Gunners at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift 22–23 January 1879

Map of battle area. (1) Isandlwana Camp. (2) Area of Lord Chelmfords Column. (3) Guns lost in ravine. (4) Rorke's Drift.
Map of battle area. (1) Isandlwana Camp. (2) Area of Lord Chelmfords Column. (3) Guns lost in ravine. (4) Rorke’s Drift.

The battle of Isandlwana and the defence of Rorke’s Drift are among the memorable episodes of Victorian military history. The disaster of Isandlwana was one of the most embarrassing defeats in British Imperial history. A Zulu army of 20,000 over-ran the camp of Lord Chelmsford’s British expeditionary force killing 1,300 out of a force of 1,800. The same day a Zulu column of 3-4,000 attacked, but failed to defeat a British force of C.140 at the mission station of Rorke’s Drift. The high number of Victoria Crosses awarded for Rorke’s Drift may have been to distract the public from the causes and scale of the disaster at Isandlwana. Ubique means everywhere, and while the presence of artillery at Isandlwana was shown in the film Zulu Dawn, I wondered whether Rorke’s Drift might be the exception. However, there was a gallant band of Gunners at Rorke’s Drift and a recently published book of letters by a Gunner survivor from Isandlwana adds to the story.

These battles are well know events immortalised in film, with the focus on the heroic actions of the 24th Regiment of foot often misrepresented as Welshmen. Chelmsford’s force included a artillery contingent. These included N Battery of 5 Brigade, with six 7 pounder mountain guns on special colonial carriages, designed for the rigours of Africa and 11 Battery of 7 Brigade with Hale rockets.

Hale Rocket By Smithsonian Institution

Hale rockets were an improvement on the earlier Congreve design. Hale’s design vectored part of the thrust through canted exhaust holes to provide rotation of the rocket, which improved its stability in flight. The British Army had adopted this rocket in 1867. There was a troop of rocketeers with Captain Russell. Colonel Durnford’s column under which was ordered to the Isandlwana Camp. On its arrived Durnford led his cavalry out to the north east of the camp where they clashed with the Zulu impis encircling the camp. Russell’s rocket troop was caught by the Zulus deploying and only managed to fire one or two rockets before a volley of fire from the Zulu’s killed Russell and three gunners, after which the mules carrying the rockets bolted and fled with the company of Natal Native troops assigned as escort. There were few survivors, namely Bombardier. Gough and Gunners Grant , Johnson and Trainer.

N Battery of 5 Field Brigade was equipped with six RML 7-pounder Mountain “Steel” Gun on mounted on Colonial (or “Kaffraria”) carriages: light field gun type carriages with larger wider-spaced wheels suited for being horse-drawn across long grass. These Rifled Muzzle Loaded guns were the first British guns made of steel. They fired common shell, shrapnel or cannister rounds to a maximum range of 3,000 yards. Four of the guns were with Lord Chelmsford’s column that left the camp in an elusive hunt for the Zulu force. Two remained in the camp under the command of Lt Curling RA. Curling deployed his two guns 300-400 yards front left of the camp, with an infantry company on each side. The decision to deploy forward of the camp may have saved Curling’s life as it mean that he had his horse with him. Major Stuart Smith rode up and assumed command, having ridden back from Chelmsford’s column. When the Zulu’s came into view they were engaged with common shell at 1000 yards.

‘We could get no idea of the numbers but the hills were black with them….‘we were able to throw shells into a huge mass of the enemy that remained almost stationary.’

