Sergeant Major Gandhi’s military service in Natal

It is strange to think of Mahatma Gandhi as having served in the military, but in many ways his military service and witness to war in South Africa shaped the future icon of peace and tolerance which he was to become.

Gandhi is generally quite misunderstood, like Smuts and Churchill, he was a man born in a period of ‘Empire’, the ideals of that period – its systems of governance and politics was fundamentally different to what we understand in the context of modern politics and individual freedoms.  ‘Empire’ was the way the world worked then, literally – it dictated geo politics and trade.

48934-OGJmNDllZjVjOAIn this context rose a young, British educated lawyer – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi -who emigrated to the British Colonies in Southern Africa to make a name for himself and start a new life.  He was at the start of his life quite supportive of British policies in South Africa and those of British empire and expansion.

Historians and political pundits have forever struggled to explain why the apostle of peace and non-violence had rendered support to the British Empire in the Boer War, the 1906 Natal Rebellion and the First World War.

What is clear by his own writings was that his intensions in supporting the British Army in Southern Africa was to buy the Indian population in Southern Africa more political concession and representation based on endorsement and participation in British war efforts.

The Boer War

Gandhi actually played a pivotal role in the Boer War, forming  Natal Indian Ambulance Corps under the British Military.  He even raised the money to form the Corps from the local Indian Community.   It consisted of 300 “free” Indians and 800 indentured labourers (Indians were encouraged to emigrate to South Africa as labourers under contract, once the specified dates of the contract finished they were “free” to own land and make their own way as citizens).

The Boer War was officially declared by the Boers in October 1899 when they invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape.  This attack led to the Siege of Ladysmith and the Garrison stationed there.   In an urgent response the British authorities recruited the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps of about 1100 local White men. At the same time Gandhi pressed for his Indian stretcher-bearers to be allowed to serve.

Battle of Colenso

Dubbed “Black Week”, from 10–17 December 1899, the British Army, unprepared for the Boer invasion, completely outnumbered and outgunned suffered three devastating defeats by the Boer forces, starting at Stomberg, then Magerfontein and finally ending the black week at Colenso.  In all the British lost a total of 2,776 men killed, wounded and captured.

It was the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899, that the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps first saw action, removing the wounded from the front line and then transported them to the railhead.

Battle of Spion Kop 

After Colenso, the first full attempt to relieve Ladysmith by the British was met with absolute disaster at Spion Kop (or Spionkop) for the British. Spion Kop (Afrikaans: Spioenkop meaning “spy hill”) is a mountain located near the town of Ladysmith, 27 km to the South West.

On the 23rd January 1900, the British climbed up the Spion kop hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet there and drove them off the kop at bayonet point. The Boer piquet retreated down the hill to their camp waking up their fellow Boers by screaming “Die Engelse is op die kop.” (The English are on the hill.). At that time a half-company of British sappers began to entrench their position on the hill with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (oddly – while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle).

As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. Furthermore, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position – the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

By the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell. Approximately 1,250 British were either wounded or captured. The Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were dead.

During the battle, the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps (including Gandhi) moved into the frontline to collect the wounded.

There is an account of Ghandi’s bearing during the Battle of Spion-Kop. Vera Stent described the work of the Indians in the Illustrated Star of Johannesburg, July 1911, as follows:

ghandi7“My first meeting with Mr. M. Gandhi was under strange circumstances. It was on the road from Spion Kop, after the fateful retirement of the British troops in January 1900.

The previous afternoon I saw the Indian mule-train moved up the slopes of the Kop carrying water to the distressed soldiers who had lain powerless on the plateau. The mules carried the water in immense bags, one on each side, led by Indians at their heads. The galling rifle-fire, which heralded their arrival on the top, did not deter the strangely-looking cavalcade which moved slowly forward, and as an Indian fell, another quietly stepped forward to fill the vacant place. Afterwards the grim duty of bearer corps, which Mr. Gandhi organised in Natal, began.

It was on such occasions the Indians proved their fortitude, and the one with the greatest fortitude was the subject of this sketch [Mr. Gandhi]. After a night’s work, which had shattered men with much bigger frames I came across Gandhi in the early morning sitting by the roadside – eating a regulation Army biscuit. Everyman in Buller’s force was dull and depressed, and damnation was heartily invoked on everything. But Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful, and confident in his conversation, and had a kindly eye. He did one good… I saw the man and his small undisciplined corps on many a field during the Natal campaign. When succour was to be rendered they were there.”

