Newsletter No. 496
The meeting began 15 minutes late, due to a logistical problem resulting in the Chairman cutting down the announcements to only welcome all members and visitors and remind the visitors that the Society would like them to formalize their attendance and join the Society.
The Chairman then invited Dr. Mark Coghlan to tell his tale of the “Moscow Tramstop a South African Connection”.
Dr Coghlan commenced his lecture by placing Dr Heinrich Haape’s Moscow Tram Stop: A Doctor’s Experiences with the German Spearhead in Russia, published initially in London by Collins in 1957, in the context of World War II memoirs, Allied or Axis. These titles include Heinz Werner Schmidt’s With Rommel in the Desert (1951), Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Soldier on the Eastern Front by Günter K Koschorrek (1998 in German and 2002 in an English translation) and Guy Sager’s The Forgotten Soldier: War on the Russian Front – A True Story (1971/1999).
Then came the necessity to introduce Haape himself. Dr (Assistenzarzt) Heinrich (Heinz) Haape’s story, as he tells it, is of a dedicated and fundamentally decent frontline medical doctor focused on providing the very best medical care possible to the wounded and sick, both among his own immediate unit and further afield, and seemingly unhesitatingly, to Russian wounded and civilians too. The intriguing pull of the enigmatic title, referring to the closest point to Moscow reached by German forces during the dreadful winter of 1941/42, also suggests a glimpse into an almost incredible moment in military history. Albeit serving as a doctor, Haape, who hailed from Duisburg, nevertheless earned the German Cross in Gold, the Iron Cross (1st and 2nd Class), the Infantry Storm-Troop Medal, and the Wounded Badge, plus a further decoration for destroying two of the feared Russian T-34 tanks. His post-war life in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, adds an interesting additional dimension to his dramatic military career.
Haape’s unit (the 800-strong 3rd Battalion of Regiment 18 in the 6th Division of the Ninth German Army, in turn a component of the Central Army Group) plunged into Russian-occupied Poland within minutes of the launch of Operation Barbarossa at dawn on 22 June 1941, in what was to evolve into the most massive, protracted and brutal theatre of war in all of history. His unit had been transferred across from occupied France.
For Haape the massive and easy German successes, and huge Russian losses, were awe-inspiring. They were making for the Stalin Line, the first significant barrier before Moscow. Before long they were drinking toasts ‘”to the liberation of Russia and Christmas in the Kremlin!”’
Then came the stunning, and ultimately fatal, order to halt and prepare defensive positions. Haape observed ominously that mercifully ‘we did not then know that the steel [German] ring [‘round the throat of Russia’] would never regain its grip, that it would lose its temper in the snows of winter and would be finally sundered and shattered.’ While the Germans on his sector of the front stagnated, the Russians regrouped and counter-attacked. By the time that Operation Typhoon, the final attack on Moscow, was launched in October, valuable time had been wasted. An elderly Russian woodcutter informed him presciently: ‘”The grubs are deep in the ground this year…It will be an early winter, a hard winter, a winter to remember.”’
Conditions deteriorated drastically, and the Wehrmacht was utterly ill-equipped, from the narrow tracks of their tanks compared to the Soviet T-34s, to the almost complete absence of winter clothing. Lack of winter clothing introduced a new enemy as merciless as the ‘Ivans’ – frostbite!
On a date that he doesn’t precisely specify, Haape, along with a close battalion officer colleague, 1st Lieutenant (Oberleutnant) Franz Graf von Kageneck, found himself at a regimental battle post. One of the occupants pointed out some features in the snowy waste: ‘”A little to the right of us and a little to the left of us are the Russians, and directly ahead of us … is the tram station for Moscow”’. When the pair strolled over to the station this is what Haape discovered: ‘There was an old wooden bin attached to one wall. I felt inside and dragged out a handful of old tram tickets. We picked out the Cyrillic letters, which by now we knew spelled “Moskva”’ This, then, was the Tram Stop moment of his book’s title.
One reason that the Germans didn’t make the anticipated final move, along with exhaustion and wastage, was simply the numbing and destructive cold where even machine-guns froze solid. As long as the temperature was hovering at around -35° Celsius and below! The anticipated final assault wasn’t on: ‘General Winter had had the last say. The farthest point that our ring of steel had touched was that tramway station.’ It was here and now, too, that the Russians introduced another trump-card to add to the T-34: rested and fully kitted out Siberian divisions released from Asia. These Siberian divisions counterattacked en masse and forced the Wehrmacht onto the defensive and then into a retreat from Moscow.
