A South African invented the mine flail

The mine-flail became a critical anti-land mine device during D-Day (Operation Overlord), it helped open the way for troops and armoured vehicles over the extensive minefields laid by Hitler’s forces to form ‘the western wall’ and prevent invasion.  But did you know the mine flail was invented by a South African?

Inventing the Mine Flail

Technically a mine-flail is a vehicle-mounted device that makes a safe path through a mine-field by deliberately detonating land-mines in front of the vehicle that carries it.  It was usually mounted in front of a tank hull to offer the operators the armoured protection they needed, use of its weaponry and the tracked system to deal with terrain.

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Sherman Crab Mark II minesweeping flail tank, one of Hobart’s ‘funnies’, used to clear already identified minefields.

The mine flail consists of a number of heavy chains ending in fist-sized steel balls (flails) that are attached to a horizontal, rapidly rotating rotor mounted on two arms in front of the vehicle. The rotor’s rotation makes the flails spin wildly and violently pound the ground. The force of a flail strike above a buried mine mimics the weight of a person or vehicle and causes the mine to detonate, but in a safe manner that does little damage to the flails or the vehicle.

0aayzhghjgfjhf9999777_7The idea is commonly attributed to a South African soldier – Captain Abraham du Toit. A test rig was constructed in South Africa and results were so encouraging that du Toit was promoted and sent to England to develop the idea.

Before Capt. du Toit left for England, he described his idea to Captain Norman Berry, a mechanical engineer who had been sent to South Africa in 1941 to evaluate the system.

North Africa

Captain Berry later served in the British Eight Army during the North African Campaign. He had become an enthusiast for the mine flail idea; he lobbied senior officers to commission the development of a flail and carried out his own experiments with mine flails in the spring of 1942 to deal with the extensive minefields laid by Rommel’s forces in the desert campaign.

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A Matilda Scorpion flail tank, 2 November 1942.

Later Major L. A. Girling was given the task of developing a similar device after it had been independently re-invented by another South African officer. When Berry heard of this, he handed over his work to Girling (who had no idea he was duplicating Captain du Toit’s current work in England, as that was still highly secret).

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Captain du Toit (as unaware of developments in North Africa as they were of his), working with AEC Limited developed the Matilda Baron mine flail, using a Matilda tank and a frail for demonstrations and training.

Hobart’s Funnies 

Captain du Toit’s work fell under a program known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’, which were a variety of unusually modified tanks operated during the by the 79th Armoured Division  of the British Army or by specialists from the Royal Engineers.

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A Sherman Crab flail tank coming ashore from an LCT during the invasion of Walcheren Island, 1 November 1944.

They were designed to overcome the problems that more standard tanks experienced during the amphibious landings and focussed on the problems of the Normandy D-Day landings. These tanks played a major part on the British and Commonwealth beaches during the landings. They were forerunners of the modern combat engineering vehicle and were named after their commander,  Major General Percy Hobart.

A number of experimental flail tanks were produced, including the Valentine Tank, the M4 Sherman – the Sherman Mark IV and Mark V Scorpions and the “Sherman Lobster”. Eventually one of these, the Sherman Crab, went into full production and saw active service.

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Sherman Crab flail tanks in front of burning buildings in Arnhem, 14 April 1945.

Captain du Toit himself had become a strong advocate of a concept called the parambulator mine flail – a self-contained device with its own engine, that could be pushed ahead of any tank that was available. However, the consensus of opinion favoured special-purpose tanks with a permanently mounted flail system and he returned to South Africa in 1943.

In Conclusion 

After the war ended, so vital was this contribution to the Allied victory and the war effort, that in 1948, Capt. Abraham du Toit would receive an award of £13,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors for his work on the mine flail (a sizeable award in its day). Nine others (including four South Africans) would share a further £7,000.

And there you have it in truth – South Africa led the way on this most critical device for D-Day, and an old adage stands – faced with a problem like a mine-field – a South African makes a plan!

South Africans continued to ‘make a plan’ in developing and leading anti-mine vehicles which continued well into the Angolan Border War.


Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Links and work on South Africans during D-Day

Donald Gray South African D-Day hero (and one-armed movie star): Donald Gray

Albie Gotze “This bastard is going to kill me”; Albie Götze’s Legion d’Honneur

Tommy Thomas South African D Day Hero: Lt. D.C. “Tommy” Thomas MC

Cecil Bircher South African D Day Hero: Lt. Cecil Bircher MC

Royston Turnball Supreme South African heroism on Omaha Beach, Lt. Royston Turnbull DSC

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

Jan Smuts South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light

Jan Smuts and Churchill Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day


Reference

Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia.  Images copyright Imperial War Museum

“Bravery in the face of desperate circumstances” Oswald Reid VC

Honouring a son of South Africa and one of our greatest and bravest World War 1 heroes, receiving his Victoria Cross for valour holding out against all odds in a part of the war often overlooked – Mesopotamia (now modern-day Iraq), in a war against the Ottomans (Turks)  – Captain Oswald Austin Reid VC. This is his story.

Early Life

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Captain Oswald Reid VC

Oswald Reid was the third child in a family of seven, he was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on 2nd November 1893. He was the eldest of three sons, the others being Victor and Clifford, and he also had four sisters. His father, Harry Austin Reid, was a pioneer architect of Johannesburg and formerly a captain in the commander in chief’s bodyguard regiment (Lord Roberts’ Regiment), having fought in the 2nd Anglo Boer War.

Oswald’s mother, Alice Gertrude Reid, was also well-connected, being a pioneer of both Johannesburg and Kimberley. She was the daughter of George Bottomley JP, Mayor of Kimberley, Cape Colony and member of Legislative Council for Griqualand West.

