ERHC Hiking Club
Back to Homepage
Our Newsletter


TRAILS....

Magaliesberg Snippets
Wonderboom Fort and West Fort
Stan & Desiré Kantor

Four magnificent forts once dominated the heights of Pretoria. Built by the ZAR Government to defend the town, they were occupied by the British in 1900, without a shell having been fired at them. The forts were incorporated into the Royal Engineers defences of Pretoria and for another two years, they protected the town with British garrisons.

West Fort (Fort Daspoortrand) and Wonderboom Fort were abandoned in 1904 but Klapperkop and Schanskop, however, had garrisons up until 1912, when the Imperial forces left South Africa. These latter two forts became military reserves. Many additions were made to these forts during the occupation and the photographs of Wonderboom Fort show some of them. In this first one of Wonderboom Fort (probably taken between 1906-10) additional sheds/storerooms were added.

In the second photograph a stone parapet was placed above the curtain wall by the Royal Engineers and, unlike the ZAR loopholes, they were fitted with steel plates.

WONDERBOOM TODAY

This photograph shows what the visitor can expect to see after a period of 100 years and the question has always been asked: ’What has happened to Fort Wonderboom and West Fort’?

In an article written and researched by the late D.C. Panagos (Dave), an archaeologist and tour guide, his assumptions on the destruction of these two forts are extracted from ’The Mystery of the Z.A.R. Forts of Pretoria’ and reproduced here with permission from his widow, Ann Panagos.

The mysterious destruction of Fort Wonderboompoort and West Fort.

Soon after the end of WW2 visitors to these two forts reported that they were now in ruins. Claims were made by people living in Gezina, south of Wonderboompoort , that they had heard explosions coming from the hill sometime just prior to World War II and similar reports came from Pretoria North. However there was a quarry in the Voortrekker Rd. nek to the east of the fort. The remains of loading platforms are still present and modern reservoirs have been built in the quarry itself. Near Pretoria North is a quarry next to Bon Accord Dam which is still operating. These quarries could have been the sources of the dynamiting reports.

There are several theories as to why and how the forts were destroyed, which have been suggested in many documents.

One of the claims is that these two,Wonderboom and West Fort, were blown up by Field Marshall Jan Smuts during the Voortrekker Centenary celebrations of 1938 or later during the War. This was done in order to prevent the Ossewa Brandwag or some other anti-war organisation from occupying the forts. The Lord only knows what they were supposed to do with them after moving in. This was tried very recently and they were simply ignored! Then what is more, considering the highly charged state of feelings between the parties in 1938 and ‘39 it would have been extremely silly of Gen. Smuts to do anything which would only have made matters worse. He was not known as "slim Jannie" for nothing. I think all those ideas and allegations can be dismissed out of hand.

The Clue

A maintenance artisan who worked at the West Fort Leper Asylum before WW2 told me that this fort was untouched up to 1940 when he went up North with the Union Defence Force. On his return after the War he resumed his duties at the Asylum and the fort was now destroyed. This then provides a reasonably good time window for the period which should be investigated.

A careful inspection at both West Fort and Wonderboom Fort reveals two interesting facts. First of all it should be noted that the rubble in the latter Fort was cleared away just prior to 1989, leaving an empty shell. Inspection of the bolts set into the walls at West Fort shows that there is no evidence that explosives were used to " blow the forts up"

In Photo 4 it can clearly be seen that after the top covering of sand had been removed, the concrete platform was neatly broken up with drills and the large nuts on the bolts holding the steel beams over the bombproof rooms were then unscrewed. This permitted the removal of all the beams. None are now present. Note that one of the workmen had even carefully returned a nut to it's parent bolt.

The row of rooms under the rampart were topped by decorative crenellations and these can now be seen lying right below their original positions without damage to the walls of the bombproof rooms.

This fact as well as the undamaged threads on the bolts, makes it clear that this fort had been dismantled, probably using pneumatic drills, not dynamited, and the Steel taken away. In the case of Wonderboom Fort, after the sand cover had been shovelled off, the concrete, in which the steel beams had been embedded, had then been broken up allowing the removal of the beams, Again it is evident that this fort had also been dismantled using pneumatic drills. In both cases no traces of the missing steel beams have ever been found! The photo of the interior of Klapperkop Fort shows how the steel beams are embedded in the concrete above the rooms and also the relative sizes indicating what an large amount of steel had gone into the construction.

