South African Military History Society


The SA Military History Society is now 30 years old, and the anniversary was celebrated at a social gathering held before the meeting of 10th October.

It was pleasant to have with us several founder members.

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Women have always played a role in warfare, but the 20th century has seen them taking an increasingly active part as auxiliaries and even uniformed combatants. The point has now been reached where they are now accepted as such by armed forces throughout the world, including those of South Africa.

Women in warfare, with special reference to South African women, was the subject of the curtain raiser given by Dimitri Friend of the SA Military History Museum. As he explained, in order for women to increase their active participation in warfare, the mould of homemaker, nurse and wife into which they had been traditionally cast, has had to be broken. Since World War One their progress has been rapid.

The extent of the part women have been allowed to play has always depended on the social attitudes of the countries they have served. In World War Two they were active as auxiliaries in all arms of the armed forces of the western allies, as well as on the home fronts. In both world wars they have been used in intelligence-gathering roles, and have replaced men in maintaining industrial production.

In Germany their participation was restricted by Nazi ideology. But they were eventually allowed to serve in anti-aircraft units during the battle for Berlin to relieve the shortage of manpower, and one woman, Hannah Reitsch, distinguished herself as a test pilot.

It was only in the Soviet Union that women filled virtually all combat roles normally reserved for men. The members of 122nd Air Group were all women, and a woman major general served as a divisional commander in the army.

South African women were active in both the Anglo-Boer War and World War One, although in accordance with the conservative nature of society it was always in non-combatant roles. This continued into World War Two, where as uniformed auxiliaries they served all branches of the Union's Defence forces.

A total of 113 000 South African women saw service in uniform during World War Two, the most spectacular contribution being made by Sue Labuschagne who fired the Saldhana Bay harbour defence mines after noticing possible enemy penetration.

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The main lecture of the evening, on the subject of war and factions in the former Yugoslavia, was given by Flip Hoorweg, who described how, after World War Two, this fractured and fragmented country had enjoyed three decades of unity under the leadership of Broz Tito, only to slide into fratricidal war within ten years of his death in 1980.

The nation that emerged from World War One with the name Yugoslavia, meaning Slavs of the South, consisted of six republics cobbled together to form a federation. They were made up of five nationalities and 18 ethnic groups speaking four principal languages written in two alphabets. They followed three different religions, and had a history of antagonism which had frequently led to conflict in an area ideally suited to guerrilla warfare.

Serbia had traditonally been the dominant republic, both politically and militarily, and most of the country's industrial capacity was located on its territory. Soon after Tito's death the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, aroused the anger of the Slovenian, Croatian, Macedonian and Bosnian republics when he began asserting Serb nationalism over the south-eastern autonomous province of Kosovo using brutal means. The federation began to disintegrate as Slovenia and Croatia declared independence.

Milosevic, who controlled the Federal Army and Air Force, tried to quell the rebellions but ultimately failed owing to bungled mobilisation, inadequate logistics and low morale among his troops. Only Montenegro remained with Serbia in what is now known as "Rump Yugoslavia".

Forming a wedge between Croatia and Serbia, the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina became the crucible of the subsequent war that has only now ended with an uneasy peace enforced by the United Nations. The dominant community in Bosnia-Herzegovina was Muslim, the descendants of those landowners who, mainly for tax reasons, had converted to Islam during the Ottoman occupation. However, there were large Croat and Serb minorities in the republic who were anxious to grab it for themselves. In four years of barbaric warfare and with Serbian help, the Serb minority, led by Radovan Karadzic and army commander Ratko Mladic, crushed resistance, laid waste the countryside and established the infamous doctrine of "ethnic cleansing".

This meant that only Serbs were to have rights in a conquered Bosnia. The rest were carted away en masse to detention camps, executed, maimed and tortured. Appalling war crimes were perpetrated by all population groups.

After numerous efforts by the international community to end the conflict, the Dayton Accord was signed in the autumn of 1995, and a peace agreement in Paris in the following December. Disengagement and the patrolling of ceasefire lines is now occupying no fewer than 60 000 UN troops.

The peace has held so far, but the main perpetrators of atrocities, even when identified, have not yet been apprehended. The concept of a multi-ethnic Bosnia has not yet been realised because Serbs and Muslims generally do not mix. The general mood is still hostile, and unless the NATO mandate is extended the UN Implementation Force, or IFOR, will be pulled out in December leaving the former antagonists to their own devices.

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14th Nov
CR - Martin Ayres - Another dive into Military Incompetence
ML - Hamish Paterson - The Battle of Cape Matapan

12th Dec
CR - Felix Machanik - Lt. Ccl. J P H Crowe, South Africa's first V.C.
ML - George Barrell - The Indian Mutiny - 1857


14th Nov
Prof. Yonah Seleti - Demobilisation in Angola

Cape Town

14th Nov
A video documentary programme presented by Johan van den Berg
(This will be the last meeting of the year for the Cape Town branch)

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George Barrell

(011) 791-2581

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