Reclaiming half a century lost at a Centennial!

On the 11/11/2018 – exactly 100 years after the end of World War 1 on the 11/11/1918, at the exact minute the guns were silenced on the Western Front in 1918, i.e. 11 am, a group of South African veterans stood to attention in London.  They were all taking part in the ‘Cenotaph Parade’ and whilst Big Ben tolled 11 times they reflected during the two minutes silence.

The minutes of reflection and silence was signalled by Artillery Guns whose shots reverberated over London as they marked the beginning of the silence period and the end. The guns had been fired from the Horse Guards Parade Ground by The King’s Troop – just opposite the South African contingent now standing in file in Whitehall with all the other arms of service, regiment, veteran and remembrance associations waiting to march past the Cenotaph.

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Guns of the King’s Troop fired from the Horse Guards Parade Ground to signal 2 minutes silence at the Cenotaph Parade 2018

The retort of the gun literally shattered the cacophony of London’s noise, bringing absolute silence and in so bringing into sharp focus why the South African veterans were there – honouring countrymen who had given their all during World War 1 and in the future wars to come – and it also put perspective on the seven-year long journey they had taken to get there. Nothing in life is simple and nothing can be taken for granted – and the representation of South Africans on this specific parade, on this specific date was no different.

The historical journey of South African veteran contingents marching past the cenotaph in London had not been a continuous one, the early footsteps left by South African First World War veterans in recognition of their comrades lost had been reaffirmed by their Springbok brothers of the Second World War.  However by the 1960’s the footprints came to an abrupt end and the South African veterans were no longer seen at this parade for the next 5 full decades to come, the story of South African commitment and sacrifice to crown during World War 1 and World War 2 fading quickly in the British collective memory.

For these veterans, to stand on this parade in London on this day in 2018, represented as a South African military veteran, proudly wearing the insignia, blazer and beret of South African Legion of Military Veterans is something.  Think about it, and put it fully in perspective, they finally stood to commemorate South African sacrifice at the Centenary of the end of World War 1,  when for a full half Century of that Century there had been no proper annual South African contingent at this prestigious parade – at all.

Here, on the Centenary of the World War 1’s Armistice in London – the South African Legion stood proud in its rightful place as the primo (the first) South African Veteran’s Association  (the SA Legion is also nearly 100 years old itself).  It was also the only South African affiliated veteran association at this climax to the centennial celebrations – the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade.  A lot as to representing South African sacrifice was on the shoulders of this relatively small contingent of South African Legion veterans wearing the Legion’s (and country’s) green and gold.

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South African veteran contingent in 2018 at the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade to commemorate 100 years since the guns fell silent in 1918

So what happened to the South African representation in the past – why did it stop for five decades? How and when was it re-started? Why only the Legion? Why only now and what does the future for South African representation at this parade hold?

More to that, who in South Africa should care, so what – what is the importance of London’s Cenotaph to South Africans anyway?

Why London’s Cenotaph?

So what’s so important about London’s Cenotaph in relation to the other World War 1 monuments the world over, including many in South Africa itself?  Look at it this way, the Cenotaph in Whitehall is the epicentre of ‘remembrance’ of the First World War – for everyone, the world over.

Before the end of World War 1, based on the Red Cross officer Fabian Ware’s recommendation in 1917 the British government and The Imperial War Office, made an extraordinary decision, no British or Commonwealth fallen would be repatriated back to their country of origin.  They would be buried in the country where they fell and their graves, honour roll and monuments would be looked after by a Graves Registration Commission – which we now know as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

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A South African nurse places a wreath on her brother’s grave during the South African Brigade’s memorial service at Delville Wood, 17 February 1918.

This decision was controversial and it caused absolute consternation, the United States of America repatriated their war dead from the western front back to the USA, even the French war dead were repatriated back to their villages or towns.  It was ‘back home’ that family, friends and community could look after their dead – conduct a burial, and the grave could stand as a physical presence of the loved one to pay respects and remember.

With British and Commonwealth war dead now not ‘coming home’ – how were people to remember? Where could family and friends go – not everyone could go to France, Belgium, Turkey and the myriad of countries the British and her Empire fought the war in to visit their lost loved one?  There’s more, even to people who could afford to repatriate their dead to the family plot could no longer do so, let alone those who could not – and officers and men were now buried side by side, with no distinction given to rank, class or race – for a society breaking down Imperial barriers this was revolutionary thinking – but for a part of that society still bent on class differentiation it was an outrage.

A solution to tangibly meet this need and bring the entire remembrance ritual and service back to the United Kingdom was urgently needed, and it needed to be one which remembered all who were sacrified in the service to crown – Great Britain, the Dominions (Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) and all the other British Colonies, Protectorates and Territories.

The solution came in an unintended format, a temporary cenotaph monument, made from plaster and wood had been designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and erected for the London Victory Parade on the 19th July 1919 (to commemorate the Treaty of Versailles). There would be a ‘hollow square’ formed around the structure (as would happen in the field when soldiers hold a drum head service) and the Cenotaph would then act as the ‘Drum head’ – symbolising a tomb.

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Sir Edwin Lutyens’ temporary Cenotaph for the Victory Parade in 1919

The temporary structure with its words ‘The Glorious Dead’ surprisingly met with great public enthusiasm desperately seeking a place to mourn, it became an icon, a beacon – finally there was a physical structure in England itself to which they could remember all the dead, lay wreaths and flowers to lost comrades, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers.   After the parade finished and for some time to come the base of the temporary structure was continuously covered with flowers and wreaths by members of the public. Public pressure mounted to retain it, and the British War Cabinet decided on 30 July 1919 that a permanent replica memorial made of  Portland stone should replace the wooden version and be designated Britain’s official national war memorial.

The permanent stone structure  of the Cenotaph in Whitehall was unveiled in a ceremony by King George V on the 11th November 1920 with the arrival of gun carriage bearing the coffin of an ‘Unknown Warrior’ at 11 am.  In another groundbreaking move to symbolise remembrance a grave marking an ‘unknown’ british soldier was randomly selected (and it could have been anyone, even possibly someone from the Commonweath in a British unit – who knows) and opened in France, this simple soldier, a ‘commoner’ known only unto God was repatriated to England to be buried amongst Kings at Westminster Abby and he was afforded a King’s funeral procession from the Cenotaph

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Now in the west end of the Naive at Westminster Abby, the tomb of the Unknown Warrior has two fine traditions – you cannot walk over it and at any Royal wedding that takes place in Westminster Abby, the bride’s wedding bouquet is always left by the bride on the tomb itself – it’s this lucky chap who gets to catch the royal bouquet.  The text inscribed on the tomb is taken from the bible (2 Chronicles 24:16): ‘They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house’.

The ‘Cenotaph’ in Whitehall is literally the epicentre of ‘Remembrance’ – it is the central grave marker that remembers all the names of British and Commonwealth fallen who were not repatriated ‘back home’ – and the central Whitehall Cenotaph was to be replicated in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg all have their own ‘cenotaph’) as the concept fanned out.

In  the United Kingdom the South Africans were special, a South African hospital complex existed in Richmond (west London) treating WW1 wounded, and in addition to commemorating South African sacrifice at the main Cenotaph in Whitehall, a second Cenotaph – to the design of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ one in Whitehall, with a South African UDF ‘Springbok’ emblem on the top and ‘Our Glorious Dead’ in English and Dutch written on it was erected in Richmond and unveiled by Jan Smuts.

All of this, the concept of the Whitehall cenotaph and even the South Africa’s own cenotaph in London would eventually be lost to South Africa, for half a century, and it’s still lost to many South Africans  – so how did that happen?

South African Pilgrimages 

After World War 1 ended, a number of various returned services i.e. veterans associations came into existence all around Britain and the Commonwealth.  These were all consolidated in a historic meeting held by a newly formatted umbrella body – The British Empire Services League (BESL), and the inaugural meeting took place in Cape Town, South Africa in 1921.  Two people were to play a key role in this consolidation of veteran associations and to a large degree centralising ‘remembrance’ under one guiding body – Field Marshal Earl Haig and General Jan Smuts.

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Field Marshal Haig and General Smuts at the inaugral meeting of The British Empire Services League in Cape Town 1921

This makes South Africa the epicentre of what is now the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services Leagues (RCEL) and the founding partners are the Royal British Legion, Royal Canadian Legion, Royal Legion Scotland, South African Legion, Returned Services League Australia and the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association.

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Relevance to the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  Well, it’s the Royal British Legion, the brother association of The South African Legion, which manages the Whitehall Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph parade and all the key associated remembrance activities in the United Kingdom.

