Battle of Monte Cassino – Italy

Famous LIFE colour photo taken after the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. May 1944 Allied soldiers – British, American and South Africans hold up Nazi trophy flag while combat engineers on bulldozers clear a path through the debris of the bombed out city.

The Battle of Monte Cassino was a costly series of four assaults by the Allies against the Winter Line in Italy held by Axis forces during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The intention was a breakthrough to Rome.

At the beginning of 1944, the western half of the Winter Line was being anchored by Germans holding the Rapido, Liri, and Garigliano valleys and some of the surrounding peaks and ridges. Together, these features formed the Gustav Line. Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia, dominated the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys. Lying in a protected historic zone, it had been left unoccupied by the Germans. They had, however, manned some positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey’s walls.

Repeated pinpoint artillery attacks on Allied assault troops caused their leaders to conclude the abbey was being used by the Germans as an observation post, at the least. Fears escalated along with casualties, and in spite of a lack of clear evidence, it was marked for destruction. On 15 February American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of high explosives, creating widespread damage. The raid failed to achieve its objective, as German paratroopers occupied the rubble and established excellent defensive positions amid the ruins. Between 17 January and 18 May, Monte Cassino and the Gustav defences were assaulted four times by Allied troops, the last involving twenty divisions attacking along a twenty-mile front.

The German defenders were finally driven from their positions, but at a high cost. The capture of Monte Cassino tolled some 55,000 Allied casualties, with German losses being estimated at around 20,000 killed and wounded

Photographer: Carl Mydans – LIFE magazine. Reference wikipedia

South Africans in the Battle of Menin Road Ridge – WW1

Rare photo of South Africans in action during World War One. Battle of the Menin Road Ridge; part of the Ypres initiatives. A wounded South African being given a hot drink by a Padre and a comrade, after the attack on Potsdam (a German stronghold near Zonnebeke). Near Potijze, 20 September 1917.

Image copyright – The Imperial War Museum

Flying Cheetahs – the South African Air Force in the Korean War

Not many South Africans are aware that South Africa took part in the Korean War, well here is a rare original colour photograph of a North American F-51D Mustang fighters of No. 2 Squadron of the South African Air Force in Korea. Here they are seen conducting run-ups during the Korean War in 1951. This F-51 Mustang No. 346 crashed on 29/11/1951 tragically killing the pilot Capt Janse van Rensburg.

This rare photo courtesy and thanks to Ian Pretorius from his Dad’s collection, then Lt M S (Mike) Pretorius.

A true South African hero – Cpl. Lucas Majozi DCM

A very notable South African hero. The highest award gained by a Black South African soldier in the Second World War was the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) awarded to a stretcher-bearer, Lucas Majozi (1916-1969).

The DCM was the second highest British award for gallantry after the Victoria Cross. It was awarded to Lucas Majozi for the great bravery that he displayed during the epic battle of El Alamein which commenced on 23 October 1942 when the British 8th Army under command of General B L Montgomery attacked the German/Italian forces under command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The 1st South African Division played a spearhead role. It had to breach the German minefield which had been sown with more than half a million mines. The 1/2 FFB, soon after the battle began, was pinned down in the minefield by German machine gun and artillery fire. The regiment suffered very severe casualties. Throughout the night of 23 October, the stretcher-bearers worked under heavy enemy fire, tending to the wounded and evacuating them from the battlefield. For the purpose of this article, the citation given to Lucas Majozi, NMC, for the DCM is given below: No N 17525 Cpl Lucas Majozi, NMC, a Zulu from Zastron, Orange Free State att. FFB – Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The citation to the Award says:
‘On the night of October 23-24, Majozi accompanied his company into action as a stretcher-bearer. In the later stages of the action when he was within 100 yards of the enemy and under heavy fire, he thought nothing of his personal safety and continued to evacuate casualties assisted by co-bearers.

He was then wounded by shrapnel, but he continued evacuating the wounded. Told by a medical corporal to go back to the regimental aid post, he replied that there were many wounded men still in the minefield.

He went back, and with the assistance of other stretcher-bearers, he brought back more wounded. After his co-bearer had become a casualty, he did not waver, but carried wounded men back alone on his back to the aid post.

When he was eventually told by the Company Commander to go back, he smilingly refused and remained on duty, working incessantly till he collapsed next morning through sheer exhaustion, stiffness, and loss of blood. His extreme devotion to duty and gallant conduct under continuous enemy fire throughout the night saved the lives of many wounded men who would otherwise have died through loss of blood or possible further wounds.’

At a parade in Egypt after the battle, the commander of the 1st South African Division, Major-General Daniel Hermanus Pienaar (popularly known as Dan Pienaar) said of Lucas Majozi: ‘This soldier did most magnificent and brave things. With a number of bullets in his body he returned time after time into a veritable hell of machine gun fire to pull out wounded men. He is a man of whom South Africa can well be proud. He is a credit to his country.’

After the war, Majozi returned to the town of his birth, Zastron. In 1948 he joined the South African Police (SAP), attaining the rank of sergeant. He died in 1969. The South African National Museum of Military History is in possession of both this portrait by the famous artist, Neville Lewis and his medal group.

Captured German Bf 109F in South African markings

During World War 2, captured aircraft in working condition were quickly pressed into service and it was not unusual to find captured Spitfires and Hurricanes in German marketings, and no different on the Allied side as well.  The South Africans also used captured aircraft and here’s some visual proof.  This is a captured German Messerschmitt Bf 109F, given South African Air Force markings and serial ‘KJ-?’, parked on the airfield at Martuba No.4 Landing Ground in North Africa,  January 1943. It was “operated” by No. 4 Squadron, South African Air Force. Note tail of B-24 Liberator on right.

South Africans participating in D Day – Lt. Cecil Bircher

Remembering D Day and the extreme bravery of quite a number of South Africans who took part in it.

Two South Africans seconded to the Royal Marines were awarded the Military Cross for gallantry on D-Day. This is the citation for one of them Lieutenant Cecil Arthur Douglas Bircher, South African Forces (attached to the Royal Marines).

“Lieutenant Bircher was Officer Commanding Troops in a Landing Craft Tank known as a LCT(A) carrying part of his troop. The craft engines broke down and it was towed from a position off the Isle of Wight to the assault area by a LCT and a LCI. On 6th June 1944 when approaching the beach at Bernieres-sur-Mer these craft had to cast off the LCT(A) which was left drifting sideways in a strong tide about 150 yards from the beach. Although there was a heavy sea running and the beach was still under close range fire, Lieutenant Bircher, without hesitation plunged into the water and swam about 100 yards to the shore with the beach lines. On arrival on the beach he secured the lines to some stakes, enabling his craft to beach, and disembarked his section of Centaur tanks. He subsequently led his section from the Canadian Sector in which he had landed into the sector of the 50th (N) Division to which he was attached although enemy opposition still persisted between the two sectors . Throughout the operation Lieutenant Bircher showed personal courage of the highest order and unflinching determination in the most adverse conditions to get his guns into action at the right time and place.”

The chosen image shows Royal Marine Commandos of 47 (RM) Commando coming ashore from LCAs (Landing Craft Assault) on Jig Green beach, Gold area, 6 June 1944. LCTs unloading priority vehicles of 231st Brigade, 50th Division, can be seen in the background.

This is pretty much the situation Lt Bircher would have found himself in with his unit of Royal Marines and their tanks in a LCT awaiting to disembark.

Image copyright – Imperial War Museum. Caption and citation reference ‘South Africa’s D Day Veterans’ by Cdr W.M. Bisset – SA Naval Museum.