South African Military History Society


The 9th May society meeting opened with an apology from the chairman, Mr Kemsley Couldridge, for the unavoidable changes in the schedule of talks. Both of those listed in the May newsletter were cancelled, although Mr Louis Wildenboer's "General Erwin Rommel" may be given later in the year.

At short notice, therefore, society committee members Mr Hamish Paterson gave the curtain raiser on "The Battle of Grahamstown - 1819", and Mr Martin Ayres the main lecture on "Chain Mail to Chobham", a history of the use of armour in warfare.

The Battle of Grahamstown was the only set-piece battle of the frontier wars. It was the culmination of a dynastic struggle for the paramount chieftaincy of the Xhosas, in which the regent Ndlambe refused to concede power to his nephew Ngqika, who appealed for assistance from the British Government of the Cape Colony after being defeated in battle.

In order to discharge their responsibilities to Ngqika the British supplemented their small regular force by assembling the frontier commandos and, in early December 1818, launched an offensive against Ndlambe and his supporter, the prophet Makana. It failed to capture either of them, but it did turn out to be an exceptionally successful cattle raid.

The incident led to widespread reprisals against the white-owned frontier farms and settlements, whose inhabitants crowded into Grahamstown for protection. While British preparations were being made for a seige, Ndlambe decided to strike at Grahamstown and almost succeeded in taking its garrison by surprise. The "Might of the British Empire" defending the town consisted of 264 men, only 45 of them regular soldiers, and five assorted three- and six-pounder mountain and field guns.

The civilians were sent to the East Barracks -- today's site of Fort England -- guarded by a single company of the Royal Africa Corp. The remainder of the garrison were probably deployed in the vicinity of the market square.

The main Xhosa force under Makana was deployed in three groups on what is now Makana's Kop Ridge. One group led by Makana himself swept down on the barracks, while the other two advanced on the market square. Canister shot from the artillery tore huge gaps in the Xhosa ranks, and within 15 minutes the warriors were in retreat closely pursued by the colonial troops. The Royal Africa Corp of irregulars moved to relieve the barracks, where the attack was more prolonged and 102 Xhosa warriors died.

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The battle between armaments and armour is a continuing one. First man used a shield against his enemies, both human and animal. Then, as better weapons than stones and clubs were developed he began to use body protection. Padded cloth or leather was followed by bronze armour and iron scales. Chain mail was an early invention, later used by the Romans who reverted to it after a period during which they favoured the laminated cuirass. This was in turn followed by plate armour, which eventually proved no match for hand-held firearms.

In the 19th century cast-iron was used for the turrets of forts, such as the Liege bastions in Belgium, which were destroyed by artillery at the beginning of WW1. As that war bogged down, a counter was devised in the form of the tank. The first tanks were made from boiler plate, which was vulnerable to small-arms fire, but later the armour was improved so it could only be pierced artillery.

There was little development between the wars, but as armour improved so did anti-tank weapons. After the solid shot came ballistic caps to increase velocity, with various designs such as the "composite rigid", the "discarding sabot" and the "taper gun". With the advent of the Russian T34 in 1941, tank design began to change rapidly, with the German Panther and King Tiger tanks taking the lead.

Other weapons were perfected, including the shaped charge, or HEAT, and the squash head shell, or HESH. The first was developed as an infantry weapon, while the second is still used by modern battle tanks.

The main defence against these HEAT weapons was an Israeli invention, reactive armour, which explodes on the outer surface of the tank and deflects the piercing jet of molten metal. The rod penetrators were then developed, and for the past 30 years these have been the main weapons used by tanks. They have enormous kinetic energy and can pierce 150mm of steel at ranges up to 6km and angled at 60 degrees.

The armourers' answer was Chobham armour, a composite of steel, aluminium and ceramic, which dissipates the kinetic energy of a penetrator by staged collapse and erosion of its tip, with the rest broken up by the shock waves generated.

The latest weapons are now designed to attack the tops and bottoms of tanks. These detect and seek a tank, and fire a "forged fragment" down on to the engine or up through the bottom plates. Laid as mines or inside carrier shells, such weapons are expected to revolutionise future warfare. Already in the inventory are depleted uranium penetrators for use both by tanks and ground-attack aircraft such as the American Al0 Thunderbolt.

To counter, the armourers are taking the tank into the 21st century with depleted uranium armour. The battle continues.

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The one-day tour of the western buttress of Kommando Nek on 28th April was extremely well supported, and two more tours are now being arranged for which it is hoped the support will be equally encouraging. The first, on a date to be announced some time in June or July, will visit the site of the Nooitgedacht battle, approached from the north side of the Magaliesberg. For details, phone Professor I B Copley on 01211-30496. The second is on Sunday 22 August and will fllow the De Wet escape route over the Magaliesberg, north to south. Those interested should contact Lionel Wolfsohn on 0142-22655 for details.

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S A MILITAIRE, the largest military modelling competition in Africa, will be held at the Museum over the long weekend 15th-17th June. Flea market stalls and special attractions will be a feature. Please attend on the Sunday and Monday if possible.

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The Durban branch has been approached for assistance by Mrs Sheila Henderson, co-ordinator of the Rorke's Drift Appeal. Volunteers from the Royal Engineers have begun work on a community centre in the grounds of the school near this historic battle site. The 32-strong party is housed at Elandskraal and Mrs Henderson is appealing for financial aid, food and transport. Those able to contribute in any way are asked to contact her on 0345-706 or post donations to the Rorke's Drift Appeal, Private Bag X0141, Wasbank, 2920.

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Members are reminded that society ties are still available at R45 each, and plagues at R65. Both carry the society's emblem. To order your insignia, send a cheque to the Society for the correct amount to the address at the top of this newsletter. (S.A. residents only)

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13th June
CR - Dr Felix Machanik - Submarines in the Dardanelles
ML - Kemsley Couldridge - The Battle of Bannockburn

11th July
CR - Colin Dean - The First Falklands War
ML - Howard Hardy - The Rock of Chicamauga


13th June
Ron Locke - The Battle of Hlobane, 1879

Cape Town

13th June
Dr Dan Sleigh - The defence works erected at the Cape by various Dutch Governors, 1652 - 1795

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George Barrell

(011) 787-1524

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