After the South African Legion was formed in 1921 it went about conducting annual ‘pilgrimages’ for veterans of The First World War and families of the South African fallen to go to Europe and make the ‘connection’ with their loved ones who did not come home.

0800_O_2The South African Legion’s pilgrimages to the United Kingdom often took place over the Remembrance period in November, this sometimes involved a parade in Portsmouth at the memorial there to the men lost on the SS Mendi.  They regularly held a parade at the South African Cenotaph in Richmond London, and annually, on Remembrance Sunday they participated in the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade as guests of The Royal British Legion and laid a wreath.  The pilgrimages were almost always linked up with visits to Delville Wood in France and Menin Gate in Belgium.

These SA Legion pilgrimages expanded after the Second World War somewhat, and South African veterans of both World War 1 and World War 2 in the 1950’s regularly took part in the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade on Remembrance Sunday as well as visiting the chapel and South African cenotaph in Richmond.

Half a century of wilderness 

The annual laying of a South African wreath and veteran participation as a south african contingent at the Whitehall Cenotaph parade on Remembrance Sunday came to an end from 1961.

In 1960, H.F Verwoed and the Afrikaner Nationalists, now in consolidated power in South Africa having changed the constitution, pressed for a ‘Republic’ referendum which they won on the narrowest of margins by gerrymandering the vote – ensuring that whites only, and Afrikaner whites in particular, had the only decision on the future of South Africa’s status in the world, and especially its relationship with the United Kingdom – all the other communities in South Africa, the vast majority of her people – coloured, Indian and Black were excluded from the decision to change South Africa’s Dominion status – and all of them, including Nelson Mandela expressed solid opposition to it.

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Opposition to the establishment of a South African Republic and subsequent removal from the Commonwealth

This was followed one year later in 1961 when as a newly minted independent Afrikaner Republic, the Afrikaner Nationalists removed South Africa from the British Commonwealth of Nations amid heavy criticism of their Apartheid policies by all the member states.  The Sharpville Massacre had just taken place in 1960, opposition political groupings had been banned in the wake of Sharpville and the beginning of the 1960’s saw South Africa embarking on an internal armed struggle.

How did the British establishment react to it all in relation to their Cenotaph Parade? The answer – no differently to the way they now deal with Zimbabwe as a ‘rogue’ state outside the Commonwealth.  They simply removed South Africa’s status from the Dominion and Commonwealth High Commission wreath layer line up at the beginning of parade.  If you consider that they had no choice really – South Africa was no longer a Dominion and no longer part of the Commonwealth ‘club’ – so had no place, and given Apartheid South Africa could not really be afforded a special status on a world stage – such was the politics of the day.

In the end it was the Nationalist South African goverment who removed the country from the Commonwealth, not the other way round and it was the government of South Africa who paid scant regard to this sacrifice – seeing it as and act of treachery in support of the hated British instead, not the other way round.

But what about sacrifice and veterans remembrance – here the Royal British Legion came to the rescue in what was turning out to be bad news all around for South Africa and agreed that in the absence of South African representation they would lay the wreath on behalf of South Africa.

What followed was an unprecedented absence of over fifty years, in South Africa the SA Legion as the ‘national body’ for veterans and all related veteran organisations with Commonwealth and British links and shared heritage, including the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), all went into steady decline.  The newly reconfigured South African Defence Force under the ideals of Republic went on to insidiously remove or relegate to secondary status all the deeds of bravery, heroes, insignia, heritage, history, medals and any other links to the United Kingdom.  In effect the South African veterans of World War 1 and World War 2 now found themselves marginalised by the government – victims of Apartheid in effect.

This short Pathé Newsreel of the time explains the gravity of the decision to leave the Commonwealth and make South Africa a Republic very well, take the time to watch it.

The removal of South Africa from the Commonwealth spurred ‘The Springbok’ magazine, the South African Legion’s mouthpiece to lead with a headline ‘What Now!’ The truthful answer – not much!  Government finances were gradually squeezed off, recruits from the armed forces were squeezed off, the poppy appeal gradually losing its momentum and relevance in South Africa as catastrophic and seismic political events in South Africa over took it.

In this general decline in relevance outside the commonwealth, decline in national party government support for old ‘union defence force’ veteran affairs and decline in public finance from donations – was the decline in SA Legion’s annual Pilgrimages to Europe, and with that general decline in just about everything, eventually also went the annual laying of the South African veterans wreath by the Royal British Legion at the Whitehall cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

1994 is significant in many ways, South Africa rejoined the British Commonwealth of Nations and was reinstated in things like the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade – and today the South African high commissioner joins the wreath party with all the old and current dominions i.e. Canada, Australia, India and New Zealand and given first honour to lay their wreaths ahead of all other Commonwealth member states.  It stands to reason – these were the key contributors to the British military advance – in World War 1 and World War 2 (missing from this line up is Zimbabwe – which continues to be controversial as they continue to remain outside the Commonwealth – as South Africa had).

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But what of the South African military veterans component of the Whitehall Cenotaph Parade itself – the critical connection of this contingent to the remembrance of their brothers in arms’ sacrifices –  marking the recognition of their graves on foreign soil by passing the epicentre memorial of Remembrance in London – even as late as 2011, no South African identified contingent of veterans was properly represented.  The Canadians and even the USA, Czech Republic and Poland have had representation in the past 50 years – but not the South Africans.

Why?

Reconstituting South African veteran representation in the UK

I arrived in the United Kingdom in 2010 after a stint in Australia, whilst in Australia – as a South African military veteran – I had joined SAMVOA, the South African Military Veterans of Australasia and I was amazed at the camaraderie and inclusion South African veterans received from the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL), we were happily included in the annual state ANZAC Day parades and afforded all the privileges of RSL members.  The historical military links between South Africa and Australia forged during WW1 and WW2 remembered and stronger than ever.  The open gratitude of the Australian community expressed to all veterans – Australian and just about anyone who has served in a statute force with a link to Australia was something to behold.

MOTHOn arrival in the U.K. I tried to make contact with a South African Council of Military Veteran Organisation affiliated SAMVOA equivalent to participate in the London Cenotaph Parade, only to discover that no such organisation existed.  I watched the cenotaph parade on telly, gob-smacked to see visiting US Marine veterans on parade and not a South African in sight.  Advances to find out the status of MOTH (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) shellholes in the UK were met with disappointment – they had no marketing and were closing down shellholes hand over foot and had even done away with the enshrined regulations behind the order – that is it was a ‘Order’ for ‘Combat/Operational statutory force military veterans’ only.  However civilians and veterans alike could now join the MOTH Order in the U.K. on an equal level – a change in enshrined MOTH qualifying criteria done to try to keep the order afloat in the U.K, which in its own odd way also serves to undermine the principles of the order.

In 2011, after contacting the Royal British Legion to take part in the Cenotaph parade and been declined, I found myself as a single solitary South African veteran in a Trafalgar Square Royal British Legion (RBL) side-show for the general public laying a wreath in one of the ponds, and I noticed a single solitary MOTH member doing the same.  That was the sum total of  South African veteran representation in London on Remembrance Weekend.

Something had to be done, South African representation had slipped into nothing, general amnesia as to South African inclusion in any key state driven veteran or remembrance activity had set in across the entire establishment in the United Kingdom. Half a century of exclusion does that.

It also was not helped by the fact that from 1961 until that point in 2011 the South Africa embassy in the United Kingdom’s military attaché had not taken to much public Remembrance Representation work, nor had they established any significant links with The Royal British Legion or the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League.   The old guard SADF attaché wanted nothing to do with these organisations and by the time the new guard SANDF attaché had come in they had no context or knowledge of the historical links, nor is it a current priority of theirs to reforge them (all too ‘colonial’ frankly).

As a result neither the South African military establishment or veteran associations were on the United Kingdom’s ‘remembrance Calender’ radar – at all.  Not ‘recognised’ = not ‘invited’ = not ‘represented’.

bokclear3In 2012 I colluded with a fellow South African veteran, Norman Sander, to address the matter, and looking at the history, links and association between The South African Legion and The Royal British Legion we felt a branch of The South African Legion in the United Kingdom was the route to go.  Godfrey Giles, the then National President of The South African Legion agreed and a branch materialised in the U.K.

All good right, representation at last – not on your nilly, there was a long and hard road to come.  In 2012 we approached the RCEL and received our contingent tickets for  the Cenotaph parade with open arms – then a mere two days later an apology arrived from a faceless bureaucrat to say that the Royal British Legion was ahead of itself in issuing the tickets and they had to be retracted – as South African Legion we were not ‘recognised’ (their term exactly).

