Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sappershoek

Sappers in military jargon, merely refers to the Military Engineers, and is a term which has been in use in military parlance since the 15th century. Already during the latter stages of WW2, the need to support fellow sappers after the war had been visualised and articulated. In South Africa, during July 1945, “Sappersrus”, an area of land on the north bank of the Magalies River was acquired. Soon a fully equipped camp was set up, where Sappers who had been demobbed from the army were accommodated while being integrated back into a post-war society.

Almost two decades later, Port Elizabeth would follow suit, and land was acquired in Port Elizabeth. In swift succession a holiday resort was opened on the 9th of March 1963 and in 1964 a residential retirement center was opened.

Main picture: Sappershoek

Roots of the Sappers
All of this information was extracted from the Sappers Foundation website [in italics & only lightly redacted] with newspaper clippings provided by Erica Clark.

Before WW2: The name of Sapper is derived from the common name given to a Military Engineer.  Military engineering dates back to the 15th century, where during the siege of a city, Sappers were hired to dig tunnels under the walls of the city, enlarge the end of the tunnel to form a cavern supported by wooden supports, to burn these supports at a precise time to collapse the city walls and allow the army to invade.  Later when gunpowder was invented these tunnels could be exploded causing tremendous devastation in the enemy ranks.  Sappers were also used to dig trenches (called Saps) in a zigzag pattern to build gun emplacements close enough to the city walls to blow them down while protecting the Gunners.  The form of Sappering continued through to the First World War.

During WW2: At the outbreak of the Second World War the Sappers were called upon again to lead the invading army into battle.  This time it was in clearing a path through a mine field or building roads and bridges across rivers for the mechanised attack, and the Battle cry “Follow the Sapper” was heard again.

In 1943, well before the end of the War, anticipating a post-war depression and consequently unemployment, certain senior officers evolved the idea of an organisation to help and re-habilitate members of the Corps on their return to civilian life.  The Old Comrades Association was formally recognised as a Welfare Organisation on 22 November, being given the number WO 314.  On 8 February1944, a formal constitution was adopted, and the name was changed to the less cumbersome and more apt “Sappers Association”.

Establishment in South Africa
In December 1947, the first nine rondavels and their communal ablution blocks were taken into use to accommodate the Sappers and their families that were to build the clubhouse and the luxury cottages (with individual bathrooms and hot running water) that were to follow.

Permission was granted to enshrine the S.A.E.C. Roll of Honour in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, together with the other Commonwealth Rolls (Not only Engineers) of both the 1914/18 and 1939/45 Wars.  It was felt that a duplicate book should be kept in South Africa and on 3 September 1950 the designs for the Hall of Remembrance, the books resting place, at Sappersrus was approved.  The 1952 Congress held on 4 May was followed by a dedication ceremony for the Hall of Remembrance and the Roll of Honour was reverently placed in the casket where it still resides today.  Thereafter, every year on the first Sunday of May, an anniversary ceremony (Annual Memorial Service) is held to honour the event and remember fallen comrades.  Every Sunday morning at half past nine a simple ceremony is performed during which a page of the roll is turned, and a short silence observed.  This has been done without break and continues, every Sunday.  In 1992 a second roll of honour was placed in the hall of remembrance for the Sappers who died in the internal conflict in South Africa.  This book is being expanded to encompass all the Sappers who passed to higher service, on both sides of the struggle, and will be updated annually from now on.

Sappershoek
On 9 March 1963, “Sappershoek” was officially opened as a holiday resort with Cottages and a communal hall to be the home of the Eastern Cape Branch.  Several retired Sappers were accepted as semi-permanent residents.  This resort was later to be converted into a retirement centre.  The planning and building of the Sappershoek Housing Scheme began in 1964. The cottages were built by George Hopkins. There are 21 cottages on this plot in the year 2000.

Other retirement centres follow
The thought of caring for our older Sappers had been taking hold more over the past few years and in 1970 a combined committee was elected from the Sappers Association, the Gunners, and the Southern Transvaal MOTHs to develop a retirement centre in Johannesburg. “Sappershaven” was officially opened as a retirement centre for the Johannesburg Sappers, in Lombardy East also a northern suburb of Johannesburg, with 120 Cottages and a communal hall. “GEM Village” was officially opened, as a joint venture retirement centre with the Gunners, in Irene in the southern suburbs of Pretoria in 1985.  In 1988 “Sappersglen” was officially opened as a retirement centre for the Sappers of the Natal South Coast.

