A little cheeky military humour

A little bit of “cheeky” military humour to see out the old year – please excuse the brashness but this is typical of military humour.

Here a South African Air Force Alouette III helicopter’s Flight Engineer/Gunner gives a typical response to fellow crew members flying alongside.

Not found in the Public Relations photographs in the SADF at the time. However in the light of combatants fighting  far away from home, and in need of some light banter to alleviate the seriousness of combat on the Angolan border, who can blame them  … “boys will be boys”.

Photo courtesy of the SAAF Alouette crew veterans fraternity.

German WW2 Fighter Ace befriends a Black South African POW and defies the Nazi status quo!

This is an extraordinary featured photograph for a variety of reasons. This is Hauptmann (Captain) Hans-Joachim Marseille, the German WW2 Fighter Ace known to the Axis Forces as “The Star of Africa” on the extreme left and Corporal Mathew ‘Mathias’ Letulu, a South African Prisoner of War who was appointed as his “batman” (personal assistant to a officer) in 1942 and eventually became his personal friend on the extreme right.

It’s quite intriguing that Hans-Joachim Marseille had a South African assistant on the one hand when on the other hand he was the most feared of the German Pilots in the North African campaign, arguably one of the best combat pilots the world has ever seen,  he clocked up quite a number of South African Air Force “kills” in his enormous tally of destroying well over 100 Allied aircraft – consisting mainly of Royal Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force and South African Air Force.

It’s equally a measure of Hans-Joachim Marseille as a man in that he directly baulked against the Nazi policies of racial segregation and openly befriended a Black man, especially amazing considering his role as a senior commissioned officer in the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and hero of the Reich.

Over time, Marseille and “Mathias” Letulu became inseparable. Marseille was concerned how Letulu would be treated by other units of the Wehrmacht and once remarked

“Where I go, Mathias goes.”

Marseille secured promises from his senior commander, Neumann, that if anything should happen to him (Marseille) Cpl “Mathias” Letulu  was to be kept with the unit. Unusual behaviour for a German officer in the Third Reich, but Marsaille was no card carrying member of the Nazi party, in fact he despised them.

No ardent Nazi

In terms of personality Hans-Joachim Marseille was the opposite of highly disciplined German officer, he was “the funny guy” and almost kicked out of Luftwaffe several times for his antics. The only reason he wasn’t was because his father was a high ranking WW I veteran and an army officer and Hans-Joachim Marseille tested how far this protection would go.

If you look “misbehaving scoundrel” in dictionary there should be an image of Hans’s smirking face next to it. On one occasion he actually strafed the ground in front of his superior officer’s tent. He could have been court marshalled for that alone, but by  then he was starting to demonstrate his superior pilot skills as an upcoming Fighter Ace.

He hated Nazis and he despised authority in general and always had strained relations with his authoritarian father who was the model of a strict Prussian officer. Hans was truly the opposite of his father.

His American biographers Colin Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis recall in The Star of Africa that he once landed on the autobahn simply to relieve himself. Tired of his indiscipline, a superior officer had him transferred to North Africa in 1941. He thrived. His dazzling record earned him the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, and acclaim at home. But the record suggests he was no ardent Nazi.

He listened to banned Jazz music openly, drank a lot and sometimes showed up to service smelling of booze and in hangover, he was a known womanizer, going against Nazi ideology in every possible manner – and getting away with it.

An incident happened which really shows the metal and attitude of the man. It occurred when Hans-Joachim Marseille was summoned to Berlin as Hitler wanted to present him with decorations.  As a gifted pianist Marseille was invited to play a piece at the home of Willy Messerschmitt, an industrialist and designer of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter Marseille had achieved so much success in.

Guests at the party included Adolf Hitler, party chairman Martin Borman, Hitler’s deputy and Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler and Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. After impressing with a display of piano play for over an hour, including Ludwig van Beethoven’s Für Elise, Marseille proceeded to play American Jazz, which was considered degenerate in Nazi ideology. Hitler stood, raised his hand, and said “I think we’ve heard enough” and left the room.

