A South African Korean War hero … killed in the Vietnam War

What! South Africa never took part in the Vietnam War, true – but some South Africans did, and two of them lost their lives.  Of the two South Africans sacrificed in this rather misunderstood, baffling and brutal war, it is this one – Everitt Murray Lance (called ‘Lofty’ because of his height) who really stands out for two reasons – he served as a pilot in the South African Air Force prior to fighting in the Vietnam War and he served with the South African Air Force’s 2 Squadron with distinction in the Korean War (yes, for those who did not know, South Africa did take part in the Korean War).

So, who is Lofty Lance and how the heck did he land up in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War?  Let’s have a look at him as his story is an absolutely fascinating one and we hope to do him a little justice in this article.

SAAF and the Korean War

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Lofty Lance, SAAF in Korea

Lofty Lance was born in the Western Cape, South Africa on 29th April 1928.  After his schooling he his career followed a rather convoluted route, the adventurous life loomed large and he initially joined the Navy and trained on the S.A.T.S General Botha (Cadet 1305) joining the ranks of many ‘Botha Boys’ who would later advance prestigious careers in the military, he then joined his ‘first’ Air Force – The South African Air Force as a fighter pilot.

By 1950 Lofty found himself in his ‘first’ war serving with the SAAF.  War broke out in Korea on 25 June 1950 and on 4 August 1950 the South African government announced its intention to place an all-volunteer squadron at the disposal of the United Nations to fight in Korea.

On 25 September 1950, SAAF 2 Squadron (including Lofty), known as the Flying Cheetahs, sailed for Japan. On arrival at Yokohama the squadron proceeded to Johnson Air Base near Tokyo where they completed their conversions on F-51D Mustangs supplied by the United States Air Force (USAF). SAAF 2 Squadron served as one of the four squadrons under the command of the USAF 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing and flew their first mission in Korea on 19 November 1950 from K-9 and K-24, Pyong Yang.

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F-51 Mustangs from No. 2 Squadron, South African Air Force (SAAF) conducting run-ups in Korea in 1951. Photo courtesy Mike Pretorius

The SAAF flew with the distinctive Springbok in the centre of the roundel, introduced when 2 Squadron, was sent to Korea. Their role was interdiction against the enemy’s logistic and communication lines, providing protective cover for rescue operations, reconnaissance flights and interception of enemy aircraft.

saaf2sqcheetchjktptchkwobv_540x544However, the main the SAAF mustangs took part in ‘close air support’ operations in support of ground troops, often sarcastically referred to them as “mud moving” missions, they were highly dangerous as the aircraft has to get right into the battle at very low altitude and speed.  It was a ‘baptism of fire’ for the SAAF.

Before moving onto jet propelled Sabre aircraft, the propeller driven Mustang phase of the war saw SAAF pilots on these sorties coming in ‘low and slow’ into the range of enemy ground based anti-aircraft fire which proved highly dangerous and in operations of this kind using the Mustangs, the SAAF lost 74 of its 95 aircraft – nearly the entire squadron’s allocation.

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SAAF Mustangs in Korea – the different colour spinners denoted formation rank

Epitomising the attitude of the SAAF pilots at this time was Lofty Lance who maintained that for all the Mustang’s downsides on the upside it was an excellent aircraft to have a crash in.  He would know, during the war he wrote off, not one, but three Mustangs.

Fellow pilot Al Rae recalled Lofty Lance returning his Mustang to base after it was shot up during a sortie.  When Lofty selected ‘undercarriage down’ only one wheel, the one on the starboard wing, locked into place.  Landing on one wheel he kept the aircraft level as long as possible bleeding off as much speed as possible before the wing dropped, and the aircraft went into the much-expected ground-loop.  As the fire engine arrived to pull the pilot out, foam down the aircraft and as the dust settled, the firefighters were surprised to find Lofty as a spectator standing with them.  He had long since exited the aircraft whilst it was moving and jumped clear.

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Lofty Lance’s SAAF Mustang after one his crash landings during the Korean War

On another one-wheel landing, Lofty Lance’s mustang spun off the runway and ripped through a nearby armoury (which luckily did not explode), tearing off both wings and the rear fuselage.  Continuing to slide on for some time was the armoured cocoon containing the cockpit and Loft, once it finally came to a rest and he climbed out completely unscathed.

2nd Lieutenant E.M ‘Lofty’ Lance, for his actions in Korea became the 23rd South African to earn the American DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) in Korea (out of a total of 55 South African pilots to receive it) and the American Air Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters – a brave man indeed.

RCAF, RAF and RAAF

At the end of the Korean War on 27th July 1953, Lofty Lance decided to advance his career in his ‘second’ Air Force – The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).  Wanting to be a fighter pilot he had to start at the beginning and initially landed up flying RCAF Canadair CP-107 Argus (CL-28) maritime reconnaissance aircraft. After a few years of flying the Argus his aspiration to become a fighter pilot led him to become RCAF instructor as a next step.  His wanderlust overcame him and he then joined his ‘third’ Air Force – the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1962.

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RCAF Canadair CP-107 Argus (CL-28)

As with the Royal Canadian Air Force, when arriving the United Kingdom and joining the RAF Lofty had to advance his career using the same routine, flying instructor first, and he landed up as a flight instructor at RAF Leeming flying RAF Jet Provost trainers.  His attitude however remained that of a combat pilot and he was often heard to say, “sod the briefing, let’s fly”.

He eventually got a break to become a fighter pilot in the RAF and was posted onto the super-sonic and extremely quick RAF EE Lightings (capable of Mach 2) on which he did two very successful tours. Along the way he married Margaret and had three children.  Margaret was an Australian and Lofty and his family took the decision to move to Australia.

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A Royal Air Force English Electric Lightning circa 1962

In Australia he joined his ‘fourth’ and final Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and starting from the bottom again on his quest for a fighter pilot role he found himself instructing and flying RAAF helicopters.  So how did our hero Lofty find himself in the Vietnam War?

Vietnam War and Australia

Here’s a little-known fact – the Australian Armed Forces also took part in the Vietnam War!  Yup, alongside the Americans – which given all the iconography and cultural conditioning surrounding the Vietnam War would come as a complete surprise to many South Africans.

Here’s a little background on how Australian armed forces personnel found themselves fighting in mud, guts and blood which was to epitomise the Vietnam War and all its political and military misgivings.

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Members of 5 Platoon, B Company, 7th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (7RAR), near  Dat Do awaiting extraction from United States Army ‘Huey’ helicopters

The Vietnam War for the Vietnamese has two really distinctive phases – the ‘French’ phase and the ‘American’ phase. Prior to World War 2 (WW2) Vietnam (North and South) was a French Colony. During WW2 Japanese Imperial Forces occupied Vietnam. After WW2, the French moved to re-take control of their old Colony – at the displeasure of the Vietnamese people who were expecting and had in fact declared independence.  Independence had been driven by communist guerrillas (ironically supported by the American OSS – the precursor to the CIA) who had initially been in the fight against Imperial Japan led by Ho Chi Min.

As the Indo-Chinese subcontinent was reshaping itself post WW2 in the early 1950’s Vietnam found itself in a similar position to Korea on the chess board which was to become the ‘Cold War’ – with a Communist insurgency starting in the North supported by ‘International Communism’ – in both cases the USSR and Communist China.

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French troops in their Vietnam War show the kind of deja vu of what would eventually await American troops

America found itself embroiled in the Korean War alongside a United Nations (UN) coalition (involving Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and even countries like Belgium, Netherlands, Greece and South Africa).  ‘Peace’ (actually a cease-fire) was attained when the country found itself literally split in half with a DMZ (de-militarised zone) along a latitude – in this case the 38th Parallel.  Communists – North, ‘Democrats’ – South.

Independently of a coalition and more or less at the same time France found itself embroiled in a war in Vietnam with Ho Chi Min’s northern based communist ‘Viet Minh’ army to take back control of all of Vietnam.  After slogging it out in the mud, jungles and rain for 7 long years with fierce fighting and atrocities been committed by both sides the French Armed Forces dug in for an all-out toe to toe at Dien Bein Phu in the Vietnamese highlands.

The battle of Dien Bein Phu ended o7 May 1954 as a North Vietnamese victory – it was a shattering defeat for the French and forced the implementation of Geneva Accords in 1954 to split Vietnam in half with a DMZ (de-militarised zone) along a latitude – in this case the 17th Parallel.  Communists – North, ‘Democrats’ – South.

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General Navarre, General Cogny and General Gilles inspect troops and defences near Diên Biên Phu prior to their embarrassing defeat in May 1954

The French promptly left Vietnam and America found itself in a dilemma, simply put they felt obligated to support the newly formed ‘South Vietnamese Republic’ so as to prevent another ‘Korea’ and defeat of the Indo-Chinese sub-continent to International Communism.

As the inevitable war in the South Vietnam escalated again, America found itself gradually drawn into the war with a slow ‘mission creep’. Wanting another Korean War styled coalition and not wanting to be seen as going it alone, the Johnson administration pressured other countries to join the USA in the Vietnam War (much as President George W Bush would later form a “coalition of the willing to fight the Iraq War).

Initially they turned to their NATO allies and (no real surprise) they found that France had no interest in joining them, for the French the Vietnam war had become known as ‘la sale guerre’ (the dirty war) and domestic support had all but evaporated. Also, the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and USA proved a non-starter and the British withdrew any official support for a war in Vietnam.  They also found no appetite for a coalition in the UN.

However, they were able to cobble together a weak coalition of sorts comprising the ‘South Vietnam Republic’ (no surprise there either), South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and the Philippines.

It was no small sacrifice in terms of actual boots on the ground for this coalition with the USA – in the end South Korea proved the American’s main supporter in Vietnam, providing over 300,000 troops and suffering some 5,000 deaths. Almost 60,000 Australian military personnel eventually served in Vietnam, 521 of whom died, about 3000 New Zealanders served, 37 of whom died.

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A squad leader of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) Tiger Division keeps in contact with his men during an operation in the Vietnamese Central Highlands

Not many people know about the sacrifice of countries like New Zealand, South Korea and Australia in the Vietnam War and they should. The same iconography of war and cultural upheaval that took place in the United States surrounding their involvement in the war also took place in Australia and New Zealand, and, like Americans, many Australians to this day struggle to reconcile with the Vietnam War and the values which underpinned it.

