South African Military History Society


Past meeting - Johannesburg
The conduct of military operations has traditionally offered more than ample opportunities for the display of incompetent leadership, and this is a subject that society Deputy Chairman Martin Ayres has made his speciality. His curtain raiser at the 12th March meeting was the third in a series.
The examples given ranged from the chaos and corruption which accompanied the armies of the French Revolution into battle, to the lethargic and unfeeling manner in which the British commanders tackled the Gallipoli landings, to the deliberate wrong-headedness of the Americans in rejecting the numerous innovative ways developed by the British for getting their armour ashore on D Day.
In the US Civil War General John Sedgewick, when warned to beware of Confederate snipers, said "They couln't hit an elephant at this dist..." He never finished the sentence. The French Revolutionary General of Brigade Macard, a hairy giant of a man, liked to lead his squadron into battle stripped to the waist and screaming strange cries. Over a century later a lapse in communications resulted in the tiny, unreinforced garrison at the strategic Fort Douaumont surrendering to a single German sergeant and subsequently to the Battle of Verdun.
In July 1758, General James Abercromby, with a force of 7 000 British regulars and 9 000 provincial troops attacked the French fortifications at Ticonderoga in Canada which was defended by a mere 3 600 men with eight days' rations. Instead of attacking from the flank or using artillery, Amercrombie ordered a frontal assault which cost his forces nearly 2 000 casualties and failed to take the position.
In 1921 a Spanish Army commanded by General Silvestre attempted to open up northern Morroco, which Spain had leased from France, using an army of 25 700 men. He was opposed by a mere 3 000 Rif tribesmen, but instead of concentrating his ill-disciplined, underfed and badly equipped force he dispersed it among 144 outposts. The result was that his opposing commander, Abd El Krim, was able to pick them off one at a time until, in panic, the remaining Spanish troops fled, helped on their way by their general shouting, "run, run, run, the bogeyman is coming". It is not known how Silvestre died.
There is much truth in the old saying that generals seldom win battles. It is their opponents who lose them.

Case histories in mechanised warfare was the subject of the main lecture of the evening given by Major General Roland de Vries, a serving soldier in the Training Department of the Ministry of Defence. The question he asked, and offered for debate, was what strategies should be adopted in shaping the military forces and capabilities of the new South Africa, bearing in mind the realities of its current and future defence needs.
The experience of the defence forces in Angola, where a conventional force of vastly superior numbers was defeated in its objectives by a comparatively small, though highly mobile force acting in close collaboration with an indigenous guerrilla army, validated two established principles of warfare. One was the importance of mobility, manoeuvrability and the indirect approach, the strategy that served the Boer commandos so well in their war against the convention-bound British forces. The second is the vital role that psychology can play when an army meets with tactics which it is not expecting, and which disrupt its co-ordination.
South Africa's potential regional enemies are at a definite tactical and strategic disadvantage where their ability to manoeuvre is concerned. The armed forces of neighbouring states are either confined to certain regions, or deployed over a large area in order to defend and protect the vital infrastructure of their own countries. Moreover, the close mountain terrain in many parts of southern Africa offers maximum opportunities for mobile units to gain the upper hand over a numerically superior force. Outflanking manoeuvres or penetrations can attack vital installations behind enemy lines, creating havoc.
Based on sound operational concepts, the success of forces defending South Africa will depend on their ability to develop their manoeuvring and combat potential rather than risk becoming involved in full-scale confrontation with an enemy. Based on historical experience, the lesson is that the South African Army of the future will need to be a flexible, balanced force equipped with formidable firepower. Owing to the unfavourable air situation which could develop, night-fighting capabilities must also be developed, accompanied by the use of guerrilla tactics where appropriate.

Members visiting Germany this year should note that various commemorative ceremonies are planned to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Berlin Airlift and the 49th anniversary of the lifting of the Soviet blockade of Berlin. The complete history of the airlift and the allied presence in Berlin from 1945 to 1994 will be among the exhibits at the Zehlendorf Museum in the former American sector. For further information contact the German Tourist Office on (011) 643-1615

A "well-planned and reasonably priced" specialist tour of the Namaqualand battlefields of the Anglo-Boer War, which takes in many interesting sites and "does not involve driving long distances yourself" has been organised for the week 26th May to 1st June. It leaves from and returns to Kimberley, but can be joined at Okiep. The tour includes visits to sites at Spingbok, Brandewynkop, Okiep, Garies, Leliefontein and Grootkau. Also included are visits to Augrabies, Scotty Smith's grave, a wine-tasting, Port Nolloth, a Cornish pumphouse and interesting geological formations. Cost of the tour, which is fully escorted by Satour guides, is from R1 470 per person, which includes transport in air-conditioned vehicles, accommodation with breakfast and super at Narap Lodge, Okiep. For more information contact Steve Lunderstedt on (0531) 814006.


16th April:
Annual General Meeting
ML Hamish Paterson The Great Mariannas Turkey Shoot - June 1944
14th May:
L F W Bullen All the Queen's Men
ML Lt-Gen. J Dutton With the Armour in Korea

9th April
ML Huffy Pott The Battle of Bergendal

Cape Town:
9th April
Sqn Ldr P Wells DSO Personal experiences in WW2

George Barrell (Chairman/Scribe) (011) 791-2581

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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