Fact file: Transvaal Scottish


Formed in Johannesburg in 1902, the Transvaal Scottish (TS) is affiliated to the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) and wears Murray of Atholl tartan.

In 1906 it furnished a company for counterinsurgency service against the rising of Nkosi Bambatha ka Mancinza, chief of the amaZondi living in the Mpanza Valley near Greytown. By 1909 the TS was 500 strong1 – Lieutenant Colonel the Marquis of Tullibardine, heir to the dukedom of Atholl, worked closely with local Caledonian societies to ensure that membership was strongly Scottish2. “The new unit wore his family tartan, and its regimental march was Atholl Highlanders. It took the form of a large battalion with companies in major Transvaal towns,” regimental historian James Mitchell wrote.

Although a detachment saw service in the Natal Rebellion as the Bambatha rising is also known, it was not until January 1914, shortly before the start of World War I, that the regiment suffered its first casualty. This was a private soldier killed during the suppression of strike-related violence and sabotage on the Witwatersrand in 1914. From 1913 to 1932 the TS was also known as the 8th Infantry, Active Citizen Force (ACF).

During World War I the Transvaal Scottish took part in the invasion of German South-West Africa (in late 1914), where it was joined by a second battalion (2 Transvaal Scottish) which had meanwhile been raised. “The original battalion became 1 Transvaal Scottish. The most serious encounter of the campaign was at Trekkoppies, north-east of Walvis Bay, when German forces attacked in strength. Following the conquest of German South-West Africa 2 Transvaal Scottish was disbanded, while 1 Transvaal Scottish spent the remainder of the war in reserve.”

In 1916 new units were raised to fight outside southern Africa (the 1912 Defence Act restricted the Active Citizen Force, of which the Transvaal Scottish were a part, to operations in that area). “Among them was the 4th South African Infantry (SA Scottish). This was a kilted regiment wearing the Murray of Atholl tartan: one of its companies was drawn from 1 Transvaal Scottish, the other from the disbanded 2TS,” Mitchell wrote.

“After brief campaigning in North Africa against a Turkish- inspired Arab attempt to invade Egypt, the SA Scottish was sent to France. There they were soon embroiled in the frightful cauldron of the Somme, in particular the battle of Delville Wood in July 1916. In just seven days the 699-strong battalion was to suffer 74 percent casualties, with only four officers and 38 other ranks surviving unscathed. Delville Wood was South Africa’s baptism of fire in World War I. The shattered SA Scottish battalion was re-formed after Delville and continued to serve on the Western Front. This included two tours at Vimy, the Somme again, the third battle of Ypres, Marrières Wood and Messines Ridge. Other Transvaal Scottish members served elsewhere, particularly in the Scottish company of the 9th SA Infantry in German East Africa, now Tanzania. A young soldier who fought in that campaign, Private Eric Thompson, became commanding officer of 2 Transvaal Scottish during World War II, was captured at Tobruk, and was later made Honorary Colonel: he died in 1996 just 10 days short of his 101st birthday.”

“When the SA Scottish was disbanded at the war’s end, many members rejoined the Transvaal Scottish. Peace was soon disturbed by the 1922 Rand Revolt, an armed rebellion by (white) miners, many of whom had had military experience. In one encounter alone 12 members of the Transvaal Scottish, including a field officer, were killed.” The TS, with the Witwatersrand Rifles and the Royal Durban Light Infantry, cleared Fordsburg of the last rebels on March 14. “As the European dictators moved towards war, preparations in South Africa were intensified. 2 Transvaal Scottish had been re-formed in 1936, and then at the outset of World War II, a third battalion was raised.”

“1 Transvaal Scottish campaigned in Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia, marching through the capital, Addis Ababa, behind their own pipers playing Atholl Highlanders. More fighting followed at Combolcia, Dessie and finally at Amba Alagi. The battalion was next sent to Egypt, taking part in the relief of Tobruk. In November 1941 the 1st Brigade, with which 1 Transvaal Scottish was serving, was attacked by a strong German force at Taib-el-Essem; it held its ground, however, in a decisive defensive action. In the Gazala Line it repulsed several attacks before joining the Eighth Army’s retreat to the Alamein Line in Egypt (although a portion of the battalion was trapped and taken prisoner at Tobruk). 1 Transvaal Scottish now joined the great October 1942 offensive which had the Axis armies in North Africa finally on the run. Early in the next year the battalion returned home to South Africa. There the unit was converted to armour, joining 1st SA Armoured Brigade at Barberton.”

