SOUTH AFRICAN GUNNERS’ ASSOCIATION – A SHORT HISTORY
There was no Corps of Artillery in the Union Defence Force during the 1914 – 1918 war. South African Gunner units were organized and fought as separate entities. Thus after the 1914-1918 war, two loose associations were formed by the members of Gunner units.
These were the S.A. Heavy Artillery Association (SAHA) and the S.A. Field Artillery Association (SAFA).
Since recruitment during the 1914-1918 war had been largely on a regional basis, the Associations never amalgamated into a close national body.
The 6” Howitzer Memorials and Plaques in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria, and Johannesburg were cared for by local branches of the SAHA and were formally handed over to the Gunners’ Association in 1945.
In Johannesburg and other centres, the SAFA erected memorial plaques. In Johannesburg, this is displayed in the northern foyer of the Johannesburg City Hall.
Memorial services were held at these venues on appropriate dates. Get-togethers, such as dinners and smokers, were held periodically at the various centres. In 1934 the Corps of the SAA was officially formed for the first time, incorporating all Gunner units – field, medium, heavy, anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and Coast Garrison.
During the Second World War it occurred to Col. Fritz Adler and some of his colleagues that the formation of an SAA Association of all Gunners – serving, past, male and female, as is the case of the RA Association would be appropriate and that the loose Associations that existed since 1919 should be amalgamated as one. Accordingly, in 1945/1946 a meeting of prominent Gunners was held at the Rand Club.
Amongst those present were Fritz Adler, Harry Rissik, Rex Hull, Geoff Harrison, Geoff Sacke and Ian Whyte. Stemming from this, the Gunners’ Association was constituted and formed. The original idea was that the Association be organised into Branches that should consist of serving and non-serving branches, i.e., each owner unit should have its own branch and that ex-service branches should be formed in each town hence the title of the Johannesburg Branch being Johannesburg (No.1 ex-service) Branch.
Fundraising in the early days was mainly in the form of a national sweep on the July Handicap, run by Ramsay Addison and Lionel Roche of the Johannesburg Branch. The financial effort which finally put the Association firmly on its feet was the national film premiere of the motion picture “Seven Against the Sun”, coordinated by Tom Trahar, Lionel Roche, and others.
One of the earliest projects of the Association was the construction of the National Gunners’ Memorial at Potchefstroom. This memorial was opened by Lt Gen CL de W (Matie) du Toit, DSO, himself a Gunner, and consecrated by the late Canon Tom Harvey (THA) on 10 May 1952.
This memorial has proved a rallying point every year since then for the annual National Commemoration Service. In Cape Town, the annual memorial service of the Western Province branch was previously held at the War Memorial, Adderley Street, but because the ranks of the South African Heavy Artillery Association of 1914/1918 vintage were fast diminishing, the remaining handful of members agreed in 1969 to hand over their Gun Memorial to the Gunners’ Association to enable the annual service to be held in a more appropriate setting.
Accordingly, on Sunday, 6 April 1970 Col. I.B. Whyte, National President of the Gunners’ Association, unveiled a new plaque on the plinth holding the World War 4.5” Howitzer and rededicated the memorial, this time to Gunners of both World Wars. The Gun was previously sited at the base of the Old Town Pier and had initially been dedicated on 12 May 1926 to the memory of members of the SAHA who fell in France in 1915/18.
A memorial service is also held each year in Durban at the Gunners’ Memorial at the Old Fort Grounds in Central Durban.
Real Gunner fellowship was kindled by the first of many Annual Smokers that took place in 1950 in the Gun Park used by the Transvaal Horse Artillery in Auckland Park, Johannesburg.
There is no doubt that these occasions did much to build the bonds between Gunners and to enrol members. These “get-togethers” grew each year and were so well supported and enjoyed that the Association even built its own portable stage and accoutrements. Almost every top professional artist of that time readily agreed to perform and make these never to be forgotten occasions.
On 24 September 1964, the Association staged a national film premiere of a motion picture called “Seven Against the Sun”.
This multiple centre film premier venture made many financial projects possible and set the Gunners’ Association on its road to success.
It was a remarkable effort because on that evening no fewer than eight major cinemas in eight major centres presented this film simultaneously. The SABC gave the Association full coverage on a national hook-up describing the pageantry and arrival of Mayoral parties and dignitaries in all centres.
In Johannesburg, a Battery of the Transvaal Horse Artillery paraded with their guns in front of the Colosseum Theatre in Commissioner Street but were not permitted to fire the intended salute as dignitaries arrived, for fear of breaking hundreds of windows in downtown Johannesburg.