As the range reduced the gunners fired shrapnel and then at 100 yards range cannister. By this time the Zulus were very close. The infantry companies forced square and started to withdraw. The Guns limbered up and withdrew, intending to deploy again closer to the camp. Only the officers had revolvers. The Gunners were unarmed less for sabres stored on the limbers. Those that could jumped on the guns and limbers, however the last man was stabbed in the back with an assegai while other gunners ran alongside the guns. As they approached the camp they saw that it had already been overrun by Zulus so they guns galloped through the camp. Most of the detachments were lost at this time. As the road to Rorke’s Drift had been blocked by Zulus, the battery, reduced to the two officers and the drivers turned down a ravine following the rout until the guns became jammed at a narrow point. Here Major Smith and the drivers were caught and killed, with Lt Curling as the sole survivor from this party. Curling’s letters home were discovered and published recently. The Curling Letters of the Zulu War: There Was Awful Slaughter

Two 7 pounder RML Guns from, N/5 captured at Isandlwana. The Zulus lacked the technical skills and gunpowder to make use of these.
Contemporary map from the Illustrated London News

The film Zulu Dawn does show the artillery, but Zulu does not. Gunner John Cantwell  was one four Gunner defenders of Rorkes Drift from N Battery 5th Brigade

Cantwell, John. Gunner 2076, awarded Distinguished Conduct Medal
Evans, Abraham. Gunner 1643
Howard, Arthur. Gunner 2077
Lewis, Thomas. Bombardier. 458

Cantwell was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part in the defence of the hospital. He had been a bombardier until 21 January when he  reverted to the rank of Wheeler Driver, and may have become a storeman. Whatever the reason for his reduction to the ranks it probably saved his life and the £5 cash award with the DCM may have been some compensation for the loss of pay.  

This painting of the Defence of Rorke’s Drift by Alphonse_de_Neuville shows the burning hospital in the centre. Driver Cantwell distinguished himself by his gallantry in the defence of the hospital.

Gunners known to have fallen at Isandlwana

N” Battery, 5th Brigade R.A.
Captain and Brevet-Major Stuart Smith
Brevet-Major F. B. Russell, R.A., Rocket Battery

Sergeant Edwards, William 3483 Corporal Bailey, H.R. 1119 Corporal Cooper, William 2721 Corporal Langridge, John 1872
Bombardier Parker, John 746 A/Bombardier Nash, Thomas 1763 A/Bombardier Leguay, John 3181 A/Bombardier McDonnell, James 2196
A/Bombardier Aylett, James 1882 A/Bombardier Boswell, Thomas 147 Farrier Sergeant Whinham, Robert 841 Collar Maker Shepperd, Thomas753
Shoeing Smith Elliott, Thomas1462
Beech, Frank. 1883 Berry, Thomas 655 1885 Burke, James Byrne, James 2189
Cockrane, Samuel 646 Collins, Robert 1311 1082 Connelly, John 1637 Davies, Isaac
Dickins, William 3484 Harrison, Thomas 668 Hicks, James 1412 James, Edward G.1773
King, Charles 1834 Lamb, James 1113 McGregor, Murdoch 2945 Mead, James 1655
Marshall, William 1683 Miller, Thomas 2630 O’Neal, Daniel 2633 Page, Henry 2322
Redman, Alexander 1438 Reede, John 692 Regan, John 2460 Roscoe, William 2183
Smythe, Joseph 1405 Stevenson, Joseph 1833 (“Joseph” in the despatch “R.” on the roll) Williams, Robert 2652 Wilson, Thomas 2819
Wilson, William 1626 Woolacott, Alfred 704

Adams, William 1471 Allen, Henry 751 Barron, William 707 Bishop, Charles 1524
Brooks, James 2174 Bruce, Thomas 1961 Clarke, Thomas 1598 Cowley, Henry 2301
Dailey, John 1185 Hiatt, William 727 Hutchings, James 723 Jones, J. William 2178
Joyce, Leonard 1997 Marchant, John741 McKeown, George 2119 Murphy, Francis 2015
648 Spread, Charles

The battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift are two of the eighty-two battlefields listed in the Zwa-ZuluNatal Battlefield Trail in the area where the British Boers and Zulus fought. There are local guides, but Gunner Tours can advise about sites of particular interest to Gunners or advise of relevant Battlefield study and Staff Ride content.

