South African Military History Society


The subject of the curtain raiser at the society meeting on 8th February was The Hunter Group, the specially trained unit of the South African Defence Force whose members provided the founding core of the various reconnaissance regiments, special service and parachute units, including 32 Battalion, that came later.

The talk was to be given by the Museum's Dimitri Friend, but in his absence due to bronchitis was presented by Hamish Paterson.

The 1960s saw a worldwide increase in insurgency, especially in Africa, conducted by armies or guerrilla bands using unconventional military methods. The Hunter Group grew out of the need to counter the threat posed by this new form of warfare. It was formed along the lines of Britain's SAS With assistance from former members of the Rhodesian forces and those of South Africa's military community who had seen active service in the Congo, now Zaire, and elsewhere in Africa.

The group was formed officially in May 1968 at Doornkop, south of Johannesburg, and incorporated elements of the SA Irish, who were soon joined by volunteers from other units. Over 700 men received the training, one of the incentives being that the course counted for promotion. It consisted of 240 hours of non-continuous training over weekends and at night during the week, and covered such things as unarmed combat, bushcraft, buddy aid, field navigation and survival, riot control, the laying of landmines and booby traps, tracking and the use of attack dogs, and defensive and offensive driving.

All received intensive weapons drill with the R1 rifle based on the "quick kill" system developed by the US Army in Vietnam, giving soldiers the ability to take cover, seek and destroy a target in two seconds. They were also given instruction in propaganda; guerrilla tactics, theory and thought; and stress and shock training.

The Hunter Group was the first unit in the SADF to use camouflage uniforms. These were cut in airborne style, with splotch patterns, standard SADF rank insignia, unit and proficiency badges, and a special jump qualification badge.

In 1976 the Hunter Group was reorganised into the Recce Reserve and 2nd Airborne Reserve, both of which saw action in South West Africa and Angola.

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The main lecture of the evening was given by Howard Hardy, chairman of the Benoni branch of the society, on The Strategy of the American Civil War, a conflict known by many names, but one which accounted for more casualties -- nearly 700 000 dead -- than the combined total of all the other wars in which America has fought.

The political circumstances that led to the war had their roots in early American history. The South -- those states south of the Mason-Dixon Line that divided Pennsylvania from Maryland -- was an economy based predominantly on plantation argiculture employing slave labour. The economy of the north traditionally consisted of small-scale farms, for which slave labour was not suited, but by the mid-19th century was rapidly developing industrially and pushing out westward.

Thus the two portions of the country that had won its independence only 80 years before had assumed separate identities, and in the South there was growing resentment at the North's tendency to dominate, especially over the issue of slavery. Thus the stage was set for the secession of a Southern Confederacy, something which Union President Lincoln was prepared to go to war to prevent.

A strategic plan for such a war was formulated by veteran US Army chief Lt-General Winfield Scott. It was known as the Anaconda Plan because it aimed to squeeze the life out of the Confederacy by imposing a naval blockade of its Atlantic and Gulf coasts and invading its 750 000 square miles of territory by an outflanking move along the Mississippi, Tennesse and Cumberland river systems. It was an alternative to a head-on invasion against the well-prepared defences covering the Confederacy capital of Richmond in Virginia, less than 100 miles from Washington.

The first shots in its bid to secede were fired by the Confederacy at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861. Anxious for quick results, General Scott's younger colleagues ignored that feature of the Anaconda Plan that avoided a head-on invasion, the result being a series of bloody setbacks which exasperated President Lincoln and led eventually to the appointment of Ulysses S Grant, an officer renowned for his aggressive tactics, to command the Union forces.

The commander of the Confederate Army was now Lt-General Robert E Lee, a highly competent officer who had originally been offered command of the Union armies, but decided his duty lay with defending Virginia, which he regarded as his country.

It was by now obvious the war would be decided by infantry, with artillery and cavalry playing a subordinate role, and Lee soon realised that for this reason the Confederacy was vulnerable in the long-term. Compared with the Union its manpower was limited, and in addition it lacked an industrial base to support a prolonged war effort.

In pursuit of a quick settlement, therefore, and in accordance with his own philosophy that attack was the best means of defence, Lee proceeded to make the same mistake his opponents had made. His advances into Union territory in Maryland and Pennsylvania met with determined resistance from well-prepared positions and culminated in the crucial Battle of Gettysburg, in which the South lost heavily and was forced to retreat back to its own territory where it was thereafter confined.

Even before Grant took command of the Union forces, that part of the Anaconda Plan that involved outflanking the Confederacy along the river systems had begun. A series of battles and skirmishes along the north-west and western borders of the Confederacy culminated in Union General Sherman advancing into Georgia, capturing Atlanta and reaching the Atlantic coast, thus cutting the Confederacy in two. At the same time Grant was pressing the advance on Richmond.

Lee was forced on the defensive and his strategic options limited merely to prolonging the war so as to secure the best possible terms. Finally, however, a combination of Grant's offensive strategy and a lack of men and materiel broke the South's ability to carry on, and Lee surrendered at the town of Appomattox Courthouse on 9th April 1865.

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Professor Ian Copley and his wife Jenny, both former chairmen of the society, would like it known that they have moved from Schoemansville to a farm at Kommando Nek which is to be called "Lincolnshire Lodge" after the regiment that garrisoned the area from January 1901. The regiment occupied most of the forts from Horns Nek westward, controlled from their HO situated at Rietfontein West. Jenny is running a bed and breakfast at the Lodge, which is ideally situated for the military historian, archaeologist, bird-watcher, hiker and cyclist.

A one-day tour is proposed for April to the western buttress of Kommando Nek via the well-preserved mule track and on to the four lesser-known forts at Klein (Pampoen) Nek, a round trip of 10km. This is a moderately strenuous outing starting and finishing at Lincolnshire Lodge where braai facilities will be available afterwards -- as well as swimming and tennis. The exact date is to be published later.

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14th March
CR - J J Retief - Oradour sur Glane
ML - Capt Ivor Little - Portugal's war in Angola


14th March
Maj Darrell Hall - The fall of Singapore

Cape Town

14th March
Col O Baker - The history of the British Commonwealth Service League since its founding 75 years ago

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George Barrell

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