34 Indian leaders were awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal for actions in the Boer War. Gandhi’s is held by the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

1906 Natal Rebellion

The Zulu uprising in Natal during 1906 was the result of a series of culminating factors and misfortunes; an economic slump following the end of the Boer War, simmering discontent at the influx of White and Indian immigration causing demographic changes in the landscape, a devastating outbreaks of rinderpest among cattle and a rise in a quasi-religious separatist movement with a rallying call of ‘Africa for the Africans’.

The agricultural mainstay of the economy of Natal had been adversely affected by the depletion of the Black workforce to the more lucrative work in the mines of the Witwatersrand.  The imposition of Hut Tax was a further burden and then the introduction of a Poll Tax on each male over 18 years in Natal and Zululand by the cash-strapped government was to be the final straw turning discontent into open rebellion.

The enforced collection of this tax was deeply resented by many Blacks, it raised tensions considerably within Natal and resulted in a series of incidents and finally the murder of a farmer and the deaths of two Natal policemen in January 1906. This caused the Governor Sir Henry McCullum to declare Martial Law on the 9 February and the militia were called out.

By this time Gandhi had attained the rank of Seargent Major and encouraged the British to recruit Indians. He argued that Indians should support the war efforts to legitimise their claims to full citizenship. The British accepted Gandhi’s offer to let a detachment of 20 Indians volunteer as a stretcher-bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers. This corps was commanded by Gandhi and operated for about two months.

For his action Gandhi was awarded another medal, the Natal Rebellion 1906 medal.

gandhi SA

Gandhi seated centre row 4th from the left

The experience however taught him it was hopeless to directly challenge the overwhelming military power of the British army, he decided it could only be resisted in a non-violent fashion, driven by the purity of heart.

Peaceful Resistance

In 1910, the same year the South African Union was established, Gandhi established an idealistic community called ‘Tolstoy Farm’ near Johannesburg.  It was here, based on his wartime experience and unsuccessful experiences of collaborative politics with the British, that he nurtured his policy of peaceful resistance.

In all Mahatma Gandhi spent 22 years of his life in South Africa, a significant period of time, and there is no doubt the region’s politics and violence forged the man he had become by the time he returned to India in 1915.  On arrival in India he brought with him an international reputation as a leading Indian nationalist, theorist and organiser. He joined the Indian National Congress and was introduced to Indian issues, the rest as they say … is history.

Jan Smuts drafted the Preamble to the United Nations Charter

Imposing photograph of Jan Smuts at the San Francisco Conference in 1945 – the historic conference which founded the United Nations (UN).

One of Jan Smuts’ last acts as the Prime Minister for South Africa was the establishment of the United Nations. In fact he wrote the original opening lines of the Preamble to the United Nations Charter as …

“The High Contracting Parties, determined to prevent a recurrence of the fratricidal strife which twice in our generation has brought untold sorrow and loss upon mankind..”

Not only did Smuts do the first draft of the Preamble to the United Nations Charter, he also played a key role in putting together the United Nations Charter itself. Smuts even presided over the first meeting of Commission II, General Assembly of the United Nations on 30 May 1945, held at the San Francisco Opera House.

Jan Smuts was also present at the historic signing ceremony of the United Nations Charter on the 26th June 1945 and signed the Charter on behalf of South Africa.

 

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 09.23.10

Subsequent to these historic meetings and ceremonies in San Francisco the Charter and United Nations as we know it came into full existence on the 24 October 1945.

Now, this was truly one of South Arica’s most philanthropic leaders, a man years ahead of his time, only to have his legacy tarnished by successive political posturing after his death five years later in 1950, which continues even to this day.

By the time of Smuts’ death in 1950, even the United Nations, which South Africa had played such a pivot role in establishing in 1945, was at loggerheads with the “new” South African Nationalist government which came to power over Smuts’ party in 1948.   From that date onward the United Nations started to pass resolution after resolution in damnation of the then newly elected National Party’s policy of Apartheid.

During the next 46 years in the United Nations, South Africa went from the heady heights of a founding signatory of The United Nations to the lows of a pariah state – and this forever diminished and damaged South Africa’s influence in the United Nations and as a leader in future global politics. Something Jan Smuts even foresaw in 1948 and warned the country against, but to no avail.

