The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 4 - December 1972



To most people, under the age of 50 and outside the South African Permanent Force, the names Ovamboland, Ipumbu, Figamine and “Cocky” Hahn mean nothing at all. To those, however, who took part in a very minor episode in the history of the UDF, and especially to those who had never before heard a shot fired in anger, they are unforgettable names.

Ovamboland, a native reserve lying between South West Africa and the Kunene River, was “governed” by Chief Ipumbu who, in turn, was kept on or near the rails by Major C. L. H. (“Cocky”) Hahn, the Native Commissioner for the area. “Cocky”, a Rugby Springbok, and an outstanding figure in any company, did not appreciate Ipumbu’s infatuation for a young native girl who was closely related to him. To escape his unwelcome attentions, she fled to the mission enclave from which Ipumbu tried to abduct her. He was fined 10 head of cattle by Hahn, refused to pay and was then fined another 90 head for contempt of court. Once again he defaulted.

At this stage, the South West African Administration appealed to the Union for assistance in bringing Ipumbu to his senses. Lieut-Col. Sir Pierre van Ryneveld was dispatched with five Wapiti aircraft to Ondangua, Headquarters of Chief Native Commissioner Hahn, to attempt by “gentle persuasion”, in the form of a show of force, to teach Ipumbu that crime did not pay.

After some days of parleying, it was decided that a show of force would not be sufficient to bring the Chief to heel, and a request was made to the Union for "ground troops" in the form of the entire armoured forces of the UDF! To the uninitiated this might seem grossly excessive. However, if one realised that the “entire armoured force” consisted of two obsolete, solid-tyred Crossley armoured cars, then the odds were certainly in Ipumbu’s favour.

At this stage, Lieut Kriegler became very interested in the proceedings and highly flattered, seeing that Col. van Ryneveld’s signal requested “Kriegler and two armoured cars” to come to the rescue.

Great excitement prevailed over the selection of the crews, mostly from members of the Small Arms Branch of the South African Military College. This had to be done with an eye to the best man for the job, and without too much favour or affection. There followed the testing of Vickers and Lewis guns, rifles, revolvers, Verey lights; the packing of the very limited spares available for the Crossleys; the loading of the cars on railway trucks; the farewells, etc.

WO-II “Jockey” Botha and his good wife supplied the first of a series of amusing episodes. Botha, on the eve of his departure to the crusades, thought he was not getting sufficient attention and sympathy from his family and lodged his complaint with Mrs Botha who put him right in his place by saying, “And do you think you require sympathy from me? One of these days you’ll be sitting pretty in heaven and I’ll be left to bring up your children - weg is jy!”[away with you!]

The ground party, consisting of Lieut Kriegler, WO Botha, Sgts Terblanche, Schoeman, Ferreira and Glover, set out by train from Pretoria early in July, 1932 and, in due course, arrived in Windhoek. Here it had to be decided whether we should travel by road to Ondangua or whether we should travel the first part of the journey by train to Usakos where the narrow gauge railway began, terminating at Outjo. As nobody could tell us whether the narrow gauge truck would accommodate the armoured cars, I eventually decided that we should travel all the way under our own power. The Administration provided us with a one-ton Continental and a 5-ton Thorneycroft to convey P.O.L. (petrol, oils and lubricants.—Ed.) etc.

People, whom we had met on the train and on railway stations, since leaving Pretoria, had advised us against attempting to drive armoured cars over the Etosha pan. Many offered to give us any odds we cared to mention that we would never make it! If any spur were required to make] us more keen than we already were, this challenge was just it. We left Windhoek about an hour before dusk and got, stuck in the first dry riverbed we encountered, about six miles north. We extricated ourselves but, at Okahandja, one of the Crossleys developed waterpump trouble and it took us more than half the night to repair the fault. Although the day had been hot, the night turned bitterly cold and there were two-foot icicles hanging down from our waterbags. We kept a fire burning to warm our hands which became numb in no time while we were working on the car.

When Lieut. (now Brig.) J.B. Kriegler, C.B.E. made his "dash" as described in the accompanying article, the vehicle had disc wheels and solid tyres

We snatched a few hours’ rest after the car had been repaired and, at first light, we set out on our journey again. When we left Pretoria on Monday, I knew that Col. van Ryneveld had prepared his plans for the following Monday. This meant that we had six days in which to reach our destination, and would have to travel hard, by day and by night.

The going was rough over most indifferent tracks on solid-tyred, overweight and underpowered cars but, by dint of hard driving without stops, we made fair progress.

At Outjo, which we reached at dead of night, we had a wonderful reception from half the inhabitants of the village and were offered our first sitdown meal for days. After half an hour’s rest, we continued on our way to Otjiwarongo.

