Centenary + 10: Battle of Johannesburg


Right on the western perimeter of Soweto lie a nondescript ridge thousands of shoppers see everyday from the Westgate mall in Roodepoort.

It has nothing to distinguish it from its surroundings except a raw concrete reservoir to the one side and a gold mine to the other. Most commuters who cros it along Adcock Road every day and the shoppers who see it know not its name and those who do are likely unaware of its history.

It is called Doornkop.

Twice in the early history of the nearby Johannesburg, Doornkop played silent witness to part of a series of events that would have far-reaching consequences for the City of Gold. Its northern slope was in January 1896 the scene of the surrender of British adventurer and Simon Mann-prototype Dr Leander Starr Jameson. Just four years later – in May 1900 – the ridge and those adjacent to it was the site of the “Battle of Doornkop”, an action in Field Marshal the Earl Frederick Roberts VC’s Bloemfontein-Pretoria offensive, a major campaign in the South African War or Anglo Boer War, Second War of Independence or Tweede Vryheidsoorlog (1899-1902), if you prefer.

That second encounter took place 110 years ago this coming week.

Presumed familiarity also breeds contempt. There is a perception Jameson – and his military commander Lt Col Sir John Willoughby surrendered after a few shots. Research suggests that in modern terms they fought a battalion action with supporting weapons –infantry guns, grenade launchers and machine guns – in the vicinity of today’s Krugersdorp Nature Reserve before making a fighting withdrawal involving several short but sharp defensive actions.

The 1900 event suffers from this same curse. Many accounts suggest that calling it a battle is an exaggeration, that the “Battle of Johannesburg” was a minor attack on a single hill. How many troops does it take to storm a kopje? Some popular accounts concentrate on – or only mention – the attack of the Gordon Highlanders. Others add that of the City [of London] Imperial Volunteers (CIV). In fact Doornkop is not a hill but a ridge and the infantry attack was not “Doornkop” but on a ridge line to its east, involving about seven battalions of infantry organised into two brigades and several batteries of field and heavy artillery. They too were supported by automatic grenade launchers – then called “pom-poms” and machine guns. Opposing them was a similarly equipped foe. The cavalry action included elements of two cavalry and two mounted infantry brigades.

But the attack was not an isolated event. It was part of the “left hook” of Roberts’ army-sized field force that was seeking to envelop and capture Johannesburg as well as adjacent parts of the Witwatersrand in preparation of the seizure of Pretoria. This “left hook” consisted of Lieutenant General (Lt Gen) Ian Hamilton’s 9th Mounted Infantry Division and Lt Gen Sir John French’s 1st Cavalry Division and would advance on Florida – now in Roodepoort. The “right hook” consisted of Maj Gen Charles Tucker’s 7th (Infantry) Division and Maj Gen Reginald Pole-Carew’s 11th (Infantry) Division as well as the 3rd Cavalry Brigade and a battalion of mounted infantry (MI) and was aimed at Germiston. Once they have reached these they would strike north, the pincers to close at Driefontein, now in Rivonia, north of the city.

Roberts’ advance is often also wrongly remembered as a solitary advance up the railway from the Cape, first to Bloemfontein, then Kroonstad and Johannesburg. That is incorrect. It was a frontal advance with forces – for the Bloemfontein-Pretoria operation – deployed from west of Kimberley (Lt Gen Lord Methuen’s 1st Division and Lt Gen Sir Archibald Hunter’s 10th Division) to south of Bloemfontein. As the advance progressed north-east, this southern flank would swing and link with the western flank of Lt Gen Sir Redvers Buller’s advance up the Durban-Johannesburg railway with the 2nd Division (Lt Gen Neville Lyttleton) and the 4th (Lt Gen CF Clery). In many ways this advance is reminiscent of the Allied advance across France in September 1944 – or of the great Russian advances west between 1943 to 1945.

Roberts’ force compares well with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that deployed to France in August 1914 to confront Germany at Mons (Bergen) in Belgium. This fielded just two corps of two infantry divisions each and a cavalry corps of five cavalry brigades. In command was none other than French, who at Mons had to conduct a hasty defence, the position the Boers repeatedly faced in 1900. Notable too was that his II Corps was under command of General Horace Smith-Dorrien, infantry commander in the Battle of Johannesburg 110 years ago.

The battlefield is also not confined to Doornkop, now on the fringe of Dobsonville, Soweto. It effectively stretches from the Vaal River at Parys in the south to Johannesburg in the north (a distance of 90km) and from just of west of Doornkop to just east of Germiston, about 40km apart. Of that an area each side of Chris Hani (Old Potch) Road, from around Avalon Cemetery to Regina Mundi is of the greatest significance and the location of Smith-Dorrien’s climactic infantry attack.

Here, on May 29, some 3500 burghers under the command of ZAR Commandant General Louis Botha faced the British. The latter deployed seven infantry battalions and at least 24 76.2mm field guns in addition to two long-range 127mm (5-inch) garrison guns to attack a ridge line that is now under the Senaoane and Chiawelo suburbs of Soweto. The defenders had one 155mm fortress gun – the famous “Long Tom” that had shelled Mafikeng – and six 75mm guns. In addition both sides employed automatic grenade launchers – the 37mm “pom-pom” – as well as rifle-calibre Maxim machine guns and that the British used both diversionary attack and manoeuvre to gain advantage over the defenders. The result was, me thinks, a most modern battle, well worth studying.

As previously stated, this was not a one day battle, as a timeline shows:

May 20: Roberts, at Kroonstad, resumes his advance to Pretoria.

May 22: ZAR forces belatedly start building defensive works in the vicinity of the Klipriviersberg south of Johannesburg.

May 24: British troops cross the Vaal.

May 26: Several skirmishes fought south of Johannesburg.

May 27: Botha fights a delaying action on the Gatsrand, now within city limits, in the vicinity of Zakkariya Park.

May 28: French crosses the Klip at Vanwyksrust fort (now a ruin along the Golden Highway) but is fought to a halt by General Ben Viljoen in present-day Nancefield-Eldorado Park.

May 29: Smith-Dorrien pushes ZAR forces, under the local command of General JH “Koos” de la Rey, off the Senaoane-Chiawelo ridge

May 30: The ZAR evacuates Johannesburg, State Attorney Jan Smuts taking the city’s gold.

May 31: Roberts enters Johannesburg