South African Military History Society


The title of the curtain raiser at the society's 11th July meeting was changed from "The First Falklands War" to "Plane Piracy". Same subject, different title because, as explained by the speaker, Mr Colin Dean, the whole incident, which took place on 28th September 1966 and involved the world's first commercial aircraft hijacking, was recorded as plane piracy partly for diplomatic reasons and partly because the verb "to hijack" was not yet international currency.

What happened was that an Argentine Airlines DC4 on an internal flight and with 48 passengers on board, was hijacked at gunpoint by a band of terrorist/patriots and flown to the Falklands in order to "take symbolic possession" of the "Malvinas". The would-be "invaders" ignored the fact that at the time the Falklands did not have an airstrip. The ground was too soggy, and that was why the sound of a four-engined aircraft obviously intent on landing drew the immediate and puzzled attention of the inhabitants of Stanley, the capital, who believed it was in trouble.

There was trouble all right, although not of the kind expected. Mr Dean was working at the Meteorological Office at the time, and described how he, along with a few other Met people, piled into a Land Rover and headed for the "race course" -- a euphemism for a one-kilometre stretch of rather bumpy bog and tussock grass, with most of the stones moved to one side -- where the aircraft had crash-landed. They were met on arrival by 16 men and one woman pointing guns and hanging Argentine flags on the racecourse fence.

At this point the British stiff upper lip began to tremble. The only resources available to oppose the "landing" consisted of four unarmed policemen and a detachment of six, lightly armed Royal Marines. The islands' governor was away in London, so his deputy proceeded to mobilise all males over 20 and issue what weapons were available. Mr Dean, who admitted with regret his total lack of military experience, found himself cleaning the original grease off a brand-new, unused Enfield 303 which bore the date stamp 1913. He was also issued with a whole 10 rounds of ammunition.

The aircraft's passengers were soon released, but the invaders only surrendered after two-and-a-half cold, wet and windy nights that Mr Dean and his civilian colleagues, with their obsolete weapons, spent "on guard", out in the open, cherishing feelings toward Argentinian nationalists verging on the homicidal.

Perhaps Gilbert and Sullivan could have done justice to it all.

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The Rock of Chickamauga, the title of the evening's main talk, was one of the sobriquets acquired by General George H Thomas (1816-1870) of the US Army for his outstanding achievements as a field commander of Union troops in the Civil War of 1862-65. The speaker, Mr Howard Hardy, who ably outlined the strategy of that war in a talk he gave to the society last February, described how General Thomas, whose other nicknames were "Slow Trot Thomas" and "Pap Thomas" achieved enduring fame for his part in the Kentucky and Tennessee campaigns.

General Thomas's temperament and style leaned towards the steady and reliable rather than the glamorous. He served his whole working life in the US Army, including his education and training at West Point, and was one of the few Virginian officers who remained loyal to the Union cause when the South broke from the North.

After the success of the Confederate thrust towards Chattanooga in September 1863 he rallied the scattered remnants of the Union army at Chickamauga, on the road to the city, and by doing so prevented their defeat from becoming an utter rout. This led to a subsequent breakout and the spectacular victory at Missionary Ridge in the following November. It also cleared the way for the event that almost certainly shortened the war, namely the Union's invasion of Georgia and General Sherman's march to the coast that effectively cut the Confederacy in two. At Nashville, Tennessee, in December the following year, Thomas "completed the double".

Only twice during the war, the first time being at Missionary Ridge, was an army turned out of prepared, defensive positions. And on both occasions it was Thomas who did it.

With the war over, and only a few years after the events that made him famous, he died, and somewhat inexplicably, of apoplexy while serving as the head of the military department of California at San Francisco.

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Members are reminded of the De Wet escape route hike to be held on Sunday 25th August. The meeting place will be the filling station at the Brits-Sonop turn-off on the Old Rustenburg Road. It can be reached from the Hartbeesport Dam wall, continue 2km to Dam Doryn fourways stop and from there on the Old Rustenburg Road. The cost is R5 for adults and R2 for children. It is a fairly difficult hike of about three hours. The guide and commentator will be Professor Fransjohan Pretorius.

The Durban branch has arranged a tour of the Natal battlefields for the weekend of 14th/15th September. Among the places to be visited will be Colenso, Ladysmith Siege Museum, Botha's Pass and Allemansnek. Full details can be obtained from Ken Gillings on 031-267-0008 or 031-862-233.

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15th August
CR - Capt Ivor Little - Touching on the Adventures of Merchantmen in WWII
ML - Prof Ian Copley - Rietfontein
(please note that 15th August is the third Thursday of the month)

12th Sept
CR - Louis Wildenboer - General Erwin Rommel
ML - Jenny Copley - The Horse in Warfare


8th August
Talk by MHS national chairman Kemsley Couldridge - The Battle of Bannockburn:

Cape Town

8th August
Self-illustrated talk by Mrs Ute Seemann

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George Barrell

(011) 791-2581 (Note new phone number)

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