Sgt Glover, our Sergeant mechanic, (what a hero!) and I, each drove an armoured car, while the others travelled in the cars or on the trucks. As luck would have it, and I do mean luck, one of the armoured cars broke down and had to be abandoned. We realised that we would never get both cars to their destination. A German butcher, who professed to know the country over which we were to travel as well as he knew the palm of his hand, offered Sgt Schoeman his wife, if we managed to take the armoured car across the Etosha pan. On our return after the “war”, Schoeman sought in vain for his prize. The butcher and his wife had fled into the “bundu” to escape the forfeit.

At Okaukuejo, where the SAAF party had established a landing ground and supply depot, we were met and feted by Lieut H. B. Klopper, destined to become Commandant-General in later years. “Kloppie” made us very welcome and, as far as I can remember, shared his only crust with us.

We had now reached the Etosha pan where our troubles really started. Not only were the armoured car tracks different from those of our vehicles, but the front wheels differed from the rear double wheels. Unless one steered without a rudder, the very narrow tyres of the front wheels veered off-track and bit into the sand. If the drift were not speedily corrected, the engine stalled. I must have changed gears half-a-million times! We eventually reached the stage where the car would no longer move under its own power and had to be hitched on to the Thorneycroft. With the Thorneycroft in auxiliary low, the Crossley in low gear and both engines going full blast, we progressed at about 1.5 miles per hour. Our desert train moved at this speed for hour after hour, and we stopped only to replenish the radiators and petrol tanks.

It was now Saturday. The battle was due to commence on Monday morning and we were still many miles deep in the Etosha pan.

That night we struck a patch of soft sand into which the armoured car sank up to the wheelhubs, and no amount of straining on the part of the Thorneycroft and the Crossley would budge it. On Sunday morning at first light, we heard the droning of an aircraft and, to our surprise, beheld Capt. C. J. (“Boetie”) Venter (later Major-General C. J. Venter, CB, MC, DGAF and Assistant General Manager Airways of the SAR & H) who had come to look for us. Seeing that we were completely bogged, he dropped a note from his Wapiti regarding our position, and told us that he would fly past again. If we thought that we would be unable to extricate ourselves, we should stand still. However, if there seemed a hope that we could proceed on our way in a reasonable time, we were to wave our arms and he would transfer our message to Lieut-Col. van Ryneveld at Ondangua. I put the question to the crews and there was not a man who thought we could make it. I could not tolerate the thought of failing my Commanding Officer on my first venture "on active service" and told my men so in no uncertain terms, and commanded them to wave their arms until they just about dropped off! “Boetie” Venter flew past again and we waved him a victory message.

Having committed ourselves to “make it”, we set to and dug ourselves out, and in no time were on our way again.

At about 1 p.m., we saw streaks of dust approaching from our front and two passenger cars pulled up about 500 yards ahead of us. Col. van Ryneveld emerged from one of them. I got out of the armoured car and walked in his direction, at about twice the pace the “train” was making. Col. van Ryneveld, seeing an apparition approaching, looked right through it and waited for the Commander to report to him. I halted smartly and said, “Middag Kolonel”, whereupon the Colonel said, “My magtig Kriegler, is dit jy?“[Good Lord, Kriegler, is that you?] I had neither shaved nor washed for five days and the sand, which had penetrated everything we possessed, made me look more like a Strandloper Hottentot than a lieutenant in the SAPF. Col. van Ryneveld took me in his car to Ondangua, where I quickly shaved (tackle borrowed from 2nd Lieut H. Celliers, later Brigadier H. Celliers, one time Military Adviser to the High Commissioner in the U.K.) and bathed, with Sir Pierre sitting almost on the edge of the bath, giving me the gen on the “war”. As soon as I was ready, Col. van Ryneveld flew me over Ipumbu’s kraal, showing me the lie of the land and more or less reconnoitring the route that I would follow in the morning. Back at Ondangua, our battle wagon was being given a thorough check by a bunch of air mechanics and Sergt Glover, while our machine-guns were receiving a beauty treatment from the crew.

The Headquarters had been set up in the house of “Cocky” and Mrs Hahn, the latter having the task of feeding a small host of hungry officers who had just been reinforced by one, surely the hungriest serving man in Africa south of the Sahara!

We discussed tactics and drew up a schedule of signals which we would spell out using the Popham Panel system.

I should explain here our systems of intercommunication:
(a) Popham Panel consisted of a series of white canvas strips, put out on the ground by the ground troops on a pre-arranged Code system, for the pilot and observer.
(b) Message dropping by the aircraft.
(c) Message picking up by the aircraft. This crude, but very effective, direct communication requires a short explanation. The ground crew affix a message in a small canvas wrapping to a piece of string about 25 feet long, and two members stand with this string lightly tied to two poles six to eight feet long. The aircraft either has a hook which can be let down or otherwise a bag of shot tied to a piece of string and, as the aeroplane approaches, the observer lets down the string or hook and endeavours to let the weight hook onto the string and message held up by the ground crew. If the pilot’s and observer’s aims are accurate, the string is jerked free from the two poles held by the ground crew and is pulled up into the cockpit.
(d) Wireless telephony between aircraft (this hardly ever worked!).