Oswald was educated at the Diocesan College, Cape Town, and later at St John’s College, Johannesburg and at Radley College, England. He arrived at Radley in 1910, and although he was only 17, he could be mistaken for 21. He soon earned the nickname “Kaffir Reid” (because of his South African origins, now considered a derogatory term), and was captain of the rugby and cricket teams, and was a senior prefect. He was also a Colour Sergeant in the college Officer Training Corps.

Oswald became an agricultural student and in 1913 he went to the Netherlands to learn Dutch and study law with a view to working in the Transvaal, thereafter was later given a position in the Agricultural Department in South Africa.

Western Front – World War 1 

The outbreak of war interrupted Oswald’s career in Agriculture in South Africa, he shipped out at the start of the war and volunteered to join the British Army on 14th August 1914 as a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment.

Oswald Reid was promoted to Full Lieutenant on 5th March 1915 when his battalion left for Le Havre, arriving the next day, and he began his service as a bombing officer. His battalion was part of Sirhind Brigade, and saw action at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

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The King’s Liverpool Regiment moving along a communication trench leading to the front line; near Blairville Wood, 16th April 1916.

A month later he was wounded by a gunshot to the scalp and in the left cheek from a grenade during the Second Battle of Ypres on 27th April.

Lt Oswald Reid initially suffered from headaches from his injury, but they gradually relented and he appeared before medical boards. On 28th August he was back in France, this time with 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Division, he was again wounded in face again when serving with the 1st Battalion at Arras, he left France on 6th May 1916 to recover from his wounds.

Once fit again, and now promoted to Captain he was transferred to Peshawar (modern-day Pakistan), India on 21st August. He took part in the Mohmand campaign until November 1916, when he embarked for Mesopotamia, (modern day Iraq) take part in the operations at Kut-el-Amara, Baghdad, and Samarrah fighting against the Ottomans (modern day Turks).

The Mesopotamian Campaign

The Mesopotamian campaign was a campaign fought in the Middle East theatre of World War 1, between the ‘Allies’ represented by Britain and Empire troops from Australia and India and the Ottoman Empire troops, mainly Turkish and Arab troops which had aligned themselves with Germany and the ‘Central Powers’.

The Ottoman Empire had conquered the most of the Middle East in the early 16th century, and ruled through local proxy rulers.  As with the later modern-day Gulf Wars, the central cause of the Mesopotamian campaign revolved around the same ‘black gold’ – oil, with the same urgency to secure oil supply to nations depending on it for their economies and war effort.

Also like the later Gun Wars in Iraq, the operational area of the Mesopotamian campaign for the British was limited to the lands and areas watered by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.  The prize, as was the prize in previous wars in the region was the capital – Baghdad.

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As other soldiers run for the cover of slit trenches, an Indian Lewis gun team engage an enemy aircraft, Mesopotamia 1918. During the long and arduous campaign along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, from Basra to Baghdad and beyond, over 29,000 Indian soldiers perished in what was their most significant contribution to the British war effort of WW1.

Victoria Cross

Captain Oswald Reid received his Victoria Cross fighting on the Diyala River, south-east of Baghdad, Mesopotamia (now Iraq) – between the 8th to the 10th of March 1917

In the push to take the City of Baghdad from the Ottoman Turks, under heavy fire from the defending Turks the British experienced a costly set-back trying to cross the Diyala River just south-east of Baghdad, on the night of 7th March 1917 – using pontoons to ferry their troops they failed to cross.

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Turkish infantry launching a counter-attack. Mesopotamian Campaign

The British made a second attempt to cross the river the following night on the 8th March. The pontoons again came under very heavy Turkish fire and of nearly 1,000 British troops trying to cross the river, only 110 got across.

Captain Reid was the only surviving senior officer to make it, now attached to the 6th Battalion, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, Captain Reid succeeded in gathering together the three separate pockets of troops on the far side of the river opposite the main body of British still unable to cross the river.

After Captain Reid’s lines of communication had been cut by the sinking of the pontoons. He maintained this position for 30 hours against constant attacks by bombs, machine-guns and rifle fire, with the full knowledge that repeated attempts at relief had failed and that his ammunition was all but exhausted. It was greatly due to his tenacity that the crossing of the river was effected the next night. During the operations he was wounded (this was the third time in his military career).

Captain Reid and the men with him held out until the third and successful crossing of the Diyala by British troops early in the morning of 10 March. By then Reid’s force had been reduced to about thirty men.  Captain Reid had literally held his position at all costs under the most perilous of circumstances, his actions had turned the tide of the battle in favour of the British, the road to Baghdad was now open.

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A British artillery battery crossing a pontoon bridge over the River Diyala near Baghdad in March 1917. This bridge was completed by the 71st Field Company, Royal Engineers, at 11am on 10 March, following a night river crossing by the 5th Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment, 88th Field Company, Royal Engineers, and the 8th Welch Pioneers to secure a bridgehead on the Turkish held side of the river.

Realising that Baghdad could not now be defended against the British Expeditionary Force, the Turkish army evacuated the city on the 10th March and retreated northwards. The British entered the city the following day on the 11th.

For his leadership and bravery in the most extreme of circumstances, Captain Reid was Mentioned in Dispatches by General Maude on capture of Baghdad and subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for Valour. With this he walked into history as the first Johannesburg born VC recipient.

Victoria Cross Citation:

For most conspicuous bravery in the face of desperate circumstances.

By his dauntless courage and gallant leadership he was able to consolidate a small post with the advanced troops, on the opposite side of a river to the main body, after his line of communications had been cut by the sinking of the pontoons.

He maintained this position for thirty hours against constant attacks by bombs, machine gun and shell fire, with the full knowledge that repeated attempts at relief had failed, and that his ammunition was all but exhausted. It was greatly due to his tenacity that the passage of the river was effected on the following night.

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British soldier signalling (by means of heliograph) across Baghdad from the roof of the old Turkish artillery barracks.