Magda Goebbels found the prank amusing and Artur Axmann recalled how his “blood froze” when he heard this “Ragtime” music being played in front of the Führer.

But a more telling incident of his attitude to Nazism was to come. On one occasion when he was summoned to Germany, he noted that Jewish people had been removed from his neighbourhood (including his Jewish family Doctor who delivered him) and grilled his fellow officers as to what happened to them – what he then heard where the plans for the Final Solution – the extermination of the Jews of Europe. This shocked him to the core and he actually went AWOL (Absent without Leave), he became a de facto deserter and went to Italy where he went into hiding ‘underground’.

The Nazi German Gestapo (Secret Police) however managed to track him down and forced him to return to his unit where other pilots noticed that he appeared severely depressed, concerned and wasn’t anything like his normal happy self that they were used to.

Friendship with Corporal Mathew Letulu

Marseille’s friendship with his adopted helper is also used to show his anti-Nazi character. In 1942 Marseille befriended a South African Army prisoner of war, Corporal Mathew Letulu. Marseille took him as a personal helper rather than allow him to be sent to a prisoner of war camp in Europe.

“Mathias” was the nickname given Corporal Mathew Letulu by his captors. Cpl Letulu was part of the South African Native Military Corps and was taken as a Prisoner of War (POW) by the Germans on the morning of 21 June 1942 when Tobruk and the defending South Africans under General Klopper where overrun by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

Letulu was put to work by the Germans – as a driver. The vehicle belonged to 3 Squadron of Jagdgeschwader – or Fighter Wing – 27 (JG 27) based at Gazala, 80km west of Tobruk. Here, Letulu came to the attention of the reckless and romantic Hans-Joachim Marseille.

By this time Letulu had advanced a little in his lot to a helper in 3 Squadrons club casino, where he took a particular liking to Marseille.  In need of personal assistants for officers (known in the military as a “batman”) some POW’s where snapped up by German Officers, Hans-Joachim Marseille was no different and Cpl Letulu was taken on initially as his batman and servant, but very quickly became a close friend.

Marseille knew that as his kill score grew, the chance of him being pulled from the front lines increased every day, and if he was to be taken away, Cpl “Mathias” Letulu, who because he was black, might be in danger given the Nazi racial philosophy. With utmost seriousness, he had his fellow pilot Ludwig Franzisket promise to become Mathias’ protector should Marseille lose the capability to be in that role.

Corporal Letulu also knew that by sticking with Marseille he stood a better chance of surviving the war and eventually escaping, and because they viewed each other in a extremely positive light, Letulu made Marseille’s life in the combat zone as comfortable as possible.

The following on their unique bond comes from “German Fighter Ace – Hans-Joachim Marseille, The life story of the Star of Africa” by Franz Kurowksi.

“Through few odd twists of fate Hans had Mathew assigned to his personal assistant but he treated him in every way like a friend, having long talks with him and possibly even sharing alcohol and listening to music together, just hanging out like a couple of friends who happened to be in a war and on different sides.

Besides Mathew, Hans would often see other captured Allied pilots and talk to them in English and socialise. Hans would also violate a direct order not to notify the enemy of the fate of their pilots – he would take off solo with a parachute note explaining the names of the captured pilots and that they were alive and well.  As he flew over enemy airfields to drop these notes he would be attacked by AA fire, so he was risking his life to let the families of his enemy pilots know that the pilots were alive and well – or dead, removing their MIA (Missing in Action) status.  According to various sources he was like that. Person who believed in chivalry who’s country was taken over by Nazis.

Eventually Hans would become even protective of Mathew especially against the Nazis”

The “Star of Africa”

Hans-Joachim Marseille’s record of 151 kills in North Africa where nothing short of staggering – he destroyed Allied (RAF, SAAF and RAAF) squadrons shooting down One Hundred and One (101) Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk/Kittyhawk fighters, 30 Hawker Hurricane fighters, 16 Supermarine Spitfire fighters, Two Martin A-30 Baltimore bombers, One Bristol Blenheim bomber; and One Martin Maryland bomber.