“2 Transvaal Scottish started its war with civil disturbances in Johannesburg, later sailing for North Africa. There members helped construct the famous Alamein Box, before moving up the coast to the Libyan border. There on 11 January 1942 they attacked the fortified town of Sollum in a bitterly fought battle which has ever since been commemorated by 2 Transvaal Scottish. Later that year one company of the battalion put up a memorable stand at Acroma Keep, but by mid-June the whole battalion was in Tobruk, where the majority of members were to be captured with the fall of the so-called ‘fortress’.”

“3 Transvaal Scottish sailed north in December 1940 for the Ethiopian campaign, in particular the three-day attack on Mega. After this the battalion was sent to Egypt, where it was virtually wiped out at the battle of Sidi Rezegh. There, on 22 November 1942, the brigade of which 3 Transvaal Scottish formed part was overrun by German armour. As many men were killed that day, in that one battalion, as died in each of the other two Transvaal Scottish battalions throughout the course of the war. A young 3 Transvaal Scottish NCO, Lance Corporal Bernie Friedlander, was awarded the George Medal most unusually, on the recommendation of a German officer. An Italian ship carrying prisoners of war was torpedoed off the Greek coast; Friedlander stripped and swam ashore with a rope, so that many lives were saved which would have been otherwise lost. Sidi Rezegh was the end for 3 Transvaal Scottish, which was temporarily disbanded, but other Transvaal Jocks fought through Italy either as part of a composite unit or forming fully one-third of the strength of Prince Alfred’s Guard, an Eastern Cape regiment.”

“A number of Jocks served during World War II with their affiliated regiment, The Black Watch in particular that regiment’s 6th battalion. Captain RM Honey, 2 Transvaal Scottish, who was taken prisoner at Tobruk, later escaped and joined 6 Black Watch north of Cassino in Italy, fighting in all engagements until the battalion left the line in November 1944. Another 2TS officer, Major AA Hope, commanded a small mobile group known as Hope Force before being sent on missions to the partisans in Yugoslavia and Italy, where he was finally killed.”

“The war over, all three battalions were reconstituted in 1946, with the 3rd battalion being converted to artillery as 7th Medium Regiment (3TS). But the latter was disbanded in at the end of 1959, when many members transferred to the Transvaal Scottish. Earlier, in 1953, the 1st and 2nd battalions had been amalgamated. The post-war change in government brought difficult times for the Transvaal Scottish, whose apparently ‘foreign’ ethos made it difficult for the Nationalist government to understand that the regiment’s loyalty was always to South Africa.”

“South Africans had participated in the two world wars on an entirely voluntary basis, but in 1952 a ballot system was introduced. On a national basis this proved inadequate, and in 1968 compulsory military service for all white male citizens was brought in – even though for such regiments as the Transvaal Scottish the voluntary system had proved entirely adequate. Also in 1968 training moved into a new phase – counter-insurgency warfare. Three years later, 2 Transvaal Scottish was once again revived, and it became clear that the authorities were looking more favourably upon South Africa’s ‘traditional’ regiments.”

“Peacetime soldiering ended abruptly with the Portuguese withdrawal from Angola in 1975. Early the next year 1 Transvaal Scottish deployed into southern Angola from South-West Africa (Namibia) – the start of an involvement that was to last until 1989. Members of the battalion were the last forces to quit Angola at the end of the first phase in March 1976 … but they were to return. That same year 2 Transvaal Scottish headed for the Caprivi Strip, where later on this battalion was to help develop a form of highly mobile counter-insurgency operations using mine-protected vehicles. Using a similar display of initiative in 1979, in an area of northern South-West Africa (Namibia) just south of the border with Angola, 1 Transvaal Scottish proved the value of night operations. The battalion persevered in the face of opposition from the brigade staff. As a result, guerrilla activity showed a marked decrease where 1 Transvaal Scottish was operating – but increased in a nearby area where the responsible unit failed to take similar steps.”