This ‘non-recognition’ was utter balderdash, codswallop of the highest order and It was clear to us that within the British establishment there existed concern over South African military veterans – the whole ‘Apartheid legacy’ and ‘leaving the Commonwealth’ issue had extended its tentacles into an area where it had no place whatsoever – Remembrance of the Fallen.

EBQYPI5XC5G2RLQJ7OTLOFGWNUHighly annoying, and before it blew up out of proportion, to overcome the problem a solution was presented by The Royal British Legion themselves.  Come into the fold as a Royal British Legion branch, advance the relationship and values of The South African Legion and the Royal British Legion as a brother organisations, work up the credibility as veterans after a 50 year absence, create a South African presence at the Cenotaph parade and become ‘Recognised’ from within the establishment itself.

Norman headed off to Africa to take on a new life, so the establishment of the South African Branch of the Royal British Legion and the formatting of the South African Legion in the United Kingdom fell on my shoulders.  The Royal British Legion (RBL) had in effect thrown the South Africans a life-line and its a life-line the RBL would come through for the South African Legion and South African veterans time and again.

Back in the fold

Things had changed when it came to the annual Whitehall Cenotaph Parade in the past decade.  It had become a well oiled institution with an unchanged parade order developed and refined over decades – and the same BBC announcer rolls off the ceremony with the same camera positions, year after year.  No upstart ‘new-comer’ is going to reinvent this process in a hurry.

The parade is run in two parts by three separate institutions working together. In essence there is a ‘front part’ involving the Royal Family, Representatives of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, Representatives of the House of Commons and House of Lords and the Representatives from all the Commonwealth states i.e. High Commissioners – including South Africa.   They conduct the ceremony of wreath laying in the ‘hollow square’ around the Cenotaph i.e. in accordance with a drum head service.  This bit is run by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Department of Culture, Media & Sport.

The second part, the ‘back part’ which is the ‘march past’ the Cenotaph is generally run by The Royal British Legion.  There are four general parts to it.

Firstly – British Service Associations (Regiment Associations and the like) who have served the ‘crown’ in the past and who continue to serve ‘crown’.

Secondly – Guests of the Royal British Legion, these are associations allowed to parade from time to time because of their links to Britain – and here we find a mixed bag of Polish veteran associations and Czech contingents (because of their association to The Battle of Britain) as well as invited US Marine veterans etc (D-Day association). ‘Guests’ come and go based on ticket demand (there is a limited allocation) and changing circumstances, and as our MOTH colleagues unfortunately found out at the centennial cenotaph parade this year when their tickets were not issued – a ticket in this category is by no means an assured one for annual parading.

Thirdly, there is the Royal British Legion themselves and their branches – and as an international brotherhood it is into this category that the South African Legion veteran contingent falls (and other countries represented within the RBL’s shere of influence itself  – the Canadian Legion and veterans are a case in point).

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South African Legion contingent march past the Whitehall Cenotaph in 2017

Finally there is a section open to the general public to participate, and in the case of the centennial this fell to a ‘ballot system’ to randomly select applications from members of the public for what is known as the ‘people’s march’.

The disappointment of 2012 behind us, 2013 found the South African veteran contingent represented for the first time as South African Legion when a handful of about 10 tickets were allocated to The RBL South African Branch, and this spiked a greater demand – and with that unfortunately came controversy within the South African veteran community in the U.K.

By 2014 there were 50 South African veterans represented as SA Legion at the Whitehall Cenotaph parade – a huge honour and reflection on the hard work been done to get South African representation at this parade over the line.  The Royal British Legion had provided a ‘life boat’ for the South Africans towing it along in what was going to be a very troubled sea – and this RBL lifeboat would eventually even save the Delville Wood Centenary Parade in France for all South African military veteran associations in 2016.

Troubled seas ahead, and typically the South Africans were making waves in their own tub. From October 2014 to May 2015 the South African Legion in the U.K. found itself marred by a number of veterans wanting to pull the organisation in all sorts of conflicting directions.  The old adage came true – put two South Africans in a room and they will come up with three political parties, and it all essentially boiled down to individual members trying to shoe horn Legion values (and even things like Legion dress code) into the values and codes of other veteran associations or even into their own individual perceptions and needs.  The net outcome of this is that a few good men decided to jump out the life boat and try to swim it alone, highly regrettable and the unfortunate outcome is that they took their eyes off the ball, and none of them made it to the finish line on 11/11 at Whitehall.

Re-dedication of South Africa’s own Cenotaph in London

2014 saw more significant advances in bringing South African representation back to its rightful place in the UK – and that was the rededication of South Africa’s own Cenotaph in Richmond, London – and it was literally a case of ‘Lost and Found’.

The South African Hospital was established in Richmond Park in London in June 1916. In July 1918, it was amalgamated with the Richmond Military Hospital, to form the South African Military Hospital, in order to provide care for the large number of South African troops serving in the First World War.

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Rededication of the South African War Memorial in Richmond London by The South African Legion

The South African Hospital and Comforts Fund Committee decided to erect a memorial to commemorate thirty-nine South African soldiers who were buried in Richmond Cemetery, which was at that time known as ‘soldiers corner’. The memorial carries an inscription in both English and Dutch (which was at the time a recognised official language of SA). Called ‘The South African War Memorial’ it was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and derives from Lutyens’ Cenotaph in Whitehall. Yes, the same one that rises to prominence on Remembrance Day in London.

The South African War Memorial was unveiled by General Smuts in June 1921 and it became the focus of South African pilgrimage throughout the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. Since then it became neglected and lay forgotten until 1981, when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) agreed to take on the maintenance of the memorial on behalf of the Nationalist South African Government – who had expressed no interest in it whatsoever and did not even acknowledge it on the SADF’s list of South African war memorials overseas.

In 2012 the South African War Memorial in Richmond was awarded a ‘Grade II’ status and was added to the List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest. However, still, no South Africans in authority were even aware of its existence. To that point, the last parade held at the memorial had taken place there more than 70 years ago.

Tom Mason, a member of The South African Legion in the United Kingdom, came across this memorial whilst members of the CWGC were cleaning it.  The history of it pricked Tom’s interest and he brought it back to the South African Legion.

In quick time the South African Legion U.K. arranged a rededication service for the memorial and notified General Andersen of the SANDF of the monuments existence. The monument is now proudly again listed on South Africa’s official war memorials as outlined by the SANDF.  The monument is now also the central location for annual South African Pilgrimages as well as regular South African memorial parades in London.  The South African Legion’s emblem was proudly unveiled at a centenary parade in the Richmond Cemetary Chapel in thanks to renewed interest in the site.

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By May 2015 the Royal British Legion – South African branch also brought the site to the attention of the RBL. The RBL SA Branch standard was officially dedicated in a ceremony held at the Richmond Cemetary Chapel and South African War Memorial Cenotaph next to it – the dedication took place with numerous branches of the RBL and other veteran organisations in attendance.   This South African RBL standard now proudly carries three scrolls on it – it has twice won ‘The Churchill Cup’ as a branch for dedication, growth and reputation and it took part in GP 90 in 2018 and carries the ‘Ypres 2018’ scroll.

Throwing out a significant life-line

rblegion_displayBy November 2015, a large South African Legion veteran contingent of 40 odd veterans found themselves on parade at Whitehall during the Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph parade, the HMS RBL bravely toeing the South Africans along.  However a bigger challenge was looming – much bigger, and it would be the Royal British Legion to the rescue again – not just for South African Legion veterans in the U.K, but for all South African veteran organisations and formations in South Africa itself – and it took place in France.

In the beginning of 2016 arrangements in South Africa were going on swimmingly for the marking of the centenary and the extensive South African sacrifice in The Battle of Delville Wood in France in July 1916.  An entire South African pilgrimage had been arranged for this centenary event in France – consisting of family members, high school students, all South Africa’s regimental and armed forces associations which fall under the banner of the SA Council of Military Veteran Organisations and all veteran associations – including the South African Legion and Memorable Order of Tin Hats –  leave, flights, hotels and busses – all booked.

Then step in the former South African President Jacob Zuma, who decided that the Centenary commemoration date of the Battle of Delville Wood itself did not suite his travel plans.  So he changed it, with a couple of months to go ,then he ordered the military and high commission to toe his line, closed the site to his date only and threw everyone else’s plans out the window.

The long and short, it was impossible to move the entire South African pilgrimage to the Somme and The Battle of Delville Wood for the Centenary to suit the President’s new date.  Help was needed for the hundreds of South Africans which were going to be stranded on the Somme with no commemoration to attend – and it came from The Royal British Legion working in conjunction with the Royal British Legion’s South African Branch, The South African Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to use of the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in France as an alternate venue.