However, history is the ultimate decider and Jan Smut’s track record of achievements cements the simple fact that he remains one of the greatest men the country has ever produced.

J_Smuts_sign

Jan Smuts’ signature 

Conveniently ignored ‘Heroes of the struggle for Democracy’ … the ‘old’ SADF

On ‘Freedom Day’ today, we remember the truth, the men who actually brought us that freedom on this day 23 years ago.

The Observation Post

Here is an unusual “hero of the struggle for democracy in South Africa”.  This is a South African Defence Force (SADF) former “whites only” National Service conscript turned “volunteer” holding a R4 assault rifle as he safely escorts the ballot boxes to a counting station during South Africa’s landmark 1994 election.

He, like thousands of other old SADF white “National Servicemen” literally volunteered over the transition between 1990 and 1994 to bring democracy to all South Africans and make the elections a reality.  For good reason to, even on the election day itself bomb attacks where still going on and lives were still under threat. Yet now these military “heroes” are conveniently forgotten or vanquished and rather inappropriately branded as “racists” by a brainwashed South African public that has lost perspective.

This is their story and it needs to be told. 1990 was a significant year – Apartheid in all…

View original post 2,342 more words

The Leonardo da Vinci wreaks havoc off South Africa’s coastline

There is good reason why South Africa’s coastline was so heavily defended by the Royal Navy and South African Navy during World War 2, especially protecting shipping rounding the Cape, and none more so than protection from the submarine menace. One such submarine was the RM Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian submarine fighting alongside Nazi Germany as part of the Axis Pact.

The RM Leonardo da Vinci carried out 11 war patrols, sinking 17 ships, a total of 120,243 Gross Register Tonnage, which included the 21,500-ton Ocean Liner RMS Empress of Canada.  The da Vinci was Italy’s most successful submarine in World War II, and her captain, Lt. Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia, Italy’s leading submarine ace.

The Leonardo da Vinci was one of six Marconi-class submarines built at Monfalcone in 1938 and 1939. The Marconi-class were fairly large boats, 251ft long with 1,510 tons submerged displacement and a crew of 57 men. Armed with four bow and four stern torpedo tubes, one 3.9in deck gun and four 13.2mm machine guns (mainly for anti-aircraft defense) they had a range of nearly 3,000 miles, a top surface speed of just over 17 knots and so were formidable weapons capable of operating far from home.

sommergibile_da_vinci_in_navigazione.d5fzpgo31bkssc4wws4s84cw0.ejcuplo1l0oo0sk8c40s8osc4.th

The Last Patrol

In February 1943, the submarine began a long mission to hunt in South Africa’s waters – the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, it is the final patrol for the Leonardo da Vinci.

This patrol was conducted in collaboration with another Italian submarine, RM Finzi. On March 14th 1943, the da Vinci sunk her most notable target, the troopship SS Empress of Canada.

Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 12.18.39The 21,516-ton RMS Empress of Canada, was a liner of the Canadian Pacific Steam Ship Company, which had been converted to a troop transport. To the German U-boat captains she managed to elude for three and a half years, she was known as “The Phantom”.

She was sailing from Durban, South Africa to the United Kingdom via Takoradi on the Gold Coast, West Africa. On board were 1,346 persons including 499 Italian prisoners of war and Greek and Polish refugees.

Just after midnight the first torpedo struck. The commander of the Leonardo Da Vinci then gave Captain Goold, the commander of the Empress of Canada half an hour to abandon ship.  She sank in about 20 minutes after a second torpedo was launched.

A total of 392 people were lost due to exposure, drowning and sharks, including, 90 women and 44 crew.  In the “fog of war”, the sinking of the Empress of Canada can be ironically seen as a “own goal” as nearly half of the fatalities reported were the Italian Prisoners of War.

The survivors were picked up by the destroyers and corvettes HMS Boreas, HMS Petunia and HMS Crocus and the Ellerman Line vessel Corinthian.

Following this on the 19th March 1943 – The British merchant vessel SS Lulworth Hill – 7,628 tons – was da Vinci’s next victim northwest of South West Africa (now Namibia, but then a South African protectorate). 14 survivors made it onto a life raft. The Leonardo da Vinci captured and took on board one survivor of the sinking, James Leslie Hull.

