South African Military History Society


German Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel was without doubt the most famous soldier of World War Two. Moreover, he has always been of special interest to South African veterans of the Western Desert because it was so often he, personally, against whom they seemed to be fighting.

In the curtain raiser to the 10th September meeting, committee member Louis Wildenboer offered some insights into the character of this remarkable man which help explain why he attained such an unrivalled reputation.

Rommel was born a small, docile child in 1891 in Wurttemberg, a state not particularly noted for its contribution to the German military tradition. His father was a teacher of mathematics, but it was not until his teens that Rommel began to show any academic promise. In 1910 he joined the Infantry Regiment Weingarten as an officer cadet, but without military connections his progress was slow. However, he distinguished himself during the Italian campaign and for his exploits was awarded the highest of all German military decorations, the 'Pour le Merite', or Blue Max, of which he was inordinately proud.

His wife, to whom he was always devoted, was of Italian descent. They had one son, Manfred.

From the day he joined the German Army Rommel was never off its strength, and during the inter-war years he became an enthusiastic exponent of the theories of armoured warfare expounded by the British military writer, Liddell Hart. This is one reason why, when World War Two broke out, he was able to persuade Hitler to allow him, an infantry man, to command an armoured group.

His oustanding achievements in the 1940 Blitzkrieg, which defeated France and drove the British Army across the Channel, recommended him for the command of the force assembled to rescue the Italians from defeat in Tripolitania. The subsequent desert campaigns established his unrivalled reputation as a driving, resourceful and gallant commander, whose eventual defeat owed as much to the neglect he suffered at the hands of Hitler and the German High Command as to the overwhelming strength of his adversary.

He was withdrawn from North Africa before the final Axis collapse there, and was given overall responsibility for the German defences against the expected allied invasion of western Europe. But by now he believed the war to be already lost, and was thoroughly disillusioned with Hitler, whom he had formerly idolised.

He was badly wounded in the Normandy campaign, but although he recovered he was never returned to command. His involvement in the intrigues aimed at overthrowing the Fuehrer led to his being given a choice between an ignominious trial, or suicide. He decided on the latter, choosing to ensure the physical safety and financial security of his beloved wife and son.

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The subject of the main lecture was "The Horse in Warfare" and was given by former society chairman Jenny Cop ey. It offered a vivid and at times emotional account of how this "shyest, least aggressive and highly strung" of all domestic animals "has galloped loyally into battle on innumerable occasions, pitting himself against spears, lances, bayonets, artillery, machine guns, and his own breed, never questioning his duty".

The first recorded use of the horse in warfare was in 1650 BC when the invading Hyksos conquered Egypt with the aid of a primitive horse-drawn chariot. The Egyptians responded a century later with a more advanced chariot drawn by two horses and carrying three men. From then until the present day the horse has seldom been absent from the battlefield.

The use of the horse in cavalry appears to date from the fourth century BC when Phillip of Macedonia raised a 5000-strong mounted force which enabled his son Alexander the Great to defeat the Persian king Darius. From then on the advantages cavalry offered in terms of speed and mobility became ever-more-widely appreciated. Hannibal's victories against the Romans at Trebia and Cannae were secured with the use of cavalry, as were the later Roman victories against the Carthaginians at Ilipa and Zama.

In the dying days of the Roman Empire the deep penetration of the Huns into Western Europe were a tribute to their expert horsemanship, coupled to the fact that their use of larger saddles and the newly invented wooden stirrup enabled them to use a variety of weapons without dismounting. These innovations led directly to the victories of the Monguls under Genghis Khan and later to the heavily armoured cavalryman of the Middle Ages. These early versions of the tank dominated the battlefield until the development of the longbow, the crossbow, and eventually firearms, ended the lumbering charge of the armoured knight.

Both Frederick the Great and Napoleon used cavalry to devastating effect, while in a somewhat different role the horse was proving its value in the speedy transport of artillery. As draught animals, horses were used extensively as late as World War Two, particularly by the German Army.

In the Anglo-Boer War the British were astonished by the effectiveness of the Boer riflemen whose rough, sturdy, locally bred ponies were so much more able to cope with the rigours of terrain and climate than their own cavalry horses. Eventually the British were forced to import large numbers of foreign horses for their mounted infantry.

Organised care for the horse in warfare was late in coming. Increasing public concern and compassion was partly reflected in the founding of Britain's RSPCA in the latter half of the 19th century. In the early years of the 20th century the British Army's Veterinary Corp was established to enforce better care and treatment, and did great work in alleviating equine suffering in World War One. To a greater or lesser degree other countries soon followed suit.

But the story of man's abuse of his war horses remains a heartbreaking one, and it is only scant consolation that at last modern conditions of warfare have virtually elimated the horse's military role and left him to enjoy a richly-deserved retirement.

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Members are reminded that the 30th anniversary of the S A Military History Society will be celebrated at a gathering on 10th October, before the scheduled 20h00 meeting. Snacks will be provided. There will also be a cash bar. Starting time is 19h00.

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The lecture programme for 1997 is now being compiled. Anybody who would like to give a talk, or has a good ideafor a talk, should contact the chairman Kemsley-Couldridge at (011) 440-5686.

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The Transvaal branch of the South African Archaeological Society will holds its annual school on the 5th October. This year the theme will be "War and Conflict". Papers will be presented on subjects such as "Roman across the Rhine"; Byzantium, its origins, throes and failure; The Bayeux tapestry; Star Wars Central America; Magersfontein to Faardeberg (by Louis Wildenboer - a MHS committee member); and the "Path to Hell" (by Hamish Paterson - a MHS committee member). Venue is Northwards, 21 Rockridge Road, Parktown starting at 09h00. A cocktail party will be held at 17h00 on Sunday 6th October.

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10th October
CR - Dimitri Friend - The Role of Women in WW11
ML - Flip Hoorweg - War and Factions in Former Yugoslavia

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


10th October
Ron Lock - The Battle of Hlobane --1879

Cape Town

10th October
Lt-Col Michael Rightford - The Role of the Military Engineer

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George Barrell

(011) 791-2581

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