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2016 Delville Wood and Battle of the Somme Centenary Parade and Pilgrims – Thiepval memorial – France

In this way all The South African pilgrims in France could celebrate the centenary of the full commitment and sacrifice of South Africans to the Somme offensive including, but not exclusive to Delville Wood.

Thiepval was also relevant, although it’s the ‘British’ go-to memorial on the Somme it is also a South African memorial – the official designation of Thiepval is the “Memorial to the 72, 195 British and South African servicemen, who died in the Battle of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 – 1918, with no known grave”. The Thiepval Memorial records the names of 858 South Africans lost during the Somme offensive – including all the ‘missing’ from The Battle of Delville Wood.

The Royal British Legion (RBL) events division jumped in – keen to assist, and they blocked one of their daily “live broadcast” Somme Parades and dedicated the 10th July to a specific South African day.

The Delville Wood Centenary Remembrance at Thiepval parade went ahead on the proper date – and it went ahead to achieve high acclaim from all South African veteran associations and it marked a great success all round – especially to the family members of South Africans lost on the Somme and to South African High Schools and Youth Organisations attending the Somme centenary – who otherwise would have had nothing at all.

and … ‘across the line’

In 2016 and 2017 the South African Legionnaires continued their representation at the annual Whitehall Cenotaph Parade on Remembrance Sunday.  In 2017 the South African Legion also formalised an annual pilgrimage parade at the Richmond South African Cenotaph on ‘Poppy Day’ which is the annual Saturday preceding Remembrance Sunday.

By the time the centenary of the end of World War One came around on the 11th November 2018 (1918-2018) at 11am – the South African Legionnaires were front and forward.  Attending the parade in the South African branch lifeboat, which had come through and carried the South African contingent over the line.  It had been one heck of journey, along the way the bonds and ties between the two Legion’s had been deepened and secured, the South African veterans had risen to show their true colours of leadership and determination winning both Royal British Legion accolades and respect. The presence of the South Africans now ‘recognised’ and the relationship between the two organisations stronger than ever and growing.

46414873_2282468318648820_3105975316011548672_nAs to the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), a South African veteran order with a root in both countries – the U.K. and S.A.  As a combat brotherhood, many South African Legionnaires on the Cenotaph Parade in Whitehall are also members of the order, so too many Legionnaires – most representing their specific shellhole. The MOTH has benefited from the resurgence of the SA Legion in the U.K. as they now have an avenue to present themselves at Legion led South African commemorative parades – such as the Remembrance Parade now held regularly on ‘Poppy Day’ in Richmond at the South African cenotaph located there.

The future looks bright as long as the ‘special relationship’ with the Royal British Legion is kept, trying to swim it alone in a foreign country in the hopes that the British establishment will somehow bend their entire remembrance culture to suite this or that South African idiocracy is a foolish endeavour, and that unfortunately has been proved time and again, and it stood in stark proof to all present at the Centenary Cenotaph Parade in London.  A better course is to stand in unity and with singular voice, demonstrating values acceptable to the host – and the Royal British Legion’s South African Branch is the ideal vessel to do this – sink this particular boat and the rest will ultimately all slip away.

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South African Legionnaires on the march during the centenary cenotaph parde 11/11/2018

You can see now why a lot was on the shoulders of the South African veteran’s at the Whitehall Cenotaph when that gun signalled the silence during the Armistice Day Centenary Parade, they stood to proud attention as the only South Africans represented there aside from the High Commissioner.

46486079_10156609075626480_8970198184500396032_nIt had been a journey starting a century ago when the guns were silenced on the western front, and it had been a journey to correct half a century of silence as South Africa stood in exclusion.

Here these veterans finally stood in recognition of South African sacrifice at the very epicentre of the entire Remembrance movement started here one hundred years previously – soundly in memory of those South Africans who ‘did not come home’.


Written by Peter Dickens

Related work:

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

Great Pilgrimage 90 South Africa was represented at the Great Pilgrimage 90

Photos of SA Legion courtesy Theo Fernandes and Karen Dickens, colourised photographs copyright Imperial War Museum and DB Colour.  Pathe clip ‘South Africa Goes’, YouTube sourced.  Legion marching video thanks to Catherine Dow.

 

The Black Watch and the Delville Wood Lament

If you think you are tough, try taking up bag-pipes again after been wounded through both cheeks – now that’s eye-watering tough. Men and women of the 1st World War generation were are cut from an entirely different cloth, and Bag Pipers in particular are something else,

With South Africans honouring the centenary of World War 1, we should remember this particular action and this man – as this is what honour truly is all about – and it’s why the Pipes and Drums and their traditions are such a key part of military life and remembrance.

Relief of South Africans holding Delville Wood

45831688_2276883062540679_4739443793491656704_oOver 100 years ago at the Battle of Delville Wood, the hellish action for the South Africans holding the wood had finally ended, and they were played out by Black Watch bagpipes in honour of their heroism and bravery – this is the story of Pipe Major Sandy Grieve and the role he played that day.

On the 20th July 1916 the British 3rd Division’s 76th Brigade finally managed to link up with the beleaguered South African Infantry Brigade ‘Springboks’  holding Delville Wood and the first to do so were the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Eventually leading elements of the Suffolks and the 6th Royal Berkshire Regiment reached the South African positions.

The shattered, bloodied, shell-shocked Springbok soldiers who had held the wood since the 15th July ‘at all costs’ aroused such pride in the British soldiers relieving them they formed an honour guard to lead them out the wood.

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Abandoned German trench at Delville Wood 1916

121 officers and 3 032 men of the South African Infantry Brigade had gone into the wood to hold it and a smattering of this force was left after they were subjected to volley after volley of enemy artillery attacks (400 shells per minute), and wave after wave of German attacks, the fighting so desperate that some resorted to hand to hand combat.

The tiny group of South Africa survivors were now led out of Delville Wood in honour to the shrill of the Black Watch’s bagpipes, the two wounded officers in front of the 140 remaining members of the Brigade. When General Lukin took the salute as the men filed past, he didn’t only return the salute; he removed his cap and wept.

The honour still remains in The Transvaal Scottish Regiment who had fought at Delville Wood, and you can see it to this day, since 1938, members of the Transvaal Scottish have worn the Black Watch’s ‘red hackle’ on their khaki  tam o’ shanter as a symbol of South Africa’s connection with this very famous Regiment and the honour attained.

And history also preserves a picture for us on this day,  here are the men who piped the South Africans out of Delville Wood. 8th Battalion, Black Watch being issued a rum ration, 20 July 1916, Delville Wood France.

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The Black Watch Highland Brigade pipers were in fact led by Piper Sandy Grieve, and he had first met South Africans in completely different circumstances when he took part in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and had fought against the Boers as part of the Highland Brigade,  During the Battle of Magersfontein on the 11th December 1899, he would not forget the Boers in a hurry, as he was wounded through both his cheeks. Imagine going back to playing the bagpipes after that injury.

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Black Watch Red Hackle

Now part of the South African Scottish Regiments who had bravely held onto Delville Wood, It was this very man who now took the honour of playing the South Africans out of the Delville Wood on his pipes along with those of the Black Watch.

Sandy Grieve went on to honour the South Africans again, at the Drum Head service held at Delville Wood in France after the war in 1918, he played the lament of his own composition called ‘Delville Wood’

Now, Sandy Grieves’ history and connection with South Africa is a deep one. he immigrated to South Africa after the 2nd Anglo Boer War, joined the South African Armed Forces and served in both the First World War and Second World War with the Cape Town Highlanders – this is one very extraordinary man and here is a short video on him and well worth anyone’s time to meet him.

Honour

Looking at this video you cannot but only agree on two things, that the men and women of the 1st World War generation were cut from an entirely different cloth to the rest of us, and the traditions of honour forged in blood and battle should be forever preserved and never be underestimated or simply disregarded for this or that political whim in the 21st century.

When standing to remembrance on armistice day (1918-2018), remember Delville Wood, remember the ‘Piper’s Lament’ and remember just what it means when fellow soldiers of different musterings, traditions and wars honour the sacrifice of  our ‘brothers in arms’ 100 years ago.

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The Red Hackle of The Black Watch in South Africa. 12 Red Hackles seen on the men and women in the Transvaal Scottish at Heidelberg Shooting Range


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Reference – Ken Gillings’s Bush & Battlefield Tours, National Museum Scotland for the video profile on Sandy Grieves.

Related Links:

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

Battle of Delville Wood 400 shells/min fell on the Springboks … “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”

A Colonel who single-handedly rushed machine gun posts; Harry Greenwood VC

Honouring South African World War 1 heroes who have won the Victoria Cross for Valour, the ‘VC’, the highest British decoration for bravery.  When it comes to Victoria Crosses, the British government (and VC Trust) recognises ‘South African’ Victoria Crosses as those VC decorations won by South Africans in South Africa’s own Armed Forces (pre Republic) or recipients from other countries who won the VC whilst under South African Command, or recipients born in South Africa, or those recipients who made South Africa their home prior to the start of the war.