Whipping up Support

Oswald Reid was promoted to Acting Major, and on in October 1917 he was back in action and was wounded again (4th time in his career). Whilst on the mend and on leave from all his wounds he returned to South Africa to drum up support for the war effort.  Whilst in Johannesburg he attended a civic reception and visited St John’s College, where he talked to the boys about the Mesopotamian campaign.

His war not yet done, Acting Major Reid VC returned to Mesopotamia and in December 1917 he was again ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’.

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British ‘Tommy’ gives one of the starving Turks a bit of his biscuit. Mesopotamian Campaign.

Fighting Bolsheviks

After the First World War, Captain Reid received his Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 22nd February 1919 and was accompanied by Victor, one of his younger brothers, who was training as a pilot with the Royal Air Force.

With more soldering to come for this South African, in April 1919 he left for Russia as part of General Allenby’s Allied intervention force in north Russia. He was to take part in the Russian campaign on as a member of the Slavo-British Legion Force sent to relieve the White Russians in their struggle against the Bolsheviks.

Discharge 

On 6th February 1920 he was finally discharged of his duties from the military and Oswald returned to Johannesburg. On the 1st April 1920 he resigned his commission with the British Forces and obtained a substantive commission as a Captain serving with Transvaal Scottish in The Union of South Africa’s forces.

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Early South African Legion (BESL) badge

Oswald Reid VC became the Secretary of the Comrades of the Great War League – a veterans association to assist returning WW1 veterans (the ‘Comrades’ marathon is named after this organisation).  In 1921, under the guidance of General Jan Smuts, the ‘Comrades of the Great War ‘was amalgamated with other veteran associations to form The British Empire Services League – South Africa (BESL), this organisation is now known as The South African Legion of Military Veterans (SA Legion) and continues the work of Remembrance and veteran assist.

Later on Oswald Reid VC decided to take up politics and in March stood unsuccessfully for the Troyeville constituency in Johannesburg.  Then, at the very young age of 26 tragedy struck.

Death

There is little doubt that his many wounds and service in the First World War had undermined his health, and in the autumn he became ill with gastroenteritis and pneumonia. He was unable to fight it off and died in hospital on 27th October 1920. He was buried in Braamfontein Cemetery, and two years later, a VC memorial was unveiled in the cemetery.

In addition to the VC, he was also awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, Medaglia Al Valore Militaire and was Mentioned in Despatches. His medals are held by the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg, South Africa.


Researched by Peter Dickens

Related work and Links

Reginald Hayward VC  “Superhuman powers of endurance and courage” Reginald Hayward VC

William F. Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC

Sherwood Kelly VC “…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

Percy Hansen VC One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross; Percy Hansen VC, DSO, MC

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’

William Hewitt VC “There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it” destroying a German Pillbox single-handedly – William Hewitt VC

Clement Robertson VC Under deadly fire he directed his tanks to their objective … on foot! Clement Robertson VC

References

Large extracts published with the kind permission of The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013. with sincere thanks to Charles Ross from The South African Legion. Additional Reference and extracts – The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria Cross and George Cross – on-line.  Images copyright Imperial War Museum.

A Mountain of a Man – Literally! Mount Smuts

We know that Jan Smuts around the world has a Kibbutz named after him in Israel, but did you know he also a Mountain named after him?  This ‘mountain’ of a South African, with his love for Botany, Nature and Mountain hiking in addition to his credentials as Statesman, Philosopher, Reformer, Lawyer, Botanist and Warrior  – also has his own Mountain – and its located in the Canadian Rockies.

It is for good reason that Smuts has a mountain in his name, he once said of his love for mountains when unveiling the Mountain Club War Memorial at Maclear’s Beacon on the summit of Table Mountain in 1923;

“The Mountain is not merely something eternally sublime. It has a great historical and spiritual meaning for us … From it came the Law, from it came the Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount. We may truly say that the highest religion is the Religion of the Mountain”

Canadian Rockies – Mount Smuts

A number of peaks in the Canadian Rockies in the vicinity of Kananaskis Lakes in Canada carry the names of Admirals, Generals and others directly related to the military during the two World Wars.

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Mount Smuts is exceptional and very special as it was named after a Field Marshal and Prime Minister of South Africa who had a very special feeling for mountains. For this reason it was argued that Mount Smuts is a particularly appropriate name for a mountain peak, and this honour does not only extend to the mountain peak, the peak is located between the upper Spray River Valley and Smuts Creek Valley and the North buttress to Mount Smuts is also named Smuts Pass.

Mount Smuts is also not for the weak hearted, the mere mention of this peak is enough to make a serious mountain scrambler weak in the knees. This peak is debatably the most difficult scramble in the Canadian Rockies as it represents more of a mountain ascend than a scramble, many climbers attest its closer to an Alpine lower 5th class rated climb.  For a fit climber the accent time takes 5 hours and the total trip time about 8 to 10 hours.   The peak stands at 2940 meters.

Mount Smuts

View of Mount Smuts from Smuts Pass

The ‘Oubaas’ liked a challenge in his mountain scrambles – Smuts would disappear for hours on end with long treks in the wilderness and he climbed Table Mountain more than 70 times, even at the age of 70. There is no doubt Smuts would have sprung at the opportunity to climb Mount Smuts and disappear for a day to do it.

Holism and Mountains 

Consider this when reviewing Smuts and his attraction to Mountains. As a young boy Jan Smuts had a mystical experience on the Riebeek-Kasteel mountain top (near the farm on which he was born in the Western Cape). He described it as a feeling of complete unity with all of nature around him.

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Jan Smuts on Table Mountain, South Africa

Jan Smuts experienced his surrounding nature so intimately that it felt like an extension of himself. And yet he experienced at the same time a distinct sense of ‘self’.  It was this idea of ‘transcendental self’ that was to form the base of his philosophy of holism.  To Smuts, the ‘transcendental self’ was the tendency of nature to cohere into greater hierarchies of unified wholes. The holistic process would culminate in its fullest expression in the human personality.  To this revelation on a mountain top Smuts once said:

“When I was young I saw a light, and I have followed that light ever since.”

