South African Military History Society


The curtain raiser at the society's 10th December meeting given by Deputy-Chairman Martin Ayres was all about SNAFU, the tragic record of military incompetence throughout history. It was the fourth in a series.

The military mind is basically conservative, and the commanders whose job it is to devise the strategies and tactics of war do not always have sufficient concern for those who must carry them out. Some famous examples are the British generals of WW1, whose addiction to the use of horses, and inability to grasp the importance of the machine gun, cost countless lives. In the same war the Royal Navy was no less culpable in its neglect of new techniques and its apparent determination to ignore the range at which modern gun battles were being fought.

They were not alone in such wrongheadedness. In the American Civil War both army commanders, Lee and Grant, were guilty of forgetting their normal frugality with the lives of their men. At Gettysburg Lee ordered the disastrous Picket's Charge because, he said, he believed his men to be invincible. At Cold Harbour Grant ordered a frontal attack in defiance of the advice of his generals that cost the Union troops 7 000 casualties in only 10 minutes. In 1870 the Prussian General Steinmetz also ordered a frontal attack in which his men were not to fire but to use only their bayonets. They lost 62 per cent of their strength. Similarly, in 1904, during the Russian-Japanese War, the Japanese General Nogi attempted to capture Port Arthur by "human wave" tactics and lost five times more troops than his enemy.

The main lecture of the evening, entitled "A Bridge Too Far", did not refer to the bridge at Arnhem in 1944, but to a bridge across the Noord river 100km away. Speaker Flip Hoorweg described how, during the German invasion of Holland in 1940, the Dutch mobile Light Division was sent to cut in between the German forces threatening Rotterdam and Moerdijk. The direct route was already blocked, so a more circuitous one was chosen. This would bring the division to the town of Alblasserdam to the east of the Noord about 6km north of Dordrecht and directly opposite LJselmonde Island southeast of Rotterdam.

The bridge by which they would then cross the Noord was a new one, and unknown to the Germans. However, the movement of the Dutch troops was reported to the German para commander General Student, who rapidly recovered from his surprise at discovering a bridge not marked on his maps, and sent troops to secure it. The success of his move was reinforced by the dilatory behaviour of Colonel Van der Bijl, commander of the Light Division, who neglected to check the news that the Germans were already at the bridge and left it to the next day to reconnoitre. The result was the complete failure of a move that might well have postponed the surrender of Holland by perhaps another day or two.

As it was, Dutch resistance was successful enough to persuade the Germans they had to hurry things along by bombing Rotterdam, and to deprive the Luftwaffe of 220 of its JU-22 transport aircraft, 51 per cent of complement.

Artillery has for centuries played a central role in warfare, and on occasions the lack of it on the part of some hard-pressed participant has stimulated considerable ingenuity in the manufacture of homemade artillery pieces. This was the subject of the curtain raiser given by Louis Wildenboer at the 14th January lecture meeting.

It is believed the first homemade gun in South Africa was improvised by the Koranna chief Klaas Pofadder. When his fortress island in the Orange River was being bombarded by the British Cape Field Artillery he loaded a hollowed-out tree trunk with gunpowder and stones, mounted it on a wagon bogie, blocked the breach end with clay, pointed it at his enemy, and fired. The result was a deafening roar, and his gunners' mangled remains littering the field.

During the first Anglo-Boer War a farmer-come-blacksmith, Martinus Nicolaas Ras was inspired by the poor performance of the Boer artillery at the siege of Potchefstroom to make guns of his own. He did so from steel wagon wheel tyres and a great deal of amateur skill. His first attempt, using, spherical shot, blew out the breech plug. This defect was rectified in his next gun, and its successor. These incorporated greater strength in the barrel, which was not rifled. They were declared a success, but by then the war was over.

The second Anglo-Boer War produced two homemade guns, both of them British. At the siege of Mafeking in 1899 the garrison was hopelessly out-gunned, and an artillery major, using the facilities of the railway workshops, built a gun from a length of steam pipe strengthened with iron bars. It was called the "Wolf" after the garrison commander, Col. Baden Powell, "the wolf that never sleeps". It was a muzzle loader, fired spherical shot in wooden sabots, and had a range of 3 000m.

The most famous of South Africa's homemade guns, as well as the most effective, was, of course, Long Cecil, designed by American engineer George Labram and built in the De Beers workshops during the siege of Kimberley. With no knowledge of how to make a gun, let alone fire one, Labram and his team successfully constructed a 104mm cannon that was rifled, breach loaded, and had a range of 8 000m. It outranged the Boers' Krupps guns, but not, unfortunately, the Long Tom they brought up to counter it. Ironically, Labram, who built Long Cecil, was killed by the last shot fired by Long Tom in the siege.

"Some Ethereal Aspects of War" was the intriguing title of the main talk of the evening, given by society committee member and former chairman Kemsley Couldridge.

Throughout history wars' participants have called on supernatural powers to give them victory, or save them from defeat. Frequently such powers have been invoked to explain mysterious happenings on the battlefield that have baffled the fighting men. The Bible tells how God's intervention enabled the Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, how the Israelites prevailed over the Amalekites just so long as Moses "bearing the rod of God" held his hands aloft, and how the walls of Jericho crumbled when certain rituals required by God were faithfully carried out.

Later, the Greek historian Herodotus (485-424BC) records supernatural interventions in the Battle of Marathon, 490BC, and in the famous sea battle of Salamis in 480BC. The British Isles have always been a ready source of tales of phantom armies and the re-enactments of battles long ago. The legendary deeds of the equally legendary King Arthur are well recorded, as is the famous army known as the Wild Hunt, which ranges over the night skies of numerous European countries as well as those of Britain. Over Dartmoor it is reputed to be lead by Sir Francis Drake, who rides in a black carriage drawn by headless horses. The legend of Drake's Drum, which is said to be heard whenever England is in peril, exists to the present day.

The famous French heroine, Joan of Arc, who defeated the English at the Battle of Orleans in 1430 and crowned Charles VII king of France, believed herself driven by supernatural forces. She was eventually burned as a heretic. The addiction of the Nazis to belief in the powers of the supernatural is legendary, and at one stage in WW2 took the bizarre form of the Pendulum Institute. There German naval personnel were trained to locate British convoys by swinging a pendulum, in the belief the British were using this method to locate and sink German U-boats.

The Friends of the Museum will be holding a lecture meeting in the Museum auditorium on 24th February. The subject is expected to be the Lancaster Bomber, although this could be changed. As usual, the bar will open at 19h00 and the lecture will begin at 20h00.
SABC producer Anthony Irving is compiling a series of programmes on the Anglo-Boer War. It will begin on 11th October, the 100th anniversary of the first shots being fired. Irving is anxious to contact anybody who may have interesting stories about family experiences in the war. He can be contacted on (011) 708-2182, or fax (011) 708-1938.


11th Feb
CR Prof Ian Copley A Tour of Hartebeespoort during the Anglo-Boer War
ML Martin Ayres Marlborough - Britain's Greatest General
11th Mar
CR Dr W Murton Two Crossings of the Atlantic in Wartime (Plebian Out-Supremo Home)
ML Penny Grimbeek Smuts the Man

11th Feb
Janice Farquharson Kipling & the Anglo-Boer War
11th Mar
Garth Benneworth The Battle of Driefontein War

Cape Town:
11th Feb
Col. P Grobbelaar The Commando System
11th Mar
Ken Gillings Zibhebhu - Zululand's Master of Ambush

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

CR = Curtain raiser ML= Main Lecture

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