As to the last definition, this officer’s ‘South African’ VC is something else, as a senior officer, a Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col.), he led from the front single handily taking out machine gun nests and setting a supreme example of bravery and leadership to his men – and he did this time and again.

His story dispenses with a typical myth surrounding WW1, that the officers sat behind the lines in safety and comfort as their men ‘went over the top’ and chewed through lead and barbed wire fighting in the blood and mud on the western front.  The opposite is in fact true, British and Commonwealth commissioned officers, senior and junior, fought and died in their droves advancing on German defences side by side with their men. In fact your chances of surviving the war were significantly less if you were an officer. This is the story of one of these officers, Lt Col. Harry Greenwood VC, DSO & Bar, OBE, MC.

Background

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Lt Col. Harry Greenwood VC, DSO & Bar, OBE, MC.

Henry “Harry” Greenwood (1881-1948) was born on 25th November 1881 in Victoria Barracks, Windsor Castle, England, where his father was serving with the Grenadier Guards. He was the eldest of nine children born to Charles Greenwood of Nottingham and Margaret Abernethy, who hailed from County Tipperary, Ireland.

He enlisted in the British Army in 1899 to take part in the 2nd-Anglo Boer War 1899-1902 (The ‘South African War), arriving in South Africa from January 1900. After the Boer war ended, he returned to the United Kingdom demobilised and then headed straight back to South Africa to make a new life, whilst in South Africa he put his military skills to use and he joined the South African Constabulary.

At the outbreak of the First World War, he returned to the United Kingdom and re-enlisted in the Army as a Reservist officer joining the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

Western Front

Harry Greenwood was to serve in the front-lines on the Western Front literally from the outbreak of the war to the end of it.  In his time he took part in just about every offensive The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry took part in – from the Battle for Loos to the final battles in 1918 and along the way he was wounded three times – missing the odd offensive to recover, he was mentioned in dispatches three times and he also managed to pick up a number of gallantry decorations including amongst others – the Victoria Cross.

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Men of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry fuse Stokes trench mortar shells near Wieltjie, 1 October 1917.

MC

MilitaryCrossWW1His string of remarkable acts of bravery began when he was awarded the Military Cross (MC)  in January 1916, recognising his gallant actions on 26th September 1915 during the Battle of Loos (25 September – 8 October 1915) near Hill 70, Loos, France.

DSO

His MC was followed up with higher acclaim – the DSO (Distinguished Service Order). In July 1918, he was awarded his DSO for devotion to duty during two heavy attacks by the German on The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry’s positions.

The enemy attack was made under cover of mist and it was repulsed by the British, however a hostile enemy machine-gun detachment succeeded in getting within 50 yards of the British line causing significant carnage and sending machine gunners, officers and men into cover.

Distinguished_Service_Order_correctHarry Greenwood’s battalion was by this stage very short of machine gunners owing to casualties, Harry Greenwood, along with an Non-Commissioned Officer rushed out from their defences with total disregard to the incoming enemy fire, he found a fellow British officer and some men hiding in a hollow with a heavy machine-gun, Greenwood then ordered them to carry it back to his lines, being all the time under intense fire. The gun was then used on the enemy to very great effect.

Bar to his DSO

Harry Greenwood DSO, MC was to win the Distinguished Service Order again (Bar to his first DSO), again taking on enemy machine gun nests. His Bar to his DSO (London Gazette, 2nd December 1918) was for conspicuous gallantry during an attack. Although ill, Greenwood refused to leave his battalion and led the first line to the attack.

During the attack, when capturing he first objective he was injured by a shell burst. Carrying the injury he elected to continue and take the second objective of the attack. On reaching the second objective he re-organised his battalion along with another battalion, and took up a defensive position from which he beat off two enemy counter-attacks.

He continued to hold his ground until relieved. The very next day, the British advance was held up by very heavy machine-gun fire, he made a daring individual reconnaissance of the enemy positions, spotting a weakness he returned and then inspired his men by successfully leading them around the enemy’s flank. 

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Battle of Tardenois. Men of the 2nd Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (62nd Division) examining a captured German Maxim 08/15 (Spandau) machine gun with French and Italian officers. Bois de Reims, 24 July 1918. French officer’s regimental markings were obscured by the military censor.

Victoria Cross

Over two days of fighting from 23rd to 24th October 1918, Lt Col. Harry Greenwood was to win the Victoria Cross.  His battalion was to advance eastwards towards Ovillers in northern France – the target was Dukes Wood.  Early in the morning of 23rd the Harry Greenwood’s Battalion advance was stalled by an enemy machine gun post which had not been mopped up by the advancing unit on the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry – 9th. battalion’s right flank, and the battalion started taking heavy casualties from the German machine gunners.

At this point Harry Greenwood decided enough was enough and he jumped up and single-handed rushed the German machine gun post which was firing at point-blank range, he then proceeded to kill all four of the machine gun’s crew.

With the machine gun out nest of the way the advance was back on again, Harry Greenwood’s battalion arrived at the village of Ovillers where they encountered yet another enemy machine gun post at the entrance of the village, which again held up the advance. Once again Lt Col. Harry Greenwood rushed the machine gun, with two of his men this time, and they proceeded to kill all the gun’s crew.

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Battle of Tardenois. Sentry of the 2/4th Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry looking out for the enemy in the Bois de Reims. Note corpses of dead horses on the road.

On reaching the objective, Dukes Wood, Harry’s 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry had lost contact with the two units advancing on their left and right flank.  Lt Col. Greenwood and 250 of him men found themselves isolated and surrounded by enemy machine gun posts of significant strength.

The Germans, upon seeing Lt Col. Harry Greenwood’s force almost isolated immediatly counter attacked on the right flank and succeeded to getting within 40 yards of Harry’s battalion’s position before the attack was broken up by the besieged British.

Lt Col. Greenwood then inspired his men, who were now well in advance of their own covering artillery barrage, to push through and take the final objective – they swept forward cheering as they went and took German positions in Dukes Wood.  In taking the German defences they captured 150 prisoners, 8 machine guns and one field gun.

Not resting on their laurels of Victory for too long, the very next day the 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry was back in the thick of it, and so to Lt Col Harry Greenwood – there’s more to his Victoria Cross than the 23rd October 1918.

On the 24th October, the 9th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were given the objective of taking a ‘Green line’ south of Poix Du Nord.  Once gain as the Battalion advanced they were held up withering fire from enemy inter-crossing ‘wired’ machine gun posts positioned along a ridge.

Lt Col. Greenwood decided to do a personal reconnaissance and he discovered that a part of the ridge that was held by one enemy machine gun only.  Again, he demonstrates unbelievable bravery when he once again rushes this machine gun nest single-handedly and kills all the gun’s crew, so close and perilous was this  individual charge that they were firing at him at a range of just 20 yards.

Lt Col. Greenwood then advances his men into this gap he now created by disabling the machine gun nest. The whole flank of machine gun posts on the ridge was turned and the British advance proceeded through Poix Du Norn, with Lt Col Greenwood’s Battalion sweeping aside a further line of  machine gun posts that were encountered just north of the town.

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Men of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, cleaning up a captured German trench at Bois de Reims during the battle of Tardenois, 23 July 1918.

Upon finally reaching their objective, the Battalion came under intense enemy machine gun and artillery fire. The Battalion started to take heavy casualties and their line position and line ‘wavered’ under the intense enemy counter-attack.  However Harry Greenwood was going to hold his ground and in full view of the enemy and under withering enemy machine gun fire he jumped up and walked up and down his line, encouraging his men to hold their line and beat off the counter-attack which they subsequently did.

During the afternoon of the 24th October, Harry’s Battalion was given another objective on Grand Gay Farm Road, and once again his advanced was hampered by heavy machine gun posts not cleared up by Battalions advancing on his battalion’s flanks.  He pushed his men to take their objective and silence the machine guns in front of him and then swung the battalion to the right flank to take the machine guns allocated as the objective of his flanking battalion – thus securing his objective and that of the right flank for the Division.

Citation

For his example set during the two days fighting Lt Col. Greenwood’s  utter contempt for danger, bravery and inspiring leadership won him the Victoria Cross. London Gazette, 26th December 1918.

