South African Military History Society


The Museum's Dimitri Friend followed up the highly instructive account he gave at the September meeting of the origins and development of 32 Battalion, with last month's curtain raiser on Koevoet, another unit that played an important and controversial role in the South West Africa conflict.

The name Koevoet means "Covert Operations", a term which covered many functions -- such as tracking terrorists across international borders, interrogation, negotiating with local people, and other mainly policing duties -- for which regular military forces are not normally suited. The tactics developed proved to be an excellent counter to the increasing guerrilla warfare being waged by Swapo from the mid-Seventies onward after it received international recognition.

It had become obvious by 1978 that the SADF could not cope unaided with the rising insurgency in South West, and this was when Koevoet was formed by SAP General Hans Dreyer on the lines of Rhodesia's highly successful Selous Scouts. The unit went into operation for the first time in 1979.

The rank and file of Koevoet were recruited from among local men who knew the country, and the customs of the mainly tribal people inhabiting the area. As was the case with the Scouts, many were former terrorists who had been "turned".

For the 10 or so years of its existence, Koevoet proved itself an invaluable aid to military operations in South West. It ceased its activities in 1989 and was ultimately disbanded. Its activities remain controversial to this day.

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The main talk of the evening was given by Dr. Stanley Monick, also of the Museum. His subject was "War Poets of World War One", and although this was originally billed as a video it turned out to be a highly entertaining discussion on the varying attitudes of four of the war's more famous poets, accompanied by a large selection of slides recounting the horrors of trench warfare.

The poets in question were Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Siegried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, each in their own way expressing sharply contrasting reactions rooted their social backgrounds and wartime experience.

Brooke was the product of an upper middle class upbringing which included Rugby and Cambridge. He shared with so many men of his class in pre-1914 Britain an idealised vision of English country life and customs. His attitude to war was highly romantic, possibly because he was never to suffer the horrors of life on the Western Front. He even contrived to die before experiencing the discomforts and disaster of the Gallipoli action, in which he was due to take part.

Grenfell came from an even more privileged background, being born into the nobility. But he was a professional soldier and his attitude to war was similar to that of any member of his class to field and blood sports. He positively enjoyed war, and regarded it as an heroic pastime for the gentleman he was.

Sassoon also enjoyed the leisurely life of a country gentleman. He was the scion of a wealthy merchant-banking family, and although his initial approach to war was little different from most other members of his social class at the time, his experience in the trenches of the Western Front produced an altogether different style of poetry.

The poetry of Sassoon was anti-heroic. He came to see war through the eyes of a realist, sharing the fears, the misery, the heroism and the despair of the ordinary soldier, who was condemned, as he believed, by the stupidity and stubbornness of his commanders.

Sassoon proved himself a brave soldier and was decorated for his bravery. He was also the only one of the four poets to survive the war.

Owen's social background was less privileged than that enjoyed by the other three, and his work had an altogether harsher and more bitter edge to it. He not only railed at the apparent lack of feeling on the part of the generals and commanders to the suffering of the men in the trenches. He also expressed deep contempt for those friends and relatives back home who spurred their menfolk on to what they appeared to see as heroic sacrifice.

Owen too was a brave officer who was decorated. He died of wounds only days before the armistice. Along with Sassoon, his concept for war as expressed in his poetry helped shape the modern attitude that war is a bloody and unheroic business totally different from the idealised impression widely held prior to World War One, and by those who never experienced the horrors of it.

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Professor Ian Copley was presented with the Roderick E Murchison Memorial Prize for the best 1993 Journal contributions. His articles were: June 1993, The Battle of Silkaatsnek - 11th July 1900; December 1993, Ambush at Kalkheuwel Pass - June 1900.

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Coming lectures

10th November R S Glyn Verdun
Dr John Bleloch The Reformers' Revenge at Elandslaagte

8th December Dr Felix Machanik Rockets of 1814
Hamish Paterson Between Cape Town and Mauritius - the struggle for the Indian Ocean 1795-1810.

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10th November: Dr Rocky Williams The History of Umkhonto we Siswe

December: in recess : Information available on (031) 764-2970

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Cape Town:
10th November Slide-illustrated panel discussion chaired by Col. O Baker to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the allied airborne landing at Arnheim on 13th September 1944, and the battle that followed.

December: in recess: Information available on (021) 6l7-441

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For Sale: The Times' History of World War One. Good condition. Uniformly bound in 22 volumes. Complete index. Published around 1920. Price R950 or n.o. Phone I. Midzuk, (011) 888 4312 (H) or (011) 362-5579 (w) , or write to 12 Crocodile Rd., Emmarentia Ext. JHB 2195.

George Barrell

(011) 787-1524

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