As a fighter pilot Marseille always strove to improve his abilities. He worked to strengthen his legs and abdominal muscles, to help him tolerate the extreme g forces of air combat. Marseille also drank an abnormal amount of milk and shunned sunglasses, to improve his eyesight.

To counter German fighter attacks, the Allied pilots flew “Lufbery circles” (in which each aircraft’s tail was covered by the friendly aircraft behind). The tactic was effective and dangerous as a pilot attacking this formation could find himself constantly in the sights of the opposing pilots. Marseille often dived at high speed into the middle of these defensive formations from either above or below, executing a tight turn and firing a two-second deflection shot to destroy an enemy aircraft.

Marseille attacked under conditions many considered unfavourable, but his marksmanship allowed him to make an approach fast enough to escape the return fire of the two aircraft flying on either flank of the target. Marseille’s excellent eyesight made it possible for him to spot the opponent before he was spotted, allowing him to take the appropriate action and manoeuvre into position for an attack.

In combat, Marseille’s unorthodox methods led him to operate in a small leader/wingman unit, which he believed to be the safest and most effective way of fighting in the high-visibility conditions of the North African skies. Marseille “worked” alone in combat keeping his wingman at a safe distance so he would not collide or fire on him in error.

In a dogfight, particularly when attacking Allied aircraft in a Lufbery circle, Marseille would often favour dramatically reducing the throttle and even lowering the flaps to reduce speed and shorten his turn radius, rather than the standard procedure of using full throttle throughout. Emil Clade said that none of the other pilots could do this effectively, preferring instead to dive on single opponents at speed so as to escape if anything went wrong.

Marseille’s  South African associations went beyond his bond with Cpl “Mathias” Letulu and was far more lethal in respect to South African pilots.  In the weeks before the two met, Marseille is credited with shooting down three SA Air Force pilots west of Bir-el Harmat on May 31, including Bishops’ old boy Major Andrew Duncan (who was killed), and three days later, another six South African Air Force “kills” in just 11 minutes, three of whom were high-scoring aces. One of them, Robin Pare, was killed in the combat.

Death of Hauptmann Hans-Joachim Marseille

On 30 Sep 1942, Marseille’s brilliant total record of 158 career-kills came to an end (151 of them with JG 27 in North Africa).

After the engine of his Bf 109G fighter developed serious trouble, he bailed from the aircraft close to friendly territory under the watchful eyes of his squadron mates. To their horror, Marseille’s fighter unexpectedly fell at a steep angle as he bailed out, the vertical stabilizer striking him across the chest and hip. He was either killed instantly or was knocked unconscious; in either case, his parachute did not deploy, and he struck the ground about 7 kilometers south of Sidi Abdel Rahman, Egypt.

His friend and fellow JG 27 pilot and Knights Cross recipient Hauptmann Ludwig Franzisket along with the squadron surgeon Dr. Winkelmann, were the first two to arrive on the scene, bringing Marseille’s remains back to the base.

Mathias was the first to greet them, and the following is accounted from a memoir by Wilhelm Ratuszynski.

Although the heat didn’t encourage any activity, something told Mathias to wash Hans’ clothes. Hans liked to change into a fresh uniform after the flight. He always liked to look presentable. Mathias opted to use gasoline this time. They wash would dry in just few minutes.

Usually, this was done by scrubbing uniforms with sand to rid it of salt, oil and grime. Everything was in short supply. Being a personal batman for Hans-Joachim Marseille, the most famous Luftwaffe pilot, had its advantages. For instance he was given a little of aircraft fuel for washing. Mathias liked being Jochens servant and he liked Jochen himself.

They were friends. Mathias had barely started his chore, when the sound of approaching aircraft signaled to ground personnel to change torpidness for activness. Mathias put the lid on the soaking uniforms and started to walk towards the landing aircraft. He was looking for familiar plane which supposed to have number 14 painted in visible yellow on fuselage. It was supposed to land last. He noticed that three planes were missing, and last one to touch down had different number on it.