His focus on unification of wholes led Smuts to reconcile the Boer and British nations after the bitterness of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War. It would cumulate in the Union of South Africa in 1910, to bring together the former Boer Republics of Transvaal (ZAR Republic) and Orange Free State into union with the former British Colonies of the Cape Colony and Natal. Smuts went further with holism and the unification of wholes when he advocated the transformation of the British Empire into a Commonwealth of self-governing Nations to King George VI (ending the ideals of ‘Empire’ – in fact Smuts coined the phrase ‘Commonwealth of nations’). This same philosophy of joining wholes led to the formation of the League of Nations after World War 1, and subsequently in the formation of the United Nations after World War 2. It was this simple ‘epiphany’ on a mountain top as a boy that ultimately led Smuts to draft he Preamble to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

To his ideals on mountains and holism, on the 25th February 1923 during the unveiling of a memorial to members of the Mountain Club who had fallen in the 1st World War (1914 -1918) on top of Table Mountain, Smuts gave a landmark speech titled ‘The Religion of the Mountain”, take the time to read it in full, it’s a lesson to humankind.

The Religion of the Mountain

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Contemporary statue of Jan Smuts at the Company’s Garden, Cape Town

The Mountain is not merely something externally sublime. It has a great historical and spiritual meaning for us. It stands for us as the ladder of life. Nay, more, it is the great ladder of the soul, and in a curious way the source of religion. From it came the Law, from it came the Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount. We may truly say that the highest religion is the Religion of the Mountain.

What is that religion? When we reach the mountain summits we leave behind us all the things that weigh heavily down below on our body and our spirit. We leave behind a feeling of weakness and depression; we feel a new freedom, a great exhilaration, an exaltation of the body no less than of the spirit. We feel a great joy.

The Religion of the Mountain is in reality the religion of joy, of the release of the soul from the things that weigh it down and fill it with a sense of weariness, sorrow and defeat. The religion of joy realises the freedom of the soul, the soul’s kinship to the great creative spirit, and its dominance over all the things of sense. As the body has escaped from the over- weight and depression of the sea, so the soul must be released from all sense of weariness, weakness and depression arising from the fret, worry and friction of our daily lives. We must feel that we are above it all, that the soul is essentially free, and in freedom realises the joy of living. And when the feeling of lassitude and depression and the sense of defeat advances upon us, we must repel it, and maintain an equal and cheerful temper.

We must fill our daily lives with the spirit of joy and delight. We must carry this spirit into our daily lives and tasks. We must perform our work not grudgingly and as a burden imposed upon, but in a spirit of cheerfulness, goodwill and delight in it. Not only on the mountain summits of life, not only on the heights of success and achievement, but down in the deep valleys of drudgery, of anxiety and defeat, we must cultivate the great spirit of joyous freedom and upliftment of the soul.

We must practise the Religion of the Mountain down in the valleys also.

This may sound like a hard doctrine, and it may be that only after years of practise are we able to triumph in spirit over the things that weigh and drag us down. But it is the nature of the soul, as of all life, to rise, to overcome, and finally attain complete freedom and happiness. And if we consistently practise the Religion of the Mountain we must succeed in the end. To this great end Nature will co-operate with the soul.

The mountains uphold us and the stars beckon to us. The mountains of our lovely land will make a constant appeal to us to live the higher life of joy and freedom. Table Mountain, in particular, will preach this great gospel to the myriads of toilers in the valley below. And those who, whether members of the Mountain Club or not, make a habit of ascending her beautiful slopes in their free moments, will reap a rich reward not only in bodily health and strength, but also in an inner freedom and purity, in an habitual spirit of delight, which will be the crowning glory of their lives.

May I express the hope that in the years to come this memorial will draw myriads who live down below to breathe the purer air and become better men and women. Their spirits will join with those up here, and it will make us all purer and nobler in spirit and better citizens of the country.

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In Conclusion

Mount Smuts can be located at 50.8075N -115.387W for anyone wanting to find it – a Mountain which represents a man who was a mountain in his own right.  He once said of holism;

“(Concerning) the principles of holism…in this universe we are all members of one another…selfishness is the grand refusal and denial of life.”

Its a magnificent lesson and a great tribute.

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Mount Smuts in the Canadian Rockies

Related Work and Links:

Jan Smuts’ Kibbutz A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts

Jan Smuts’ Barracks Smuts Barracks; Berlin

Jan Smuts Life “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Reference, ‘Peakfinder’ Your source of information on the Peaks of the Canadian Rockiesby Dave Birrell and Politics today – exploring Jan Smuts’​ transformative ‘Religion of the Mountain’​ by Claudius van Wyk.  Photo credit ‘Our Journey’ Blog and Peakfinder.  A special thanks to Rheiner Weitz who brought this to our attention.

Under deadly fire he directed his tanks to their objective … on foot! Clement Robertson VC

Honouring South African WW1 heroes who have won the Victoria Cross for Valour, the highest British decoration for bravery. This South African qualifies to stand head and shoulders above his countrymen – Captain Clement Robertson VC. Here is his story.

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Clement Robertson was born on 15 December 1890 (15 November 1889 is indicated in the Haileybury school register) in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa as the son of Major John Albert Robertson Royal Artillery and Frances Octavia Caroline (nee Wynne). Clement was one of five brothers (William Cairnes, Albert John, Frederick Wynne and Charles Wyndham).

Clement was later educated at Hill House School, Filsham Road, Hastings, at the East India Company College (Haileybury College) from 1904-1906 and Trinity College, Dublin (BA BAI Engineering 1909). He and his four brothers were keen golfers and were founder members of the Delgany Golf Club. Clement won the President’s Cup in the first year it was played for in 1908. In 1911, he was a boarder at Croft House, part of Cotherston, Darlington while an articled pupil to a civil engineer engaged on waterworks. He was employed as a civil engineer with the Egyptian Irrigation Service for three years and returned to England on the outbreak of war.