No. 9 Squadron RAAF

Australia did not hold back or diminish its support for the USA in the Vietnam War either, it went in all out and sent personnel to Vietnam from literally every arm of service, along with everything from bombers to tanks to artillery – and especially helicopters. As a ‘helicopter’ war the Royal Australian Air Force helicopter (RAAF) squadrons and their pilots were all in supporting both American and Australian ground force operations.  By this time Flight Lieutenant ‘Lofty Lance’ was serving as a pilot with No. 9 Squadron RAAF – a helicopter squadron.

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Flight Lieutenant (Lofty) Everitt Murray Lance as part of 9 Squadron RAAF standing next to his Bushranger Huey in Vietnam

9 Squadron RAAF started their involvement in Vietnam on the 6th June 1966 sending eight Iroquois helicopters Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), landing at the Vung Tau airbase, Vietnam. The Bell UH-1B Iroquois or “Huey” is almost synonymous with the Vietnam War and for the next five and a half years 9 Squadron’s Hueys supported the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF).

The squadron carried out a number of different types of missions: inserting and extracting Special Air Service patrols, evacuating wounded troops, spraying herbicides and pesticides (now very controversial), dropping leaflets, and flying “olfactory reconnaissance” or “people sniffer” missions (a sophisticated ‘smell’ detector was fitted to the helicopters). The squadron supported every major operation conducted by the Australians, eventually flying 237,424 missions.

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Soldiers from the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment unloading supplies from a No. 9 Squadron RAAF helicopter during the Vietnam War in 1967

In 1968 the squadron’s size was increased to 16 ‘Huey’ helicopters. Four of the squadron’s Iroquois were subsequently modified into gunships, which carried twin-fixed forward-firing 7.62-millimetre mini-guns and two seven-tube 2.75 inch rocket launchers, in addition to the two door-mounted M60 machine-guns. Known as a ‘Bushranger’ gunship it was able to cover troop-carrying helicopters approaching ‘hot’ landing zones and provide fire support.

Rather painfully, as just a few months prior to 9 Squadron’s last mission in Vietnam on the 19th November 1971, Flight Lieutenant ‘Lofty’ Lance would lose his life – 7th June 1971.

‘Lofty’ Lance’s final flight

9 SQN Vietnam PatchNow aged 40 years old, Lofty was back in the thick of things flying close support missions again in his RAAF Bushranger Huey. On the 7th June 1971 whilst flying RAAF Iroquois Bushranger’ number A2-723, Lofty Lance was providing gunship, ammunition resupply and casualty evacuation support for Bravo Company of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and Centurion tanks of the 1st Armoured Regiment, who were involved in an attack on a Vietnamese enemy bunker system in Long Khanh province as part of Operation Overlord.

During an ammunition resupply, Lofty Lance’s helicopter was hit by enemy fire and crashed into trees killing both him and his gunner, David John Dubber.  Lofty’s co-pilot and one other crew member survived with minor injuries.  An initial Casevac was attempted but had to be aborted due to intense enemy fire.

Under continuous fire from Bushrangers and US Army Gunships, Bravo Company was resupplied with ammunition and the aircrew casualties were eventually evacuated.

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Sappers from 2 Field Troop, 1 Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers (RAE), inspect the wreckage of the Bell UH-1 Bushranger flown by Flight Lieutenant Everitt Murray Lance The sappers later used C4 explosive to destroy the wreckage to prevent any part of it from falling into enemy hands.

As was the case in many instances experienced during the Vietnam War, the Australians won the day clearing the enemy bunkers and were eventually able to review the crash site and take photos of it, only to have to leave it eventually for the Communists to re-take it – and more so by the early 70’s, the withdrawal of American and Australian troops and support from Vietnam would see Saigon (the South Vietnamese capital) eventually fall on the 30thApril 1975 to the Communist backed statutory North Vietnam forces and guerrilla South Vietnamese ‘Viet Cong’ forces.

Final Rest and legacy

37435488_1478466253The mortal remains of Flight Lieutenant ‘Lofty’ Everitt Murray Lance were sent back to Australia and he was buried with ‘Full Air Force honours’ a week after his death on the 16th June 1971 in the Woden Cemetery, Canberra, Australia.

But what of his legacy?

1970 was a watershed year politically speaking, both in the USA and in Australia, the year saw their respective domestic anti-war movements peak, and it was not a minority of ‘Liberal’ snowflakes, the peak saw significant parts of the voter base from all parts of society stand up against their governments. ‘The Peace Moratorium’ campaign in Australia drew over 200,000 Australians protested across the country and approximately 100,000 citizens participated in epicentre march in Melbourne.  In the USA – over 2 million American civilians joined their ‘Peace Moratorium’ marches.  The writing was on the wall and by August 1971, the Australian Prime Minister, William McMahon, officially announced he would lead a campaign to withdraw all troops from Vietnam.

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Vietnam War Peace Moratorium march in Melbourne, Australia 1970

In Australia, like America, retuning Vietnam War veterans found themselves disillusioned with their country’s commitment to send them to try and win an unwinnable war. In Australia in particular Vietnam War veterans in some instances were even shunned and excluded in their local RSL branches by the old WW2 veterans as not having fought a ‘real war’. The political landscape at home had been changed considerably by the war and continued to change over many years, sadly all this left many Vietnam War veterans and their legacy behind.

The brutality of the war and the deep social divisions created by it left many with very deep psychological wounds and many refused to talk about – and not just the ‘Free West’ veterans from France, America and Australia, many of the Vietnamese veterans, North and South also found themselves in the same boat – it was all just too painful, better to just forget.

As in America, Australia – under its ANZAC values – has in recent times been able to reconcile with its Vietnam War past, especially in understanding the long-term mental effects of the war on its veterans and reinstalling honour to both the veterans and the military personnel who sacrificed their lives when their country called them to duty.

Lofty Lance now occupies a special place of honour on the Australian honour roll, remembered annually on ANZAC day.  He is not really remembered on honour rolls in South Africa, he does however occupy a special place on the S.A.T.S General Botha remembrance roll (the South African Training Ship’s base that he initially cut his military career on) and a plaque has been dedicated to him by the ‘Botha Boys’ in recognition of his sacrifice along with that of Albert Frisby a fellow pilot killed in Korea. The plaque was dedicated in an official ceremony to the S.A.T.S General Botha cenotaph and full respect to the Botha Boys for doing the excellent work that they do.

However, nationally he is not really acknowleged as a son of our land lost in one the most tumultuous wars experienced after WW2, in fact it’s very likely that this article will be an eye-opener for many South Africans.

South Africa is a different matter, South Africans in trying to bury their past have simply buried this kind of history with it, and many would struggle to understand why it was necessary to fight Communists and their drive for liberation of their people from ‘Imperialism’ and ‘Colonialism’ after all, in their minds at least, Communist trained and backed guerrillas freed them from Apartheid. It’s a simple and highly misaligned logic – the fact that the advent and advance of Communism as an ideology proved both dangerous and deadly to millions of people around the planet is conveniently ignored.

Conclusion

South African military veterans and wars fought prior to 1994 need to be viewed in their historical context, and this includes Lofty Lance.  The ‘Cold War’ was a very real one and the jousting between Communism and ‘The Free West’ was a highly deadly one. As the dominoes fell to Communist backed insurgencies in 1966 on the Indo-China sub-continent, so too did dominos fall on the African sub-continent.  The same call to arms which brought American and Australian young men into conflict against Communism was used in South Africa to call men to arms, and many did – not to fight ‘for Apartheid’ but to fight against ‘Communism’.  Yes, it’s all rather ‘grey’ now and the values which drove these men to fight are not clear to many as history has also shown that this call to action was also overplayed by governments trying to attain futile political goals in a sea of social dissonance and domestic resistance to their policies.

The Vietnam War would ultimately prove a pivot in the history of ‘western democracy’ – it literally forced the USA to re-embrace the values of ‘freedom’ on which its founders shaped the American nation, changed American culture at its very core and steered the country into its modern identity – from its music to its civil rights.

What is also clear is that serving personnel in the military serve their country against any adversary and the honour to do this is theirs. Men like Lofty Lance made a career of the military, and like many in this career he moved around within his country’s Allies respective armed forces to advance it. Remember that when Lofty served in the SAAF, South Africa was a ‘Union’ and a ‘Dominion’ – Canada, the UK and Australia were all military Allies with South Africa as they were also part of the Commonwealth and all of them took part as partners in WW2 fighting the onset of Fascism and subsequently in the Korean War fighting the onset of International Communism – literally fighting side by side.  Given shortages and secondments it was not at all unusual to find South African airmen in Allied Air Forces.

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Commonwealth aircraft identification roundels for each air force in Lofty Lance served (L-R) SAAF, RCAF, RAF, RAAF

In doing so, the ‘Allies’ and the ‘Commonwealth’ military coalitions would eventually reshape European democracy and turn the efforts of ‘International Communism’ around. They forged the modern democracies we now find ourselves in with all the modern liberties we now enjoy.

Lance’s service was one of honour and one so dangerous that few men are drawn to it. It is with the same honour that we should remember one very brave South African – Flight Lieutenant (Lofty) Everitt Murray Lance, may you Rest in Peace, your duty done.


Written and researched by Peter Dickens

Further reading

To read more about other South Africans who served in the Vietnam War, please follow this link: Remembering a South African killed in the Vietnam War

References

Fifty Years of Flying Fun: From the Hunter to the Spitfire and back again by Rod Dean chapter titled Lofty Lance.

Which Countries Were Involved in the Vietnam War? By Jesse Greenspan

South Africa’s Flying Cheetahs in Korea (South Africans at War) by Dermot Moore and Peter Bagshaw

The Australian War Memorial on-line

A South African, Mordor and a Hobbit

Let’s establish two things up-front about J.R.R. Tolkien the creator of ‘The Hobbit’ and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, firstly he was a South African and secondly, he was a soldier.  His formative years and war experience are the backdrop to the creative mind that produced the legendary sentence “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” a mind that unleashed the worlds of Middle Earth, Mordor, Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee, Gandalf the Grey, Dragons, Mining Dwarves and not forgetting our ‘precious’ Gollum on us.