For further reading

Smallwood, Victor S. . The role of the Royal Regiment of Artillery in the Battle of Isandlwana 1879

Hamilton: More than a musical – Princeton 3rd January 1777

Death of American Colonel Mercer at the Battle of Princeton

The battle of Princeton took place on 3rd January 1777 as part of the American War of Independence. It was the second of two American victories after a series of defeats in 1776.   General Lord Cornwallis had left 1,400 British troops under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood in Princeton. Following a surprise attack at Trenton early in the morning of 26 December 1776, General George Washington of the Continental Army decided to attack the British in New Jersey before entering the winter quarters. On 30 December he crossed the Delaware River back into New Jersey. His troops followed on 3rd January 3, 1777. Washington advanced to Princeton by a back road, where he pushed back a smaller British force but had to retreat before Cornwallis arrived with reinforcements.

MNY90143 Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) in the Uniform of the New York Artillery (oil on canvas) by Chappel, Alonzo (1828-87) oil on canvas © Museum of the City of New York, USA American, out of copyright

Washington’s army included a company of the New York Volunteer Artillery raised and commanded by 21 year old Captain Alexander Hamilton, later famous for drafted the US Constitution. It is claimed that his guns fired some of the last shots in the battle bombarding Nassau Hall in which British troops had sought cover.  Nassau Hall is the Central building for Princeton University, although it has been rebuilt substantially since 1777. 

Hamilton raised the New York Provincial Company of Artillery of 60 men in 1776, and was elected captain. This unit is considered the ancestor of the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment, making it the oldest active unit in the U.S. Regular Army and the only one with credit for the Revolutionary War. It saw service in the War of 1812,  major battles of the American Civil War and as part of the organic artillery of the 1st US Infantry Division saw service in two world wars, Vietnam and in south west Asia.

The American Battlefields Trust has more information about the battle of Princeton and Alexander Hamilton  as well as advice about visiting the battlefield.  Gunnertours  supported the campaign to preserve the battlefield.   

In 1777 the three story sandstone Nassau Hall was the main building for New Jersey College. In front of Nassau Hall is called Cannon Green, from the C18th cannon buried to the breach. This has been a target for raids by students from nearby Rutgers  University for over a century.     Rutgers–Princeton Cannon War (These were American not British cannon before any Brits think of planning a raid to recover them).

1 January: A Good Day for “Crack Flak”

On 1st January 1945 the Luftwaffe launched a large scale surprise attack on Seventeen allied airfields in Belgium the Netherlands and France in support of the German Ardennes offensive, Operation Bodenplatte. Hundreds of allied aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the ground. However the air defences were alert and inflicted the heaviest losses to the German fighter force during. About half the losses were inflicted by AA fire. 1st January is a date for cloud punchers  to commemorate.    

At the turn of the year there were between 60 and 70 Anti Aircraft British and Canadian  Regiments in North West Europe, a mixture of light , Heavy and Searchlight units. One of these 139 Mixed Heavy AA included a detachment of 200 ATS  female soldiers. While the Allies had air superiority over North West Europe they did not have complete supremacy. As the front lines moved closer to Germany, the Luftwaffe operated from hard standing airfields while the allies had to occupy airfields that had been bombed by the allies and abandoned by the Germans. The Germans started to use jet Me262 fighters and Ar 234 bombers, Furthermore, the Germans mounted a sustained attack by V1 cruise missiles on Brussels and Antwerp.  About half of the AA defences were supporting the armies of 21st Army Group while the other half provided defences for the ports and key river crossings.  

The goal of Bodenplatte was to gain air superiority during the stagnant stage of the Battle of the Bulge so that the German Army and Waffen-SS forces could resume their advance. The operation was planned for 16 December 1944, but was delayed repeatedly due to bad weather until New Year’s Day, the first day that happened to be suitable.  The German fighter force had been carefully husbanded to strike a big blow against the Allied daylight bombers.  Instead they were used for a low level attack to try to in numbers at a date and time when they expected to catch the allies off guard – if not hung over. 

The attack was a spectacular way to start 1945, achieving tactical surprise. Around 290 allied aircraft were destroyed and a further 190 damaged on the ground, and fifteen shot down in the air.  However, the cost to the Luftwaffe was very high.  143 pilots were killed or missing, 70 were captured and 21 wounded including three Geschwaderkommodore, five Gruppenkommandeure, and 14 Staffelkapitäne—the largest single-day loss for the Luftwaffe fighter force in the war.  