World War 1

He enlisted in 19th Royal Fusiliers (2nd Public Schools) on 8th October 1914 and joined at Epsom. He applied for a commission on 30th December 1914 and was commissioned on 16th January 1915 in 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). He was attached to the Royal Engineers from June 1916 to February 1917, then the Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps from March 1917 and was attached to the Tank Corps from September 1917 as a Tank Commander.

During the Battle of Messines in Belgium Clement had a narrow escape when on 7th June 1917, his tank A56 was hit by a 5.9” shell, which killed Sergeant Clegg and wounded two other crew. Although A56 was badly damaged, he brought it back to base and was later appointed to command 12 Section in 3 Company and made an Acting Captain of A Battalion.

Victoria Cross

In the British advance on 4th October 1917 at Zonnebeke, Belgium, Captain Robertson led four British tanks of 12 Section in attack under heavy shelling as they pushed forward east of Polygon Wood towards Reutel, between Zonnebeke and Gheluvelt.

Robertson, was Section Commander of 12 Section. The advance would need to cross the Reutelbeek. Although only a small stream it posed a formidable obstacle for the tanks.

Conditions on the battlefields of Passchendaele were terrible. Thick mud made any kind of movement difficult, and shelling had badly damaged most of the roads. When they’d been used earlier in the battle many tanks had ended up hopelessly bogged.

Robertson was determined this wouldn’t happen. For three days prior to the assault from Sunday 30th September onwards Captain Robertson and his ‘batman’, Private Cyril Allen, worked tirelessly to mark a safe route up to the front line for the 28 ton tanks. They struggled across the shattered ground under constant shellfire to lay out lengths of cotton tape for the crews to follow. They successfully finished the job and returned to the tanks late on the evening of the 3rd October.

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The type of tape used by Captain Robertson and Private Allen to guide the tank assault.

Almost immediately Robertson turned round and began moving forwards again, leading the tanks to their starting points. They were in position by 3am on the 4th of October.

The attack began at 6am. The ground in No Man’s Land was just as bad, so Robertson, accompanied by Allen, broke cover from the armour and continued on foot, walking in front of the tanks to guide them forwards. The German artillery, machine gun and rifle fire was intense, but he refused to take cover, as he knew his tank crews needed to be able to see him.

The tanks were to cross the Reutelbeek using a narrow bridge. One by one Robertson guided them safely across. As they continued forwards Robertson was shot and killed. His tanks fought on, helping to successfully drive the Germans back.

In so guiding these four tanks carefully towards their objective he must have known that this action would almost certainly cost him his life, however his skilful leadership had already ensured success, and for this he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.  

For his brave actions in support of Captain Robertson, Pvt. Cyril Allen received the  Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and was tragically killed later in the war on 20th November 1917, Cyril Allen’s DCM citation reads; “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He twice marked out routes under heavy enemy barrages, though on the first occasion he was blown up and badly shaken. Later he accompanied the tanks into action on foot, showing magnificent courage and contempt of danger”.

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A knocked out British tank half submerged in mud and water near St Julien, 12 October 1917. IWM Copyright

Captain Roberts’ Victoria Cross Citation:

For most conspicuous bravery in leading his tanks in attack under heavy shell, machine-gun and rifle fire, over ground which had been heavily ploughed by shell fire. Captain Robertson, knowing the risk of the Tanks missing the way, continued to lead them on foot, guiding them carefully and patiently towards their objective, although he must have known that his action would almost inevitably cost him his life. This gallant officer was killed after his objective had been reached, but his skilful leading had already ensured successful action. His utter disregard of danger and devotion to duty afford an example of outstanding valour.

Death and Remembrance 

Clement’s body was recovered and he was buried in Oxford Road Cemetery, Ypres. As he never married, his VC was presented to his mother by Brigadier General C Williams CB, Commanding Dublin District, at the Royal Barracks Dublin on 27th March 1918. In addition to the VC, he was awarded the British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19. His medals are held privately.

Captain Robertson VC is commemorated on the Haileybury College Memorial, his photo is in the Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset while there is also a memorial plaque in the Christ Church, Delgany.

Captain Robertson is also remembered in a Tank Corps flag raising ceremony in Ypres which takes place every year on 4 October at the Tank Memorial Ypres Salient.


Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Work and Links:

Reginald Hayward VC  “Superhuman powers of endurance and courage” Reginald Hayward VC

William F. Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC

Sherwood Kelly VC “…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

Percy Hansen VC One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross; Percy Hansen VC, DSO, MC

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’

William Hewitt VC “There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it” destroying a German Pillbox single-handedly – William Hewitt VC

Extract published with the kind permission of The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013. Also with reference to a large extract from Victoria Cross and George Cross, a complete history on-line, Tank 100 Tank Museum on-line , thanks also to Charles Ross from the South African Legion.

“There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it” destroying a German Pillbox single-handedly – William Hewitt VC

Lance Corporal William Henry Hewitt VC, (aged 33) of 2nd South African Infantry Regiment is a very special South African, seen here he maintains his traditional wry smile, he had lost some teeth in heroic actions which earned him the Victoria Cross and he figured women wouldn’t think him attractive if he smiled. All we can say is smile, you of all people really earned it!

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L/Cpl William Hewitt VC – Note his two ‘wound stripes’ on his sleeve

William was an exceptionally brave man, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for action near Ypres, Belgium, on September 20, 1917.  These extracts from “The Comprehensive Guide to Victoria Crosses” and “How I won the Victoria Cross” the story of Major William Hewitt from the Hermanus historical society outline a very colourful life and the depth of character that was William Hewitt VC, read on and learn about one very remarkable South African.