During the course of the brutal combat and freezing cold, Haape’s life intersected with two young Russian women with whom he struck up a curious although apparently platonic relationship. The first was Natasha Petrovna, an attractive 19-year old Russian schoolteacher. Natasha suffered the fate of many Russian women in occupied German zones when the Red Army caught up with them – execution for collaboration. In her case she was hanged from a tree, for many others it was a bullet in the back of the neck. The second woman was the exotically named Nina Barbarovna! Nina, too, had met her fate at the hands of the Russians – in her case the bullet in the back of the head.
Kageneck was shot through the head and killed during the last days of December 1941, to Haape’s considerable distress, during the Battle of Schitinkovo. Possibly the most remarkable observation that can be made of Haape from the safety and security of time and place, was that his composure and discipline as an individual and his professional integrity as a doctor, never appeared to waver, at least as he recalled events.
Haape eventually managed to escape the hell of the Eastern Front when he was posted to a Reserve Artillery Group stationed in Strasbourg. His war ended rather tepidly in November 1944 in the vicinity of the Rhine when he surrendered tamely to a French officer, in the process handing over his sidearm – a Russian commissar’s pistol.
After a five minute break the Chairman invited Mr. Robin Smith to present his talk on
Disaster at Wilmansrust – redemption at Geelhoutboom.
Australian soldiers took a considerable part in the later stages of the Anglo Boer war. There were now no set-piece battles to be fought and no large concentrations of Boer fighters. It was a matter of tracking down small bands of guerrilla fighters and the regrettable necessity of denying them succour in the countryside. The element of surprise, always an important factor in warfare, was a vital consideration in actions on the broad plains, kloofs and hills of southern Africa.
Australia only became one nation as the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901, while the war in South Africa still carried on for 17 months more. All six of the original colonies followed the lead of Queensland who had offered troops to Britain even before the war began. The other Dominions, New Zealand and Canada followed suit although initial army contingents sent to the Cape were little more than a token effort and were not expected to have any direct military effect. In any case, the expectation was that the war would end soon after the arrival of the British army corps under General Redvers Buller.
The initial British setbacks at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso in December 1899, “Black Week”, caused further Australian contingents to be recruited, trained and equipped. Contingents of Bushmen, men from the outback who could ride and shoot as well as subsist in the countryside, were raised and paid for initially by public subscription. Soon the Imperial government paid all the costs and the Royal Navy provided the shipping. By early 1900 there were as many as 3,000 troops from the Australian Colonies fighting in South Africa.
By the end of 1900 the war seemed to have wound down and Lord Roberts proclaimed at a private dinner in Durban in December that the war was “practically over”. Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry Rawlinson was present and made an entry to this effect in his diary. General Lord Herbert Kitchener took over as GCIC (General Commander-in-Chief) while many of the British troops returned to Britain and some went to join the international expeditionary force to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China. The early Australian Contingents who had signed on for a year now returned home too.
Kitchener needed to create a new army and was very keen on Colonial soldiers, especially those from Australia and New Zealand. The Canadian Government only allowed their citizens to enlist as policemen in Baden-Powell’s South African Constabulary. At the beginning of 1901 six more contingents arrived from Australia, although not yet as an Australian brigade as the Commonwealth Government’s Defence Department was still just being established. Colonial horsemen were considered by the British generals to be the “best men for the job in hand.” Australians and new Zealanders were better physical specimens than most of the British private soldiers and moreover, they could ride and shoot. Yeomanry came from Britain too but they were of very mixed military experience and capability.
Prolific letter-writer and diarist Lieutenant James Stebbins thought that the men of the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles they were “some of the best that have left Victoria, but I cannot say that of the officers.” Colonel Alfred Otter, near retirement from the Victorian regular army, was told to return home when he had taken his men to the front but did in fact take command for a while until illness forced him to return home. Stebbins was not at all happy with William Mc Knight’s promotion to Major of the left wing, Companies E,F,G and H. Stebbins, an Uitlander left Johannesburg in the exodus of 1899 and joined the Protectorate Regiment in Rhodesia. He knew that McKnight had spent his year at the war as a staff officer in an office in Bulawayo. He had never been in action before but he was a solid, dependable officer.
After an outbreak of bubonic plague in Cape Town, the men were landed in Port Elizabeth, their horses in Cape Town and Durban. They reunited at Sunnyside Camp in Pretoria, their horses hardly in the best of condition after a month on the ship and then a train journey of anything up to a week. They were enthusiastic about their dashing commander, Major-General Stuart Beatson who seemed “a fine man to work with” according to McKnight. Their first action was at Leeuwfontein, north of the Delagoa Bay railway line in Lieutenant-General Bindon Blood’s drive to capture General Ben Viljoen. They captured Boers, horses, wagons and ammunition, returning to Middelburg to rest their exhausted horses.