Turning point
By the 1990s two transformative changes were looming: demographics and political transformation. For obvious reasons, demographics was always a challenge in that the ever-dwindling pool of sappers made its presence felt. But what was not ever anticipated was the political upheaval and ultimate political change. To continue being relevant the Sappers Association was compelled to make some far-reaching changes.

The National Board Meeting, held in November 1997 is hailed as the turning point for the Sappers Association, which had been in decline for a decade.  At this meeting the Sappers Association started its transformation to its new form, that of a Foundation for the preservation of Military Engineering Culture, History and Traditions called the “Sappers Foundation”.  They were compelled to accept that certain of the projects of the old Sappers Association would not be carried forward, but the Directors pledged themselves to retain as many of these as possible, to preserve the traditions and symbols and to ensure that none of our members are alienated by the change process.

In 2002 a Memorial Trust was formed to preserve the Hall of Remembrance and the Memorial Gardens into perpetuity and the Heritage Centre was built for the Sappers Foundation on the Memorial Grounds including a home for the “Sappers Heritage Collection”, overnight accommodation for visiting Sappers, and a general meeting and recreational area.

Sources:
‘https://sappersfoundation.co.za/history/
Newspaper cuttings supplied by Erica Clark

For those interested, I have included below a chronological history of the Sappers organisations since 1943.

1943

Well before the end of the War, anticipating a post-war depression and consequently unemployment, certain senior officers evolved the idea an organisation to help re-habilitate members of the Corps on their return to civilian life.  The Old Comrades Association was formally recognised as a Welfare Organisation on 22 November, being given the number WO 314.

The initial subscription was £3:1:0 for life, payable over a period.

1944

On 8 February, a formal constitution was adopted, and the name was to the less cumbersome and more apt “Sappers Association”. On 7 December, the first issue of the “SA Sapper”, a magazine that was to be published for more than 50 years, was issued free to all Association Members.

1945

On 7 June, the Western Province Branch in Cape Town was formed, the first of many branches to be formed throughout the Union (R.S.A.), S.W.A. (Namibia) and the Rhodesia’s (Zambia and Zimbabwe), under the Constitution of the parent body.

On 1 July, “Sappersrus”, an area of land on the north bank of the Magalies River (which flows into the Hartbeespoort Dam – near Pretoria) was acquired and became known as Sappersrus.  Soon a fully equipped camp was set up, where Sappers who had been demobbed from the army were accommodated while being integrated back into a post-war society.

On 14 September, a split-pole and thatch shop, built near the river, was opened with a general dealer’s licence, and served tea, cakes and sweets to enthusiastic Sappers who braved the dirt road to Sappersrus.

1946

On 1 June, the first General Meeting of the Sappers Association (affectionately known as “Congress”) was held to elect the first non-military Board of Directors.  Subsequent Congresses, consisting of Sappers representing the Branches throughout the Country, have meet annually to receive reports of Sapper activity during the year and to elect new Directors to deal with matters of policy.

As the initial roll for Sappersrus had been completed it was decided that these grounds should continue to be the focal point for Sapper veterans and that a club for our members would be established on these grounds.  On 16 December, the first permanent structure, a cottage consisting of 3 linked rondavels was opened as a dining room serving simple meals to Sunday visitors.

1947

On 4 December, the first nine rondavels and their communal ablution blocks were taken into use to accommodate the Sappers and their families that were to build the clubhouse and the luxury cottages (with individual bathrooms and hot running water) that were to follow.

1948

At Congress on 2 May it was decided to compile a Roll of Honour of the S.A.E.C. to remember those Sappers that had paid the final price in the defence of their country and its ideals. Work on the Clubhouse started and on 12 December Field-Marshal Smuts laid the Foundation Stone.

1949

On 23 June, the “Sappers Club” was constituted and on 26 November General Ken Ray, the first President of the Club, formally opened the Sappers Clubhouse.  The attractive two-story thatched building had been built by Sappers and Sapper orientated firms at nominal cost.

1950/51

Permission was granted to enshrine the S.A.E.C. Roll of Honour in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, together with the other Commonwealth Rolls (Not only Engineers) of both the 1914/18 and 1939/45 Wars.  It was felt that a duplicate book should be kept in South Africa and on 3 September 1950 the designs for the Hall of Remembrance, the books resting place, at Sappersrus was approved.

