Prince Alfred's Guard

When I first arrived in Port Elizabeth I paid a visit to the Prince Alfred’s Guard Drill Hall and had the opportunity to go to the Prince Alfred Guards mess and met a number of interesting people (still do) and through this as well as reading up on the subject have been able to learn more about the history of this regiment that is based in a Victorian drill hall built in 1880/completed 1882. There is also very interesting militaria and memorabilia in the building so as you can imagine I am in my element. Dries Jansen former RSM as well as John Scott present RSM as well as a number of old members has taken me under his wing and I hope to get involved with assisting setting up a reference library as well as helping display the units militaria that is still stored away. Here is what I have learnt so far.

One of the complaints that resulted in the Great Trek was that the government of the day was unable to protect the frontiers as well as those living in them would have liked, this in a small way saw the formation of the P.A.G. The Trek was to lure many able bodied men away from the Eastern Cape that would previously have been called up for Commando duty to assist regular army units in the event of a crisis or native uprising such as the 6 frontier wars between 1779 and 1835. The Frontier was again to be faced with war in 1846-47 as well as 1850-53.

It was after the war of 1850-53 that the then governor of the Cape, Sir George Grey and advisors came up with the proposal of a new volunteer force that would assist in securing the colonies borders in the event of another war. The first to be established was that of Cape Royal Rifles in November 1855 followed almost a year later September 19 by the Port Elizabeth Rifle Corps with their uniform being modelled on the Lincoln green uniform of the Rifle Brigade. The initial meeting however had been on the evening of 22 August 1856 when a number of men met in a dimly lit room of the Commercial hall (that also doubled up as a town hall) and discussed the possibility of forming a Volunteer Corps for the defence of the town as was being done in other centres of the colony. At a subsequent meeting officers were appointed and they found themselves in charge of 50 men.

In 1860 Prince Alfred then only 16 years old landed in Port Elizabeth, the PE Rifle Corps provided a royal guard for his stay in the “city”, it was from this association that the unit changed its name to the “unofficial” Prince Alfred Volunteer Guard but with the then governor suggesting to and the Prince accepting the unit changed its name officially to The Prince Alfred Guard. On 6 May 1876 the PAG where presented with their colours (Queens and Regimental) at the Port Elizabeth cricket ground (now St Georges).

Not many people are aware that in the mid 1870’s due to dwindling numbers as well as a rift between members of the Regiment the unit under recommendation from its commanding officer Colonel Wylde the unit was disbanded and government notice –no 737,1876 was published in the Government Gazette. In late November 1876 a meeting of members of the late PAG was held in PE and it was at this meeting that it was decided how best to go about forming another volunteer corps and on 18 December of that same year permission was given to form the PAG again. The first public parade after disbandenment was held on 24 February 1877.

The long peace following the 8th frontier war of 1850-53 was to catch the Eastern Cape off guard when in 1877 chief Kreli of the Gealekas took to the field, hostilities had once again broken out. A group from the regiment were to see action for the first time when on December 2 1877 at Umzintzani (valley of the burning coral bush ??????) just east of present day Butterworth approximately half of the 145 officers and men facing 2000 well armed and mounted Gealekas were from Prince Alfred’s Guard.

The battle started at 6.30pm and was fought over a number of hours with the PAG losing private Barron (KIA) and another 5 wounded, this was the action that saw the unit win its first for 16 battle honours. In 1880 the PAG was to see action in Basutoland (now Lesotho) it was during this campaign that the PAG was to make history by becoming the first volunteer colonial battalion to make a bayonet charge in which 2 members of the PAG were killed and another 7 wounded. The Basutoland war became known as the Basuto “Gun War” due to it starting over the Basuto’s refusal to hand over their arms to the British.

In 1897 the regiment was again called up supply men to contain disturbances on the border of Bechuanaland (Botswana) and again a bayonet charge against an almost impregnable position saw it being captured, this action was to become known as the last of Victoria’s “little colonial wars”. The next time the PAG would be called up for active duty would be for the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902

Initially the unit was used primarily for guard or garrison duty on strategic railway links between De Aar and Stormberg, but were to be used later as a light cavalry unit. When un-mounted the PAG continued to protect the railways, but when mounted they acted as scouts, during the period between January 1900 and May 31 1902 detachments of the regiment had seen service from the Northern Cape to the Transvaal and were often mentioned in dispatches.

With the outbreak of World War One the regiment was called up and sent to Cape Town for garrison duties, two maxim machine gun sections were detached to assist with the stopping of any insurrections that may occur due to those men not wanting SA to get involved with Britain in that war, the one section ended up in Berlin and Stutterheim with the other after training at Roberts Heights (now Waterkloof) being sent to Upington to stop Maritz from causing trouble. This in fact was the only detachment to see any action the whole of the war. The rest of the men on guard duty in the Cape became impatient and wanted to get to the front to see action. A misunderstanding occurred over this period that saw the regiment being demobilised, playing no further part in the war although individual members did serve with other units, many sacrificing their lives for the Empire.

The regiment was again to face disappointment when it acted as a feeder regiment and again performed guard duties while other regiments went north to fight in East Africa, Abyssinia and the desert. This was to change in early 1943 when it was announced that Prince Alfred’s Guard was to become a tank regiment in the 11 Brigade of sixth SA Armoured Division. Members of the regiment sailed for Egypt in April of that year for training. The sixth SA Armoured Division was to become a well oiled machine and a formidable fighting force. The training in Egypt however had not prepared the men of the three tank regiments for what awaited them in Italy, but the PAG men with their infantry background seemed to adapt to the conditions better than most.

The PAG were tasked to form a Reconnaissance section under the command of a Captain C.M MacKay and formed part of HQ Squadron. They had eleven turretless Honey tanks (also known as Stuart tanks) that were armed with two Browning machine guns what they lacked in firepower they made with I speed, from all accounts members of the PAG that formed part of this group did sterling work and a number where to lose their lives. From its first contact at Paliano to their final battle in the Po Valley the P.A.G lost 30 officers and men killed in action or dying of wounds and 104 wounded in action. Their battle honours included Cellino, The Greve, Florence, Gothic line and Po Valley, making to that date a number of 11 battle honours dating from 1877.

The P.A.G also took part in the many skirmishes that made up the Border war. They where based in Ovamboland and while never crossing the border played a huge role in the defence of South West Africa (now Namibia) using Eland 90mm and 60 mm’s (commonly known as Noddy cars). One member Rfn Michael Saunders won the Honoris Crux during Operation Savannah for bravery and was the first member of the P.A..G to win a medal or decoration since the Second World War.
Today the Prince Alfred’s Guard is an Infantry regiment of the SANDF and as a reserve unit it has a status roughly equivalent to that of a British Territorial Army or in the USA an Army National Guard unit. The Regiment is located in the city of Port Elizabeth in a Victorian drill hall built in 1880. Today the regiment has 250 members and is an Mobile/Air Assault unit

I finish the story with part of a message from the then officer commanding of the Prince Alfred’s Guard GJ Lombard, Lt Col, MMM, JCD (2006)

“From horses to helicopters, from flesh to steel, the men of Prince Alfred’s Guard have gone into battle over the past 150 years using the vehicle of the times. This also reflects the many different roles the Regiment has played and the numerous transformations it has undergone. From the rocket brigade (a ship personnel rescue function), fire services, mounted infantry, armour to the present airborne capability, the unit has been more than equal to any challenge and changing roll bestowed upon it.”

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