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A ‘South African’

It’s seldom acknowledged, even in the country of his birth, that Tolkien was born in South Africa (technically however, he was born in the Orange Free State Republic).  Tolkien was born John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien in Bloemfontein on the 3 January 1892. His father, Arthur Reuel Tolkien was a bank manager, his parents left England when Arthur was promoted to head the Bloemfontein office of a British bank called The Bank of Africa which involved itself primarily in financing diamond and gold mining.

The reason for the move to the ‘colonies’ with The Bank of Africa was that it enabled Arthur to marry Mabel Suffield and support a family.  So, before he was born, J.R.R Tolkein’s Mum and Dad were married in the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr in Cape Town in the Cape Colony on 16 April 1891 and then moved on to the Orange Free State Republic.

The couple eventually reached the capital of the Free State – Bloemfontein, after a 32-hour train journey, Mabel was not impressed by the place. “Owlin Wilderness!… Horrid Waste!” she wrote of Bloemfontein.  The independent Boer Republic capital at the time had a population of 3500, it was windy, dusty and treeless – however on the up-side the nearby veld still contained abundant game.

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A picture of Church Street (currently known as Oliver Tambo Road) Bloemfontein, circa 1900

John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien was born at Bank House in Bloemfontein, he was later baptised in the Anglican Cathedral of St Andrew and St Michael, one of the oldest churches in Bloemfontein. His third name ‘Reuel’ sounded so unusual that the vicar misspelt it in the baptismal register.  One of his godparents was George Edward Jelf, the Assistant Master at Bloemfontein’s now legendary boys school – St Andrew’s College.

Tolkien had one sibling, his younger brother, Hilary Arthur Reuel Tolkien, who was also born in Bloemfontein on 17 February 1894.

Generally, the harsh African climate did not sit well with Mabel and the scorching Bloemfontein summer followed by freezing winter did not appeal to her at all.  She took the boys on a short holiday to the seaside in the Cape Colony in 1894 – a holiday which Tolkien himself remembered vividly and had very strong impressions of the landscape.

Shortly afterward the sea-side trip Mabel took the boys on another holiday to England.  Tolkien’s father was heavily engaged in work and was to join the family in England for the holiday later.  The separation had a huge influence and Tolkien would later recall powerful separation anxiety; he recalled his father painting ‘A.R. Tolkien’ on their cabin trunk. Tolkien retained the trunk as a treasured in memory of his father.

They waited for their father to join them in Birmingham, but he never arrived.  He had developed Rheumatic Fever in Bloemfontein and died from complications brought on by the illness.  He was buried near the old Cathedral in Bloemfontein in what is now the President Brand Cemetery.  For many years his grave was lost and was unmarked until in 1992 the Tolkien family was able to trace the grave and consecrate a new headstone.

With little to come back to Mabel decided not to return to South Africa and the young family settled in the hamlet of Sarehole near Birmingham

An African Influence

1892-christmas-card-with-a-coloured-photo-of-the-tolkien-family-in-bloemfontein-sent-to-relatives-in-birmingham-england-492x640So how could South Africa possibly have influenced the wonderful mind of such a young J.R.R Tolkien having only spent 3 years there?  People who study Tolkien (yup, there is a fraternity of Tolkienists who dedicate study to him and his books), point to a number of interesting instances which happened to him in South Africa which influenced his formative mind.

Firstly, he was kidnapped. Now that’s not common knowledge. An African male domestic helper in the Tolkien family employ named Isaak kidnapped baby Tolkien for a day to show him off to nearby villagers, Isaak had a great affinity to Tolkien and was immensely proud of the young lad – the family forgave him and funnily Isaak went on to name his first son Isaak Mister Tolkien Victor.

Secondly, he was bitten by a poisonous spider.  Some sources point to a baboon spider and others point to a tarantula as the culprit who bit him on the foot when he was a toddler learning to walk, either way, very luckily, a quick-witted family nurse sucked the poison out.

Tolkien himself later said he had no real fear of spiders, however Tolkienist researchers claimed that this experience prompted Tolkien’s evil spirits in the form of huge venomous arachnids. In the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we read of battles with the horrifying giant Spiders, Shelob and Ungoliant. When asked to comment on this theory, Tokien himself didn’t confirm or deny it, saying only that the researchers were “welcome to the notion”.

Thirdly, and this is the most significant influence South Africa made on Tolkien is his future love of languages – a love which led him to imagine entirely new invented languages – there is hardly a hard core Hobbit fan out there who is not swept away with the Elvin language.  Of this influence there is no denial and the language which did it – Afrikaans.  Yup, believe it.

Tolkien’s father learned to speak a little ‘Dutch’ in his local dealings and Mabel interacted with local Bloemfontein residents – English and Afrikaners alike.  She even performed in amateur plays staged by the Fischers and the Fichardts, two of the most prominent Free State families.

In one of the earliest photographs of J.R.R. Tolkien he can be seen with in the arms of his Afrikaner nurse.  He was also surrounded by servants all of whom spoke Afrikaans. His nurse taught him some of her language and phases and Tolkien would later say of himself – “My cradle-tongue was English with a dashing of Afrikaans”.

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Photograph of the Tolkien family in Bloemfontein, November, 1892 with J.R.R in the hands of his nurse

Tolkien would develop his love for new languages and later studied Latin and Greek. He went on to get his first-class degree at Exeter College, specialising in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic languages and classic literature.

82815858_2600604280168554_2750227388246786048_oIn The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, he invented an entirely new language for his elves, Quenya – also known as Qenya or High-Elven, with its grammar rooted in Germanic languages, Greek and Latin. Tolkien compiled the “Qenya Lexicon”, his first list of Elvish words, in 1915 at the age of 23, and continued to refine the language throughout his life.

Ah, but he was just ‘too young’ for South Africa to have any influence whatsoever would be the chorus of the sceptical readers of this article, he was only 3 years old when he left – not so, we are dealing with a brilliant mind and consider this, by the time he was 4 years old Tolkien could read and he could write fluently very soon afterwards.

Back in England tragedy was to strike the Tolkin boys again, when their mother Mabel also died in 1904, and the Tolkien brothers were sent to live with a relative and in boarding homes, with a Catholic priest assuming guardianship in Birmingham.

Tolkien had a highly imaginative upbringing in England and by October 1911 he began studying at Exeter Collage at Oxford University.  He initially started with classics but switched to Languages and Literature, graduating in 1915 with first-class honours.

World War 1

tolkien-as-a-second-lieutenant-in-the-lancashire-fusiliers-in-1916-aged-24Being a soldier is one of Tolkien’s biggest influences and of that there is little doubt, war awoke in Tolkien a taste for a fairy story which reflected the extremes of light and darkness, good and evil which he saw around him, especially when you consider the battles he took part in and witnessed.

World War 1 broke out whilst Tolkien was at university.  He elected not to join until he finished his degree.  Upon graduating Tolkien immediately found himself in the British Army in July 1915, volunteering to join up.  Aged 22 ,he joined the 11th Lancashire Fusilliers and studied signalling, emerging as a 2nd Lieutenant, he married whilst in the Army in March 1916 and in short time, by June was ordered to go to France to take part in the Battle of the Somme, at the time he said of the order “It was like a death,”

The Battle of Somme in 1916 was singularly the biggest bloodletting of World War 1 as one million men (get your head around that) on both sides were either killed or wounded as the British advanced a front along the Somme river for only 7 miles.  The Battle of the Somme is no doubt the background to Tolkien’s future Middle Earth – Mordor (the Black Land and Quenya Land of Shadow) and the realm and base of the arch-villain Sauron.

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Battle of Albert. Roll call of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers in a communications trench. IWM image copyright

Fortunately for Tolkien he was spared from the first Somme assault (unlike many of his university educated officer class friends and colleagues who were mowed down), the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers were held in Reserve.  When sent ‘over the top’ the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers helped capture the German stronghold at Ovillers two weeks later.

Tolkien was appointed the battalion signalling officer and spent the next three months in and out of trenches.  The biggest inspiration for Tolkien’s future The Lord of Rings lies in his respect for the ordinary British infantryman under such intense adversary, these infantrymen would later be the bedrock for Tolkien’s loyal, brave and resilient hobbit – Samwise Gamgee.

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Wiring party of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers going up to the trenches. Beaumont Hamel, July 1916. IWM copyright

In late October, after seizing a key German trench, the Fusiliers were sent on to Ypres. But Tolkien was ‘lucky’ to be spared the slaughter in Belgium, a tiny louse bite gave him trench fever, so he landed up in a Birmingham hospital and here he started writing about mechanistic dragons, inspired by the invention of the military tank in warfare and formulating Mordor in his mind instead.

Tolkien spent the rest of the war in and out of hospital and training troops in Staffordshire and Yorkshire. Here in 1917, whilst walking in the woods with his wife he was inspired to write the love story of the fugitive warrior Beren and the elven-fair Lúthien.

In all Tolkien summed up war in the trenches as “animal horror” and he was not far wrong.

More South African twists and turns

After the war ended in November 1918 the lure of South Africa endured and Tolkien in 1920 applied for a professorship of English Literature at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and was to be sponsored by De Beers Mining consortium,  His application was approved, but, in the end, he had to decline the offer for family reasons and retained his post as reader at the University of Leeds and was later appointed professor at Oxford.

Tolkien settled in to write the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Trilogy, however war (and South Africa) was never to really leave him.  When World War 2 came about, his youngest son Christopher joined the Royal Air Force and, in 1944 he was dispatched to South Africa to train in Kroonstad (also in the Orange Free State) to train as a fighter pilot and he was later moved to Standerton.

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Christopher Tolkien (marked with X) training in South Africa 1944

J.R.R. Tolkien resumed his work on The Lord of the Rings and sent chapters from the future book to his son in South Africa, in a letter he told Christopher that he wished he could travel to South Africa – the country of his birth. He wrote of his curiosity in Africa and wrote to Christopher of the “curious sense of reminiscence about any stories of Africa, which always moves me deeply. Strange that you, my dearest, should have gone back there…’

To say that Christopher or his experiences did not have any influence on The Lord of the Rings, consider that after the war in 1950 he become a freelance tutor completing a B.Litt and worked very closely with his father through the creation of The Lord of the Rings and later works, and he was given the task of creating the original maps for the first edition of The Lord of the Rings.

