Review: Archie Henderson
20 Battles – Searching for an SA way of war, 1913-2013, by Evert Kleynhans and David Brock Katz (Delta Books)
“In war, prepare for peace; in peace, prepare for war.” It’s one of the more famous quotes from Sun Tzu, general, philosopher, strategist and author of The Art of War, written more than 2,500 years ago.
It applies to many walks of life – especially in the corporate world – but Evert Kleynhans and David Brock Katz are more interested in its literal meaning.
Both are civilians and also military men.
Kleynhans, an officer in the armoured corps, left the military to become head archivist at North West University where he discovered the stored Ossewabrandwag papers. From those he unearthed fascinating new details of the organisation’s fifth-column activities in South Africa during World War 2. He left the university to take up a lecturer’s position in the Department of Military History at the Faculty of Military Science at Stellenbosch University – the famed Military Academy at Saldanha.
Katz is a serving officer in the Andrew Mlangeni Regiment (which, as the South African Irish, earned battle honours in two world wars and the Border War). He is a lecturer and research fellow at the academy.
Their latest book was motivated in part by Sun Tzu’s aforementioned maxim. To prepare for war, any country first needs to discover what method of war suits it. Russia, with its vast human resources, has a brutal method of just pouring cannon fodder against the enemy (a strategy that appears not to be working too well in Ukraine right now). The US, on the other hand, has a more nuanced approach that dates back to its Civil War of “bringing superior force to bear”.
It worked well in the Iraqi wars but not in pacifying the defeated – a lesson from Vietnam that needed to be learnt all over again in the Middle East.
South Africa’s approach, since the beginning of colonialism, has been a method of movement and avoiding excessive casualties.
So Kleynhans and Katz have selected 20 battles over the past 100 or so years in an attempt to find South Africa’s way of war.
The search begins in 1913 with industrial strikes, just a year after SA’s first national army was established, the Union Defence Force. The UDF would become the SA Defence Force after World War 2 and the SA National Defence Force after 1994.
The core of its origins remain essentially British in its discipline, training and command structure. Elsewhere it has had to adapt. In places it did so brilliantly. In some of the major Angolan battles, its mechanised battle groups, led by outstanding commanders, prevailed against a larger enemy, who also had air superiority.
In other areas it failed dismally. In set-piece battles of World War 2 in the Western Desert, when it was under British supervision, it was deployed in static positions and became vulnerable. However, when allowed room to manoeuvre in the same theatre, it was magnificent. Even today, British military experts are complimentary about South Africa’s armoured-car exploits in the desert.
The trouble is, as the authors point out, that even today, the defence force remains unsure of its doctrinal future. Sun Tzu would not have given it a pass mark.
The reason for this is that the SANDF’s history has not been coherently assembled over the past 100 years. A nation can make the right calls about its military only if it understands its past, and learns from its mistakes.
Kleynhans and Katz, with their dogged research and prolific writing, are making a huge effort to correct that shortcoming.