Consider his own recollection of the action that earned him the Victoria Cross and you’ll have the measure of the man and his off the cuff ‘dark’ military humour:

William Hewitt’s platoon was ordered to demolish a German pillbox, manned by 15 enemy soldiers. Within a minute of advancing his entire platoon was killed by an artillery shell, William was luckily the sole survivor. He advanced alone and threw a grenade into the pillbox. A “jampot” (Improvised Explosive Device) was thrown at him and hit him in the face. Of the resulting explosion he said:

‘Apart from blowing off my gasmask and half my clothes, knocking out four teeth, breaking my nose, giving me a couple of black eyes, with a lot of little cuts here and there and knocking me backwards into a convenient shell-hole, it didn’t really do any damage – only made me damn mad’.

William Hewitt went round the back of the pillbox and pushed his last grenade though a breathing hole. It exploded inside, killing all the occupants. He ran around the front to deal with any survivors, only to hear a Sergeant of a relieving platoon say: ‘There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it.’

The “jampot” is what would now be regarded as a IED – an improvised explosive device in a modern context, back in World War 1, it was exactly that. Literally, it was a jam pot (or tin), taken out of the rubbish dump, filled with nuts and bolts, with an explosive device and then thrown at the enemy if all else had failed.

Menin 1

A wounded South African soldier is given a hot drink by a padre after the attack on ‘Potsdam’, a German stronghold near Zonnebeke, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge near Potijze, 20 September 1917 (same day and attack in which William Hewitt won his VC).

Now that is some account to earn a Victoria Cross, let’s have a look at this man and how he came to taking out a pillbox single-handedly.

Origins

William Henry Hewitt (1884-1966) was born on 19th June 1884 at Copdock, near Ipswich, Suffolk. His father, also William Henry Hewitt, was born in London, and was a farmer of 80 acres at Preston Farm, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Middlesex. William (junior) had six siblings, including a brother George, who was killed serving in the Boer War in South Africa in 1900.

 William Hewitt (junior) emigrated to South Africa in 1905 and served in the South Africa Constabulary and later the Natal Police, including during the Zulu Rebellion in 1906. He later became a farmer in Natal.

World War 1

William volunteered to take part in World War 1 and enlisted in the Union of South Africa Defence Force on 24th November 1915. He went to France on 12th July 1916 and joined the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment on 15th July.

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He fought at the very deadly Battle of Delville Wood were he was very lucky to survive and later he also fought at the Butte de Warlencourt as a Lewis Gunner in 2 Platoon, B Company. Having been wounded in the leg on 12th October, he was evacuated to England on 24th October, where he was treated at Tooting Military Hospital. He returned to France in April 1917 and was promoted to Lance Corporal the following month.

Victoria Cross

On 20th September 1917 east of Ypres, the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment (2nd SAI) had to ‘leapfrog’ the 4th South African Infantry Regiment and advanced towards Bremen Redoubt. The 2nd SAI came under enfilading fire from Hill 37 and Tulip Cottages. In the meantime, the terrain became a quagmire, with men struggling waist deep in the mud. It was during this second stage in the battle that L/Cpl William Henry Hewitt captured a pillbox single-handedly.

Rebout

Destroyed strong concrete redoubt, in the Ypres sector in Belgium, during the battle on 20 September 1917. Same day and same attack that William Hewitt won his VC.

He threw a grenade into a doorway, but the Germans threw a improvised bomb back at him that blew off Hewitt’s gas-mask and knocked out four of his teeth. He was furious because he was engaged to be married and now feared that his fiancée might no longer find him attractive, Hewitt reached the rear of the pillbox. He tried to lob a bomb through a loophole, but missed and had to dive for cover. With only one bomb remaining, Hewitt crept right up to the loophole and, from beneath it, pushed the grenade through, receiving a shot in his hand as he did so. He eventually succeeded in arresting a number of Germans. Fifteen others lay dead in the pillbox.  William, a simple farmer from Natal had earned the Victoria Cross.

William Hewitt was evacuated due to his wounds on 1st October, and was presented with the VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 16th January 1918 and was appointed Acting Sergeant on 1st April.  His Victoria Cross Citation reads:

“For most conspicuous bravery during operations. Lance Corporal Hewitt attacked a pill-box with his section and tried to rush the doorway. The enemy garrison, however, proved very stubborn, and in the attempt this non-commissioned officer received a severe wound. Nevertheless, he proceeded to the loophole of the pill-box where, in his attempts to put a bomb into it, he was again wounded in the arm. Undeterred, however, he eventually managed to get a bomb inside, which caused the occupants to dislodge, and they were successfully and speedily dealt with by the remainder of section.”

Menin 2

Three German prisoners, one wounded, captured in the attack on Vampire Farm near Potijze by South African and British forces, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, 20 September 1917 (same day and attack in which William Hewitt won his VC).

A life less ordinary

William married Lily Ollett in October 1918. She was a shorthand typist. They had met when he was a patient at Tooting Military Hospital in October 1916. William returned to South Africa on RMS Durham Castle on 22nd April 1919 and was discharged the following day. He continued farming until 1925, when they moved to East Africa. He ran a coffee farm there until he sold it in 1939 to rejoin The South African Union Defence Force as a Commissioned Officer at the on-set of World War 2. 

During World War II, William Hewitt VC, now promoted to a Major fought the next World War in Mombasa, East Africa were he acted as a liaison officer and later as an assistant provost-marshal.

William and Lily were living in Nairobi in 1952. When his health started to fail in 1950, he retired to Hermanus on the Cape Coast and finally became a South African citizen in 1955. He returned to Britain to attend the 1956 VC Centenary Celebrations in Hyde Park, London. In the late 1950s, he had been diagnosed with cancer of the larynx and had to have his larynx removed in Cape Town. In the operation, they found shrapnel embedded there. Shortly after the operation, he developed Parkinson’s Disease

Lily brought him back to Britain in 1961 in an attempt to find a cure with a Parkinson’s specialist in Edinburgh. He fell badly twice in his later years and had two severe bouts of pneumonia. Although crippled, unable to speak and almost helpless, he continued the best he could.