Unalarmed, he turned toward Rudi who had already jumped on the ground from wing of his 109. He saw Mathias coming and cut short his conversation with his mechanic. His face was somber when he looked at Mathias and slowly shook his head. And Mathias understood immediately. He kept looking straight into Rudi’s face for few more seconds, slowly turned and walked away. He noticed a strange sensation. No anger, sorrow, grief, nor resignation. He was calm yet something gripped his throat. Muscles on his neck tightened and he found it hard to swallow. He walked for few minutes without noticing others who were staring at him. He came to Jochen’s colorful Volks (volkswagen car) called “Otto” and sat behind steering wheel. For a moment he looked like he wanted to go somewhere, but climbed out and approached the soaking uniforms.

He looked at the canvas bag with initial H-J.M laying right beside it. He reached into his breast pocket for matches. Slowly but without any hesitation he struck a match and threw it on the laundry. Flames that burst out added to the already scourging heat. At that moment last rotte was flying in. Mathias intuitively lifted his head, following them. The lump in his throat got bigger.

While the entire squadron was devastated at the loss of such a great fighter ace, Mathias, despite having known Marseille only for a short time, was deeply depressed at the loss of a dear friend.

Marseille was initially buried in a German military cemetery in Derna, Libya during a ceremony which was attended by leaders such as Albert Kesselring and Eduard Neumann. He was later re-interned at Tobruk, Libya.

 Ludwig Franzisket

After Marseille’s death,  as promised to his friend, Hauptmann Ludwig Franzisket took Cpl Letulu in, and in turn he became his personal servant. Cpl Letulu remained with the Squadron even after Franzisket was forced to bail out whereby he too struck the vertical stabilizer, shattering a leg in the process. After been nursed to health, Franzisket returned to his Squadron and Cpl Letulu continued serving him in Tunisia, Sicily, and finally Greece.

By the summer of 1944 the situation there had grown critical with a British invasion of the Greek continent imminent. The chance had come to “smuggle” Cpl. “Mathias” Letulu into one of the hastily established POW camps, where he could then be “liberated” by the British. Franzisket planned this coup together with Hauptmann Buchholz. “Mathias “became “Mathew” again and was a corporal in the South African Division. Everything went off without a hitch. He was set free by British troops in September of 1944 and allowed to return home at the end of hostilities.

Reunion 

By coincidence, after the war, former members of JG 27 learned that Cpl “Mathias” Letulu was still alive. They immediately sent him an invitation, paid for the journey and other expenses, and finally, at the tenth reunion of the Deutsches Afrikakorps in the fall of 1984, were once again reunited with their old South African friend.

The former pilots were elated to see him and invitations rained from all around. The following words, spoken in German as a tribute to Hans-Joachim Marseille by “Mathias” Letulu at the happy conclusion of his odyssey, and it gives some insight into the bond which had united Letulu with his German friend:

“Hauptmann Marseille was a great man and a person always willing to lend a helping hand. He was always full of humor and friendly. And he was very good to me.

In 1989, a new grave marker and a new plaque was placed at his grave site; Marseille’s surviving Luftwaffe comrades attended the event, including his Allied friend – Mathew “Mathias” Letulu who flew out specifically from South Africa to attend the ceremony.

South African Nazi in the Waffen SS

There is an often asked question. How many South Africans served in Nazi Germany’s Armed Forces?

The answer is not many. Two South Africans who served in the German armed forces in WW2 are well known, Robey Leibbrandt – the firebrand Afrikaner insurgent tried for treason is possibly the most known and to a lesser extent Leutnant Heinz Werner Schmidt, who was one of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s personal aids in the North African conflict. However there where was also a smattering of South Africans – five in total, who served in the Waffen SS, and most joined the infamous “British Free Corps”.

