South Africans at war against the Japanese! … the story of Pik van Noorden

South Africans in special forces units in the Second World War. The Advance on Rangoon March – May 1945 and here Gurkha paratroops check their equipment before being dropped around Rangoon during the Burma campaign. Now, what have these legendary Gurkhas and South Africans in combat have in common?

Involved in this drop and attached to the Gurkhas for their attack on Elephant Hill against the Japanese was one of South Africa’s most remarkable soldiers, a man who subsequently went on to command 5 South African Infantry Battalion after the war and become the SADF’s Director of Infantry.

“Pik” van Noorden served in North Africa during World War 2 as an artillery officer, firing at German tanks over open sights at Tobruk, escaping as the garrison fell, fighting at Alamein and then volunteering for the Royal Marines.

Trained as a commando, he led his platoon ashore on D-Day with 47 (Royal Marine) Commando and was involved in some heavy fighting as they executed an independent task. Later withdrawn to undergo parachute training, he was dropped behind German lines to carry out a secret mission.

Next he was posted to 42 (RM) Commando in India and participated in the amphibious assault on the Japanese at Myebon in Burma, as well as the subsequent bitter battle for Hill 170 near Kangaw.

Later, van Noorden was attached to the Ghurka parachute battalion that jumped at Elephant Point during the capture of Rangoon (see picture of the said Ghurka airborne which accompanies this article). During the battle the Gurhka battalion reached Elephant Point, and close-quarters fighting then took place, with flame-throwers being used against several Japanese bunkers guarding the battery. About forty Japanese soldiers and gunners were killed during the assault, and the battalion also sustained several casualties. After the battery had been secured the battalion dug in around Elephant Point and awaited the arrival of the relief force.

After the war van Noorden commanded 5 SA Infantry Battalion and the Infantry School, became Director of Infantry and retired as a Major General. His medal group is also of great interest because it includes the France & Germany Star and the Burma Star, as well as the Union Medal and the Pro Patria.

Article reference – The South African Military History Society – Eastern Cape Newsletter – primary contributor and with thanks to McGill Alexander, supplementary information – Wikipedia. Image copyright and caption reference -The Imperial War Museum.

War in Darfur – Operation Cordite

Looking into South Africa’s more recent involvement in Peacekeeping Missions in Africa.  Here, on  2 August 2010. South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Lieutenant Justin Heath, from Boksburg (greater Johannesburg), forms part of the UN peacekeeping mission to the Sudan for 7 months.

He is seen here patrolling in Tiksas, a village abandoned by the population some years ago due to the war in Darfur.

The War in Darfur is a major armed conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, that began in February 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups began fighting the government of Sudan, which they accused of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. The government responded to attacks by carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the indictment of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.

Estimates of the number of human casualties range up to several hundred thousand dead, from either combat or starvation and disease. Mass displacements and coercive migrations forced millions into refugee camps or across the border, creating a humanitarian crisis.

The Sudanese government and the JEM signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2010, with a tentative agreement to pursue peace. However, talks were disrupted by accusations that the Sudanese army launched raids and air strikes against a village, violating the Tolu agreement. The current situation is that the JEM, the largest rebel group in Darfur, vowed to boycott future negotiations.

Operation Cordite in Sudan began in July 2004 with the deployment of South African National Defence Force staff officers and observers to Darfur, Sudan, in support of the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) It was an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force operating primarily in the country’s western region of Darfur with the aim of performing peacekeeping operations related to the conflict in Darfur.

The AU mission was terminated in December 2007 when it was integrated into the United Nations mission to form the UN African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) in January 2008. it was the first African Union-United Nations hybrid mission. An Infantry Protection Company and an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit were added to the deployment, which was increased further in February 2005.

Operation Cordite made an immense contribution to the successful referendum on the future of Sudan, which resulted in the relatively peaceful division of the country into two: Sudan and South Sudan. Additional South African soldiers were sent to Juba, the capital of the new country, South Sudan, to assist with security for the independence celebrations in July 2011. In addition to this, South Africa also helped secure the air space for the duration of the celebrations. South Africa also trained police, prison officials and air traffic controllers: currently stationed at Juba International Airport

However typically, successful military operations are so often undermined by political antics of governments and Operation Cordite is no different.