“In 1983 a member of the regiment so distinguished himself that he was later presented with South Africa’s highest award for valour, the Honorus Crux. He was Company Sergeant-Major (WO1) Trevor (“Porky”) Wright3, who later became regimental sergeant-major of 2 Transvaal Scottish, and then the Transvaal Scottish. A strong attack by guerrillas on an isolated company base in the north-west of South-West Africa was ultimately repulsed, with Wright personally firing a machine gun from the hip at one point, and supervising ammunition replenishment throughout the course of the enemy attack. The commendation also took into consideration a previous act of bravery two years earlier. On that occasion Wright had picked up and hurled out of the way, a primed and lethal hand grenade which had been accidentally lobbed in front of troops under training.”

“South Africa’s largest-ever military exercise, Thunder Chariot – held in 1984 – was a proving ground for many young officers and non-commissioned officers of 1 Transvaal Scottish who would hold senior command positions in the future. The battalion was severely tested. But it gained excellent feedback from the Permanent Force evaluators and the staff of the Army Battle School at Lohatlha.”

“In 1984 a company from 2 Transvaal Scottish, operating from the same isolated South-West Africa base where the enemy attack had happened in the previous year, achieved notable successes with the capture of two insurgents. The company commander, Captain George Brownlow, was later awarded the Southern Cross Medal for his part. From the mid-1980s, 2 Transvaal Scottish became the first Citizen Force unit to deploy on the western Transvaal borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe, and in so doing set the operational, command, control and logistical pattern for other units to follow. In one horrific incident in 1986 the battalion was in place when landmines blew up a civilian farm vehicle, killing two people and badly injuring two others.”

“In early 1991, 2 Transvaal Scottish carried out a particularly successful camp involving peace-keeping operations in the townships and rural areas around Pietersburg in the Northern Transvaal. The battalion was highly commended for its efforts. During much the same period 1 Transvaal Scottish was transferring its focus to peace-keeping operations in the black townships, often operating on the Witwatersrand, but on occasion as far south as Port Elizabeth, as well as in Natal. Numerous successes were scored, and it was noted that the troops’ discipline and calm helped pacify several previously highly volatile areas without a shot having to be fired. In late 1989 1 Transvaal Scottish converted briefly from motorised to mechanised infantry, learning to move in and fight from the South African-developed Ratel infantry combat vehicles. However unrest control in the townships remained the battalion’s prime duty during call-ups, while 2 Transvaal Scottish continued to serve mainly in the far northern Transvaal.”

“The regiment’s last major service was to provide troops for, and remain on standby throughout, the country’s first all-race general elections on 27th April 1994. The Transvaal Scottish had helped assure their country’s peaceful transition to full democracy, and with it, signalled their own readiness to contribute fully to the new South Africa.

In 1995 a 44-strong Transvaal Scottish tour party visited the battle site of Delville Wood (and others) in France; also their former colonel-in-chief, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in London; their allied regiment The Black Watch (with its 1st Battalion at Pirbright, Surrey, and the 3rd based at Perth, Scotland); and the Atholl Highlanders and the 10th Duke of Atholl at Blair Atholl, Scotland. Among members of the touring party were a 2TS Lieutenant, who is now the Marquis of Tullibardine, and his brother, now Corporal Lord Murray (both being South African residents), thus perpetuating the link with the founder of their regiment. The visit was returned in June 1997 by a touring party of Atholl Highlanders, who also visited their clan chief and ‘colonel-proprietor’, the 11th Duke of Atholl, who is a South African.”

Current role: Motorised infantry.

Current base: Johannesburg

Battle honours:

  • Natal 1906

  • South West Africa 1914-5

  • East Africa 1940-1

  • El Wak

  • The Juba

  • Yonte

  • Dire Dawa

  • Combolcia

  • Amba Alagi

  • Western Desert 1941-3

  • Sollum

  • Sidi Rezegh

  • Gazala

  • Alem Hamza

  • Acroma Keep

  • Alamein Defence

  • Mega

  • El Alamein

Motto: Alba Nam Buadh (Well done Scotland, Scotland home of the virtuous)

1 Major G Tylden, The Armed Forces of South Africa, City of Johannesburg Africana Museum Frank Connock Publication No 2, Johannesburg, 1954.

2 James H Mitchell, Regimental History, www.jocks.co.za/welcome.htm, accessed May 31, 2006.

3 In 2006, Wright was Sergeant Major of the Army Reserve.