The Waffen-SS was the armed wing of the Nazi Party’s SS organisation. Its formations included men from Nazi Germany, along with volunteers and conscripts from both occupied and un-occupied lands, as well as men drawn from Allied Forces – a small number of British, Canadians, Americans, Australians and South Africans where recruited as Prisoners of War and indoctrinated into Nazi philosophy.

Initially, in keeping with the racial policy of Nazi Germany, membership was only open to people of Germanic origin (so-called Aryan ancestry). The rules were partially relaxed in 1940, and later the formation of units composed largely or solely of foreign volunteers and conscripts was authorised.

The British Free Corps was a unit of the Waffen SS during World War II consisting of British and Dominion Prisoners of War (POW) who had been recruited by the Nazis.
The unit was originally known as the Legion of St George. Only 54 men belonged to The British Free Corps at one time or another, some for only a few days. At no time did it reach more than 27 men in strength.

The idea for the British Free Corps came from John Amery, a British fascist, son of the serving British Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery. John Amery travelled to Berlin in October 1942 and proposed to the Germans the formation of a British volunteer force to help fight the Bolsheviks.

Apart from touting the idea of a British volunteer force, Amery also actively tried to recruit Britons. He made a series of pro-German propaganda radio broadcasts, appealing to his fellow countrymen to join the war on communism.

Recruiting for the Free Corps in German Prisoner of War (POW) camps In 1944, consisted of leaflets distributed to the POWs, and the unit was mentioned in Camp, the official POW newspaper published in Berlin.

The unit was promoted “as a thoroughly volunteer unit, conceived and created by British subjects from all parts of the Empire who have taken up arms and pledged their lives in the common European struggle against Soviet Russia”.

The attempted recruitment of POWs was done amid German fear of the Soviets; the Germans were “victims of their own propaganda” and thought that their enemies were as worried about the Soviets as they were.

So, who the South Africans recruited into the Waffen SS?, Where and what we know about them is limited, however this is what has been researched:

SS-Unterscharführer Douglas Cecil Mardon (South African)

Joined the Waffen SS around Christmas 1944 – the third of the trio of South Africans who joined the Corps at Dresden, he possessed very rigid views on the threat to the free world of Soviet success on the Eastern Front. As a POW he had seen Russian prisoners and had come to distinctly racist conclusions about them, when he read Waffen SS British Free Corps recruiting literature it convinced him to volunteer with alacrity. On 8 March 1945 ‘received promotion to Unterscharführer and was given command of a section.
He was undoubtedly sincere in his wish to fight against the advance of Communism’. On 15/3/1945 he removed the tell-tale BFC insignia from his uniform and substituted an SS runes collar patch’.

His Allied rank was Corporal and his unit unknown. He used the alias Douglas Hodge as a “Jackal of the Reich”. After the war he was fined £375 for high treason.

SS-Mann Pieter Labuschagne (South African)

Joined in the winter of 1944/45, he succumbed to one of Stranders’ German recruiters, Unterscharführer Hans Kauss, whilst working on a road gang. Deemed to be so useless by Mardon that he refused to take him. Slipped away in the direction of Dresden, to be ‘liberated’ by advancing US forces after the war.
He used the alias Private Adriaan Smith as a “Jackal of the Reich”. He was found guilty of treason after the war and fined £50.

Van Heerden (South African)

Van Heerden’s whereabouts are unknown – it was said he left Pankow December 1943 – “Killed in action on 12 February 1945, during bombing of Dresden” also said to have gone from Dronnewitz to Schwerin in May 1945. He is thought tie listed as Jan Pieterson as an alias as a “Jackal of the Reich”. He was originally a Rifleman in a British or Allied Commonwealth Long Range Desert Patrol.

SS-Mann Viljoen (South African)

He joined the Waffen SS in Dec 1944/Jan 45 through the offices of a friendly SS NCO in charge of his working party. He was hospitalized with burns during the Dresden raids. His South African rank was Corporal, however his origin unit is unknown. He was acquitted after the war.