The truth is, South Africa never really left J.R.R. Tolkien, he was native to it, intrinsically linked to his land of birth, ever wanting to return to it and it continued to have a deep influence on him all his life.

Legacy in South Africa

So where are we with remembering one of South Africa’s most successful authors of all time?  The reading is grim I’m afraid.  Apart from the generally Hobbit crazy Hogsback village and nature park in the Eastern Cape there is little else.  Hogsback has used the Tolkien/South Africa link to an insane level naming just about everything in the nature park after something to do with The Lord of the Rings, but it’s an indirect link – there is no evidence that Tolkien never visited Hogsback.  The biggest disappointment however is Bloemfontein where there is a direct link – he is after all one of their most famous ‘sons’ – and a very big tourist opportunity for the city.

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Hogsback – Tolkien’s Middle Earth in the Amathole Mountains?

However, in Bloemfontein the Tolkien Society is now defunct, the municipality on Tolkien’s birth centenary mooted a Tolkien walk (to see places he grew up in etc) but that never really materialised.  There is a plaque at the Church in which he was baptised, but that’s about it.  Travel guides list Tolkien’s father’s grave as ‘too dangerous’ to visit.  The brass plaque on commemorating his birthplace was stolen and never replaced.

In Conclusion

This general apathy to Tolkien in South Africa is best summed up UK journalists from the Mail and Guardian who made their way to Bloemfontein when Peter Jackson launched his epic movie trilogy of Lord of the Rings – they expected to get a scoop on South Africans embracing what is arguably one of their most famous authors, if not the most famous.  Instead they were surprised to learn that the average modern South Africa did not know Tolkien was South African born and here is the key part – when interviewed they felt that The Lord of the Rings was ‘European’ mythology and had nothing to do with African culture, so they deduce that was simply not a real African.

Therein lies the essence, South African educators today simply dismiss anything with a ‘colonial’ heritage, including what is arguably one of the best-selling authors the entire world has ever seen.  The truth is Tolkien was South African, his biggest influence was that of the World War 1, a war that South Africa also took part in, and in the Battle of the Somme his original ‘countrymen’ – South Africans were defending Deville Wood a little way down the Somme salient shoulder to shoulder with him.

The lack of adoption of a South African of British heritage like Tolkien in his country of birth is a travesty to understanding history correctly, South Africa is made up of many cultural parts and all its history needs to be preserved, not just one or the other.

I for one hope this missive goes a little way to re-education, and as a fellow South African and military veteran I salute you John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References: Tolkien’s War: Mordor Was Born in WW1 by Mark Shiffer, Tolkien Gateway on-line, J.R.R. Tolkien Biography by Biography.com Editors, South African History on-line. A plaque, a Hobbit hotel and a JRR Tolkien trail that’s petered out … David Smith, ‘Africa… always moves me deeply’: Tolkien in Bloemfontein by Boris Gorelik. Bloemfontein: On the trail of Tolkien by David Tabb.

With thanks to Norman Sander for assistance on the edit.

Cassinga talk sold out .. additional night now available – book now for Thursday 25th

Due to the high interest in this subject, my talk on the assault on Cassinga scheduled for Wed 24th is now fully booked, Quentin’s at Oakhurst asked me to include an additional night as a double billing, and I’m very happy to oblige.  So, tickets are now available for an additional dinner talk on the following night – Thursday 25th July 2019.  Book now to avoid disappointment.

I am also privileged and honoured to announce that Colonel Lewis Gerber, OC 3 Para Bn, SO1 Ops at 44 Para Bdeand SSO Airborne at CArmy (Retired) will be joining me for both evenings – 24th and 25th July.  Lewis was an officer on the ground during the assault on Cassinga, closer to the truisms surrounding Cassinga you will not find.

So, do join us for a frank talk on The Battle of Cassinga at Quentin at Oakhurst in Hout Bay on the 25th July. Booking direct with Oakhurst Barn it includes a sit down three course dinner. We really looking forward to exchanging views on this poignant and far-reaching battle.

Veterans of this battle specifically and the Border War in general are most welcome, their story needs to be told.

The details again:

Where? ‘Quentin at Oakhurst Barn Restaurant’, 3 Dorman Way, Oakhurst Farm Park – Hout Bay, South Africa, 7806

When? Thursday 25th July 2019

What Time? 19:00

How much? R 295 pp – includes a three course dinner

Booking e-mail: accounts@oakhurstbarn.com


 

Cassinga! – a talk with Peter Dickens

Join me for a frank talk on The Battle of Cassinga at Quentin at Oakhurst in Hout Bay on the 24th July. Booking direct with Oakhurst Barn it includes a sit down three course dinner. I’m really looking forward to exchanging views on this poignant and far-reaching battle.

Veterans of this battle specifically and the Border War in general are most welcome, their story needs to be told.

The details again:

Where? ‘Quentin at Oakhurst Barn Restaurant’, 3 Dorman Way, Oakhurst Farm Park – Hout Bay, South Africa, 7806

When? Wednesday 24th July 2019

What Time? 19:00

How much? R 295 pp – includes a three course dinner

Booking e-mail: accounts@oakhurstbarn.com


 

I got him! I got him! I got him!

This is a very rare audio clip of a SADF crew in a Ratel ZT3 Infantry Fighting Vehicle converted into a anti-tank role taking out Cuban/FAPLA coalition soviet T55 tanks during the Battle on the Lomba River in Angola – Operation Modular in 1987.

Please excuse a little of the “blue” language but this is a ratel crew at the height of combat, listen out for the sounds of the Ratel’s missiles been fired and finding their targets and for the crew members yelps of jubilation and frustrations, also listen to the Ratel manoeuvre itself in an out of danger as it takes up firing positions – and the co-ordination and teamwork of crew members to do so. Also listen out for the intense sounds of explosions in and around the Ratel as they engage the FAPLA/Cuban tanks (click play on the link below).

This is combat at its fiercest in what was arguably one of the most decisive mechanised battles fought on African soil since the Second World War and one which turned the fortunes of the “Cold War” coalition of Cuban and Soviet interests in Southern Africa for the worse.

These men – fighting in inferiorly armoured Infantry fighting vehicles against heavily armoured tanks knew that victory would boil down to strategy, innovation, decisiveness, leadership, teamwork, discipline and training – and not superior equipment or numbers, all of this becomes very apparent in this audio clip.

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Burning FAPLA armour as seen from the South African position on the Lomba

The backdrop to this battle was the Cuban/FAPLA advance on Mavinga – a UNITA stronghold, in what was to become a manoeuvre called the ‘Battle of the Lomba’ the SADF 61 Mechanised Battalion Group, supported by other formations and SAAF fighter aircraft literally destroyed the entire FAPLA/Cuban 47 Armoured Brigade and stopped the advance in its tracks.

SADF_61_Mech_flash_badgeThe Operation was Modular, the battle ground was the Lomba River in Angola and Commandant Kobus Smit was the Operational Commander in charge of the SADF’s 61 Mechanised Battle Group. Three combat groups – Alpha under the Command of Cmdt Kobus Smit himself, Bravo under the command of Cmdt Robbie Hartslief, Charlie, under command of Maj Dawid Lotter. All supported by 20 Artillery Regiment (Cmdt Jan van der Westhuizen) – Papa battery from 32 Battalion, Quebec battery from 4 SAI and Sierra battery from 61 Mech Battalion Group.

Fapla crosses the Lomba River

On the 9 September 1987, Fapla’s 21 Brigade began to cross the Lomba River about twelve kilometres east of its confluence with the Cunzumbia.  They were engaged by the South African mechanised armour of Combat Group Bravo with 101 Battalion of the South West African territorial force, destroying a FALPA BTR-60, but they were forced back by a FAPLA artillery counter-attack.

A detached unit of Combat Group Bravo returned on 10 September to the fording site on the Lomba River and again attacked elements of 21 Brigade, but the Angolans’ counter-attacked sending in three tanks. The SADF Ratel-90 Infantry Fighting Vehicles failed to stop the tanks’ advance, so the South Africans brought in their new Ratel ZT3s into the battle.

The ZT3 and it’s launch system was developed under the codename ‘Project Raleigh’ in the 1980s as a “long-range indigenous antitank guided missile”. Essentially a highly manoeuvrable Ratel (honey badger) IFV with anti-tank capabilities, these were untested pre-production models which mounted a triple launcher on top of the Ratel IFV – at the time they were considered state of the art in anti-tank warfare, and their first combat engagement delivered battlefield success to a staggering effect.

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Concealed ZT3 during Ops Modular

The ZT3’s firing seven missiles in total at 21 Brigades armour with four successful strikes on the tanks. Soviet built MiG aircraft then arrived over the battle site and forced the South African units to withdraw but, it was game over for the Cuban/Fapla coalition – they had stopped 21 Brigade’s advances, it would be downhill for the Cubans and Angolans from that point out.

Major Hannes Nortman and 12A

SADF_32_Battalion_SSIMajor Hannes Nortman from 32 Battalion arrived on the battle scene at the Lomba on the morning of 10 September, the ZT3 Ratel, code 1-2, one of 32 Battalion’s ZT3’s had taken up position under the initial command of Lt Ian Robertson,  Lt Robertson was injured when he jumping out of the ratel to give fire guidance to the 90mm Ratel next to his ZT3 Ratel. Unfortunately, he landed at the same spot as one of the incoming mortars and took a large piece of shrapnel in his head. The crew of the ZT3 were busy with the casevac of their injured commander, when three T55 Soviet made, heavily armoured enemy tanks rolled up.  Major Hannes Nortman came running up, taking charge of the ZT3 Ratel 1-2 and the attack.

The newly developed Ratel ZT3 had a ‘black box’ which recorded crew actions when the missile system was selected – and this stunning bit of history of South African servicemen in action was forever recorded.