LulworthHillSurvivorsAfter 29 days the UK authorities assumed that the Lulworth Hill had been lost with all hands and duly informed their families.On 7 May the HMS Rapid picked up the Lulworth Hill’s liferafts. Of the 14 men that had survived the sinking, after 50 days adrift only two, Seaman Shipwright (i.e. carpenter) Kenneth Cooke and Able Seaman Colin Armitage, remained alive.

By mid April 1943, the Leonardo da Vinci had rounded the Cape and was in the Indian Ocean, just off Durban, South Africa and here the tally of destruction was to escalate:

17 April 1943 – The Dutch merchant vessel SS Sembilan – 6,566 tons – is torpedoed and sunk by the Italian submarine Leonardo da Vinci east of Durban.  The attack also totally destroys two American Landing Crafts, LCP-780  and LCP-782 which were being carried aboard as freight.

The next day, 18 April 1943 – The British merchant vessel Manaar – 8,007 tons – the second victim of the Italian submarine Leonardo da Vinci within two days, is sunk east of Port Elizabeth.

21 April 1943 – The American vessel (Liberty Ship) John Drayton – 7,177 tons – is sunk by the da Vinci east of Durban, after being Torpedoed twice and shelled while en route to Cape Town. 4 died when Lifeboat #1 capsized during launching. The men in Lifeboat #4 were rescued on 23 April by the Swedish vessel MV Oscar Gorthon; a raft was picked up on 27 April by HMS Relentless.  The men in Lifeboat #2 picked up by the Greek freighter SS Mount Rhodope a month after the sinking on the 21st May. By that time only 8 of the original 24 men were still alive and of them, a further 3 died in hospital in Durban. In all, 21 of the 41 merchant crew members and 5 of the 15 Naval Armed Guards aboard John Drayton lost their lives.

dhm6224

Painting by Ivan Berryman depicting the final hours of the John Drayton

The last vessel to be sunk by da Vinci was on 25 April 1943, British vessel operated by Shell as a petroleum tanker called the Doryssa – 8,078 tons – is was sunk south of Port Elizabeth.

As a result of all the successes the Commander of the da  Vinci, T.V. Gazzana-Priaroggia was promoted Capitano di Corvetta with immediate effect from 6th May 1943.

A Fatal Decision

With a string of victories and promotions after its very successful patrol to South Africa’s waters, on 22 May 1943 Leonardo da Vinci unwisely signalled its intention to head home for Bordeaux, France.

The decision to radio home its intentions proved fatal.  Its position having been fixed by Allied direction-finding equipment, on 23 May the destroyer HMS Active  and the frigate HMS Ness subjected the submarine to an intense depth charge attack and sank it 300 miles (480 km) west of Vigo (off the West African coastline).  There were no survivors.

HMS Ness (Left) and HMS Active (Right)

Today

Gazzana_2Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia was a massive loss to the Italian war effort and the Italian Navy, he was posthumously awarded the Knight’s Iron Cross from Germany and the Gold Medal for Military Valor by King Vittorio Emanuele III.  Rather unusually given the outcome of the war, as testament of this legacy, two modern Italian Sauro-class submarines are named:

  • S520 Leonardo da Vinci, completed in 1981 and named after the original RM Leonardo da Vinci
  • S525 the Gianfranco Gazzana Priaroggia completed in 1993 (the last of its class) and named in honour of Gianfranco Gazzana-Priaroggia

Source: Wikipedia, the Italian Monachist – Saga of the Submarine Leonardo da Vinci.  Merchant ships – attacks by Italian submarines.

One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross, DSO and MC

HansenWinning a Victoria Cross for gallantry and surviving the ordeal  has some luck associated to it, and this lucky charm of a VC winner is testament of this. Every Anzac Day we recall the Gallipoli campaign, and we remember the heroes of the campaign –  Australian, New Zealand, British and even in modern times the Turkish heroes too.

One such unassuming hero was the son of a South African merchant, and there is a little mystery as to where he was born, some sources say Durban, Natal Colony and other sources say Dresden, Germany (his parents had visited a Spa there).  In either event Percy Hansen was born into a wealthy and well connected Danish family that had settled in South Africa.  He was born on the 26 October 1890, the son of  Viggo Julius Hansen and Anna Elizabeth (nee Been), Viggo was a merchant running stores in the cities of Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg as well as stores in the Cape Colony generally.