After dinner, I decided to drive off in the armoured car to cover a good part of the 17 miles or so which separated us from Ipumbu’s Kraal, the scene of our “party” next morning. It had been decided that the four aircraft would drop bombs on the kraal at 0900 hours and that the armoured car would then rush in and set fire to the kraal. During the previous week, pamphlets had been dropped on the kraal and vicinity, warning the Ovambos that the kraal would be bombed and that it should be evacuated. It was stressed that the quarrel was not with the Ovambo nation, but only with Ipumbu, the Chief.

At 0855 hours, the armoured car arrived at the rendezvous, an enormous ant-heap, 500 yards from the kraal, punctually to the minute after days and nights of non-stop endeavour. It was indeed a proud moment for us all.

It had been explained to us by the O.C. that I was to command the military side of the show, while “Cocky” Hahn, who travelled with us, was in charge of the political side and would do all the indaba-ing necessary.

At 0855 hours, the aircraft went into formation, had a run over the target, turned and, on the second run, Harry Celliers, who was the observer and bomb-aimer in the O.C.’s aircraft, dropped a sighter. The next run was the “real McCoy” and the bombs rained down. As they detonated, the whole kraal and vicinity were covered in a pall of dust and sand.

Following instructions to rush in 15 seconds after the last bomb had exploded, I drove the car to within about 20 yards of the kraal where I stopped, fearful of getting bogged too near the blaze which we were to create within seconds (or were we?). At this stage, the cupola of the car was open, having been opened and closed, ad nauseam, by S/M Botha, both to test the mechanism and to have something to do in the calm which preceded the storm. I was getting ready to emerge with a tin of petrol to pour over the nearest hut, in order to start the conflagration, when one or two bees made their way into the car through the open cupola and immediately started being nasty by stinging one of us. Being dead scared of bees, I shouted to S/M Botha to close up the car, but he could not budge the dome. I jerked his clumsy hands away from the levers, but failed in my turn. “Cocky” Hahn now came to the rescue, but with as little success in shutting out the bees which by this time were pouring into the vehicle in a steady stream. Panic-stricken, and quite forgetting about the “war” which might be raging outside our devil’s cauldron, I thought only of getting rid of the bees. Remembering the Verey lights we were carrying, I decided to fire off some to burn out the bees. I grabbed the pistol, loaded it with the first Verey cartridge I could lay hands on and shot off three or four rounds. Imagine my horror when I saw that they were red. The effects were threefold; the bees were driven out, we were all nearly asphyxiated and Col. van Ryneveld almost jumped out of his skin and his aircraft because I had given the distress signal.

When the bees had been disposed of, I opened the door of the car and proceeded for about six yards with my tin of petrol to burn down the kraal, when I was again attacked by a small swarm of bees. I threw away everything, made a dash for the shelter of the car and fired off Verey lights (yes, red again) to get rid of them, because the closing mechanism of the cupola was still jammed. After another bombardment of three or four Verey lights, the bees beat a retreat and I was ready to set out again.

In the meantime the aircraft, which were flying at only about 300-400 feet above, had a grandstand view of the strange happenings on the ground. There was every indication of severe distress amongst the armoured car crew. The aircraft dived and poured .303 bullets into the kraal from the front guns. When the VMG belts were empty, the aircraft circled and allowed the observers to fire their Lewis guns into the target area. The leader now gave instructions to the aircraft to return to base in order to fill up with bombs and ammunition. Col. van Ryneveld was meanwhile flying circles round the kraal to see what was happening.

The bees having been defeated, I again proceeded towards the kraal where I saturated a hut with petrol and set it alight.

We were now ready to communicate with Sir Pierre. We consulted our schedule of code signals, saw that “M” stood for message and formed this signal on the ground with our Popham Panels.

Col. van Ryneveld consulted his duplicate list, and seeing that “M” stood for medical, he promptly dived low and dropped his first-aid kit. Quite baffled, we consulted our list again and found that we had included two “Ms” which meant “Medical” and “Message”. We removed our first “M” and substituted for it the same “M” and Col. van Ryneveld, immediately realising what the trouble was, consulted his list again and concluded that we had a message for him. The message was presented on the two tall sticks and picked up by Harry Celliers. We had informed Sir Pierre that there was no enemy in sight, that the kraal had been set alight (which he could very well see for himself) and that we would cover his landing on a convenient dry pan nearby.