Lt Col. Henry (Harry) Greenwood VC, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry,  Ovillers, France 1918

medalWhen the advance of his battalion on the 23rd October was checked, and many casualties caused by an enemy machine-gun post, Lieutenant Colonel Greenwood single-handed rushed the post and killed the crew. At the entrance to the village of Ovillers, accompanied by two battalion runners, he again rushed a machine-gun post and killed the occupants. On reaching the objective west of Duke’s Wood his command was almost surrounded by hostile machine-gun posts, and the enemy at once attacked his isolated force. The attack was repulsed and, led by Lieutenant Colonel Greenwood, his troops swept forward and captured the last objective, with 150 prisoners, 8 machine-guns and one field gun. During the attack on the Green Line south of Poix Du Nord, on 24th October, he again displayed the greatest gallantry in rushing a machine-gun post, and he showed conspicuously good leadership in the handling of his command in the face of heavy fire. He inspired his men in the highest degree, with the result that the objective was captured, and, in spite of heavy casualties, the line was held. During the further advance on Grand Gay Farm Road, on the afternoon of 24th October, the skilful and bold handling of his battalion was productive of most important results, not only on securing the flank of his brigade, but also in safeguarding the flank of the division. His valour and leading during 2 days of fighting were beyond all praise.

Second World War

Harry Greenwood was invested with the Victoria Cross, and the Bar to his DSO, by King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 8th May 1919. In 1919, Lt. Col. Greenwood retired from the Army, having been wounded in action three times and mentioned in despatches three times, and resumed his career as a company director, however when World War 2 broke out their was still more soldering in this Anglo Boer War, South African Police, First World War veteran and he but served with the Pioneer Corps during the Second World War.

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Harry Greenwood after receiving his Victoria Cross, and the Bar to his DSO from King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 8th May 1919.

For his service in the Second World War, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1944.

Remembrance 

Harry Greenwood died in his house just after WW2 at 77 Home Park Road, in Wimbledon, South London on 5th May 1948, and was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery.

Because of his history in South Africa prior to World War 1 and the specifications surrounding the Victoria Cross, Harry Greenwood’s VC is shared by both the United Kingdom and South Africa.

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In 2013, in order to correctly address South Africa’s Victoria Cross winners, as the issue of South African VC winners in British Regiments had taken a back seat whilst the Afrikaner Nationalists were in power.  It was bad enough for the Nationalists to recognise VC winners, but worse still to recognise those South Africans winning it in British units – so in all – of all the South African VC’s won in World War 1 and World War 2, the government of the day at the time would only recognise 4 recipients, that is, only those who served in South African Regiments/Units – out of a total of 20 South African VC winners in all. In the UK the lack of South Africa’s resolve to promote and remember all thier VC winners (unlike Australia and Canada) led to a gradual decline and loss of the historic record.

To clear up the matter, and honour VC winners of South African heritage or those who had made South Africa their home prior to the war, The Victoria Cross Trust and the UK government approached  South African Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to confirm the number of South Africans that were awarded the Victoria Cross during World War One.

To correct the matter, the British then officially listed all recognised South African Victoria Cross winners on a special VC commemoration plaque which they shipped to South Africa.  The plaque was unveiled by the British High Commission at a ceremony in Cape Town in late 2014 at the Cape Town Castle, where it is proudly still accessible to the public – and it includes the name of Lt Col Harry Greenwood VC.

In the United Kingdom, Harry Greenwood VC is recognised with a Blue Plaque at his place of birth, it’s located in Windsor at the Victoria Barracks in Sheet Street and reads “Lt. Col. Harry Greenwood VC DSO OBE MC 1881-1948 Born in Victoria Barracks Awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery at Ovillers, France in 1918 serving with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry”.

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Even more recently in the United Kingdom, special Victoria Cross stones honouring recipients at their places of birth have been installed in ceremonies all over the country in the lead up to the centenary of World War 1.

They are unveiled in public spaces by the respective councils on the day that the VC was won exactly 100 years.  Harry Greenwood’s ceremony took place a couple of weeks ago, his Victoria Cross citation was read out by Colonel Dan Reeve MC, late of the Rifles. Then the vice-Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire Jeffery Branch unveiled the stone. Harry Greenwood’s great-nephew Michael Greenwood read out a list of names of members of his ancestor’s battalion who died over those two days in 1918. He described his great-uncle as someone who never stayed behind as his men went over the top but went with them, doing his best to protect them.

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The Great Great Grandaughter Clara Levacy of WW1 VC Winner Harry Greenwood honours him in Bachelors Acre, Windsor – Picture: Mike Swift.

At a small ceremony held in Doncaster on the 17th July 2002, the family of Lieutenant Colonel Harry Greenwood donated his Victoria Cross medal group to the Regimental Museum of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in Doncaster.

His medal group consisting of the VC, DSO and Bar, OBE, MC, Queens South Africa Medal 1899-1902 with four clasps, King’s South Africa Medal 1902 with two clasps, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oakleaf, Defence Medal 1939-45, War Medal 1939-45, King George V Silver Jubilee Medal 1935 and King George VI Coronation Medal 1937.

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Story Researched and Written 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

Oswald Reid VC “Bravery in the face of desperate circumstances” Oswald Reid 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 where indicated.  The recommendation by Brigade commander C V Edwards for Temporary Major (acting Lt-Colonel) Harry Greenwood DSO, MC.  Mike Swift and Francis Batt from the Royal Borough Observer.

 

A bad ‘driver’ and an equally bad ‘siren’ suit

Looking at this image I’m reminded of two things not known to many people about Smuts and Churchill and both are equally bad.  That Winston Churchill invented some bizarre things, including the rather unflattering ‘siren suit’ and Jan Smuts as a family man, whose entire family would vanish whenever he got close to his automobile.

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Taken on the 23rd August, 1942 in the gardens of the British Embassy, Cairo, this photo shows Winston Churchill in his infamous siren suit and wearing yet another odd hat.  The small boy is Victor Lampson, the son of the British Ambassador to Egypt, who seems uncertain as to whether he wants to pose for Jan Smuts’ camera (seen in his left hand) as Churchill looks on in cheerful mood. Photo: Birmingham Mail and Post

Jan Smuts and automobiles 

So, lets kick off with Jan Smuts’ ability to make his family collectively disappear whenever he proposed driving them somewhere in his car.  Simply put, this Reformer, Prime Minister, Lawyer, Philosopher, Military Strategist and Botanist – with all his unsurpassed intelligence just could not get his great intellect around the simple idea of safely driving a modern automobile.

Smuts used to head off from his home in Irene, just outside Pretoria, with his grandchildren on the back seat of his car.  Whilst driving along some or other interesting idea would enter his mind and he would take his hands off the steering wheel, turn around – taking his eyes off the road completely and address the kids on the back seat on the subject at hand.  Much to the collective terror of everyone in the car except Smuts, the car would then veer off the road and careen into the veldt and fields until Smuts paid attention to it again and brought it back onto the road.

So whenever Smuts proposed going anywhere in the car, with him driving it, his family, in fear of their lives would suddenly make themselves very scarce.  Clearly he was more comfortable riding a horse, which by all accounts during the Second Anglo-Boer War he was very good at.

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Jan Smuts’ Cars – taken at the Smuts House Museum near Pretoria. The black car is his 1946 Cadillac which he used when he was Prime Minister. The other car looks like a 1948 Buick, photo thanks to Brian Parson.

Thank you to Philip Weyers, Jan Smuts’ great grandson, for that interesting insight into his family.

Winston Churchill and siren suits 

As to another intellectual giant, Sir Winston Churchill, note Winston Churchill’s “siren suit” and wide-brimmed hat (he loved hats) which he used when resting to totter around the garden in, building walls, painting but he also unabashedly wore them meeting Presidents, Cabinet Ministers and Generals.

Similar in style to boiler suits or overalls worn by many workers including mechanics, brick layers and tank crews to protect their standard clothing, the ‘siren suit’ was a more upmarket version of a boiler suit and is said to be invented by Churchill as an original leisure suit in the 1930s.

Churchill played a large part in popularising his all-in-one suit as an item of clothing during World War 2, wearing it regularly, including when meeting other important people such as U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, General Dwight Eisenhower and even Joseph Stalin.

During the Second World War it was marketed as a one-piece garment for the whole body which is easily put on or taken off, originally designed for use on the way to and whilst in air-raid shelters. The suit solved the problems of warmth and modesty encountered when seeking shelter during night-time air raids.  It was said to be roomy and could be put on over night-clothes quickly when an imminent air raid was announced by the city’s warning sirens.  Hence the term ‘Siren Suit’.