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Ratel combat during the Battle of the Lomba

The SADF’s ZT3”s were positioned in a tree-line just short of the Lomba River’s adjacent ‘shona’. The first two missiles fired by 1-2 where fired by a young and very over excited gunner, Darryn Richard Nelson – whose commentary is heard throughout the recording.  The first missiles pulled up vertically at around 200 meters. The third did not fire.

The gunner now fired his fourth missile which hit the lead tank in its tracks, stopping it dead. A fifth missile finally destroyed Tank 1 and the gunner his jubilant “I got him! I got him! I got him! Now very excited the young gunner focussed on the second tank, which was retreating back towards the river, his first shot at tank 2 missed as the missile hit the ground just in front of the tank.

Here’s where Major Nortman demonstrated years of senior military experience in combat, he quickly brought the excitement into focus in a time-honoured way – by giving the young gunner a sharp crack to the back of his head. This calmed him down and the sixth missile hit the tank on the rear plate blowing the turret about 25 meters away. Maj Nortman ordered the ZT3 to withdraw and reload, he then maneuverer into a new firing position to fire at the last tank which was still advancing. the Ratel hit tank 3 with two missiles.

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The destroyed Soviet FAPLA T55 Tanks – from left to right Tank 1, Tank 2 and Tank 3

With that the crew of 1-2 march into history, a South African ‘light’ armoured fighting vehicle made by Sandock Austral (now Denel), taking out heavy armour T55 Soviet made ‘heavy’ battle tanks.  The only Ratel IFV to ever achieve his – before or since.

The action of this motley crew of English and Afrikaner, senior and junior, permanent force and conscripts, all in a single Ratel, had now played a decisive role in the outcome of the entire battle to come.

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Major Nortman and the crew, Johan Jacobs, Neels Claasen, Darren Nelson, 32 Battalion September 1989

The Battle heats up

According to Cmdt Smit, “21 Brigade utilized all forces at its disposal and its T54 tanks and D 30 used several tons of ammunition to support its forces in crossing the river initially, and later in the day to cover the withdrawal of its forces to the northern side of the river.”

“21 Brigade was forced to abandon its efforts to cross the river and was in need of re-supply before another attempt could be made to cross the river.”

47 Brigade re-deployed it’s tactical group to attack a nearby UNITA base, this was met by the SADF’s Combat Group Bravo on the 13th September 1987, however the terrain was  crisscrossed with the UNITA bases’ trenches making manoeuvrability difficult Combat Group Bravo and Cmdt Hartslief withdrew his forces for replenishment and repair, Col Ferreira ordered combat group Charlie to move forward and prevent further movement of 47 Brigade’s 1 Tactical Group to the east.

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Missiles been loaded onto a ZT3 during Operation Modular

Major Dawid Lotter moved to the west and hit contact with FAPLA forces the same evening, destroying a number of FAPLA vehicles, contact was broken the next day.

Combat group Alpha was deployed to making contact with 47 Brigade on the 16 September. At the same time Charlie squadron made contact with FAPLA infantry and tanks, even as close as 50 meters.  After a fierce firefight the SADF withdrew to consolidate, leaving UNITA to hold the positions.

47 Brigade was now under threat from two flanks and all The FAPLA brigades were ordered back to consolidate their positions on the northern banks of the Lomba.

47 Brigade was ordered to advance over the Lomba River again and established a bridgehead.  The South African 61 Mechanised Battle Group assembled to attack them again on the 3rd October, this time Charlie Squadron took the lead commanded by Major Philip van Wyk.  Making contact later the same day with 47 Brigade.  A tank battle ensued; the largest tank battle ever fought on southern African soil.

The FAPLA infantry soldiers were observed fleeing the battlefield and to keep momentum 61 Mechanised ordered in the reserve squadrons and combat groups, with fresh forces FAPLA’s resistance finally crumbled and the remaining forces fled the battlefield.  The South African’s had won the day with the loss of only 3 SADF personnel and a further 6 wounded, one Ratel was lost.

47 Brigade destroyed

47 Brigade was decimated with the majority of its equipment either captured or destroyed, amongst which were 18 x T55 and T54 tanks, 22 x BTR60 and 85 trucks. 47 Brigade for all practical purposes had ceased to exist.  The remaining Cuban and FAPLA forces withdrew to their initial positions and The South African objective for Operation Modular – to halt the FAPLA advance and prevent the capture of Mavinga –  was decisively achieved.

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Ratel 1-2, now marked 12A taken after Operation Modular – note the ‘kill’ markings on the turret.

History made

The remarkable efforts of Major Nortman and the crew of ZT3 Ratel 1-2 are now to be seen at the South African Museum of Military History in Johannesburg (later marked 23), the ratel on display is updated composite of various demobilised ratels when upgrades were made, however a part of it comes from Ratel 1-2, therefore the tank ‘kill’ markings were retained on this version and are clearly painted on the side of its missile system.

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Researched by Peter Dickens and published with much thanks to Johannes “Hannes” Noortman and the crew of this Ratel – and to the 61 Mechanised Veterans Fraternity, with special thanks again to Dawid Lotter and Kobus Smit

The last soldier to die in the Border War

There is something deeply disturbing when you read about the ‘last soldier to die’ in a war, it’s a complete sense of futility, a young life that is snuffed out for this or that political conflict. The South African Border War (1966 – 1989) along the now Namibian border with Angola carries with it the same sense of pointlessness when you read about the first soldier lost and the last soldier lost as it was with the 1st World War.

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Pvt Parr (Left) and Pvt Ellison (Right)

During World War 1, the first British soldier to die was Private John Henry Parr on 21st August 1914, Killed in Action near Mons – Belgium.  The last British serviceman to die in  WW1 was Private George Edwin Ellison, killed in action near Mons – Belgium on Armistice Day itself – 11 November 1918.  The irony, both died in a foreign country and they are buried in the same graveyard in Belgium facing one another – a few meters separate them.  The futility, for 4 years millions of more casualties separate them, in the end – all with no tangible military ‘gain’.

One cannot avoid thinking whether this same sense of waste of young life has a parallel in the South Africa’s Border War on the Namibian/Angola border.  The sad truth is that it does.

Lieutenant Freddie Zeelie from 1 Reconnaissance Regiment is regarded as the first SADF combat casualty of The Namibian Border War. Killed in Action on 23 June 1974 while engaged on anti-insurgent operations in Southern Angola. On hitting contact with insurgents he bravely stormed their machine gun position regrettably losing his life in the process. He was only 22 years old.

The last soldier to die in combat in this Border War was Corporal Hermann Carstens, also from 1 Reconnaissance Regiment, Killed in Action on 04 April 1989 during fierce close-quarter fighting with a numerically superior force of heavily armed SWAPO PLAN insurgents near Eenhana. He was only 20 years old.

The irony, Lt Zeelie and Cpl Carstens both died in a foreign country – defending the same stretch of border between the same two countries – South West Africa (Namibia) and Angola, both fighting the same insurgents. The futility, for 15 years separating their respective deaths there would be thousands of casualties. In the end – all with no tangible military ‘gain’.

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Lt Zeelie (Left) and Cpl Carstens (Right)

It’s a sad thought indeed, however their actions and losses are not entirely futile, as with the First World War, the Border War resulted in changed ideologies – changes which were necessary to attain peace, and our modern freedoms as we have them now is because of their sacrifice.

So let’s have a look at the ‘last’ soldier to die during the Namibian Border War’, and I must thank both Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout whose work this is, and who have shared it with us:

The last soldier to die in the Namibian Border War- Corporal Hermann Carstens, 1 Reconnaissance Regiment.

Written by Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout

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Corporal Hermann  Carstens, 1RR, Operators Badge and Wings on his chest

A short background: Introduction to 23 years of war, 1966–1989

South Africa administered the former German colony of German South West Africa since 1920 after the First World War (1914–1918). Initially, South Africa wanted to incorporate the territory as a fifth province of the country. The incorporation into South Africa never materialised, however, and since the 1960s more and more states wanted to declare the then South West Africa (SWA) an independent state, Namibia.

In 1966 the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) started an armed insurgency against the South African administrators through its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). The war would last for 23 years, and eventually it would also escalate into Angola and, for some time, into Zambia.

In essence, the Namibian Border War (also known as the South African Border War) became a cold war by proxy. By the early 1970s, the United Nations (UN) adopted Resolution 435 to lay the foundation for Namibian independence. By 1988 the Cold War drew to a close and the South Africans, Cubans and Angolans were ready to engage in negotiations to withdraw their troops from the SWA/Angolan border. These negotiations opened the way for Namibian independence.

One of the issues agreed upon in the trilateral negotiations was that the South African troops would be reduced to 1 500 men and would be confined to base. SWAPO would withdraw to 150 km north of the border. Resolution 435 made it clear, however, that with its implementation (which would be on 1 April 1989), SWAPO would also remain at their bases. If they therefore had established bases on SWA soil, they would also be confined to these bases. SWAPO saw this as a loophole, and secretly planned a massive invasion for 31 March/1 April 1989. The sole intention was to establish bases in northern SWA.

The South Africans, however, did not trust SWAPO, and even less so the influx of foreign troops of the United Nation’s Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG). This force would supervise the transition period and comprised peacekeepers from several UN states, including Finland, Britain, Australia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Kenya. South Africa continued operating their intelligence sources. The South West African Police (SWAPOL) and its Security Branch were tasked to keep up their system of informers and spies.

To help monitor the situation and assist in gathering information, about 30 men from the South African Special Forces (colloquially known as the Recces) and several South African Military Intelligence operators were placed in SWAPOL. As part of the Recce contingent, several Swahili-speaking operators were also included to monitor the Kenyan soldiers of UNTAG. This military operation was known as Operation Saga. The deployed Special Forces contingent would only use the Police as cover and still send their information directly to the Senior Operational Special Forces Officer in Windhoek.

The man: Hermann Carstens

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Hermann as band major, Hoërskool Voortrekkerhoogte

Hermann Carstens was born on 30 September 1968. He was the son of a South African military officer and went to Laerskool Uniefees (English: Uniefees Primary School), 25 km north of Pretoria. He later attended Voortrekkerhoogte Hoërskool (English: Voortrekkerhoogte High School), which mainly comprised children of military personnel.