The aircraft landed. When the O.C. had alighted, the first question he asked was why we had sent up the distress signal. If he had looked at us closely enough, he might very well have guessed, because some faces were twice their normal size as a result of bee stings (I personally had 20 odd stings, but my face did not swell). We told him what had happened and he wanted to know why we had fired red Verey lights. We informed him that, in our moment of deep distress, we did not have time to select our colours. As his reaction did not indicate that he found our explanation entirely satisfactory, we concluded that he had never been in a similar situation. However, after an hour or so, the O.C. saw the light and forgave us for the fright we had given him.

It was now decided that we should camp on the landing pan (called “Knopkieriepan”, because of its shape), explore the kraal and its environs, and set up a hunt for Ipumbu who had left his kraal and was A.W.O.L. (absent without leave.—Ed.). We discovered in the kraal a beautiful mahogany beehive with chunks of shrapnel in it, so it was obvious why the bees had attacked us!

“Cocky” Hahn returned with Col. van Ryneveld to base and 2/Lieut. S. A. (Steve) Melville (later General, SSA, OBE, Commandant General of the UDF) remained with us. The ground and air search for Ipumbu went on until, eventually, he was located, captured and brought to “Knopkieriepan” whence he had flown to Ondangua. Poor old Ipumbu was like a pricked bubble. The chap, who was reputed to have had pregnant women disembowelled to satisfy his curiosity, and to have had a man buried alive in an anthill because Ipumbu’s right hand had been blown off by a detonator, brought by the man from the copper mines and presented to the Chief, now looked as though he could not hurt a fly. He had defied the court, but he was very humble and frightened when he was told that he was to be flown in an aircraft. Ipumbu was dressed in a kind of tunic with a short skirt, “tackies” and a felt hat with an ostrich feather, and had a rag tied over his damaged hand. Figamine, the Chief’s son, was present, wearing riding breeches and leggings which Ipumbu commandeered to begin his flight into exile.

A big indaba was now ordered and 500 to 600 Ovambos gathered on the pan to be addressed by Col. van Ryneveld. A word here about Boy, the interpreter. This Ovambo applied for work with Commissioner Hahn and, on being asked what work he could do, he replied that he was a watchmaker, a mechanic and an interpreter. “What languages do you speak?” “German.” “Where did you learn German?” “In Berlin”. “What else?” “Portuguese”. “Where did you learn Portuguese?” “In Lisbon.” It tran- spired that he also spoke English which he had learnt in London and Italian which he had learnt in Rome. Boy had attached himself to a young Irish doctor who was a bit of a roamer and he had taken Boy on his journeys to the countries where he had learnt the languages.

With Boy as interpreter, Col. van Ryneveld told the gathering that the kind of nonsense Ipumbu had tried on did not pay. The white man was a kind master and would protect and care for the native, but the latter had to live within the law and not defy it. “We sent five big birds to lay eggs in Ipumbu’s kraal because he did not listen to his father, the Commissioner, but we can send so many birds that the sky will be darkened by them but this will never be necessary, we know.”

After some stunt flying by Lieut Piet Nel (later Lieut-Col. P. W. A. Nel, General Smuts’s pilot, and S.A. Airways senior pilot) who had never stunted a Wapiti before (as a matter of fact, nobody had), and demonstrations of front and rear gunning, the palaver was over. The Ovambos, we hoped, had been duly impressed.

A second party had in the meantime stacked the confiscated rifles, both serviceable and unserviceable, in the camp, to await transportation to Ondangua. Very little remains to be told, except, of course, about the refreshing swim we had in the Kunene river and the second scare Capt. Willie Wilmot (later Maj.-Gen. H. G. Wilmot, CBE, DGAF and O.C. Cape Command) and I gave Col. van Ryneveld when, waiting until he was in deep water, we shouted “krokodil!“ On the return journey from Outjo to Windhoek, we were provided with the best 1st class accommodation and dining service on the South African Railways. As the story of our return to Roberts’ Heights as conquering heroes will take too long to tell, I shall leave it for another occasion.

Suffice it to say that in six weeks we had mobilised, trained, entrained, detrained, marched, fought a war, conquered, captured the enemy, confiscated his arms, banished him, re-educated him, returned home and been forgotten by everybody, except the wives who had to listen with rapt attention to the hardships we had endured!

I attended a Staff Duties course in Camberley, England, in 1936-37, and one morning, while sipping a sherry in the anteroom between lectures, I heard the following conversation, immediately behind me, between a visiting officer and one of my class-mates. Visiting officer, “I heard the most extraordinary story yesterday. My friend, who has it on the very best authority, told me that the natives of Ovamboland, a territory between old German South West Africa and Angola, train bees to attack their enemies. The Union of South Africa sent a force into the country in 1932 and, when they arrived at the kraal, they were set upon by bees”. “You don’t say!“ said my colleague. “Yes, honestly”, replied the visiting officer. “You’re telling me!” interjected J.B.K.

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