South African Military History Society


The invasion of France in May-June 1940 -- the Blitzkrieg, or Lightning War -- was one of the most spectacular military successes in history. In the curtain raiser at the Society's 13th May lecture meeting, former Society Chairman George Barrell explained the reasons for this remarkable achievement.

Hitler began building Germany's military strength as soon as he came to power in 1933. His aims were to avenge the perceived injustices of the Treaty of Versailles that ended WW1, to retrieve the eastern territories lost to Germany, and to win for the German people more "living room". He proceeded to expand the German Army, which he insisted had not been defeated in WW1, and to build a powerful air force designed for close support. He also encouraged new tactics based on the use of tanks and mechanised units to frustrate any attempt to establish the kind of defence lines that had prevented the German advance into France in 1914. Ironically, his plans were assisted by the Soviet Union, which, despite being Hitler's chief enemy, had provided the German war machine with raw materials and exercise facilities. The tactics of mechanised warfare were later tested in Spain and perfected in Poland.

Britain and France declared war over the invasion of Poland, but seemed to have had no idea of how they intended to fight it. France's strategy was purely defensive, with her Maginot Line fortifications stretched between the Belgium and Swiss frontiers, and her tank and infantry divisions stationed behind her northern frontier ready to repel an expected German invasion through Belgium. It was intended that the British Army should supplement these French divisions in much the same way they had done in 1914. The British approach differed from the French mainly in that it included a strategic bombing capability designed to retaliate against any German air strikes attacks on Britain. Neither the French nor the British had bothered to develop effective fighter defences against Germany's tactical air strike forces, and, worse, had neglected up-to-date military thinking on mechanised warfare. France had more tanks than the Germans, 3 250 against 2 500, and they tended to be larger and more heavily armed. But the French Army still saw tanks as support for infantry, rather than the other way round. Despite having invented the tank, Britain still seemed to regard it as an unsatisfactory substitute for the horse.

So the scene was already set for a spectacular allied defeat when the German offensive began in May 1940. The German Army did advance into Belgium, but only to distract the allied defences. The main attack came through the Ardennes, a hilly and wooded area regarded by the allies as impassable to mechanised units. Within days the Germans had advanced into France, and tank units under General Heinz Guderian were heading for the Atlantic coast. On 25 May the British Expeditionary Force, under General Lord Gort, began a nine-day evacuation from Dunkirk, which infuriated the French and hastened their surrender. This took place on 22nd June, only six weeks after the opening of the offensive. The success of the German Blitzkrieg was due partly to superior tactics, and partly to the surprise achieved by attacking through the Ardennes.

The main lecture of the evening, entitled "Long Rifles in Battle -- 1795-1902: British Weapons in South Africa" was given by Rob Hooper-Box of the Arms and Ammunitions Society. Its effectiveness was much increased by a collection of the weapons concerned, demonstrated by assistants dressed in the red coats of the 19th century British infantryman.

The century or so between the first British landings in the Cape in 1795 and the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902 saw a many-staged progression from the smooth-bored, flint-lock, ball-firing, black powder, "Brown Bess" musket, to the rifled, bolt action, Lee Metfords and Lee Enfields using metal cartridges, smokeless powder, long bullets and multi-shot magazines. In the hands of a trained soldier the Brown Bess required 22 different actions to load; could discharge three shots a minute unless it misfired; was long and heavy; unreliable in damp conditions, and accurate only up to 80 yards or so. It could not be fired prone; it had no sights; and it required soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder if it was to be effective. It was easily outclassed in terms of range and accuracy by the rifled guns of the time -- although these had the disadvantage that they could take even longer to load and often required considerable force in the ramming action. As a hunting weapon, the flint lock was so slow and noisy that it could alert the quarry, and that accelerated the invention of the percussion cap. This was a big improvement, although it did have the military disadvantage that the cap was small and fiddling to position correctly.

As the century advanced the ball was replaced by the bullet, and incorporated with the charge into a single paper cartridge. In 1852 a new weapon, the Enfield muzzle-loaded "rifled musket" replaced the Brown Bess as standard issue, and in India provided the trigger for the Great Mutiny of 1857. The Enfield cartridges, which had to be opened with the teeth, were rumoured to be greased with animal fat, offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. The accurate range of the Enfield was a vast improvement on the Brown Bess.

The British Army was slow to adopt the breach-loading methods being developed in Europe and America. By various steps it eventually fell into line, and by the time of the Zulu War of 1879 the standard issue was the famed, breach-loaded, single- shot Martini Henry The paper cartridge containing a short, solid bullet had by now been replaced by a brass-cased charge surmounted by a longer bullet hollow in the base to take the rifling. Ranges now exceeded a mile, and accuracy had increased to at least half that distance. The main problems with the Martini Henry were its weight, its length, and its single-shot action. By the time of the Anglo Boer War it had been replaced as standard issue by the Lee Metford, a rifle that was shorter, had a smaller bore, bolt action and a magazine holding ten rounds loaded separately. This was later replaced by the lighter, shorter, Short Lee Enfield, loaded with a five-round clip of .303-inch calibre bullets. The Short Lee Enfield remained the standard weapon of the British Army until after WW2.

The Friends of the Museum will hold their SA Militaire event on the weekend of 12th/13th June. Society members are invited to donate any books they wish to dispose of for sale at the event. The proceeds will go to the Museum. The next Friends lecture meeting will be on Wednesday 30th June, when the subject will be The Battle of France. A Dunkirk survivor will relate his experiences of the evacuation.

A Society member writes that the "British Cape Field Artillery" referred to in the lecture given last January by Louis Wildenboer on homemade artillery was never a British unit. At the time of the Pofadder incident it was in fact known as Prince Alfred's Own Cape Volunteer Artillery.

Shamus O D Wade, Secretary of the Commonwealth Forces History Trust, expresses sadness at reading in the Society's newsletter "the dreary myth about Baden-Powell being called 'The Wolf That Never Sleeps'". He quotes from a conversation with Dr Hazel Carter of the School of Oriental and African Studies. "Impisi is pronounced, near enough. Impeesa'. In Ndebele the word means spotted hyena. Other meanings are: a vicious-looking person; a military blanket; acute diarrhoea; a spy or scout." Could be B-P was at various times regarded as all four, although that last one does have particular significance..



10th June
G v d Merwe: Building Warships at Knysna in WW2
Prof J Lambert: Experiences of Natal Loyal Africans in the Anglo-Boer War
8th July
Flip Hoorweg: Naval Blunders of the 20th Century
John Murray: The English Longbow


10th June
Ian Sutherland: European Battlefields Tour
Gilbert Torlage: Trooper Rupert H Bisley -- June 1900

Cape Town

10th June
Stan Lambrick: The Life and Times of General George Armstrong Custer

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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