Allied losses were soon made up, while lost Luftwaffe aircraft and especially pilots were irreplaceable. In the remaining 17 weeks of war the Jagdwaffe struggled to recover sufficiently from the 1 January operation to remain an effective force. Bodenplatte weakened the Jagdwaffe past any hope of rebuilding. General der Jagdflieger Adolf Galland said, “We sacrificed our last substance.”

Canadian HAA Gunners struggle in the mud. The 9 ton 3.7 inch HAA Gun was not easy to manhandle.

About half of the German losses were due to anti aircraft fire. Some airfields were defended by RA units but most by the RAF Regiment. The Germans also overflew the  AA defences of 21st Army Group, which also claimed kills. 

Where can you see traces of Operation BodenPlatte?

Several of the wartime allied airfields are still military airfields closed to casual visitors and others have been built over.  However, three are currently commercial airports and the battlefield can be viewed from the departure lounge. 

Brussels Airport

Clearing up the mess Brussels Melsbrook 1 January 1945 

Brussels Melsbrook (Advanced Landing Ground B-58) is now Brussels Airport.  B58 was the base for the Mosquito and B25 Mitchell tactical bombers of  No 139 Wing, the Mosquito and Wellington recce aircraft of No 34 Wing RAF and various communications and transport aircraft. 28 Bf 109Ks of JG 27 and 15 Fw 190s of (IV) JG 54 took off to attack . Seven fighters were lost to enemy aircraft and friendly AAA fire before they reached the target. The airfield was hit hard.    According to Experten Emil Clade (leading III./JG 27), the AAA positions were not manned, and aircraft were bunched together or in lines, which made perfect targets. The attack caused considerable damage among the units based there and was a great success with 35 aircraft destroyed, 9 severely damaged.  JG27’s Me109s lost  Germans lost heavily.  Out of 28 Me109s, JG27 lost  17 Bf 109s, 11 pilots killed, one wounded and three captured. IV./JG 54 lost two killed and one captured. Three Fw 190s were lost and one damaged.

Eindhoven Airport

Attack on Eindhoven ALG B78

Eindhoven Airport, the the Netherland’s second busiest airport was Advanced Landing Ground B.78.  In 1945 it was the base for the Spitfires of  No. 143 Wing RCAF and No. 39 Tactical Reece Wing RCAF, while No. 124 Wing RAF were temporary visitors on New Years Eve. Allied units on Eindhoven and nearby Gilze—Rijen were to be annihilated by the 41 Me109s and 21 Fw190s of  Jagdgeschwader 3 (JG 3) and the 21` Me262s of Kampfgeschwader 51 (KG 51).  Each Staffel of JG3 was tasked with making three firing passes.  

There are two surviving aircraft with links to the attack on Eindhoven on 1st January.  The Me262 in the Australian War Museum was built in March 1945 after the battle.  It is the only example with its original paintwork, showing it to be originally part of KG51. The Fw 190 D-13 on static display at the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Washington USA is the only example of the D13 variant.  This airframe is thought to be from 1./JG 26 and painted as flown by Major Franz Götz the last Geschwaderkommodore of JG26.  Götz, whose 67 victories were mostly on the Western Front probably flew on Op Bodenplatter as Gruppenkommandeur of III/JG53 at Metz-Frescaty


Antwerp International Airport

Three members of the ATS outside their Nissen huts.  When 139)(M) HAA Regiment arrived in Antwerp in bitterly cold weather huts were built for the ATS, but the men lived in tents. 

Flanders’ own Airport. In 1944 it was known as Antwerp Deurne Advanced Landing Ground 70. 