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They are perhaps more commonly associated with pop starlets and reality television stars – but the true pioneer of the onesie was Winston Churchill. Photo Life Magazine

Winston Churchill had a number of these gormless ‘onesie’ siren suits, and some of them were even designed for him by the best tailors of his time – a pin stripe version which he wore during the war years and then for portraits was made by Oscar Nemon and Frank O. Salisbury.   After the war in the 1950s another siren suit, made of bottle-green velvet, was created for him by Turnbull & Asser. It is also claimed that Austin Reed made a siren suit for him.

In Conclusion

So there you have it, the awful ‘onesie’ was pioneered by Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts was an awful ‘driver’. For all the intellectual brilliance both these men represented, both men were just that – men, and they both had the usual flawed human traits and odd quirks.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Posts and Links

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

Churchill and Smuts’ friendship: Churchill’s Desk

Thanks a Million!

Whoo-hoo … my blog, The Observation Post just hit the 1,000,000 views mark!

I started this blog after my father’s death around this time in Hermanus, South Africa – fondly known locally as ‘Prof Dickens’ to many locals, it was just three short years ago and in a way it is a homage to the library of military history books he left to me to reference, his passion for the subject and it was really set up in his memory.

In my small way I wanted to capture the joint passion for the subject we both felt, debated and endlessly discussed over a glass of whiskey – very often overlooking Schulphoek bay from his art gallery surrounded by all his military aviation and maritime artworks.

The work in essence was a cathartic experience for me at the difficult time of my Dad’s death as it gave vent to all the knowledge and nuggets of South Africa’s military history imparted to me or inspired by my Dad, and I’m extremely happy to share all his legacy, he would have been pleased as punch with it – there are now 323 stories published, 57 stories currently been ‘polished’ waiting to go and well over 200 more stories in basic draft pending.

Both my Dad and I were Marketing people in our time and The Observation Post can now be found in multimedia, it has a blog with an e-mail subscription, a linked Facebook ‘Page’ (just click like and click the prompts to follow it), a linked Twitter account and even a Facebook ‘Group’ discussion forum were you can interact with me directly and share your own interesting historical nuggets with like-minded people.

Blog: https://samilhistory.com

FB Page: https://www.facebook.com/samilhistory/

FB Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1987664881245816/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/samilhistory

Aside from my Dad, ‘Thanks a Million’ to you, all the avid followers of the blog, the readers of the material, it’s your support which keeps it going and it’s your feedback that motivates me to bring more historical nuggets so often gleaned over, written out of the school history books and ignored for political expediency in South Africa.

Here’s to another Million Dad – Cheers!

Peter Dickens

Remembering a South African killed in the Vietnam War

Yup, you’ll find the South African connection in nearly every major modern-day conflict, even in the Vietnam War,  Today we remember a South African of dual nationality who died during the Vietnam War, Lieutenant John Louis Molynaeux Jr. We’ll also recall the  tumultuous events surrounding his death, as this was the peak of the Vietnam War around period of the ‘Mini Tet’ offences which took place some months after the main ‘Tet offensive’ in 1968.

Background

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1st Lt John Louis Molynaeux Jr

John Louis Molynaeux Jr was born in Australia on the 13th January 1946 and grew up in South Africa as a naturalised South African – going to St. Charles College, Pietermaritzburg, Natal before returning briefly to Australia.  At the onset of the Vietnam War he went to the United States and volunteered to join the United States Marine Corps.

He was mustered into the 1st Battalion 5th Marines, known as 1/5 , these US Marines were deployed to some of the heaviest fighting in Vietnam. The 1/5 participated in action around Chu Lai, Danang and Quang Nam.  During the war Lt Molynaeux found himself as a Junior Commissioned Officer in A Company 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, III MAF.

Tet 

The Tet Offensive was a series of surprise attacks by the Viet Cong  (rebel forces sponsored by North Vietnam) and North Vietnamese forces, on scores of cities, towns, and hamlets throughout South Vietnam.  The Tet Offensive was the most defining battle of the Vietnam war, where planning and infiltration of North Vietnamese Army regulars into South Vietnam continued relatively unnoticed over an extended period of time, and it resulted in a multi-faceted and well-coordinated attack designed to destabilise the South and enact a complete people’s overthrow of South Vietnam, with all its American and the Allied forces included. It all kicked off on a day the American and South Vietnamese forces least expected it – on the evening of the 30 January 1968 during the Tet holiday festivities (the Vietnamese New Year).

The Tet Offensive was audacious to the say the least and it even included the ‘safe’ capital city of South Vietnam, Saigon – where insurgents even breached the embassy of the United States. The Tet offensive was to cumulate in the historic city of Hue, with its iconic Citadel and Imperial Palace as a backdrop.  The battle at Hue was a gruelling street to street, house to house affair not seen since World War 2 and it took place mainly between the US Marines alongside the South Vietnamese troops (ARVN) fighting in a ferocious battle against North Vietnamese Army regular troops (NVA) and Viet Cong irregulars. It was a desperate battle which literally flattened the beautiful city of Hue.

The intensity of the US Marines’ battle for Hue is seen in this short video clip.

In the middle of the battle for Hue, on 12 February 1968 was the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines as they joined the South Vietnamese Army (the ARVN), moving into the city from the north by helicopter and landing craft. The Marines went in on the left flank; the 3d ARVN Regiment was in the center, and the Vietnamese Marines, who had replaced the airborne battalions, were on the right flank. The attack ground inexorably forward. On 22 February, the Marines seized their final objective, the southeast wall of the Citadel.

By prior agreement, the Marines stayed out of the fight for the Imperial Palace. At dawn on the 24th, the South Vietnamese flag went up over the Citadel; and that afternoon, the Black Panther Company went into the now deserted Imperial Palace. Mopping up of the NVA remnants went on from 25 February until 2 March when the battle was declared over.

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Marines assaulting Dong Ba Tower in the City of Hue, Feburary 15, 1968. Photo By John Olson. (Photo Courtesy Atlantic Monthly Press)

Mini Tet

After the failure of the Tet Offensive in early 1968, the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong irregulars withdrew into the country side and regrouped.  By mid to late 1968 a second Tet Offensive opened up, phase 2 of the Tet Offensive, especially in areas surrounding the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). These offensives became known as ‘Mini Tet’.

The US Marines initiated two key operations using the 1/5 Marines (and other Marine Battalions) to seek and destroy the enemy during Mini Tet just south of Danang, Operation Allen Brook which was quickly followed by Operation Mameluke Thrust.

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Members of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Division Regiment on patrol (Marine Corps/National Archives).

From the 1st to the 31 August 1968, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines found themselves taking part in Operation ‘Mameluke Thrust’ in the Southern part Dai Loc and northern part of Duc Duc districts in the Quang Nam Province.  Known generally as ‘Happy Valley’ by the Marines  the ‘operation took place just southwest of Danang in August 1968

KIA

1-5_battalion_insignia1st Lieutenant John Louis Molynaeux Jr was tragically Killed in Action towards the end of Operation Mameluke Thrust on the 31 August 1968 when he detonated a Viet Cong ‘Booby-trap’ (now know as an Improvised Explosive Device or IED) whilst on patrol in Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam. He was 22.

The US Marines took a heavy toll during Operation Mameluke Thrust, in all the Marines had suffered 269 dead and 1730 wounded, however in the standard of the time of counting ‘death toll’ or ‘body count’ they saw it as a victory claiming the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong lost 2,728 killed and 47 captured.

Remembrance

Today 1st Lieutenant John Louis Molynaeux Jr (service number 0103695) is remembered by both The United States of America and Australia.   His name can be found on the Vietnam War memorial –  45W LINE: 015 for anyone to pay respects to him.

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Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard takes a rubbing of John Louis Molynaeux Jr’s name the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC.

The then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited the United States Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington on March 7, 2011 and she took the special time to take a rubbing of his name.  Sadly, no such tribute or recognition has been paid to him by his other country of naturalisation – South Africa.

USMC-Officer-EmblemNext time you are in Washington and visit the Vietnam War Memorial, be sure to look him up, the Observation Post salutes you John Louis Molynaeux Jr, may your memory be forever kept alive, under all the nation’s flags with whom you served and made your home, including South Africa.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

With thanks to Graham Du Toit for his on-going work in keeping memories of these brave South Africans alive on digital media.  Mast image shows marines on patrol in ‘happy valley’ in mid 1968 during ‘Mini Tet’ – Operation Allen Brook, it would have been on a similar patrol that John Louis Molynaeux Jr would be KIA by triggering a IED.

 

Recommended for the Victoria Cross; Battle of Britain hero; Percy Burton

Today we highlight an act of bravery by a South African during the Battle of Britain which could have earned him the Victoria Cross but unfortunately did not – heralded and remembered in the United Kingdom, his act is hardly known of in South Africa.