William died at Delancey Hospital, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire on 7th December 1966. He was cremated at Cheltenham Crematorium on 10th December and his ashes were returned to South Africa where they were scattered at sea off the beautiful Hermanus Cliffs in South Africa on 2nd January 1974, this scenic location is famous for whale-wacthing and annually South Africa’s migrating Southern Right Whales are seen close to the cliffs as they calve.  It is also the appropriate location for Hermanus’ war memorial.

What a fitting place for one of South Africa’s bravest to laid to rest.

William Hewitt VC – medals

In addition to his Victoria Cross (VC) , William was also awarded the Natal Rebellion Medal 1906, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, War Medal 1939-45, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, and Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953. The VC was presented to Framlingham College by his widow in May 1967. It was held in the Chapel until the College loaned it indefinitely to the Imperial War Museum on 23rd April 2004. It is displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery. The Castle Military Museum in Cape Town owns four of his campaign medals. The other medals’ location are unknown.”

Related Work and Links:

Reginald Hayward VC  “Superhuman powers of endurance and courage” Reginald Hayward VC

William F. Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC

Sherwood Kelly VC “…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

Percy Hansen VC One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross; Percy Hansen VC, DSO, MC

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Extracts from “How I won the Victoria Cross – Story of Major William Hewitt” – Hermanus Historical Society and Dr Robert Lee.  Image of L/Cpl Hewitt copyright IWM Colour Image Colourised by Doug UK. Extracts and later images of William Hewitt taken from ‘The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross’ on-line.  Images as shown copyright Imperial War Museum.

 

South Africa was represented at the Great Pilgrimage 90

G and wreathOn the Wednesday, 8th August 2018, The Royal British Legion recreated its 1928 pilgrimage to World War 1 battlefields for thousands of Legion members (90 years on). Great Pilgrimage 90 (GP90) was the Legion’s biggest membership event in modern history. This Great Pilgrimage ended with in a Remembrance Parade held at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.  The South African sacrifice was acknowledged and remembered at the Great Pilgrimage by the Royal British Legion – South African Branch who laid a special national wreath on behalf of the South African nation as a whole.

To see the original Royal British Legion Great Pilgrimage of 8th August 1928 held 90 years ago, here is an old Pathé ‘silent movie’ newsreel of it (movies did not have sound in 1928), when viewing it note the extent that the Royal British Legion has grown since then:

Menin Gate Parade – GP90

The South African branch of the Royal British Legion was up-front and present in a massive march past, in this sea of standards The South African Branch standard flying proudly with its Churchill Cup scrolls. A special ‘South Africa’ wreath was laid on behalf of South Africa at the Menin Gate itself.

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a war memorial dedicated to the British, South African and other Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient in World War 1 and whose graves are unknown.

There are 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers’ names etched into the gate acknowledging the ‘missing’ who were never found or lie in a grave known only unto God, of which 564 are from South Africa’s forces.

A commemorative service at the Gate mark the centenary of the start of the series of battles that claimed thousands of British, Commonwealth, Allied, enemy and civilian lives during the ‘Last 100 Days’ of the First World War.

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The branch received special permission from the Royal British Legion to lay their wreath on behalf of the country South Africa, as a national wreath (and not a branch wreath). The South Africa wreath was laid in a wreath laying ceremony which saw 1,152 Royal British Legion branch representatives lay a wreath, each containing a message from their community.

38536411_1628560113922305_3087323600189915136_nThe South African wreath contained a message which read “we will always remember them” in some of the key languages of South Africa on the message (space permitting) – English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, North Sotho, South Sotho and Siswati.

The wreaths were arranged into a display within the Menin Gate grounds and will remain in place for public viewing for at least two months. Prominent in the parade were The Last Post Association (LPA), which was also founded in 1928. From that day its members have performed the Last Post at Menin Gate. The only interruption to this homage to the fallen of the First World War was during the Second World War. Everyday, the Last Post Association’s buglers sound the last post at the memorial. It was most fitting  that they lead the GP90 service with ‘the last post’.

Following the parade, everyone there were encouraged to join together to take part in an afternoon of comradeship and entertainment in the Great Square, where there were tableaux, stalls, exhibits & music.

38735944_1846743388736513_606755359960334336_nFor those who did not see it live this video will give you an idea of just how prestigious the parade at Menin Gate was and what a military veteran’s association of magnitude in full colour looks like on parade.

Note: There are over 1,100 Standards from various Royal British Legion Districts, Counties and Branches on parade, a statement of remembrance like this has yet to be replicated on this scale by any single military veterans association anywhere in the world, it’s simply stunning.

It is with immense pride that South Africa was represented and the branch can now add the coveted ‘Ypres 2018’ scroll to the South African Branch Standard.

Battlefield Pilgrimage – Delville Wood Parade No. 1

Prior to the Remembrance Parade at Menin Gate, the Royal British Legion conducted a guided Battlefield tour for all participating members and family.  Over the two days prior to Wednesday’s march (described above). They visited two different general areas, Ypres and the Somme.

Whilst on the Somme the Royal British Legion visited the Delville Wood battlefield, the same wood which saw such tremendous South African sacrifice and bravery when they were ordered to ‘hold it at all costs’.

It was with great honour that Royal British Legion South African branch was able to conduct two small parades in honour of South African sacrifice.

Battlefield Pilgrimage – Parade No.1 at Delville Wood

The first parade was conducted by the South Africans themselves in honour of South African and Rhodesian sacrifice in the wood. The Exhortation and Kohima epitaph was conducted by Robert Perkins from the RBL Gloucestershire County District and RBL Gloucester City Branch.  Graeme Scott attended Standard Bearing duties.

Once again a special wreath was made for the South African branch’s parade at the Delville Wood.  The wreath was laid by Major Herb Cameron from the Royal Logistics Corps and a member of RBL Wotton-Under-Edge Branch.  Maj. Cameron was born and educated in Bulawayo and Plumtree, Zimbabwe to Shona and British heritage.