Deurne airfield was to be destroyed by Jagdgeschwader 77 (JG 77). Antwerp housed the largest Allied contingent of nine Squadrons. It had been incessantly attacked by V-1 cruise missiles and V-2 SRBM ballistic missiles, and had been given a strong anti-aircraft defence.  At 08:00, two formations of 18 Bf 109s of I. and III./JG 77, led by Major Siegfried Freytag, took off with their pathfinders. At the same time 23 Bf 109s of II./JG 77 took off. Around the Bocholt area they formed up with the other two Gruppen. Heading south and still north of Antwerp, JG 77 passed Woensdrecht airfield. It was home to No. 132 Wing RAF and its five Spitfire squadrons; No. 331 Squadron RAF, No. 332 Squadron RAF (Norwegian), No. 66 Squadron RAF and No. 127 Squadron RAF, and No. 322 Squadron RAF (Dutch). Some pilots from II./JG 77 either mistakenly believed it to be Antwerp, or thought the opportunity was too good to pass up. Two German fighters were claimed shot down, and one pilot captured. However, none of the JG 77 casualties fit this description.  The main body continued to Antwerp. Some 12–30 German fighters attacked the airfield from 09:25 to 09:40. The ground defences were alert and the German formations attacked in a disorganised manner. 145 Wing RAF was missed completely and considering the large number of targets the destruction was light; just 12 Spitfires were destroyed.   In total, 14 Allied aircraft were destroyed and nine damaged. JG 77 lost 11 Bf 109s and their pilots were lost. Six were killed and five captured according to Allied sources. However, German records show the loss of only 10 pilots. Four are listed as captured.

While the aircraft which attacked Antwerp were Me109s there has been an Fw190 D9 under restoration by Eric Vormeezle the owner of Flying Aces Services and Training (Fastaero) in North side, hangar #202 at Antwerp Airport.  

Flugmuseum Aviaticum Wiener Neustadt Austria

Bf 109 G-14 784993 ex-IV./JG 53 “White 13″was reconstructed and restored from a wreck that crash landed   

There is a sole Luftwaffe survivor of Operation Bodenplatte in  Wiener Neustadt in Austria.   Jagdgeschwader 53 (JG 53) was tasked with the operation against the USAAF airfield at Metz-Frescaty Air Base. Stab., II., III., and IV./JG 53 were available. III./JG 53 was to destroy anti-aircraft installations in the Metz area, while the other Gruppen knocked out the airfields.

The USAAF XIX Tactical Air Command had established a strong presence in northeast France and was supporting the U.S. 3rd Army. JG 53 was to knock out its airfields. Some 26 Bf 109s took off but were intercepted by 12 P-47s of the 367th Fighter Squadron, 358th Fighter Group. The P-47s claimed 13 destroyed, one probable and six damaged for no losses. On the way home at 09:20, III./JG 53 were intercepted by 366th Fighter Squadron. Altogether, III./JG 53 lost 10 Bf 109s and one damaged to the 358th Fighter Group. Of the 25 III./JG 53 Bf 109s that took part, 11 were shot down representing 40% of the attacking force. The 358th Fighter Group received the Distinguished Unit citation for preventing the attack on the 362nd Fighter Groups airfield.

White 13 piloted by Unteroffizier Maxis was en route to Metz-Frescaty when it was either shot down by  Battery ‘A’, gun crew #1, of the 455th AAA Bn., of  XX Corps, Third US Army or it collided with another aircraft. Maxis managed to make a perfect belly landing in the ME-109, but wasa fatally shot when he emerged from his cockpit. The remains of the aircraft were buried for 42 years. Since 1987 the machine has been restored, rebuilt 

American Troops examining the fuselage of White 13 in January 1945 
2819 LAA Squadron RAF 40/60 Bofors Gun detachment in a gun pit at Cristot, France, by the war artist Frank Wootton. Taken from the RAF Regiment Property Booklet 1942 – 2008.  This RAF Regiment Squadron defended B88 Heesch (ALG 88) with 5 engagements for the 2819 and 146 rounds fired at attacking FW190s, Me109s and Me262s.  