 

It was in this environment that the young Carstens soon proved himself as a man destined for a bright military career. Among other, he was the band major of the school’s military band; as an athlete, he excelled in field and track events, and was a very good long jumper.

After completing his school career in 1986, he joined the South African Defence Force (SADF), like all young white men of that age. But he would not remain an ordinary soldier. He had a vision. He was driven. He wanted to be with the best. He volunteered for selection to the elite South African Parachute Battalion and passed the course. But even that was not good enough, and when the Recces visited, he volunteered again.

This time he was among the big fish. Special Forces all over the world usually comprise older soldiers; not 18- or 19-year-olds. But he was one of the exceptions. Hermann passed the selection, continued with the course and passed the course. He was not even 20 years old.

When the teams from the reconnaissance regiments were selected for Operation Saga, it was decided that all of them would first complete an advanced medical course, as this would be their cover: They would be medical personnel. Hermann was too late, however, and did not partake in the medical course. He was later sent to join those who had already been selected for the operation. This was fate – and he would be destined to be behind the exposed guns of a Casspir on 4 April 1989. The other Recce in the ambush that day was inside another Casspir – as the operational medical orderly (“ops medic”).

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Hermann during Recce training

Operation Saga: Corporal Hermann Carstens

Operation Saga, an independent Special Forces operation, was planned as a long-term intelligence-gathering operation in northern SWA. This operation and other combined operations were aimed at painting a real-time intelligence picture of events that were unfolding as UNTAG and the SWAPO exiles started arriving. Their cover was also changed from medical personnel to members of the SWAPOL Security Police, as this would ensure more freedom of movement without raising suspicion.

At the start of February 1989, the operators from the Special Forces contingent arrived in Oshakati after spending a week preparing at the SWAPOL Security Police farm on the outskirts of Windhoek. They used the cover of the Security Police and also received police ranks. Another few days of preparation followed in Oshakati at the Security Police Headquarters before they were deployed. The 4 Reconnaissance (“Recce”) Regiment (4RR) was deployed to the Kavango and Caprivi regions, while the 1 “Recce” Regiment (1RR), supported by some operators and intelligence personnel from 5 “Recce” Regiment (5RR), was deployed in the central and eastern areas. The 1RR and 5RR area of operations stretched from Nkongo in eastern Ovamboland and west to Opuwa in the Kaokoland. The operators were posted at Security Police bases. Constables (Corporals) Pieter du Plessis and Hermann Carstens were deployed to the Security Police base at Okatope in Ovamboland.

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Throughout March, in terms of the agreed-upon UN Resolution 435, UNTAG soldiers arrived in dribs and drabs to become the interim authority on 1 April 1989.

On Friday 31 March 1989, Koevoet (the SWAPOL Counter-Insurgency Unit, or SWAPOL TIN) and SWAPOL Security Police patrols were placed on high alert along the border in anticipation of a possible SWAPO invasion. Earlier, police informers had brought information regarding the execution of a SWAPO invasion plan on 31 March 1989.

On the Saturday morning of 1 April 1989 events took a turn for the worse as heavily-armed SWAPO insurgents began to invade SWA. The police were under pressure as heavy fighting broke out. Koevoet bore the brunt, as all the South African Defence Force (SADF) units had either been disbanded or were confined to base.

For the time, before the army could be mobilised, SWAPOL used everyone at its disposal. Security Police teams also deployed on 1 April 1989. Over the next four days, the bloodiest fighting of the war took place on SWA soil. The SWAPO groups were large, with up to 250 insurgents in a group. As the groups were attacked, they scattered and splintered off into smaller units.

On 4 April 1989 near Eenhana, Call Sign 21C – the Okatope Security Police team of which Pieter and Hermann were members – left their temporary base near the SADF’s Okankolo base just after 08:00 to patrol the area. Because he had not been on the advanced medic course, Hermann was appointed as one of the vehicle commanders, which entailed manning the mounted machine guns. Pieter, in the absence of the team medic who was on leave, acted as the Ops Medic in the other Casspir.

At approximately 11:45 four sets of tracks, about three hours old, were discovered. After following the tracks for a while, they noticed that more SWAPOs had joined, bringing the total number to more than 10.

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Hermann in the Operational Area, Northern Namibia 1988

The Security Police team entered a belt of thick vegetation, followed by grassland and then a mahango field and a kraal. About 3 km south of Eenhana, SWAPO initiated an ambush with AK-74 and RPG7 rocket grenade launchers. At this stage, Hermann’s Casspir was ahead of the rest of the team, busy with voorsny[English: tracking ahead]. Voorsnyis a term used when some of the vehicles drive ahead to see whether they can perhaps pick up the tracks further ahead. When they can identify indeed tracks further ahead, the rest of the team is informed per radio to also come to the newer tracks. This means that a part of the tracking can be avoided, and the insurgents be caught up with quicker.

It was during this voorsny that Hermann’s Casspir entered the ambush. Standing up, he shot back with the twin Three Os Brownings from the machine gun turret at an angle behind the driver. It was possibly just after the start of the ambush that an insurgent fired a projectile at the Casspir with a RPG7 rocket grenade launcher. The projectile entered the Casspir on the left, about 800 mm above the gear box, in line with the firing holes below the front side window of the passenger compartment. The red-hot metal shrapnel caused devastation inside and hit Hermann from behind where he was firing the guns. His back was littered with shrapnel. A large piece of shrapnel hit him in the back of his head, and he died instantly.

The rest of the team fought through the ambush and started to maal[English: to mill]. This is a tactical move used and perfected by Koevoet, and was also used by the SWAPOL Security Teams and 101 Battalion. It entails all the vehicles fighting through the ambush and thereafter driving in different directions through the contact area to confuse the enemy, thus presenting a difficult target and engaging the enemy from every direction. Sometimes it even happened that the insurgents were overrun and killed with the Casspir’s wheels.

Pieter still remembers when his Casspir drove past Hermann’s Casspir; he saw Hermann slumped forward in the machine gun turret. The right rear wheel of Hermann’s Casspir had been shot out and the vehicle came to a standstill. In the ensuing contact 12 SWAPO’s were killed (one perished under a Casspir’s wheels during the maal, while two blew themselves up). More than 20 insurgents were part of the ambush.

About three minutes later when the contact had died down, Pieter made his way over to Hermann, and saw he had a wound behind his ear; all his vital signs indicated that he was dead. Hermann’s body and a wounded yet walking Special Constable Matheus Gabriel was casevaced by helicopter. Gabriel had shrapnel in his throat. A Koevoet team arrived, reported (and by doing so effectively claimed) the deaths and followed the tracks of the remaining SWAPOs who had escaped and later that afternoon killed another seven of them.

The legacy: The last man to die

It took nine days to stop the treacherous SWAPO incursion. When the last shot was fired, more than 300 of the estimated 1 500 insurgents had been killed. Between the SADF, which had since been released from their bases, and the initially under-gunned and under-strength police force, 31 people from the Security Forces died. Lt. Els of the Special Service Battalion was wounded on 3 April. He died of his wounds on 4 April. Several SWAPOL and South African Counter-Insurgency policemen would also be killed in action on 4 April 1989; however, the last soldier to be killed in action was the brave Corporal Hermann Carstens. He was, like most South Africans who had died in that war, a very young 19 or 20 years old. But this young man was destined to be there. As a young man he set high standards, and against all odds became the Recce he wanted to be. Hermann Carstens was a man who pursued his dream, and then started to live it.

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After his death, Hermann’s fellow operators sent his boots, covered in gold, back to his parents.One of the boots is now in Duxford, England, with Renier Jansen, his close friend from high school. The bond between the two young men always remained. The other boot is with Hermann’s father in Pretoria

Hermann was buried with full military honours in April 1989, in the Heroes Acre at the Warmbad Cemetery. The town is now known as Bela-Bela. His bravery will be remembered forever by a special stone on his grave.

On 23 June 1974, Lt. Fred Zeelie became the first South African soldier to die in action in the Namibian Border War. He was from 1RR. On 4 April 1989, Corporal Hermann Carstens of 1RR became the last South African soldier to die in action during the Border War. Between the deaths of Fred Zeelie and Hermann Carstens, 61 more members of the South African Special Forces made the ultimate sacrifice. The contribution of the South African Special Forces in this war, and the cost in lives that they paid, is significantly higher than the average casualties of any other unit.

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Freddie Zeelie (left) and Hermann Carstens (right)

Hermann Carstens will be remembered during the 13thAfriforum Springbok Vasbyt 10 & 25 km Road Race in 2019, and his name will be given a special place among the previously-unknown soldiers honoured by this event.


Published with the kind permission of  Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout

Copyright: Tinus de Klerk & Leon Bezuidenhout
THIS ARTICLE IS NOT FOR COMMERCIAL USE, OR TO BE SOLD IN ANY FORM Renier Jansen reserves the copyright of all photos

Introduction and Edited by Peter Dickens

The silent South Africans in the silent service

Submariners are the true ‘heroes” of the Navy, known as the ‘silent service’ it is the most dangerous service any Navy can offer.  The death of a submarine is a harrowing prospect to those who serve in it – it takes a very special and very brave person to serve in or command a submarine.  Yet in South Africa we don’t really have any real idea of our bravest of the brave in the ‘silent service’ – we’re clueless and it’s because we “don’t know the half of it”.

Typically, in Navy circles, the South African Navy seems to begin regarding its ‘firsts’ from different political epochs and the confusion kicks in because the history of the South African Navy and the British Royal Navy in South Africa are so intrinsically muddled.

I recently came across a day to day in South African history by Chris Bennet, where he lists Lt. A. H. Maccoy DSC, serving on the Royal Navy’s submarine HM Umbra as the first South African to command a submarine.

With much respect to Chris Bennet, he does a cracking job keeping us abreast of our Naval history, but he is only partly correct. Lt. Maccoy DSC is the first member of the South African Naval Forces (formed at the beginning of World War 2) to be seconded to British Forces and command one of their submarines. BUT, and its a big but, he was not the first South African to command a submarine.

