The main talk for the evening was yet another maiden effort. Long
standing fellow-member, Dave
Matthews gave us a talk on the little known "Siege of Okiep" which
took place towards the end of the
Anglo-Boer War. Using overhead projections and colour slides as
illustrations, our speaker started off with
a brief history of the copper mining town of Okiep and its environs.
He then went on to describe how, with
the intensification of the guerilla warfare by the Boers after the
defeat of their conventional forces by the
British in July 1900, no region in Southern Africa could be regarded
as being secure.
In January 1901 Col. Shelton was ordered to Namaqualand to organize its defence against a possible Boer attack. It was a Herculean task - this vast tract of barren, waterless stony desert is some 17 500 sq. miles in extent and stretches from the Orange River in the north to Vanrhynsdorp in the south. It is bounded in the west by the Atlantic Ocean and in the east by the waterless Bushmanland. Okiep was the main mining town in the area and it was connected to Port Nolloth in the north-west by some 90 miles of narrow-gauge railway line*. The town itself was overlooked by surrounding hills and high ground and consequently extremely difficult to defend. Notwithstanding, Col. Shelton with the aid of a Major Dean of the Cape Copper Company, built a comprehensive set of defence works comprising an outer chain of blockhouses which completely encircled the town. His artillery was mounted on Fort Shelton which was also his HQ. His inner defence line was a barbed wire entanglement, which also surrounded the town and encompassed the waterworks, mines and most of the houses. He also set up blockhouses at Springbokfontein, Nababeep and Concordia.
A Town Guard was formed in the latter and was under the command of a Capt. Phillips with 5 Officers and 215 NCO's and men. He also set up blockhouses at strategic points to protect his vital railway line to Port Nolloth. Finally he founded the Shelton's Border Scouts and, although they did engage the Boers on several occasions, their role was to be purely defensive.
This situation prevailed for most of 1901, but with ever increasing Boer incursions, until on 26 January 1902 a Boer Commando isolated Garies in the east. Then a week later intelligence indicated that Gen. Smuts' commandos had linked up in the vicinity and now numbered some 3 000 men.
Springbokfontein was the first to be attacked and, although the settlement was protected by 3 blockhouses and barbed-wire entanglements, it was soon overrun. The Boers had found some dynamite in a disused mine and with the expertise of two expatriate Irishmen (Lang and Gallagher) turned them into very effective hand grenades which were used to attack the blockhouses. On the strength of this attack, Shelton wanted to withdraw his men from Nababeep and Concordia as a matter of urgency.
While the garrison from the former needed no second bidding, Capt. Phillips at Concordia refused to evacuate saying that neither his men nor the residents were prepared to leave their homes. Shelton eventually agreed, but exhorted him not to let the Boers capture any military supplies.
However, when Capt. Phillips was finally confronted with the Boers, he surrendered without a single shot being fired! Unfortunately he did not destroy his supplies and the Boers were able to capture 150 rifles plus 50 000 rounds of ammunition and a large quantity of dynamite. The Siege began in earnest on 8 April with heavy attacks on the three southern blockhouses.
General Smuts who was in charge of the Boer commandos used dynamite bombs to great effect against the blockhouses and managed to capture all of them without too much trouble.
Col. Shelton, realizing that there was more shock than damage caused by these dynamite bombs, re-assured his men accordingly. The secret was to maintain a withering rifle fire at the enemy and keep the attackers out of throwing distance.
On the 10th April, Smuts offered "safe conduct" out of Okiep to the non-combatants, but after the Concordia debacle, they scornfully rejected it. They wanted to be in their own homes with their menfolk.
Meanwhile, a Col. Cooper with a substantial relief force had been dispatched from Cape Town to Port Nolloth, arriving there on the 12th. They set off immediately by train and travelled as far as they could go. Although the tracks had been torn up in places, the bridges and viaducts that had been guarded by blockhouses were still intact. They first encountered the enemy at a place called Klipfontein which was about 45 miles out of Okiep, but the Boers had withdrawn to some higher ground that commanded the railway line. On the 14th, Col. Cooper managed to clear the Boers out of the area by the use of a shrapnel bombardment that caused heavy casualties.
At that stage he signalled to Shelton by means of heliograph that he would be in Okiep within two days, but it was not to be. His relief force was again held up at Steinkopf and it was not until the end of April that the Boers pulled out and retreated towards Okiep.
Back in Okiep, the Boers had captured the Shelton Blockhouse after its garrison had run out of ammunition and a dynamite bomb had collapsed its roof. However, Fort Shelton managed to hold out. Further attacks continued on the 13th, but were repelled by concentrated artillery fire. Bitter fighting continued unceasingly, but the defence held.
Then on the 25th April, General Smuts had to leave the Siege and make his way by special pass through the British lines, as he was required to attend the Peace Conference at Vereeniging. Maritz, who had taken over from Smuts, tried to send a rail wagon packed with dynamite and driven by an unmanned steam locomotive along the railway line into Okiep. Fortunately for the defenders it was derailed by the barbed-wire entanglements and overturned. It caught fire and burned with a brilliant light for rest of the night.
The relief column finally arrived in Okiep at noon on 4th May when Col. Cooper, who was the senior officer, took over from Col. Shelton. Shortly afterwards, the dispirited Boer commandos withdrew from Springfontein and Nababeep and by the 5th May the area was cleared.
Ten days later the Peace Conference started in Vereeniging culminating in peace being signed on 31st May 1902.
*After the usual question time, the comment was made that the Port Nolloth to Okiep railway line had originally been surveyed by a forebear of the late Major Darrell Hall and, because he liked the country so much, the Hall family emigrated from Cornwall and settled in South Africa during the late 1800's.
Our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin took it upon himself io express the thanks of the meeting to both our speakers for these most intriguing and informative talks.
ANGLO-ZULU WAR TOUR: The British Cultural and Heritage Association are organizing a three-day bus tour to celebrate the 120th Anniversary of the Battle of Isandlwana from 2lst to 23 January 1999. Contact Mrs C Newton for details on (031)2026174. Cost: R1 170.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 21 3983