South African Military History Society


The men of the allied merchant navies have seldom been accorded the fame and glory of their colleagues in the "fighting" services, although their losses were greater in proportion to their numbers. In his curtain raiser at the 15th August meeting of the society, committee member Captain Ivor Little mentioned just a few of the countless incidents, not all of them lacking in humour, in which these neglected heroes displayed courage and fortitude not normally demanded of "non-combatants".

From his own experience Captain Little described the survivor of a torpedoed tanker who had swum to safety through blazing oil and afterwards lived with a tube permanently implanted in his throat; a young cadet who had been torpedoed on his first voyage and would afterwards jump at any sudden sound; and a Chief Officer who would never close a toilet door because he had once been trapped by a jammed door when his ship was torpedoed and he had been able to escape only by kicking out the bottom panel.

Taking his theme from a book published in the 1950s and entitled "Touching the Adventures of Merchantmen", Captain Little mentioned, among other incidents, the case of the only two surviving crew member of the tramp steamer Embassage who had clung to an upturned lifeboat for five days before being rescued; the torpedoeing of the Empire Howard, whose survivors were depth-charged while struggling in the water, and may well have been the inspiration for an incident described by Nicholas Monsarrat in "The Cruel Sea"; the steamer Ajax that survived no less than three Malta convoys, and in the course of one of them was delayed in Malta for three months during which she lived through more than 500 air raids and her crew missed their Christmas dinner when a bomb went right through the ship without exploding and carried away the six chickens they were fattening; and the determination of the crew of an oil tanker that had been split in half by a torpedo but who sailed the stern half home using emergency steering gear and a school atlas.

South African seamen played an important part in this saga of the sea, with no less than 84 ex-cadets of the SA training ship General Botha losing their lives as merchant navy officers.

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The meeting was addressed by Museum Director Major General Pretorius on his recent trip to Europe, during which he attended the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Delville Wood, l6th-l9th July 1916. There is now only one known survivor of the battle, a 99-year-old former private named Joseph M Samuels, who is at present living with his son in Canada but visited France for the commemoration. It appears he was wounded in the battle, and twice afterwards, before being returned home to South Africa on a ship that was torpedoed on the way.

In appreciation of his great age and all he had endured the South African delegation there and then promoted him to sergeant, although he was warned that his new rank would not carry any extra pay. On being told that the next commemoration of Delville Wood would only be in another 10 years' time he expressed a wish to be promoted to colonel on that occasion.

The general also visited Moscow in the course of his tour and spoke highly of the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War recently opened a few kilometres outsided the city at the limits reached by the German invaders in World War Two.

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The main lecture of the evening was given by Professor Ian Copley on the Rietfontein Military Camp and Hospital during the Anglo-Boer War. As is usual with Professor Copley's talks, this one was lavishly illustrated with numerous maps and photographs.

The history of the camp was closely allied to that of the 2nd Lincolnshire Regiment, as discovered in the unpublished sections of their Regimental diary. The site was used as a bivouac by T Battery RHA on the day of the British cavalry's advance into the Hartbeespoort area as part of its movement to encircle Pretoria.

Situated next to the Pretoria-Rustenburg road, it evolved into a fortified communications post, and then into a garrison and depot for convoys to the Western Transvaal. The strategic importance of the site was first appreciated by Colonel Baden Powell of Mafeking fame, who then set about fortifying it. As the key to the Western Transvaal it covered the roads, the bridge over the Crocodile River and the passes of Silkaats Nek and Commando Nek over the Magaliesberg, including the artillery assembled there. Early on it boasted a 100-bed stationary hospital and an adjacent military cemetery for deaths in action or of wounds and disease.

The Lincolnshires' diary led to the discovery of other forts associated with the camp that had not previously been identified. The sites yielded many artefacts as well as photographic evidence of military activity in the area.

Professor Copley explained that an attempt was being made to get the site declared a national monument and to establishing a park on the ridge instead of a proposed housing estate.

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The Society will be holding a social gathering on 10th October at 19h00, before the monthly meeting, to celebrate its 30th birthday. An entrance fee of R1O will be charged, which will include some refreshments. Details will be given in the next newsletter.

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12th Sept
CR - Louis Wildenboer - General Erwin Rommel
ML - Jenny Copley - The Horse in Warfare

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


12th Sept
Bill Brady - The Battle of the Bulge and its Aftermath

Cape Town

12th Sept
Sq/Ldr Patrick Wells - My experiences as a Hurricane pilot in the Battle of Britain

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George Barrell

(011) 791-2581

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