Hiwi (SS foreign volunteer) William Celliers (South African)

He was a South African policeman from Windhoek in South West Africa, he did not join the British Legion of the Waffen SS, instead he went to the 1st SS Panzer Division, Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. He served in the flak detachment of Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler in the fall and winter 1943-44 until the LSSAH was sent to the Western Front, he was awarded with the Iron Cross 2nd Class.

The 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (often abbreviated as LSSAH) began as Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard, responsible for guarding the Führer’s person, offices, and residences. Initially the size of a regiment, the LSSAH eventually grew into a division sized unit.

The LSSAH independently was amalgamated into the Waffen SS. By the end of the war it had been increased in size from a regiment to a Panzer (armored tank) division.
Members of the LSSAH perpetrated numerous atrocities and war crimes, including the Malmendy massacre. They killed at least an estimated 5,000 prisoners of war in the period 1940–1945, mostly on the Eastern Front.

The British Free Corps of the Waffen SS were allocated to the 3rd Company, under the command of the Swedish Obersturmführer Hans-Gösta Pehrson. The British Free Corps contingent was commanded by the South African – SS-Scharführer (squad leader) Douglas Mardon, and were sent join a Waffen SS Company on the eastern front, a detachment of which that was situated in the small village of Schoenburg near the west bank of the Oder River.

On March 22, as the SS Company was entrenching, it was partially overrun by an advance element of the Red Army which had blundered into its position by accident. Although taken by surprise, the SS troopers, including the British Free Corps volunteers, quickly regained their wits and launched a vigorous counterattack, driving off the Soviets.
On 16 April 1945 the Corps was moved to Templin, where they were to join the transport company of Waffen SS Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s HQ staff. On 29 April Steiner decided to break contact with the Russians and order his forces to head west into Anglo-American captivity.

A few details of the court-martial of several Commonwealth soldiers in the British Free Corps exist, with some claiming they joined the British Free Corps to sabotage it and gather intelligence. John Amery, the founder was however sentenced to death in November 1945 for high treason and hanged. No other member of The British Free Corps was executed – sentences ranged from limited imprisonment, to fines and warnings, some where acquitted.

At the post-war Nuremberg trials the Waffen-SS was judged to be a criminal organisation due to its connection to the Nazi Party and involvement in numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Former Waffen-SS members were denied many of the rights afforded to the military veterans. An exception was made for Waffen-SS conscripts, who were exempted because they were not volunteers. About a third of the total membership were conscripts.
The image shows members of the British Free Corps, and is one of the few available – here is Kenneth Berry, an ex British sea-man (second left) with SS- Sturmmann Alfred Minchin (second right), an ex British Merchant sea-man talking to German officers, during a recruitment drive in Milag, April 1944.

Note the British Free Corps emblem on their sleeves, it consists of a British Union Flag (Union Jack) in a shield, underneath is a sleeve band on which “British Free Corps” is written in English. On the right hand colour tab can be seen the British “Three Lions” from the English Coat of Arms.

In the end they all fall onto the “wrong” side of history, and can be best summed up by John Amery’s epitaph written by his father:

“At end of wayward days he found a cause – ’Twas not his Country’s – Only time can tell if that defiance of our ancient laws was as treason or foreknowledge. He sleeps well.”

“Time” – unfortunately for John Amery, the Waffen SS and the British Free Corps – has now judged it all to be somewhat wayward.

Researched by Peter Dickens, source Wikipedia.

Skin colour is irrelevant in a foxhole!

The culture of owing a debt of gratitude to South Africa’s military veterans is sorely lacking – for all of them, then and now.  But especially to these very forgotten South African “Black, Indian and Coloured” WW1 and WW2 heroes of which the current generation really does have little or no understanding.  It’s truly a tale of the suppression of history and the fight for recognition.

The featured image is a very rare photograph of South African medics in combat in WW2 during the Italian Campaign, dramatically caught running stooped under intense fire to stretcher bear a wounded man out of the combat zone. What is even more interesting is the make-up of these South African 6th Armoured Division medics. Here we have men from the South African Cape Corps, the South African Native Military Corps and the South African Indian Service Corps all involved in this casualty evacuation.