In April 2016, South Africa withdrew it UN forces from Sudan, ending Operation Cordite after a short and unspecific Presidential statement – coincidentally and unsurprisingly it was marred with controversy and against a backdrop of political scandal which started in June 2015 when President Omar Al Bashir – who was visiting South Africa to attend an African Union summit, was allowed to escape South Africa in a private jet.

His escape, allegedly with the connivance of President Jacob Zuma, came in defiance of an order by the South African High Court, pending a decision on whether to hand Al Bashir over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague in accordance with international arrest warrants for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The decision remains highly controversial in South Africa today, so too South Africa’s strained relationship with the ICC (South Africa taking the standpoint that the ICC should not interfere in South Africa’s legitimate obligations to African Union AU).

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The repercussions on how South Africa sees its compete military role in United Nations Peacekeeping remains to be seen, hopefully in future it will positively underpin the great work of the majority of good South African men and women who enter the armed services and have the privilege of wearing the United Nation’s “Blue Beret”.

Photo copyright Albert Gonzalez Farran / Unamid

South African Artillery – Corps Identifier

Extremely rare colour image of a South African artillery crew in North Africa during World War 2. Here South African gunners are seen in action with their 25 pounder in the desert.
In full colour it is easy to note the Artillery ‘flash’ on the side of their pith helmets – this practice later continued with the use of the beret ‘balkie’ (bar) worn on the beret by the Army to signify corps. The origin of these pith helmet flashes goes back to the Boer War.

Left – Royal Artillery Pith helmet – British Army – Boer War era

Middle  – Artillery Pith helmet cloth “flash” of South African Forces in WW2

Right – SADF Artillery School beret during the 1980’s – note the “balkie” or the Beret bar which carries on with the tradition of corps identification on head gear.

Unfortunately the tradition of “beret bars” (balkies) has been discontinued in The South African National Defence Force (across all Corps and not just Artillery) – which is a little sad as a fine and uniquely South African military tradition is no longer followed

Vlamgat ….

Vlamgat – the term the South African Air Force personnel affectionally called their Mirage fighter jets. Vlamgat means ‘flaming arse’ in direct translation – and for good reason.

Here two Mirage III D2Zs, numbers 843 and 849 at the weapons camp in Langebaan in 1985 – one of which is having a ‘wet start’ – where excess fuel in the combustion chamber and tail pipe is burnt off in a phenomenon called ‘torching’ .. a flaming arse indeed.

Photo copyright, thanks and courtesy to Allan Southern

South African “Springboks” and Australian “Diggers” in WW1 – the origin of nicknames.

Few (if any) World War One images are available which show the unique bond shared by South African and Australian/New Zealand troops, celebrating our common camaraderie during the World War but this in one – Paris, France. September 1918. A group of Anzac “Diggers” and South African “Springboks” enjoying eating fresh fruit.

The South African soldiers where known universally as “Springboks” because of their cap badges which featured a Springbok and the motto “Union is Strength” and in Dutch “Eendracht Maakt Macht”.

The motto was that of the newly formed Union of South Africa and referred to the strength that can be obtained by combining the Boer Republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State) with the two British Colonies (Cape and Natal) – it also signified the Union of Afrikaans and English speaking South Africans in a common South African identity. The nickname “Springboks” stayed with South African servicemen and women throughout the First and Second World Wars.

This tradition was however gradually discouraged when the SADF was formed in the 1950’s and the affectionate name for South African soldiers was changed to “Troopies” (Afrikaans for Trooper) instead – the prevailing Afrikaner Nationalist politics of the day wanted to downplay South African service to the British crown in WW1 and WW2 due to prevailing anger felt by nationalists over harsh British tactics used during the Boer War.