On 10 December 1950, the first sod was turned on the site chosen on a koppie, backed by the noble Magaliesburg, and over-looking the river valley.  The building of the Hall was entrusted to a dedicated Sapper stonemason, who lived and worked on the spot for 18 months.

On 15 April 1951, Sapper JC McIntyre laid the foundation stone and underneath the stone, set in concrete is a sealed copper casket with a S.A.E.C. cap badge welded on the lid, containing a microfilm of contemporary records, photos of drawings and plans of the memorial, extracts from the SA Sapper magazine and other mementos.

1952

At Congress on 4 May, the Sapper Creed that heads this brief history was adopted and has since been used to open all Congress, Board and Branch meetings. The Congress was followed by a dedication ceremony for the Hall of Remembrance and the Roll of Honour was reverently placed in the casket where is still resided today.  Thereafter, every year on the first Sunday of May, an anniversary ceremony (Annual Memorial Service) is held to honour the event and remember fallen comrades. Every Sunday Morning at half past Nine a simple ceremony is performed during which a page of the roll is turned, and a short silence observed.  This has been done without break and still continues, every Sunday.

1953

An internal battery-illuminated lamp, built into an old petrol can, and carrying the symbol of the Association was approved and has been used since as part of the ritual opening of formal meetings.

1956

On 10 October, Sapperspriut was officially opened as a holiday resort with 3 Cottages and a renovated farmhouse for the Caretaker, where Sappers could enjoy swimming, fishing and drives into the surrounding country, for very reasonable costs.

1963

On 9 March, Sappershoek was officially opened as a holiday resort with Cottages and a communal hall to be the home of the Eastern Cape Branch.  Several retired Sappers were accepted as semi-permanent residents.  This resort was later to be converted into a retirement centre with 26 cottages in line with the changing needs of Sappers in general.

In the early 60’s it was recognised that the years were passing and the need for looking after our ageing and retired Sappers would become No 1 priority eventually.  The Sappers Creed was supplemented by adding the concept of “easing the burdens and brightening the lives of all our Sappers, as they grow older” – which thought adopted in 1977 as a pledge to form the closing ritual of all formal meeting of the Association.

1964

“Nine Flames” – The SAEC Story, was completed and published, authored by a well-known and experienced journalist and author, supported by 78 Sapper sponsors, he delved into all available records and put on tape individual experiences and reminiscences from Sappers all over the Country.  This publication is still available from our Head Office at Sappersrus.

1973

The thought of caring for our older Sappers had been taking hold more over the past few years and in 1970 a combined committee was elected from the Sappers Association, the Gunners, and the Southern Transvaal MOTHs to develop a retirement centre in Johannesburg.  On 22 September, ‘G.E.M. Homes” was officially opened in Roosevelt Park, in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, with 16 Flats, 68 Cottages, an office and a communal hall.

1982

“Sapperhaven” was officially opened as a retirement centre for the Johannesburg Sappers, in Lombardy East also a northern suburb of Johannesburg, with 120 Cottages and a communal hall.

1985

“GEM Village” was officially opened, as a joint venture retirement centre with the Gunners, in Irene in the southern suburbs of Pretoria with 19 Double Cottages, 12 Single Cottages, 36 Single Flats, 43 Double Flats and a communal hall.

1988

“Sappersglen” was officially opened as a retirement centre for the Sappers of the Natal South Coast with 23 Cottages and a communal hall.

1992

A second Roll of Honour is placed in the casket in the Memorial Hall to honour those who have dies on active service protecting and upholding the ideals of the Republic of South Africa.

1994

With the change of the constitution of the Republic of South Africa, the election of the first fully representative government and the formation of the New South African National Defence Force, the Sappers Foundation recognises the sacrifices made by the non-statutory and the homeland defence forces and votes to allow these military engineers full recognition in the Sappers Association.

1997

We as Sappers can be proud of our Association, as it has survived and prospered for more than fifty years.  We should feel a special pride that we have had the guts to admit that we are slowly sinking away due to dwindling membership and rising costs and took the necessary steps to ensure that what was started in the heat of battle would continue and would hold high the memory of the Military Engineer into the 21st Century.

The National Board Meeting, held on 1 November 1997 is hailed as the turning point for the Sappers Association, which had been in decline for a decade.  At this meeting the Sappers Association started its transformation to its new form; that of a Foundation for the preservation of Military Engineering Culture, History and Traditions called the “Sappers Foundation”.