The politics of the day had an odd philosophy underpinning it. During the Second War the South African Union Defence Force still differentiated and segregated Corps according to race. However such was the odd politics of the time that men drawn from the Cape Coloured and Indian communities into their respective corps could function in combatant roles and carry firearms – as well as non combatant roles – such as a medic. However Black men drawn into the Native Military Corps (NMC) could not function in a combatant role and where not allowed to carry firearms – although they could carry a spear when on guard duty. They could however step into harms way in combat and put their lives on the line, as is seen here doing stretcher bearing as a medic.

All this politically driven segregation mattered not a jot when the bullets started flying around. This picture stands in stark testimony to this.

The separation of these men became quite irrelevant when serving in combat areas and in many instances combat units quite quickly also “unofficially” issued firearms to their NMC members

As is often the case in combat, and many veterans will attest to this, the man who joins you in the fight is your brother – irrespective of the colour of his skin – there is no such thing as racial segregation in a foxhole.

There is certainly no such thing as segregation when it comes to your fellow countrymen from across the racial spectrum risking their lives to save one of their own countrymen in a full blown firefight – as is so demonstrably shown here. These are all South African heroes – it’s that simple.

During the Second World War Black, Coloured and Indian South African community and political leaders, agreed to support the South African Union government’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany and send members of their community into the fight. The hope was that it would buy them more political currency and leverage at the negotiation table after the war for extended rights and political representation. Initially it looked like this would pay off as Jan Smuts and his United Party proposed giving qualified franchise votes to Black citizens whose service in the military was also deemed as such a qualification.

Unfortunately this very progressive way of thinking did not sit well with the National Party and their supporters and they used it as a Political “race” card in their campaigning in the 1948 elections. So much s that they rather unexpectedly and very narrowly won the elections and ousted Jan Smuts and the United Party.

The true tragedy was yet to come.  Not only was all this sacrifice and valour in vain – the National Party went to great lengths to further marginalise these soldiers – denying them medical aid, reduced pensions and excluding them as veterans from Remembrance and Military Parades, as well as denying them access to veterans facilities and organisations.

It was not unusual to find a small grouping of Native Military Corps veterans sitting under a tree away from the national parade with their medals proudly flickering in the sunlight, telling their war stories to anyone prepared to take the time to listen to them.  Excluded, forgotten and vanquished as traitors for serving “Britain” by the reigning Nationalists.

The political philosophy of the time substantially down-played the contribution of “non white” servicemen lest heroes be made of them. History in South Africa would record both the First and Second World War’s as a white man’s one – when nothing can be further from the truth.

It’s an often ignored fact and statistic – one which most certainly the National government after 1948 did not want widely published – which was that 40% of the standing South African servicemen in WW2 where persons of “colour”. In all more than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks, and 2,500 people of mixed race served in the standing forces of the Union of South Africa at this time.

This forgotten and “lost” valour is something South Africa’s oldest and most prestigious veterans organisation – The South African Legion of Military Veterans, has been fighting for from day one; at times the Legion went to serious loggerheads with the government of the day over pensions and representation for these men. The South African Legion eventually won the fight on pensions by the late 1980’s, when equal pensions where finally awarded these men.

We as South Africans need to work to address the historic void created by political posturing at the detriment of the country’s forgotten WW1 and WW2 heroes. This is why the recognition of the sinking of the Mendi and other commemorations becomes so important – it’s our duty as South African veterans to uphold honour where honour is well due. Not only to these men, but to anyone who has served in South Africa’s defence forces.

Image – SANDF Archive, Researched by Peter Dickens

The connection between HRH Prince Philip & the SAS Simon van der Stel

Now, you’re wondering – what has Prince Philip (husband to Queen Elizabeth II) possibly have to do with the South African Navy’s SAS Simon van der Stel. Well here it is.

