The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 10 No 5 - June 1997


Dear Editor

Frederick Hale's article on Rorke's Drift in the last issue (Vol 10 No 4, December 1996) reminded me of a theory I have long held on that battle; not a brilliant theory admittedly, but one which seems to make sense and which no authority that I know of has considered. Perhaps your readers may have something to say on the matter.

In a nutshell, I believe that the British victory at Rorke's Drift was due less to gallantry, strong leadership, clever improvisation, etc, than to the miserable failure of the Zulus to make proper use of their riflemen. As we know, the latter displayed suicidal courage in the fight, time and again surging right up to the walls of the enclosure in the face of murderous close-range fire. Even those who reached the barricades, however, soon discovered that their enemies remained safely out of range of their short-handled spears and, moreover, could shoot, club and stab them from above with virtual impunity.

Not counting some half a dozen hospital patients too weak to resist, all but one of those British killed at Rorke's Drift died as a result of gunfire. It was clear from the start that mere hand-weapons could make little or no impression on the defence. Despite this, Dabulamanzi chose to relegate his snipers, who alone were in a position to do real damage, to a supporting role. At first he positioned them on Shiyane Hill (the Oscarsberg), where the range would prove too great for their antiquated weapons and generally indifferent marksmanship to have much effect. Only with the coming of night did he bring them up closer, but even then they were required to do little more than harass the defence.

What should Dabulamanzi have done? I believe that had he interspersed his snipers amongst the rest of his infantry at the beginning of the battle, he would have overwhelmed the little garrison within an hour. Instead of boiling impotently around the walls, waiting to be shot, those with spears and clubs could have distracted the defenders, in effect acting as a human shield while those with firearms could open fire at point-blank range. The result would have been catastrophic for the British. Each Zulu surge, even if repelled, would have inevitably resulted in casualties for the defence; losses that could not be made good. It would only have been a matter of time before the gaps in the lines could no longer be filled and the Zulus began breaking through from all sides.

So much for my theory! I would welcome any of your readers' comments on the matter.

DY Saks


Thank you for publishing my letter in the December 1996 issue of the Journal (Vol 10 No 4). I have received a letter from John Mahncke, a former Chairman of the South African Military History Society, which corrects what I wrote about the first German air raids on civilian targets, and provides other useful information which I omitted. With John's consent, I would like to quote you the relevant paragraphs. He is perhaps uniquely qualified in this particular field because his father was a pilot in Germany's Imperial Air Corps in the First World War and a Luftwaffe general in the Second World War.

'The first German air raid on civilian targets was not made by Zeppelins but by aircraft. A squadron from the Brieftaubenabteilung Ostende (Carrier Pigeon Unit Ostende), a cover name for a recently formed bomber wing, bombed Paris in October 1914. It consisted of three planes, probably B-type Aviatiks, of 100 HP each, under Leutnant Geyer. I have no record of damage caused, if any.'

'If, however, you meant that London was first bombed in 1915 by Zeppelins, you are, of course, quite correct. Aircraft came into the picture only much later when the German Supreme Command at last realised that Zeppelins as bomb carriers were much to vulnerable, and then multi-engined bombers took over.'

'The very first air raid on a civilian target was undertaken by the French. On 23 August 1914, a squadron of eighteen aircraft from No 1 Bomber Group attacked and bombed a key factory and houses in Ludwigshafen. The British followed not much later. Squadron Commander Spencer Grey of the British Naval Air Service based in Antwerp, bombed Cologne railway station on 8 October 1914. This was one of a number of isolated attacks, with the first organised bomber raid against German cities beginning in about October 1917.'

'As far as the daylight strafing of "refugees flowing along the Tiergartenstrasse" is concerned, my guess is that Russian fighter aircraft were responsible. At that time, Russian fighters had almost total freedom in eastern Germany's airspace.'

I am extremely grateful to John for putting me right on these points, and providing more detail. His suggestion that the Russians may have been responsible for strafing the refugees is interesting, and I confess it had not occurred to me. However, a friend has handed me an excerpt from an American publication entitled Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe, which refers to the remarkable flying career of Rudolf Sinner who, in addition to his many victories, was shot down no less than twelve times, was wounded five times, made three forced landings in enemy territory, and once landed behind Soviet lines to rescue a downed squadron mate.

According to this publication, the gallant Sinner, 'who abided by the classical rules of sportsmanship and fair play' was outraged by the behaviour of American fighter pilots when, 'in the latter days of the war... [and] from the safety of their red-nosed Mustangs, [they] strafed civilian refugees streaming out of the hell of Dresden.'

So, it could have been either the Russians or the Americans. You can take your choice. The only thing that is clear is that it was not the British who did the strafing, as was implied by Paul Grobbelaar. Indeed, as I pointed out in my letter, it could not possibly have been, and I submit that had Mr Grobbelaar given the matter a little more serious thought, he might have realised this.

George Barrell

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