We had to accept that certain of the projects of the old Sappers Association would not be carried forward, but the Directors pledged themselves to retain as many of these as possible, to preserve the traditions and symbols and to ensure that none of our members are alienated by the change process.

1998

The Sapper’s Foundation is registered, and the control of the Sappers Association and all its Retirement Centres and Projects is transferred to the Board of Directors of the Sappers Foundation.

1999

A project “Sappers Beyond 2000” was launched and it was decided that the Sappers Foundation should be properly structured to ensure its continuation into the future.  The five segments determined to form the parts of the Sapper Family are:

  • The Sapper’s Foundation is the parent body of the organisation will be the focal point of membership and will be responsible for electing the chairpersons or representatives of the other section 21 companies or controlling bodies. The Foundation will be responsible for the Welfare to members, directly or via the Branches.
  • The Sappers Memorial Trust will ensure the preservation of the Sappersrus Memorial and its grounds as well as the History, Culture and Traditions of the Sappers Association and the Sappers Foundation.
  • The Sappers Retirement Villages will be run as separate Section 21 Company and will control and run the Retirement Centres.
  • The Institute of Military Engineers in Southern Africa will concentrate on the preservation and development of Military Engineering Excellence through research and training in the nine military engineering disciplines, under the control of the Sappers Foundation.
  • The Sappers Security Company originally formed to be the commercial branch of the Sappers Association and to hold and operate the various commercial ventures such as the Sappers Club and the Norvaal bottle store in Stilfontein which was subsequently sold, as well as to hold the title of the Sappers fixed properties, specifically Sappersrus outside Pretoria, Sappers Hoek in Port Elizabeth, Sappersspruit in East London, and Sappers Glen in Uvongo.

Due to dwindling membership and the general ageing of the infrastructure, it was decided to close the Sappers Club and sell this portion of the property and buildings into a joint venture development company (Herons Nest) who could raise the funds needed for the rising costs of maintenance and upgrading necessary to be able to run the resort as a Conference Centre and River Lodge.

The Sappers Institute documented four training courses in the field of humanitarian de-mining have been designed and published in a course portfolio, which was distributed to many countries in Africa and the world.   A delegation from the United Nations Development Projects visited the Institute in January 1999 and we were invited to register with the UN as a service provider.  This registration was subsequently confirmed.

 2000

The Institute managed to negotiate a small subcontract to the value of R35 000, which was their first business and a proud moment. A training course in De-mining Management was run for SADAC and a number of soldiers from Angola, Zambia, Namibia and Mozambique were trained to set up de-mining teams in their own countries to rid Africa of its mine pollution.

Due to lack of funding the Institute has been mothballed with plans to reactivate in the future.

2001

The decision was enacted to separate the Retirement Centres into Section 21 Companies that would be self-sufficient and would ensure the continuation of these long after the last veteran Sapper has passed to higher service as a memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their Country.

 2002

The decision was enacted to create a Memorial Trust to preserve the Hall of Remembrance and the Memorial Gardens into perpetuity and a new head office was built for the Sappers Foundation on the Memorial Grounds including a home for the “Sappers Heritage Collection”, overnight accommodation for visiting Sappers, and a general meeting and recreational area.

With the decreasing numbers in the Association and with Sapperspriut no longer being used by Sappers it was decided to sell the property and to use the funds to ensure the continued existence of our Retirement Centre projects.

The Board of Directors decided that the joint venture development company (Herons Nest) was not viable and should be liquidated with the remaining funds donated to the Sappers Memorial Trust.

2003

It was proposed that the remainder Sappersrus, after the sale of the Sappers Club / Herons Nest property, be transferred into the Sappers Memorial Trust to be utilised to supplement the income of the Trust and has been leased on a long-term basis for a sum greater that the current upkeep costs.  This decision was shelved at a subsequent meeting and the property remained in the name of the Sappers Security Company as the Foundation pledged to maintain the Memorial and its grounds using the Foundations staff with these expenses and other costs being paid by the Foundation.  The Foundation also they pledged to support the Page Turning and the Annual Parade.

 

2004 – 2014

The restructuring and changes to the Organisation ushered in a period of stability and due to the on-going management and control exercised by the Board of Directors of the various companies as well as the Trustees the organisation remains stable.

 

2015

Due to the dwindling membership and other pressures the annual congress determined that the Board of Directors should again examine the Sapper Family and plan the way forward for the next 10 years and beyond.

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