South African Military History Society


At the society meeting on 14th December the curtain raiser was given by Mr Howard PeII on the fate of the French Fleet after the 1940 surrender.

In June that year Churchill extracted an undertaking that France would not allow its fleet to fall into German hands. The French were offered four alternatives. Their ships could join with the Royal Navy and continue the fight; they could sail with reduced crews to British ports and be immobilised; they could sail to ports in French-held islands in the West Indies, or neutral ports in the US; or they could be scuttled by the French themselves.

If none of these options was taken, the ships would be regarded by Britain as enemies and attacked.

When surrender was imminent, part of the French Fleet, the bulk of which was in the Mediterranean, sailed for the naval base of Mirs el Kabir on the North African coast west of Oran. Another part sailed for Dakar in French West Africa. A third portion was at Alexandria, where it was working with the Royal Navy and reluctantly agreed to be immobilised, while a few vessels that had congregated at Toulon were eventually scuttled when the Germans overran Vichy France.

The main problem for the British was the fleet at Mirs el Kabir which ignored all options and early in July 1940 was neutralised by the Royal Navy with considerable loss of life, and subsequent ill feeling. The Dakar fleet was later attacked and put out of action.

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The subject of the main lecture, given by society member Hamish Paterson, was the defeat of Prussian king Fredrick II, (The Great) at the battle of Kolin in 1757.

Kolin was important because it proved that "Fritz", the Hitler of his time in terms of his appetite for aggression, who had earlier invaded Silesia and precipitated the War of the Austrian Succession, could be defeated. That war had ended with the thief in possession, and the Austrians bent on revenge and restitution. The result was the Seven Years War, with Prussia allied to Britain and facing France, Russia and Austria.

The first shots were fired in America, against the French at Fort Duquesne on the Ohio River by a British colonial force under the command of George Washington. Fritz invaded neutral Saxony and took the capital Dresden without resistance. He then advanced into Bohemia, but was met before Prague by an Austrian army commanded by Prince Charles of Lorraine.

In the ensuing battle the bulk of the Austrian army was pushed back into Prague, but another section, under Marshal Daun, a competent professional soldier, retreated into the mountains of Bohemia and there set about reorganising and strengthening itself before returning to the defence of Prague.

Realising the danger presented by a rebuilding field army within 50km of Prague, Fritz marched to meet it. In the ensuing battle the Austrians' superiority in numbers, and particularly artillery, defeated Fritz's well-drilled infantry.

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The curtain raiser at the 11th January meeting was given by Capt Tony Spier of the Museum on his experiences as a teenager in wartime Britain.

The most vivid memories of the British who were alive on 3rd September 1939 will be the air raid warning that sounded within minutes of war being declared, and which sent Londoners scuttling for their shelters and slit trenches; the gas masks that had to be carried at all times, and in fast-disintegrating cardboard boxes; the mass evacuation of children, and often mothers as well, from the main cities; the sudden appearance of military uniforms in the streets and barrage balloons overhead; the equally sudden importance of radio and the news it brought; the start of food and petrol rationing; and the blackout. As a teenager at the time, Capt Spier, who was living only five miles from the Buckinghamshire industrial town of Slough, west of London, described how an early expertise in aircraft recognition found him cast as a spotter on the roof of the Mars chocolate factory there. This gave him a ringside view of the Battle of Britain, the thrill of seeing the odd German aircraft downed, and enabled him to earn pocket money selling ack-ack debris as souvenirs.

While still a teenager he later joined the RAF and served as a navigator on Mosquitoes.

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The main lecture was given by Dr Felix Machanik, honorary life member of the society, on the subject of the Jameson Raid.

January marked the centenary of the raid which, considering its importance in South Africa's history as the opening shot in the Anglo-Boer War, has been surprisingly neglected.

Dr Jameson was a highly competent medical doctor until he was persuaded by his patient and mentor, Cecil Rhodes, to help in the pursuit of his political and territorial ambitions.

Johannesburg was the mining town that sprang up following the discovery of gold in 1886. The Transvaal government had expected its life to be limited, but by 1895 it was accomodating a mixed population of about 40 000 "uitlanders", as Pretoria had dubbed them, most of whom looked to the British administration in the Cape Colony to support them in their grievances. Chief among these was Pretoria's refusal to extend the railway from Cape Town beyond the VaaI River, which increased mining costs, and the withholding of civic rights.

After appealing several times to Transvaal president Paul Kruger without success, a reform committee of the uitlanders appealed to Cape Town, which in secret sent them British arms against the possibility of an uprising. From what later became Rhodesia, Dr Jameson marched south with a colonial force through the British protectorate of Bechuanaland to join a force of volunteers from the Cape. By December 1895 he was camped with about 500 armed and mounted men at a point close to modern Mafikeng.

Jameson's planned to await the expected uprising in Johannesburg, and then march to its assistance. However, this did not materialise, and Rhodes, prime minister at the Cape, and the British Government in London, both of whom had tentatively supported the idea of intervention, now turned against it. Despite this, Jameson decided to ride -- straight into the arms of the Boer commandos awaiting him at Doornkop, close the the western border of what is now Soweto. After a short exchange of fire, and the lack of any evidence that the Johannesburg reformers were coming to join him, Jameson and his men surrendered at 09hrl5 on 2nd January 1896.

The episode cost Rhodes his political career. At the request of the British Government the leading raiders were sent to London for trial and received derisory terms of imprisonment that further antagonised Pretoria. The ringleaders of the Johannesburg reform committee were tried and four received death sentences that were later commuted to fines of 25 000 pounds, and set free.

The scene was set for the war that broke out less than four years later.

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New Zealand author Sheila Gray has written a book entitled "The South African War, 1899-1902", which details service records of more than 1 700 British and allied military and civilian nurses, laywomen and civilian volunteers rewarded for service in South Africa, listing those mentioned in despatches and awarded the Royal Red Cross. This is a limited edition, available from the author at 54a Towai St. Auckland 1005, NZ. The price to South Africans, including postage and packing, is $NZ5O by air and $NZ45 by economy post.

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8th February
CR - Dimitri Friend - The Hunter Group
ML - Howard Hardy - The American Civil War


8th February
Philip Everitt - Mulberry Harbours

Cape Town

8th February
Ian Uys - The Battle of Delville Wood

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George Barrell

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