When it came time for his formal education his family moved from South Africa to London around 1901/2.  and Percy initially attended Hazelwood Prep School in Surrey (then a school for 8 to 11 year old boys), then Oxted in Surrey and finally he then went on to Eton College from the 20 September 1904.

He saw a career for himself in the military so when he was about 20 years old his father was naturalised as a British subject (8 December 1910) which enabled  him to join the British Army.  His training took place at The Royal Military College, Sandhurst.

10394532_440161602820244_7669303039082567855_nBy the 4th March 1911 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment.   He rose to the rank of Captain and by the summer of 1915 he was with his Regiment landing on the shores of Gallipoli.  Carrying a lucky charm into battle (see featured image), It would be here that he would earn his Victoria Cross.

The lucky charm is one of Hansen’s personal things on display at The Imperial War Museum.  It comprises two tiny metal figures linked together with small metal rings, the larger of the two figures is unclothed except for a nappy and resembles a curly-haired baby, the smaller of the two figures is clothed and wears a leather hat stitched with vegetable fibre.

World War 1

After landing at Suvla Bay on the night of 6 August 1915, the next day the Allies pressed forward across the dry Salt Lake beyond the shore and the 6th Lincoln’s captured Yilghin Burnu, christened “Chocolate Hill” by the Allies. On 9 August the British attempted unsuccessfully to break out of the Suvla Plain, by advancing into the high ground which surrounded it, aiming for Anafarta. Fighting raged round Scimitar Hill, parts of which changed hands several times, but by the end of the day the British had failed to secure it. Many men were left wounded on its slopes and when Turkish artillery set alight the scrub which covered it, Captain P H Hansen, now the adjutant of the 6th Lincoln’s, called for volunteers to help rescue them. Six of the wounded were saved and for this gallant act Captain Hansen was awarded the Victoria Cross. Lance-Corporal Breese, who assisted him, received the DCM.

His Victoria Cross Citation: 

Percy Howard HANSEN VC
Captain, 6th Battalion The Lincolnshire Regiment, 33rd Brigade, 11th Division
Citation:

For most conspicuous bravery on 9th August, 1915, at Yilghin Burnu, Gallipoli Peninsula.

After the second capture of the “Green Knoll” his Battalion was forced to retire, leaving some wounded behind, owing to the intense heat from the scrub which had been set on fire.

When the retirement was effected Captain Hansen, with three or four volunteers, on his own initiative, dashed forward several times some 300 to 400 yards over open ground into the scrub under a terrific fire, and succeeded in rescuing from inevitable death by burning no less than six wounded men.

Military Cross (MC)

However the bravery of this remarkable man did not stop there, he went on to win the Military Cross for bravery in another engagement just one short montb later.

He won the Military Cross for performing a daring solo reconnaissance mission at Sulva Bay, on the night of 9 September 1915, he carried out the mission along the coast, carrying only a revolver and a blanket for disguise. He successfully located an important Turkish firing position.

His citation for his Military Cross

4627651289_411x470“For conspicuous gallantry at Suvla Bay on 9th September, 1915. He made a reconnaissance of the coast, stripping himself and carrying only a revolver and a blanket for disguise. He swam and scrambled over rocks, which severely cut and bruised him, and obtained some valuable information and located a gun which was causing much damage. The undertaking was hazardous. On one occasion he met a patrol of 12 Turks who did not see him, and later a single Turk whom he lulled. He returned to our lines in a state of great exhaustion”.

By this time he had become the Commanding Officer of battalion when Colonel Phelps went down with dysentery, however Hansen also fell ill about two weeks later and he  evacuated to Egypt (it was here that he learned of his VC award).

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

And there was still more bravery to come. Due to his ill-health, Hansen was eventually transferred to France and appointed Brigade Major to the 170th (2/1st North Lancashire) Brigade.  He remained a staff officer for the rest of the war, during which he served with the II ANZAC Corps. He was made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) performing yet another  another daring reconnaissance mission during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

His Distinguished Service Order Citation:

“For conspicuous gallantry at Suvla Bay on 9th September, 1915. He made a reconnaissance of the coast, stripping himself and carrying only a revolver and a blanket for disguise. He swam and scrambled over rocks, which severely cut and bruised him, and obtained some valuable information and located a gun which was causing much damage. The undertaking was hazardous. On one occasion he met a patrol of 12 Turks who did not see him, and later a single Turk whom he lulled. He returned to our lines in a state of great exhaustion”.