The message on the wreath says a lot about the sacrifice at Delville Wood and Remembrance, it was an extract from “A Soldiers Song” by Lt. Frederick C. Cornell and it reads:

wreathSleep soft, ye dead,
for God is good –
And peace has
come to Delville Wood!

Battlefield Pilgrimage – Parade No.2 at Delville Wood

The second parade was conducted by four Royal British Legion branches at Delville Wood who asked the South African branch to participate with them in their parade, which they were deeply honoured to do.  Delville Wood remains a key site for British sacrifice as after the South Africans were withdrawn from the wood was handed to British regiments to hold.

In this parade the Parade Marshal was Tony Eglin from RBL Ulverston Branch, ex 4th Bn Kings Own Royal Border Regiment. The bugler was Andy Edgar from RBL Kendal branch, ex 7th Parachute regiment, Royal Horse Artillery.

The Standards on parade – left to right – Rod Eglin from RBL Bransty branch, Janet Eglin from RBL Ulverston Branch and Graeme Scott from the RBL South African Branch.  It is appropriate that we end the battlefield tour by this most prestigious remembrance organisation with a two minutes of silence at Delville Wood from a video taken at this parade.

The Royal British Legion is a sister organisation of The South African Legion and we share a common root as founders of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League.

As Branch Chairman of The Royal British Legion South African branch I would like to express my sincere thanks to Graeme Scott and Merle McArdle who represented the branch – Graeme proudly carried the Standard and Merle laid the wreath. Bravo Zulu to you both. Graeme is also a proud Legionnaire of The South African Legion.  Also thanks go out to Tony Povey, the Vice Chairman, David Watt, the Secretary and Paul Gladwin, the Treasurer for their hard work behind the scenes.  In addition thanks to Lawrence Butler-Perks, the National Branches District Secretary for his hard work and the support of the National Branches District, especially the National Memorial Arboretum Branch for their exceptional support.

You have all done a nation proud.


Written by Peter Dickens – Branch Chairman, Royal British Legion South African Branch

Related work and links:

Delville Wood 100 Centenary: ‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary

In Flanders Fields – Afrikaans: In Vlaandere se Velde

The common root between the Royal British Legion and The South African Legion: Legions and Poppies … and their South African root

Video taken by Johan Moors on YouTube.  Images copyright Royal British Legion, original movie copyright Pathé news.  Video of SA Parade at Delville Wood taken by Alf Forrester, RBL Hardwick and district branch.  Second parade video at Delville Wood taken by Merle Scott of the RBL South African Branch.

About Turn! Smuts’ bust and portrait to remain in place

It has been an interesting couple of days with some very quick ‘damage control’ public relations statements in response to The Sunday Times’ article on the University of Cambridge’s decision to remove Jan Smuts’ bust and portrait from its public spaces.  The good news in all this media spin-doctoring – reason has prevailed and we are assured the portrait and bust of Jan Smuts will remain in public view in their original places.

The Sunday Times Newspaper in London published two articles on Sunday 5 August 2018.  One by Cambridge students topple bust of Britain’s wartime ally Jan Smuts” and this was followed up by a related article by Tony Allen-Mills titled “Fall of Boer hero Jan Smuts would have made Churchill squawk”.  Sian Griffiths referenced her University of Cambridge source stating that “Cambridge confirmed both Smuts pieces had been moved”.

On Monday morning 6 August 2018 The Observation Post published a blog to the above effect titled “To the University of Cambridge’s eternal shame!”.  By Monday afternoon the University of Cambridge was in damage control mode and quickly published a statement to the effect that the bust and portrait are to remain in place, spinning ‘fake news’ by the Sunday Times as the rally point in an article published by Rosie Bradbury titled “Fact check: Jan Smuts portrait and bust were not ‘toppled’ by Cambridge students” in ‘Varsity’ the University of Cambridge’s official news portal.

The University of Cambridge’s joint statement from Christ’s JCR President Grace Etheredge and JCR Vice-President Oliver Jones read “general consensus has been for portraits to remain”, but that historical context of controversial figures should be added outlining “the good and bad of what they did so as to not white wash college history”.

The movement of the portrait was explained by a washy statement which read “the portrait had been temporarily taken down a few years ago, but that the College had swapped it back again.”

They went on with their spin-doctor strategy to still paint Smuts in a poor light by stating; “Smuts publicly denigrated the black population of South Africa” – which is a baseless and unsupported comment.  From a balance point of view, if Cambridge was accusing the Sunday Times of peddling falsehoods, they managed to peddle a falsehood in their response, which ironically would now discredit both Cambridge and the Sunday Times in our eyes.

Now, The Sunday Times is a very well-regarded newspaper, both Sian Griffiths and Tony-Allan Mills are very reputable journalists and to date The Sunday Times has not published a retraction and have stood by their articles and their journalists, and there is something to be said for that.  It is also clear that the University of Cambridge went into counter measure and damage control mode against the backlash the articles created.

To make sure, the Observation Post approached the Smuts family for clarity, and we are assured that the portrait and bust are currently in their rightful place.  We trust and hope that the University takes on board the very negative backlash from the broader community that it serves when considering removing portraits again and continues to be leader in history that it is and serves to honour the people who have served it – especially Jan Smuts.

In this we are glad that for the time being the University has avoided succumbing to the new trend to ‘Revolutionist history’ touted by far left radical ‘anti-colonial’ students. Finally – Reason has prevailed in what has been a sea of insanity,  caused by a very violent counter-history movement in South Africa, the ripple effect of which is now spilling over to the Old Schools.  We ‘doff’ our caps to the University of Cambridge for rectifying and/or maintaining its artworks of Jan Smuts, whichever way it may be.


Written by Peter Dickens

Related article: To the University of Cambridge’s eternal shame!