The Red Oath

Pride in “Rooi Lussies”(red tabs), worn by most, branded “Rooi Luisies” (Red Lice) by some.

At the start of World War 2, the South African armed forces were woefully understrength having only 3,500 permanent force members and 14,000 volunteers in citizen force regiments and rifle associations (Active Citizen Force). General Jan Smuts needed to increase these numbers dramatically, and he did not want to institute conscription to do so, the call to fight would be based on volunteerism. The idea was to initiate a Oath declaring the free willing and voluntary nature South Africans felt in going to war against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and eventually Imperial Japan. The success of this call for volunteerism is staggering – in the end a total of 342,792 South Africans volunteered to participate in World War 2.

Also of that statistic nearly one quarter of the total ‘white’ adult population at the time volunteered for service, consider what Smuts had achieved, the Nationalists were unable to raise anywhere near these numbers in 1966 to their cause and had to implement forced conscription for the SADF.

The ‘Red Oath’ or ‘Service Oath’ was taken by all these volunteers when joining the South African Union Defence Force (UDF) from 1939, it was a Service Oath to legally enable the Union to send soldiers outside the borders of South Africa (soldiers in the UDF were only legally obliged to protect South Africa itself if it were invaded). The oath read:

“That I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George VI and his heirs and successors according to law … That I will perform to the best of my ability the duties assigned to me as a volunteer member of the Union Defence Forces … That I will serve anywhere for the duration of the present war and for a period of six months thereafter unless otherwise legally discharged.”

This manifested itself in ‘red epaulettes’ issued to all service-personal who ‘volunteered’ to serve in the armed forces during the war and took the ‘Red Oath’. Sensitive to sympathetic political feelings many Afrikaners had towards Germany, by implementing the oath the Smuts government gave the opportunity for permanent force members sympathetic to Germany to remain in the Union’s forces, and not go to war against them – they just didn’t get to wear the red tabs.

The original ‘red’ oath specified service anywhere in “Africa” and was called the ‘Africa Service Oath’ (ASO), it was changed to the ‘General Service Oath’ (GSO) once the Axis Forces in North Africa were defeated so that volunteers could be used in the European theatre and the word “Africa” was changed to “anywhere”. Those who did not want to fight in Europe and who had taken the ‘Africa’ oath only were returned to the Union.

A handful of permanent force UDF members did not take either red oath, some felt inevitably ‘singled out’ by not wearing the tabs (and in some cases resigned), whilst others took pride in their political convictions and wore their ‘clean’ epaulettes, sans the red strip with pride.

Images: Pride in the Red tabs and Let’s Go South Africa, showing proudly the tabs propaganda posters.

This WW2 South African propaganda poster, promoting the ‘Red Oath’ and the special volunteer epaulette flash worn by all who took the oath and volunteered for service during World War 2 was designed to swing opinion in the Afrikaans community where the wearing of the red flash was seen as an oath to the British and viewed by some as betrayal. In these sections of the Afrikaans community they where called ‘Rooi Luisies’ (Red Lice) instead of ‘Rooi Lussies” (Red Tabs), as a means of degrading those who volunteered.

Image: British (left) and South African (right) uniforms from the Italy Campaign during WW2, note the red tabs on the epaulettes.

Of interest is the ‘Africa Service Medal’ awarded to all who served in South African Forces during the Second World War, the ‘red tab’ in this medal’s ribbon is symbolic of the The Red Oath taken and the tabs worn.

The ‘Erasmus Reforms’ to the defence force was implemented by FC Erasmus after the Afrikaner Nationalists came to power in 1948. Deemed more necessary when the Nationalists converted the South African Union’s Defence Force to that of the Republic’s Defence Force in 1961 and these reforms would see the idea of the ‘red’ oaths to the British royal family as the symbolic head of South Africa and red tabs removed. Some citizen force regiments however carried on with the tradition as a historical nod to their participation in the Second World War on their step out uniforms, the Cape Town Highlanders a case in point.

Written and Researched by Peter Dickens


The Smuts Government Justification of Emergency Regulations and the impact thereof on The Ossewabrandwag (1939-1945) by Anna La Grange

The Springbok Record – published by the South African Legion

2 thoughts on “The Red Oath

  1. Africa Service Oath first.

    Then the General Service Oath came into being with the defeat of the Axis Forces in North Africa.

    General Service Oath started being discussed
    and taken very late 1942 and early 1943.


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