These are officers of the HMS Whelp – notice the tall and rather familiar HMS Whelp First Lieutenant – Prince Philip.

Philip joined the Navy as a cadet after leaving Gordonstoun School in 1939. In January 1941 he joined the battleship HMS Valiant in Alexandria and was in charge of its searchlight control during the night action off Cape Matapan, for which he was mentioned in dispatches. After serving aboard the HMS Wallace, he was appointed first lieutenant of HMS Whelp, which was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese signed the surrender.

In fact Prince Philip has quite a combat record, in a remarkable act of heroism Prince Philip saved scores of lives during the Second World War when he foiled a Luftwaffe bomber which looked certain to destroy their ship, the HMS Wallace during the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943.   During a night-time attack, Prince Philip conjured up a plan to throw overboard a wooden raft with smoke floats that would create the illusion of debris ablaze on the water, and as he hoped, the German plane was fooled into attacking the raft while the HMS Wallace sailed to safety under cover of darkness.

A young Prince Philip with Princess Elizabeth and HMS Welp in 1944 W Class Destroyer

The last wartime ship the Price served on was HMS Welp, and 1952 was sold to South Africa as the replacement for HMSAS Natal. HMS Whelp was renamed SAS Simon van der Stel, after the 17th century colonist reputed to be the founder of the South African wine industry. Much of SAS Simon van der Stel′s service was as a “grey ambassador”, on good-will visits to Europe and Europe’s African colonies, including a 147 day cruise to Europe in 1954. This role, however, declined as South Africa became increasingly isolated during the apartheid years.

SAS Simon van der Stel was placed in reserve from 1957, but was modernised as a Type 15 frigate (in common with other destroyers of her generation) in an anti-submarine role from 1962 to 1964, and re-commissioned in February 1964. She now had helicopter facilities, which were used by South Africa’s 22 Flight (later 22 Squadron).

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Photo of the South African Navy Frigates in their heyday. Here are the three President Class Frigates together, the SAS President Kruger, the SAS President Steyn and the SAS President Pretorius – neck to neck with the SAS Simon van der Stel in the background, now converted to a Type 15 Frigate (note additional helicopter hanger on the stern).

SAS Simon van der Stel was eventually scrapped in 1976 in Durban.

Lt. Blake, one remarkable SAAF pilot … more than just a photo

The official Imperial War Museum caption of this photo is “crew of Douglas Boston Mark III, W8376 ‘C’, of No 24 Squadron, South African Air Force, walking away from their aircraft on an airfield in Libya after a sortie.” But there is so much more to this.

It’s assumed this photo was taken whilst 24 Squadron who were at Zuara airfield in Libya. (The “colourised” image of Boston seen here is incorrectly branded in RAF colours and not SAAF – the flash on the tail should be orange not red).

In August ’42 No.12 Squadron, SAAF, arrived from Kenya, and the two squadrons were formed in No.261 Wing. They were soon joined by No.14 Squadron, SAAF and in October the wing was renumbered as No.3 (S.A.A.F.) Wing. At about the same time No.24 Squadron withdrew to convert to the Douglas Boston.

But the story of this photograph does not end there, seen here are:

Air Sgt. Stakemore (Air Gnr) – SAAF
Lt. G.A. Marshall (Observer) – SAAF
Lt. C.W. Blake (pilot) – SAAF
Sgt. Atkinson (Air Gnr) – Royal Air Force

They were shot down in the aircraft behind them Boston Mk.III “C” W8376 on 23.11.1941 by Obfw Espenlaub of 1/JG.27 – a Luftwaffe Ace.

All were made Prisoners of War. Lt. Blake pulled two crew members out of the wreckage the fourth had baled out successfully.

After escaping the PoW camp, Lt. Blake went on to be awarded the Military Cross later for ground action with Partisans in Italy, he was the only SAAF pilot to be so awarded for WWII.

This was after his fifth escape attempt, he was recaptured in the first four.

Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum, colourised by “WW2 Colourised Photos”and additional information provided by Sandy Evan Hanes with great thanks.