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Flight Officer Percival Ross-Frames Burton

So let’s have a look at this remarkable South African and his action, and lets remember what ‘sacrifice’ actually meant to the small group of South African airmen defending the last bastion European modern democracy and liberty against the invasion of a Nazi totalitarian tyranny.

There is truth in the words of Sir Winston Churchill when he said “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few” – and in truth Percy Burton’s death epitomises exactly the type of sacrifice made by these ‘few’.  His action is astounding and it’s one which reflects the desperate nature of the fight between young men on both sides and in so it is as deeply tragic as it is liberating  – this is the true ‘Price’ paid.

Background

Percival (Percy) Ross-Frames Burton was born in 1917 in Cape Province, South Africa.  A military man from the outset, during peacetime he initially joined the South African Coast Garrison and Citizen Force in 1935.

Before the start of the Second World War, Percy decided to read Jurisprudence at Oxford University attending Christ Church College in 1938. An active sportsman’ he took part in the University’s rowing team and boat races and was the reserve cox for the Oxford crew.

Whilst at Oxford, Percy Burton also learned to fly with the University’s Air Squadron.  At the onset of war in October 1939 he volunteered and took up a commission in Royal Air Force Reserve (Service Number 74348), and after completing his training at Flight Training School Cranwell he arrived at 6 OTU, Sutton Bridge on the 22nd June 1940 to convert to Hawker Hurricanes.

After one month of training on hurricanes Flight Officer (F/O) Percival Ross-Frames Burton found himelf in RAF No. 249 Squadron.  Just in time to walk straight into The Battle of Britain which kicked off in earnest from the 10th July 1940, and he was to fly alongside another great South African hero in the Battle of Britain – Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis DFC and Bar.

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249 Squadron – Left to Right P/O Percival Ross-Frames Burton; Flt/Lt Robert ‘Butch’ Barton; Flt/Lt Albert Gerald ‘Zulu’ Lewis; P/O Terry ‘Ossie’ Crossey; P/O Tom ‘Ginger’ Neil; P/O Hugh John Sherard ‘Beazel’ Beazley; Sqn/Ldr John Grandy C/O; P/O George Barclay Flt/Lt Keith Lofts. (Colourised by Doug)

A ‘successful’ days’ action

On the morning of 27th September 1940, No.249 Squadron was scrambled into action. Burton took off from North Weald in Hurricane V6683 at about 08:50am with eleven other No.249 Squadron Hurricanes.

RAF 249 Squadron’s Hurricanes rendezvoused with Hurricanes RAF 46 Squadron and they began to patrol Wickford before being vectored to the Maidstone area where enemy activity had been reported.

When they got to Maidstone they encountered German aircraft in two defensive formations heading south at low-level.  A defensive circle of German Luftwaffe Bf 110s were spotted over Redhill and above them German Luftwaffe Bf 109 fighters were sighted higher up. Flight/Lt Butch Barton rallied No.249 Squadron into a diving attack the Bf 110 formation from out of the sun and individual combats (dogfights) then ensued.  The German Bf 109 fighters flying top cover for some reason did not get into the ensuing dogfight – it was later assumed they had not seen the attacking RAF Hurricanes.

It was a successful day for 249 Squadron, when the Squadron’s Hurricanes returned to North Weald they claimed an impressive eight enemy aircraft destroyed and a further five probables, but it came with a price and Flying Officer Percy Burton had paid the ultimate price.  However he had done so in a manner which simply breathtaking.

Cutting a Bf 110 in two

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Hauptmann Horst Liensberger

During the action Percy Burton locked onto and vigorously pursued a Bf 110 flown by Hauptmann Horst Liensberger in a desperate engagement which covered  a distance of about forty miles (64 kilometres), weaving around at an extremely low altitude, often little more than treetop height.

Percy Burton chased the Bf 110 at this low-level, until they arrived over Hailsham, Sussex when Burton’s ammunition had all been fully expended, with silent guns Percy Burton continued the chase and the two aircraft skimmed over the rooftops. The Bf 110 simply could not shake Burton off.

At this point Percy Burton was flying slightly above and behind the twin-engined BF 110 light bomber aircraft when suddenly, and in an unprecedented manoeuvre, he banked his Hurricane, dived down and collided with the Bf 110 in mid-air, literally chopping the Bf 100 into two.

The Bf 100’s Empennage (the tail assembly including the flying surfaces – rudder and elevator) dropped out of the sky and fell into a field, it was followed by the remainder of the severed enemy aircraft’ (the wings, dual engines and cockpit) falling uncontrolled out of the sky into the field – along with Burton’s wingtip.

The Bf 110 pilot Hauptmann Horst Liensberger his rear-gunner, Uffz Albert Kopge, were killed outright. Flying Officer Percy Burton’s Hurricane, now missing its wingtip was also out of control and he crashed into a huge oak tree on New Barn Farm.  The impact of hitting such a large oak tree was so excessive it threw Burton out and clear of his Hurricane.

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A powerful artists impression showing the ultimate sacrifice by Percy Burton of 249 Squadron as he rams the Stab-V LG1 Bf110C of Horst Liensberger/Albert Koepge.

Burton was killed and his Hurricane burned out. Eye-witness reports indicated that Percy Burton had deliberately rammed the Bf 110 in a final act of valour.  Percy’s body was found riddled with bullets, which led to speculation that Percy Burton was severely wounded in the attack and had consciously pursued and rammed the Bf 100 knowing he was not coming back.

As to a conscious decision to ram the Bf 100, fellow RAF pilot Tich Palliser who had also witnessed the collision from the air reported:

“I saw his contortions, then I saw him straighten out and fly straight into the German aircraft. I was close enough to see his letters (squadron code-markings), as other pilots must have been who also confirmed the incident, which in itself caused me to realise that my young life and its future, if any, had jumped into another dimension.”

The German witness also tells a tale young lives sacrificed, A colleague and friend of the Bf 110 pilot, wrote at the time of the incident:

“I regarded Horst Liensberger highly as my commander and as a human being… Over the radio we heard his last message: ‘Both engines are hit … am trying to turn … it’s impossible … I will try to land.’ Then nothing more.” 

Recommendation for a VC

249-SqdrnAs all the eye-witness reports indicate strongly that Percy Burton deliberately rammed the Bf 110 in an act of sacrifice. In a letter from Fighter Command to the Hailsham ARP Chief, Percy Burton was recommended that for this action, bravery and sacrifice at Hailsham that he receive a posthumous Victoria Cross.

However, because of the speculated issues surrounding his action, and much to the outrage, displeasure and disappointment of his fellow pilots in No. 249 Squadron, Percy Burton did not receive the VC or any gallantry award for that metter and he was only ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’.

Remembrance 

If you wish to visit another brave South African in a foreign field, Percy Burton is buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, Tangmere, England (Plot E, Row 1, Grave 480). In 1980 a road in a housing estate near the crash site was named ‘Burton Walk’ in his memory. There is also a humble memorial plaque dedicated to Burton’s memory at Hailsham near the oak tree that he hit.

The two German crew were initially buried in Hailsham Cemetery but were exhumed after the war and buried elsewhere.

42677047_745687879101397_8494527446912073728_oLooking at this recently colourised image of Percy Burton by Doug, we are reminded of just how young these brave men were, Percy Burton was just 23 years old when he boldly sacrificed his life.  In perspective he was the ‘millennial’ of his time, however it is very difficult to imagine a modern millenial facing the hardship, morality, bravery and sacrifice that this – the ‘greatest generation’ – faced.

No similar such acknowledgements or symbols of remembrance to Percy Burton exist in South Africa today, it’s also very possible that almost no South Africans even know of his existence or the brave action that nearly earned him the Victoria Cross – and he is not alone, the South Africans who took part in the Battle of Britain remain obscured and his story is one of many.  Their stories left to the wayside after 1948 as seismic political forces over-shadowed these brave South Africans fighting to preserve a liberated world in the sky over England during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940.

In our small way, The Observation Post hopes to keep this history alive, knowing in the full grace of time that these South African men and their very brave deeds are captured and not forgotten.  The Observation Post salutes and remembers you Flight Officer Percival Ross-Frames Burton.


Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Stories and Links

Zulu Lewis ‘Ace in a Day’ TWICE! … Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis

Ray Davis A USA claimed South African born ‘Battle of Britain’ Fighter Ace

Frederick Posener South African Battle of Britain “Few” – Frederick Posener

Stapme Stapelton ‘Stapme’ the handlebar moustached South African & Battle of Britain icon

Sailor Malan Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

David Haysom The South African Battle of Britain “Few” – David Haysom DSO DFC

References and extracts

The Battle of Britain monument, London – on-line.  Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  Colourised images by Doug and DBC Colour.