South African Military History Society


The curtain raiser at the 11th May meeting, the first under our new chairman Kemsley Couldridge, was given by committee member Louis Wildenboer on the capture by German glider-borne forces of the Belgian fort of Eben Emael at the beginning of Hitler's blitzkrieg offensive on 11th May 1940.

Eben Emael was the most powerful fort in the world. Together with its defences, it covered an area equal in size to 70 footLall fields, and its 17 bombproof artillery emplacements, containing 54, 75mm and 120mm guns, commanded a huge strategic area, and in particular the bridges across the Albert Canal which formed the border between Belgium and Holland. It was understood that these bridges must be the first objective of any German invading force heading for Brussels and beyond.

The fort, intended as a flank outpost of France's famous Maginot Line, and designed on much the same lines, was walled and roofed with two metres of concrete. It was amply equipped with machine guns and anti-aircraft guns, and was considered to be as impenetrable from the air as it was from the land. The idea that it might be vulnerable to glider-borne forces appears to have been dismissed as unreal.

It was Hitler himself who decided that the capture of Eban Emael was essential to Germany's plan of attack, and the task was given to General Kurt Student, commander of the Luftwaffe's airborne forces, who in turn chose First-Lieutenant Rudolph Witzig to train the 100 or so men picked for what was to be history's first-ever glider-borne operation.

This training, which began in November 1939, was conducted in the utmost secrecy, with each soldier aware that he risked sentence of death if convicted of any breach of security. No leave was permitted, nor even contact with other units. Surprise was to be complete.

By the time training was completed each man knew exactly what he had to do, and how he had to do it. Command was thus superflous during the operation, which was just as well because the only one of the 11 gliders used that failed to reach its objective was that of First-Lieutenant Witzig, which broke its tow shortly after take-off.

Altogether 78 men, with small arms and two-and-a-half tons of explosives -- including the all-important "shaped, hollow charge" designed to penetrate the steel and concrete protecting the fort and its guns -- landed on the roof in 10 gliders. Surprise was indeed complete, and whereas the military planners had designed Eban Emael to delay an invader by at least one week, its commander surrendered amid utter confusion in a mere 30 hours.

The lessons to be learned from the Germans' spectacular success were the importance of surprise, speed, intensive training and the use of advanced technology in such an operation, and the disastrous effect of the so-called Maginot mentality.

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The main talk of the evening was given by Ken Gillings of the society's Durban branch on the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906, the Nkandla Operation and the Battle of Mome Gorge.

Discontent among the Blacks of Natal had been mounting for some time before hostilities began. In May 1905 a severe hailstorm struck the colony and superstitious rumours began to circulate that this was a mysterious command to rise against the Whites.

Following the storm, the Blacks began receiving verbal directives that all pigs must be destroyed along with all white fowls. Every utensil of European origin used for holding food was to be discarded or destroyed. Anybody failing to comply would have his kraal struck by a thunderbolt more terrible than the last "which was brought on by the Basuto king in his wrath against the White race for having carried a railway to the immediate vicinity of his ancestral stronghold".

The discontent boiled over when the Natal Government imposed a poll tax of one pound sterling on all inhabitants, including Blacks, in Natal and Zululand. Resentment first led to the murder of a white farmer in January 1906, after which riotous assemblies, armed attacks and further killings followed in many parts of the colony. When a police posse was attacked and an officer and a trooper killed, the Governor, Sir Henry McCalIum, imposed martial law on 9th February.

A number of arrests followed, and those convicted of murder by court martial were speedily executed by firing squad. Colonel Duncan McKenzie was appointed Colonel-in-Chief of all forces, which consisted not only of Natal military units, but also 500 men from the Transvaal.

After briefly describing some of the more important actions in the field, the speaker then concentrated on the operations in the Nkandla area and ended with the one that eventually proved to be the biggest, and also the most decisive, namely the Battle of Mome Gorge.

Moving over incredibly difficult terrain, which included some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery in Zululand, the rebels were eventually trapped inside the gorge. Some of their more important leaders, including Bambatha and Mehlokazulu, of Zulu War fame, were killed, and the legendary Sigananda Shezi was captured.

The rebellion ended in July 1906, with the cost to Natal in direct war expenses, in addition to the lives that were lost, exceeding 884 000 pounds.

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The chairman would like to remind all members that articles are always needed for the journal, and that contributions will be much appreciated.

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Colonel Kinghorn, Defence Advisor to the South African High Commission in Ottawa, and a member of the society, writes to say that that if his presence in Canada can be of assistance to society members in any way, they should not hesitate to make contact. He can be reached at the High Commission, 15 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, K1M 1M8, tel: 613-7440330, or fax: 613-7411639.

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8th June
Ayres/Couldridge/Paterson - The second Carthaginian (Punic) War:
The battles of Trebia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae & Zama:
Weapons, dress and tactics of the armies.


8th June - Ken Gillings - Zimhebhu, Master of Ambush: with video.

Cape Town

8th June - Stan Lambrick - The Battle of Gettysburg

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George Barrell

(011) 787-1524

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