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Funnily, the Australian soldiers  (called “Diggers”), using typical army humour, dubbed the South African cap badge – “Goat in a Porthole”.  The Australian nickname – “Diggers” also comes from the First World War and stems from their reputation of digging trenches – General William Birdwood, the commander of the ANZAC Corps adding in postscript: “You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe” – and the nickname stuck.

“Digger” remains the nickname of an Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) soldier to this day and Australians have adopted it as part of their national value system to mean “mateship” and “pride”.

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However due to more political changes in South Africa, the erosion of the nickname in the SADF was one thing – the use of the “Springbok” in sport and other institutions was quite another and many South Africans came to associate it to Apartheid.

For this reason it’s very unlikely that modern South African soldiers will carry the nickname ever again – which is quite sad when you really think about it – as it was never intended to turn out that way and we’ve lost a nugget of heritage forged in camaraderie and war.

400 shells/min – upwards to 600/min fell on the Springbok positions, imagine “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”

Leading up to the 100 year commemorations of the Somme offensive and the Battle of Delville Wood this year we remind ourselves of the hell endured by the South Africans fighting in the wood, known at the time as “Springboks” – and nothing says it more than seeing the mountainous piles of artillery shells fired at them.

This World War 1 feature photo from the Herr Woerner Eugen Collection, shows the German side defending the South African offensive at Delville Wood, this German soldier is overseeing the shell case dump opposite the wood.

As part of the initial Somme offensive, the British under Major-General Furse of the 9th Division, had to secure the advance on Longueval, but to do this, Delville Wood (a small wood directly next to Longuval) had to be taken first.  Maj Gen Furse had no option but to commit his last reserve—the 1st South African Brigade to do it.

The 1st South African Brigade under Brigadier General Henry Lukin was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July 1916 and “hold it at all costs”.

The first attack progressed smoothly and by 07:00 the South Africans had secured the southern half of the wood,  by 14:40 the whole wood had been secured, with the exception of a strong German position in the north west adjoining Longueval.  The South African troops where now spread along the entire perimeter in groups forming strong–points supported by machine–guns.

But, rather than having “secured” the wood, the brigade was now in a trap, occupying a salient with only the south western base being in contact with the 26th Brigade in Longueval. All troops were equipped with spades but digging within the perimeter of the wood was made difficult by roots and remnants of tree trunks from the previous day’s artillery fire, making the preparation of proper trenches impossible, with the South Africans having to make do with shallow shell scrapes. With unprepared trenches, a narrow base to their salient and facing over 7,000 German troops, holding the wood was going to be extremely difficult!

The Germans launched one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of the war in an effort to dislodge the South Africans in the wood. It has been estimated that at its peak the rate of firing exceeded 400 shells per minute – even at one stage some references say 600 shells per minute were been fired at the South African positions. To think this relentless volley of shelling was into a wood no bigger than a square kilometre in size.

The South Africans began to dig in beating off counter attacks as they did so. The roots and remnants of tree trunks made the preparation of proper trenches impossible and the South Africans had to make do with shallow ones.

Of the 121 officers and 3,032 men of the South African Brigade who launched the initial attack in the wood, only 29 officers and 751 men eventually walked out. These men held their objective at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat to hold the wood  – the depth of bravery required to do this under this fire power is simply staggering to contemplate. The losses sustained by the South Africans were one of the greatest sacrifices of the war.

“…Delville Wood had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep. Worst of all was the lowing of the wounded. It sounded like a cattle ring at the spring fair….”

The battle is of particular importance to South Africa, as it was the first major engagement entered into by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front. The casualties sustained by this Brigade were of catastrophic proportions, comparable to those encountered by Allied battalions on the first day of the Somme. On the Western Front, units were normally considered to be incapable of combat if their casualties had reached 30% and they were withdrawn once this level had been attained. The South African Brigade suffered losses of 80%, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has been described as “…the bloodiest battle hell of 1916.”

It was this horrific baptism of fire, of South Africans from across ethnic and cultural divides – fighting as one in union and strength, that the newly formed Union of South Africa’s national identity was forged for the years come.

 

Image copyright: Herr Woerner Eugen Collection – Imperial War Museum, Images of the wood copyright to the Imperial War Museum.