After World War 1, he attended Staff College in Camberly and he was married on 12 June 1928 at the Register Office, Chelsea Town Hall, London to Marie Rose, daughter of G. Emsell; and he had one daughter.

World War 2

Pery Hansen VC DSO MC was still in service at the outbreak of World War 2. On the outbreak of war in  September 1939 he was appointed to Acting Assistant Quartermaster General 55th Division and then 12th Corps.  In 1941 he received the rank of Brigadier and on the 24th February 1942-43 he became the Commander of Belfast, Northern Ireland area.

By the 15th May 1943 he was appointed as the Sub District Commander Ashford, Kent and by August 1943 he rose to Head of Civilian Affairs unit for Norway under SHAEF -.Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force – the headquarters of the Commander of Allied forces in north west Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

At the end of the Second World War he finally retired from the Army – 19 January 1946, in 1950 he was a member of the Guard of Honour to mark visit of Winston Churchill to Copenhagen, Denmark.

He was awarded the Royal Order of St Olav by Norway. He was also awarded the Legion of Merit by the United States and the citation for his award reads: –

“Brigadier Percy H. Hansen, British Army, in cooperation with the forces of the Army of the United States, distinguished himself by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services, as Head of the Civil Affairs Unit, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force Mission to Norway from August 1943 to July 1945. His keen understanding of the problems involved in administering Civil Affairs in a liberated country, and the efficient plans of organisation and operation which he established, enabled the Allies to successfully undertake its mission to Norway. His contribution to the military effort reflects high credit upon himself, and the military service of the United States and their Allies.”

Medals and Honours

His medal rack is quite something:
VCPercyHowardHansenMedals

  • Victoria Cross (VC)
  • Distinguished Service Order (DSO)
  • Military Cross (MC)
  • 1914-15 Star
  • British War Medal (1914-20)
  • Victory Medal (1914-19) + Mid Oakleaf
  • General Service Medal (1918-62)
    • 1 clasp: “Palestine”
  • France & Germany Star
  • Defence Medal (1939-45)
  • War Medal (1939-45)
  • King George VI Coronation Medal (1937)
  • Croix de Guerre (France)
  • Officer, Legion of Merit (USA)
  • Commander, Royal Order of St Olaf (Norway)

He had 5 Mentions in Dispatches in total in his very distinguished military career. Now that is one very Lucky Charm indeed.

Death

Like his birth there is also a little controversy over the place of his death, some sources say Brigadier Percy Howard Hansen VC DSO MC died on the 12th February 1951 in Kensington, London, other sources say he died of pneumonia in Copenhagen. There is reference to his funeral been held in London, however in either event his ashes were eventually interred in family vault, Garnisons Kirkegard, Copenhagen. Section R. Row K. Grave 3.

Extract published with the kind permission of The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013. Wikipedia and the Image copyright of his lucky charm belongs to the Imperial War Museum.

War in Eritrea heats up with the SAAF in the front!

The Allied invasion of Eritrea began on 17 January 1941. No.1 Squadron (SAAF) was used to escort RAF Wellesley bombers, and became one of the first Allied units to move into Eritrea, moving to Tessebei airfield during January.

No. 1 Squadron SAAF The squadron took part in the fighting around the key Italian fortress at Keren, which fell on 27 March, and then in the advance on Asmara, which surrendered on 1 April.

Within days of the surrender of Asmara the squadron moved from the “East African” theatre of conflict to the “North African” theatre in Egypt, arriving just in time to take part in Operation Brevity (15 May 1941), the first attempt to lift the siege of Tobruk.

Typical of the East African campaign during World War 2 was the unrelenting heat.  Clearly seen in the featured image is a South African Air Force pilot of No. 1 Squadron SAAF is doing a pre-flight check as he prepares for a sortie in his SAAF Hawker Hurricane Mark I. The picture was taken at a forward landing ground close to the front line in Eritrea, circa 1941.

Note the crew shelter in the foreground, taking some prime shade on offer under the stark thorn tree, it is situated there so the crew can stay out of the relenting heat and its complete with all the comforts and “mod cons” you would expect on a front line – furniture made from petrol cans and duckboards.

