Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Harry Klein, author of Light Horse Cavalcade 1899-1961, ticked all the boxes necessary for making the book readable and informative.

It was on offer at the recent Westgate Walding Auctioneers decorative and fine arts sale in Waverley.

The Imperial Light Horse Regiment (ILH) was formed shortly before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in October 1899, when Col Aubrey Woolls-Sampson approached Randlords Percy Fitzpatrick and Lionel Phillips for funds to mount and equip 1,000 men.

Authority was granted by the British military command in Natal to establish the regiment under the command of a British regular officer. The name Imperial Light Horse was personally approved by Queen Victoria. The regiment was made up of six squadrons of 86 men each.

The ILH did not have to wait long for their baptism of fire, which was at the Battle of Elandslaagte in Natal soon after the Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899.

To assist the British withdrawal from Dundee after the Battle of Talana Hill, Gen George White had previously sent a small column to Elandslaagte to keep the way open to Ladysmith.

Under the overall command of Gen John French, five squadrons of the ILH and other forces were sent out to Elandslaagte — the cavalry by road and the others by train.

Klein describes the engagement as "bitter and bloody". The conditions were aggravated by a cloudburst, which gave good cover to the advancing infantry, enabling the Manchester Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders to reach the crest of a ridge. Subsequently they were joined by the ILH, commanded by Col John James Scott-Chisholme, which took part in the charge and the storming of the final Boer position. Chisholme, who waved his red regimental silk scarf to urge his men on, was fatally wounded when he stopped to help an injured trooper. His last words were: "My fellows are doing well."

It was the last British success for many months.

In the Battle of Ladysmith, which followed, the British were "outmanoeuvred, outshot and out-generalled", Klein writes. The ILH believed the campaign "was grossly mishandled", and "forcefully expressed their opinions".

The ILH was then sent to Pietermaritzburg. Subsequently the regiment was ordered to take a ship to Cape Town, from where were supposed to go by train to join Lord Roberts in Bloemfontein, where he was preparing for his advance to Pretoria and Johannesburg. But instead they joined the column for the Relief of Mafeking, which was being assembled in Kimberley.

After peace was declared at Vereeniging on May 31 1902, the full strength of the ILH marched through streets of Johannesburg to bid farewell to Lord Kitchener, who reviewed them and took the salute on Market Square.

In the peace that followed the ILH was transformed into a volunteer corps. It was soon to be tested. The first test was the Zulu rebellion of 1906, followed by general strike of railwaymen and miners in 1913, which was prelude to the 1914 rebellion and World War 1.

Then came the 1922 miners’ strike.

An uneasy respite followed before the World War 2 broke out in September 1939.

It is said elsewhere that when SA declared war on Germany, its leader, Adolf Hitler, laughed, and well he might. SA was ill prepared. There was practically no army, only a small permanent force backed by a badly equipped Active Citizen Force, which was not fully trained. There were six batteries of artillery, a few World War 1 Crossley armoured cars, some Whippet tanks and what were termed Oswald Pirow bush carts (Pirow was once minister of defence).

The Nazi propaganda Zeezen radio station said SA was doomed. But the situation was turned around in record time as railway and mine workshops, factories and industries turned out armoured cars and ammunition and equipped the army, which was soon able to advance through East Africa and Abyssinia. The First IHL was fitted out as an infantry battalion and the Second IHL became part of the Sixth Armoured Car Regiment and the SA Tank Corps in the Western Desert Campaign of 1941 and 1942.

The First ILH sailed from Durban in April 1941 as an advance contingent for the second SA division.

Klein says the Battle for Bardia in Libya on December 31 1941, fought in cold and windy conditions, was "one of the toughest and most meritorious" in the history of the ILH. It was the battalion’s first major engagement in the war, an engagement in which they suffered heavy casualties.

Bardia, with Halfaya, also in Libya, and Sollum in Egypt formed the strongholds of the Axis countries (headed by Germany and Italy) and blocked the way to the frontier. They were heavily fortified. They were manned by 9,000 Germans and Italians, who were ordered by Hitler and Italian leader Benito Mussolini to hold out "to the bitter end".

Klein describes the capture of Bardia as the high-water mark of the SA Second Division’s activities in the desert. The ILH did not see action again in the northern section of the Gazala area in Libya.

Meanwhile, German commander Erwin Rommel hit back from El Agheila in Libya on January 21 1942 with a force of 10,000 vehicles, tanks and guns. The move took him close to Alexandria in Egypt. His aim was to destroy the Eighth Army between Gazala and Tobruk. He turned to the rear of the Gazala line to trap the First SA and the 50th British divisions. The British division was ordered to break out to the south and the South Africans to retire along the coastal road to Tobruk.

The SA First Division was still in danger of being cut off when the order came to abandon the Gazala line. Their escape "was a near thing", resulting in what became known as the "Gazala Gallop", a melee of armoured cars, tanks and guns in the desperate dash to Tobruk.

Four South Africans, in a frantic attempt to escape the Germans, told this reviewer that they clambered onto a Harley-Davidson motorbike, which carried them to safety. A signals corps veteran later said he was in such a hurry to get away from the rapidly advancing Germans that he raced off in his Ford panel van without securing the aerial.

Author Lawrence Green, then a war correspondent, mentions in one of his books that he happened to overhear two British generals discussing the situation over the telephone. They were planning to leave Tobruk after lunch. Green then decided to act without delay and departed without eating first.

Maj-Gen George Brink had earlier in 1942 warned the British Eighth Army that Tobruk was incapable of defending itself. The indecision and vacillation of the British high command can be cited as an important reason for the loss of the fortress. But the seemingly tame surrender after a little more than day’s fighting made it difficult for the SA forces to accept the defeat.

The next and last big offensive battle in the desert was the battle of El Alamein in Egypt. The first battle reached stalemate and both sides retired to regroup and prepare for hostilities later in the year.

Gen Bernard Montgomery, who had been given command of the British Eighth Army, launched an attack on October 23 1942. The attack would sweep the Axis forces from the region and ultimately from Africa.

The Second Battle of El Alamein on October 23 1942 was decisive and ended the Axis threat to Egypt, the Suez Canal and the Middle Eastern and Persian oil fields via North Africa. It also put paid to the ambition of Mussolini to lead the Axis victory parade into Cairo riding a white charger.

The war was not yet over, and the ILH and the Kimberley Regiment, which had been merged, would still take part in fierce action against the German occupation forces in Italy until the Germans surrendered on May 8 1945.

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