This Fw190 D-9 flown by
Leutnant Theo Nibel from JG26. It was downed by a partridge which flew into the nose radiator  near Grimbergen Brussels on 1 January 1945. The Fw190 D9 on display at the Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach VA USA is painted as “Black 12” 

Gunner Tours – available for talks, lectures, battlefield studies and tours.  


Langemarck Church German post card

Sure, anything in the “strip of murdered nature” that was the battlefields of the Western Front was going to end up as rubble. But there are RGA War Diaries that record  their target as “Langemarck Church” not a strong point in the church, or the village but the church itself. It was repeatedly targeted along with targets such as “trenches u.16.d.76.23- u 16 d.54.14 and “wire u 16 a.52,05 – u16 a.15.16” So why was the church such a popular target?

A week or so ago I was carrying out some research for a guided family history tour to the battlefields of where their relative Bombardier Griffiths had served in 324 Heavy battery RGA.  The battery’s war diaries were available, but the diary for March 1918, the month he died, was missing.   Furthermore, there was evidence that suggested that Bombardier Griffiths did not join 324 battery until January 1918.

However, the diaries were very legible and full, recording the details of each shoot, including rounds fired and the target.

6″ 26cwt Howitzers near Boesinge 1917

324  Heavy Battery was formed from 1916 conscripts and deployed to France in May 1917 equipped with four 6″ 26 cwt  Howitzers.  After a few weeks on the quiet sector of Bois Grenier the battery moved to Woesten, north of Ieper on 14th July 1917. From there it took part in the preliminary bombardment for the 31 St July , then stepping forwards to Elverdinge. The first day of 3rd Ypres 31st July, was successful on Pilckem Ridge, with the British line moving forward roughly along the Steenbeek south west of Langemarck.

A first world war artillery piece aimed at a target some 6km away was probably going to miss with its first round, even if the target had been plotted on a surveyed trench map. The position of the guns and the direction in which they are recorded as pointing may not be particularly accurate. Changes in the wind speed and direction will change the trajectory. An observer with communications to the guns could adjust the fire of the guns until the rounds form the guns are landing in the target area. Of course, by this the enemy will have worked out what was going to happen next and take cover.

A further problem is that the guns in a battery would not all have the same characteristics. Guns may be manufactured to different standards and might have different wear in the barrel. The WD entry for 5th August records that between 2pm and 2.30 pm 324 battery fired 30 rounds unobserved at Langemarck Church as ordered in Operation Order No 23. After this, someone,at Periscope House, probably Major William Orpen Sikottowe Sanders, the  battery commander  decided to calibrate the guns using the church. Firing ten rounds and watching one hit the church with others plus and minus, the unit could apply a correction for each gun. (Though ten rounds might be few to base a statistically reliable.

Part of a panorama. It is hard to pick out any landmarks on this devastated battlefield. Corrections from a Witness Point using a trench map might be the only way to hit targets.

It wasn’t always possible to see targets clearly. Pilckem ridge isn’t much higher than the surrounding ground and it would have been quite difficult to pick out specific targets from the ground. Furthermore, the landscape was devastated, with buildings and trees leveled and landmarks obliterated.

One technique which could help is to use a “Witness Point” This was a point some distance from a target, but accurately located in relation to it, which could be ranged without losing surprise against the target and the correction applied to data for the target. If the correction to hit the church was “left a bit and add a bit”, the same correction could ensure that targets in the same area picked off a map could be hit first time.

The entry for 7th August shows that between 3.30 and 6.30pm 324 battery fired a total of 24rounds at Langemarck Church as a Witness Point. Their next shoot 7.30pm to 8.30 an unobserved concentration on trenches straddling the Langemarck-Poelcapelle road was unobserved, but could be expected to be reasonably accurate, as might the shoot at 9pm. a response to a call for the SOS.
The targets on the 8th August were east and west of the German positions which ran through the north end of the German Cemetery at Langemarck, as evidenced by the three bunkers.

The search for the part an individual soldier played  turns up some surprising detail about how the battle was fought and the reason why Langemarck Church was shelled.   It also explain the rationale that supports the old military axiom to never deploy at an obvious terrain feature. Landmarks are shelled because they are landmarks .