Image copyright: Imperial War Museum

Springboks and Diggers … part of the Anzac ‘mateship’ legacy

Iconic image of Commonwealth forces in North Africa during World War 2. Easily identified by their distinctive headgear, South African and Australian soldiers enjoy a game of cards in a gun pit. The South Africans where know as ‘Springboks’ and the Australians known as ‘Diggers’ – a nickname they both inherited during World War One.

The distinctive headgear as shown is quite interesting, so too the unique military bond and history of that exists between South Africa and the Anzac alliance, Australia and New Zealand.

SA PithSouth African.  The South Army (and Air Force) was issued with a “Polo” style “Pith” helmet.  Made from cork it was not intended to protect the head from flying bullets and shrapnel, that was the purpose of the British Mk 2 Brodie helmet (also issued to South Africans). The pith helmet was worn mainly as sun protection when not in combat.

slouch-hat-ww2Australia.  The Australian army wore the “slouch hat”, also intended for sun protection when not in combat, like the South Africans they where issued with the British “Brodie” Mk2 steel helmet when in combat.

The “slouch” hat also has a little South African history to it.  The word ‘slouch’ refers to the sloping brim. The brim is made from rabbit-fur felt or wool felt and is always worn with a puggaree.

History has it that the origins of the Slouch Hat began with the Victorian Mounted Rifles; a hat of similar design had been worn in South Africa by the Cape Mounted Rifles for many years before 1885. The design of the Victorian Mounted Rifle hat originated from headgear of native police in Burma where Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Price had recognised its value.

The Victorian hat was an ordinary bush felt hat turned up on the right side. The intention of turning up the right side of the hat was to ensure it would not be caught during the drill movement of “shoulder arms” from “order arms”.

sagaieIn addition to Australians, believe it or not some South African units also wore the “slouch hat”.  Most notable was the South African Native Military Corps members, who made up about 48% of the South African standing army albeit in non frontline combat roles during both WW1 and WW2.  The legacy of the “slouch” in the modern South African National Defence Force is however now on the decline and little remains now of its use, a pity as it would be a gracious nod to the very large “black” community contribution to both WW1 and WW2.

150281In an iconic Australian War Memorial photograph to demonstrate this unique association,  a Australian soldier working on the Beirut-Tripoli railway link is seen here chatting with two members of a South African Pioneer Unit (SA Native Military Corps) also working on the railway. The photo is designed to show off their similarities of dress and bearing and promote mutual purpose.

Of interest – The Gun in the pit

8493892_2Interestingly the gun in the pit is not South African standard issue.  Instead it is a British made Hotchkiss Portative MK 1, which was used by the Australians, dating back to World War 1, so it is probably their gun pit.  Of French design the MK I was a .303 caliber machine gun, used in ‘cavalry/infantry’ configuration, with removable steel buttstock and a light tripod. This gun is normally fed from either flexible “belts” or strips like you see in the featured image. Normal Hotchkiss Portative strips hold 30 rounds each.

Camaraderie 

Because of mutual historic, military, language, British Dominion and cultural ties here was certainly was plenty of camaraderie between the South Africans and the Anzac Australians and New Zealanders during the war. Lots of informal rugby and cricket matches were played at any good opportunity, games of cards (seen here), exchanging of “souvenirs” (especially badges, sun helmets and slouch hats), occasional punch ups in Cairo pubs fuelled by beer which were soon forgotten and forgiven.  Generally good old good old fashioned soldierly fun and “band of brothers” stuff.

Tobruk

Because the South Africans were responsible for the “fall of Tobruk” in World War 2, a city the Australians fought to hold with such tenacity before handing it over to the South Africans to defend, as a South African you might also come into some light hearted but pointed “sledging” from an Australian military veteran, even to this day.

ANZAC Remembrance

Modern South Africa does not extensively praise, idolise and remember her statutory armed forces and the origins of their fighting legacy anything near the Australians and New Zealanders do to their forces now.   This has manifested with the inclusion of hundreds of South African veterans residing in Australia in National Anzac Day parades held around Australia and New Zealand, and it is because of this unique bond forged by our forefathers in WW1 and WW2 that they are welcomed with open arms.

Featured image copyright IWM collection, insert image copyright Australian War Memorial photograph