South African Military History Society


The curtain raiser at the 8th September meeting was given by Dimitri Friend, of the Museum. His subject was the history of 32 Battalion, the SADF unit that played such an important and controversial role in the Angola campaign.

The battalion was formed in the mid-l970s from members of Unita and FNLA factions who fled southwards from the advancing MPLA columns. It was Colonel Jan Breytenbach who was responsible for shaping these disparate elements into one of the finest fighting units in the SADF.

It started with two rifle companies, a machine-gun platoon, a mortar platoon and an anti-aircraft section. It finished up with seven rifle companies; a mortar platoon; an anti-aircraft section; a Ratel squadron; a battery of 127 mm Valkyrie rockets; a battery of 120 mm mortars; a section of 106 mm anti-tank recoilless guns; and a battery of 20 mm anti-aircraft guns.

The force could be grouped into two battle or combat groups for operations. It also had its own reconnaissance wing, which was responsible for mapping and information gathering.

The battalion was disbanded in February 1993. Its members were given the option of returning to Angola, or accepting South African citizenship and being absorbed into the SANDF.

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The main talk, given by Terry Leaver,was on the 56-day seige of the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu, in northern Indo China. Vo Nguyen Giap, a history teacher with no formal military training, led his compatriots against the French for eight years, and the eventual fall of Dien Bien Phu to his troops on 7th May 1954 led to the immediate collapse of the French empire in Asia.

Terry presented a summary of the political background to the French presence in post-war Indo China, as well as profiles of Vo Nguyen Giap and the French Commander-in-Chief, General Henri Navarre. The attitude of the French towards their peasant enemies led their commanders to make serious miscalculations as to the logistical capabilities and military competence of the Viet Minh.

Giap's abilities have now stamped him as one of this century's great commanders as, having beaten the French, he went on to defeat, or at least neutralise, the might of the United States as well. He used the entire resources of a people who were committed to throwing off foreign control, and who were prepared to make any sacrifice to achieve that aim.

The actual battles at Dien Bien Phu's nine positions were heroic and bloody in the extreme, with terrible loss of life on both sides. Professional soldiers of the French Union fought and died with courage and determination even though they were outnumbered five to one by the Viet Minh, and often overwhelmed by storms of direct fire from the cunningly concealed Viet Minh artillery. The same guns also served to strangle the air-delivered supplies and casualty evacuation which became increasingly urgent with each day the seige lasted.

The first two French positions to fall were Beatrice and Gabrielle. Both were overwhelmed by weight of fire and numbers, but the early loss of the command bunkers, together with the controlling senior officers proved to be devastating setbacks for the French.

These positions fell on 13th and 14th March 1954 respectively, with more than 1 000 French Union troops losing their lives. The position at Anne-Marie collapsed from within when the majority of the troops manning it, who were Vietnamese loyalists, deserted after being subjected to frightening propaganda from the Viet Minh. The main positions -- Dominique, Claudine, Eliane on the eastern periphery, and Huguette and Francoise on the west, with Isabelle acting as a support position five kilometres to the south, withstood an intermittent, but determined, onslaught from the enemy, monsoon rain, mud and lack of food and ammunition during the following nine weeks.

The French artillery commander committed suicide, and several other officers suffered emotional breakdowns. The commander of French troops at the position, General Christian de Castles, lost the will to command and fight. His position was taken over by a group of four Parachute Regiment officers.

By the time the end came, on 7th May 1954, France was receiving vast financial and material assistance from the United States. Political moves behind the scenes were initiated to launch a massive bombing raid on the Viet Minh positions at Dien Bien Phu, but these never materialised.

The remaining French troops simply ceased firing at l7h30 on 7th May, and were taken prisoner. Of the 10 000 prisoners taken by the Viet Minh, only half that number eventually survived to return home.

Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap began preparing for their next confrontation. This time with the United States, one they also won.

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Coming lectures:
13th October Dimitri Friend Koevoet
Dr Stanley Monick War Poets of World War One (This is a video)

10th November B S Glyn Verdun
Dr John Bleloch The Reformer's Revenge at Elandslaagte

George Barrell

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