signal Book ACP 175, an international naval signal code adopted after NATO was created in 1949. Until then, each navy had its own signal code. WW2 had shown that it was difficult for ships of different navies to operate together unless they could readily communicate and ACP 175 was designed to enable this. ACP 175 started with 1-flag signals, then 2-flag and so on. The 2-flag signals were organized by general subject, starting with AA, AB, ... AZ, BA, BB,... BZ, and so on. B- signals were Administrative. The last was BZ, meaning "Well done". BZ was not rendered as "Bravo Zulu", but in each navy's phonetic alphabet. Meanwhile, the International Civil Aviation Organization had adopted English as the international air traffic control language. They developed a phonetic alphabet designed to be as pronounceable as possible by persons speaking different languages. This was the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta... alphabet used today. Navies adopted this aviation alphabet in 1956 and BZ became Bravo Zulu.

The main lecture was by McGill Alexander on Some South Africans who served in Special Forces during WW2. "Special Forces" as a defined term and concept of operations only came into being after WW2, but there were at that time many organisations and units that undertook tasks that would today be done by Special Forces. Such tasks required specialised training, were carried out by small teams, were controlled at the highest level and their results usually were intended to have strategic impact.

Around 100 South Africans, almost all officers, volunteered for secondment to the British Forces and were employed in some of these Special Forces. At least four served with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), one of them as the 2IC and another winning the MC. Ten served with the Raiding Support Regiment (RSR) and three with the Special Air Service (SAS). There was one with Popski's Private Army (PPA) and a considerable number were in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), mostly with Force 133 or No 1 Special Force. These were dropped behind enemy lines by parachute or inserted by kayak for missions of up to five months at a time. Mostly, they operated in Greece and the Balkans, as well as in Northern Italy. A South African in the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) was the first Allied soldier to enter Pireaus since its fall to the Germans three years earlier. Another, Major Adrian Hope, was killed while operating with partisans behind the German lines in Northern Italy. Seventy-four South Africans were seconded to the Royal Marines during the war and one of them, Major Gideon Jacobs, as part of Force 136, parachuted onto the island of Sumatra with only four NCOs to accept the surrender of 80,000 Japanese. He was awarded the OBE. Only two South Africans wrote books on their experiences in these Special Forces.

Two South Africans had particularly interesting wartime careers with the Special Forces. One was Tommy Renfree, who fought with the SA Forces through the East and North African campaigns before volunteering to work with the SOE. He was posted to Force 133 and deployed by kayak and by parachute behind German lines in Greece and Albania for demolition tasks and to work with partisans, for which he was mentioned in dispatches. When the war ended in Europe, he volunteered for duties in the Far East. In Australia he underwent commando training at the Fraser Island Commando School as well as a parachute conversion course at Laburne. Attached to Australia's "Z" Special Force he was sent to Morotai Island in the Pacific where he participated in kayak raids on the Japanese. After the war, he continued serving, participating in Operation Swivel in Pondoland in 1960, becoming the first 2IC of 1 Parachute Battalion in 1961 and being part of Operation Blou Wildebees, the first action of the Border War. He retired as a colonel in 1997 after 50 years' service. Renfree's medal group is particularly interesting because it includes the Pacific Star (extremely rare for a South African soldier), a mentioned-in-despatches emblem, the Efficiency Medal and the Pro Patria.

The other was "Pik" van Noorden. He served in North Africa as an artillery officer, firing at German tanks over open sights at Tobruk, escaping as the garrison fell, fighting at Alamein and then volunteering for the Royal Marines. Trained as a commando, he led his platoon ashore on D-Day with 47 (Royal Marine) Commando and was involved in some heavy fighting as they executed an independent task. Later withdrawn to undergo parachute training, he was dropped behind German lines to carry out a secret mission. Next he was posted to 42 (RM) Commando in India and participated in the amphibious assault on the Japanese at Myebon in Burma, as well as the subsequent bitter battle for Hill 170 near Kangaw. Later, van Noorden was attached to the Ghurka parachute battalion that jumped at Elephant Point during the capture of Rangoon. After the war he commanded 5 SA Infantry Battalion and the Infantry School, became Director of Infantry and retired as a major general. His medal group is also of great interest because it includes the France & Germany Star and the Burma Star, as well as the Union Medal and the Pro Patria.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on Monday 9 February 2009 at the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club. The curtain raiser will be on Blood River by Stephen Bowker. The main lecture will be on Early Imperial Japanese Navy Air Power by John Parkinson.

The SAMHSEC Annual General Meeting is to be held in lieu of the curtain raiser at the meeting on 9 March 2009 at 1930 at the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

The following e-mail was received in June 2012:
From: Marco
Subject: Just spotted an error in your Feb 2009 newsletter


In your February 2009 newsletter (, I noticed the following:
"Major Gideon Jacobs, as part of Force 136, parachuted onto the island of Sumatra with only four NCOs to accept the surrender of 80,000 Japanese."

This is not quite correct, as there were other teams also parachuted in to Sumatra. My uncle (who was Dutch) was parachuted into Pedang, also in charge of a team of 4, and apparently the Japanese troops refused his orders, as part of a ploy to ignore their orders to cooperate, until he threatened to report them to Singapore for insubordination.

As far as I have been able to ascertain there were at least 4 teams, possibly 6, parachuted into Sumatra around the 7th September 1945.

Kind Regards,

Marco van Beek.

South African Military History Society /