Who would want high-grade steel in such quantities? As mentioned above it is significant that the two forts were dismantled sometime between 1940 and the end of the War. it was during this period that the infant armaments industry of the Union of South Africa was born. In addition to thousands of armoured cars the Union also produced 100 x 2pdr anti tank guns, 330 x 6pdr anti tank guns and 391 x 3.7” field howitzers.

On page 48 of HM Martin and Neil Orpen's book "South Africa At War", Purnell, Capetown, 1979, we read that a locally made 3.7" Howitzer had been displayed on the 5th of April 1940 at the Rand Show in Johannesburg, but that it had been made from imported steel, it was 7 months later that the S.A. Iron and Steel Corporation, ISCOR, was able to produce ‘the special steels” " needed for the 3 .7"guns. Special steels are produced in special furnaces, such as an Open Hearth Converter, which require high grade scrap steel and the quality of the German steel from the forts would have served admirably for this purpose. It was ISCOR therefore, which had such a strong motive to obtain the beams from the forts for the production of this steel necessary for the gun barrels and that then basically leaves no other candidate.

If this theory is correct then I am convinced that the Z.A.R. Cmdt. General's spirit must have been smiling in approval to see this steel eventually being turned into the field guns which he had always felt were preferable to static fortifications.

As to why the forts were abandoned by the Boers, the headline in the Cape Argus Weekly Edition of 13th June 1900 reads, ‘Pretoria Occupied—Botha Declines to Defend the Capital’.

The Z.A.R. forts had earth embankments on the three sides which would face an enemy attack. These embankments had proved successful in the Turko-Russian War of 1877 and had helped the Turks to defend their positions for nearly seven months. The surrounding soil prevented bombs doing damage to the internal fortifications.

Adapted by the British, French and Germans in the design of future forts, this style became ineffective when the Lydite shell was invented in 1898. Hence, by the time of the Anglo-Boer War, if the forts had been manned and attacked, there would not be much opposition and possibly many casualties as the British had brought up these shells in the intended attack on Pretoria. Whereas in the Turko-Russian war the bursting charge for the Russian shells had been gunpowder, in 1898 the European armies were using High Explosives in their heavy artillery shells. These Lydite shells were four times more powerful than gunpowder and even more powerful than TNT. Credit must be given to Gen. Louis Botha on his decision.

Other defence positions built by the British were Sangars. The remains on the East side of the fort (overlooking Wonderboom Nek) are now covered by grassland. To the West (beyond the Communications Tower) large breastworks (gun positions?) are to be found. There are also foundation stones of a Rice Blockhouse and unfinished defence positions below it on the edge of the escarpment. These remains are also heavily overgrown by trees and undergrowth.

In the Wonderboompoort a stone blockhouse (opposite the cave and river) was erected to protect the road and railway line to Pietersburg. This structure was removed to allow the doubling of the rail line and the widening of the road. The photograph taken from the north side shows the blockhouse with its barbed wire defences and the sentry post with its gates. Also note the sandbag sangar at the base of the blockhouse.

With over 8000 blockhouses erected by the British Forces throughout South Africa, the question always arises ‘What has happened to them?” Part of the answer can be found in a notice that appeared in The Standard, Krugersdorp—Saturday May 9, 1903. It was signed by T. Cadell, Assistant Secretary, For Secretary for Repatriation.

This list contains the names of 22 districts and 920 blockhouses in the Transvaal. ‘Tenders should be made so much per blockhouse either for the whole number offered, or for the number in any district. Purchasers will have right of access for the purpose of removal under Ordinance No. 39 of November 14th, 1902. The largest groups of blockhouses were 285 at Ermelo3 District and 158 at Vryburg District. Pretoria had 29.

Should Wonderboom Fort be restored? Perhaps not as both Schanskop and Klapperkop are of the same design and in its present state Wonderboom has its own history and should not be interfered with as it blends in with the natural surroundings and is always a source of interest.

‘Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.
—– Winston Churchill.