In fact, there is a long a rich heritage of South Africans who served on Royal Navy submarines who came before Lt Maccoy, and their service extends all the way back to the First World War.  Not only these early South African naval pioneers, many of whom were sacrificed in the line of duty, there is even a bunch of very decorated and very heroic South Africans in command of British Submarines during World War 2 whose service pre-dates Lt MacCoy’s command.

So, who are all these South African submariners and why don’t we know anything about them in our contemporary account of South African military history?

The answer lies in the correct account of South African Naval history.  After South Africa was formed as country in 1910 it did not have a navy as part of its armed forced. Naval protection and patrolling our shores was left entirely to the British and the Royal Navy. During WW1, all South African volunteers to join the navy found themselves in the Royal Navy from 1914.

It was only by the onset of World War 2 in 1940 that a South African Navy as we know it even started to take shape. Even in 1940, all the South African Navy could offer any South African volunteering to serve in Naval Forces were a handful of fishing trawlers converted to mine laying and mine hunting.  The bulk of volunteers found themselves in the Royal Naval directly as Royal Navy Reservists or found themselves seconded to the Royal Navy as South African Navy personnel.

So lets have a look at the really ‘silent’ history of South African’s in the ‘silent service’ of submarines – and we start with World War 1.

Notable South Africans in submarine service – WW1

The First World War properly developed the submarine as a tool of war, it can even be argued that it is the beginning of the submarine service itself.  It had been used in the American Civil War but it was only by WW1 that it became defined.

Even at this early time of submarine warfare we find some notable South Africans at the forefront of this foreboding weapon of war, here are their stories:

William Tatham

Sub-Lieutenant William Inglis Tatham, Royal Navy, was the Son of Lieutenant-Colonel The Hon. F. S. Tatham, D.S.O., and Ada Susan Tatham, of Parkside, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the Tatham’s being a well-known Natal and South African family.

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William Inglis Tatham

William Tatham was born in Natal and volunteered to join the Royal Navy to serve on submarines.  He was assigned to H.M. Submarine “H3”, an “H” Class submarine was developed in 1915 to respond to German mine-laying ships, whose operations were taking a heavy toll on Allied Merchant shipping during the war – especially around the British Isles and the Adriatic.

H3 was built by the Canadian Vickers Company in Canada and it was commissioned on the 3 June 1915.  H3, and her sister submarines H1, H2 and H4 sailed across the Atlantic and set up base in in Gibraltar.

One short month later, H3 was on operations in the Adriatic waters under the command of Lieutenant George Eric Jenkinson age 27, when she tragically sank on the 15 July 1916 after hitting a mine in the gulf of Cattaro while attempting to penetrate defences. H3 sinks with all 22 crew and unfortunately took our 19 year-old South African hero, Sub-Lieutenant Tatham with her.  It gets worse for the Tatham family, William’s brother will be killed just 3 days later serving in the South African Infantry.

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Royal Navy ‘H’ Class submarine from WW1

William Tatham enters our history books as the very first South African submariner to lose his life.  He is not acknowledged as such or extensively remembered in South Africa by the government or South African Navy, he is however remembered in England, his and name appears on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Charles Philip Voltelyn van der Byl

Lieutenant Charles Philip Voltelyn Van der Byl, Royal Navy, came from Cape Town, and like William Tatham he was also from an illustrious South African family. Charles van der Byl initially joined the Royal Navy and served aboard the battleship HMS Goliath, he is also a lucky survivor when the HMS Goliath was sunk during the Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles in 1915.

Lt. van der Byl then transferred to the submarine service and was assigned to HMS Submarine G1. G1 was a “G” Class submarine of the Royal Navy and was built at Chatham Dockyard, had a crew of 31 and a top speed of 14.5 knots (surface) and 10 knots (submerged). G1 was launched on the 14th August 1915.

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Royal Navy G Class submarine from WW1

G1 would survive the war, however very sadly Lt Van der Byl would not, he was drowned on the 9 October 1916. His drowning having occurred just three months after the loss of his fellow South African pioneer and submariner – William Tatham,

Lt. Van der Byl’s name is also only really remembered in England, and is found on the Chatham Naval Memorial,

Wiggie Bennett

Another South African who served with the silent service during World War 1, was “Wiggie” Bennett, from Johannesburg.

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Royal Navy ‘K’ class submarine in WW1

Wiggie was known as a fearless dare devil serving on K boat submarine patrols operating from Harwich, and again, rather tragically, he too paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Between the World Wars

As we pass between the First and Second World War’s we find another notable South African in the ‘silent service’ of the Royal Navy.  Lieutenant Harold Chapman.

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HMS Thunderbolt (Thetis)

Harold Chapman was a ‘Botha Boy’ having trained aboard South Arica’s notable training establishment – the South African Training Ship, General Botha. Chapman then relocated to the United Kingdom and entered the Royal Navy in 1927 as a Midshipman.

He entered the Royal Navy’s submarine service as second-in-command of HMS Thetis (N25) a T-Class submarine.  Tragically the HMS Thetis sank during her sea trials on the 4 on the 1 June 1939, taking 99 men, including our South African submariner with her.

The tragedy was attributed to a test cock on the number 5 tube which was blocked by some enamel paint and no water flowed out the when the bow cap was opened, the inrush of water caused the bow of the submarine to sink to the seabed, 46 meters below.

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The stricken Thetis, surrounded by rescue boats

Interestingly as the HMS Thetis was at a relatively shallow depth it was salvaged, brought back to operational service and became the HMS Thunderbolt, however HMS Thunderbolt was destined to be sunk again and was lost during WW2 off Cap St. Vito, north of Sicily, on the 14 March 1943, having been depth charged by the Italian corvette, “Cicogna”.

World War 2

By the beginning of the Second World War we find many more South Africans in the Royal Navy’s Submarine branch.

Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl

During the Second World War we find our first South African to command a submarine – Captain Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl, the second son of Lt.Col. Voltelin Albert William van der Byl, OBE (1872-1941), and Constance Margaret Jackson of Cape Town, South Africa.

Born in Cape Town on the 04 May 1907, Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl stemmed from famous Van der Zyl military family which attained political fame under Smuts in South Africa and ironically he was relative of Charles Van der Byl, mentioned previously who was sacrificed in a Royal Navy submarine during World War 1.

Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl joined the Royal Navy as a Cadet in 1924, attaining his commission as a Midshipman in 1925.  Serving on various Royal Navy ships, he joined the submarine service in April 1929 and assigned to HMS Submarine Odin and serving in Chinese waters.

Promoted to First Lieutenant, he continued to serve on submarines and was assigned to HMS Sturgeon in 1933 in the China seas and HMS Rover in 1934.  On the 8th August 1936, prior to the Second World War, he made history as the first South African to command a submarine, taking command of HMS Salmon serving in the Mediterranean.

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HMS Salmon (N65) – WW2

At the on-set of World War 2, he was again assigned a command of submarine, taking command of HMS Taku (N38), the Taku was a British T Class submarine. On the 8 May 1940 Van der Byl found himself in the thick of combat, when he attacked a German convoy with ten torpedoes, damaging the German torpedo boat Möwe  east of Denmark. For his actions he subsequently received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) at the end of June 1940.

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HMS Taku – WW2

By October 1940 he found himself as a Staff Officer to the Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet and in 1943 he served with the Anti-Submarine Warfare Division of the Admiralty (HMS President).   By the end of the war in 1945 he found himself as the Commanding Officer, HMS Medway II (submarine base, 1st Submarine Flotilla, Malta).

Promoted to Captain, he remained in the Royal Navy after the war, retiring in January 1958 as the Commanding Officer of HMS Forth and as a Naval ADC to Queen Elizabeth II.

Captain V.J.H. Van der Byl, Royal Navy, DSC passed on in Hampshire, England on the 21st September 1968.

Frederick Basil Currie

Lieutenant-Commander Frederick Basil Currie of the Royal Navy, is another notable South African submariner of the Second World War. The son of Colonel O.J. Currie of the South African Medical Corps and Sarah Gough Currie. Frederick Currie was given command of HMS Regulus (N88) a R Class Submarine.

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HMS Regulus (N88) – WW2

Frederick Currie was the second South African to be given command of a submarine and as is common to this very dangerous arm of service he was lost when the HMS Regulus went on patrol from Alexandria in Egypt, on the 23 November 1940.  The general consensus is the HMS Regulus may have hit a mine just off Taranto, Italy, on the 6 December 1940.

Arthur Hezlet

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Sir Arthur Richard Hezlet

A South African born submariner became one of the most famous submariners of the Second World War.  His colourful career started in 1928 when Hezlet joined the Royal Navy aged just 13 years old.  Nicknamed Baldy Hezlet he became the Royal Navy’s youngest captain at the time, aged 36 and its youngest admiral, aged 45. In retirement he became a military historian.

Born in Pretoria, South Africa on the 7th April 1914, he attended the Royal Navy Colleges  in Dartmouth and Greenwich before going to sea in 1932 as a Midshipman on Battleships HMS Royal Oak and HMS Resolution.

Hezlet was promoted to Lieutenant on 1 April 1936, achieving the highest mark in his Lieutenant’s examinations and winning the Ronald Megaw Memorial Prize. In December 1935 he began the submarine course at HMS Dolphin, something for which he had “not applied or volunteered”.  He however later volunteered to serve on submarines and ironically cut his teeth in 1937 on HMS Regulus (the same submarine on which fellow South African Frederick Currie later lost his life).

Following which he was appointed First Lieutenant of submarine HMS H43 from January 1938 to April 1939, and later transferred to the HMS Trident.  On HMS Trident he was to see his first action when he was engaged in operations in the Norwegian Sea as the Germans launched their occupation of Norway.

He subsequently passed the notorious “Perisher” exam (Submarine Commanding Officers Qualifying Course), and thus became a submarine commander.  He then commanded the following Royal Navy submarines during the war, HMS Unique, HMS Ursula, HMS Upholder, HMS Thrasher and HMS Trenchant.

His first combat test came when he was in Command of HMS Unique, when Hezlet fired four torpedoes at the Italian troop ship ‘Esperia – his first ever torpedo attack on the enemy and sank her. In November 1941 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his attack on the Esperia.