An intelligence report said that there was a Boer convoy near Momsen’s Store, a country store and post office on the farm Boschmansfontein, on the road to Ermelo. The left wing was sent as part of a flying column to intercept them. Major James Morris of the Royal Artillery in command of the flying column which included two Nordenfeldt pom pom machine guns and gunners of the Royal Field Artillery. Morris sent ‘H’ Company to capture the convoy – they found them and captured some of the cattle but the wily Boers evaded them when darkness fell.
Although they saw Boers on the skyline all around them, they were unable to do more than just head for Van Dyk’s Drift and the rest of Beatson’s column. After several days in the field and with only a couple of Cape carts to carry their supplies they were understandably on short rations and very hungry. They made their way back in the direction of the column. Morris looked for a high point to get in touch with Beatson and found a point on the farm Wilmansrust where his heliograph message got a reply from Van Dyk’s Drift, 16 kilometres away. He was told that supplies were on the way and that his men should camp where they were. It was 12 June 1901.
They found a flat area near the Wilmansrust farmhouse owned by Johannes du Toit whose wife was still living there. They laid the camp out very neatly, according to regulations, with the officers’ tents in the farmyard next to some outbuildings. Further away were the four companies, E,F,G and H with their horses and the two pom poms just outside the lines, covered with a tarpaulin. They placed four pickets around the camp apparently about 500 yards from their perimeter, one of them on a rocky outcrop 1,300 metres to the west.
Not far away to the south at Vaalkop a number of Boer commandos were gathered under Vech-Generaal Chris Muller. Beatson’s column and the 5VMR had been particularly successful in the area in capturing horse and livestock and a number of farms had been burnt. Local people pressed Muller to take some action. They watched the Australians and tried to get them to chase some Boers under Commandant Nick Groenewald who came close to the camp but Morris only fired some pom pom shells at them. So they made a decision to attack the camp and its more than 300 soldiers.
The Australians noticed a few Boers that, at the time of the arrival of the supply wagons, “were in great numbers on the skyline in front of us”. Nevertheless, they did not expect trouble, and made large fires (it is very cold on the Highveld in June). They settled down to feed their horses, read their letters and newspapers and hungrily eat the rations that had just arrived.
In the darkness Nick Groenewald and some local guides led 120 Boers up the bed of a dry spruit until they surrounded the camp on two sides. Roland Schikkerling of the Johannesburg commando said that the camp looked like a very ambitious target but surprise was the vital ingredient. When Groenewald gave the signal they opened a heavy fire on the unsuspecting Australians silhouetted by the flames of the fires they had made. The Boers charged into the camp, their adversaries were unable to offer much resistance and it was all over in a few minutes. About 100 of the Australians were taken prisoner, many of them escaping into the darkness. The Boers collected together the unwounded horses, what rations there were, rifles, ammunition and the two pom poms. One Boer, to the amusement of an Australian, thought the army biscuits would be a nice change from mielie bread. Boots, bandoliers and even tunics were taken from the prisoners, and even in some cases from the dead men.
The prisoners were marched a short distance and then released. A Boer officer, it could have been General Chris Muller told them “Out turn tonight, yours maybe next time”. Some of the Australians made it back to Van Dyk’s Drift during the night but beaten to it by some black grooms. Relief arrived the next morning. The doctor had been killed in the attack but Veterinary-Lieutenant Sherlock did good work in succouring the wounded. Eighteen Victorians had died, many were wounded and nearly 120 horses lay dead in the camp.
It took some months for them overcome the recriminations arising from this disaster. Joining the column of Colonel William Pulteney the next month, he told them “You’ve had some bad luck. Put your shoulder to it and wipe it out!” Which they did under his firm leadership with Lieutenant L.C. Maygar becoming the sixth Australian to be decorated with the Victoria Cross at Geelhoutboom north of Wakkerstroom in November 1901.
They were warmly welcomed at home in Melbourne when they arrived in May 1902. A newspaper said that “Victoria is proud that, in spite of everything and in the teeth of much abuse, the Fifth have brought a fine reputation back with them.” One of their veterans, wounded in France in December 1916, contrasted the campaign in South Africa with the Western Front: “The game was the same old game with the same old shells and bullets to keep one moving. Though the hardships were assuredly great in any campaign, France was a picnic to South Africa.”
Committee member Don Porter presented the vote of Thanks to both speakers for well presented and well researched talks on two far differing subjects.
The Chairman closed the meeting by announcing the talks for 8th June;
DDH presented by Major Mark Levin entitled “ Reg Walker – Durbans Olympic hero and World War 1 Veteran”
The Main Talk will be presented by Professor Donal McCracken and is entitled “Ireland remembers and disremembers the Anglo Boer War.
The Chairman thanked all for attending and wished the audience a safe trip home.
SOUTH AFRICAN MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
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