In Cape Town, the Cape Field Artillery’s P (Amsterdam) Battery and their guns were on parade outside the Colosseum whilst sentries at the main doors and foyer entrances provided a military atmosphere.
Similar military pageantry took place in all the other centres. Four centres were completely ‘sold out’ including the 2 235 seats in the Johannesburg Colosseum alone.
The Association netted a not inconsiderable sum that was wisely invested and created the base of today’s investment and income portfolio.
HOMES FOR VETERANS AND SENIOR CITIZENS
The Association was the prime mover in establishing a retirement complex for veterans and senior citizens in Johannesburg.
In 1973 GEM Homes, Roosevelt Park was completed and became a very happy home for military veteran pensioners. The construction of this home was a combined effort between Gunners, Engineers and Moths, hence the name “GEM”.
In 1977 much thought was given to the building of a second home for veteran pensioners and a meeting was called by Gunner Skip Papert to discuss this venture.
The meeting was attended by Gunners Cochran, Prevost, Papert, Taylor and Goodwin and it was decided to locate the new home in Pretoria.
The initiators of the idea applied to the General Smuts War Veterans’ Foundation (now the General Smuts Foundation) for a donation of ground near the “Big House” which was the dwelling of the late General Smuts.
The committee of the Foundation very generously responded with a donation of 5 morgens of land for the project. It was then decided to appoint a committee comprising of Gunners, Sappers, serving members of the SADF, members of the General Smuts War Veterans’ Foundation and the Moths to oversee the project.
Regrettably, the Moths had to withdraw as they were in the process of building a home themselves. Stage 1 of Gem Village, Irene, was completed. The Home has subsequently been expanded to house 120 pensioners. The opening ceremony took place on 17 October 1985 and the village was opened by Mr A.J. Vlok, the Deputy Minister of Defence.
These homes continue to operate today under and the Association plays an active role in the committees that manage these facilities.
In 1978 shortly after the Army Battle School (now Combat Training Centre) opened near Lohatlha, the idea of building permanent messing and canteen facilities for Gunner units was born and fundraising amongst Citizen Force (now Reserve Force) Gunner units commenced in 1979.
A design was drawn by Sgt. MacPherson of the THA and was approved by the original committee.
Due to the enormity of the project, the Gunners’ Association soon became involved and shortly thereafter a committee consisting of serving Gunners and members of the Board of Trustees of the Gunners’ Association was accordingly established under the chairmanship of Gunner Andersen to build the “Artillery Club House” at the Army Battle School.
Initial quotes from private enterprises indicated that the cost of construction would be in the region of R250 000. Suffice to say by the use of Gunner ingenuity and by exploiting the contacts available to the Association and the Citizen Force units, the building was completed in 1984 at a cost of R90 000.
This Club House, which is used by Officers, NCOs and gunners was opened by the Chief of the SADF, General Constand Viljoen SSA SOE SM, on 11 September 1984.
The Club House was by far the largest such project in which the Association had been involved to date. It had previously assisted with the provision of facilities for National Service Gunners at the artillery training areas in Potchefstroom and the Anti-Aircraft Defence School in Cape Town.
SUPPORT FOR TRAINING UNITS
The Association presents special awards each year to the best officer and best NCO at the passing out parades of Gunners who have completed Junior Leadership Training as part of the Military Skills Development System at both the School of Artillery, Potchefstroom, and the Air Defence Artillery School, Ermelo.
Three members of the Gunners’ Association, Peter (Butch) Mathias, Skip Papert and Wynter Prevost have been awarded the Star of South Africa for their efforts in fulfilling the Association’s aims.
TRIENNIAL CONGRESS 1985
A turning point in the history of the Association occurred at its 20th Triennial Congress held at the Museum of Military History in May 1985. At the meeting, the objectives of the Association were re-aligned with the present-day needs of the South African Gunners.
MISSION STATEMENT – It is the mission of the Gunners’ Association to promote fellowships and camaraderie amongst Gunners, (field, anti-aircraft, anti-tank, serving or retired) to promote Gunner Traditions and to provide welfare and educational support to Gunners and their families.
OBJECTIVES – The organisation’s main objectives are to maintain an association of those persons who are or become members of the Association. To actively encourage Gunners to become members of the Association and to participate in its activities to ensure the continuity of the Association. To encourage the continuation of the traditions and to foster the heritage of Gunners. To assist members in obtaining any right or privilege to which they are or should be entitled because of the member’s military service To assist members in obtaining employment. To sponsor and assist the formation of Branches in suitable centres under the auspices of the Association. To affiliate with any organisation having objects similar in part, or in whole, to those of the Association, and whether within or outside the Republic of South Africa. To render support to members and their dependents.