South African Military History 


Newsletter No 57 June 2009/Nuusbrief Nr 57 Junie 2009

The meeting on 11 May 2009 opened with Richard Tomlinson's second talk on British fortifications in the Anglo-Boer War. A return of Royal Engineer work for the whole country, dated 12 May 1902, gives final figures of 441 masonry blockhouses and 7447 corrugated iron ones built to since the British capture of Pretoria in June 1900. They were built by local contractors under RE supervision. These figures do not include forts built by infantry and other units, town guards and district mounted troops, which would probably bring the total up to the oft-quoted 8000. The first stone defences were built around Pretoria in 1900, and masonry blockhouses at major railway bridges, road passes, around garrison towns, etc, continued to appear into 1902. It is not true that they were superseded by corrugated ones. Construction time for a masonry blockhouse was 6 weeks and the cost 800, so when corrugated ones were mass-produced in kit form for 16 and, with the costs of transport and labour added, were competitive at about 50 each, it made sense that they should be used in intervals along railways and in cross-country lines. The garrison for masonry blockhouses averaged 20 men and 6 for corrugated. Most materials, such as cement, steel components, timber and corrugated sheets, were imported and railed to site.

Anne Irwin's curtain raiser was on Military Associations With Food: a brief introduction to some of the military associations with the names of food we eat. Hertzog Cookies are said to have been a favourite of General JBM Hertzog and are thus named after him, even though they are of German origin. ANZAC Biscuits were developed by women wishing to send nutritious biscuits to their loved ones during World War I. They based the recipe on a Scottish biscuit using rolled oats and included ingredients that would not readily spoil during the long voyage from New Zealand and Australia. They were named ANZAC Biscuits after the landing on Gallipoli. Beef Wellington, a dish of a fillet of beef wrapped in puff pastry, is named in honour of the first Duke of Wellington - Arthur Wellesley of Battle of Waterloo fame - who particularly enjoyed this dish despite a reputation of being indifferent to most foods. Chicken Marengo has long been associated with Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Marengo, when his chef sent out foragers to find enough food to feed Napoleon, who was famished. They turned up with a chicken, tomatoes, eggs, a few crayfish, garlic and some olive oil. Napoleon apparently found the dish so excellent he ordered it to be served after every battle. The story can be refuted, however, on the grounds that the particular chef in the story was not in Napoleon's employ until after the Battle of Marengo and the dish was only mentioned in cook books two decades later.

The main lecture by Rick van Heerden was on The Failure of Operation Barbarossa, in which Hitler invaded Russia in July 1941, precipitating a gruelling 4-year conflict that claimed the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. His armies had enjoyed quick, easy victories over the armed forces of Poland, Holland and France and he now sought to realise his longstanding ambition of eastward expansion into Western Russia. He sought three things: "living space" for the German people, the destruction of Bolshevism (inextricably linked in his mind with Jews) and much needed mineral resources.

The key to German military success in Western Europe was Blitzkrieg, the dynamic use of tanks with air support to spearhead deep penetrations into enemy territory, leaving slower-moving infantry to deal with strongpoints and concentrations of enemy forces. Speed and surprise were of the essence: the enemy could not be allowed to regroup and establish defensive positions. Speed in turn required prompt logistical support and terrain suitable of the movement of motorized forces.

Initially the Germans made spectacular progress. In a matter of weeks, hundreds of thousands of Russian troops had been encircled and captured and German troops had advanced hundreds of kilometres. But German intelligence had underestimated the number of Russian reserves: for every Red Army soldier captured or killed, many more would take his place, and the same was true of Russian hardware. In addition, some Russian tanks, like the legendary T-34, were better armed and protected than anything the Germans could field at the time.

As the campaign continued, German supply lines became over-extended and gradually the hope of a quick victory vanished. Indecision and conflicting goals did not help. Some generals wanted to press for Moscow, while Hitler instead reinforced the outer wings of the German penetration, where stiff resistance and marshlands had slowed the advance into the rich industrial and mineral regions that Hitler prized.

Then autumn rains came, turning the ground into a quagmire, followed by an early and particularly vicious winter, for which the Germans were ill-prepared. By contrast the Red Army had been taught a hard lesson in winter warfare by the Finnish Army in 1939. By December 1941, the German attack faltered and the Russians counterattacked along the entire front.

Operation Barbarossa had envisaged the rapid defeat of the Red Army and the collapse of Stalin's regime, neither of which were achieved. Several factors contributed to the failure of Barbarossa, including distances, terrain, weather and diverging objectives. Not least of these was the sheer capacity of the Red Army and the unexpected intensity and determination of its resistance. Furthermore, German occupation only hardened the will of the Russians by its arrogance and genocidal brutality.

Alan Bamford is organising a tour to Kimberley in August 2009. Interested persons should contact Alan on 046 622 5705 or

SAMHSEC's annual Grahamstown meeting is on 13 June 2009. Alan Bamford is coordinating a tour of the area between Sidbury and Grahamstown for the morning. Alan's willingness to arrange the morning programme is greatly appreciated.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1400 on Saturday 13 June 2009 at the Education Department of Rhodes University, Grahamstown. In lieue of Richard Tomlinson's series on South African Fortifications, Ian Copley will present Hartebeespoort forts: then and now. The curtain raiser will be "One Fourteenth of an Elephant": a book review by Yoland Irwin. The main lecture will be the second on the Bishop's War Record by Alan Bamford.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

South African Military History Society /