However, it was whilst serving as the Commander on HMS Trenchant that Hezlet became a submarine warfare legend.  Taking Command on 15 October 1943, HMS Trenchant saw combat in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during Operation Boomerang when she sank a Japanese coaster. Hezlet stopped to pick up survivors and managed to coax 14 Japanese crew to accept rescue.

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HMS Trenchant during WW2

Hezlet undertook long-range patrols in the Indian and Pacific oceans, earning him his first Distinguished Service Order (DSO). when he sank the long-range German U-Boat 859 on 23 September 1944, near the Sunda Strait after receiving ‘Ultra’ decrypts on her position.

Under his command on 27 October 1944, HMS Trenchant deployed two MKII Chariot manned torpedoes ‘Tiny’ and ‘Slasher’ off Phuket on a mission to destroy two Axis merchant ships in what would prove to be one of the most successful uses of Chariots of the whole War.

Ironically, on one of the MKII Chariot manned torpedoes was another notable South African, Sub/Lt Anthony Eldridge DSC, he had joined the Royal Navy in January 1942 and was awarded the DSC for his outstanding courage and determination.

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Sub/Lt Anthony Eldridge DSC

However it was the action on 8 June 1945 in which Arthur Hezlet walked into fame, Hezlet took HMS Trenchant into shallow and mined water in the Banka Strait to sink the Japanese heavy cruiser ‘Ashigara’,  the cruiser’s protection, the Japanese Destroyer ‘Kamakazi’ spotted the Trenchant and attacked it. Despite being under attack, Hezlet held his nerve firing 8 torpedoes at the Ashigara, 5 of them struck and the Ashigara sank quickly. The Ashigara goes down in history as the largest Japanese warship sunk by a Royal Navy warship during the war

For his action on the Ashigara Hezlet was awarded a Bar to his DSO and the Americans awarded him the US Legion of Merit.

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Japanese heavy cruiser ‘Ashigara’

After the war Arthur Hezlet would continue to have a stellar career in the Royal Navy’s submarine service and would later aspire to the rank of Vice-Admiral, and one of his subsequent appointments would be that of Flag Officer Submarines.  In 1946 he was present at the nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll and would pioneer submarine nuclear capability in the Royal Navy. In 1964 he was appointed as Knight of the British Empire (KBE) and given the prefix of ‘Sir’.  Sir Arthur Hezlet passed on aged 93 in 2007.

Peter Gibson

Lieutenant Peter Rawstorne Gibson, born in Umtata in the Transkei region of South Africa was lost with the submarine HMS Regent when it was lost with all hands on the 1 May 1943.  Accounts to the loss of the HMS Regent differ, some accounts indicate it may have struck a mine after attacking the Italian tanker Bivona another theory is the Italian corvette Gabbiano depth charged her.  In either event Lieutenant Peter Gibson and the crew of HMS Regent are ‘still on patrol’.

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HMS Regent

John Claude Hudson Wood

John Claude Hudson Wood, born in Nyasaland (now Malawi) and educated at Durban High School, another ‘Botha Boy’ after high school he joined the Navy and completed his training aboard the South African Training Ship General Botha.  He was lost whilst serving on submarine HMS Utmost on the 25th November 1943 when on patrol in the Mediterranean.

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Crew of HMS Utmost with their “Jolly Roger” success flag

On the 23rd she sank an enemy ship, but on her return journey to Malta, she was located, attacked and sunk south west off Sicily by depth charges from the Italian torpedo boat.

X-Men

Some South Africans even found themselves in the most perilous of submarine service in the Royal Navy, the ‘X-Craft Midget Submarines.

Lieutenants’ P.H. Philip and J.Terry-Lloyd, both of South African Naval Forces (SANF) seconded to the Royal Navy’s submarine service, who gained fame for their role in “Operation Source” in September 1943.

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X-Class midget submarine underway

Operation Source was a series of attacks to neutralise the heavy German warships – Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Lützow based in Norway using X-Class midget submarines. The attacks took place in September 1943 at Kaa Fiord and succeeded in keeping Tirpitz out of action for at least six months. 

Philip and Terry-Lloyd commanded X-Class midget submarines X7 and X5 respectively in the attack – for this darning mission both South African submariners were awarded MBE’s.

Lieutenant Alan Harold MacCoy

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Lt A.H. Maccoy DSC

Now we finally get to Lieutenant Alan Harold Maccoy of the South African Naval Forces (SANF), seconded to the Royal Navy, who stands out in some historical accounts as the ‘first’ South African to command a submarine (albeit incorrect).

Lt Alan Maccoy served aboard the submarines HMS Sunfish (N81), HMS Pandora (42P), HMS Umbra (P35), HMS Porpoise (83M) and the HMS Tantalus (P98).  He received his Distinguished Service Cross on the 25th May 1943 from King George VI at Buckingham Palace for his actions and service on the HMS Umbra.

Lt Maccoy was given command of British submarines towards the end of the war, when he commanded HMS Seaborne and HMS Unruffled (P46)  having seen service nearly all theatres of maritime combat during the war.  He was to serve out his service in his final command on HMS Unruffled until on the 18 Oct 1945 it was  paid off into reserve at Lisahally.

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The men of HMS Unruffled hoist the Jolly Roger

Post World Wars

The 70’s

64493_153678184801922_1761770907_nSpool forward to the 1970’s – two significant moments stand out in the history of South Africans in the silent service, the handing back of Simonstown as a British Naval base to South Africa in a colourful ceremony on the 2nd April 1957, after being in British hands since 1813.  A thorn in the Nationalist government’s agenda as Simonstown continued to operate as official British naval base after 1957 under the ‘Simonstown agreement’ and well after the Nationalist’s rise to power in 1948.  The Simonstown Agreement terms finally ending when the United Kingdom government terminated the agreement on 16 June 1975 (citing in part – Apartheid).

In advance of this, South Africa saw the need to develop its own submarine program and began a covert operation in conjunction with the French in the late 1960’s called Operation Duiker to buy small French diesel powered shore patrol Daphne submarines.

On completion of trials the SAS Maria van Riebeeck (named after Jan van Riebeeck’s wife) was formally commissioned by Commander JAC Weideman on 24 July 1970 and accepted into the South African Navy as the first South African submarine.  In 1971, two other Daphne class submarines were added, the SAS Emily Hobhouse and the SAS Johanna van der Merwe.

In the French tradition of giving submarines female names the focus was on South African woman who mattered to the Afrikaner Nationalist (NP) history of South Africa.

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SAS Maria van Riebeeck’s launching in France

South Africa’s Dafne class submarines never fired a torpedo in anger, however the service was involved in many reconnaissance and clandestine operations in support of special forces during the Border War (1966 to 1989). The submarines also shadowed many a potential hostile nation’s military and navy shipping around the South African cape during the Border War period.

As an interesting aside, the 1970’s also produced another famous South African born submariner in the Royal Navy  – Cecil Boyce

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Lord Boyce

Admiral of the Fleet, Michael Cecil, Baron Boyce KG GCB OBE KStJ DL was born in Cape Town South Africa and currently is a member of the House of Lords.

Boyce commanded three British submarines, HMS Oberon in 1973, followed by HMS Opossum in 1974 and finally the nuclear submarine HMS Superb in 1979.  In 1983 he took Command of a Royal Navy frigate HMS Brilliant.

Thereafter Boyce achieved  higher command in the Royal Navy, serving as First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff from 1998 to 2001 and then as Chief of the Defence Staff from 2001 to 2003. In early 2003 he advised the British Government on the deployment of troops for the invasion of Iraq.

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HMS Superb

Post 1994

In so far as ‘firsts’ go, the ANC government on its accent to power in 1994 has on many occasions dismissed the entire history of South African’s involved in submarine services, whether South African or British as somehow irrelevant.  Within a short time frame they renamed all three Daphne Class submarines after African spears – the SAS Maria van Riebeeck became the SAS Spear, the SAS Emily Hobhouse became the SAS Umkhonto and the SAS Johanna van der Merwe became the SAS Assegai.

Under the ANC epoch, the South African Navy replaced the ageing decommissioned French Daphne Class submarines with updated Type 209/T 1400 ‘Heroine’ Class German made submarines.  Returning to the tradition of naming submarines after women, the submarines became the SAS Manthatisi, the SAS Charlotte Maxeke and the SAS Queen Modjadji – all heroines who matter greatly to African Nationalist (ANC) history of South Africa.

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SAS Queen Modjadji

As more firsts go the first ‘black’ South African to command a submarine was Commander Handsome Thamsanqa Matsane when he took command a the SAS Queen Modjadji in April 2012.

In Conclusion

History remains history, there is no denying facts or somehow changing it to suit this or that politically inspired take on history – the facts, people and dates remain as truths.  South Africa’s naval and submarine history in particular did not start from 1994, nor indeed did it start as some would have it from 1957 when Simonstown ceased to be officially British or from 1975 when Britain finally departed.  It started in 1910 when South Africa became a country, and it’s a simple truism – for the first 40 years of the country’s existence, the Royal Navy was South Africa’s default navy, we did not have one, South Africans serving in the Navy served in the Royal Navy – no changing that.

South Africa’s submarine service has its pioneers grounded in the Royal Navy, that’s a fact – over 100 years of this rich history in fact.  It is also a fact that many South Africans who have served in the Navy or currently serve in the Navy have no idea as to many of these South African submariners who have served with such distinction – this is represented by the fact that no formal recognition is given to any South African serving in British submarines in South Africa whatsoever, not on memorials, not in history annuals, not at remembrance events – we even get our history wrong when we try and understand ‘firsts’ in this service.

We as South Africans are really remiss in our values if we cannot honour these very special countrymen of ours and remember the supreme sacrifice and bravery they have made on our behalf.  By all standards the submarine service qualifies ‘the bravest of the brave’ – and these men are truly the ‘silent’ South African names in the ‘silent service’ and it should be a moral obligation to bring their names into the light and recognise them.  It is a sincerely hoped that this article is a first step.

Related Observation Posts and links 

Elephant in the Room The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’

South Africans in the Fleet Air Arm South African sacrifice in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and large extracts – South Africans in the Submarine Service of the Royal Navy, 1916-1945 By Ross Dix-Peek and South Africa’s fighting Ships Past and Present by Allan Du Toit.

Images – Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia